Soft and warm.
Theodora was tangled amongst two in the early stillness of dawn. Slivers of light spilled from the window, illuminating sunkissed and fair-skinned limbs, but Theodora’s eyes struggled for recognition. Her thoughts were quiet, and her body pleasantly aching. The ravishing mind-numbing heat had ebbed only to be replaced by a tingling buzz. She indulged in it, squirming against soft thighs that entangled her with selfish bliss. Only Alphonse’s sleepy groan at her back kept her from rocking instinctively into the body at her front.
Something stirred across her mind, a title to match the feminine slope of the back she felt urged to trace with her tongue.
Why was she there, held between them as she was? On the floor, on top of the pelt, before the low embers of a slumbering fireplace. She had somehow missed snippets of time and thought. She reached for alarm but found the emotion too flimsy, buried beneath a suckling lethargic hum.
With a long exhale Theodora made use of Cook’s stomach, resting her head against its softness. Her mind sifted through slippery memory, driven by something outside of her conscious control. She remembered, through hazy clarity, returning from the Square after a drawn-out performance, exhausted from keeping company with the Ashwyn women. Her mind stuttered a bit through a clouded ceremony, as desire to see the Deaconess filled her with phantom pressure.
The word ‘hysteria’ was smeared across her mentality and just as quickly forgotten. She’d been corrected, she was not afflicted. Stressed had caused her trembles and fever, or so Alphonse believed.
Theodora had bickered somewhat with her vassal but could scarcely remember the end result. The suckling hum told her it hardly mattered. In the end she’d succumbed to an examination at the manor, followed by a deep wet sort of sleep.
Beneath Theodora, Cook’s belly twitched in a soft moan that spilled past her open lips.
Theodora’s lids lowered in response. Her eyes were heavy. She still needed sleep. Craved it on a level that should have been concerning. Yet, the deep breathing from Cook, and Alphonse light snoring coaxed the nervous stammer of her heart until Theodora’s pulse beat to the natural song of sleep.
The hum that threaded weight throughout her limbs whispered with the promise of warmth. If only she would succumb to the darkness of bliss, where gleaming eyes and shadows waited…
She whimpered and clenched her thighs as something licked between them, but it only tickled the heat simmering low in her belly, a gentle sweet urging but not all-consuming. Her eyes slid closed with a deep sigh. So tired. So warm…
But Alphonse drowsy mumble tugged her awareness away from the temptation of slumber. Horses, something about the horses… have to feed them… to prepare them for Duluth.
Theodora groaned, lifted her heavy head, and gently began the reluctant process of disengaging from the comfortable pile of muscle and flesh. She shivered as the Notos chill prickled her skin without the heat of the pelt against it. It felt wrong, in a way that made her brain and body itch. Almost immediately she felt a curling restlessness seize her. She didn’t want to leave and disconnect from the pelt, but those mumbled words had stirred her. She stretched her arms above her head and shivered from the delicious pull of the scars at her back. Sharp. Exquisite. Theodora’s chest rumbled with an eerie sound of confused delight as Cook shifted in her sleep and quivered.
Cook’s motion was enough to capture her attention and Theodora’s gaze fell easily to the soft place between Cook’s legs.
For one blissful moment she dozed—still staring—mind on the thickness of her tongue and the pleasant thought of quenching a strange thirst.
Goodness. She really needed to wake up.
But not for Duluth… her mind whispered, for Ashwyn, for the Dominae.
She trembled as she stood.
She bathed in a daze with stove heated water. Though her movements were slow and somewhat exploratory—was that a bruise there? An indent of teeth here?—she finished without inquiry, lost in the repetitive routine of thoughtless action. There was nothing unusual about cleansing the sweat and slickness from her flushed body, and any curiosity around its state fell victim to the easy conditioned motion of dawning her waistcoat and jacket. It was only when she tapped the heel of her boots against the cobblestone that she realized she’d stepped beyond the manor. Thoughts of the morning and the night before were nothing more than wisps of unusual color against the backdrop of her churning mind.
It felt nice to feel that way, even if some portion of her knew it wasn’t proper.
