Lesser Monsters, Part 1: Using John by Kevin Thorne

Whispers swirled through the castle as fast as a fever, leaving a dread excitement in their wake.

“The Sapphire Suite is being opened and aired.”

“The Sapphire Suite? But it’s autumn, not spring!”
Lesser Monsters, Part 1: Using John
Lesser Monsters, Part 1: Using John by Kevin Thorne
“We must be having an important guest. A very important guest.” “Not a guest. It’s her suite. They wouldn’t open it for anyone else.” “Whose?” “Lady Helène.” “Who?” “You know. The third sister. The one in all the tapestries and mosaics.” “The one with the dark hair?” “Yes.” “And the bloodied heads swinging from her hand?” “There’s a reason they called her Belle Helène the Conqueror. The Merciless. The Ravager.” In a lowered voice, “She was the most terrible of them.” “Of the sisters?” “Of any of them. You know this is her castle, right? Not her sisters’. Even though she hasn’t been here in—well, a long time.” “She’s the one that won the war?” “She was the war.” ~ When the summons came for the Scarlet Suite, John was unsurprised. The castle had been abuzz for days, ever since the Ladies had received a missive that sent them into a scurrying excitement. And when Lady Agathe became excited, it was always the attendants who paid the price. John tried to relax as he was scrubbed and buffed by the bath-maids, his muscled back oiled and perfumed, his black hair trimmed, his face closely shaved. It was a ritual to which he had become accustomed so long ago that he barely thought about it now. He did prefer Lady Nathalie’s ministrations to Lady Agathe’s—the dreamy sister had more straightforward pleasures than the mischievous one—but it was not his place to protest. He found Lady Agathe sprawled languorously on her bed in the Scarlet Suite, surrounded by crimson coverlets and amber-colored silk pillows. Burgundy tapestries draped the walls, wine-colored rugs covered the floor, and a blood-red robe adorned the Lady herself. Barely. Underneath her flame-colored hair, the robe had fallen open to display a bare shoulder and the swell of a breast. Despite himself, despite all he had seen and endured, John could not help but respond, like a dog salivating for its dinner. A quick, careful glance at Agathe’s watching emerald eyes told him she knew it, and approved. Without speaking, John flared a heavy linen sheet over the bed, and shook out a second, holding it up and averting his eyes. Agathe shrugged off her robe and rolled onto her stomach, between the sheets, without a word. She wanted silence, then. John twisted the cork out of a bottle of rosemary-scented oil, warming a few drops between his hands. He settled his palms on Agathe’s shoulders, massaging the knots he found there. He worked his way down her back, his knowledgeable hands eliciting the occasional sigh or wiggle. When he started running his fingers along her legs, she spoke. “You’ve noticed, I suppose, the preparations in the Sapphire Suite?” “I have, milady.” John gently lifted one of her bare legs, encasing her thigh between his broad hands and drawing them down toward her foot, a move that straddled the fine line between expected seduction and unforgivable presumption. To fall off on either side was to court peril. After repeating the maneuver on her other leg, he carefully lifted the top of the linen sheet, keeping his head turned away and his eyes downcast. Lady Agathe liked games, and until he knew which she planned to play, he was safest playing the role of the modest—if erotically eager—servant. Agathe turned over, settling into place on her back. “And what do you think of all the fuss these past few days? Aren’t you intrigued?” He strained desperately to hear some hint in her voice that would tell him his best response—there was excitement, and a catlike, predatory playfulness. Nothing unusual, nothing specific. He chose a neutral path. “I seek only to serve, milady. It’s what I’m here for.” He risked a glance at her face; she was studying him, her cheeks flushed, her lips parted. Her tongue ran over her sharp white teeth, auburn curls framing her heart-shaped face. “Indeed it is,” she purred with a slight smile, “and you do it well.” With her toes, she seized hold of the sheet and pulled it aside, revealing her naked body. The heat in John’s blood rose. “Come, sate your hunger,” she said, pulling his head toward the thatch of wiry red hair where her legs met. And then you’ll sate yours, John could not help but think, but he kept the thought off his face. He bent to the task before him with a practiced tongue, gently teasing and caressing. Maybe you’ll wait till the moment just before, and it won’t be so bad. He slipped a surreptitious hand into his trousers, ensuring that he was prepared for what would come next. It did not do to disappoint the Ladies. A cold shiver went through him as Agathe’s cool fingers untied the drawstring of his shirt, at the half-circle of his collarbone. Her red-lacquered nails played gently against his throat, tapping at the clusters of tiny scars there. “You heal so beautifully every time,” she murmured. She drew his neck toward her mouth, set all four of her lengthening teeth—top and bottom—against his pulsing vein. Despite himself, he tensed. “You can’t think that I would hurt you,” came her soothing voice. “You know that you’re safe from me, my pet, my dearest John.” The words filled him with a cold dread. He could picture the teasing smile on her face, her lively eyes laughing because she knew he knew she was lying. He knew then that she would not wait, that the game tonight was pain, for him, and endurance. “Now,” she murmured, tickling his skin with her tongue, reaching down between their bodies to push his trousers down and pull his cock toward her cleft. He thrust in abruptly, hoping a moment’s distraction might allow him to establish a rhythm that would so occupy her thoughts that she would release her hold on his neck. For a moment, it seemed to be working; she writhed and let out a soft sigh. He shoved in hard again, slicked by her juices. But then the searing pain struck his throat, her fangs penetrating his skin, worrying at his flesh. Her tongue felt like acid in the wounds, like salt, as she drank eagerly from him. He grew a little dizzy, his muscled arms trembling slightly with the effort of holding his weight above her. But he could not afford to let his performance lag, not if he wanted the bite in his neck to be the worst of this evening’s adventures. He gritted his teeth and bore down, grunting with every thrust, coaxing and cajoling the distant fireburst in his groin closer and closer, tuning out the pain as he had learned. As he’d had to learn. Not too quick, now. Steady. Speeding up a little—yes, she liked that. It struck him that she liked thinking he both hated and loved her teeth inside him, that the pain somehow egged him on to greater pleasure. So he started deliberately gasping and shivering, rocking his whole body back and forth. She dug her fangs in deeper yet, to a fresh flare of agony, but he could tell from how she moved beneath him that she was nearly there, nearly done. He braced his knees anew on the bed, driving into her as she clung to him, feeling the moment when her starburst hit her. He could not quite reach his, but he feigned it anyway with a calculated frenzy of bucking and thrusting, knowing it would add to her pleasure—and thus, possibly, decrease his own future pain. As always, when he pretended, he wondered if she could tell, if that was part of the game. After a few final spasms, she disengaged from his neck, and he from her groin. “There now,” she said, her face flushed, her lips smeared with his red blood, “that didn’t hurt, did it?” “Not at all, milady,” he said, and the only reason the falsehood didn’t curdle in his mouth was that he knew she knew he was lying. Her lips curved into a smile, and her eyes lit with mischief. “Change is in the air,” she said. “The castle quickens. It’s exciting, don’t you think?” Some new game had begun. Carefully, John said, “If it pleases you, it pleases me, milady.” She went on, watching his face as she spoke. “We’re having guests in a couple of months who haven’t been here in many, many years. I wonder what they’d make of you.” “I’m here to serve, milady.” Her smile widened. The trap was sprung. “They’re Lords,” she said. “Two brothers.” He froze. “I—I wonder,” he stammered, “if Pelton might not be better suited—” She laughed. “Look at you, running like a scared little rabbit. Don’t worry, John. I’m only teasing—though you might prefer the Lords to what’s coming next week. I’ll have use for you then. After she arrives.” “After who arrives, milady?” He kept his voice mild, hiding his dread. “Haven’t you heard? My