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

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

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

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

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

Soren hadn’t been sold yet.

But tonight, he would.

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

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

‘’Sorry,’’ Arlen mumbled.

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

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

Not one Cat had a good first time story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘’How many?’’ Jasper asked quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

‘’There won’t be.’’ Arne said firmly.

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

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

*~*~*

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

The man who was now dead.

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

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

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

And yet he did.

And Fionn was dead.

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

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

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

No more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He would not.

So he didn’t look.

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘’Could be,’’ Jamael guessed.

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

‘’Yeah.’’

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

He froze.

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

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

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

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

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

The thief didn’t have the plague.

Quite the opposite.

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

Jamael groaned at his reasoning.

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

*~*~*

‘’What do you see?’’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘’Shall we try again?’’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

‘’Excited for tomorrow?’’

‘’Sure.’’

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

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

And you had to be a virgin.

Which, after tonight, Soren wouldn’t be.

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘’Whoa,’’ Wrath breathed softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘’W-well...’’ Lord Rose spluttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘’Thanks,’’ he said quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘’Family name?’’

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

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

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

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

‘’I-I’m not frightened.’’

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

‘’No,’’ came Bren’s too-quick answer.

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

‘’Yes, your grace,’’ Bren whispered.

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

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

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

Bren bit his lip, ‘’what I want?’’

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

There was an audience.

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

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

The monster King.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘’Daran is right,’’ Brannen said.

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

‘’Prince Edlard?’’

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

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

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

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

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

His heart dropped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘’That’s weird.’’

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

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

‘’Pardon?’’

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

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

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

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

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

‘’Yes. I remember.’’

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

‘’Since I was fifteen.’’

‘’How?’’

‘’Acid.’’

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

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

‘’Blue.’’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘’And am I?’’

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

‘’What’s the point of opening them?’’

Merry frowned, ‘’Can you open them?’’

‘’What for?’’

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘’Eighteen!’’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soren shivered, ‘’no...it’s not...’’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘’Want to stop?’’

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

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

‘’You...can’t...’’ Soren panted out.

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he didn’t know why.

*~*~*

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

‘’How could I be?’’

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Bas was gone.

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He removed his hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘’Let me go...’’ Jex breathed, spent.

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

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

Chapter Text

As much as he didn’t want to, Airen was shaking as he stepped down from the carriage outside the Arhanese temple which was, like all Arhanese buildings, made from cold grey stone and marble, as imposing as the King that now waited for Airen within. Airen had never imagined this was what his wedding would look like; in his dream he was with Fionn, holding his hand, sharing secret grins through the ceremony; they danced at the banquet after, and laughed, and then later... Airen shuddered in the freezing Arhanese wind as the image of Fionn in bed was violently replaced by Daran. He didn’t think he’d laugh ever again.

As Airen walked towards the gates of the temple, flanked by two guards, he adjusted his cloak around him. It was not the fur cloak he had been give. It was his own, pale blue; so long it trailed on the snow. It was an insult. Airen was wearing the colours of Yame as a deliberate insult to House Eiris; he would show Daran that he could jab just as hard as the monster King. The doors to the temple opened before him, the sound of the doors creaking and cold. Heads turned to watch him approach – again that audience, meant to unstable him. And, once more, Airen raised his chin as he walked down the aisle between the marble benches, followed by the aghast stares of Arhanese warriors as they took in the colour of his cloak. He could already see Daran, standing by the priest, a muscle in his jaw jumping with suppressed anger. Airen stepped up the three marble steps and came to stand by Daran’s side, the very nearness of him making him shudder.

The priest murmured a few words and blessed the cushions Daran and Airen were about to kneel on with a couple of quick hand movements. Daran sank gracefully to his knees, his black cape spilling over his legs, the silver crown glinting on his dark brown hair. But Airen did not kneel. He waited, just a moment too long, just a moment for everyone in that gods damned temple to note his defiance, before finally kneeling. Again, Daran’s muscle in his jaw jumped, the only sign that he was perplexed. Like everything in Arnheim, the wedding was quick, to the point and without ceremony. The priest blessed them again, notified them quickly of their duties as husbands (to protect Airen, in Daran’s case, and to bear children, in Airen’s – they both nearly gagged). Then it was time for the vows.

‘’I, Daran Kane Eiris, pledge,’’ his voice faltered, as if he could barely say the words, ‘’...love, faithfulness, loyalty and...friendship...to you...Airen Moreland.’’

Airen repeated the vows back at him – his voice was unyielding, cold, dripping with hidden hate. It made Daran look like a fool for faltering. It made him look weak.

Thankfully no one expected them to kiss.

*~*~*

Soren had never been within the bathhouse in Ashta. Nowadays, the steam rising from it reminded him of the pyres for the dead, lit in the streets now that no one was bothered to dig graves. But, surprisingly, it was clean and warm and not at all bad – at least that’s what Soren thought as he stepped within, a mere hour away from lining up like some prize for the soldiers of the Hailbronn army to pick and discard.

‘’Oh, look, Marje! Another one!’’ a fat lady wobbled out from nowhere, appearing in a cloud of steam.

‘’Oh dear me, you’re behind!’’ another lady, equally fat and identical to the first, followed her sister, ‘’all the other war-camp brides are already ready!’’

‘’O-Oh,’’ Soren managed to say before his arms were grasped in the surprisingly strong grip of the two women and he was hauled into a side room, where the steam made it impossible to see, ‘’whoa, hey!’’ Soren protested as his clothes were yanked off.

‘’Calm down, dear,’’ one of the women lectured, ‘’unless you want to bathe with your clothes on.’’

‘’No time for a bath,’’ the other said cheerfully, ‘’just a quick dip!’’

Soren yelped when he was violently shoved forward into a cloud of mist, getting a mouthful of scented water in his mouth as he crashed face-first into a pool. As soon as he emerged, two pairs of hands started scrubbing at him with coarse wipes – the bathhouse in Ashta might have been the second most prestigious establishment after the Cathouse, but they weren’t exactly rich and fancy. Soren winced at the course material rubbing on his skin but didn’t protest, knowing it was pointless. The women dumped scented oil on his head and massaged ferociously. Minutes later he was being yanked out, after clean water had been dumped over him, and his body was being rubbed dry with the omnipresent vigour of the women’s hands.

‘’There, all done!’’ one chirped, ‘’now time for hair!’’

‘’Oh, no time for hair!’’ the other protested, ‘’the others are already leaving!’’

Soren had no idea how she had located the window, or seen through it, with all the mist but suddenly he was being shoved out of the steamy room into one that was shockingly...steam-less. It was empty save for a few chairs and cheap makeup lying around. Soren had sent his clothes in the day before, for ironing. Most war-camp brides, hoping to be picked by higher ranking officials, saved up the whole year to buy beautiful, impractical clothes. Soren, on the other hand, didn’t hope for much, what with him not being a virgin anymore and all. He’d just sent in his best clothes – which consisted of the least frayed, brown tunic and pants that could survive a few winters still. He tried not to panic but the two sisters were making his nerves spike with their frantic movements. They combed his hair and it fell against his shoulders in soft, slightly un-evenly cut, strawberry blond strands. They pinched his cheeks for colour, muttering that there was no time for makeup and shoved him into his clothes.

‘’Good luck!’’

All too quickly, Soren was being pushed out through the back entrance. He barely glimpsed the line of decked-out men and women snaking behind a building before they disappeared. Soren swore and ran after them.

*~*~*

‘’Guys,’’ Cassian said uncertainly, clinging to the top of the roof with bone-white knuckles, his dark brown, almost black, wavy hair pulled by the merciless winter wind, ‘’we really should come down...’’

‘’Yeah, we’re kind of supposed to be inside waiting, not outside spying,’’ Niko said with a grin that suggested he was completely fine with spying on the war-camp brides from the rooftops, rather than waiting to pick from the best ones inside the building prepared.

‘’Just hold on...’’

‘’Bas,’’ Cassian gripped the rooftop even harder, chilled to the bone by the wind, ‘’if the three great Generals of Hailbronn are found on top of a rooftop-‘’

‘’Great?’’ Niko snorted, ‘’you’re quivering in your pants from just being up on the roof. Is this really the man who can take on a dozen soldiers single-handedly?’’

‘’Whatever, you prick,’’ normally Cassian would tease him back but he really, really wasn’t good with heights, ‘’Bas, please-‘’

‘’There he is!’’ the third General interrupted, grinning as he watched Soren sprint out from behind the corner to reach the long line of war-camp brides lined up in front of the building in the snow, ready for inspection.

Niko snorted again, ‘’was he really that great yesterday?’’

‘’Worth all that money?’’ Cassian prompted, not unkindly.

‘’Yeah, you’re paying me back, by the way,’’ Niko grinned, peeking at Soren as he scrambled within the ranks of the war-camp brides, ‘’I mean, he is pretty. He has guts, not being a virgin and all.’’

‘’But he’s a...’’ Cassian cringed gently, ‘’you know. A whore. And these...’’ he motioned to the long line of hopefuls, ‘’are supposed to be the ones we pick for husbands and wives or lovers or mistresses or whatever...’’

‘’I don’t plan on taking any of them,’’ Niko wrinkled his nose at the sudden sharp smell wafting from somewhere nearby – plague bodies being burned, ‘’apparently you have to practically kick them out of your bed. They stay there, like beggars, waiting for promises that you’ll keep them. Like stray dogs.’’

‘’Don’t be so harsh,’’ Cassian chastised, long lashes casting shadows on his cheeks as he peered down at the war-camp brides, ‘’I’d want to get out of this hell hole, too.’’

‘’We should go inside,’’ Bas said suddenly, watching the woman in charge of picking the best out of the lot, specifically for the three Generals, emerge and start harshly observing those gathered, turning chins and poking at faces, ‘’it’ll start soon.’’

The sun was sinking below the horizon. At the thought of having Soren – this time without masks, or secrets or reservations – made Bas giddy as he, Niko and Cassian slipped off the roof, to the ground and hurried back through the front entrance. The rest of their troops, starting with Lieutenant Kali Dairmuid and ending with the newest cadets, were gathered out back in the snow, chatting excitedly. The three Generals slipped inside the building, into a room painted dark red and illuminated only with flickering candles within lanterns, and waited, standing in a straight line, good posture and stone-cold faces. To the rest of Hailbronn they were legends, the trio that could put down any rebellion, any army. They weren’t supposed to appear human – more like gods to be worshipped.

Despite waiting for a good half hour while the best of the bunch were chosen, their posture didn’t slacken. And then, finally, the doors opened and the woman came back in, bowing her head in respect, before shuffling away and gesturing to the doors as the brides filed in. They were of all shapes, sizes and colours, dressed in beautiful clothes that took attention away from their faces – and perhaps that was the goal, considering that beauty wasn’t much of a factor in Ashta, where people simply fought to survive. Once the ten chosen, out of nearly a hundred, were standing in a line, they dropped their heads in a display of submission, staring at the floor. It was hilarious, in a way, seeing people who were clearly used to manual, hard work drop their heads like courtesans.

‘’These,’’ the woman who was in charge of the whole thing, dispatched by the King himself, said in a quiet, deadly tone that took no opposition, ‘’are the three great Generals of the Hailbronn army. General Niktohal Magana, General Cassian Aster and General Basden Frey. If you are graciously chosen by them, you are to be there for their every command, satisfy their every need and take their minds off war. That is your duty as a war-camp bride. If you please them, they may become your keepers, so work hard. If they do not, please do not bother them any further than they desire,’’ she paused for a moment, to let the point sink in before turning to the three Generals, bowing her head, ‘’General Magana?’’

Niko stepped forward and made a show of walking up and down the line, peering at people, as if he was inspecting the troops. He stopped suddenly and the ten people flinched collectively. Niko inspired respect, but he also inspired fear – he was a big man, chin always covered in a stubble that made him look feral, one cheek gruesomely slashes with three scars, his pale eyes penetrating. He grabbed the arm of the man he had stopped in front – clearly one of the workers, his thin, wiry arms hard with muscle, his flashing eyes a statement that he would not be broken. Niko liked a challenge and he unceremoniously dragged the man from the room.

‘’Go on,’’ Bas said softly, giving Cassian a small push. His heart was thundering in his chest. Soren wasn’t in the room. Soren hadn’t been picked. He was a gem amongst the brides and just the thought that someone else would have him...

Cassian timidly stepped forward, the faint light casting shadows on his sharp cheekbones. He was usually an easy going guy, up for a joke, but situations that he wasn’t used to got him shy – like this. He barely glanced around the line before taking the hand of a pretty girl who looked equally timid, and leading her out of the room. The woman turned to Bas, who hadn’t moved, ‘’General Frey?’’

Bas barely glanced at her as he walked towards the doors and pushed them open.

*~*~*

Some of the brides who hadn’t been chosen looked up and then looked straight back down realising it was one of the Generals. Soren kept staring straight down at his feet. His heart was thundering hard in his chest. This was such a stupid idea. He would never get away with it. His family would be shamed and his mother would have waster her money. And how could he do it to someone who would choose him? These poor soldiers sat cooped up in freezing cold barracks all day and now they wouldn’t even get a promised untouched virgin, ready to please them, but instead Soren, and then there was Bas, the dark haired stranger. Gods, Bas...he had been so...so-

Soren’s thoughts did a sharp turn and crashed into a wall as he felt a finger under his chin, lifting his head, and his heart stopped. Suddenly, he was face-to-face with a General and now his blood ran cold. He was dressed in leathers and a dark purple cape with a pin that notified Soren of his status. His long, black hair was scraped back into a ponytail and one of his ears was pierced with a bronze hoop. His dark brown eyes were staring at Soren with such intensity the boy flinched.

Shit.

Not a General.

A soldier filing a complaint was one thing; angering a General was another. The three Generals expected only the best – carefully chosen virgins that would be at their beck and call. Soren was so frozen with fear he didn’t notice the General dropping his hand to take his till he was being pulled away from the line, ‘’w-wait...’’ he mouthed but his voice was stuck in his throat. He had no choice but to let this man drag him behind the building, past staring soldiers. He kept his head down as they reached a temporary stable area. The General reached a beautiful brown stallion and said in a surprisingly gentle, faintly familiar voice, ‘’hello, Fallada. You’re probably freezing out here,’’ he glanced at Soren over his shoulder, ‘’do you know how to climb a horse?’’

Soren only shook his head, keeping his eyes pinned to the ground. He yelped when the General grabbed his waist and lifted him up onto Fallada. Now his fate was sealed.

*~*~*

Bas barely resisted sinking his nose into Soren’s hair right then, from inhaling his scent. He didn’t know why Soren had such an impact on him. When he’d seen him last evening, an arrow of strawberry blond hair and panic, he had thought of nothing than calming him down. But when he’d given him his cloak, Soren had looked at him with such an expression...it had made Bas’ heart skip a beat. And then the fact that he couldn’t kiss Soren, couldn’t have him fully, the way his hair curved inward, the way he blushed high on his cheeks, almost under his eyes, the way he kept his eyes down when he was embarrassed...everything about him had driven Bas crazy.

Bas steeled himself, made himself wait for just a little longer, as he pulled on Fallada’s reigns and the horse went off in a gallop, away from the centre of Ashta and out to the outskirts, where the barracks were. Soren screeched, surprised, and Bas chuckled, shifting his arms closed to Soren’s waist to make him feel a little more secure. Soren shoved himself backwards into Bas, practically sinking into him, his body stiff from the sudden shock of the gallop. It took a good half hour to get to the barracks, in the freezing cold, and through the journey neither said anything. Even though the half hour in the cold dragged out for Bas, the journey came to a stop too quickly for Soren. Bas jumped down from the horse and reached up for Soren. The boy slid into his arms easily and, once his feet hit the snow, his head was up, staring at Bas – the General barely resisted kissing him.

‘’We’re here,’’ he said hoarsely, motioning to one of the three bigger barracks away from the others, made from wood. He put his hand on the small of Soren’s back, sensing he wouldn’t move, and pushed him gently towards the doors of his barrack, opening it with a brass key. Soren stepped inside and Bas followed. By now the sun had set and inside was so dark you could barely make out the bed in the corner and a few other pieces of furniture lying around. Soren remained standing where he had been pushed inside, fists clenched, shoulders locked nervously. Bas came up behind him, putting gentle hands on his arms and caressing downwards, ‘’are you cold?’’ he asked.

‘’A-a little,’’ Soren’s voice hitched a little.

‘’I could light a fire,’’ Bas said quietly.

‘’In the fireplace or in me, General?’’ the comment slipped out by itself from Soren’s mouth and he relaxed a little at Bas’ soft chuckle.

‘’Wherever you prefer,’’ Bas said in a hushed, amused voice. It was pretty clear by now that Soren had no idea who he was. He hadn’t allowed himself to look at Bas properly and in the dark he had no clue except for Bas’ voice.

Soren licked his lips nervously as Bas leaned his chest against his back, craving the feel of his body, ‘’General...’’ Bas’ hands slid to Soren’s hips where he ran his thumbs over the sharp indents of Soren’s hipbones, ‘’I think a fire is a good idea after-all,’’ he blurted and Bas pulled back. He hadn’t been in the barrack most of the day and it was nearly as cold as the outside. To be fair, if he didn’t set a fire now they’d freeze to death later.

‘’Of course,’’ he said quickly, moving around Soren. He knew his way around in the dark and he found the fireplace easily. He pulled some wood from the basket in the corner and set some kindling alight. Soon enough the fire was buzzing in the fireplace, casting a warm orange glow on the room, ‘’come towards the fire. You’ll warm up quicker,’’ Bas stood and found Soren already in front of him, arms folded around himself protectively.

‘’General...’’ Soren tried again.

Bas fought back an affectionate laugh. Seeing Soren so nervous was...endearing, ‘’what is it?’’

Soren looked at his feet but eventually raised his eyes to Bas’, facing him head-on, ‘’I’m not a virgin.’’

‘’I know.’’

Soren dropped his head, ‘’I’m sorry I lied and I’ll understand if you decide to-‘’ his head snapped back up sharply, ‘’wait, what?’’

Bas stepped forward and Soren stumbled back, till the backs of his knees hit the bed and he toppled backwards onto his ass, sitting. Bas leaned down and put his hands on either side of him, their noses nearly brushing, ‘’you know, if I hadn’t been the one to do it, I would have been pretty pissed that someone else touched you.’’

Soren’s eyes widened in the soft light, a blush spilling high over his cheeks, ‘’oh my gods,’’ he whispered, ‘’it’s you.’’

Bas gave him a grin, ‘’I’m kind of offended you didn’t recognise me. It was only a mask, after all.’’

‘’Bas...’’ Soren whispered in disbelief.

Bas’ grin disappeared, replaced by a softly hungry look in his eyes as they flicked to Soren’s lips, ‘’can I kiss you?’’

Soren didn’t even get the chance to answer before Bas’ control snapped and their lips met in a long, slow kiss that seemed to stutter the breath out of Soren, who suddenly felt light-headed. He looked at Bas, gazed into his eyes properly once they parted. He would allow himself this one night. This one last time with Bas. And then he would disappear, and forget all about this and tell his mother the soldier that had picked him hadn’t liked him in the end.

Because he was a whore.

And, alright, maybe Bas could give him a life worth living, a comfortable life. But what about his mother? He couldn’t leave her. And his debt to the Cathouse...no matter how caring Mr Sawyer was, he still required the money to be paid back. He would have to work to pay the debt back and when he finally did it – if he ever did – he’d be soiled, used up. Bas wouldn’t want him then. There was one way this could go; Soren would have to forget about this stranger.

After tonight.

Soren shuffled back onto the bed, pulled Bas with him by one of the leather straps across his chest, their lips meeting again. Then he allowed himself to melt into Bas’ warmth.

*~*~*

Airen was all but shoved into the monster King’s chambers

‘’That,’’ Daran growled out as he slammed the doors shut and locked them with a key, ‘’was disrespectful.’’

Airen knew the King was referring to the blue cloak, ‘’and you know all about disrespect, don’t you?’’ he said in a soft, deadly voice.

Daran whipped around to face him, eyes flashing, ‘’I am a King. You are a whore.’’

Airen was in front of him in three seconds flat, ‘’being with someone does not make me a whore,’’ he hissed. Suddenly Daran clamped a hand over his mouth and glared at him.

‘’Quiet. They’re listening,’’ he growled and Airen’s eyes flicked to the locked doors, ‘’they want to know if the rumours are true, so I’d suggest shutting your mouth before you ruin your reputation completely,’’ he added bitterly, ‘’I will not be married to a rumoured whore.’’

Airen stared him down, even though he was quite a bit shorter, ‘’call me a whore one more time and I will cut that pathetic little thing you call a prick off.’’

Daran raised an eyebrow, in surprise and cold amusement, ‘’why, you haven’t even seen it yet,’’ then he shoved Airen back, hard, and the man landed on the bed. Daran began to quickly undo his belt. Airen scrambled away to the far corner of the bed, ‘’come here. You should be used to this,’’ Daran snapped.

‘’You’re not touching me,’’ Airen hissed.

Daran’s hands paused at his belt as he gave a bemused huff, ‘’do you have any other way we can consummate this...marriage?’’

Airen’s jaw clenched in anger, ‘’you’re not raping me,’’ he said in a voice filled with hate.

Another huff, ‘’it’s not rape, you wh-‘’ the King stopped himself, the muscle jumping in his jaw, ‘’you’re acting like I want this,’’ he continued undoing his belt, ‘’trust me, I find the thought of touching you as repulsive as you find touching me.’’

‘’You’re not,’’ Airen repeated softly.

Daran pulled his belt free with a violent, fast gesture, like a viper striking, ‘’look, let’s make a deal. I want an heir; you want to be left alone. Give me a child and I won’t touch you until another is required. Get pregnant now and you’ll have your nine months of peace.’’

Airen’s stomach churned at the thought of having this man’s child – on the other hand, he’d rather pop one out and be left alone, as Daran said. He could always say he wasn’t ready for another child, for as long as he could. It was a better alternative than have Daran fucking him for however long while he took secret potions to get rid of the monster that would grow in him.

Airen slid to the middle of the bed, glaring furiously at Daran, a few long, pale strands coming loose of his hair, and spread his legs, ‘’let’s get it over with, then.’’

Daran seemed taken aback by his sudden determination but quickly recovered and pulled down his pants. Airen looked away as he hooked his thumbs into his undergarments. A moment later Daran was between his legs, close – too close – and Airen closed his eyes, trying not to think about what was about to happen. Daran yanked down his pants quickly, just enough to expose his entrance.

Airen’s eyes stung with tears as Daran shoved himself inside, disregarding if Airen would get hurt or not – as Airen had expected him to. If their roles had been reversed, Airen would have already had Daran executed – the more merciful action. Airen bit his lip hard enough to draw blood as Daran didn’t wait for him to adjust. It had been month since Airen did it with Fionn and he definitely wasn’t ready, but Daran seemed to just be set to have it over with as soon as possible as he began thrusting, his movements short and violent. Airen’s eyes stung again as he remembered how gentle Fionn had been with him, but he refused to cry.

For a good ten minutes, Daran thrust into him and each thrust felt like a stab. Airen kept his lips sealed, jaw clenched, refusing anything, even a ragged breath, from escaping his lips. Daran seemed to be trying to do the same thing, head turned away from Airen, staring at the wall, muscles in his arms bulging as he clenched his fists by Airen’s shoulders where they dug into the mattress. But with each thrust, Airen felt like he was crumbling. Finally, he couldn’t take it anymore, ‘’gods, just finish already,’’ he said, voice strained and choked.

‘’I’m trying,’’ Daran’s voice came out as a pant, ‘’but you’re barely keeping me hard. Sorry if I’m not finding this situation appealing,’’ he added with venom.

‘’You’re so...fucking...useless...’’ now that Airen had spoken he couldn’t keep the pained pants from escaping his lips.

Daran gave a cold, bitter laugh, ‘’are you going to start crying?’’

‘’Not a chance,’’ Airen growled out and suddenly Daran found himself out of him, fallen back on the bed.

‘’I haven’t finished yet!’’ he protested.

‘’And you never will, like that,’’ Airen snarled, sitting up, his ass throbbing in protest. He grabbed Daran’s member, now slickened with what looked like both precome and a bit of blood, and began pumping. Daran flushed, with humiliation and surprise.

‘’What the-‘’

‘’Just shut up,’’ Airen snarled, staring at his own free hand on the mattress rather than Daran’s member, ‘’I don’t want to hear your voice.’’

He kept moving his hand, hard and fast. As much as he didn’t want to, he recalled how he did it to Fionn, what had made him growl out Airen’s name and what had made him shiver. In a minute flat Daran tensed up, ‘’stop, I’m going to-‘’

‘’Thank fuck,’’ Airen said and shoved Daran down, climbing on top of him and inserting his member in. He cringed at the burn, quickly followed by pain but thankfully Daran didn’t have to move. He gritted his teeth and came inside Airen, who scrambled off him as quickly as he could. His knees gave out and he fell helplessly onto the mattress, panting.

Daran swallowed thickly, ‘’you should lay there for a bit,’’ he said hoarsely, ‘’the seed will take faster.’’