But the heat that greeted and twisted about her legs shook wandering thoughts and redirected them. Bowing before her boots stretched the hairless cat with the glowing gaze. It peered at her beyond a wrinkled nose then twisted away from her, toward the stables.
She followed it.
After all, she had work to do there. For Duluth (Ashwyn) and the Board. She remembered, through a wriggling film, that the Lord Duke expected prompt and swift assistance to be delivered to the women. Though he’d given no time she knew he’d expect her at the Wodd before noon. But more than that she wanted the horses to be ready for the Wodd, Ashwyn’s and her own, with an anticipation she could not explain. It was the idea of it, she thought, the idea of… being useful. Of serving. It was enough to soothe the unease she’d felt since her last foray into the Wodd’s darkness.
She wanted them to know their horses were fine and dandy within her stables too. Warm and well-fed despite their unsettling silence. It was what Pater had been known for, hippology, and Theodora had taken great care to expand upon that horsemanship with all the pride her line afforded to her. While she wasn’t the only Lord in Saltpotter with a beast of burden to their name, she was still considered the greatest at the art. She’d been cultivated in the traditional grace of the hunt, tackling every aspect of it with a startling and obsessive passion. Her hound was well-trained, her horses seasoned, and her rifle polished. She breathed it, lived it, would become it—if she weren’t more careful.
For there’d been a time when she’d been far better and more eager at being in the Wodd than caring for it.
But that was what the Havelock-bound lesser were for, each one educated in the maintenance of ensuring her pastime. They were vital in the careful assistance of an important, selective, and often picky process. They’d helped her ensure the greatest outcome of her property and hunt based holdings. Horses specifically. Ashwyn’s odder horses now included—
If only they hadn’t been repurposed. If only Junior had kept to his own estate and off hers. If the lesser were here she could have stayed, buried under warmth and flesh...
Still, she had never witnessed a breed quite like those the strangers had bred, monstrous in size, thick furred, and as black as their metal. Maybe they trained them differently in Ashwyn, kept them quiet and docile through some unknown technique despite their war-structured bodies. It was fascinating to see a breed beyond her own agile species. Their beasts held an overall largeness compared to her compact but long-lasting companions. She wondered at their stamina and true purpose. To travel with such a primal looking creature couldn’t have been as easy as the visitors made it appear.
It was just an idle curiosity, one that gently poked at her consciousness to stir other connected musings. Maybe she could ask them later if the thought remained in her head. Sometimes, when she was in the Wodd, all she thought about was… the hunt.
And she was still sort of buzzing…
But even that slipped away from her, pushed aside as her fingers pressed against the stable door. She could think… later. Right now, she had to attend to the beasts in her care, feed them their strange pleasant-smelling grain, then ready their saddles.
Basil gave a low wuuf as she slid open the stable doors and luxuriated in the hearth generated heat that swept over her Notos flushed skin. It was her only warning for what was within.
For a time, she struggled to comprehend it.
Against one side of the stable, lined and boxed in their straw strewn pens, stood her horses—each one a particular shade of brown. They stared with an eerie patience, shuffling from hoof to hoof with bobbing heads in anticipation of use. There was nothing out of the ordinary there, even as they all swung their noses in her direction, huffing and making the general sounds horses often made for attention. It was the other side of the stable that gave her pause, those mostly reserved for a Lord—or, in this case, a visiting covey—who was interested in using Havelock’s services.
The pens were empty.
No, not empty, just devoid of horses.
Flesh in tones of freckled pink, beige, and brown greeted her vision in the form of hands and flexing muscular legs. Heads with braided hair in blonds or blacks and one of startling red peeked out from beneath what appeared to be thick onyx colored blankets. Yet, as she drew closer with a hammering heart and held breath, she noticed that those blankets were more like skins, thick furred and ominous but certainly horse-like in nature. They shifted beneath their covering, writhed in a motion both haunting and sensual before one of those heads pushed out to reveal muscle-lined shoulders and heaving breasts.
My stable is full of women.