sister, Lady Helène. She’s finally coming home. And John—eat well and rest well.” She gave him a small, bloody-tongued grin. “My dear sister’s appetites are legendary.” ~ Drained nearly to the point of illness by Agathe’s enthusiasm, John recuperated slowly. To his surprise, neither Lady called for him throughout the rest of the week. Lady Agathe must have meant what she said about him garnering his strength. It was not a comforting thought. Speculation swirled amongst the servants about the soon-to-arrive Lady. Would she come tomorrow? Next week? Next month? Would she bring a retinue of dozens? Thousands? Would her horse be armored in gold? Her saddle fringed with human skulls? Would she arrive at dawn? At blazing noon? In the middle of an autumn thunderstorm? When a lone rider in drab gear came up to the gates early one evening, no one expected it to be the dread Lady Helène herself. But her sisters greeted her with glad cries, ushering her into the parlor of the Sapphire Suite, sending chambermaids scurrying for a tin bath and hot water. And when the summons came for John, he responded as he always did, heading to the bathing room and its giggling maids, who today seemed even gigglier than usual. “Did you hear?” said Maida, a plump young woman with a bun of wavy brown hair. She always took her time bathing John, letting her hands drift over his back and rump. She probably thought he didn’t hear her tiny sighs, but he’d become accustomed to them over the years, and not just from her. “Hear what?” said Abigail, a freckle-faced blonde girl who always flushed deeply at John’s naked body, even as she helped scrub him down. “Lady Helène’s horse,” Maida said in an exaggerated whisper, her eyes seeking John’s. Her voice dropped even lower. “The scars along its neck.” She nodded significantly. “I had it from the groom. The foul-tempered beast snapped at any touch, even to be rubbed down after its lathered journey. And it fell on its oats like it hadn’t eaten in a year. Big strong thing it was, too.” “I heard she barely said a word when they brought her inside,” said Abigail, not to be outdone as she soaped between John’s toes with a small washcloth. “Just drifted along, while her sisters fussed and—” She fell silent. A new voice, full of scowls, broke over the steamy room. “You are not, I hope, speaking ill of our Ladies.” “Stroud, no, of course not—” Maida began. Stroud hove into view, the barrel of his belly straining at the cloth of his shirt. “Their ears are everywhere,” he went on, sternly. “It does not do to risk antagonizing those who feed and shelter us.” John spoke up. “Not a word was spoken out of place, Stroud.” “Not a word spoken that you would not mind the Ladies overhearing, hmmm?” Stroud looked John over with a sneer. As with Maida’s stolen caresses and Abigail’s blushes, Stroud’s distaste for John was not unexpected—possibly because of the way so many of the female servants sighed at John’s solemn blue eyes and chiseled jawline. Many of the men resented him, though some seemed to understand that his handsome face was both blessing and curse, because it brought more of the Ladies’ attention to him, and less to them. Still, with their attention came rewards: trinkets, jewels, gifts of money and silks. Status. “Just you be on your best behavior tonight, my lad,” Stroud said to John. “Too much is riding on this evening for any of your stupid mistakes.” Anger rose, fresh and clean, in John’s mind. He was about to snap a retort when he realized, from Stroud’s smug face, that he was being goaded: Stroud wanted to unsettle him, to make him distracted or clumsy. To make him fail, and be punished. So instead, John issued a practiced laugh. “I can only hope to make more ‘stupid mistakes’ that bring rubies to my doorstep. Lady Agathe sent down a bottle of fine wine last time. Apparently she enjoys my… mistakes.” While Stroud fumed, John rose from the bath, streaming water, unselfconsciously showing off the sculpted body that years of work in his father’s smithy—and more years of swimming in nearby lakes—had given him. “The oils, Abigail, if you please, my darling,” John said, lifting up his arms and giving Stroud an insouciant grin. “I mustn’t keep Lady Helène waiting.” The smiling Abigail flushed an even deeper crimson as she reached for the scented jars on the table behind her. Maida said, “I’ve towels for you here, John,” and wrapped them around John’s shoulders as he stepped out of the tin tub. He caught the note of jealousy in her voice, and, from the narrowing of Stroud’s eyes, knew he’d caught it too. “You think you’re clever,” Stroud said. “But you don’t know what you’re in for, with the fearsome Lady Helène. You know only her sisters.” “And their guests over the past five years,” John pointed out. “I’m accustomed to a variety of tastes.” Stroud flashed a triumphant smile. “Yes, I’m sure you are. As any good whore should be.” And he swept out before John could respond. “Don’t you listen,” Maida said in a furious whisper as John stood stock-still, shock keeping him quiet. “You’re worth a hundred of him.” “He’s just jealous,” Abigail put in, her voice stung on John’s behalf. “The Ladies have never shown an interest in him, not ever. He’s not good enough for them. He hasn’t half your—your….” She faltered. “Your looks,” Maida put in. “Your charm.” “He couldn’t stand it,” Abigail said. “Ministering to the Ladies like you do. He hasn’t the courage.” He gave them an arrogant, reassuring smile, as if Stroud’s words had not affected him. But all the while, he thought, All true, what they say. But none of it a contradiction. Stroud spoke the truth too. ~ Unsettled, John moved toward the Sapphire Suite, folded sheets over one arm, bottle of scented oil in the other. He told himself that Stroud just wanted to humiliate him, to scare him. He’d attended to plenty of the Ladies’ female guests—how much worse could this one be? Flashes of dreadful memories washed across his mind’s eye, seared his mind’s nerves, and he had to put a hand out to the heavy stone wall. For a moment, he thought of the open gate with longing. He could do it—run back to his room, pack, and be out of the castle before anyone missed him. There wouldn’t even be any retribution. That was part of the pact. But—if he left, he could never come back. Never earn the kind of living that allowed him to take care of his aging, ailing parents, nor find good care for his elder brother, who at thirty still had the mind of a young child, and needed the kind of constant supervision that his frail mother could no longer provide. Stories crept through his mind like ghosts, stories of attendants being slain by the Ladies or their guests, in a moment of pique or passion. He took a deep breath. He had no time for these kinds of thoughts, no room for being off-balance. He needed all his wits, his skills, at their sharpest. And so he banished the doubts, step by step, breath by breath, as he moved down the hallway toward the Sapphire Suite. He let his mind go curiously light, distanced from his body. The minutes would pass, one after the other, and they would build to hours, and the hours would build toward morning. All he had to do was let the minutes pass. And remember his place. His part. Willing, worshipful servant. Eager erotic partner. Selfless snack. Pleasing, pliable— Pliable whore. No. Pliable masseur. There was a reason the Ladies asked for him so frequently, and it wasn’t all because of his looks. His smithy-strengthened hands could ease the aches out of the tightest muscles. And now here was the pale blue door, in front of him. Setting his shoulders back, he reached out and tapped twice. And waited. Just as he was going to tap again, a tired voice called, “Come.” He opened the door, stepped inside, closed it carefully behind him, trying to make no disturbance, no noise. The room was all done in shades of blue: upholstery, rugs, bedclothes, even the walls. Above the hearth hung two large, heavy, double-headed battleaxes, their handles studded with sapphires. He was surprised; the other Ladies’ chambers held no relics, no reminders of the war. John swallowed tightly, wondering how many people these prominently displayed axes had cut down. He was careful not to look too closely at their edges. And then he saw her, a slight figure drifting barefoot across the blue-veined marble floor, clad carelessly in a sky-blue robe, fingers combing through wet, shoulder-length black hair. A tin hip-bath steamed in front of a cheery fire in the hearth; she must have just gotten out of it. Her face was surprisingly plain, her mouth a little small, her cheeks a little round. But her piercing, pale gray eyes—they dizzied him instantly. She was leaner than her sisters, and looked