Airen didn’t have the energy or the will to respond. He closed his eyes and hid his face in one of the pillows. He felt dirty, soiled. Thankfully, Daran didn’t deem it appropriate for him to stay. He said nothing else. He got off the bed, grabbed his belt and did it up. As he walked out, Airen heard his muffled voice as he informed the crowd gathered outside that Airen had been intact.

An honourable lie, except it was for Daran’s own reputation – and as hot tears finally spilled from Airen’s pale green eyes, he wished he could stab Daran through the heart.

*~*~*

‘’Where are you going?’’ Bas murmured sleepily the next morning, watching Soren get dressed in the soft white light falling through the window. Winter had barely started but it was already freezing – Bas didn’t want Soren out in the cold, ‘’come back to bed.’’

‘’I need to go home,’’ Soren said, voice strangely detached as he dressed in haste.

Bas sat up, frowning, his dark hair, now unbound, spilling over one shoulder, ‘’did I do something?’’

Soren cast him a soft smile over his shoulder, ‘’no. Of course not,’’ he said, voice equally soft, ‘’I just...I need to go.’’

Bas scrambled out of bed and hastily looked for his discarded undergarments, ‘’you don’t even have a cloak...or a horse!’’ he found said item and pulled it up quickly.

‘’I’ll make do.’’

Bas reached Soren and gathered him to his bare chest before he could reach the doors, ‘’when can I see you again?’’ he murmured.

Soren took a deep breath, ‘’never,’’ he pushed himself away from Bas, ‘’unless you want to pay at the Cathouse. The prices are pretty decent.’’

Bas stared at him in shock, ‘’you’re...going back to work?’’ he asked in disbelief.

Soren shrugged, trying to keep the sadness, the heartbreak, out of his eyes, ‘’what else am I to do?’’

Bas went to him, grabbed his arms again and pulled him closer, ‘’Soren, I...I want to keep you! I want to marry you, for real! You don’t have to work there anymore, you don’t-‘’

Soren gave a soft laugh, ‘’you barely know me, General.’’

‘’I know enough!’’ Bas said defensively, ‘’you really don’t have to work there anymore.’’

But Soren shook his head, ‘’you don’t get it, General. The debt to the whorehouse is not going to pay itself. My mother can’t work anymore. Her hands don’t work. I’ve got people I need to take care of.’’

Bas’ voice was soft, broken, ‘’then let me take care of you.’’

‘’I can take care of myself,’’ Soren whispered, ‘’I’m sorry, General, but this...this can’t work. I’m sorry I made you think that it could. I just...’’ Soren laughed again and his eyes stung, ‘’wanted to selfishly have you, for just one more night,’’ he met Bas’ eyes and his heart squeeze. He stepped towards him, ‘’please...don’t look at me like that,’’ he whispered, standing on his toes to kiss him briefly, ‘’thank you, for everything.’’

He stepped away and Bas finally moved, numb, grabbing the cloak off the peg where he had put it the day before and throwing it over Soren’s shoulders, ‘’Soren...’’ he tried again.

‘’Goodbye, General,’’ Soren said quickly and hurried out of the doors, before Bas said something that would finally make him stay, against his better judgement.

At home, his mother rushed to meet him, ‘’oh, my dear son!’’ she said, kissing his cheek, ‘’how did it go?’’

Soren’s voice was hollow, ‘’he didn’t like me, ma. But don’t worry. We’ll make do.’’

*~*~*

Jasper knew the moment his fathers called him into their office that something was wrong. Edgar’s mouth was set in a tight line, Arne was playing with his hands nervously, ‘’what’s wrong?’’ Jas asked as he sank into the chair by Edgar’s desk.

Eddie ran a hand down his face. He was tired, that much was clear. Tired, and worried, ‘’there have been attacks on Solin witches.’’

‘’Again?’’ Jas asked, appalled.

Edgar looked him straight in his double coloured eyes, ‘’Hailbronn’s been doing the attacking.’’

Jasper looked between Arne and Eddie, ‘’wha...you mean, the King issued the attacks?’’

Eddie shook his head, ‘’I have issued a formal warning that if he keeps attacking our witches on the border, there will be war. I was hoping that since Leonel was my cousin, his son would listen. But Morten...Morten Hyndestane is sick, Jas. He’s caught it.’’

‘’The plague...’’ Jas whispered, fear creeping into his bones.

Arne nodded and took over, ‘’so the army has been acting on its own accord. It’s not an organised movement against witches but neither King Morten nor the Generals seem to be doing anything about their subordinates. It’s almost like they don’t care...’’

Eddie nodded, ‘’and we fear that...soon, rather than stopping it, the Generals of Hailbronn will call for extermination of witches, not only in Hailbronn...’’

‘’But here, too,’’ Jas whispered.

Eddie came over to Arne and put an arm around his waist, as if readying him for a blow, ‘’Arne, I don’t want to freak you out. But I want you to take Jas and go stay with your mother for a while.’’

Arne whipped to face him, ‘’we haven’t discussed that!’’

‘’If they come, they will come for the palace first,’’ Eddie said patiently, ‘’our armies can take on Hailbronn, but I can’t guarantee your safety in that case. I’d rather you go somewhere where they won’t find you, at least until Hailbronn plays its cards.’’

‘’Why in the world would you think I’d leave you alone with this?’’ Arne demanded.

‘’Because I need you to take care of our son,’’ Eddie said with a softness that made Arne’s anger disappear. He glanced over at Jas, who was rooted in his chair, looking at his parents with worry. Eddie gave him a confident smile, ‘’don’t worry, Jas. It’ll only be for a while. Perhaps this will blow over faster than we expect.’’

‘’Or, perhaps, it will not,’’ Arne whispered, ‘’fine. Jas, pack your things. We’re travelling light,’’ he turned to Eddie and grabbed his face, squishing his cheeks together, ‘’if you get hurt during this, I’ll kill you.’’

Eddie grinned and pressed a loud, wet, exaggerated kiss to his cheek.

*~*~*

Merry thought the whole wedding ceremony was a waste of time. Saying a few words to each other didn’t bind Merry to Tristan – it was what came after that did. Consummating the marriage and siring a child. Merry didn’t know why Salar bothered, and yet on the morning of his wedding he was put in a golden tunic embroided with roses, new pants and a fur cloak to keep the chill out. His silver hair was combed; his fringe cut a little to stay out of his eyes and his head adorned with a crown of rosemary for good luck, the tiny leaves digging into Merry’s scalp. Still, he allowed the servants to dress him, reading an astrology book that was more interesting than the entire process that took place around him while he lifted arms and legs as instructed, his nose stuck between the pages.

‘’Your highness,’’ one of the servants said uncertainly once he was ready, ‘’it’s, uh...time for you to get married.’’

‘’Oh,’’ Merry said, completely uninterested and a little irritated that he had to put his book down. Really, the ceremony was such a bother. He’d rather Tristan just came into his room that night and did the deed. He didn’t mind Tristan. He’d met with him a few times in the week he’d been at the palace, mostly to eat together. He didn’t demand Merry to talk when he didn’t have anything to say and he was cheerful which, Merry supposed, was nice. Meridan followed the servants out of the palace, to the carriage waiting for him outside to take him to the temples. His family wasn’t there – his mother had died of Plague when it first struck and he never had any siblings. The other family would probably come pouring in, seeking royal favour – but when he had been a nobody, a forgotten prince in a house full of big thinkers, they had forgotten about him. Merry secretly wished his professors, astrologers and philosophers were here but he hadn’t invited them for he knew that, like him, they’d rather read and study than attend a banquet.

But, to his utmost surprise, Merry found that the carriage wasn’t empty.

‘’Hello, highness,’’ Captain Sathe Heartman said brightly as Merry slid into the seat opposite her, ‘’I was instructed to escort you to the temple.’’

‘’Oh,’’ Merry said again, ‘’thank you,’’ he added, not really certain if he should be thankful or just accept it as a given.

‘’His majesty King Tristan is very excited to finally marry you,’’ Captain Heartman said as the carriage began moving.

‘’That’s...’’ Merry struggled for the right word, ‘’...nice?’’

Heartman laughed, ‘’are you excited?’’

‘’Um...’’ Meridan hesitated, ‘’not...really?’’

Heartman laughed again, ‘’do you even want to marry him, highness?’’

Meridan shrugged, ‘’I don’t mind, I suppose he’ll make an alright husband,’’ they rode in a silence for a while, ‘’will the banquet be long?’’

‘’Oh, yes, I do believe so.’’

Merry’s brow furrowed in irritation; goddamn courtiers and their goddamn ways to evade the question, ‘’yes, but how long?’’

‘’Until the evening, I presume.’’

Meridan groaned softly. Great, so he’d have to entertain people with his limited social skills until night, ‘’that’s great.’’

That earned him another laugh.

They reached the temple and the Captain marched him down the centre. People stood on either side, smiling, and Merry had no idea how to react. Was he meant to smile back? He’d always been bad at fake smiling; he looked like he was grimacing so he just kept his head down till Heartman deposited him by the priestess who was giving the wedding. He glanced up at Tristan and fought off a sigh. His eyes were closed again; he didn’t understand how the people at court found his open eyes unnerving. Having someone look at you without opening their eyes was much creepier.  The priestess opened her arms and welcomed everybody. She read from a book and Merry listened – religion also interested him. After, however, she started a lecture on love and family, and Merry’s interest shifted to Tristan. He realised with a start that he looked incredibly handsome. Generally, he wasn’t a bad looking man, but with the high collared blue tunic and fur cloak he looked...quite formidable.

‘’Your highness,’’ the priestess said gently in a tone that suggested it was the second time she was calling Meridan.

‘’Hm?’’ Merry figured, too late, that it probably wasn’t the best response but the priestess just smiled.

‘’Would you repeat after me?’’

‘’Sure,’’ shoot – wrong response again, ‘’I mean, yes.’’

‘’I, Prince Edlard Meridan of House Kalinan, take you, King Tristan Leon of House Starteller, to be my wedded husband, and I promise and covenant, before the gods and these witnesses, to be your loving and faithful husband.’’

Thankfully, Merry had a good memory so he prattled off the vows perfectly. Then, to his horror, the priestess went on – how bloody long were these vows!? He fought off a groan as he repeated, ‘’in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in duty and in service, in faith and tenderness and in the sacred bond of marriage for as long as we both shall live.’’

Tristan smiled gently at that and Merry felt a little guilty for slagging off the vows in his head, especially as the King repeated them back at him in a soft, caring tone. The priestess beamed at them both, ‘’it is my honour and privilege to announce the unification of King Tristan and Prince Edlard in marriage,’’ she said and the crowd erupted into claps that made Merry flinch. He glanced at the crowd nervously as Tristan took his hands and when he turned back, suddenly Tristan was kissing him. Merry gasped softly against the King’s lips. A second later, they were gone.

*~*~*

Jex had tried all day, futilely, to get out of the bonds the assassin man had put him in the night before. His entire body was numb and his joints hurt where the rope had rubbed against his skin when he struggled. He was also starving and that meant he was pretty pissed. So when the doors opened and his captor walked back in, the tirade of curses just spilled from his mouth. The man chuckled, ‘’easy, tiger,’’ he said in a honey-rich voice as he approached Jex with a sack which he put by the foot of the bed. His multitude of tiny brown braids was twisted into a bun at the back of his head.

‘’You piece of shit,’’ Jex growled, ‘’let me go.’’

‘’What were you doing in my room, hm?’’ the man leaned against one post of the bed.

‘’Nothing,’’ came Jex’s gruff reply.

The man crawled onto the bed, kneeling in front of Jex so that they were face to face – and then he grabbed him by his sore throat and yanked him forward, ‘’do you know who I am?’’ he asked in a quiet voice.

‘’No,’’ Jex said levelly, ‘’I chose a room at random.’’

‘’Well,’’ the man smiled and Jex shivered, the first pin pricks of fear pulling at him, ‘’you had the misfortune of choosing the wrong room,’’ he pushed Jex away lightly, ‘’I’m Jamael el-Hashem. I am the next King of Assassins.’’

Jex’s gorgeous grey eyes widened, just a fracture, ‘’look, I didn’t mean to insult you-‘’

‘’Right, cause breaking into my room is such a gesture of respect,’’ Jamael sat back on his heels and studied Jex.

‘’It was initiation,’’ Jex blurted, pain and desperation making him blab, ‘’for a group down in Aramea. They said they’d take me if I infiltrated the keep, brought something back...shit, I just needed a job.’’

‘’You should choose your employers more carefully,’’ Jamael said casually, sitting up again, his nose brushing Jex’s as he did so. Jex jerked back, ‘’the thing is, had you told me that when I caught you, I’d probably let you go and deal with the group in Aramea personally. But,’’ Jamael’s brown hand slid down Jex’s thigh and the boy moved his head to the side, blushing in embarrassment, ‘’you tried to kill me. That’s on you, boy.’’

‘’Who you calling boy, asshole?’’ Jex snarled, ‘’you’re like a year older than me.’’

‘’I’m nineteen,’’ Jamael mused, fingers brushing closer and closer to Jex’s member, which twitched, ‘’how old are you?’’

Jex didn’t move his head back to look at him in defiance. Instead of threatening him, Jamael lowered his head and brushed his nose slowly against the length of Jex’s pale neck, ‘’tell me,’’ he purred, ‘’or we’ll have a repeat from yesterday. And this time I won’t let you finish.’’

Jex wet his lips and Jamael almost groaned at that, ‘’sixteen.’’

‘’Shit,’’ Jamael pulled back, ‘’you’re just a kid.’’

‘’Yeah, so let me go,’’ Jex growled at him, glaring with stormy grey eyes.

‘’You look older,’’ Jamael just said. He was finding it harder and harder to control himself, what with Jex hanging completely naked in front of him, completely at his mercy, ‘’tell you what,’’ he leaned back towards Jex, ‘’let me do you.’’

‘’Like hell,’’ came Jex’s lightning-fast reply.

‘’I have bread and water in that sack,’’ Jamael said with a smirk, ‘’you’ll get some if you’re a good boy.’’

‘’So you’re threatening me into having sex with you. Nice.’’

‘’Bribing,’’ Jamael said with a soft laugh, ‘’or trading, if you like,’’ he slid the hand on Jex’s thigh up his stomach playfully, ‘’what’s it to be?’’ Jex opened his mouth but just then his stomach growled. He gave a groan of irritation as Jamael chuckled, ‘’you actually like this, don’t you?’’

Jex glared at him, ‘’fine. Once. But untie me first.’’ Jamael studied him for a moment, smirking again, before going to untie the ropes. Jex slumped gratefully on the bed but once Jamael had untied everything but the rope around Jex’s wrists, he stopped, ‘’oi,’’ Jex snarled, ‘’I said-‘’

‘’You tried to kill me. Don’t expect me to trust you,’’ Jamael said easily and Jex stifled a yelp as he was flipped over onto his stomach. Jamael grabbed his hips harshly and pulled them up, ‘’you done this before?’’

‘’Y-yeah,’’ Jex’s voice shook slightly.

‘’Relax, I’m not doing this to hurt you,’’ Jamael said, letting go of Jex’s hips and undoing his belt.

‘’Then why are you doing this?’’ came Jex’s almost timid reply.

‘’I told you,’’ Jamael brushed a finger against Jex’s hole; the thief shuddered, ‘’you’re my type,’’ without a warning, he thrust two fingers inside him.

Jex cried out, his entire body going rigid, ‘’shit...shit...’’ he whimpered into the pillows.

Jamael growled with frustration, stopping the movement of his fingers, ‘’oi, idiot. I asked you if you’d done it before,’’ he waited for Jex to adjust to the unexpected intrusion, ‘’this is what you get when you lie.’’ Jex whimpered again, quietly, so Jamael withdrew one finger, leaving the other in. He twisted it around gently, tying to get Jex to adjust to it. Only once he felt Jex loosen around his finger did he slide the other in. Jex groaned and the sound went straight to Jamael’s member. As much as he acted hard, Jamael didn’t want to hurt Jex. Why the hell would he? Sure, Jex had tried to kill him, but he’d most likely panicked – besides, having a terrified boy in his bed when he could instead have a boy moaning his name wasn’t an option.

As Jamael prodded a third finger in, Jex groaned again, his hands, tied together, folding into fists. He twisted them and Jex’s breath hitched, ‘’I’d say you’re pretty much ready,’’ Jamael said casually. Jex didn’t say anything so Jamael pulled his pants down and closed his hand around his member. He was hard as a rock at this point. He smeared the bead of precome around his head and pumped his hand a few times to slicken himself up. Then he pushed himself inside Jex.

Jex gave that delicious groan again, ‘’fuck, you bastard.’’

Jamael sheathed in all the way and nearly groaned himself at the tightness and warmth of Jex, ‘’shit, you feel good,’’ the words slipped out without Jamael thinking about them.

Jex went very quiet at that and let Jamael thrust into him slowly, letting out the occasional grunt but nothing else. Jamael gripped his hips and grinned, ‘’what’s wrong, little thief? Where did your spirit go all of a sudden?’’

‘’Fuck...you...’’ Jex whispered, with some difficulty.

And the sound of his voice, gone so soft, Jamael withdrew violently and grabbed Jex’s arm, flipping him around harshly. His breath hitched at the way Jex looked at him, blushing, eyes glazed, lips parted and wet, breath coming out quick, ‘’shit,’’ Jamael whispered and grabbed Jex’s arms again, throwing them over his head so his bound wrists rested against the back of his neck as he spread Jex’s legs and slid inside him again, their faces so close their breath mingled. He picked up the pace as he thrust into him and Jex shut his eyes shut, biting his lip. And Jamael found himself falling. He didn’t know what the sensation was, but it wasn’t good. Not one bit. How could this kid, this idiotic thief, make him feel like that? He needed to stop, before it was too late. He grabbed Jex’s arms and pulled them from around his neck, withdrawing with a wet plop.

And suddenly Jex’s hand was fisted in his hair, pulling a few braids falling lose, ‘’don’t you dare,’’ Jex growled, that sinful expression still on his face, ‘’finish what you started, bastard.’’

Fuck. It.

Jamael threw Jex’s arms back around his neck and thrust into him, hard and deep. Jex cried out, his hair like sunlight against the pillow as he threw his head back. It only took a few more thrusts to have both of them coming. As much as Jamael just wanted to collapse on top of Jex, he forced himself to slip away from him. He pulled up his pants and tossed the bag at the panting thief, ‘’eat,’’ he said gruffly.

Jex sat up, wincing, and grabbed the loaf of bread from within the bag. He dug in and Jamael composed himself while the boy ate, rubbing his temple. What in the hell was he doing? He couldn’t keep Jex here forever. He’d slept in one of the spare rooms in the keep during the previous night, but someone would realise he was avoiding his room eventually. And Jex...he was stupid enough to get caught but he was a smart kid – he’d get away eventually. And if Jamael got addicted to him by then... ‘’shit,’’ he whispered to himself.

Unaware of his crisis, Jex tossed half of the loaf of bread into the bag and chugged water from a skein within. Once he was done, Jamael stood, ‘’can I go now?’’ Jex asked darkly.

Jamael didn’t look at him, ‘’you’ll go when I grow bored of you,’’ he went around the bed to pick up one of the discarded ropes to tie Jex up again.

Jex made a split second decision. He grabbed the bag with the bread and water in it and charged for the doors. He was an inch away from reaching them when something hard collided with his stomach. Jamael grabbed him around the waist with one arm and threw him back on the bed, hard. He pinned Jex down with a knee to his stomach. Jex struggled like a wild animal, ‘’get off! You’re crazy!’’

Jamael untied his hands and flipped Jex over, re-tying them behind his back. When he grabbed Jex by the back of his neck and pulled him back up, his golden hair was dishevelled, falling in his eyes, and he was breathing hard, ‘’where the hell were you planning to go, naked?’’ he asked, angry, even though Jex’s attempt at escape had been a natural thing to do.

‘’Don’t tie me up,’’ Jex growled.

‘’Quit trying to run,’’ Jamael growled right back, ‘’and we’ll talk about that.’’

Jex struggled against his iron hard grip, ‘’bastard, you- fuck, what do you want me to do? Sit here and wait for you to fuck me whenever you want till you grow bored of me? Fuck that!’’

‘’You,’’ Jamael grabbed the thief’s face with his free hand, ‘’have such a dirty mouth,’’ and then, on impulse, Jamael kissed that dirty mouth. They both seemed to...slow. Jex stopped struggling, froze up in the assassin’s arm and then relax, as if his muscles had simply grown weak. Jamael easily slipped his tongue into Jex’s mouth, his hand on his jaw relaxing to hold him in place. Jex didn’t resist, as if in shock, as Jamael kissed him slowly and finally reached for the rope, tying it to the one around Jex’s wrists and then to the bed’s corner. Once that was done, Jamael pulled away with a wet pop.

Jex gave a half-hearted tug on the rope, ‘’please, just...’’

‘’You can lie down like that, get some sleep,’’ Jamael said, confused himself as to why he had kissed Jex. And not just kissed him. Kissed him like that, ‘’we’ll talk about whether I trust you to be tied up or not in the morning.’’

Jex’s eyes flared with that furious fire again and Jamael was relieved. At least that weird intimacy between them disappeared, ‘’you bastard-‘’

‘’I told you,’’ Jamael stood and walked towards the doors, taking out the key, ‘’my name is Jamael,’’ then he left the room and closed the doors. The sound of the key being turned in the lock was final.

*~*~*

‘’Are you reading?’’

‘’You have very good ears, your majesty,’’ Meridan didn’t look up from the book he had smuggled down to the banquet, which he held on his lap under the table and read from as the guests of his wedding danced – something he couldn’t do with his husband since, no matter how attuned to sound, Tristan couldn’t dance without looking.

‘’Sorry,’’ Tristan said in his direction, eyes closed, ‘’you must be very bored.’’

‘’I just don’t like parties,’’ Merry said, although he had tried to enjoy this one. For two hours. Then he gave up. Three in, people were getting drunk and his book was getting good. But he closed it and set it on the table as he peered in irritation at the King, ‘’I told you to open your eyes, didn’t I, your majesty?’’ Tristan flushed a little, as if he was a child being reprimanded, and opened them just slightly, so it looked like two very pale brown orbs were glowing just below his eyelids, ‘’your majesty,’’ Merry said sternly.

Finally Tristan opened his eyes fully and looked at Merry, ‘’I don’t even know if I’m looking at you,’’ he murmured.

‘’You are. More or less,’’ Merry reached out and with gentle fingers took hold of the King’s chin, tilting it so his eyes focused on his face, not above his shoulder.

‘’But I can’t actually see you,’’ Tristan’s voice got even softer.

‘’I can easily pretend you can,’’ Merry said stubbornly, ‘’besides, your majesty, you shouldn’t be ashamed of the way you are. I don’t care that you’re blind.’’

Tristan blinked. He still did that automatically when his eyes were open, ‘’you...don’t.’’

‘’Not really,’’ Merry shrugged, ‘’um...I shrugged again.’’

That soft smile tugged on Tristan’s lips, ‘’Merry.’’

‘’Yea- yes?’’

‘’Would you like to go upstairs now?’’

‘’Oh,’’ now it was Meridan’s turn to blink in surprise, ‘’alright.’’

Tristan stood, unnoticed by the increasingly drunk royalty, and extended his hand. Merry took it, leading him out of the ballroom. His hand was warm under Merry’s fingers. He could feel the calluses from when the King still practiced with his sword to keep in shape. Despite being blind, Tristan knew his way around the palace perfectly and he led Merry up the various staircases and corridors until they reached his bedchambers. Merry hadn’t been here yet. For the King’s chambers they were bare and simple, but considering Tristan wouldn’t be able to see the extravagance of the room anyway, it wasn’t surprising. Merry closed the doors behind them, ‘’should I undress myself, your majesty?’’ he asked matter-of-factly as Tristan made his way to the bed.

Tristan chuckled, ‘’so impatient,’’ he sat down on the bed and patted the space next to him, ‘’come here.’’ Merry walked over to the King and sat down next to him. For a moment, the King did nothing. Then, ‘’get on the bed,’’ he requested softly. Merry shuffled backwards and lay down, keeping his hands on his stomach. The scholars he had grown up with had taught him what there was to know about sex – that the best thing to do was lay down and let whatever alpha he got to get on with it. So he lay there patiently, waiting for Tristan to do something. Instead, the King pulled a golden rope and the canopy around the bed came down, casting it into an intimate darkness.

‘’Oh,’’ Merry said, surprised, ‘’I can’t see anything.’’

He could hear the grin in Tristan’s voice, ‘’yes, me neither.’’

Then, finally, he felt the King hovering above him. A gentle hand caressed his cheek, which it found guided by his voice, ‘’aren’t you nervous?’’ Tristan asked with reticent care.

‘’No,’’ Merry said matter-of-factly, ‘’I have been educated on the matter of sex. I know it will hurt at the beginning but ultimately it is essential so I may bear children, so I’m prepared.’’

There was a moment of silence, ‘’but you know that it feels good, right?’’

‘’Huh? What feels good?’’

To his surprise, the King chuckled, ‘’when they told me you grew up with a bunch of rusty old men, I couldn’t quite believe it.’’

Merry felt a pin prick of protectiveness for the ‘old men’ he grew up with, ‘’they gave me an excellent education.’’