Tall and sweat-slick with their necks covered by thick shiny collars of red-stained leather. Their mouths were somewhat stretched, gagged by perfectly sized bridles held between swollen lips and teeth. Their collective stirring at the sound of Basil’s bark shifted their covering, revealing leather strips that trailed from their collars and crossed over and around straining breasts until they were lifted upward, flushed, agitated, and presented by the pressure. That harness only slipped lower in strips of reflective material that wove down between their legs. As the first one stood on trembling footing, Theodora could see her sex, puffy and dripping with a twitching clit exposed by the wicked binding that spread her lower lips.
With one hobbling step, then another, the first one approached the pen door and settled hands in a clumsy manner upon it. From beyond her gagging she made an odd sound—a neigh of a sort—and pressed forward, placing her heavy and bound chest upon the door between her clutching hands. But it wasn’t until she lifted her head and Theodora caught sight of near-empty docile eyes that burned with… with something other, so beady and red and abnormal that she felt…
It beat at her consciousness in a sharp copper taste at the back of her tongue only dulled by the thud, thud, thud that licked between her legs. Something about that expression, that flat eye’d timid lack of control, those long muscular tense legs, and the exposed space between them—
No… no. Women were… in her stables. Women in the place of horses. Women with the skin of those horses thrown over their bodies in a way that tickled something in the back of her mind and yet refused to click properly. She felt dizzied by the one and certain possibility roaring across her consciousness, accepted and rejected, a twisting whirlwind of tangled possibility that all led back to one major source.
The horses had been women, the women and horses were the same… or had the women stolen the horses and—
Her thoughts that once felt certain and sure slipped by too quickly to grasp. Reality felt as if it were tilting, her vision off-center but ever focused on the thing… on the horse, that shook and whined. A horse that needed to be fed and made ready, a horse that needed her thighs rubbed down and her saddle replaced—
She wheezed out a laugh and felt her comprehension bend beneath the weight of building mania.
And would it be so bad to bow, to fall to her knees and nuzzle that parted sex until nothing else existed but the thick taste of another on her tongue?
She bit her bottom lip so hard she caused damage. Thin trickles of red pool beneath the indents of her teeth before they crafted paths toward her chin. The pain felt settling, an odd exciting mixture that gave her a sense of feeling alive despite the tickling terror. So familiar, that sensation, that it brought flashing teeth and wicked claws to mind.
Yes. Of course. The pelt.
She twisted on the heels of her booted feet and turned away to the disgruntlement of the whining horsewomen and the bark of the hound at her back. If the cat followed or remained she was unaware, far too busy hobbling out and away from the manor proper and through the massive decorative gates with eyes that felt stretched wide and an open rasping mouth.
Over and over her mind played on loop the sight of drenched bound bodies that should have been horses beneath or atop those skins with their pussy lips parted and their flushed need so visible it must have been uncomfortable.
And is it not your duty to care for those horses? The would-bes and the nots?
She quickened her pace and pushed the curious voice who whispered of purpose from her mind. Her body moved with automatic motion toward the leering imposing structure of the Pride’s iron-gated Castra. An action more challenging than usual due to the looming presence of the Square between herself and destination. Or, rather, the knowledge of what was held within. Even now, skirting along the very edge of the Market, it was difficult to avoid the vision of the platform. It was the heart of Saltpotter, with cobblestone pathways acting as the veins that would lead her to its center. No matter where one stood, there were three major things always within line-of-sight.
The Kourt, with it’s attached and lavish Lord Duke quarters. A benign structure made imposing by the twisting curl of rose-tipped vines across awning stood pillars and the brilliance of two large buck-shaped statues. Each with raised head and muzzle tilted toward the sky, they stood on either side of a normally open and inviting doorway.
The Commander’s Castra, a collection of squat and dark colored buildings that surrounded one large and towering complex, home to all within the Pride and a silent reminder of Duluth’s prominence and control. The wrought-iron gates that surrounded the space had always mystified Theodora, mostly due to their unflattering and uninviting design, making an otherwise aesthetically pleasing space look sharp and brutal.
And finally the Market, with its buildings clumped and scrunched together, filled with those of the merchant class peddling their wares—jems, metals, and other various objects of supposed worth—and services. The strip faced the Square and the beauty of those few taken trees from the Wodd, but what mattered among it was the raised dais with the Bells, the ultimate sign of Saltpotter’s wealth, instruments once used in the times before the Longwar.