younger, almost coltish, compared to their well-fed curves. A coverlet the deep blue of the sky at late dusk lay untouched on the bed. With a practiced flick, John settled one cream-colored sheet on top of it, then held the other out as a modesty screen, averting his eyes. “You’re John?” came her voice. She sounded cool, even a little solemn. He risked a look at her. She stood in front of him, nearly a foot shorter, entirely unprepossessing. Except for those unnerving eyes. His throat felt dry. He swallowed quickly and said, “I am, milady.” “I’m Lady Helène,” she said. “I’ve heard great things of you. To hear my sisters tell it, you could massage the stiffness out of a mountain, so it flowed down into soft little hills.” “I—I’m sure I don’t deserve such praise.” “Hm,” she said, and slipped off her robe, sliding between the sheets he’d laid out. He barely had time to look away. When he risked a glance at her face, she was lying on her stomach with her eyes closed. Not seductive, not flaunting her body, as her sisters would have been, had they shucked their robes so carelessly. What was her game? Let the minutes pass, and pile up on one another. Eventually, the night will end. John dripped a few drops of oil onto his hands, settled his palms onto Helène’s narrow shoulders. “Is there any place where you’re especially tense, milady?” he asked. It was often a good opener. Early on, some of the raunchy answers he’d gotten had surprised him. “Back and shoulders,” she said, her voice muffled by the sheet beneath her. “Long ride.” “From where?” he said, probing at the flesh of her upper back. It was like ropes of steel; he wasn’t sure he’d be able to loosen her muscles at all. He dug in hard, and was rewarded with a soft groan. “Do you mind,” she said, “if we don’t talk? I’d like to just drift away.” Panic struck. He had already misstepped. “Of course, milady,” he said, forcing his hands to continue their calm, rhythmic movements, so as not to betray his nerves. “Forgive me if I’ve offended.” As he worked her muscles, they did, against all probability, start softening. Her skin felt good beneath his hands, warmed from her bath, not cool like her sisters’. He gently moved her arm to better reach under her shoulder blade; she let him place it where he chose, an occasional sigh or caught breath telling him the massage was working. He could cover her narrow back entirely with both his hands, without even splaying his fingers. He had his father’s strong, broad hands, inherited from generations of smiths. Most people understood that smiths had to be strong; few understood the delicacy of those thick fingers, to hammer either hard iron or soft gold with equal skill. It had been a while since he’d been able to devote his attentions to massage for more than a few minutes; most Ladies were eager to dispense with the appetizer and get to the main course. He started relaxing into the evening, letting his mind focus in his fingertips, achieving an almost meditative state as he kneaded and pummeled, stroked here, dug in with a knuckle there. Some sense of self-preservation boosted him out of his reverie; he knew this was not his prime purpose here. So he altered his touch, making it lighter, fluttering it along Helène’s neck and the backs of her knees, up the outsides of her thighs, segueing into an erotic touch intended to stoke her internal furnace. When he stopped and held up the sheet, she turned her head and half-opened one eye, her dark eyebrow quirking a question at him. “If milady would turn over,” John said, “I can continue.” Had this been Nathalie, she would have torn the sheet from his hands, and pulled him atop her. Had this been Agathe, she would have started one of her cat-and-mouse games, watching him with avid, hungry eyes. Lady Helène shrugged and turned over, eyes closed. Ignoring him. He massaged her calves carefully, then her lower thighs—but, receiving no encouragement from her, went no further. He could tell from the flush in her cheeks and her wet, parted lips that his ministrations were having their intended effect, but she gave him no clue as to what she wanted, or expected, next. He started on her arms, working his way down from shoulder to hand, rubbing each joint of each finger in turn. A tiny sound, like a mouse’s sigh, caught his attuned ears. He looked at Helène’s face in time to see the quiet shudder of her shoulders. A tear leaked from the corner of her eye, dripped down into her wet black hair. He froze. “I’ve upset you,” he said, trying hard to keep his voice level while his heart accelerated like a runaway horse. He thought of the axes on the wall. “Please, milady, tell me what I’ve done. How I can fix it.” “It’s nothing,” she said, in a choked voice. “It’s all right. It all feels lovely, John.” “But you—you’re distressed. Is there nothing I can do?” She finally opened her eyes, blinked tears from both of them. “I suppose,” she said, “you could fetch me a handkerchief. There should be a fresh one in the top right drawer of the desk.” He hurried to the maplewood desk, almost stumbling on the indigo throw-rugs scattered across the floor. Panic made his fingers swollen and heavy as he wrenched open the drawer and pulled out two soft linen handkerchiefs the color of a summer sky. “Thank you,” she said, taking one and wiping her eyes. “If there’s anything else—” he stammered. She looked at him for a long moment. It felt like her eyes bored through his skull and catalogued his mind. Belle Helène the Conqueror, he thought with mounting dread. A murderous legend lay before him. How many of his kind had those hands slain? She said, “Have you ever lost someone you loved, John?” The words sent ice sluicing through his limbs. He thought of his father, crippled now with arthritis, vulnerable in his house down the hillside. And his mother…. “I don’t—Lady Helène, I beg of you, if I’ve offended, let me pay the price myself, please spare my family, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean—” “You’re frightened,” she said, in a tone of mild surprise. Shaking her head, she said, “Things have changed since I was here last.” Miserable with fear, John said nothing, not wanting to make things worse. Helène said, “Many years ago, I loved someone very much, and he died. I’ve carried that grief with me ever since. That’s what you feel in my shoulders, what you’ve loosened, what led to the tears. You’ve done nothing wrong. It’s just—no one has touched my hands with kindness like that since—since I lost him. I wasn’t threatening your family, John. I was trying to explain.” “My grandfather,” John blurted, to his own surprise. “He was a quiet giant of a man, taller even than I. Took care of my brother and me when our parents were called away to other towns. When he died—it’s like the entire world shifted a little to one side.” He couldn’t believe his own recklessness, and wished he could retract the words as soon as he’d said them. But Helène was nodding. “There are people whose presence in your life changes you. The world seems incomplete without them in it.” She offered him a slight smile, and he wondered how he could ever have thought her plain. She was lovely, with her sad, wise, luminous eyes. To his surprise, he felt stirrings of lust. It was because she didn’t seem like one of them, he knew. She seemed like some young, fragile girl. He felt a brief urge to wrap his arms around her and comfort her while she cried, kiss the tears from her cheeks, nuzzle the warmth of her throat, taste the skin of her breasts—but of course, he suppressed such a presumptuous impulse instantly. It was early yet; their bodies would merge soon enough. He found, to his surprise, that he looked forward to it. She closed her eyes again, and he lifted her other arm, stroking down toward her fingers. He watched her face carefully, but she didn’t weep this time; she seemed lost in deep thought, very far away. He came to the end of his repertoire, turning away slightly so he could, with one hand, reach inside his trousers and ensure his readiness for what was to come. After a few moments, she took a deep breath. “Mmm. That was lovely, John. My sisters spoke accurately of your gifts.” It sounded like a dismissal. He blinked. “Is there—um—anything else I can offer you?” He let his voice slide down into a seductive, questing range. She opened her eyes again, a puzzled frown creasing her brow. “Such as?” “The Ladies—they, they often enjoy a more, um, intimate touch.” Feeling awkward as a teenager, he said, “You know.” Her puzzled look cleared, replaced by a small, knowing smile. “Ah. Thank you, no.” “It’s all right,” he said in a rush. “It’s what I’m here for, what’s expected. I understand.” “That makes one of us,” she said, propping herself up on her elbows