‘’I’m sure they did,’’ there was still a smile in Tristan’s voice as he picked up one of Merry’s hands, resting on his stomach, ‘’but they didn’t teach you the most important things, it seems,’’ Tristan pressed a gentle kiss to the delicate inside of Meridan’s wrist. He slid his hand from his wrist, up his arm, to his shoulder and from there over his collarbones, until he reached the strings on Merry’s tunic. Merry lay there, patiently, as the King undressed him. He didn’t even feel embarrassed as he lay there completely naked, aware the King couldn’t see him anyway. Tristan began undressing himself.

‘’Do you need help, your majesty?’’

‘’I haven’t needed help in undressing since I was eight,’’ Tristan said brightly, ‘’but thank you.’’

So Merry kept lying there patiently, till finally Tristan nudged his legs apart and slid in between. Merry felt the King’s heavy erection brush against his stomach and blushed a little, but that was about it. Tristan lowered his elbow gently next to Meridan’s head and leaned his head on his hand, ‘’do you like me, Meridan?’’ he asked.

‘’I don’t know you very well, your majesty,’’ Merry replied.

‘’Yes, but from what you do know so far.’’

Meridan thought about it for a moment, ‘’I think I do.’’

Tristan smiled in the dark, ‘’you think? You need to be more confident in your feelings, my prince.’’

‘’But how can I be when there is no way of judging them,’’ Meridan said easily.

‘’Well, what do you feel when I touch you?’’

‘’I don’t know, your majesty,’’ Meridan frowned. What was he supposed to feel, exactly? ‘’You haven’t touched me an awful lot.’’

‘’Ah. You’re right,’’ Tristan’s voice was barely more than a whisper as he dipped his head and kissed the pulse beating at Meridan’s neck with care. When Merry didn’t react, Tristan slid a hand to his neck and held it there as he kissed harder – much harder, hard enough to leave a mark. Finally, Merry gave a little gasp.

‘’T-That hurts a little.’’

‘’It’s meant to,’’ Tristan said around a grin, grazing his teeth lightly against Merry’s skin. Tristan slid his hand down Merry’s chest, ‘’do you have any sensitive areas?’’

‘’I don’t know. I don’t touch myself very often,’’ Merry whispered.

‘’That’s alright,’’ Tristan murmured, ‘’I’ll find out for myself.’’ He pressed a few short, chaste kisses down Merry’s throat, to his chest, where he circled a nipple with his tongue. Merry jerked and a little gasp escaped his mouth, ‘’ah. There’s one.’’

‘’Y-your majesty I don’t know if I...like this.’’

‘’Let me guess,’’ Tristan murmured, brushing his lips against the other nipple, ‘’unknown sensations frighten you?’’

‘’Well...’’ Merry chewed his lip, ‘’yes?’’

‘’I’m sorry, Meridan,’’ Tristan pulled himself back up and cradled Merry’s face between his hands, ‘’but you’re about to get a whole lot of those.’’ He brushed his lips against Merry’s and after a moment the young prince parted his lips. Tristan slipped his tongue into his mouth and kissed him slowly, deeply, drawing a sweet little noise from his throat.

Meridan was prepared for the initial pain of making love, so he didn’t tense up, and he found that the pain wasn’t nearly as bad as he anticipated, and brief. And then...

Oh gods, and then.

At first, Merry had been frightened of the sudden pleasure that built up in him. Tristan had been right – sensations he didn’t understand scared him. But he’d refrained from saying anything, wrapping his arms around Tristan’s neck. He wasn’t an overly affectionate person usually but being scared usually made him seek comfort with whoever was appropriate. In this case, there was no one more appropriate than his husband, ‘’feels good?’’ Tristan guessed, holding the younger man against him and stroking his back in comfort.

‘’Don’t know...’’ Merry whispered in a strained voice and Tristan began moving. Merry made another endearing noise as he buried his face in Tristan’s shoulder, ‘’your majesty, don’t move like that...’’

‘’Like what?’’ Tristan asked, slowly slipping into the warmth and feel of his new husband, ‘’like this?’’ and then he thrust up, making Merry cry out. He didn’t stop on one thrust. He pinned Merry to the bed with his body weight and kept thrusting. The first moans slipped from Merry’s lips. As such a matter-of-fact, reserved boy, Tristan never expected to hear them. And yet...his whole body reacted and he grabbed Merry’s face, kissing him hard. As he picked up the pace, Merry dug his fingers into his back.

‘’Wait...Tris, wait...’’ Tristan just held him harder, hearing his own name on Merry’s lips, ‘’I feel weird...w-wait...’’ when the King refused to slow, Merry held onto him harder and hid his bright red face in Tristan’s neck, closing his eyes and letting the pleasure wash over him. He didn’t even realise when he started moaning his husband’s name, ‘’Tris...Tris...Tristan...’’

Suddenly, he came with a cry. The sensation was so unknown to him, so blinding hot and intense that Merry nearly passed out in Tristan’s arms. The cry was followed by a high-pitched moan as Tristan came, too, inside him. The King rolled off him and they lay side by side, breathing hard. Tristan found Merry’s hand and brushed his thumb against his knuckles, ‘’if you really want to,’’ he said quietly, ‘’you can go back to your rooms.’’

Merry stared at the pitch-black ceiling for a long while, ‘’would you like me to stay, your majesty?’’

‘’Yes,’’ came the immediate, slightly-hopeful reply, ‘’would you like to stay?’’

‘’I think I wo-‘’ Merry caught himself and then corrected his words, ‘’yes. I would.’’

In response, Tristan drew him in by the waist, so his chest was pressed against the omega’s back. Merry felt properly the muscles in Tristan’s stomach, chest and arms as he was held close, ‘’u-um, your majesty, we’re dirty...’’

‘’Sorry,’’ Tristan whispered, ‘’but I’m not letting you get out of this bed,’’ he threw covers on top of them haphazardly and held Merry close. Uncertainly, Merry tucked his arm around Tristan’s arms wrapped around his stomach, ‘’I just want to hold you right now.’’

‘’A-alright.’’

Tristan kissed the back of Merry’s head gently, ‘’goodnight, Merry.’’

‘’Goodnight...Tris.’’

*~*~*

Ilithiya had an arm around her wife, the princess Madarlon, as they waited outside Sohail’s bedchambers. Sohail’s second daughter, Aradhana, had her hand on Rohit’s shoulder. Rohit was the youngest, only fourteen years old. He clung to his older sister’s golden dress. Madarlon was winding a finger around the edge of the shawl Ilithiya always had around her head – it was a habit for the princess, when she was worried. Finally, the doors opened with deadly quiet and a man emerged, dressed in the long-beaked Plague mask, covered head to toe in clothes so no inch of his body was visible except his long, black curly hair. Slowly, the man took the mask off, revealing tired dark eyes and a stubble that spoke of carelessness.

‘’Moe,’’ Ilithiya addressed her brother, voice shaking, ‘’has father...’’

‘’Both our parents have now been reunited in paradise,’’ prince Moe said gravelly.

Immediately Madarlon, despite being much smaller than Ilithiya, swished the princess around and gathered her in her arms as the princess gave a tiny, broken gasp, ‘’no! Father!’’ young Rohit jerked violently towards the room Moe had emerged from but Aradhana caught him and gathered him in her arms.

‘’You can’t, Rohit! You can’t! You’ll catch it too! You’ll catch the plague!’’

Rohit burst into tears.

Ilithiya composed herself the fastest. She had prepared herself for the death of Sohail when he had contracted the plague, just as they all had prepared themselves for the death of Elias a year prior. She wiped her eyes and bowed to her brother, Madarlon only a beat behind, ‘’long live the sultan!’’ she proclaimed.

The people gathered in the dark corridor behind the royal family all bowed, too, ‘’long live the sultan!’’ they echoed.

‘’I have my first decree,’’ Moe said in an empty, hollow voice, as a scribe hurried over, ready to write it down, ‘’an act to eradicate the plague. Any witch or witchling found on the Moriyan territories is to be killed immediately by burning, stoning or hanging. Any person found harbouring or helping the vermin is to be executed by beheading. Effective immediately,’’ he turned to his sisters, who exchanged terrified looks and gave them a hollow smile of a man broken by too much suffering, ‘’if we kill them, we kill the plague.’’

Chapter Text

‘’And then he just...left...’’

Cassian chewed his lip as he walked alongside Bas towards the war council room, hosted in the palace, ‘’that’s tough.’’

‘’I just don’t understand,’’ Bas shook his head, ‘’I could give him a good life. I could...pay off his debts and-‘’

‘’Could you?’’ Cassian winced sympathetically for his friend, ‘’I mean, sure, you’re a general, and you’ve got a higher salary than most, but still... a whore’s debt is no small sum, not to mention that living with another person is more expensive than living by yourself. He can’t stay in the barracks so you’d have to find him a house...’’

‘’My family house in the country would do,’’ Bas ploughed on, desperate, ‘’it just needs some refurbishing.’’

Cassian stopped Bas before he walked into the council room with a hand at his arm, ‘’Bas, we’re talking about your life savings here,’’ Cassian shook his head, curly hair falling into his face, ‘’I’m sure Soren is a sweet boy. I’m sure he was worth every penny you spent on him,’’ Cassian squeezed his friend’s arm, ‘’but its best that you forget about him now.’’

Bas said nothing and eventually Cassian just shook his head again and pushed open the war council room. Already, a handful of councillors were arguing within – the Captain of the Hailbronn navy, the Captains of the City Watch and the Guard...even Lieutenant Kali Dairmuid was losing her temper. Niko just stood at the head of the table, something flashing in his eyes. Something Bas didn’t like. He made no move to stop the fighting Captains, ‘’where’s the King?’’ Bas asked and the Captains fell silent.

Niko’s hands fisted on the table he had been leaning his hands on, briefly, before he straightened, ‘’now that you’re all here,’’ he said in a voice that demanded respect, ‘’it pains me to inform you that King Morton has entered the final stages of the plague.’’ There were no gasps. Everyone expected it to happen, sooner or later; there was nothing more than lips set into tight lines and heads inclined in sympathy. Niko glanced at his friends briefly, before addressing the room, ‘’as King Morton’s closest living relative is Thais Hyndestane, the assassin queen, the throne is...not secured. There is still time for King Morton to choose his successor, but from this moment,’’ Niko’s eyes flashed with that thing again, ‘’I have sole command of the Hailbronn armies. General Frey and General Aster will serve as my second and third in commands, respectively, as is the King’s wish. If there is a way to save his majesty, then we shall take the measures necessary immediately.’’

The silence that descended was heavy, filled with apprehension. Lieutenant Kali finally broke it, ‘’what are you saying, General?’’

Niko pushed himself off the table and stood straight, ‘’we will follow Moriya’s example in eradicating the disease,’’ he said as calmly as if he was giving a soldier leave for the week, ‘’every witch you come across is to be apprehended. Witchlings are to be imprisoned, as are the higher born witches. All others are to be executed. Once that is done we will turn our attention to those who have been imprisoned.’’

Now the silence was filled with...fear.

‘’General,’’ Bas said tightly, ‘’that will not make the King well.’’

‘’Maybe,’’ Niko said, voice equally tight, ‘’but it is long overdue. It is time we stop this plague, before it destroys mankind completely.

Cassian shook his head, horrified, ‘’the other kingdoms will not stand for it! Especially not the ones in Kainan! Solin has a witch king and crown prince, for the love of the gods.’’

Niko’s nose scrunched up as if Cassian’s words smelled particularly bad, ‘’I do not care what the pleasure loving court of Koln will think of this. They probably won’t even notice and rather than sitting around throwing parties, ignoring the plague, we’re going to do something about it – we will kill it at its roots. Rhein has fallen to the plague but Hailbronn will not. I will not allow it. And Solin...’’ a slow, terrifyingly cold smile tugged on Niko’s lips, ‘’well...my armies march on Solin as we speak.’’

‘’General,’’ Bas barked, taking a step towards the desk, ‘’witches are not to blame for this.’’

‘’You don’t know that,’’ Niko said softly and Bas realised that at this point Niko was as desperate for a solution as the Sultan of Moriya, ‘’and if you don’t agree with my methods, Frey, then there’s the doors.’’

But Bas found that he couldn’t walk out.

*~*~*

 Cassia stood on the cliff from which her hut rose, overlooking the sea. The chilling winter wind pulled at her thick, curly hair, now slate-grey, adorned with beads and feathers. Over her simple, worn dress, the old woman wore a knitted scarf, covering her shoulders. It was too cold for that kind of attire, but Cassia had just stepped outside to smoke her pipe (Arne didn’t like her smoking around her grandson, though the smoke never hurt Arne in his childhood, Cassia reminded him). Except her pipe was out now and yet she continued to stand there, in the wind that carried salt and brine from the coast...and the promise of death. Cassia cocked her head to the side, faded green eyes narrowing as she listened. Footsteps – unfamiliar. She knew her cliff, it was her territory and, ever since she settled in her hut with her adoptive, infant son, she could tell when guests were coming – invited, or otherwise.

And the soldiers climbing up her hill certainly hadn’t been invited.

Cassia hurried inside her hut where, in the warm, golden light of the fireplace Arne and Jasper were finishing their food. Cassia slammed the doors shut behind her, ‘’gather your things,’’ she said in a low, quiet voice, ‘’they have found you.’’

Jasper’s wooden spoon clattered out of his hand, ‘’father...’’ he breathed.

Arne’s eyes flashed with worry, ‘’have they made it to the palace?’’ he asked, already up, gathering a few things, ‘’Jasper, get your cloak.’’

Cassia was a flurry of activity, stuffing bread and water into a leather satchel, ‘’if it had, we would have heard. No, they likely heard rumours that a witch lives up here – they just don’t know if I’m a real one. You will be safe, as long as you’re gone in the next minute.’’

Arne stopped dead in the middle of the room while Jasper took their plague masks off the peg, ‘’but mother-‘’

‘’No, Arne,’’ Cassia shoved the satchel at her adoptive son, ‘’if we’re all gone, they will give chase and they will show you no mercy. I am human. They will not harm me. Go, get that good for nothing king before they target the palace, and get out,’’ Cassia’s voice was strong as steel as she grabbed Arne’s shoulders and kissed his forehead briefly. She did the same to Jasper, ‘’go now. Go.’’

The footsteps were getting closer, but they had time. Cassia ushered Jasper and his father out of her hut, tossing the bowls into the sink to hide the fact that she had guests. Outside, the sun was setting rapidly. It wasn’t smart to travel at night in the winter, but they had no choice. The Capital wasn’t that far, if one was lucky. Cassia watched her boys hurry down the cliff, in the opposite direction to the approaching soldiers; they quickly disappeared in the clump of trees. Cassia exhaled gratefully and hurried back to the house. She sank onto the bench in front of the house and lit her pipe again.

When the cluster of soldiers emerged, they found only an old woman smoking in front of her house.

Cassia didn’t bother feigning surprise, blowing out thoughtful rings of smoke as the soldiers came to a stop, armour and weapons cluttering, breaths too-loud in the beaked plague masks. And at the head of the column was... ‘’General Magana,’’ Cassia acknowledged in a dead voice, ‘’what business does Hailbronn have with Solin?’’

General Niktohal Magana didn’t bother replying, marching straight up to Cassia. His eyes flashed in the glass eye sockets of his plague mask as he grabbed the witch’s face harshly and peered in her eyes. For a long while, he stared into the identical eyes, till Cassia smirked. The General hissed, ‘’what spell are you using to conceal your witch origin?’’ his gloved fingers dug into Cassia’s face as he shook it, ‘’tell me!’’

Men have lost their minds, Cassia thought. Her fingers closed around the General’s wrist in a surprisingly strong grip and she shoved his hand away from her face, ‘’I am not a real witch,’’ Cassia said calmly, ‘’the witch community will vouch for that.’’

‘’The only thing the witch community will do,’’ the General said in a dead voice, ‘’is die,’’ he stood straight and marched away, waving a careless hand, ‘’kill her.’’

The soldiers bristled. One spoke up, ‘’but, General, she is human-‘’

‘’She is a liar, and she is concealing her treacherous nature,’’ the General whirled on the soldiers, ‘’you King is dying because of them! Show loyalty to Hailbronn or die, too.’’

The soldier flinched. She was clearly a cadet. Before she could do something that would earn her a one way trip to the gallows for treason, Cassia stood. She blew out a last puff of smoke and put her pipe down, ‘’it’s alright,’’ Cassia shrugged, approaching the cliff, ‘’let the brat rage. Let him lose his mind. Death will come for him, sooner or later,’’ Cassia stopped at the edge of the cliff. Despite the wintry night falling, the sea was relatively calm beneath her. She turned to glare at the General, ‘’you will find, General, that when you hit a witch,’’ she gave him one of her nastiest grins, ‘’you will burn.’’

And then she stepped right off the cliff.

For a moment there was nothing but the wind, roaring in her eyes, and then icy cold water. It did not hurt, as if she’d hit the surface of a mirror. Instead, the water playfully closed around her, like a cocoon, as if the bubbles around Cassia’s body were trying to tickle her. Soon enough the chill disappeared, too. Cassia waved a wrinkled hand in annoyance, chasing away the giggling bubbles, and swam. She was old, but she was not weak. Years of being a pirate and later of raising Arne and little Jasper had kept her strong, so she swam. A stream of bubbles directed her, kept her warm, poured air into her lungs as she sluggishly cut through the water.

Eventually, Cassia found the crevice of the cliff and she burst from the surface of the sea, gasping for breath. Her boat, the last thing she ever took from the pirates, bobbed on the waves where it was concealed. It was such an old thing, but it would have to do. Cassia closed her fingers around the rope ladder hanging off the side and climbed up. Now that she was out of the water, she was soaked and shivering. She collapsed on deck, shuddering and breathing hard from the fatigue. There was a sound of footsteps and two rag-tag shoes stopped in her line of vision, ‘’that was dramatic,’’ said the voice of a young girl.

Cassia got to her feet unsteadily and peered down at the girl in front of her – the witch who had kept her alive in the waters. The witch whom she had contacted weeks before, in case just this happened, ‘’I suppose you shall want your payment now, Raaisel?’’

The fourteen year old gave her a once-over, one silver eye glinting in amusement, the black one taking in the offer greedily. In reality, Raaisel only appeared fourteen years old – it was one of the games the ancient being in front of Cassia liked to play. Raaisel was a hell witch, a powerful witch-princess and the dealer of nightmares. The witch in front of Cassia didn’t look like much, dressed in a too-large coat and a hat, shabby black hair framing her face. But she could take anything, from your secrets to your name to your soul, ‘’tempting,’’ Raaisel said and the amusement disappeared. For once, both her eyes seemed to exude the same feeling – rage, ‘’but, no. I do not take payment today. I shall not take payment from witches, when it is the humans who must pay,’’ Raaisel looked out at the waters as if she could see the General’s soldiers peering at the dark waters in search of Cassia’s body, ‘’but perhaps one day, I shall visit you to collect my payment.’’

*~*~*

‘’Assassinating the monster King is too risky,’’ Marietta murmured, inside the dark, cold complex of chambers her family had been given, ‘’the blame will fall on you, and our whole family will be in danger.’’

‘’For now, he is untouchable,’’ Airen said glumly.

‘’Play your part, my son,’’ Marietta took his hand from where they conspired in the darkest corners of their chambers, ‘’play the dutiful husband. Fool them. We will get our chance yet.’’ Airen nodded. He certainly hoped so, ‘’perhaps one of the other sons, first. Gods, why are there so many-‘’

‘’No,’’ Airen said quickly, ‘’no, his brothers have not done anything wrong. They did not go to war, they simply fought in it, for their brother. We cannot blame them for that. And his parents may have raised him to be a bad man, but they did not declare war on Yame. No, we kill Daran Eiris and Daran Eiris only,’’ he pressed a hand to his stomach, queasy, ‘’preferably before I bear his sons.’’

Marietta gave her son a sad smile, ‘’I am afraid this will take time and patience. Your children may be borne by then. Your children may be a few years old before we take our revenge.’’

Airen didn’t like the idea, but he nodded tightly, ‘’then I shall be patient.’’

His mother reached out to squeeze his shoulders in emphasis, ‘’play the part.’’

The doors to the chamber opened and Faeryn came in. She did not do well as a prisoner, no matter how she was assured that she was not one. Her golden hair had dulled; her dark blue eyes were almost always directed at the ground. She was a flower, wilting, ‘’the carriage is here,’’ she said in a voice that barely exceeded a whisper. Airen wondered if he would ever hear his sister laugh again.

Airen nodded. Today was his coronation day, and this time he was a bit more excited than during his wedding day. Or, rather, he was more determined. With a husband, there wasn’t much he could do. With a crown, he received power. And the coronation wouldn’t have to end with Daran touching him, like the wedding had. Airen followed his sister out of the chambers, their mother in tow. They were permitted to attend the coronation. There was no time for deep breaths or calming mantras. Airen gritted his teeth and got on with it.

*~*~*

Arne burst through the doors of Edgar’s study, where the King had been pacing up and down, and threw himself into his arms, ‘’whoa!’’ Eddie caught him and held him close, ‘’why are you here!? You were supposed to-‘’

‘’Father, they found us at grandmother’s house,’’ Jasper said, terrified, ‘’we need to leave. They’ll come here next.’’

Eddie let go of Arne and walked briskly to his son, taking his shoulders, ‘’Jas, what are you saying?’’

‘’It’s gotten out of hand,’’ Arne shook his head, ‘’they’ll come here next, Eddie. Hailbronn and their armies. We need to get out.’’

‘’I am King-‘’

‘’I don’t care!’’ Arne walked over and grabbed his wrist, ‘’you are my husband and Jas’ father first and foremost. I will not have you executed in this palace. You won’t help anyone like that. You can’t save lives like that.’’

But Eddie shook his head, ‘’Arne, if I abandon them-‘’

‘’You can’t abandon us,’’ Arne pleaded.

Edgar turned to him and took his face in his hands, ‘’Arne,’’ he said levelly, stroking his freckled cheeks, ‘’you have to protect our son. That’s your duty. Mine is to stay and fight for my people, until the end,’’ he smiled softly, ‘’I will not die, not again. I refuse, alright? I won’t let them kill me. I won’t.’’

Arne blinked back tears and nodded. There was nothing else he could do.

‘’You must go, now,’’ Eddie continued, ‘’if what you say is true, then you are not safe here. The colour of your eyes will give you away. There is a ship in Queensport, waiting to take you away. I was going to send word to Cassia when it was safe to travel. You must go there now. I will stay and make sure Cassia is safe. I must write a letter, too – I will not be alone in this. As soon as this is sorted, I will send back for you,’’ he kissed Arne softly, ‘’don’t fret, my love. They will not kill a King.’’

*~*~*

Airen was...muted.

Daran sat by him during the feast and kept glancing at his husband suspiciously from the corner of his eye. He was eating normally, not making a show of starving himself to make a point; he was replying politely to King Father Airleas who sat next to him. He was not being rude or angry.

He was definitely up to something.

The feast was as all feasts were in Arnheim. The tables were occupied by the most respected warriors in the palace, talking quietly amongst themselves or just eating. There was no music. Daran was growing more and more irritated. He’d rather Airen curse and storm out than put on an act of being a dutiful, obedient husband. Daran cut a glance at Marietta Moreland, who sat on one of the tables down either side of the King’s table, where the royal family dined. She was talking quietly with her daughter - they, too, were not doing anything out of order. Daran needed to see them stumble, needed to find out what they were up to before it was too late. Because whatever they were planning would most likely hurt his family.

‘’Lady Moreland,’’ Daran said with a smirk and the conversations around the tables died off, ‘’I have heard many things about the Yamese court. Apparently you enjoy dance?’’

Marietta gave the monster King a perfect, practiced smile, ‘’we do indeed, your majesty.’’

Daran gestured to the room, ‘’this must be quite the bore for you, then. Unfortunately, all of us are better with our swords than we are with our feet,’’ his councillors and courtiers nodded gravely at that. Daran leaned his cheek on his hand and his smirk broadened as he glanced at Airen, ‘’why don’t your children show us how the Yamese dance?’’

Faeryn flinched. Airen cut his a look, his glare full of malice – finally, his act was cracking. Airen’s pale cheeks coloured at the attempt to humiliate him. Airen had just been crowned King Consort, and now he was being disregarded. But Marietta Moreland didn’t even blink, ‘’as you wish, your majesty,’’ she gestured for Faeryn to stand.

She did so, trembling slightly in her dress as she walked around the tables to the empty space between them.  Brannen, sitting on Daran’s left, leaned forward in interest. Now Airen stood, too, his silver crown glinting atop his golden hair. He couldn’t well leave his sister to be shamed alone – no, he would dance, if Daran bid him to. But he would not make it entertaining. Faeryn glanced up shyly, ‘’um...have you any music, your majesty?’’

In comparison to hers, Daran’s voice was like thunder, ‘’no, unfortunately you’ll have to dance without.’’

Faeryn glanced at Airen who gave her a tiny nod. From the table, Airleas gave his son a dissatisfied look but Daran ignored him as he watched his husband and sister by law. Airen took a deep breath to calm himself and went down in a neat curtsy, his sister copying his movements. They turned to each other and bowed. They began the dance and Airen led them into one that children danced to – simple and quite boring. Faeryn was graceful as she turned on the spot, hand outstretched towards her audience, eyes down, but Airen kept his up on the ceiling, as if praying to the gods for patience, his arm out stiff, his steps deliberately heavy, his whole posture an insolence to the King, who had requested a dance and was receiving one from an unwilling dancer.