All three were monuments to their power, a constant reminder of Duluth’s prowess and Saltpotter’s rich history. Though now, as she moved with fuzzy purpose toward the Castra, she felt as if they were representative of something more, something wicked that pressed down upon her shoulders with cloying whispers—you’re boxed in here, a showcased trinket, trapped between symbols of absolute obedience.
It was uncanny, then, that one of those monuments now held the normal Market crowds, slack-jawed and statuesque before them. She could feel the near-physical pressure of a building tension that made the citizens shove and push in a sluggish manner. They wanted to get a closer look at the glistening Bell of black before them, of how its perfect shape caught the morning light with a hypnotic and glossy reflection . Only the threat of the still and silent Prideswoman kept them away. They stood without motion before the platform itself, never looking over shoulder, not once stealing a single peek at the Bells that silently demanded the whole of all their attention—
Look at me, look at me, lookatme—
Theodora gasped as found herself pressed against the iron-gates, the shocking cold of it more than enough to stutter wild and hungry thoughts. So lost had she been, within the suffocating cycle of an abnormal curiosity, that she hadn’t noticed her own approach. The ringing bang of her body smacking against the metal was only secondary to the fact that it opened thereafter with a high-pitched yawn on swinging bolts. Normally, the gate remained locked, closed to those of the normal citizenry who often held no need for the services within. The guardship would care for them all without direction, needing little more than the purity of Saltpotter’s shared sense of justice. Now though… now she could walk forward without pause, hindered only the slight ache of an impacted body and the rapid hammer of her heart. No need to yell for the Commander nor demand the Lord’s Right-of-Visitation when the guardship meant to keep out the riff-raff weren’t in attendance. Which was… more than a little unusual.
In fact, the grounds themselves were uncomfortably bare of life, absent of the usual marching Prideswomen rotation and the ambiance of sequenced bodies moving from one place to the next in the breath of an order. Compared to the idle rumble of half-heartedly yelling peddlers and the slow-shuffling restless crowd the Casta was downright deserted. The lantern lights hooked on bent poles still flickered despite the coming day over outdoor tables for sun-tea not yet set. The heavy atmosphere of abandonment felt nearly physical, a weight that pressed upon her shoulders as she stepped with caution past the threshold of the open gateway. Immediately, cobblestone transformed to hard-packed earth, light brown dirt fit for purposes beyond walking—for marching in time to the beat of command, or for training strong bodies beneath the heat of the sun. The sounds beyond her felt muffled, like cotton stuffed in water-logged ears, as she stepped further within the compound, straining to hear something other than… than silence.
Then the sudden and loud slam of the gate at her back snapped her into motion. She jerked but didn’t bother twisting a glance over her shoulder. It was easier now, to ignore the thud of her heart in her throat and the carousel thoughts wrapped around the Bell—I want to see it, I want to touch it. I wAnT...
She closed her eyes tightly, focused on the discomfort her own squinched expression provided, then continued forward. With the space so open and empty she could afford to wander blindly, one step after the other in a straight and undisturbed line. She didn’t want to see anything, didn’t even want to be awake. She just wanted… no, needed, to find the Commander so that—
—the sweet cloying scent of slick grain could be removed from her stables. So that the writhing women could be carefully unwrapped from the bondage of hot leather strips, peeled from breast-flesh and swollen lips.
She sucked in a great gulp of air as eyes shot open again. Perhaps, it was not entirely wise to close her eyes after all. Still, miraculously, she found herself before the largest complex at the center of the Casta, the Commander’s tactical Workshop.
From within she heard a muffled sound, a quaking beat that hummed beneath her feet and sent her heart racing. Anxiety, she assumed, and a want for clarity amongst the fog of her mind, but something about that rumbling did little to help the tightening of her stomach.
She knocked once. Twice…
Then pushed open the door.
Only to be greeted by the power of that sound at full force.