and gazing at him curiously. “Although it does explain the leer in my sister’s eye as she lauded your… talents.” “I won’t disappoint you, milady,” he said. Was this the game, him begging her to let him do what she knew he was there for? “It’s not that it’s not tempting,” she said, “but a massage is what I expected, and a massage is what I’ve had. Whatever my sister’s intentions, I don’t expect you to whore yourself to me.” Whore. The word burned into John’s ears. That’s all she thought he was. Of course she didn’t want him; she could have her pick of fine men, probably was used to that in her travels, cultured and sophisticated men, even of her own kind. He forced a smile, quickly, so she would not see his reaction. It had happened, once in a while, that a guest was so focused on her hunger that she turned down his erotic services. He raised a hand to the drawstring at his collarbone and loosened it, then knelt beside her, tilting his head away and closing his eyes. He braced himself against the incipient tearing of his flesh. Her voice came, laced with doubt. “You—you want that?” “It’s what I’m here for.” “No, John, it’s not. I would not trespass on your dignity like that. I know how painful it would be for you.” Painful? This was the first time John had ever heard one of the Ladies refer to the pain of humans, or even recognize its existence. He felt vertiginous, like his whole world was turning upside down. “You don’t have to be afraid of me,” she said. A bump of fear surged through him at the familiar words, leaving him shaking. This was where the game would begin—here, with him confused and uncertain, and, paradoxically, with a growing hunger in his loins. Helène was even better at games than Agathe, and that was saying something. “I can’t seem to say the right thing,” Helène said, sounding puzzled. “Perhaps it’s time for you to go. It’s been a long day.” “You’re—you’re sure, milady?” I’ve done something wrong, he thought wildly. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve disappointed her. There will be trouble. “I’m sure,” she said. “Good night, John.” She lay back and closed her eyes. He fumbled the cork back into his bottle of oil, and stumbled out of the Sapphire Suite. ~ John prowled the servants’ corridors, unsettled and twitchy. Though he didn’t understand all that had happened in the Sapphire Suite, the one thing he knew for sure was that it had left him with a massive erection and a bruised ego. He wanted company. He knew from experience that Maida’s worshipful eyes and warm skin would do much to restore his confidence, and cool the fire in his groin. He headed toward the bathing room, hoping to find her cleaning up there. She wasn’t. He left the corked bottle of rosemary oil on a table and headed toward the laundry. If not Maida, any of half a dozen others would do. As he made his way through little-used corridors, he heard the soft, urgent sounds of sex. A combination of mischief and prurient curiosity led him to quiet his footsteps and move toward the sounds, which emanated from a nearby shadowed alcove. He saw a man’s short, stocky frame, trousers in a pile at his feet, his bare ass working rapidly back and forth. With a grin, John inched closer, wondering which maid’s favors the man was enjoying. But then, the man’s head turned. John realized that the face tight and flushed with pleasure was that of Pelton, another attendant, and the hips he gripped were another man’s, with another set of trousers in a pile beside his feet. The other man’s identity was lost to the alcove’s deep shadows. John’s stomach twisted. It was no secret that Pelton attended Lords as well as Ladies, when their tastes ran that way—but how could Pelton do something so disgusting to another man? If he ever tried to do that to John…. John’s eyes narrowed, and his hands closed into fists. Agathe’s sly taunt came back to him, speaking of the Lords who would be visiting soon: I wonder what they’d make of you. The thought revolted him—hardly the boost to his confidence that he was seeking. He quietly moved back and away, heading down a different set of dim stone hallways, trying to forget what he’d seen. He turned a corner and spotted little Abigail, she of the freckles and blushes, setting fresh candles into wall sconces. Oh, yes. Abigail would do nicely. She was relatively new, and younger than most of the staff; he had not yet had time to sample her most tender delights. A fortuitous encounter, indeed. He made a little extra noise as he walked along the corridor, so as not to startle her. She turned and, as soon as she spotted him, sprouted a smile she could not tamp down. Her infatuation was palpable. “Our Abigail,” John said in his smoothest voice, “bringing light to the darkness.” She laughed, a little harder than the joke merited. He could tell his presence warmed her like wine. He moved closer, trailed his fingers down her cheeks. She froze, so he left them cupping her cheek instead of stroking down her neck. “Lovely Abby,” he murmured. “Can I tell you a secret?” She nodded, eyes shining. He leaned in so his warm breath tickled her ear. “I had hoped you’d be there, bathing me, this evening. Seeing you always lifts my heart. Among other things.” Still grinning wildly, she stammered something unintelligible and pulled back, against a wall. He followed, pinning her there loosely with his arms. It was a delicate thing, seduction. He prided himself that he’d never heard a “no” when he’d set his mind to bedding a girl. “Shall I show you how you affect me?” he continued, taking one of her hands and pressing it to the bulge in his trousers. She inhaled sharply, her eyes widening with fear, so he let her withdraw the hand. “You’ve seen me entirely exposed,” he said, kissing her forehead and her cheek. “I can hide nothing from you.” He kept a sharp eye on her tense frame, knowing he’d have to tread carefully—but knowing also that the urgent pressure in his cock would tolerate only so much patience. “I—we shouldn’t—” she managed, so he covered her mouth with his and kissed her, deeply. His hands wanted to rove, to untangle the ties at her bodice, to pull her breasts into the candlelight, but she stood poised to flee, and so he contented himself with kisses. The girls liked that, kisses. Abigail had probably dreamed of him kissing her, professing his love. If he could play into that dream, he could relax her. And then, she’d be his. “Tell me I haven’t mistaken your glances,” he said, pulling back a bit, cradling her face between his hands. “Was it just wishful thinking that led me to see, perhaps, a little kindness for me in your eyes? Ah, Abby, my dove, tell me my heart is not alone in beating so hard for you.” “I—I mean—” she said, helplessly, as his words bound her more surely than his arms could. “Someone might see—” “It’s late,” he said. “No one will disturb us.” He bent toward her lips again, kissing her deeply, feeling her warm, respond. “Don’t you know that you and I are alone, in all the world, tonight? Can’t you feel it? This chance encounter—it must be fate, drawing us together.” Her eyes shone with the romantic fever of a young girl confronted with what she wanted—and feared—most. He kissed her lips again, then her neck, and finally the soft swells of the tops of her breasts. She gasped, squirmed—so he picked her up, one arm beneath her shoulders and one beneath her knees, as a groom would carry a bride over a threshold. “You are the only one in all the world,” he murmured, pressing her close, his lips touching hers. He felt her racing heart as he pressed her chest to his. His insistent cock nipped at his thoughts; he could not wait much longer. “Surely you will not torment me,” he said. “Surely you will ease the pain you have caused in me.” “I—pain?” He swung her up so her back pressed against the wall, and covered her mouth with his as he reached under her skirts with one hand and pulled down her undergarments. This was the trickiest moment, the one most at risk for a “no”—and, thus, the one for which it was most important to make sure she could not speak, not till he knew she would no longer protest. While ardently kissing her, he freed the knot on his trousers, which sank to the floor. His cock bobbed free. He wrestled hard with himself not to spear her right then. “My Abby, my love,” he moaned into her mouth. And reached his fingers up beneath her skirts, to find her slick cleft, and the swollen nub in front of it. “Let me please you,” he said in a low growl, as his fingers delicately stroked the tiny hillock, to her gasps and moans. “Let me adore you.” She was panting hard now, her eyes closed. She was beyond forming words. She was ready. He pushed closer to her, lined himself up with her wet entrance, rubbed