They turned again, in the opposite directions, Airen barely keeping his eyes from rolling in annoyance, his lips pursed together in a tight line as he gritted his teeth. Faeryn led as she stepped neatly to the side, turning her head gracefully and extending her arm to her left. Airen copied, turning his head in a slow show of boredom, arm once more stiff. They went to the right and turned again. As Airen outstretched his hand, he fought off the urge to make a rude gesture to those gathered for his coronation. As they repeated the movement, Airen caught Daran’s eye and gave his best glare. Daran’s smirk had disappeared in the face of Airen’s insolence. The siblings finished with a curtsy, Airen stomping down hard at the end.

Daran did not stand. As the dance ended, he summoned back the amused smirk and leaned back in his chair, like Airen was some kind of exotic bird that had to do its masters tricks. Daran started a clap, slow and mocking, and Faeryn’s face burned bright red. Airen did not give Daran the satisfaction of seeing him humiliated. Instead, he raised his chin high and led his sister back to her seat. Anyone else would have fled. Anyone else would have made up an excuse and ran to their rooms. But Airen, after dropping off Faeryn next to their mother, calmly walked back to Daran and sat down in his seat. That finally stopped Daran’s clapping.

*~*~*

Jasper and Arne trudged through the snow of Waycross, making their way to Queensport by foot. After the passing of King Cedric and King Frith, Queensport became part of Solin while Queensbane and Naha were given to Rhein. The City of Lights no longer shone – Rhein was a ghost kingdom and no one dared set foot in there anymore. It had been the stronghold of the plague when it had began; now everyone in Rhein was dead. Arne led Jasper through the sad trickle of people at the morning market. With their plague masks on, their eyes were mostly undistinguishable – no one could tell they were witches. Witches and witchlings did not get sick of the plague, which was the reason so many blamed them for it – the masks covering Arne’s and Jas’ faces were more for show than anything else. Witches who did not wear masks were easily picked out from the crowd of bird-faced people braving the deadly air.

The morning market, once undoubtedly rich and a flurry of activity, had for three years consisted of a few pathetic little stands, selling scraps of food and clothing. So many had died of the plague and now most of Kainan was starving. Jas glanced sadly at the fish heads displayed by an old woman, preserved in fresh snow. The vendor’s back was so crooked the long beak of her mask nearly brushed the fish. Jas hurried after his father. With so many people opting to stay inside rather than venture into the plagued world, it was hard to blend in. So Arne and Jas just settled on hurrying. They were so far away from Rethymon...surely, General Magana’s soldiers wouldn’t find them here?

And yet his father suddenly slowed down, enough to grab Jas’ arm under his cloak and pull him along. Immediately, Jas knew something was wrong. Arne quickened his pace, dropped his head lower. They were changing direction, moving away from the stables where they hoped some horses were still for sale, and moving closer to the stone houses, many bordered up. Arne all but shoved his son into a stinking alleyway. It stank so bad that Jas’ double coloured eyes watered even through his mask. There were people here – plagued people, dead and dying away from the public eye, where they would be killed on the spot by panicked masses. Jas instinctively shrunk back away from the walls, tried to avoid looking at anyone in particular, but Arne didn’t slow, walking deeper into the alley. He was probably hoping that whoever was following them would not dare walk into a hole filled with death.

And yet Arne must have felt they were still in danger because, as soon as he found a crevice in the wall unoccupied by a body, he shoved Jasper down. With quick fingers, he undid the leather straps of his mask and pulled it straight off. The smell intensified and Jasper fought back a gag. He stared up at his father but didn’t dare to move as Arne looked over his shoulder, ‘’head down,’’ he barked at Jas, who dropped his head. Arne almost never barked at his son, ‘’find a boat,’’ Arne’s voice was shaking. He wasn’t used to running and he wasn’t used to leaving Jas unprotected, ‘’g-go to Khandar...’’ he said quickly, ‘’it’s not diseased because no one ever goes there. Find Cass.’’ Arne knew it was hopeless. Khandar was a massive country – it would be impossible to find one person, even if Jas made the perilous journey. But it was the only place Arne could think of on the spot where his son would be safe, ‘’and don’t use your powers.’’

‘’Father...’’ Jas made as if to get up.

‘’I love you,’’ Arne whispered, voice quivering, and then he was backing away, tossing Jasper’s plague mask in with some body and hurrying down the dark alley, as if he had not just dropped his son off.

Jasper was numb with shock. He had lost his entire family in a space of a few days. He didn’t know if his grandmother or his father were safe, and now his other father... Jas heard the soldiers, their loud voices and the complaining and the metallic sound of their armour as they stepped into the alley and he curled in on himself, half-covering himself with his cloak and tucking his head down. He hoped the soldiers wouldn’t dare look at him, like he himself had not dared look at anyone else.

The soldiers walked by him fast, not even glancing at him. In their masks they looked like a flock of flesh-hungry birds. Soon enough, Jas heard the yells, directed at Arne, then running, a scuffle. He kept his head down, even as the soldiers returned, triumphant. Jas glanced up only once, above his shoulder. The soldiers were coming out of the alley, a limp Arne between them. Unconscious. Jas’ gut tightened and he wanted to run to the soldiers, to batter them with his fists till they let his father go. But he knew Arne would die inside if he realised he hadn’t been able to protect his only child, so Jas remained curled in the corner. He scrunched his eyes shut and soon everything was quiet.

Jasper felt like he had submerged his head under water. The muffled noises of the street were barely audible. The sound of the soldiers was long gone. Jasper remained in a tight ball until his muscles locked up, until his body was numb with cold. He couldn’t smell the awful stench of death anymore. Maybe he’d breathed in too much of it.

A gentle hand on his shoulder finally made him un-curl. He didn’t realise he was breathing strangely till he removed his arms from around his head and glance up at whoever had touched him. It was a pretty girl, blue-eyed, with golden hair spilling over her shoulders. She had a heavy, fuzzy looking cloak over one arm – the other was exposed and extended to touch Jas’ shoulder, ‘’you alright?’’ she asked in a soft, worried voice. She glanced around with nervous eyes, ‘’come, you can’t stay here.’’

Jasper took her hand, solid and warm even in the winter, and she pulled him up. The girl hurriedly pulled him out of the alley, back out in the market. Jasper must have been sitting in that alley for hours because the street was filled with way more people than before. Many had plague masks, but many did not. They were milling endlessly around the streets as the market did not have much to offer. Jasper looked around at the dead-eyed people trudging in the snow and realised that some were not dressed for the weather – some wore summery clothes. Jasper stopped and the girl stumbled from the sudden resistance, ‘’why aren’t they scared of the plague?’’ Jas asked in a soft voice.

The girl didn’t even turn.

Jasper’s heart sped up as he realised where he was. He yanked his wrist out of the girl’s grip, ‘’why aren’t they scared!?’’

 Finally, the girl turned. She stared at him with burning eyes. She remained pretty, but her eyes were alight with fever. And her arm...oh gods, the arm she had hidden under her cloak was now covered in deep gouge marks. There had been boils there, once, and scabs and blood clots that she had tore at with her own fingers when the pain became too much, ‘’oh, gods,’’ Jasper breathed, ‘’let me out. Let me out.’’

‘’You came in here by yourself,’’ the girl hissed, angry now. Furious.

Jasper shook his head, frantic, stumbling back. Others were taking notice of them, turning faces deformed by boils and fingernail gouges or hidden by masks towards them, ‘’it was an accident...please...I’m not like you...’’

‘’You are a witch,’’ the girl’s face contorted as she hissed, ‘’you will never die like this,’’ and she shoved her diseased arm in Jasper’s face. The prince stumbled back, heart fluttering in panic. He had to get out, he had to get out, he had to get out...

The girl reached for him with her bloody arm, torn to ribbons, and Jasper looked around frantically, long, dark brown hair slapping his face. Where the hell was the door? Where the hell was the door to his own realm? His father had told him not to use his power...the girl’s fingers were inches away from his face...

‘’Sorry, sweetheart,’’ a disembodied voice said, ‘’not today.’’

The space behind the girl tore open like a tree hit by lightning and another girl jumped in behind her – a witch of brown skin, dark hair and double coloured eyes, the whites night-black. Two horns protruded from her forehead. She grinned like the devil as she wrapped her arms around the girl, taking hold of her face with both hands. The girl looked a little surprised as suddenly the witch tore through her, as if she was tearing through parchment. The world around them collapsed with a rumbling noise and a blink later Jasper was standing opposite the hell witch in the snow. The market was less crowded, and this time with the living, who stood way off, staring and gasping.

‘’Oopsie,’’ the hell witch said as she saw soldiers shoving their way towards them, ‘’we’ve been spotted!’’ she grabbed Jasper’s hand and extended her free one in front of her. She grinned and swiped her hand. Suddenly the world was moving as if she’d sent it spinning. Colours and sounds whirled past Jasper in fast motion while he and the witch remained still. And then, with a sickening jolt, the world stopped suddenly. Jasper fell to his knees, unstable, and looked around. They were by the sea, the soft crash of it soothing. But as Cass looked towards the town on the other side, he felt sick again. Empty, half-destroyed houses stood abandoned near the forlorn port. And in every window, near every doorstep, were dolls – hundreds of dolls, crafted in all kinds of manner, staring out at the destitute town as if awaiting the return of their parents. The whole place smelled wrong.

‘’Oh, gods,’’ Jasper whispered, ‘’why are we in Naha? Why are we in Rhein?’’

Once upon a time, Naha had been a port, the town of dolls. Now it was nothing. Jas turned away from the ghastly image just to find the hell witch staring down at him with a raised eyebrow, ‘’haven’t your parents told you not to open random doors?’’

‘’It was an accident.’’

‘’An accident that landed you in the realm of the dead,’’ the hell witch shook her head, the horns glinting in the wintry sun, ‘’you goddamn hedge witches never know what you’re doing.’’

‘’Sorry,’’ Jasper said again, standing unstably, ‘’who...are you?’’

‘’Pendragon,’’ upon introducing herself, something beneath the witch’s dark skin rumbled and she seemed a little distorted for a moment. She was half demon and Jasper hoped he would never meet whatever was contained beneath the exterior of a girl, ‘’normally I don’t bother with hedge witches who can’t find their doors back out home, but these are hard times for witches. We need to stick together.’’

Jasper swallowed, ‘’my father...’’

‘’Hm? The witchling?’’ Pendragon shrugged, ‘’I could save one or the other. You’re more valuable,’’ she waved towards the abandoned beach, where a boat bobbed close to the coast, ‘’head north. You’ll be safe there,’’ she smirked, ‘’and useful.’’

‘’I can’t leave my family-‘’

‘’Your family is either dead or they’re going to save themselves,’’ Pendragon shrugged again, ‘’either way, returning all the way to Solin will take days and I doubt one scrawny witch can help much. But, do as you like. I’ve done my good deeds for today.’’

‘’Thank you,’’ Jasper blurted as Pendragon turned and extended an arm.

‘’Don’t go knocking on random doors anymore, kid,’’ she said with a dark smirk and swiped her hand. In the next instance she was gone.

Being alone in Naha with all the dolls watching him was even more terrifying than being in the presence of a hell witch. As fast as he could, Jasper scrambled into the freezing water, onto the boat and picked up the oar. There were no provisions in the boat and Jas had no idea why he was going north. What was there, beyond Rhein? But hell witches were ancient being and they usually knew what they were doing. Jas cast one last look towards Naha and vowed he’d come back as soon as he could. If a hell witch was telling him to go north, that meant there was something there – something that could maybe save them all. And as soon as he figured out what that was, he was coming back for his family.

Shaking from the cold and grimly determined, Jasper began rowing.

*~*~*

‘’Hi.’’

Airen jolted at the sound of a voice, so similar to Daran’s... and yet so much more gentle. Full of sunshine so rare to the continent. Airen had been taking a stroll around the garden, taking a rare opportunity for freedom, when the third prince of Arnheim rose up in front of him, ‘’oh,’’ Airen said quietly to pale-haired, dark-eyed Daimhin, ‘’hello.’’

‘’Mind if I join you?’’ Daimhin asked, already falling into step with the young King Consort, ‘’the palace is so...empty,’’ Airen just nodded. For a moment, they walked side by side, ‘’I like the dance,’’ the prince said earnestly, ‘’I thought your sister is a very good dancer, though I’ve not seen much dancing in my life. And I thought it was brave, standing up to my brother like that,’’ Daim gave Airen a gentle smile, ‘’he can be a prick sometimes.’’

Airen wasn’t stupid enough to rise to the bait. This could well be Daran sending his brothers to make him say something treasonous, so that Daran would have an excuse to execute him now that he had married him as promised. But it didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy some company, ‘’I certainly hope the King enjoyed it.’’

Daim laughed, with so much honestly and lightness that Airen looked at him, surprised, ‘’oh, the sour look on his face was worth it!’’

‘’You...don’t like your brother much?’’

Daim’s pale eyebrows, with patterns shaven through to make him look more warrior-like, drew together, ‘’no. I love him. A lot. He’s a good brother, your majesty,’’ he sighed, ‘’Airen...can I call you Airen?’’ the golden haired man nodded, ‘’I know you don’t think very highly of my brother. But all he’s ever done is to protect us. Our father...he couldn’t have been able to go to war, after finally tasting peace. So Daran took it upon himself, when Yame declared war again. He was really young...it broke him a little, I think. He doesn’t mean to be cruel, he just...I mean, he doesn’t like you, Airen. Like you don’t like him. You’re both rooted in this belief that you’re each other’s enemies. But, Airen,’’ Daim stopped and turned to the King Consort, ‘’you’re not. Not anymore. You’re bound for life. I think...it would be wise to start liking each other a little,’’ Daim gave him another warm smile, ‘’and I think you’ll have to take the first step. Because Daran isn’t able to.’’

For a while, Airen just stared at Daim. Finally, he spoke, ‘’you are wise beyond your years,’’ he said quietly, ‘’but I cannot. Your brother...he did some things that broke me, too. Maybe not on purpose. But he’s done them. He made me believe he is a monster and since we came here, I have not seen anything that would disprove that,’’ Airen shook his head sadly, ‘’I cannot love a monster.’’

Daim opened his mouth to answer.

‘’Daimhin!’’ They both jolted at the sound of an angry voice. Daran was stomping his way towards them through the dead, white garden, his scarf drawn up over his mouth to keep out the cold. He yanked it down angrily, ‘’you’re not meant to talk to him.’’

‘’Why not?’’ Daim asked with gentle defiance, ‘’he is my brother by law.’’

‘’He is not-‘’ Daran stopped himself and gave a frustrated growl. The muscle in his jaw jumped. Airen was quickly beginning to hate that tick, ‘’look, just go to your rooms. Practice swordplay,’’ he stared his younger brother down until finally Daim sighed, nodded at Airen and hurried away. Daran whirled on his husband, ‘’and you,’’ he growled, ‘’don’t go talking to my brother.’’

Airen stared at him with glass-pale green eyes, ‘’am I to not speak to your brothers?’’ he asked finally, ‘’or am I to not speak to anyone but you?’’

‘’I’d rather you just stay in your rooms so I can pretend you don’t exist,’’ Daran hissed.

Airen raised an eyebrow, ‘’is that what you do with all your problems?’’

‘’Only the ones I really don’t want to deal with.’’

Airen stared at him for a moment longer. Then he scrunched up his nose in a perfect, petty display of disgust and walked away.

*~*~*

‘’Shit.’’

Eddie caught Arne as he was thrown into their chambers. He had been confined in them for nearly two days, ever since General Magana and his soldiers took over Rethymon, the capital of Solin. Arne clung to Eddie, head spinning from where he had been knocked out. General Magana pushed his way into the room and stared Eddie down. He kept his instructions short, ‘’Edgar Eiris, you are no longer King of Solin until you acknowledge the problem witches pose to the survival of humans. Once you agree to aid us in our eradication of the plague, you may have your throne back.’’

Edgar held Arne protectively. He knew what the General was saying. He could have his throne, if he helped to murder every witch in Solin – including his own son and husband, ‘’it won’t stop the plague,’’ Eddie glared at Niko, ‘’and your King will die anyway.’’

The General didn’t even blink, ‘’until you insist on shielding witches, you will remain here,’’ he said in a cold voice before retreating and slamming the doors shut behind him. The key clicked in the lock.

Eddie’s hands were immediately on Arne, pushing his hair back, fluttering over his face, ‘’are you hurt?’’ he demanded, ‘’did they hurt you?’’

‘’No,’’ Arne scanned Eddie with the same fervour, ‘’you?’’ Eddie shook his head. Arne’s face crumpled, ‘’my mother?’’

Eddie looked at him sadly, ‘’I don’t know,’’ he kissed away any tears before they could spill, ‘’is Jas...?’’

‘’Safe,’’ Arne confirmed and Eddie exhaled, relieved, ‘’they didn’t find him. Hopefully he’s well away from this mess.’’

Eddie nodded and then smiled sadly at his husband, kissing him briefly, ‘’even though it’s selfish and you’re not safe here,’’ Eddie wrapped him up in his arms, ‘’I’m glad you’re with me, Arne.’’

Arne clung to him, ‘’me, too,’’ he breathed.

Chapter Text

Daran & Daimhin by the amazing Crepesbaby ^                             This icon is so cute ^

 

 

‘’What’s that?’’ Amir found his wife in their chambers, located in one of the rooms overlooking the chasm that the mountain plunged into. The assassin keep was carved into the flat, stone face of the mountain of Cana Kaale. It was morning and mist rose from the chasm as if it was a pot of water bubbling over a great fire. Amir had gotten up early to watch the younglings training – Jamael was a good teacher. Now he returned to his chambers to change into more comfortable clothes and found his wife in bed. Thais was usually up with him, training to keep her body strong and lithe. Now she sat in bed, her knees curled to her chest, furs thrown over them as she read a letter.

Thais set the parchment down and looked at her husband with warrior-sharp, Hyndestane blue eyes; the same eyes that Jamael had inherited from her, ‘’my cousin calls for my debt to be repaid?’’

Amir frowned, running a hand through dark hair streaked with grey, ‘’what debt?’’

‘’Once upon a time, King Edgar Eiris saved me from the hands of witches,’’ Thais gazed towards the window, as if she could see all the way to Helvetica, to the Sultan’s palace, ‘’now he asks that I save witches from the hands of Kings.’’

*~*~*

For the sixteenth time that evening, Bren glanced at Wrath. He felt foolish, like a young boy with a crush on the baker’s son again. Since he had been bought for him, Archduke Wrath didn’t pay Bren much attention. He didn’t visit and seemed to prefer to spend time with nobility. Bren wasn’t surprised. Even though he was treated like an esteemed guest, with his own rooms and freedom to wander the palace and the city (something he hadn’t yet dared to do), he was still a slave. A discarded one, apparently. Bren didn’t understand why his eyes kept wandering back to Wrath, talking or dancing, not sparing him a glance across the room. He usually marvelled when people didn’t look at him. He hated being stared at. He wished he had the courage to carve his face with a knife, just to stop all that awful attention that got him from one master to the next to the next, for most of his life, or the opportunity to escape captivity, like he had countless tried to times before. But he found he was desperate for even a tiny look from the Archduke, a drop of acknowledgement.

‘’What are you thinking, Bren?’’ the former slave growled at himself, pressing his forehead to the cool, golden-glazed column. The sound of the party spilled over him. Bren had learned in the past days that the Kolnese palace was always alive with sound and music and laughter, a bubble of ignorance in a world ravaged by the plague. Bren couldn’t blame the nobility fully for trying to escape horrors they couldn’t stop. Despite himself, Bren glanced at Wrath across the room again. Wrath had been kind, in his own clumsy, rough way. No one had ever been kind to Bren. Other slaves despised him for his face, others distrusted him. His previous masters hid their leering glances, thirsty tongues and grabby fingers that promised night after night of sleeplessly lying on bed and letting them thrust into him with gifts and compliments. All because of his face.

Wrath had acted more as if Bren had been a frightened child, or a puppy to be cared for. Not exactly a great thing – Bren hated being pitied, as rarely as that happened. But it had been a change. Sure, he could tell straight away Wrath had been captivated by his beauty. But he hadn’t acted on that. Maybe that’s why Bren was so unsettled – he couldn’t figure the other man out. What did he want, exactly? Maybe he didn’t want anything at all. Why did that bother Bren so much?

‘’Are you hiding?’’

Bren blinked at the sound of the honey-rich voice. He turned and felt as if someone had swung a hammer into his chest, because for a second he forgot how to breathe. With thoughts of Wrath crowding his head, he’d forgotten about his other problem – namely, King Orin, who reduced his intelligence to minimal level with just a smile. He was leaning against the column with a beautifully sculpted arm revealed by his pale blue, sleeveless jacket, his golden hair unbound, a little messy, waving gently down his back, ‘’no...’’ Bren squeaked.

At least Orin looked a little unstable at seeing his face, too. His golden eyes couldn’t seem to leave Bren’s face; Bren, too, felt no inclination from looking away from the gorgeous King, ‘’do you...’’ Orin’s tongue flicked nervously against his lip as he reached out. His hand, as warm as the rest of him seemed to be, closed around Bren’s, ‘’...want to dance, or something?’’

‘’I...’’ Bren couldn’t even process the question. Gods, Orin was just so goddamned captivating. Bren knew he should jerk back. He was Wrath’s property and the man in front of him was King. And yet he couldn’t do anything but stare at Orin. The King’s golden eyes burned with the intensity of a hundred suns.

Bren had no idea where that stare was going, or why they couldn’t look away from each other. But in the end it didn’t go anywhere, because an irritated voice cut in, ‘’oi, Wicker, didn’t I tell you not to look at him?’’

*~*~*

Wrath had been automatically seeking out Orin, passively. He had been floating around the ballroom, exchanging small talk and topping up on wine, knowing that eventually his eyes would fall upon his golden haired King. When they finally did, Wrath was surprised. Orin was standing close to Bren, whom Wrath had done his best to avoid since he received him. The boy did weird things to his heart, which belonged to Orin. Seeing them together made Wrath’s eyes hurt from a beauty overlord. It really was unfair that the gods created people as beautiful as Orin and Bren. Wrath felt like he should get angry, because Orin was holding Bren’s hand and they were gazing at each other as if they were maybe half a minute from kissing, but... Wrath didn’t feel angry. In fact, a pleasant, light feeling cocooned around him like a blanket as he watched the two of them. He felt as if he’d be content with just leaning against a column and watching the two of them forever.

The feeling scared him.

Wrath snapped out of it and marched up to the two, ‘’oi, Wicker, didn’t I tell you not to look at him?’’ it was all too easy to summon the irritation into his voice. Bren jerked away from Orin as if his hand stung.

Orin gave Wrath an apologetic smile, ‘’forgive me. I bought him for you, and now I’m hogging him.’’

Bren flushed scarlet and, after a hasty curtsy, hurried away towards the doors. But Wrath caught his forearm in a vice-like grip as he tried to pass him, ‘’if you wanted him,’’ Wrath said in his rough voice, not bothering to cast a look at Bren still, ‘’you should have just kept him.’’

Bren felt a painful stab in his chest. He hated being talked about as if he was a piece of furniture rather than a person. You would have thought he’d get used to it, having been treated just like that for most of his life. But Wrath had been so kind, and now there was no glimmer of that kindness. Orin laughed, voice like dripping honey. Bren felt another painful stab in his heart – he had no idea what Orin had done to him. It was as if Orin had cast a spell on him, ‘’dear me, Wrath, are you jealous that I had a few minutes with Bren?’’

Bren’s body moved by itself, a jerky movement towards the doors. Wrath’s hand tightened on his arm and he finally looked at him, only to scowl, ‘’what are you doing? You go when I say you can go,’’ Bren sagged helplessly and Wrath loosened his grip guiltily. He called a glare into his eyes as he stared Orin down, ‘’and for the matter I’m not jealous, of you or of him. You can do as you like.’’

The playful glimmer in Orin’s golden eyes made Wrath kiss his teeth. The King had always found it so easy to read him. With another glare, Wrath turned, still holding Bren firmly, and dragged him out of the ballroom. As Bren was pulled up one of the many marble staircases, he finally found his voice, ‘’forgive me, your grace,’’ he whispered, ‘’for looking at him...I know you said...’’

‘’Forget what I said,’’ Wrath’s voice was gruff, grumpy, ‘’Orin is gorgeous. How could you not look at him?’’

They reached a corridor and Bren found himself being pulled down it, ‘’then why are you angry?’’ he asked, stumbling as he tried to keep up with Wrath’s erratic pace.

‘’I’m not,’’ came the snappy reply. They finally reached a set of carved doors which Wrath shoved open and slammed shut behind him and Bren. He dragged the omega to the centre of the room, dripping with extravagance like every other chamber in the palace. Then he stopped, faltered. He turned and finally looked at Bren properly.

‘’What now, your grace?’’ Bren asked quietly, looking up at him.