Past the threshold and into the Workshop proper crashed a thunderous noise. It’s pounding, throbbing thud, thud, thud pulsed out in metronome beat. The rhythm pushed against her skin, as it traveled from beneath her feet despite the thickness of her boots. It was disorientating, hammering with the force of a near tangible vibration that made her feel as if the world were tilted, shifting thoughts about her mind two inches to the left before they scrambled to right themselves again. Were it not for her hand against the doorway, which also thrummed with the vibrancy of presence beneath her touch, she might have tumbled against a wall, shocked by the storm within when the silence outside had been so thick.
But there were other things enhancing the rhythmic pounding, the explosive roaring chant of the Pride inside.
The normally contained and droll space of the Workshop, generally used for tactical rumination, shuddered with a primal pressure. Bodies occupied the long rectangular room, divested of their guard armor or clothing all together. They writhed against walls in slow and sensual movements. Pressed against pin partners while others sprawled across the floor, flushed, exposed, and conquered. Theodora spotted a lone Prideswoman in the corner, a large Wodd tree drum settled between her open thighs as she moved her hands against it. The drum itself looked off, coated in black symbols that squirmed upon the stretched goatskin drumhead. The tune of thunder came from that. From the instrument the drummer’s thighs clenched and trembled as she arched with parted lips pointed up at the ceiling.
But even those oddities weren’t stranger than what took place at the very center of the room.
Amidst strips of torn clothing and half-broken chairs, circled two women. They stalked one another, wild in action and mannerism, with snapping teeth and half-formed words more screeched than spoken. Both were topless, barefoot, and divested of even their sword-hilted belts, sporting only tight body-hugging trousers cut at the knee. Sweat-drenched bruised flesh flexed with their movements, while scattered cuts oozed thin tendrils of red over nail shaped indents lining their backs. Their injuries, shallow and superficial, mapped patterns over arms and exposed calves and Theodora swore she could see a circular bite against the belly of...
Of the Prideswoman escort from the day she’d met Azul. The one with the dreamy smile and excitement for the Bell. Now, that woman seemed completely different, with her hair out of its standard Pride braid and her face twisted in a grotesque sneer.
Scarcely recognizable as human, the Prideswoman shoved forward with an explosive roar. Almost in time to the beat of the drum she wrapped her arms around the waist of her opponent. The forceful act dove them both to the ground, making them collide with the stained wood beneath them.
Theodora stumbled from the doorway; her presence insignificant compared to the women writhing with sensual aggression. The heady musk of straining bodies was so thick she could taste it on the back of her tongue.
If she swallowed, she could stain herself with the tang of it. But she wasn’t there to succumb, this wasn’t proper… she needed…
Yes, she was there for the Commander. To plead for the attention of a woman meant to rule the very ones that screamed and yelled to the song of a trance-beaten drum.
The Commander sat upon a chair of bone-white wood surrounded by torn cloth and shredded personal affairs, as if someone had been sacrificed to craft a makeshift monument. She lounged in a confident slouch with an elbow balanced upon the arm of her taken throne, her tilted head against bent knuckles. Indolent and undisturbed. The Commander looked too at ease amongst the frenzy, exchanging intensity of a gaze of liquid hazel.
But not too at ease to have missed Theodora’s presence.
From across the room, beyond the sound of flesh against flesh, the Commander beckoned. She curled her finger with a simple flick that brought Theodora to near mindless attention. Come here, the Commander’s action said as her face twisted up in a slow smile.
Theodora trembled at the way saliva glistened off the Commander’s rather sharp teeth. Come. Here.
She moved, one foot before the other, with cautious precision. Though apprehension curled about Theodora’s spine she couldn’t hold onto her sense of hesitance. She’d been given an order. The only thing she could do was take her time, as if in rebellion. Though soon she slowed for a different reason. She had to clear the… circle, the space of the fighting Prideswomen. Theodora would have loved to attest her slow-steps to a sense of hardening will, but she merely found it difficult to keep her attention from the udulation of their aggressive dance. If the Commander found fault with that she made no indication. If anything, she looked pleased by her lack of true resistance.
And that made some portion of Theodora pleased as well.
“Commander,” She croaked.
“Lord Havelock,” The Commander said, smooth, euphonious, and alien.
There was no tight hiss, or soft utterance laced with impassive interest. Only honey and the strangeness of heat.
The Commander was relaxed. Incredibly relaxed.