on a little of her slickness so he would slide in easily. Thus positioned, he reached with his free hand for her bodice, tugged it down, pulled free one small breast, and set his mouth against the nipple. She cried out as he suckled at her. He ran his tongue across her nipple again. And pushed in, carefully, only halfway at first. God, she was tight. Her eyes flew open in alarm. He kissed her mouth to forestall any protests. Pulling back, he slid in again, this time all the way, feeling her gasp into his mouth. He groaned as the fire grew in him, as his cock moved and twitched on its own, slamming hard inside that tight tunnel. He lifted a hand to her exposed breast, teasing the nipple, feeling her squirm, trying to keep her off-balance enough that she accepted what was happening, so she would not struggle or scream. He hated when they did that; it was an insult to his prowess. “You are mine,” he murmured, thrusting again and again. He would not last long. “Now and forever, you are mine. My dearest Abigail, my little dove.” And finally, her arms crept around his neck, her legs around his waist. It was too late to stop what was happening; she might as well embrace it, let it carry her along to what she hoped would be a picture-perfect ending. Emboldened, he settled his hands underneath her rump and started lifting and dropping her rhythmically. Until a cold voice broke his rhythm. “Well, well,” said Stroud. “This doesn’t bode well for you, my lad.” Abigail gasped, and ducked to hide her face as Stroud strolled closer. Looming behind him were the two butchers’ boys, Wylie and Barden, who resembled the hefty boars they dismembered. “Go away,” John said, cradling Abigail protectively against him. She was shaking. “We’re busy.” “If there’s one thing you should not be after attending to one of the Ladies, it’s… ‘busy.’” Strong hands took hold of John’s arms and yanked him backward; he fell out of Abigail, his cock twitching in frustrated protest. He noticed a smear of red on its shaft, and glanced at Abigail in surprise. Could he have been her first? Abigail grabbed her underthings off the floor and fled down the hallway, pulling her bodice back up over her bared breast, her blonde hair obscuring her face. Stroud watched her leave without comment, disdain clear in his expression. He turned his attention back to John. “Not a mark on you,” Stroud observed, sauntering in a circle around John, who struggled against the butcher’s boys, his cock flapping loose, his trousers in a pile at his feet. Wylie twisted John’s arm behind his back, bending him forward. Stroud pulled open the collar of John’s shirt, making a show of inspecting his skin. “I knew it,” he said, triumph cold and sour in his voice. “Look at you, rutting like a dog, when you should be drained nearly insensible. The flush of your skin betrays you. You displeased Lady Helène. I knew your day would come, boy. You know the risk you bring to all of us when you bring wrath to the Ladies. Or have you forgotten Annalisa?” John had been new then, and luckily it hadn’t been he who disappointed Lady Agathe. But another attendant had, and in her rage, Agathe had sent a young chambermaid spinning down the hallway, cracking her arm on the wall and her head on the cold flagstones. It was months before Annalisa could walk without dizzy spells. “Lady Helène was not displeased with me,” John said, his voice tight as he tried to free himself from Wylie and Barden. But their time slinging hogs around had brought them as much muscle as his had in the smithy. “Of course she was,” Stroud said, scorn salting his voice. “Do you suppose anyone believes she summoned you for your witty conversation? No. You have one purpose here, one function. You clearly have failed to achieve it, which puts all of us in danger. And for that,” he said, his tone warming with satisfaction, “there must be consequences.” ~ Despite John’s struggles, he found himself naked and bound with heavy rope to a hook hanging from the ceiling in the butcher’s room. The thick smell of curdled blood nauseated him. Stroud strolled in front of him. “Failure is not to be tolerated,” he said, holding up a riding crop so John could see the iron stud sewn into the end. “It’s time you learned your place, boy.” “I don’t answer to you,” John spat. “Down here, everyone answers to me. Our Ladies don’t care what happens amongst their servants.” Stroud sauntered behind him. “If you’re wise, you’ll remember that in the future.” John took a deep breath and stilled his mind, consciously distancing it from his body. Some of the lessons the Ladies teach come in unexpectedly handy, he thought grimly. He stood straight and squared his shoulders. Stroud wanted to see him cower and beg. John wouldn’t even give him the satisfaction of crying out. He stood strong as the crop fell three times across his back, silent, barely wincing, even as warm drips of blood oozed down his skin. Stroud said, “You’re fortunate that the punishment for a first offense is only three stripes. You’d best pray you never find out the punishment for a second.” He nodded at Barden, who lowered the meat hook from the ceiling enough to slip John’s ropes from it. John’s shaking legs betrayed him; he fell to his knees, burning with anger that Stroud should have even that much satisfaction. “Come along,” Stroud said to the butcher’s boys, who followed him out, leaving John to work loose the knotted ropes, pull on his trousers, gingerly drape his shirt across his flaming back, and hobble out alone. ~ It was Maida who came to John in his room the next evening, to tell him of Lady Helène’s summons. He hadn’t left it all day; his back was bruised and, thanks to Maida’s investigating why he hadn’t come to the kitchen for breakfast, bandaged. Every breath pulled at the torn flesh, making him wince. Maida carried a steaming jug, a porcelain basin, and a few thick towels. “I’ve told Abigail to bring you a nice cut of beef and gravy when I’m done in here. It’ll keep your strength up and help you heal.” Abigail, he thought. Some unfinished business there. “Now of course, you won’t be coming to the bathing room,” Maida said. “But I’ll clean you up here. Can’t have you going around smelling like a butcher’s block. Come now, lean back and I’ll undress you.” John managed a smile. “My favorite words, coming from you, dear Maida.” She gave him a look that he couldn’t decipher. Had Abigail told her of their tryst? Was Maida jealous? In a low voice, Maida said, “That Stroud is a bully. Wylie and Barden, they aren’t so bad, but they like a leader, and Stroud is happy to oblige. But he’s gone too far this time. That nasty old man will get what’s coming to him, you mark my words. I don’t see the Ladies being pleased with what he’s done to you.” John snorted. “Each will probably think the other did it.” “Shh,” Maida said, glancing back over her shoulder, even though his door was closed. “Trouble with the Ladies is the last thing you need right now.” John lifted a hand to Maida’s face, traced her jawline with a fingertip. “You’re too good for me, Maida.” “And don’t I know it,” she said briskly, wringing out a steaming washcloth and setting to work. ~ John limped his way through the castle toward the Sapphire Suite, cursing soundlessly at every jarring step. Perhaps Lady Helène wanted only another massage—he was just about sure he could manage that without screaming. Any more, and he didn’t know what he’d do. Inside the suite, Helène sat on a bench in front of a fire, holding her hands out, staring at her flushed fingers. “It’s interesting,” she said, turning her hands over. “It’s like the fire calls to the blood, bringing it to the skin, just as the beach calls to the tide. I wonder why that is.” John focused on keeping his voice pleasant and even. “I couldn’t say, milady. How may I serve you this evening?” She turned to smile at him. Her dark hair—dry tonight—hung in short waves down her neck. On seeing him, she blinked in what looked like surprise. “Your attentions last night did me a world of good, John. I haven’t slept that well in ages. Another massage like that would be most welcome.” But as she spoke, her eyes bored into him. “Of course, milady,” he said, and headed stiffly toward the bed. “Wait.” He stopped, trying to suppress his alarm. “You move as if you’re injured, John. Why is that?” “It’s nothing, milady.” He turned and offered her a pained smile. “Remove your shirt.” Though the voice was calm, there was steel in it. He swallowed. So tonight was not to be as easy as last night. He might have known. “As you wish, milady.” Gingerly, he set down the sheets and the bottle of oil, and reached to pull the shirt over his head. The pain that lanced through him made him stumble, and he couldn’t