Wrath gave him a glare, ‘’I haven’t thought that far ahead,’’ he admitted begrudgingly. A smile tugged on Bren’s mouth but he forced it down. Wrath looked him up and down. It wasn’t the look Bren usually got, full of appreciation and lust and awe. No, Wrath’s look was scrutinising, as if he was staring at a pet he didn’t know how to take care of. Finally, Wrath’s dark eyes met Bren’s and he reached out. He brushed his knuckles experimentally against Bren’s cheek. He must have liked the feel of his skin, because then his hand slid against Bren’s cheek properly, cupping it, ‘’what do you want?’’ he asked finally in a transformed voice. It was gentler, softer, lower, like a midnight dark blanket. When Bren blinked, surprised at the question, Wrath stepped closer. He brought one hand to Bren’s waist, pulling him closer. With his other, he brushed back Bren’s silver curls from his face and pressed a careful kiss to his temple, ‘’what do you want, Bren Wicker?’’ he repeated.

Bren exhaled slowly, ‘’I want you to stop ignoring me,’’ he said on impulse.

Wrath merely kissed his temple again, humming his agreement. His gentleness made Bren’s body stutter, made him weak at the knees. He felt light headed, unused to that kind of treatment, ‘’what else do you want?’’

‘’Right now?’’ Bren’s voice went shy.

‘’Yes. Right now,’’ Wrath whispered. Bren realised that the Archduke was as nervous, as embarrassed, as he was.

Bren bit his lip but gathered his courage. He pressed his hand to Wrath’s chest and pushed him back gently. He kept pushing till Wrath reached the bed and lay on it. Bren crawled over him, straddling his hips as he made quick work of his tunic. They didn’t speak, eyes cloudy with lust, as they undressed. Once Bren was atop him, Wrath could barely control himself. He gave himself a few blissful seconds to take in Bren’s body, as beautiful as the rest of him, before reaching under his bed. He produced a jar of lotion, smeared his fingers with quick precision before he lifted Bren up by his hips and slid a finger into him. Bren bit his lip, hand curling on Wrath’s chest below him. With his free hand, Wrath cupped Bren’s wrist and then slid his hand up his arm in a slow caress.

As the second finger entered, slickened enough to slide in easily, Bren’s eyes flicked to Wrath’s. They gazed at each other as Wrath pumped his fingers in and out, slowly, ‘’from now on,’’ he breathed, ‘’if you’re pent up, you come to me. But leave Orin alone. He’s mine, alright?’’ his voice wasn’t angry. It was a gentle plea, because he didn’t want to know what that content feeling at watching Orin and Bren together had been.

Bren nodded, breath coming out in slow, hard pants. Wrath withdrew his fingers finally, and lifted up Bren’s hips. He slid Bren onto him. He could have sworn the omega didn’t breathe for the entity of it, like he forgot how to. Once Bren had fully swallowed Wrath’s member, the Archduke groaned softly. Unsurprisingly, Bren felt as good as he looked. Wrath took a moment to caress Bren’s thighs and the omega, in turn, relaxed his hands braced on Wrath’s chest and stroked his thumbs gently over his breastplate. Wrath was well muscled and Bren realised, for the first time, that he was a soldier. Or had been, once.

As Wrath started thrusting up into Bren, the omega threw back his head, silver curls spilling down the nape of his neck, green gold eyes fluttering shut as his lips parted to let out quiet, breathy moans. After a moment he took control, rising and lowering himself, sometimes just rolling his hips enough for Wrath to feel himself inside Bren, to pull a groan low from his throat. Bren kept his eyes closed, losing himself in the sensation. He lost his grip on his thoughts and, for a moment, Orin’s golden eyes and beautiful face flashed in his mind. Bren pushed the thought away, concentrating on the feel of Wrath under him, his hard muscles and gentle hands. But after a moment the image of Orin returned, and it wasn’t Wrath thrusting into him anymore – in Bren’s mind, it was Orin.

The fantasy shattered as Wrath’s voice, taunt with pleasure and something else, reached him, ‘’are you thinking about him?’’ he panted out, ‘’are you thinking about Orin?’’

Bren’s eyes snapped open and he flushed. He started shaking his head but suddenly and violently, he reached his orgasm. He cried out, head thrown back, as white bliss overtook him. He was still shaking from the last waves of the orgasm when Wrath, not bothering to finish, all but tossed Bren off him, onto the bed. He sat up quickly and went about gathering his clothes. Out of breath, Bren sat up in Wrath’s bed, ‘’I wasn’t thinking about-‘’

‘’Don’t lie.’’

Bren clutched the furs on the bed, covering himself, ‘’I didn’t mean-‘’

‘’It’s fine,’’ Wrath’s voice was bitter and they were back to square one, because Wrath wasn’t looking at him, ‘’if you can’t help it, you can’t help it.’’

‘’Wrath, please-‘’

The Archduke whirled around, staring down at Bren sternly, ‘’I don’t recall giving you permission to call me by my first name.’’

Bren shrivelled away from him, ‘’forgive me, your grace,’’ he whispered guiltily. How could his mind have betrayed him like that? Why did Orin keep having to snake his way into his thoughts, when Wrath was the one who was king and Wrath was the one who took care of him?

Wrath finished dressing hurriedly and stomped over to the doors, ‘’stay here or go, I don’t care,’’ he said by way of goodbye. The doors slammed shut behind him.

*~*~*

Daran was in his office, one that had belonged to his father. He was shuffling through pieces of parchment, feeling a pressure in his temples that would amount to a headache later. It was snowing heavily outside. Daran was a warrior, like King Kane – he did not have a mind for paperwork. And yet he had to take care of Yame, put in precautions so that this time peace in Arnheim would be absolute. Yame could no longer have their independence, offered to them after the first war had ended. Yame would be no more. Now the whole continent would be under Arhanese rule – but Daran had to carefully choose officials to represent him across the kingdom. Loyal ones. So another Marietta Moreland wouldn’t happen. But all the reading was making Daran impatient and he was at a point where he wanted to roar and punch something.

So when Brannen walked into his office, Daran barked, ‘’what do you want?’’

His brother gazed at him in a calculated manner. He was both warrior and scholar, taking from both his fathers. Cian was all Airleas but Daimhin was the most like Daran – which was why the King was so fiercely protective over him. Brannen raised a pale brown eyebrow, ‘’is now not a good time?’’

‘’These days there isn’t a good time,’’ Daran sighed, the irritation going out of him as he let the papers flop onto his desk and rubbed his temple, ‘’what is it?’’ he asked, calmer now.

Brannen closed the doors to Daran’s office behind him and came to sit opposite Daran in a chair left there by Illyria Helm, the Captain of the Guard, from the morning briefing. He looked...distraught. Daran straightened. While he was the most protective over Daim, he cared deeply for all his brothers. Seeing Brannen forced to fight in the battles with him, and eventually Daim, too, had made him ready to kill anyone who dared lay a finger on them. And now he was married to the man whose family was responsible for the haunted look in Daim’s eyes every time someone mentioned battle and for the withdrawn way Brannen was. Daran remembered him from before the war, when they would run around the palace with wooden swords, making enough noise to kill that dreadful silence. After the war, Brannen became withdrawn. Daran didn’t even let himself think about what kind of man he would have been, had he not been forced by circumstance to become a soldier before he grew up.

‘’Brannen, what’s wrong?’’

Brannen made an irritated huff. He rarely let people see if something got to him but now he leaned back in the chair and crossed his arms over his chest, ‘’that girl. Your husband’s sister.’’

‘’Faeryn,’’ Daran said automatically. He barely saw her but when he did, she looked like a frightened mouse skulking around corridors.

‘’Yes. Her,’’ Brannen all but snapped, as if he didn’t want to hear her name, ‘’I want you to send her away.’’

Daran frowned, ‘’where to?’’

‘’I don’t know,’’ Brannen waved a hand, ‘’a temple, if need be.’’

‘’She’s too old to become a priestess.’’

‘’Not to become a priestess,’’ Brannen said tightly, ‘’just so she’s out of the palace. Somewhere where someone can keep an eye on her.’’

Daran gave a deep, slow sigh, laced his fingers together and leaned his forehead on them, ‘’may I ask why a girl barely brave enough to speak up bothers you?’’

‘’She is a...’’ Brannen chewed a word around, ‘’distraction.’’

Daran’s head shot up, pale blue eyes widening, ‘’no. Brannen, no.’’

Brannen kissed his teeth and looked away from his brother’s piercing gaze, ‘’I can’t help it.’’

‘’She is the enemy.’’

‘’She’s...beautiful,’’ Brannen conceded unwillingly, ‘’and really different to Arhanese women. Which should put me off. But it doesn’t. And she dances well...’’

Daran pulled out a piece of paper, a little violently, ‘’I will have her married to someone-‘’

‘’No!’’ Brannen said so sharply Daran froze. His posture slumped and he groaned in annoyance.

Daran relaxed slowly, peering at his brother. He put the piece of parchment away, ‘’tell me why you really want to send her away. She isn’t merely a distraction.’’

Brannen’s night black eyes scanned the ceiling as if looking for an answer. Finally, he sighed, ‘’alright so she’s like...like a flower...’’

‘’You’ve never seen a flower,’’ Daran deadpanned.

‘’Yes, but I imagine she is like one,’’ Brannen snapped, embarrassed, ‘’look, so she’s like...some kind of plant. Not a weed but...a tree.’’

‘’Alright,’’ Daran said carefully, ‘’so Faeryn Moreland is a tree.’’

‘’Metaphorically speaking,’’ Brannen sat forward, ‘’but this palace is like...well, it’s like Arnheim. It’s cold and it snows all the time. There’s no sun,’’ he gestured helplessly, ‘’do you understand what I’m saying?’’

‘’You mean that the palace is not a good place for her,’’ Daran finally understood.

‘’Yes,’’ Brannen nodded, ‘’she’s...wilting.’’

‘’And why do you care?’’

‘’I don’t bloody know!’’ Brannen exploded, defensive, ‘’I told you, she’s beautiful...and stuff. Just send her away, alright? So I can get myself back on track.’’

Daran rapped his fingers against the wooden desk. Marrying Airen hadn’t been his choice but it had been necessary to keep peace. Having two Moreland children married into the Eiris House could pose a threat in the future...and Daran was profoundly bad at dealing with his husband. Brannen, probably, would be the same. What Brannen proposed would probably be better for everybody, ‘’my dear husband won’t be happy,’’ he said sarcastically.

Brannen stood, ‘’well, thankfully, it’s not my job to make him happy,’’ he walked towards the doors, ‘’make it happen, brother,’’ he stopped at the doors and glanced at Daran, ‘’please.’’

*~*~*

Jamael awoke to the sound of someone pounding on the doors of the assassin keep and groaned. He was still crashing in one of the spare rooms, unsure of what to do with Jex. Because he was in the basement, the knocking carried in the spacious, echoing space and eventually Jamael couldn’t take it anymore. He dragged himself out of bed and went up the wooden stairs to the ground floor of the keep. He had a dagger with him, which he had swiped from his temporary room, and he concealed it in his hand against his side as he finally opened the doors and the banging ceased.

One of the rare winter rains were coming down on the desert land around the mountain and the clump of figures standing in front of the doors were soaked from head to toe. The woman who had been knocking had a shawl covering her hair plastered to her face, revealing only her eyes. Thais rose up behind her son, hurriedly pulling on a dressing gown, ‘’who is it?’’ she demanded.

The woman who had done the knocking stepped within the assassin and inclined her head, ‘’alalihat, Thais, Queen of Assassins,’’ she said formally and touched a hand to her chest, ‘’I am Ilithiya Shah, first princess of Moriya.’’

Jamael blinked in surprise. Thais inclined her head. The assassins of Cana Kaale and the sultans of Moriya had a complicated relationship but, mostly, they stayed out of each other’s ways. The Kings and Queens of the keep did not answer to the Sultan or the Sultana, like the Kai bandits did not answer to Kai royalty. But they acknowledged each other. Another woman stepped in behind the first, this one with soaked black hair to her ears and eyes as dark as her skin, ‘’and I am Aradhana Shah, the second princess.’’

‘’What brings you here?’’ Thais swept in front of her son, gesturing for the princesses to step in. Four others shuffled in behind them, out of the rain. There was a middle aged woman with hands on two identical girls, hair wrapped up in shawls. An elderly man shuffled in after them. As Thais lit a candle, Jamael realised what they all had in common – their eyes were double coloured. The princesses had brought witches into the guild.

‘’Please,’’ princess Ilithiya said, voice slightly muffled by the shawl around her mouth. She gestured to the witches, ‘’our brother has lost his mind and he hunts witches. We managed to get these out of Ras Kamal when the town got raided.’’

Thais paled, ‘’others...’’

Princess Ilithiya shook her head, ‘’we could not risk it.’’

Her sister stepped forward, ‘’but we are willing to risk everything else. As sisters to the Sultan, we are the closest to the palace and we know where there will be attacks. We will attempt to save as many as we can, but we will need your help,’’ she looked towards Jamael, ‘’all your help.’’

Thais thought back to Edgar’s wish for her to aid witches and nodded, a plan already forming in her head. She was not the Queen of Assassins for being a slow thinker, ‘’the Sultan’s power does not reach the assassins of Cana Kaale. We will hold these witches here and guarantee their safety,’’ she turned to Jamael, ‘’make contact with Kaliq. He is the only one who knows where and when the Pirates are.’’

Princess Ilithiya blinked her dark eyes, ‘’pirates?’’

Thais nodded, ‘’there are kingdoms which will accept witch refugees, but not in Moriya. We must get them out,’’ she turned back to her son, ‘’write to Kaliq and make sure the letter is delivered safely. The closest pirate ships must set out as soon as possible. We will deliver the witches to Port Maisdal in two weeks,’’ she glanced at the two princesses, ‘’and hope the pirates have answered our call.’’

*~*~*

‘’Thank you. Have a nice day,’’ Kaliq smiled at the last customer of the long queue that had kept him at the counter since lunch and finally exhaled. He picked a bun from its basket and began munching. As his establishment was the only bakery in Arcadia, a relatively new town in Koln, south of the Moher Mountains, Kaliq would undoubtedly have his hands full within minutes, despite the plague. He munched down his bun in record speed. The doors opened with their tell-tale creak and Kaliq glanced up to see a hooded figure enter, tapping their feet to get rid of excess snow from their boots, ‘’welcome. How may I help?’’ Kaliq asked brightly, sweeping a piece of hair that fell from his black ponytail out of his face.

The figure approached and small, tan hands appeared, pushing a hood off a head of long hair and taking off the simple, leather plague mask,  revealing piercing Hyndestane blue eyes. Kaliq’s smile turned into a grin, ‘’Princess Annamaria,’’ he said fondly, leaning over the counter to kiss his informator on the cheek as she slipped a piece of parchment discreetly under his tunic, ‘’how are your fathers?’’

Kaliq was not, in fact, asking about the wellbeing of Captain Aedan Hyndestane and his husband, Carahan Soriano. The start of their conversation was code, established three years prior when the plague had started and they realised witches would, most likely, come under fire. Because Kaliq was a seer witch – one incredibly skilled, with the rare power to be able to conceal his one green eye into brown, to match the other. There were only a handful of people that knew of his origin, including his adoptive parents who ran the bakery with him, and Annamaria, who had formed a two-man underground railroad for witches who felt unsafe. For three years, they had been smuggling witches into Annamaria’s large town house and out to the pirates. There had only been a handful over the years – but now the real witch hunts had began, something Kaliq guessed from Annamaria’s reply, ‘’not well, unfortunately.’’ Ah, so bad news, then.

They exchanged a few more words, coded, agreeing to meet later to discuss the matter properly and Annamaria left with a basket of buns so her visit would not appear strange. Even though Koln was pretty witch-friendly most of the time, one could never be too careful, especially with Hailbronn on the prowl. Kaliq was a patient man. He finished his shift at the bakery and only once everything was sold did he close up the shop and hurry upstairs, to the living space. It had once upon a time been one large room, with his parents’ bed in one corner and a kitchen area in the other. When Mehedi and Mudrik had adopted Kaliq, they had built a wall into the space, giving him a room – tiny, but his.

‘’What’s that?’’ Mehedi asked from where he was sitting on the bed, when Kaliq thundered up the stairs producing the letter from where he’d tucked it into his pants. He was helping Mudrik weave bead-and-string bracelets that they sold off as ward charms against the plague. They were completely bullshit, of course, but people bought them because Kaliq, with his eyes concealed, sold them with his mask off, claiming he, a human, had not fallen to the plague thanks to them. It was playing the people’s hopes, but at least it kept the bakery going.

‘’Don’t know yet,’’ the half Moriyan, half Kai witch sat on the floor by the bed, peering at the letter. The wax seal was black, with the faint imprint of the assassin rose, ‘’it’s from Cana Kaale,’’ he said, frowning. He had been raised in Mystic, like all witches, but his parents had abandoned him in Moriya – or so he believed. He never saw them after they arrived in his mother’s home country and he was taken in by the assassins for a while. He met Jamael there and they still kept in regular contact. He ripped the letter open and skimmed the writing. He frowned and re-read it, properly, ‘’four witches...?’’ he murmured to himself.

‘’What is it?’’ Mehedi prompted, curious.

‘’Cana Kaale needs help from the pirates.’’

‘’And where are the pirates?’’ Mudrik asked calmly.

Kaliq gave his adoptive father a look, ‘’I was about to check,’’ then Kaliq closed his eyes, concentrated, and let his power roam the seas in search of the flotilla.

*~*~*

Altha Eyrie climbed up the rope running down the Little Cutlass, of which she was Captain, and jumped on deck, satchel full of food she had looted from the port of Soka, the West-most island of Sahr. She had also picked up a letter from Kaliq, a seer witch who always knew where the pirates would be. She and Kaliq had been in training for the City Watch of Kainan for one year when he arrived from Cana Kaale. She was expected to become a great soldier, like her grandmother, Eyrie the Immortal, the legendary Captain of the royal navy.

Instead, she became a pirate.

She was an impatient woman and she had read the letter even before she reached her ship, ‘’Captain,’’ Luciana, her navigator, came running up, ‘’the wind is finally right to sail south,’’ she informed as the rest of Altha’s pillaging party climbed on deck. Altha shook her head and gave her crew, gathered on deck and shivering in the snow, a bright grin, the one brown eye that wasn’t covered with a patch twinkling with a sense of adventure.

‘’I’ve got good news! Soon, we’ll be out of the cold!’’ she clapped Luciana on her shoulder, ‘’we sail to Moriya. To Port Maisdal.’’

Luciana frowned, tugging carrot-coloured hair out of her eyes, ‘’why Port Maisdal?’’

Altha produced Kaliq’s letter from her pocket and waved it in the air, ‘’we have a very special delivery to make, boys and girls!’’

*~*~*

Trees.

Forest.

A throne of flowers.

A woman upon it.

Dark hair.

Dark skin.

Dark eyes.

A crown of antlers and leaves.

A smile.

For her.

At her.

‘’Come.’’

She says.

‘’Come.’’

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

Mairwen gasped as if she had been held underwater, the wooden spoon clattering out of her hand. Her mother was at her side, grasping her shoulders, blue and grey eyes worried, searching, ‘’did you have a vision?’’ Amaria demanded. Mairwen nodded, forcing herself to swallow, to blink, to breathe. Amaria squeezed her daughter’s shoulders, ‘’what was it off?’’

Mair shook her head, ‘’nothing important. I mean, I don’t know. Just scraps. I don’t know what it meant.’’

Amaria sighed, ‘’another one of those, huh?’’ she got up, skirts swishing, and took her spot opposite her daughter at the small dinner table, ‘’eat your food, darling. Unless you’d rather rest?’’

‘’No, I’m okay,’’ Mair gave her mother a weak smile. She didn’t want to worry Amaria. Especially not with her visions, which she couldn’t control. She ate hurriedly and then went upstairs, saying she was tired. Instead, she leaned over the open arch of her window, gazing out at the other houses of Mystic, made of pretty stone. And, beyond them, at the forest, a dark, breathing mass. She squinted at it, brushing brown gold hair behind her ear.

The Queen of the Fae witches had just asked her to come.

And she had a pretty good idea why.

*~*~*

Daran had never seen Airen so pissed and, frankly, it scared him.

‘’You bastard!’’ Airen yelled, storming across the throne room to Daran. Airleas flinched at the sudden yell and Brannen turned, too late. Airen had already reached Daran and slammed his fist into his chest, hard enough to make Daran stumble backwards, ‘’you can’t send my family away!’’

‘’Calm down. Hey-!’’ Daran received another punch.

‘’You can’t send Faeryn to a temple!’’ Airen raged, ‘’she is the sister of the King, you can’t-‘’ the third punch Daran caught with his hand, finally getting over his surprise at Airen’s outburst. He was usually so composed but now his unbound, sun-bright hair was unbound, in his face, and his cheekbones were flushed while his pale green eyes flashed in anger.

‘’Watch your tone,’’ Daran barked, shoving Airen away, not hard enough to make him stumble. Just enough to put space between them. Brannen took a step towards Airen, undoubtedly ready to tackle Daran’s consort to the ground if need be. Airleas looked horrified.

‘’Watch my...watch my tone!?’’ Airen laughed in shock, ‘’you’re sending my only sister away but I’m supposed to watch my tone!? Why don’t you watch this!?’’ and he made a gesture at his husband, so vulgar Airleas gasped and a muscle jumped in Daran’s jaw.

‘’It’s a temporary arrangement,’’ Daran said, ice cold, ‘’until we find a better one.’’

‘’You mean until you find someone to marry her off too,’’ Airen yelled accusingly and now his voice wobbled, ‘’do whatever you want to me, I don’t care, but leave her out of it. Leave her alone!’’

‘’Don’t cry,’’ Daran said with resentment. He hated when people cried, as rarely as they did in Arnheim.

‘’I’m not crying, damn it!’’ Airen yelled, even though his eyes were going glassy. He faltered and his face turned pleading. It was certainly an...interesting look on him, ‘’please, Daran...’’ he said softly.

And Daran faltered, too. Despite what he promised his brother. He glanced towards Brannen but the man shook his head, ever so slightly. Daran forced his features to become stone, ‘’I have made up my mind.’’

Airen blinked a few times, getting rid of the tears, ‘’I hate you,’’ he whispered at the floor with so much viciousness that Daran believed him. Then he turned and ran out of the room. An awful silence descended upon the three men in the throne room.

‘’Daran,’’ Airleas said tenderly to his son, ‘’you should be more gentle with him. He’s scared.’’

‘’Why didn’t you tell him why we’re sending his sister away?’’ Brannen questioned quietly, ‘’he’d understand. He hates it here. She’ll like the temples better.’’

But Daran just shook his head, ‘’I didn’t say it because it doesn’t matter what he thinks of me,’’ he looked towards the doors where Airen had disappeared, ‘’it will be much easier for all of us if he just keeps on hating me.’’

*~*~*

Mairwen and Fynn were waiting on the edge of the Fae forest. Mairwen was pacing, nervous. She was setting out into the unknown without her mother’s knowledge. She didn’t want to worry her, but if Amaria found out, she’d be worried anyway...

‘’Stop pacing,’’ Fynn grumbled, ‘’you’re making me nervous.’’

‘’Sorry,’’ Mair said, but kept on pacing. She only stopped when she heard someone coming, alerted by their footsteps.

‘’Sorry we’re late,’’ Mardin said with a smile.

Mair smiled back, grateful he was there, and then glanced up at Mardin’s brother, ‘’oh. Hi, Nythil. I didn’t know you were coming, too.’’

The thirty one year old smiled kindly. He had been taking care of Mardin since their mother passed. His eyes were blue and brown, and he was blond, too, but his hair was much paler than Mardin’s, in a braid down his chest with a beard to match. While Mardin was an Elementalist, Nythil was a simple Witchling – he could do small magic tricks, which ranked him the lowest in witch society in terms of power. But he did have a special gift that he could use only a certain amount of times, like all witchlings – if he used it all up, he would become human and would be barred from Mystic. Nythil had never used it.

‘’I figured it’d be good to have an actual responsible adult with us,’’ Mardin explained.

‘’Welcome to the expedition,’’ Fynn smiled. They all liked Nythil, ‘’now, can we get going, before-‘’

‘’FYNN RIDDLER!’’

‘’...before my fiancé finds me,’’ Fynn grumbled and groaned when Rain appeared in front of him. As a warrior witch, Rain wasn’t only a witch prince, but he could also perform most magic types – like teleportation – at least in Mystic. In the human world, his powers were limited. Fynn wished they were limited here, too – he could have at least gotten a head start on the running if Rain hadn’t teleported.

‘’Where do you think you’re going?’’ Rain demanded, brown green eyes narrowing.

‘’Are you my mother?’’ Fynn tried to step away but Rain grabbed his wrist.

The warrior witch looked around and finally zeroed in on Mairwen, ‘’Mair,’’ he said as calmly as he could, ‘’what were you planning?’’

‘’Tell him, Mair,’’ Mardin advised before Mairwen could come up with a good lie, ‘’having a warrior witch with us would be pretty useful.’’

Fynn gave him a blank stare, ‘’we’re not friends anymore,’’ he announced.

Mair turned to Rain. He scared her a bit, not just because he was a warrior witch, but because he had a pretty grumpy personality, ‘’I had a vision,’’ she started, ‘’from the Fae Witch Queen. She wants me to come to her.’’