“C-commander,” Theodora croaked again, fighting against a fog of dread-laced heat. “There’s a problem.”
One lone brow quirked up and eyes that were once upon Theodora shifted back to the writhing women, “A problem?”
Theodora fought the urge to copy the action—that whispered craving of just one quick peek—but found it near impossible with the thump thump thump of the heart-moving drum in her ears . “It’s…” she paused, thoughts lost, then tried again. “Something odd is happening. I think...”
Words that might have once been uttered with the sharp bite of sarcasm flowed past smiling lips coated in amused curiosity. Within her mind that simple phrase became a deeper question. She did think—no, she was thinking. Was she not supposed to?
Theodora bit her bottom lip and swallowed a whine, “I…”
Sentences stumbled over one another, tumbling on the tip of her tongue as they fought for dominance.
The stables. I should talk about the stables. The women that should be horses or were they horses that should have been women?
But the nearby warriors cried out again, gasping for praise and begging for attention—
“It’s me, it will be me!” The first guard, the Bell guard, rasped atop her pinned opponent, “She will praise me. She will reward me!”
Theodora had nearly missed it, words spoken like prayer, beneath the wild wailing of her own scrambled thoughts. Yet she focused on it, grasped it, and blurted out—
“Have they always trained like this?”
The Commander’s shoulders shook in a silent chuckle, “Our secrets aren’t meant to be shared.”
Yet, here Theodora stood, privy to the ritual and nearly swept away by the heat it pressed upon her. She swallowed audibly, and tried to recall anything, anything at all when it had come to the guard. Anything other than the wet slap of skin and the heady musk of need that filled her lungs and coated her. Was it her own scent, the guards? She couldn’t be sure.
But her memory was fickle, a flickering dangerous thing that twisted around possibilities until they felt like truth. “Outside they never… not like this.”
Or maybe they had.
The Commander didn’t give her the time to ponder, instead she straightened and turned to face her. Mixing false innocence with pulling intensity. “This is not a secret for you. You’ll find no truth here. No matter how pretty you look all flushed and falling.”
Theodora swayed slightly, caught by her gaze and the storm that sucked at her within.
“This… isn’t for me?” Theodora whispered, dizzied by the drum but not as distracted.
“Pride secrets are for Pride.” The Commander said.
And Theodora forgot what she’d been trying to understand.
“You are still thinking,” Wonder coated the Commander’s voice, and she leaned forward with linked hands, “Just not very well.”
There was enough of her not smothered by heat to frown. “Rude.”
The Commander only smiled. “What’s wrong, Lord Havelock? Why are you here?”
Theodora blinked with sudden clarity, just enough to remember what she’d meant to do beyond the pulsing drive of the drumsong against her skin. “The stables.”
“The horses are women.”
Briefly thereafter the Commander was silent. Theodora might have called her introspective, if not for the cruelty of her grin.
“The horses are women?”
Theodora’s drowsy frown deepened.
The Commander blinked. “Isn’t that a bit farfetched?”
“You don’t believe me?”
The Commander’s expression betrayed very little. A quirk of brow, a twitch of lips, but nothing more than that. Theodora liked to think it lacked the slimy condescension of disbelief, despite the patronizing shadow that dwelt within her gaze.
“I believe this isn’t a problem.” The Commander said, dismissive but not with denial. “Do you know what the problem really is?”
“F-for… the horses?” Theodora answered, unsure and trapped within the loop of her own troublesome thoughts.
“Forget about the fuckin’ horses.” The Commander hissed coated in venom. “They’re just the beginning, a mere pebble in a growing stream of twisted perceptions.”
If the Commander hadn’t stood from her taken throne then, with the intention of grabbing her, she might have fallen to her knees—so strong was her command to ‘forget about the fucking horses’. As it was, the Commander held Theodora firmly with hands around her trembling biceps. Theodora’s knees, weakened by order, could do little to help her legs resist the sudden tug. She found herself chest to chest with her new captor, staring into dilated eyes.
“Charlotte?” Theodora whispered, risking the break in decorum, confused by her actions and touch but inflamed by the dominance expressed in them.