quite seem to lift his arms high enough. And then, somehow, the shirt was off, and tossed onto the bed. Helène walked around him, surveying him critically. A single delicate eyebrow rose at his heavily bandaged back. “What have we here?” she said. “I don’t expect either of my sisters did that—they were both far too excited about leaving you to me last night.” John said, “Really, it’s unimportant, I can still—” She shook her head with a flash of annoyance that sent an arrow of dread into his stomach. “Hold still,” she said, reaching for the knotted linen strips at his chest that held the bandages in place. Agathe would have ripped the bandages from the clotting wounds and laughed in delight as new blood seeped out. But Helène—she unfolded the cloth layer by layer, leaving the bottommost layers, the ones stuck to his skin, undisturbed. “This won’t heal right,” she said. “Stay here.” She padded off into a side room, came back with an armful of jars. Bringing over a small, claw-footed wooden chair painted blue, she said, “I can’t fix it without pulling off the bandages. Sit down. This will take a little time.” She uncapped a large jar; a vaguely alcoholic smell drifted from it, mixed with herbs. She dipped her fingers in. They came out dripping with a heavy, greenish-white paste. “This will hurt a bit,” she said. He braced himself for the bandages to be torn off, but to his surprise, she applied the paste over them, the pressure sending fire through his back—but a sensation cool as mint followed, soothing the fire, until, for the first time since last night, the pain in his back was gone entirely. There was a slight tugging at his back. “Is that all right?” she said. “What?” Instead of answering, she reached behind him and tore the bandages off with a single smooth movement. He flinched, then realized that it hadn’t hurt. His back was entirely numb. “Hm,” she said, inspecting the bloodied bandages, sniffing at them. She moved behind him. “I want you to tell me how this happened.” John hesitated. One of the cardinal rules attendants followed was solidarity amongst the staff. It did not do to trouble the Ladies with the petty problems of their servants. “Just a—disagreement,” he managed, carefully. “You argued with rusty iron, and lost? Three times? And not just iron.” He felt a distant pressure, like someone was prodding him through layers of cotton fluff. “An iron stud on the end of a leather crop.” She came around in front of him again and lifted up one of his abraded wrists with surprising strength. “You were bound and whipped.” Her eyes fixed on his. “Why?” “I—it isn’t—” he stammered. “Was it one of my sisters? Or a guest of theirs?” He shook his head. “So one of your own kind, then.” His head flared hot at the suggestion that Stroud was anything like him, but he didn’t contradict her. “This is the first time your skin has been marked like this,” she said. “So it’s something new. And as I’m the only new thing that happened last night, it stands to reason that somehow, this had to do with me. Is that right?” He stared at her, startled, but said nothing. “Yes,” she said. “But what? I doubt one of your fellows could have been jealous of my attentions. No, I see from your face that that’s not it. Last night, you expected—certain things to happen, and to take all night. I sent you away early. Is that part of it?” Desperately, he said, “It’s really not—” “Shh,” she said. “But why would anyone care that I didn’t—” She stopped, and he had the eerie feeling she could peer straight into his thoughts. “Ah. I see it now. Fear. Fear of disappointing the Ladies.” He stared at her, forgetting himself. Speaking slowly, watching him carefully, she said, “One of your fellows—chastised you, based on the assumption that I was displeased with you.” “How—” he began, then stopped. “I see the truth of it in your face,” she said. Her gray eyes looked hard as stone, and angry. He half-rose from the chair, but with a single hand, she pushed him back down into it. “Stay there,” she said. “I’ll tell you when I’m done.” And then the sounds of jars being unscrewed, medicinal and strangely cloying smells as she busied herself doing something to his numbed back—and, finally, a fresh set of bandages, torn carelessly from the clean linen sheets he’d brought with him, tied with thin strips. She settled his shirt over his head, tugged it down into place. By now her face was cold as a winter storm. “Go back to your room,” she said in a flat voice. “But I—your massage—” She opened the door to her suite and ushered him out. “Go back to your room,” she said again, closing the door behind him. ~ “Where is he?” came the sharp question. All chatter in the kitchen stopped as Lady Helène, clad in hunting gear, stalked in. Shocked faces looked at her—the Ladies were never seen in here. Helène rested her hands on her hips. “Someone here dared to speak for me,” she said, her voice flat with fury. “Where is he?” John was sitting with Maida at the small table in the pantry, but he could see Helène through the open doorway. Her face looked more angular now than before, her jaw heavier, more wolfish. “You all know who I mean,” Helène said. “I see it in your faces.” Those in the kitchen exchanged quick, worried glances. Helène smiled a cold smile. “I beg your pardon,” she said. “We have not yet been formally introduced. I am Lady Helène, also called Belle Helène the Conqueror, the Cold, the Terrible. You may have heard of my adventures during the war, and let me assure you that they only scratch the surface of the horrors I wrought. Only those exploits with survivors ended up in the handed-down tales. And I left survivors only when I chose.” She strolled up to Enna, a shaking young scullery maid, and ran a clawed finger down her cheek, leaving a thin pink line. “I’ve torn infants from their mothers’ breasts, I’ve torn heads from bodies. And now, unless I hear the answer I seek, I shall start tearing out tongues. Who’s to be first?” She took hold of Enna’s chin. “You?” She raised her eyes to the rest of the people, who stood as still as horrified statues. “Where can I find Stroud?” Her fingers had grown long and twiglike, her nails pointed. “He—” came Enna’s trembling voice, barely audible. “He’s in the silver room, milady. Polishing.” She raised a shaking hand. “It’s over—” “I know where it is,” Helène snapped. “Don’t you know that this is my castle?” Without another word, she swept out toward the corridor that led to the silver room. In an inexorable tide, everyone in the room followed, at a respectful distance. Maida said, in a low, stinging voice, “And you said she wasn’t so bad.” John could only shake his head in bewilderment. He followed too, wincing—the numbing salve on his back had worn off—but he knew that Stroud must have heard Helène’s piercing voice. She wouldn’t find him there. And indeed, when he peered past the onlookers into the silver room, Lady Helène prowled through it alone, though an open tin of silver polish and cutlery laid out neatly on a folded cloth testified to someone’s recent presence. Helène drifted down a row of cupboards, fingers idly brushing their fine carved mahogany. She stopped at a large, closed sideboard. Pushed the sliding door back. Pulled Stroud out, with no apparent effort. “Do you call this obedience?” she murmured to him. “Your Lady says she is looking for you, and you hide?” “Please, milady,” Stroud said, his face shining with sweat, “I haven’t done anything!” “You spoke for me,” she said, her voice dreamy and sad, her clawed hand holding a twist of his shirt. “Worse yet, you acted on my behalf, without my knowledge or consent.” “But he’s only—” “He? There is no ‘he’ here. There is me, and there is the fool who had the audacity to think he could purloin my authority. Do you know what happened to the last man who did that?” With a single taloned finger, she started tearing his coat and shirt from him like they were made of paper. “Have you heard the Ballad of Rowan’s Landing? The story of the despised villain Calder, who betrayed his people to the other side—my side—during the war? Who then set up his own little fiefdom, dispensing justice that rightfully belonged to me? Who instilled fear into those beneath him by claiming to speak on my behalf?” Stroud nodded jerkily; the ballad was well known. The shreds of his white shirt hung in strips from his waistband; his round, hairy belly was exposed. “Do you remember what happened to him, when I came riding back into town one day, to discovery his perfidy?” Stroud swallowed heavily. He remembered. Helène gave a pleased little sigh. “That was long ago. Those were different times.” With a small smile, she said, “I have changed my ways since then.” Seeing a ray of hope, the desperate Stroud