Rain stared at her, ‘’you want to see the Wild Hunt!?’’

The Fae forest was pretty safe – as long as you didn’t venture too deep into it. The Wild Hunt were dangerous if they wanted to be and they kept themselves separate from the other witches of Mystic, deep within the Fae forest. They never left, like normal witches did, ‘’Mair thinks the Queen might know a way to stop the plague,’’ Fynn said, tugging his hand out of Rain’s grip, ‘’and if she does then the witch hunts in Moriya and Hailbronn might stop,’’ of course, the witches of Mystic had been the first to hear about the atrocities committed against their own kind.

‘’You were going to go into the Fae forest without telling me?’’ Rain asked Fynn.

Fynn rolled his eyes and groaned, ‘’this isn’t about you, Rain. This is about saving our kind!’’

‘’You could have told me! I could have helped!’’ Rain put a quick damper on his anger and turned to Mair, ‘’I will come with you. In case you need protection.’’

Mair and Mardin looked relieved, ‘’thanks.’’

‘’We’ll talk about this later,’’ Rain added in Fynn’s direction. He was the first to step between the trees. For the first hour they walked in silence, in the relatively safe part of the forest. Then, it started getting darker as the canopies of the trees, stuck in perpetual summer, started growing closer together. The roots of the trees became gnarled and uneven. Pretty soon they were all stumbling and tripping, except for Rain, who had been trained in such environments. After the third time that Fynn nearly fell, Rain slipped his hand into his, stabilising him – and offering a silent apology for his outburst. Fynn didn’t take his hand out of Rain’s.

They were all on edge, though. The forest was treacherous, if it wanted to be, and they had no idea what they would come upon within it.

*~*~*

Everything was a blur for Jasper once he stepped off the boat.

He hadn’t gone to Khandar, like Arne had said, but had instead followed Pendragon’s advice. Now he landed on the uninhabited, forlorn island of flowers. Kai was one of Kainan’s islands, but it had never been settled. And yet Jas had ended up there, like the hell witch had said – and now he wondered if that would be the end of him. The island of Kai was even colder than Kainan, coated in snow. Already wet from the ocean and the snow, Jas stumbled onto land, leaving his boat behind. He had no idea what he was looking for and his brain wasn’t working properly – he was hungry, thirsty and tired beyond belief. His shock had worn off during the long hours in which he had rowed, and he had cried enough to give himself a head ache.

Now, numb from pain, cold and realisation of his situation, he didn’t think straight as he stumbled inland. For hours he walked, his cloak now soaked through, his fingers bright red and numb, his whole body shaking so much it was painful. He reached a forest, at one point, covered in so much snow Jas didn’t realise he was amongst snow till a branch hit his forehead. He walked and walked, slowly feeling everything from his toes to his forehead freeze over.

Eventually he realised he failed.

Whatever was on the island of Kai, whatever Pendragon had wanted him to find, he wouldn’t find in the end. He’d die. He was unprepared, without food, without proper clothing. He hadn’t slept, scared he’d open more doors to pocket realms where the dead lurked, waiting for their chance to kill him. Jasper could go between worlds of the living and the dead and for that, every soul that had not passed on wanted him dead. That was his cursed, useless power. Eventually, too tired and cold to even attempt to think anymore, he sank against a tree. It felt good to sit down. The shivers were gradually dying down. He stared up at the sky, so beautifully pale blue. He had rowed through the night but he was glad his end would come at day. Day wasn’t as frightful as night, Jas thought as snowflakes settled on his lashes.

‘’I’m going to die,’’ he whispered to himself in a hoarse, croaky voice and laughed, a sound like nails on rock. His strength was leaving him, his vision was going blurry.

Jasper stared out into the gorgeous, deadly whiteness of the scenery, admired for the final time the way the snow settled on the trees, on the ground. He wondered what the island looked like in spring. Wondered why he’d never been bothered to check. Now he listened to the soft singing of the wind and the rush of the snow.

And then, out of nowhere, another sound was added.

A soft pat, like footsteps, but lighter.

Jasper blinked snow out of his eyes as he stared into the whiteness, which had now been interrupted. Two brown pin pricks were hovering in the air, nearing him, like two tiny lights. Jas squinted and realised that the two pin pricks were eyes – eyes set within a beast of white fur that made it nearly indistinguishable from the snow. Fear gripped the young prince as the huge wolf, at least large enough to reach Jas’ stomach if he stood, approached. Freezing to death was one thing but being mauled by a wolf was another. The adrenaline gave one final, futile burst of realisation to Jas, but then it died down as quickly as it had come. He was too weak to get up, much less fight the beast. So he sat there, watching it approach. Finally, the beast stopped in front of Jas, watching him.

And, without even knowing why he would do such an insane thing, Jas used the last of his strength to reach out towards the massive wolf. As if it had been waiting for the gesture, the beast approached and a second later Jas’ hand sank into soft fur and brushed against scalding-hot skin. It felt good, Jas decided. Even if the wolf would eat him, Jas was grateful he could touch something warm one last time. He threaded his fingers through the wolf’s fur which, upon closer look, was ever so slightly tan rather than just pure white. A crazy thought came to Jas’ head – that he would have liked to befriend the wolf. As it stood, the wolf simply edged closer, resting its massive head on Jas’ shoulder. Jas wrapped his arms around the wolf, going limp, letting himself rest against the animal’s warmth. He pressed his cheek into the soft fur and closed his eyes.

Finally, he floated away.

Chapter Text

Jasper opened his green-blue eyes and blinked at the ceiling. He remembered falling unconscious to a field of whiteness, but now he stared at a jagged, rocky cavern ceiling, aglow with the warmth of a fire crackling merrily somewhere nearby. Had he died? It was possible. Jas could never tell when he walked through a door into the realm of the dead and with the plague raging, there were more of those than ever. Still, if he had walked in through a door, he wouldn’t be peacefully regaining consciousness. No, the dead would tear him apart, perpetually hating him for being able to walk in and out of their prisons. That must have meant he was...

‘’Alive,’’ Jasper whispered in awe. And now freezing. No, he was warm, lying on something soft. There was a fire. Jas’ eyes widened. Someone must have started it...

‘’Oh,’’ a deep, male voice said, ‘’you didn’t die,’’ the voice was unlike anything Jas’ had ever heard. Human on the surface but just below, as if at a frequency barely heard by humans, there was a growl-like texture to it, a rumbling of a sleeping beast. It wasn’t unpleasant to hear, but it made Jas realised that he had to be very careful. Because the person in the cave was no more human than Jasper was.

Extremely slowly, Jasper sat up, grateful that he hadn’t lost any limb to the cold. A fur slipped off him and he realised he had been lying on a pile of other furs, indeed within a cave. The mouth of the cave opened into nothingness; there was no wintry landscape or the sky. Were they underground? And Jas realised that there was no fire within the cavern, that it was most likely heated by a hot spring or a molten centre of the caves – no, the glow came from a primitive lantern resting against the wall.

And, next to it, sat the man with the inhuman voice.

Suddenly, Jasper was grateful that the only thing distinguishing him as a witch was the colour of his eyes because the stranger could never pass as a human. His physique was that of a powerful man – a broad chest and muscular arms hidden beneath a simple leather tunic, the skin a beautiful rich gold colour, as if the man spent his life in the eternal summer of Mystic, not in the icy plains of nowhere. The man’s long legs were stretched out in front of him, feet bare, and he was sharpening a small dagger in his lap. But his colouring and his face... his golden brown skin made his white hair even starker in comparison. Jasper had seen pale blonde hair, and silver – but never white. The man raised a white eyebrow at Jas’ stares, his eyes staring right back. Eyes that were a pale brown, framed by a thick arch of eyelashes as white as the man’s hair.

And then there were the markings.

Two lines of pitch black tattoos running down from the man’s temples, curving around his cheekbones and descending down to his jaw. They were not tattooed in place – they looked like he had been born with the ancient markings upon his face, ‘’are you done staring?’’ he asked in that strange voice.

Jas’ throat was dry, ‘’who are you?’’ he whispered in a shaking voice.

‘’Your saviour,’’ the man said with contempt, eyeing Jasper up and down, ‘’you’ve been occupying my space for the past two days. It irritates me.’’

Jasper blinked, ‘’s-sorry.’’

The man contemplated that and finally pocketed the tiny dagger, ‘’I’m Othelen,’’ he introduced himself, ‘’you got a name?’’

‘’Jasper,’’ came the quick reply, ‘’I’m the crown prince of Solin...’’ Jas trailed off, Othelen’s words finally registering. Saviour? No, he hadn’t been saved by a man. He had been saved by a...

‘’Who you are doesn’t matter here,’’ Othelen shrugged and stood, stretching his strong, lithe body.

‘’And where is ‘here’ exactly?’’

‘’The island of Kai,’’ Othelen glanced down at him like he was eyeing a particularly annoying animal, ‘’I’ll let you rest for today but tomorrow, I want you out of my cave.’’ Jasper began getting up. He wasn’t supposed to be on one of Kainan’s islands – he was supposed to be in Khandar, or somewhere where he could figure out how to help his family. Othelen kissed his teeth, ‘’stay down, whelp. You haven’t regained your strength yet.’’

Questions clattered around Jasper’s head – ones that he needed to know the answers to, immediately. But as he stood, his knees buckled under him. His head spun and he found himself falling, his vision going dark. The last thing he remembered was falling against Othelen, the man’s arms holding him up, ‘’what did I just say?’’ came his irritated voice, as if through water, before Jasper slipped away again.

*~*~*

The Fae forest seemed to have a voice of its own, once the witch party dwelled deeper within it. An echoing tinkling, as if the ancient, gnarled trees hung with a thousand invisible, silver bells. A whisper of flames, of rustling leaves, of things that lived within the thick, dark crowns of the trees, made of moonlight and laughter. Mairwen walked through the forest, avoiding roots and other things that tripped her up, in quiet reverence. The trees were so thick here it was almost impossible to tell if night had fallen; the Fae forest was aglow internally, as if its very core was made of a molten sun, making the path barely visible. Here the creatures that ventured alone into the witch end of the forest were more prominent. Packs of critters nestled within the trees and the ground; a dozen of bat-like things with two bone-spikes instead of ears, so tiny they could have all fit upon Mair’s palm; more cat critters, running between the trees in a shuffle of shadow; massive butterflies, as big as Mair’s head, nestled upon the branches, brown and green wings passable for leaves until the butterflies turned their humanoid faces towards the newcomers in interest, furry wings rustling.

There were moss-beasts here, too. Not young animals overgrown with moss and other greenery, young and eager to explore, that Mair often came upon. No, these were ancient beasts, bodies made of cracked stone as if they had been borne from mountains, backs and heads sprouting flowers and small trees and other plants. As she walked past, Mair stared with wide eyes at a massive, heavy creature, whose multiple horns ended with flowers. Its ancient eyes followed Mair’s movement with disinterest, before it turned back to munching on grass.

‘’Shit,’’ Rain said and his voice, deep and gruff, disturbed the otherworldly song of the Fae forest.

Mair looked to where Rain had stopped and realised she had been so absorbed in the sounds and views around her that she had not heard, nor seen, what now lay in their path. Mair frowned, coming to a stop next to Rain with the rest of their party, ‘’there’s only one river in Mystic,’’ Mair said in confusion, for there was a river indeed running before her, angry and wild and roaring. Mair peeked down at it from where she stood on the edge of the path. It was too wild to swim through and there was no bridge within sight, ‘’shit,’’ she agreed with Rain, who had stepped in front of Fynn protectively.

And then the ground beneath Mair gave way, crumbling into nothingness and she screamed as she fell into the raging waters. 

*~*~*

Bren was honestly surprised Orin could host an outdoor luncheon, even in the middle of winter. He sat next to Wrath, feeling partly like a prize to be paraded and partly like an honoured guest, at the table of the royals, the court spread out in the snowy garden. Tables had been brought out, decorated with snowflake-crisp cloths, scented candles and piles of tiny crystals resembling the snow. The tables were piled high with warm foods and drinks and the guests enjoyed the event, taking the opportunity to show off their furs and beautiful winter clothes. Bren felt slightly out of place at the royal table, with Princess Alinor giving him disdained looks. But General Dagnan, Orin’s other sister, was completely at ease with him, or at least so it seemed, since she mostly ate in dead silence, letting her family do the talking for her.

‘’Bren,’’ Orin said with a smile that could have melted the snow off the trees cupping the luncheon in the garden, ‘’have you ever tried warmed chocolate?’’ Bren shook his head in silence. He hadn’t tried a great many things. Orin perked up at the prospect of giving him a new thing to try and ladled steaming, thick brown liquid from a silver vase in the middle of their table into a chalice, ‘’try it,’’ Orin offered him the chalice. Bren flushed, thankfully saved by the fact that his nose and cheeks were already reddened from the cold. He knew Orin was breaking a dozen etiquette rules by serving someone much lower in rank, but it didn’t seem like those things mattered in Koln.

‘’Thank you,’’ Bren whispered, taking the chalice from the King and wrapping his chilled fingers around it. He was already bundled in a beautiful royal blue cloak, brand new – he was quickly running out of space in his room to put the beautiful clothes that Wrath insisted on sending him. Since their night together, Wrath had gone right back to avoiding him, despite his promises. Bren knew he had hurt him, deeply, by involuntarily thinking about Orin. He hadn’t meant to and he hated himself for extinguishing a part of his kindness, however involuntary it had been. Now he only ever saw Wrath when he came to eat with the royal family. That confused him, too. He was a slave, bought on the whim recently – why was he being treated like he was married to Wrath? Or to Orin? He gulped down the chocolate to stop his thoughts. The hot, sweet liquid warmed him and he blinked, surprised.

Orin flashed him a grin, ‘’we have it imported from Moriya. Do you like it?’’

Bren nodded eagerly and then, like always, his eyes slid over to Wrath, who only looked at him when it was absolutely necessary, ‘’your grace, do you like warmed chocolate?’’

‘’No,’’ came Wrath’s instant snappy reply and Bren shrunk in on himself, drinking his chocolate. He missed the look Wrath received from Orin for his tone, or the way Wrath rolled his dark eyes.

Dagnan finished her wine and looked towards her brother, ‘’Orin, perhaps now is the time...?’’

Bren glanced up, stopping the tirade of mental smacks he was giving himself. The time for what? Orin nodded, posture and face suddenly tight and grim. Alinor stood, her sweeping pale blue gown falling around her like an icy waterfall and, with a charming smile, hit a silver spoon against her goblet, the sound tinkling past the tables till everyone fell silent, ‘’my brother would like to inform his esteemed court about something. If you would pause your dining, darlings,’’ she proclaimed, sitting back down gracefully.

Orin rose, received with bright smiles and nods, ‘’I apologise for putting a damper on this lunch, however I am sure all of you have heard of the witch hunts that have spread from Moriya into Kainan,’’ the smiles of the guests disappeared in favour of grim nods, ‘’the atrocities committed by the Hailbronn army under General Niktohal Magana have now reached Solin, where the royal family has been imprisoned before they could rally their armies,’’ a few gasps sounded around the snowy garden. Orin’s face hardened from politeness to something stronger, more determined, ‘’I would like to take this opportunity to let all of you know that Koln will not succumb to Hailbronn’s insurgence and that I have already opened the borders to witch refugees,’’ more gasps, some appalled. Alinor paled but Dagnan’s face shone with pride, ‘’it has never been proven that witches cause the plagues and I will not give up hundreds of innocent lives to attempt to stop something that is already upon us. My physicians work day and night to find the origins of the plague but until it is proven that it comes from the witches, they will be welcome in this kingdom and in this court. If any of you have strong negative feelings about my decisions, please, by all means, leave court. But this is non negotiable. The borders will remain open.’’

He sat back down and immediately the people around the tables burst into astounded chatter. Bren stared at Orin with new found respect. He had wondered if Orin’s whole life was spent in a protected bubble of parties and luncheons but apparently he wasn’t King for nothing. And he could put that honey-rich, deep voice to good use. A flash of movement under the table caught Bren’s eye and he glanced down in time to see Wrath take Orin’s slightly trembling hand, lace their fingers together and rest them on his lap under the table. Bren wondered how much the choice to open the borders had cost Orin; and how much vulnerability as a young King he hid on a daily basis. Bren found himself thankful that he had Wrath, at least, ‘’you did good,’’ the archduke assured in a quiet voice.

‘’I-I didn’t know we were opening borders-‘’ Alinor gasped.

‘’Non negotiable,’’ Dagnan reminded her sister, ‘’I think this is a wise choice, brother.’’

Alinor’s pale blue eyes flashed, ‘’you knew!’’ she accused.

Dagnan inclined her head, ‘’of course I knew. I am the General of the Koln armies; we have been working since two days ago to prepare the borders for the flood of witches. Monterrey and Kanalai will take the brunt of the Solin refugees and we will set up meeting points in the villages east of the Moher Mountains for those escaping Hailbronn.’’

‘’Gods save us all,’’ Alinor whispered.

‘’It’s a bit late for that,’’ Wrath told her bluntly, and squeezed Orin’s hand under the table.

Bren lifted his head to Orin, ‘’so what now, your majesty?’’

‘’Now,’’ Orin said grimly, ‘’the other kingdoms must decide which side they’re on.’’

*~*~*

Rain’s hand swished out the moment he saw the ground beneath Mair’s feet crumble, but it was met with air as Mair fell within the waters. Fynn screamed, the sound like a dagger through Rain’s heart, ‘’Mair, grab onto something!’’ he yelled as the witch resurfaced, gasping for breath, her body already carried away in the violent current. Her arms shot out and she grasped an overgrown branch hanging over the river. It creaked, but held. The violent water hit Mair’s body like a punch. Fynn turned to a stunned Mardin, ‘’Mar, lessen the blow!’’ he yelled desperately, ‘’water is your element!’’

The Elementalist witch snapped out of his shock and reached out, hands closing before him as if on an invisible rope and he tugged. The river sloshed backwards violently, as if a dam had been put in place, and when it raced forward again it was with lesser power, so that Mair could grab onto the branch properly and, breathing hard, look for a way out of the water. Sweat broke out on Mardin’s temple, ‘’shit, it’s strong,’’ he muttered, hands tightening in the air. Nythil cast his little brother a worried look.

‘’I’m getting her,’’ Fynn proclaimed heatedly.

‘’No!’’ Rain protested but Fynn had already shifted into the form of a massive eagle and he took off, flying over the river barely held back by Mardin. He circled overhead, looking for a way to get Mairwen out of the situation. She was already losing strength after being hit by the strength of the water before.

Mardin gritted his teeth, his feet creating roves in the ground as he was dragged forward by the invisible rope, ‘’hurry...up...’’ he growled out.

Fynn landed on the branch Mair was holding onto, his hawk eyes snapping around in search of a way out. His beak held onto Mair’s sleeve desperately, as if that could hold her in place. Rain’s blood ran cold when he suddenly heard Mardin shout, ‘’Mair, hold on!’’

Then the invisible rope was ripped from his hands and he fell back just as the river reared its head and rushed forward with all of its previous power. Mair cried out as the water hit her with force and Rain in turn cried out when the tree, shaken by the sudden impact, creaked and Fynn fell off, feathers falling off him in a sudden motion before he hit the water, ‘’Fynn!’’ Rain roared.

Mairwen reached out with one hand in a desperate attempt and managed to grab Fynn’s wrist in a feeble grip just as Rain, all sense gone out of his head, dived into the waters. His powerful body cut through the current. If anyone was capable of beating the strength of the river, it was a warrior witch; but there was no way Rain could do it if he was lugging Fynn or Mair with him. Nythil stared around the forest desperately. Why was this river here? How did a river so powerful roar past trees that had grown close together thus far? Unless...

Unless the river wasn’t actually there.

Nythil finally saw the Bone Witch, half camouflaged where she stood between two trees by a thick cape of leaves and moss. Like most things within the Fae forest, she belonged to it; a branch sprouted from her spine, like a massive, half-formed wing, and her face was half bone, in the shape of a bird’s beak and skull, and half bark, growing into more jagged branches atop her head, framing a thick mane of feather-like grey hair. One gnarled hand held a wooden staff, the other a flickering light. Nythil, as a witchling, had no power to train; he spent most of his time reading.

And he knew all about the Bone Witches.

‘’Mair, let go of the tree!’’ he hollered. Mardin stared at him in shock from where he still sat on the floor, catching his breath. Rain reached them just as Nythil’s cry cut through the air, catching Fynn around his waist. Mair reached out to grab the branch with her other hand but her strength gave out, ‘’Mair, the river isn’t real!’’

Her tired eyes flicked to her friend and finally realisation sparked in her eyes. She glanced to where Nythil pointed, spotted the Bone Witch she had seen illustrated in books and, finally, let go, letting the current tumble her through the waters like it now did Rain and Fynn.

A second later Mair landed on her ass in something wet and slimy. The river was gone and when Mair looked towards the Bone Witch, she shook her head and her small body waddled away in disappointment. Bone Witches weren’t incredibly powerful; they were illusionists who could hold an illusion as long as it was not recognised as one, ‘’ah, shit,’’ Fynn raised his arms, coated in watery mud that he, Mair and Rain found themselves in – a large puddle of it that the Bone Witch had transformed into an illusion of a river. Mair looked down at herself – she was coated in the brown stuff. But she wasn’t tired anymore and he stomach didn’t hurt from being hit repeatedly by the roaring waves.

Mardin got up from the ground, rubbing his sore hands gently, ‘’no wonder it was so hard to control. It’s mud, not water.’’

The three witches cringed as they got up, shaking off as much mud as they could off their clothes, ‘’I’d love to see the Fae Queen’s face when we roll up to her court covered in dirt,’’ Mair grumbled. 

*~*~*

Airen could barely sit at the table with House Eiris at breakfast. The whole palace was freezing as the winter intensified and the silent servants, as bedecked in weapons as the guards, had been working over time that morning to light every fire in every room. Still, Airen sat at the table with his slim body pooled in the thick layers of his cloak. He didn’t even attempt to make a show of eating anything – he sat there, staring grimly at his plate, ignoring the worried look Airleas and Daimhin gave him. It had been a few days since Faeryn had been sent away and without her, Airen realised how very alone he was. He desperately clung to his mother, the last person who didn’t loathe him in the dark, grim palace of Arnheim. Being forced to dine with the royal family, with his mother still absent, was something that made him realise his isolation even further; he wouldn’t touch his food until his mother arrived and he felt even a tiny bit safe. He had contemplated opening up to Daim; if not an ally, then he could at least have been a friend. But the Prince hadn’t stopped his brother from sending away Airen’s only sister and now Airen didn’t feel like making friends with any representative of the household. So he sat there in his chair, stiff and silent.

Daran did his best to ignore him, ‘’Koln has sent a clear message about whose side they are on,’’ he informed his family, swishing hot wine around his goblet. With Airen present he didn’t seem to have much of an appetite either.

Thirteen year old Cian raised his head, ‘’what does that mean?’’ he asked in a timid voice so uncharacteristic for a child of Arnheim.

‘’They’ve began taking in witch refugees,’’ Daran set his goblet down, ‘’it’s a message for the other kingdoms. Despite Hailbronn taking Solin, and practically knocking on Koln’s doors, they have opened their borders,’’ Daran’s eyes flicked to Airen, gouging his reaction to the news, but the man remained staring down at the table. Yame had been hit by the plague pretty badly three years prior, but the cold had since slowed its progressions, ‘’bravery or foolishness, I have yet to decide.’’

‘’And will we be joining them?’’ Brannen question wearily.

‘’Some monarchs of Kainan are of our house,’’ Kane speculated.

But Daran shook his head, ‘’Arnheim will remain neutral in the proceedings of the other kingdoms, as we have always had. We just came out of a war; we must focus on rebuilding our own kingdoms. The witches of Arnheim will be under protection, but Arnheim had been hit the least by the plague since we put up the barriers along the coast. If we open our borders, we are risking the death of thousands of our people.’’

‘’Wise,’’ Airleas said quietly, sadly, ‘’wise, but heartbreaking.’’

Daim’s pitch black eyes glimmered with determination, ‘’we could send armies-‘’

‘’Let the Western kingdoms sort out their own wars,’’ Daran cut in, ‘’if we attack them, they will attack us. Arnheim has suffered enough war. I promised them peace.’’ No one else argued. Daran’s pale blue eyes slid to Airen, staring at his fisted hands in his lap. As always when he thought about war, about what it had cost his family and his people, his blood boiled, ‘’what do you think, husband?’’ he asked in a dark, amused voice.

To his credit, Airen didn’t flinch, but Airleas cut his son a sharp look. Airen squared his shoulders and glanced up, light green eyes stormy, ‘’where is my mother?’’ his voice was soft but strong. Not a question, but a demand.

Airleas offered him a kind smile, ‘’I could have a servant see when she is-‘’

‘’No need,’’ Daran’s ice cold voice cut through his father’s, ‘’she is in the dungeon.’’

The table seemed to take a collective inhale, and then...

Airen shoved himself away from the table, ‘’what?’’ he hissed, slamming his hands down on the wood, dangerously close to where Daran’s unused knife lay.

Airleas paled, ‘’Daran, what is the meaning of this?’’