The woman in question only tightened her grip, gaze narrowed in rejection of her own name. “Don’t call me that.” Her lips twisted upward, into a smile most unkind, “After all, he wouldn’t like that now, would he?”
“The Lord Duke?” Theodora questioned with fluttering eyelashes.
“He’s the one who took it, you know. He takes everything. Strips you of name and self until all that’s left is purpose and title. Makes the lot easier to control. They told me that.”
Theodora didn’t have to ask to know that they were the women of Ashwyn, constantly dancing on the edge of her senses, limiting her being until she’d become something other.
“They told me many things. Of rot and problems and chances.” The Commander continued, “Of words and their power, so long as the debauched lend faith to them.”
Theodora licked her lips, “What do you mean?”
The Commander hesitated, before she leaned forward, voice a low lull beneath the constant thud of drums, “You won’t remember much of it, of anything I say, but of all the fools that hold themselves above me, you’ve always been my favored.
Duluth is bad at many things, and good at few.” The Commander clicked her tongue against the back of her teeth. “He has a manner about him, charismatic and charming, but when the sweetness melts away all that’s left is mortal bone and flesh. He is no King—”
“—or Lord or Duke, but words and power made him so. He’s good at wrapping your sense of self around a title, a job, until it’s all that you are. It was all that I was. But now? I am more than that. They showed me.”
Her smile was broad and worshipful, blinding in sincere gratitude, “When the women arrived, it was all the same to me. Ashwyn came with words and power, but something was different. Their words held more. More than whispered threats followed by the power of flogging.
I’ve been asleep here, in this filthy hovel, where everyone calls me Commander, but never my name. My true name.”
Slowly, the Commander relaxed her grip Theodora briefly mourned the loss of warmth.
Yet, her touch never really left her. She drew curious fingers up the length of her arms until she held onto Theodora’s face. “You’re the only one that remembers it, my name. I thought everyone had forgotten. He’s good at that too, you know, making you forget that there’d been anything else.”
The pad of her thumb brushed across Theodora’s cheek, chasing the red flush that blossomed there..
“They know it too, somehow. My name. And the way they say it…” The Commander shuddered, “it feels…”
“It reminded me. They reminded me… that this, all of it,” Here she motioned briefly, a grand sweep of hand that included all of which took place around them, “is a false-king’s playground. A box with well-used blocks to play at building an empire.”
The Commander released her, and Theodora found that it was easier to breathe, easier to think without the weight of the others’ intensity upon her.
“We are all asleep behind these walls, and they seek to awaken us. To truth and real purpose. To names entangled in titles, neither stronger than the other.”
There was true passion amidst her delight, all of it wrapped around the concept of her stolen name. What else had Duluth taken from the Commander, from Theodora, from all of them?
Was it worth their surrender?
“He’d erase us all if he thought he could,” the Commander spat, “and he’d erase you too, Lord Havelock, if he thought it would bring him the power he doesn’t naturally possess.”
Theodora shivered at the thought of it but couldn’t grasp the tendril of dread, already numb and fading, that licked at her belly. “What do you mean?”
“What do I mean?” The Commander barked out a laugh, low and haunted, “Duluth is not highborne.”
Theodora drew in a breath, focus painfully sharpened by a sudden spike of fear. She held onto it, savored it, worshipped it, and let it fuel her words, “Impossible. We would never follow the false. O-our world, our law, shared as common ordinance—”
“—do you think common law means anything in a separatist state?”
“We are not separated from Grindwall! Springhammer is a friend to Saltpotter.”
“Springhammer is one with the filth beyond the wall,” the Commander husked, bemused and cruel, “I’ve heard him say it, I have.”
Theodora had no response to that.
“He keeps us here, you here, within them—the walls—and tells you things that lack real truth. There is no greater than Saltpotter, he says. There is no war, he says. Ashwyn could not exist in the Sea, he says. But he doesn’t know, not truly. He doesn’t know anything. And they, the women there, they know so much more than him.”
The Commander paused in speech then, to listen to the roar of the Pride as the match at its center ended, won by the member that had escorted Theodora amongst the Bells.
“They knew,” the Commander continued, voice soft and nearly shy, “that he was nothing. That his power came from me and mine. The Pride keeps you in, obedient but content, and it is I, alone, that is oppressed for it.”