said, “I’m so sorry, so very sorry, milady, it won’t—” And screamed, as four claws from her free hand sank into the flesh of his back. “You will not speak for me again,” she murmured, her mouth close to Stroud’s ear. It wasn’t clear that he’d heard her; he was shrieking loudly. Blood dripped around her embedded nails. “You will not act on my behalf again,” she said. Besides the squirming Stroud, nobody moved or even breathed. “I have indeed changed my ways since the war,” Helène said. With a feral grin, she added, “But I can always change them back.” An acrid smell filled the room, accompanying a long damp patch down one of Stroud’s trouser legs. Helène withdrew her claws from the meat of his back. She held them up, watching drops of blood glisten at their tips. She’s going to drink from him, John thought in horrified fascination. I mean, all that blood, right there…. The onlookers held their collective breath, struck by the same thought. But Helène flicked the blood from her hand. “I would not sully my tongue with filth such as this,” she said, and carelessly tossed Stroud to the floor, where he curled into a shaking ball. John had thought she didn’t realize he was there, but then she looked quite deliberately at him, and he quailed at the fury in her face, the power in those bony hands. She wanted him to see her like this. Without another word, and before anyone else realized who she was looking at, she stalked from the room, people falling over themselves to get out of her way. In a few moments, the clicking of her shoes on the flagstones faded, and there was silence. ~ “My goodness, sister, did you really?” laughed Nathalie. The three Ladies reclined on puffy white clouds. A brilliant blue sky curved above them; snowy-peaked mountaintops came in and out of view below them, as clouds slowly scudded by. “I wish I’d been there,” said Agathe, her eyes lively. “To see their faces. It’s a wonder none of them expired on the spot.” The sound of a tentative knock on a wooden door reached them. Helène turned to Nathalie. Nathalie frowned. “Must we still? Really?” “We’re blood-drinkers, remember?” Helène said patiently. “Not glamour-casters.” “Even after all these years?” “Especially after all these years.” At that, Agathe raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. Nathalie sighed. “All right, sister. For you.” She raised a languorous arm. The clouds and sky vanished, leaving the three sisters in the parlor of the Crystal Suite, with its snow-white fur rugs and ivory-lacquered furniture. Pale, diaphanous veils surrounded the bed, blowing gently in the subtle air currents. “Come,” Nathalie called. An elderly servant stiffly entered with a large tray covered with tea, cakes, breads, fruits, and nuts. Without a word, he laid it down on the low table in front of the divan. “Thank you,” Helène said. Startled, the servant blinked, bobbed a quick bow, and hastened out. Her sisters looked at her curiously. Giggling, Nathalie waved her hand at a white wall that contained only the undulating shadows of furniture cast by the roaring fire. New shadows crept out of the old ones, silhouetted caricatures of men knock-kneed with terror. Agathe laughed appreciatively. “Things have changed here,” Helène said. “There’s so much fear now. And they’re more brutal to each other than we ever were.” “Speak for yourself,” Agathe said with a sly, accomplished smile. “Anyway, you know they’re only shadows. It’s not like they’re important.” With small gestures of her fingers, Nathalie made duplicates of the shadows on the wall slide out from one another, and then shrink down into nothingness. “Sister,” she said gently to Helène, “This is how it’s always been. It’s not the castle that’s changed. It’s you.” “My dearest darling idiot,” Agathe said to Helène, “you know I adore you, but Nathalie is right. Love has ruined you.” “Clearly not entirely, though,” Nathalie said with a giggle. “Not after last night.” Agathe said, “Very true. It was the fire of the old Helène, Belle Helène the Conqueror, that put the fear of God in their hearts and piss in their pants.” Helène said, “But before—wasn’t there room for compassion? For dignity?” “Says Lady Helène the Cold,” Agathe said, with merry mischief in her eyes. “Honestly, sister, how dull you’ve become.” “No, wait, I think she’s right,” Nathalie said. “It’s been so long now, but I seem to recall that things were… milder once than they are now.” “If things have changed,” Agathe said, “it’s because that’s what they wanted.” “They wanted more brutality?” Helène said, clearly skeptical. Agathe shrugged. “They’re a beaten people, unmanned by defeat. Making deeper monsters of us makes them feel more valiant. Imagine how humiliating it would have been for them to have been vanquished by some minor, petty devils.” “Now that you mention it, it’s true,” Nathalie said. “They always come in expecting the worst.” With a dreamy smile, “And then I end up giving it to them, when I might not have otherwise.” “The pressure of their expectations?” Helène said, a bit archly. “The freedom allowed by their expectations,” Agathe corrected. “They make delightful playthings. Oh, don’t make a face, Helène. They don’t really feel pain, not like we do.” “You know that’s what they say of us,” Helène said. “Who cares?” Agathe said. “Let the shadows believe what they choose. It’s nothing to us.” “There is a danger, though,” Helène said, slowly. “Too much discontent can breed trouble. Perhaps it’s time to pull the claws back, to tread a bit more lightly for a while.” “There’s nothing to worry about,” Agathe said. “As you asked, I’ve faithfully tracked shipments of garlic, lemons, iron, and silver over the years—though, honestly, I still don’t understand why—and there has been no uptick.” “Hm,” Helène said, frowning. Agathe said, “That’s not good news? That they’re not collecting those things?” Helène shook her head. “They should have found it by now.” “Found what?” Agathe said. Waving a hand irritably, Helène said, “The cache of ancient documents. Apparently, I hid it better than I thought. I hate it when I overestimate them.” Nathalie and Agathe exchanged a glance. “Plans within plans,” Nathalie sighed with an affectionate smile. “Schemes within schemes.” Helène shrugged. Agathe cocked her head. “You seem so sad, Helène,” she said, reaching out and laying her hand on Helène’s arm. In the background, new shadows on the white wall rearranged themselves to form eyes, with stylized tears leaking down from them. “What’s wrong?” Helène was quiet for a moment. Then she said, “Do you ever miss home?” “Home?” Agathe said, puzzled. “We are home.” Helène waved that away. “I mean where we came from. Originally.” Agathe and Nathalie exchanged a glance. Nathalie said, “Poor dear sister. You’ve been gone too long. You’ll feel better after you’ve settled in for a while.” “I’m surprised you don’t feel better already,” Agathe said with a grin. “After what you did last night.” “He is an unpleasant old prig, Stroud,” Nathalie said. “You should hear how the staff talks about him when they don’t think I’m listening.” “That was necessary,” Helène said. “A resetting of the boundaries. A reminder. They’ll all be treading feather-light for a while. Let us reward their caution with our more restrained attentions. They’ve seen the consequences of poor behavior. Now let them see the benefits of striving for peace.” ~ Over the next few days, John noticed a distinct cooling toward him amongst the other servants. More than once, he caught people whispering, then looking awkwardly away when they spotted him. It’s because of what Lady Helène did, he realized. They think she protected me. And now they don’t trust me. We’re no longer all in this together. None of which would have mattered—it would have blown over—but when John slipped away downstairs on the first night of the new moon, to the disused stone cellar hallway and its distant storeroom, he found the room empty. It wasn’t supposed to be empty. Frowning, John left, still walking stiffly from the tugging of the healing wounds on his back. Back up in the more traveled hallways, he spotted Stroud off in the distance, hobbling along a hallway. No surprise there; no one trusted him. But no one else was around. Not Maida, not Genevieve, not Siddel. It could only mean one thing. They had moved the meeting. And, quite deliberately, not told him where. ~ The next morning, John cornered Maida in the silver room, where she knelt with a bucket of water, working to scrub the bloodstains out of the ornate red-and-gold carpet. “What happened last night?” John said, meaning his voice to be hard, but hearing it as pettish instead. “What d’you mean?” Maida said, but she avoided his eyes. In a low voice, John said, “I went