Kane’s brows furrowed, ‘’why didn’t you tell u-‘’

‘’Because I don’t need to explain myself to anyone, father. You made me King,’’ Daran’s cold gaze was directed at Airen, whose chest was fluttering like a bird imprisoned in a cage, eyes flashing with all of the Kolnese storms, ‘’your mother,’’ Daran spat the word with so much hate that Airen took a step back as his husband rose, ‘’has been found with letters addressed to the Moreland faction in Yam- in the north of Arnheim.

‘’Liar!’’ instead of backing down further, Airen stepped back forward, glaring up at Daran.

‘’Time and again she has tried to destroy the peace my house fights for,’’ Daran glared right back. The muscle in his jaw didn’t jump; he was furious, but in control, ‘’she is exactly where she belongs.’’

Airen held Daran’s gaze far longer than anyone else would have dared. Daran’s family seemed to hold their breath. Then, suddenly, without another word, Airen turned sharply on his foot and marched towards the doors, ‘’don’t you dare see her!’’ Daran yelled after him, his resolve finally crumbling in the face of a husband he could not control, ‘’Airen!’’ But Airen stormed out of the dining hall and the doors slammed shut behind him. Daimhin swore quietly and rose from his chair, too, ‘’sit down,’’ Daran barked at him.

‘’For the love of the gods, Dar, stop trying to isolate him from everyone,’’ Daim said helplessly.

‘’He’s dangerous. I will not have you get close to him.’’

‘’His mother is dangerous, or as dangerous as a single woman locked in the dungeon can be,’’ Daim shook his head, ‘’stop pretending like Airen isn’t as much a victim of this war as we are.’’

Daran watched, stunned, as his younger brother ran after Airen.

Meanwhile Airen, un-halted by anyone, demanded a guard to take him to the dungeons; the warrior had stared at him with cold disdain, but he did not deny his King consort. A few minutes later, Airen found himself in the underground chambers of the palace. Here it was nearly as cold as outside; Airen’s breath came out in white, cloudy puffs and he shivered, walking through the grimy, stone corridors, past empty cells. He stopped when he reached the only one that was guarded, ‘’leave us,’’ he snarled at the two guards who obediently shuffled to the end of the dungeon, keeping a wary eye on the consort.

‘’Airen!’’ Marietta Moreland got up from where she had been sitting on the wooden bench and flew to her son.

Airen wrapped his hands around the steel bars separating him from his mother, ‘’please, tell me it isn’t true.’’ Marietta halted her hand a second before it touched Airen’s; the young King searched her eyes desperately, ‘’mother, I beg you...’’

‘’I am sorry, my son,’’ Marietta smiled sadly, ‘’I was preparing us to mount a rebellion. It was to be the foundation of our revenge; but I was prematurely caught.’’

‘’Don’t say it out loud,’’ Airen hissed.

Marietta shook her head, ‘’it doesn’t matter now, Ai. They know. The letters were sealed with my ring and signed.’’

Something inside Airen crumbled, ‘’why...why did you have to...’’ tears stung at his eyes and he didn’t halt them as they rolled down his face, ‘’I can’t lose you, too...’’

‘’Shhh,’’ Marietta finally reached for him, slipping a thin, pale hand through the bars to caress his face, ‘’this isn’t over.’’

‘’Mother, he has grounds to execute you!’’

Marietta’s eyes burned, ‘’then make sure he doesn’t,’’ she stroked Airen’s cheek, ‘’he will fall by our hand.’’

Airen wiped his tears, ‘’mother, I...this revenge...I just...I just want us to be together. Me and you and Faeryn.’’

‘’Me too, my love,’’ Marietta whispered heatedly, ‘’but don’t you see? That will never come to pass as long as the monster King is on the throne. On your throne.’’

Airen shook his head, ‘’please...this will only get you killed...’’

But Marietta did not listen, ‘’do this for me, my son. Find a way out of here for me. We will be more careful next time.’’

Airen’s heart was heavy with dread. Conspiracy at court was risky as it was; having been caught once...this could end with the execution of the whole Moreland family. But he could not say no to Marietta’s burning eyes. And, when Fionn’s face, his gentle smile, floated into his mind, Airen gave a quick nod and, unable to be in the presence of his imprisoned mother any longer, fled.

He bumped into Daim in the corridor of the upper levels, where he had been waiting, giving Airen his space. He caught him when Airen nearly flew into him, by his arms, gently, ‘’Airen,’’ he said gently, ‘’you’ve been crying.’’

‘’Forgive me, but I must-‘’

‘’Airen,’’ Daim interrupted him gently. He was two years younger than Airen, but they were the same height, which allowed Daim to peer into his eyes with worry, ‘’I know that my family and I have not done anything to gain your trust yet. I know we sent Faeryn away, but...isn’t that better? You all hate it here. Isn’t it better that she doesn’t have to bear this, like you do?’’ Airen blinked, surprised; he hadn’t thought of that, ‘’Airen, I’m your brother now. I know you want nothing to do with house Eiris, but I am. You may confide in me; I’m your friend, alright?’’ Daim waited for a nod, an acknowledgement, but Airen just stared at his feet. The younger boy gave a sad smile, ‘’is there anything I can do for you in the present moment?’’

Airen jolted and Daim realised that no one had asked him that yet – no one had asked him what he needed, ‘’the dungeons...’’ Airen whispered, ‘’they’re very cold. Could you...get my mother some furs?’’

‘’Yes. Of course,’’ Daim was relieved that Airen offered him at least that much, ‘’I will see to it immediately,’’ he squeezed Airen’s shoulders, once, and let go, ‘’find me if you need me,’’ he said by way of goodbye and hurried down the corridor.

*~*~*

When Jasper awoke again, he knew it was night. It was as dark as before, with a couple burning lanterns casting an amber glow on the cave in which Jasper slept, but the atmosphere had shifted. Jas could tell that if he were to step outside, he’d be met with the twinkling stars and the black sky. His head spun; he felt feverish. Othelen was nowhere to be seen. Jas glanced around the cavern. Besides the pile of furs that Jas lay on, there was a chest in the corner of the cavern. There were wooden shelves hanging on the stone walls, containing the strangest things, from bunches of dried flowers to colourful pebbles and shells to old, leathery books; as if whoever dwelled in the cave was half man, half beast. And then there was the light – in jars and lanterns and tiny orbs hanging on ropes around the cavern, up the ceiling, illuminating the space. Jasper rubbed his temple. He remembered Othelen telling him he was on Kai, the island of flowers, located North West off the coast of Kainan. But how in the hell had he gotten into these caves?

Jas winced when suddenly he heard a growl that cut through his aching head like an arrow. He glanced around with hazy eyes, trying to pinpoint the source of the sound. Just then he saw a flash in the cave mouth, opening into darkness and a wolf jumped in neatly. Jasper gasped, eyes widening, but before he could scramble back from the beast, he realised he recognised it – it was the same wolf that he had fallen unconscious against in the forest. So it hadn’t eaten him, ‘’hey, you,’’ Jas said softly and the growl of the wolf cut off abruptly. It padded over, eager, ‘’did you bring me here?’’ the wolf surprised Jas by coming to sit by him, curling up next to him on the nest. With Jas sitting, they were the same height – the wolf really was massive. Jas smiled at its pleasant smell – it didn’t smell like dogs did, wet and musty. He smelled like the snow and the fresh, crisp air – unlike a wolf at all. Jas reached out to sink a hand into its warm, pale gold tinted fur, ‘’thanks,’’ he said.

The wolf nudged its nose against Jas’ neck, in a friendly, playful gesture. And when it pulled back, it gazed into Jasper’s eyes. Jas’ brows furrowed as he took in the colour of the wolf’s orbs – pale brown –and his lashes: white. The fur...it was as if someone had combined pure white hair and golden skin. And those eyes... ‘’Othelen!?’’ Jas gasped in disbelief.

The wolf said nothing – of course it didn’t, it was a wolf; it simply rested its head against Jas’ thigh and closed its eyes. Jas held his breath. It would explain many things – how the wolf had dragged him into Othelen’s cave, why the man lived in a cave in the first place, why Othelen had such an otherworldly appearance and a growl-like quality to his voice... ‘’oh, gods...’’ Jasper whispered. Othelen opened his eyes and glanced at Jasper making a soft, whiny noise at the back of his throat. He seemed harmless, friendly...unlike human Othelen.

Jasper’s head spun. He was developing a fever. He plopped himself backwards into the covers, closing his eyes, unable to think anymore. Wolf-Othelen shifted on his lap and pounced, lying practically atop Jas. Jasper wondered what the hell he was doing but then realised that he didn’t care, because the wolf was hot enough to probably chase away Jas’ fever.

The Prince closed his eyes.

*~*~*

‘’Do we even know where we’re going?’’ Fynn complained.

‘’The Wild Hunt dwells in the deepest part of the forest, right?’’ Mair said, ‘’so we need to get deeper.’’

They were all tired, hungry and coated in caked mud. They were beginning to question the point of their venture. Rain glanced around, ‘’did you hear that?’’

‘’Hear what?’’ Nythil asked.

‘’A creaking.’’

‘’Everything in this place creaks,’’ Fynn grumbled, rubbing at his wrist. Caked on mud crumbled off.

Rain glanced away from the forest uncertainly.

‘’Seriously,’’ Mardin said, ‘’I don’t know if we can get any deeper. For the last couple of hours, the trees have all been thick and everything’s been dark and nothing is looking different to anything else.’’

‘’There’s no point turning back now,’’ Nythil advised his brother gently, ‘’our best bet is to find the Fae Queen and ask her to house us for the night.’’

‘’For all we know, night is already upon us,’’ Mardin glanced up pointedly at the thick canopy.

Rain stopped abruptly, ‘’seriously,’’ he glanced around, ‘’do you not hear that?’’

‘’It’s probably your warrior senses picking up on forest sounds,’’ Fynn said, ‘’come on, Rain. I’m really tired.’’

Rain’s attention snapped immediately from the sound to his fiancé, ‘’can you walk? Do you want me to carry you?’’

‘’Don’t baby me,’’ Fynn prowled on ahead and Rain followed him.

‘’I wish we had a map,’’ Mairwen said.

‘’Aren’t you supposed to be a map?’’ Mardin chuckled, ‘’you know, being a seer and all?’’

‘’Wouldn’t that be great?’’ Mairwen sighed sarcastically.

Rain stopped again and Mardin kissed his teeth, bumping into him. Rain gritted his teeth, ‘’that creaking-‘’

‘’What creaking, Rain?’’ Mardin demanded.

As if on cue, Wood Wives stepped from behind trees. The witch party took a step back. Like everything in this end of the Fae Forest, they seemed older, more ancient, more dangerous, than the ones the witches were used to. They were larger, towering even over Rain, the bark making up their bodies more wild, growing haphazardly in crumbly plates, their features sharper, eyes more green. Their bodies creaked with every movement, ‘’that creaking,’’ Rain said from the corner of his mouth.

‘’Who? Who?’’ one of the Wood Wives said, like an owl. There were birds perched in the crown of branches on her head, as ancient and dangerous as she.

‘’Witches,’’ another Wood Wife leered over the team; there were countless others behind her. She seemed to sniff the air, body creaking, ‘’witchlings.’’

‘’Who? Who?’’ the first Wood Wife asked again and the others picked up her call.

‘’Witches,’’ the voice of the second Wood Wife was little more than a hiss, a creak of her bark, ‘’what do they want? What do they seek?’’

‘’They’ve been following us,’’ Rain whispered darkly. His massive studded hammer appeared across his back. Most wouldn’t have been able to even lift a weapon that size; Rain carried it easily.

‘’Who? Who?’’ the Wood Wives demanded, voices getting raspier.

Mair stepped forward, although she was trembling, ‘’we seek the Fae Queen.’’

‘’Who? Who?’’ the Wood Wives crooned, now joined by the laughter of other, the sound like dry branches being broken in half.

‘’They’re toying with us,’’ Rain snarled. Indeed, the Wood Wives were getting closer, their long, wooden limbs hanging, gnarled fingers curling.

‘’What do they want with our forest?’’ they questioned, ‘’what do they want with the trees?’’

Mairwen licked her lips nervously, ‘’t-the Fae Queen...?’’

‘’Who?’’ the Wood Wives hissed and the birds atop their crowns fluttered up in a hurricane of caws and falling feathers. In a flash, Rain had his hammer in his hand, ready to swing at the creatures prowling too close.

A sudden movement from between the trees made everyone, witch and Wood Wife alike, look. Another flash, bright as a star, followed by others, as if indeed stars had fallen and were prancing through the trees. The Wood Wives backed away, ‘’not good, not good...’’

‘’Who? Who?’’ the Wives questioned each other, softer now.

‘’Fire. Fire...’’ one whispered in dread.

‘’Oh, no. Oh, no,’’ the others murmured, backing up further as more flashes of light appeared between the trees, bodies creaking, ‘’fire and trees. Fire and trees.’’

‘’The Fire Things...’’ came a wind-soft whisper, ‘’the Fire Things have come.’’

The Wood Wives turned and fled into the trees as the star-bright creatures approached.

*~*~*

Airen was out in the snowy courtyard of the palace without many clothes on. He was in a tunic and pants and boots and the icy cold was already slicing through the material to freeze his skin. Airen didn’t care. After he sent Daim away, he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t want to return to his empty apartments so he wandered the palace. But even there he was followed by looks of contempt and hatred. The outside was his only hope and so now he was out in the snow. He could have gone back for a cloak but, somehow, the dagger-sharp cold felt good. It pulled him out of the hazy stupor of melancholy that had overwhelmed him since Faeryn left. Step after slow step, Airen walked into the courtyard, snow settling in his long golden hair, on his lashes. His fingers, nose and cheeks turned pink with cold. His clothes were soaking through. Airen stared at the gate in the distance. Maybe he could just walk out. Maybe he could just walk all the way out, into the forest and keep walking until he couldn’t walk anymore.

‘’Airen,’’ Daran’s voice was fire-hot and sudden from where it came from behind Airen, ‘’what are you doing?’’ came a weary, slow demand.

Airen stared at the gate, so close and yet so far. He could make a run for it. He could. Daran probably wouldn’t stop him. It’d be better for all of them if he let the snow and ice of Arnheim have him. But then his thoughts found his mother, in the cold, dark dungeons. She’d die if he didn’t do anything, ‘’nothing,’’ he said in a soft voice and turned to face Daran, who looked torn between stepping out into the snow and staying in the archway of the doors.

‘’Come inside,’’ he said finally. Airen obediently shuffled inside. Daran turned to let him pass but didn’t let him go, grabbing his wrist, ‘’you’re coming with me.’’ Airen let Daran drag him up the cold marble stairs, too cold and numb to protest. He all but tossed Airen at the first servant he saw, ‘’draw him a hot bath. And then send him to my chambers.’’

*~*~*

The Fire Things pranced through the trees on graceful, long legs made of flame. Fire licked at their slender backs and heads. Rain’s hands tightened on his hammer. One side of his face was covered in burns from an accident with Fire Things; he never trusted the creatures, no matter how gentle they were. He was also about done with being threatened by everything that lived within the forest. But before he could demand the Fire Things to disperse or die, the lose circle they had formed around the witch party parted, and a Fire Thing came forward, a rider on its back. Rain’s eyes widened; he had never seen anyone mount a Fire Thing but the witch perched atop it did not seem to feel the flames licking at her naked, brown body. From her scalp, amongst black hair, sprouted two horns and the whites of her gold-silver eyes were pitch black. Rain’s whole body tensed with anticipation but the hell witch only gave them an amused smile, taking in the mud caking the clothes of Rain, Mair and Fynn, ‘’peace, witches of the town,’’ she said cheerfully, ‘’I am Pendragon, the emissary of her majesty the Fae Queen. I have been ordered to bring you to her.’’

The witch party relaxed ever so slightly. Rain opted for keeping his hammer up. Pendragon nodded at Mairwen, ‘’the Queen has sent you a message, Seer. She is pleased that you have responded,’’ she patted the head of the Fire Thing as if it was not literally made out of flame and it turned, its pack following it, ‘’come, witches. The Queen awaits.’’

The witches exchanged looks but eventually Rain slid his hammer against his back, where it disappeared into mist and they fell into a line behind Pendragon, who led them through the forest. After only half an hour of walking, the atmosphere in the forest changed. The trees grew sparser, revealing that indeed night had fallen. Stars twinkled down at the Fae forest, illuminated by the Fire Things. And then they walked into the court of the Wild Hunt.

Garlands of flowers and fae-light adorned every tree, tiny illuminated crystals dripping down from the branches. Mairwen looked down, surprised, when her boots sank into something soft – a walkway of flowers. She glanced up to where it led. And there was the throne of flowers and the dark woman atop it with a crown of antlers and leaves. The Fae Witch Queen. She smiled pleasantly at her guests, her deep red gown fawning around her. She was part witch, part something else, like all Fae witches – her eyes were of two contrasting browns but her ears were pointed. She was even less human than Mairwen and her companions. Behind her stood another woman, much younger, also with pointed ears. While the Queen’s colouring was rather ordinary, the woman behind her was breath taking – her skin was nearly as dark as the night sky, sprinkled with a thousand freckles. Her hair was made up of curling strands of both silver and white, a crown of purple flowers atop it. One of her eyes was silver; the other blue. Her gown was like the Queen’s, except white. Mairwen blinked, unable to look away, suddenly very self conscious of her muddy clothes.

Pendragon jumped down from the Fire Thing, which pranced off into the forest with its pack. She gave a low, dramatic bow, and gestured to the woman atop the throne, ‘’her majesty Nara, Queen of the Fae witches and the tree folk.’’

Mairwen bowed and her companions followed suit. The Queen rose from her throne; her court was nowhere to be seen but Mair had no doubt they were watching, ‘’welcome,’’ the Queen said in a warm voice and gestured to the woman flanking her throne, ‘’may I present my daughter, the princess of the Fae witches and the General of the Wild Hunt; Arlana of the Glenn.’’ Mair and her friends bowed again and Arlana inclined her head. The Queen looked at Mair, ‘’thank you for answering my call, Mairwen of the town witches,’’ she waved a hand and wooden stools appeared in a circle around her flowery throne, ‘’come, sit. There is much we must discuss.’’

‘’Did you call me here because you know how to cure the plague, your majesty?’’ Mairwen question when she had sat down.

The Queen’s smile brightened, ‘’what an intelligent little thing you are. Yes, indeed. Or, rather, I have found it in me to hope for one in the face of the atrocities committed against our kind,’’ she gestured to Mair, ‘’you have had a vision, have you not, Seer?’’

Mairwen thought back to the life that she had seen that day on the outskirts of the Fae forest. She nodded, ‘’an island of wolves,’’ she said carefully, ‘’blood and water.’’

Queen Nara hummed thoughtfully, ‘’I have seen it, too,’’ she said, ‘’I am one of the few who still remember other creatures of the gods of this world. The vision...it was of the last wolf people on the island of Kai.’’

Rain stared, ‘’...the wolf people had died out millennia ago-‘’

‘’Or so humans think, my dear prince,’’ Queen Nara said kindly, ‘’the last of them dwell on the island. The witches do not cause the plagues but neither can we cure them. The wolf people are pure, unblemished – the original creations of the gods. They may hold the cure to anything, including the plague.’’

‘’Might...’’ Fynn said wearily.

The Queen nodded, ‘’it is a speculation, a hope. The only one we have; the only one that may save our kind at this present moment.’’

‘’What would you have me do, majesty?’’ Mairwen asked uncertainly.

‘’What would I have you do?’’ Queen Nara mused, ‘’well. If it was up to me, I would have you venture to Kai and find the wolf people – work with them to produce a cure,’’ her smile fell and her eyes darkened, ‘’but, as it stands, to get to Kai you would have to leave Mystic and cross the border between Hailbronn and Koln. Then you would have to go through occupied Solin to the ports, find a ship and sail there. It is an enormous risk that I will not make you undertake,’’ her eyes saddened, ‘’but I would ask you to.’’

Mairwen held her breath, ‘’leave Mystic...?’’

‘’At the time of the witch hunts, yes,’’ Nara wave a hand at her daughter, ‘’Arlana has already volunteered to go with you, if you choose to undertake this mission,’’ she sighed, ‘’you are the only hope we have, my child.’’

Mairwen looked down at her hands, which were trembling slightly. Leave Mystic at the time where her life would be at danger anywhere she went, with only a single Fae Witch for protection. Before she could think of something to say, Fynn’s small hand appeared in her line of vision, slipping over hers. She looked up and her friend smiled gently at her, ‘’if you choose to go, I will go with you,’’ he promised.

Mair blinked. Again, before she could reply, Rain’s voice cut through, ‘’if Fynn is going, then so am I.’’

‘’And me, of course,’’ Mardin perked up, ‘’you and Fynn are my best friends. No way are you going without me.’’

Nythil smiled kindly, ‘’and I will not let my little brother go without protection. So I suppose there will be six of us, if you choose to go.’’

Queen Nara beamed at them, ‘’please,’’ she gestured and Pendragon motioned for them to follow her, ‘’rest, eat. Mairwen, think of what this journey will entitle over the night. I will hear your response tomorrow morning.’’

*~*~*

The doors to Daran’s chambers opened and Airen, freshly washed and not looking like he was three seconds away from freezing to death, entered. Unfortunately the bath hadn’t melted the ice in his eyes as he glanced at the King, ‘’you wanted to see me?’ he said emotionlessly.

A dozen different things he could say to his husband clattered around Daran’s head, but he had never been good at talking. Besides, after Airen’s yet another major defiance of his husband that morning left Daran unwilling to be kind, ‘’take your clothes off.’’

Airen recoiled, ‘’what?’’

‘’You heard me.’’

‘’You said you’d leave me alone after the wedding night!’’ Airen accused, casting a panicked look at the doors.

‘’No,’’ Daran stormed up to him and grabbed his wrist, ‘’I said I’d leave you alone if you gave me an heir,’’ he gave a condescending look at Airen’s stomach, ‘’as I see, we are still rather heir-less.’’

Airen swallowed thickly, ‘’we have to wait...I could still-‘’

‘’There is no time,’’ Daran dragged him over to the bed, ‘’my court has been hounding me about a child and Yame – I mean the North – won’t settle until we have a child that represents both...nations,’’ he shoved Airen onto the bed, ‘’and by the way, next time you defy me like that, you’ll join your mother in the dungeons.’’

He crawled on top of Airen, ‘’get off me!’’ Airen growled, aiming a kick at Daran’s chest. Daran caught his ankle and pinned it on one side of his knees.

‘’Stop kicking me!’’

‘’Then stop manhandling me, you brute!’’ Airen tried to futilely get his ankle out of Daran’s grip.

‘’You are,’’ Daran’s jaw muscle jumped as he grabbed and pinned down Airen’s other ankle, ‘’insufferable.’’

‘’I am your King!’’ Airen yelled, startling Daran into silence, ‘’whether you like it or not, you chose me as your consort. So quit bloody treating me like a common whore,’’ he gave another pointed tug of his ankles and finally Daran released them. They stared at each other for a moment.

‘’I’m not doing this because I want to,’’ Daran said quietly.

‘’I know,’’ Airen swallowed again, hesitated, ‘’I’m not taking my clothes off.’’

‘’Fine.’’

Airen forced every instinct that was screaming at him to run, to get away from this man, down, ‘’get it over with.’’

Daran said nothing as he pulled down Airen’s trousers and undergarments and unbuckled his own belt. Airen looked to the side, concentrated on the patterns on the walls, and folded his hands on his stomach, above his limp member. After a moment, he felt Daran lift up his hips and then came the brush of him. Airen braced himself but this time Daran was slightly more considerate. He slipped the head in slowly and Airen tensed. He forced himself to relax as Daran pushed himself in, inch by inch, slowly, giving Airen the time he needed to adjust. Airen blinked at the sting but kept his jaw clamped shut, his fingers digging into his stomach.

Soon enough, Daran began thrusting. Airen clenched his teeth so hard his jaw hurt. His eyes stung with humiliation and helplessness, his hands had turned into fists. For a long while, Daran thrust into him, his own fingers digging into Airen’s thighs as he held them up. He couldn’t stop his eyes from sliding to Airen. His golden hair was spread out on the pillow, his face set in grim determination. He was easy on the eye, probably the only reason why Daran could get himself up in the first place. If only he didn’t have the bitter personality and the venomous mother to go with it. Without really thinking about it, Daran reached out and closed his hand around Airen’s limp member.

Airen’s head snapped to him and his eyes widened as Daran gave a harsh pump, ‘’don’t-‘’ Airen choked out.

‘’Shut up,’’ Daran growled, thrusting harder, ‘’I won’t be able to finish if you look like a torture victim under me.’’

‘’Well this is hardly pleasant-‘’ Airen flinched as Daran ran a thumb over the head.

‘’I’ll make it fucking pleasant,’’ Daran continued thrusting, breath coming out faster, ‘’so maybe this will be over faster.’’

‘’No...’’ Airen voice shook as his hand closer around Daran’s wrist, ‘’please...I can’t...’’ his breath grew ragged as he began hardening in Daran’s hand.