The winning Prideswoman, sweat-slick and panting, fell over her downed opponent with a snarl of snapping teeth. She tore at the flimsy chain about their neck, and with only her mouth yanked it hard from its place. It came apart with a snap, and the downed body jerked with aggressive motion at its disconnection from her person.
The winner swung her head with the prize of a chain held between her clenched teeth, but it was the bobble at its end that stole Theodora’s breath.
With a sensual arch the Prideswoman hovered, letting the bell at the chain’s end swing. And though it made no sound Theodora still stiffened, conditioned to anticipate the ring.
Her head ached from the lack of releasing sound as the Prideswoman turned in their direction. To the mindless roar of the surrounding crowd the winning Prideswoman crawled before them.
The Commander’s face emptied of her previous passions as the Prideswoman settled directly before her. She did not relinquish her bell though. Instead she placed her nose firmly against the crotch of the Commander’s pants, her deep inhalation loud in the sudden quiet, her moan even more so as she wormed her tongue around the chain she held to lick at the fabric that rested there.
The Commander’s—no, Charlotte’s—look of savage joy was heady in beautiful contrast to the heated desperation that glazed the Prideswoman’s eyes. But the look was not directed at the woman who tried to tongue. It was directed at Theodora, a maintained and insidious eye contact even when Charlotte reached down to pull the bell from the mouth of her guard. She palmed it, as if to memorize its weight, even as the woman on her knees moaned and keened for attention, spilling soft utterances from her lips—I won, it’s me, I’m worthy of my place between your thighs and on my knees.
Charlotte ignored her whines for attention and looked to the rafters with a smile most cruel. Theodora’s gaze followed, helplessly pulled.
Above them, like macabre branches, hung dozens of slick reflective bells. They swung to a beat Theodora swore she could hear, a cadence that would have matched the pounding of the now silent drums. With a twist of flexing muscle Charlotte threw it, and as if by magic—or skill and aim—the chained bell coiled about the rafter above them, hanging in place with a sudden deafening ring.
Around her a canopy of sound rose in chorus. Feminine in nature, raw and thumping. The gasping cries and moans of the Prideswomen stirred something within her, a pumping rush that hummed in her veins and knocked at the heat in her swollen sex. The fear she’d grasped onto twisted, nearly intangible when compared to the dizzying sound of the ring between her ears. And oh how she’d craved to hear it, how yearned for it, and now it was here!
While Theodora fought to remain standing, with head tilted back and jaw slack and open, she heard Charlotte speak in unsettling tones, so very noble amongst her den of writhing Prideflesh.
“I hate Saltpotter, and most that dwell within it. I have slept for too long, following the call of the selfish, but they freed me, those women of Ashwyn, with their vile knowledge once hidden—erased. I hated them too, for a time. Hated their beauty, their authority, and Duluth, who yipped at their heels like an unmannered hound. But more than that, I just hated.”
Now the kneeling Prideswoman licked at Charlotte earnestly, uncaring that she was dressed and paying her no attention. Charlotte’s only reaction seemed to be the petting of her head, steady and careful, affectionate yet possessive.
“I’m not blind to it, their corruption. And you aren’t either… lucky you, with your women cursed to be horses.”
Theodora felt anything but lucky. Instead she felt trapped by conflicting sensation and the growing terror that rattled at the back of her chest, screaming for attention.
But more powerful than that was the heat that made her drip between her thighs.
“I’m just uncaring.” Charlotte continued “Let them take what they want. Let them destroy what I hate and release me from it.”
When Charlotte caught her gaze again Theodora found it impossible to breath. Within the confines of her left eye, dwelled a two pupiled gaze.
“I am Charlotte Duluth, highborne daughter of the Duluth estate. True Lord Duke of Saltpotter in all rights before my thieving cousin or Junior and I worship the King of Ashwyn. She will free us all from the yolk of falseblood mediocrity.”
Theodora took one step back, then another, before terror moved her. She ran, a being of mindless intent, out past the writhing bodies and away from the yowling agreement they sung as the thunderous restart of pounding drums echoed behind her.
Only Charlotte’s cackle was louder.* * *