to the storeroom.” “What storeroom’s that, then?” “No one else was there.” With a tight shrug, she said, “What were you looking for? You know we sometimes have to move things around—” “Maida!” John said, his voice half desperate plea and half command. She winced and looked down, her wet, red hands becoming still on the carpet. “She hasn’t called for you again, has she?” Maida said, dipping the brush into the bucket and resuming her slow, scrubbing circles. “What?” “It’s just odd, that’s all,” Maida said, carefully avoiding his eyes. “First she leaves you unmarked, and then she punishes the man who dared raise a hand to you….” She let her voice trail off. “She went too far, didn’t she?” John said. “With Stroud.” “It was… unusual,” Maida said. “No one’s ever seen anything like it. One of them defending one of us.” John looked at Maida for a long moment. “Is that what you really believe?” he said, his voice strained. “There are whispers, John,” Maida went on. She stole a glance at his face, then looked back down at her work. “People wonder what you might have offered her, to save yourself from her… attentions. It must have been valuable indeed, they say, for her to come down here and do what she did.” “It’s Stroud still,” John said, understanding dawning. “He can’t get at me straight, so he comes at me sideways, with rumors and whispers.” Maida shrugged again, then sat back on her heels and looked John full in the face. Her expression was closed off, but he thought he saw a hint of—was that pity? And maybe warning? “You can’t seriously mean that you would rather she had hurt me,” he said slowly. “Might’ve been better for you if she had,” Maida said, stubbornly. “Stroud oughtn’t have done what he did to you. But what she did—it makes no sense. Not unless she was, as the rumors have it, protecting a valuable source of information.” “You cannot believe for a moment,” John said, anger rising in him, “that I would ever betray our secrets to one of them.” “I don’t believe it,” she said. “But here you are, unmarked by her, while Stroud wears her scars for daring to touch you. You must admit, it’s a mystery. And we can’t afford mysteries. Not now.” “Don’t cut me out,” John said. “Maida, you know me. You know you can trust me.” And when she looked at him again, he saw, in her face, the pain that he had caused her, with the sweet declarations of love he’d whispered to her in intimate moments, and with the similarly sweet words he’d whispered to other girls afterwards. Careless, heedless. Untrustworthy. “Maida,” he said helplessly, but she just turned away and resumed scrubbing the carpet. One of the older cooks—Harvine—wobbled arthritically into the room. “You’ve been called up, John,” she said, her voice clear of any inflection. John exchanged a glance with Maida. “Where am I to go?” “The Sapphire Suite,” Harvine said, and, with a harrumph, turned around and hobbled back out. John didn’t miss Maida’s surprised intake of breath. Maida heaved herself to her feet, picking up the brush and bucket. “Well,” she said, and a little doubt had crept into her voice. “Time to get you cleaned up.” ~ John had barely tapped at the blue-lacquered door to the Sapphire Suite when it swung open. Startled, he nearly dropped the bottle of rosemary oil. “Come in, John,” Lady Helène said. The loose, roughspun trousers and hunting coat she wore made her look boyish. She certainly didn’t look ready for a massage. Closing the door behind him, she said, “Sit,” and gestured toward a chair. He complied, holding the linens and bottle of oil awkwardly in his lap. “I’m going to check those bandages,” she said, walking around him. She reached for his shirt so quickly that it was off and tossed on the bed before he knew it, leaving his bare skin cooling. Uncertainty gripped him—he hadn’t known what to expect, but this wasn’t it. “Milady,” he said, keeping his tone pleasant and even, “please, there’s no need. Allow me to minister to—” “Shh,” she said absently. She pulled the bottle and linens from his hands and set them on the floor. With a quick, deft touch, she unwound his bandages, then stood behind him to survey his back. “Hm,” she said. “Are the cuts still painful?” “Not particularly,” he said, though the truth was that they still pulled and stung when he moved incautiously. “They’ve healed miraculously quickly,” he added. She snorted. “Not miracles,” she said. “Just medicine.” She pulled up another chair, set it facing him, and sat down. “John,” she said, her voice grave, “there’s something I must discuss with you.” “Of course, milady,” he said, feeling an uncomfortable bewilderment creeping over him. What was her game? “I wish only to serve, in any way I can.” And to himself, he thought, Please, she can’t know about the meetings, she can’t be about to ask me the kinds of questions everyone apparently thinks I’ve already answered…. Her face grew stony. “I was angered when I heard about Stroud’s presumption.” He remembered her on that night, stalking like some feral predator. The memory roused an uneasy fear. With a painfully thudding heart, he wondered if this, now, was finally some sort of precursor to the kind of attentions he’d expected from her during their first encounter. She went on. “I took the actions that made sense to me. But it appears I may not have thought through the possible ramifications. Things have changed here; there are subtleties of relationships now that I did not quite understand, being so newly returned.” John had no idea what she was talking about. “Milady?” “There’s a balance in this castle,” she said. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my rather long life, it’s that upsetting an existing balance can have dire and unpredictable consequences.” “I see,” John said, though he didn’t. “All of which leads me to a rather troubling conundrum,” she said. Her voice grew reflective. “Centuries ago, I was every inch the monster they say. But it was always with a purpose. I may have changed my ways, but that purpose remains intact.” “And what is that purpose, milady?” John said, hoping it was the right thing to say. “Harmony. Balance. Peace with the lowest possible cost. I slaughtered thousands, yes, but in order that tens of thousands might survive. You don’t have to believe that; it doesn’t matter. But there is something that I would like you to believe, John.” “Yes, milady?” “I don’t want to hurt you.” The words turned his backbone to sculpted ice. “Milady?” he whispered. “You have a choice, John. Things cannot go on as they have been.” “I’m not sure I understand—” “You cannot stay here with things as they are.” She’s going to make me leave, he thought in bewilderment, clamping down heavily on the rush of anger so it did not reach his face. After all I’ve endured, she can’t make me leave now! “You’re like a thread that’s pulled loose from a coat,” she said. “It catches on things, and unless it’s dealt with—either cut off or rewoven—it might end up unraveling the entire garment.” “Please, milady,” John said miserably. “Don’t make me leave. There must be something I can do, anything—” She shook her head. “You misunderstand me, John. I won’t require you to leave. But I see only one path that would let you stay—that would reweave you into the coat, so you wouldn’t have to be removed.” She met his gaze evenly. “And I’m not sure that option would appeal to you.” He stared at her, forgetting himself, and tried to figure out what she meant. The other servants suspected him because she had not used him, had not hurt him. For them to welcome him to their ranks again—to believe he was truly one of them—they had to see evidence that he was not in league with her. “Oh,” he said, and swallowed hard. But, really, how bad could it be? In all his time in the castle, he had grunted in pain only during the first few times he’d attended one of the Ladies. His remarkable tolerance for pain was part of what gave him such endurance here. “Milady, I want to stay. Whatever the cost.” “You must realize,” she said, “that those suspicions have had a while to dig their roots in deeply. And that my reputation precedes me. Whatever you may have experienced at my sisters’ hands—it would not be enough. Not nearly.” A cold blossom of dread opened inside his chest. “I understand, milady,” he said, his throat dry. “You’re sure this is what you want?” He nodded, not trusting his voice. And rose, and knelt beside her chair, tilting his head away from her, exposing his throat. “Do—do whatever you want with me. Whatever it takes.” She gently turned his face to hers. “Listen to me,” she said, “and remember. I give you my word on this: You’ll heal, in time.” His screams began moments later. And lasted for hours.

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