‘’There’s no shame in it,’’ Daran said, ‘’just relax. Close your eyes, think about...someone else,’’ he wouldn’t say Fionn’s name. But Airen knew what he meant. He cast his husband a dubious look but closed his eyes. Maybe the reason why he wasn’t with child yet was because during their first time, all he could think about was how badly he wanted Daran dead. Maybe if he thought about the man he loved, it would all go easier. It wasn’t hard to call the image of Fionn – gentle, sunshine-bright Fionn – into his mind. He saw his lips stretched in a smile, the sunlight glinting off his hair, his bare chest as he leaned over Airen to whisper good morning, to kiss him softly. He forgot all about Daran above him, let himself pretend it was Fionn thrusting into him, his warmth enveloping him...and the pleasure began to build up, from the friction on his member and the image of Fionn in his head.

Daran watched as Airen’s whole body relaxed under him and felt his hand become softer on his wrist, resting there rather than attempting to stop Daran’s movement. His breath came out in soft, breathy pants, his pale cheeks alight with a blush. Much nicer to look at than that glare and those pursued lips, Daran decided, feeling himself grow closer to a climax. A few minutes later he grunted and came inside Airen, pumping his hand faster. Airen inhaled sharply, gave a little gasp and came over his own stomach. Daran remained in his husband, catching his breath. He removed his hand from around Airen’s member, now sticky with his seed, and finally slipped out of him. He glanced at Airen and flinched. The boy had pressed his hand to his face, half hiding, half trying to stop the sobs from escaping his lips. A tear rolled down his cheek, followed by another. Maybe making him think of his dead lover hadn’t been the best idea.

Daran sent a quick prayer to the gods, asking for the seed to quicken so they wouldn’t have to go through all that again, before reaching out. He wiped away a tear from Airen’s cheek in a quick, rough, irritated movement and got off the bed. He said nothing as he pulled up his trousers, did up his belt and left the chambers.

*~*~*

Jamael was halfway down the corridor when he spotted Jex, free of the rope and clearly trying to find a way out – he’d most likely memorised the way to the bathing rooms, where Jamael took him early in the morning or late at night when he was sure no one would be there. Thankfully there was no one there to witness Jex sneaking out of Jamael’s room, ‘’oh, hell no,’’ Jamael growled and stomped over to Jex. Jex spotted him. His pale grey eyes widened and in the next instance he was running in the opposite direction. But Jamael had more training and experience than Jex and he caught up with the boy in seconds, ‘’oh no you don’t,’’ he grabbed Jex around the waist and half picked the struggling boy up, clamping a hand over his mouth to stop his curses from alerting anyone of his presence in the keep. He dragged Jex back into his room, where the ropes around his hands had been frayed enough against the headboard that they had snapped.

‘’Asshole!’’ Jex barked when Jamael tossed him back on the bed and slammed the doors shut behind them, locking it and dropping the satchel he had brought with him on the floor.

‘’You...what...’’ Jamael was too pissed off to formulate a sentence.

Jex propped himself up on his elbows, ‘’what? Do you want me to apologise for trying to escape my captor?’’ he mocked.

Jamael stormed to him, grabbed his face and glared at him, ‘’you-!’’ he paused, and his whole body sagged helplessly, ‘’are so goddamn pretty,’’ then he kissed Jex. The thief bit his lip, hard enough to draw blood. Jamael only grinned, kissing him harder and shoving him down onto the bed fully. He hadn’t planned on doing anything to Jex – he really hadn’t – but then he felt his hardening brush against his thigh, ‘’oh,’’ he mused against Jex’s lips, ‘’someone’s excited.’’

‘’Fuck you,’’ Jex growled, flushing.

‘’That’s precisely what I intend to do,’’ Jamael kissed him again, pining his wrists down to the bed above Jex’s head with one hand and pulling down his pants, which he had eventually given Jex, with the other.

Soon enough Jammy found himself thrusting into Jex as the thief groaned under him. Jamael, who couldn’t get enough of Jex’s mouth, kissed him over and over and eventually Jex kissed him back – furious and hard and painful on Jamael’s split lip, but the assassin couldn’t complain, ‘’shit...’’ Jex whined, high pitched, head falling against Jamael’s shoulder, ‘’shit...’’ in the next instance Jex was tightening around him so suddenly that Jamael groaned and came, at the same time as Jex. Jamael collapsed atop him and Jex made no move to push him off; they caught their breath. Jamael would have gladly gone at it again but just then he heard Jex’s stomach grumble. He crawled away and leaned over the edge of the bed, snatching up his satchel and tossing it to Jex, ‘’eat,’’ he said. Jex sat up wearily and dug around in the satchel, producing a sandwich wrapped in a cloth, an apple and a skein of water, ‘’sorry it’s nothing fancy, but with the plague and all...’’

Jex stared at the sandwich, ‘’gods, is that meat?’’ he asked with a note of excitement in his voice.

Jamael raised an eyebrow, ‘’I’m guessing you haven’t had it in a while?’’

Jex glanced at Jamael suspiciously and then took a powerful bite of the sandwich, in case Jamael decided to snatch it back. Jamael chuckled and lay across the bottom of the bed, folding his arms behind his head. He listened to Jex munch the sandwich, then the apple. When he heard him gulp down he water, he grinned, ‘’not going to bolt?’’

Jex finished the water and wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist, ‘’if I don’t...can the ropes stay off?’’

Jamael sat up and gathered the cloth, the apple core and the skein back into the satchel, tossing it into the corner of his room, ‘’if they do,’’ he grabbed Jex’s ankles and pulled him down onto the bed, ‘’then I’m staying here. So you don’t run away.’’

Jex groaned, rolling away from Jamael, ‘’when are you going to get bored of me?’’ he grumbled.

‘’When you stop being so damn amusing,’’ Jammy chuckled, going around the room to blow out the candles. He stripped off his clothes, leaving only his undergarments on, and slipped under the thin blanket behind Jex, wrapping a secure arm around him – he told himself it was to make sure he wasn’t going to run away. Jex tensed but didn’t say anything, ‘’for the record, I’m a very light sleeper,’’ he murmured against Jex’s ear, ‘’and if you wake me up by trying to run away,’’ Jamael tangled their legs together, ‘’I’ll fuck you again.’’

He heard Jex swallow, ‘’noted.’’

*~*~*

‘’Whoa, he’s actually sleeping with someone.’’

‘’I thought he was kidding when he said there was a boy in his cave.’’

‘’I thought the ‘boy’ was dinner.’’

‘’Bloody hell, Niraya!’’

‘’I’m just saying what we’re all thinking.’’

‘’I wasn’t thinking that.’’

‘’I was.’’

‘’Yeah, me too.’’

Jasper cringed at the sound of voices, too many and too close. He opened his eyes and gasped when he came face-to-face with Othelen, sleeping atop him, completely naked...like the wolf had. So it was true. Jasper yelped and threw the man off, sitting up suddenly. A very naked, very grumpy Othelen sat up, ‘’the hell...?’’

‘’Morning!’’ said a bright voice and Jas turned. He yelped when he realised he and Othelen were very much not alone – there were five other people in Othelen’s cave, all with the same black tattoos running down their faces. The man at the front, maybe forty five by the looks of it, with a short, brown beard and brown hair shaved on the sides, raised his hand in greeting, ‘’hello, stranger.’’

‘’W-who...?’’

‘’We’re Othelen’s pack,’’ the man said with a smile, ‘’as you’d probably already figured out, Othelen is a wolf – the one who saved you. I’m Jethil. I’m the alpha of this pack,’’ he gestured to the person next to him – a dark skinned man much younger than Jethil, with course black hair sticking up all over his head and piercingly gold eyes, ‘’this is Illiliorn, my mate.’’ Illiliorn nodded, clearly not very keen on talking.

‘’Hi, I’m Ryiah,’’ one of the remaining three girls said. She was the oldest, clearly a woman. Half her head was shaved and silver locks fell on the other half, the same colour as her eyes, ‘’I’m the pack omega. This is Niraya.’’

A young girl of perhaps fourteen nodded at Jasper. Her hair was a strange mix of red, bright orange and ruddy brown strands pulled back into two braids. Her skin was a tad darker than Othelen’s, ‘’I thought Othee dragged you here to eat you,’’ she shrugged.

‘’And this is Mara,’’ Ryiah gestured to the last girl. Jasper blinked at the last girl, who had not spoken yet. She had longer hair, as pure white as Othelen’s but her eyes were icy blue and her skin was unbelievably pale. She peered at Jasper as if she couldn’t tell if she trusted him or not. Ryiah smiled, ‘’and you are?’’

‘’Jasper,’’ the Prince introduced himself after a beat. Othelen hadn’t said anything. He was sitting against the cavern wall, rubbing the back of his head and yawning.

‘’What’s a witch doing in Kai?’’ Jethil questioned. He seemed friendly.

‘’Uh...witch hunts,’’ Jasper explained, ‘’I’m sorry, I just...a hell witch came to me and told me to come here. I don’t know why. But I figured I should listen and...’’

Ryiah brows furrowed, ‘’a hell witch?’’

Jethil sighed, ‘’it must have been Pendragon. The last time she was here Aodhan was still the alpha of the shifter pack.’’

‘’S-shifter pack?’’

‘’Ah, sorry,’’ Jethil sat down, ‘’let me explain. There’s two packs on Kai. The actual wolf pack dwells in the forests and is led by Aodhan. We are all technically one pack, and we run together, but we live separate lives,’’ Jasper tried hard to understand, ‘’we’re the human pack. We can change from wolf to human at will, though we generally prefer our wolf forms at night because it’s easier to keep warm. We are the last of our kind.’’

Ryiah smiled sadly, ‘’one day, we will all either turn into wolves or go full human, and leave our island.’’

Jasper tried to wrap his head around the concept, ‘’um...do you know who will turn into what?’’

‘’We can only guess,’’ Ryiah said, ‘’but usually those who develop gold eyes will become wolves,’’ she gestured to Niraya and Illiliorn, ‘’though not always. Sometimes you only develop gold eyes the night before you change,’’ she shrugged.

‘’Wolves and witches are some of the oldest beings of the earth,’’ Jethil said, ‘’we stuck together, before the wolf people – or the majority – turned human and began their wars. Now what remains of the witches stay in Mystic, and what remains of the wolf people lives on Kai. But we are more than willing to let you stay here, of course.’’

‘’Not in my cave,’’ Othelen snarled.

Jethil raised an eyebrow and the rest of the pack sniggered, ‘’you two seemed pretty cosy.’’

‘’It’s just my wolf,’’ Othelen turned angry brown eyes on Jasper, ‘’listen, kid. Don’t get the wrong idea. It’s just my wolf instincts wanting to be close to you because I feel responsible, since I saved you and all. But I’m not about to get tied down to some witch. Just instincts. Nothing else.’’

Jasper flinched away from his harsh tone, ‘’instincts. Understood,’’ he turned to the alpha, ‘’thank you for your offer, but I cannot stay here. I don’t know why Pendragon told me to come here in the first place, but I need to get back to Kainan. My family needs me.’’

Ryiah shook her head, ‘’no way. Storm season has just begun – you’re lucky you came before the big ones. But if you try to leave now, you’ll die.’’

‘’How long was I out?’’

‘’Four days.’’

Jasper gaped but Ryiah offered him a comforting smile, ‘we’ll get you home as soon as we can, but for now gather your strength.’’

‘’And get out of my cave,’’ Othelen added darkly.

Jethil shook his head and stood, ‘’let Othelen brood, if he likes,’’ he extended a hand down to Jasper, ‘’come, witch. We will show you our home.’’

Jasper took his hand, eager to get away from Othelen’s destructive mood. He had intruded on his space long enough.

Chapter Text

Jethil led Jasper out of Othelen’s cave; the man remained sulking against the wall. Jasper wanted to apologise, to say something in his defence, clearly having intruded on Othelen’s territory, but just then Jethil hefted him neatly up and through the hole. Jas yelped and found himself in a closed space of a narrow tunnel. He slithered through to where light shone out and gasped as he slipped out of the tunnel and landed, rather ungracefully, on his ass in the middle of a massive cave of jagged rocks and stone. His eyes widened as he took in the cave. There were furs around the space, hugging corners, acting as eating and socialising spaces, and a few other dark holes dotted around the walls suggested to Jas that there were more ‘rooms’ to be found within. But what amazed him were the lights. Every nook, cranny and jagged rock hung with fae lights, casting a colourful glow on the cave, like they had on Othelen’s cave – except here the effect was so much more impressive.

‘’Whoa...’’ Jasper whispered forgetting, just for a second, what kind of knee-deep shit he was in.

‘’Welcome to our home,’’ Jethil said with a smile.

‘’Is it underground?’’ Jas asked.

‘’Yeah,’’ his questioned was answered by silver haired Ryiah, ‘’comes out in the forest through there,’’ she pointed at a sort of wooden trapdoor in the walls high above – only now did Jas notice the wooden steps hammered into the stone like a primitive ladder, ‘’we always figured that this place was a proper cave that sunk into the grounds over millennia,’’ she shrugged.

‘’It’s amazing.’’

‘’Yeah,’’ she agreed fondly.

Suddenly a rumble descended over the caves, so loud and violent the caves shook. The fae-lights flickered before brightening back up. No one but Jas reacted. Jethil smiled at his stunned expression, ‘’and the skies lets itself be known once more,’’ he said, and stretched, ‘’I know you’ve slept for days and you’re probably starving, but we’ll have to leave you for a while.’’

‘’Where are you going?’’ despite its beauty, Jas didn’t feel all that great staying by himself underground. Not when the realm of the dead was undoubtedly seething mad at his close brush – and victory – over death.

‘’Wolves love storms,’’ the white haired woman – Mara – spoke for the first time, her blue eyes like two shards of ice, ‘’we will run tonight.’’

‘’Oh,’’ Jasper pretended to grasp on.

Jethil gave him a comforting smile, ‘’you are our guest, Jasper. Feel free to do as you like, though I wouldn’t advise you to go out in the cold anytime soon,’’ he pointed to one of the openings in the massive communal cave, ‘’through there is the ‘kitchen’. There’s provisions; feel free to eat anything you want. We usually hunt anyway,’’ Jasper tried not to react at the word ‘hunt’, ‘’if you feel tired, just go back to Othelen’s cave. No matter how much he complains, he did save you, and even if he doesn’t like you, his wolf does.’’

‘’Right,’’ Jasper smiled thankfully though his heart stirred nervously. He wasn’t entirely sure Othelen’s wolf liking him was a good thing.

*~*~*

Soren was lounged on the chaise in the foyer of Sawyer’s Cathouse. The chaise was old, and faded, and it was spilling the hay stuffed within, so Mr Sawyer had ordered Soren to lay upon it in a way that would direct all attention to him, and not the weary old furniture. So Soren had spread himself on his side in a display of lazy grace, his long legs, peeking out from under the blood-red, short silk robe, thrown over the edge, head propped up on his slender hand, one shoulder slightly exposed by the slipped-off sleeve of the robe, strawberry blond hair in rivulets down to his collarbone. His green eyes scanned the room lazily, and everywhere he looked he met the eyes of sex-hungry clients. Many hung back, exchanging quiet conversation and admiring him and the others.

Today’s theme was ‘paradise’ – something so completely opposite to the hunger stricken, diseased world outside that it was bound to lure in clients. In addition to the new chaise, there were fake grape vines woven around the foyer and small fountains of diluted wine. The Cats were dressed in an assortment of silky robes and flimsy drapes, creating the image of an idyllic summer. Arlen was sitting on the floor, leaning on one of the ornate stools, also artistically exposed – muscled legs were positioned just so, the short drape revealing his powerful thigh, one arm thrown over his knee gracefully as he glanced around in beautiful boredom. Jeane was perched on said stool, brushing a gold, slightly chipped brush through Arlen’s bright orange, long, wavy hair in long, caress-like strokes, like a gorgeous angel attending to a god, her own silver curls spilling over her shoulder. Libby, Lucio and Ardis sat by the fountain Mr Sawyer had carved into the wall years ago, splashing water on each other playfully in a perfect display of carefree-ness. Cyril was on wine duty, slipping around the room like a beautiful, majestic wild cat with a jug, giving the customers daring looks as he poured diluted wine into their goblets. The massive, dark shape of Mr Sawyer seemed to be everywhere at once – entertaining the customers, fanning himself seductively with an Asakurian fan in the corner and re-positioning his Cats in their allocated places.

The Cats were all tired.

They had kept up the charade for hours. Soren’s every muscle was stiff from barely moving on the chaise; Arlen’s facade of boredom was no facade at all and Jeane’s movements with the combs slowed as his arm ached more and more; Libby, Lucio and Ardis were soaked from all the splashing, and probably freezing despite the fire, though the flimsy clothing clinging to their bodies seemed to attract more and more customers; and Cyril...well, they were running out of wine. The bids for them would start soon, after which the night would be busy. Soren had been entertaining customers for a couple nights in a row now, and he didn’t realise how blissful his life was as a Cat in training. As a full-fledged member of the team, he had to pull his weight – that meant sucking, pumping and thrusting every second in which he wasn’t sleeping or eating. Arlen said it gets easier, that you fall in the routine, but for now Soren’s body was sore and his mind fuzzy. No matter how many customers he took, how many men appeared above him and women below him, Bas would not disappear from his head. He hadn’t seen him since their second time together and finally his mother had stopped asking about how the night with the soldiers had gone. But it didn’t help. He couldn’t forget about the dark haired, kind General.

And spending hours and hours lying in one position while customers leered at him didn’t help with his mind drifting in that direction. Soren closed his eyes briefly, though the darkness didn’t help much. Suddenly, Mr Sawyer’s voice boomed out across the space, louder than his sensual purr, ‘’gentlemen, you cannot-!’’

Soren’s eyes snapped open and then widened. Because the man he had just been thinking about was in the brothel. Bas stood in the open doorway of the Cathouse, letting in snow and the angry shouts from the town as he took off his plague mask and shook off snow from his dark ponytail. Soren’s breath caught and in the next instance the General was looking at him with surprised, dark eyes, ‘’gentlemen-‘’ Mr Sawyer started again but just then another man barrelled into the Cathouse, as large as Sawyer himself.

‘’Search the place,’’ he barked as a couple other soldiers spread out across the room and started escorting customers out, none to gently.

Had Sawyer’s skin been pale, it would have been flushed a furious red; as it stood, it remained its unblemished dark brown, ‘’you cannot just barge in here-!’’

‘’I am General Niktohal Magana,’’ the man with Bas snapped and everyone in the room recoiled; they had all heard of his witch hunts, ‘’I do what I like,’’ now the customers were leaving by themselves. Sawyer stood there, hands fisted, too mad to say anything. This would be a kick to business which already dwindled as the plague was on the rise again.

Bas’ eyes slid from Soren’s, finally, and looked towards his master, ‘’if there is no witch within the household, you have nothing to fear.’’

Sawyer just pursued his lips in a tight, unhappy line. Soren slinked over to Arlen who now stood in front of Lucio, shielding him from the view of the soldiers, ‘’are they going to turn the place upside down?’’ he asked, worried.

‘’Probably,’’ Arlen’s mouth was fashioned in the same way as Sawyer’s.

‘’But...’’ Soren’s heart was still hammering in his chest from the sudden reuniting with Bas, ‘’...there are no witches here.’’

Arlen’s silence suddenly felt like a scream.

Soren’s green eyes widened as he grabbed his friend’s wrist, ‘’right, Arlen?’’ he hissed in a panicked whisper.

Finally Arlen’s blue eyes slid to him and he spoke, so quietly only Soren heard, ‘’we smuggled in a witch refugee yesterday night.’’

Soren’s heart stuttered in his chest for a wholly new reason, ‘’oh, gods,’’ he breathed, ‘’Mr Sawyer-‘’

‘’Sawyer knows, Soren,’’ Arlen said quietly, voice strong, ‘’he knows.’’

Soren’s head spun as he realised what that meant and he watched with terrified eyes as the soldiers fanned out around the bottom floor of the Cathouse, beginning their witch hunt.

*~*~*

‘’Must you go?’’

Orin rarely saw Wrath look so perturbed by his departure and, frankly, he quite enjoyed it. He enjoyed seeing the care and love exuding from every pore in his lover’s body, ‘’I must,’’ Orin said with a heavy sigh, taking Wrath’s face in his large hands. He was decked out in his golden armour, matching his hair now tied in a messy bun at the back of his head, his sword strapped to his side, ‘’our defences must be tightened and the King must oversee the war camps for that to happen,’’ he brushed his thumb over Wrath’s cheekbone, ‘’I’ll only be gone a few days. A week at most.’’

Wrath looked down, ‘’I wish you’d let me come with you. I’m a good soldier.’’

‘’The best,’’ Orin said lovingly, dropping a kiss atop his head. Wrath was muscular, and tall, but compared to Orin he was rather small, ‘’that is why you’re the only one I trust with guarding the palace while I am gone.’’

‘’Yeah,’’ Wrath said gruffly, looking away.

Orin smiled fondly, ‘’don’t be angry.’’

‘’I’m not,’’ Wrath relented with a sigh, leaning his forehead against Orin’s breasts plate dejectedly, ‘’I think what you’re doing is brave. And noble. And the right thing. I’ll just miss you. And I’ll worry. You know how I hate worrying.’’

‘’I know,’’ Orin whispered, sliding one arm around Wrath’s waist, the other into his dark hair, ‘’you’re like a little housewife, always fretting for my well-being.’’

‘’It’s because you’re so stupid you get into trouble by yourself.’’

Orin chuckled at that and held Wrath to him a fracture tighter. No matter how carefree and cheerful he acted, parting with his lover hurt him as much as it hurt Wrath, ‘’take care of thing here, will you?’’

‘’Mmmmh.’’

‘’Don’t throw too many parties without me.’’

Wrath pulled back, rolling his eyes. Orin gazed down at him with loving, golden eyes, ‘’do I get a kiss goodbye?’’

A breath rushed out of Wrath, like he’d been holding it in with all his might, ‘’it’s not goodbye,’’ he said heatedly, surging forward to kiss the King. While his voice were full of fire, his kiss was gentle and warm like the rays of the spring sun, ‘’it’s a ‘see you soon’,’’ he whispered when he pulled away, nuzzling his nose against Orin’s.

‘’See you soon,’’ Wrath echoed softly, kissing him once more, catching his lips into a longer, deeper kiss, ‘’I love you.’’

‘’I love you, too,’’ a pressure settled on Wrath’s chest as he watched Orin turn and march out of the room, and into the courtyard where he would depart. He knew the weight would not go until Orin returned.

*~*~*

Soren held his breath as Bas broke away from General Magana and marched straight for him. Arlen shifted, ever so slightly, to hide both Lucio and him from view but one glare from Bas had him stepping away, glowering, still covering a worried-looking Lucio. Bas looked down at Soren and the Cat forgot how to breathe as the General’s dark eyes softened, ‘’Soren,’’ he said quietly in his velvety voice, reaching out to pull up the robe sleeve that had slipped to reveal Soren’s shoulder, his finger barely brushing his skin, ‘’I am sorry about all...’’ he glanced at the soldiers who, none to gently, were turning over furniture in the foyer and in the rooms below, ‘’this.’’ Bas dropped his hand and Soren licked his lips nervously. Bas shifted from one foot to the other, ‘’I need to ask, no matter what... is there a witch in this house, Soren?’’

Soren’s heart stopped dead and then began hammering, full speed. He forced himself not to look at Arlen in panic. He had two choices, and both could get him and his friends killed.

One – tell Bas the truth. The General trusted him and the thought of breaking that trust made Soren’s stomach knot up, even if he hadn’t expected to see the man ever again. He could tell him that there was a witch somewhere in the brothel, have them arrest the witch while he spun some story about how they must have sneaked into the brothel during one of the parties to protect his friends. It could work, or it could not; either way, it would be much worse than if the witch was found.

Or two – he could keep his mouth shut and hope that the General’s trust ran as far as to believe him and not check upstairs. He could risk his life, and that of the Cats, for the one hiding somewhere within the building.

The choice was not easy.

‘’Soren?’’ Bas prompted, ‘’is there a witch here?’’

Soren swallowed thickly.

‘’No,’’ he said, thankful his voice didn’t crack. From the corner of his eye he saw Arlen relax ever so slightly.

And then Bas took Soren’s arm, gently but firmly, ‘’lead me upstairs,’’ he said in an authoritive voice that Soren had never heard, ‘’I will check for myself.’’

And Soren’s stomach dropped.

Because Bas didn’t believe him.

His head spun with fear as he let Bas drag him towards the beaded curtain leading upstairs – to where the witch undoubtedly hid.

*~*~*

Airen’s heart thundered as he dropped his mother’s seal – a golden ring with a sigil of a stone tower, cupped by two roses – into the little hole he had cut into ice in the forest. After their second time together, Daran was, mercifully, constantly busy and couldn’t be bothered keeping an eye on Airen. Airen had spent days and days wondering how he could get his mother from the dungeons, where Daran had seemingly left her to rot. When the idea came to him, he had gone straight to Daimhin and asked him to accompany him on a walk outside the palace walls. Daim had a lot of Airleas in him; any other Arhanese man would have frowned at the idea of taking a walk instead of training, but Daim readily agreed – and didn’t suspect a thing when Airen asked to be left alone for a moment because he wanted to pray, though the guards with them did exchange surprised looks at the concept of praying somewhere outside the temple. It was so cold Airen, Daim and the guards were bundled up in as many layers as possible; only Airen’s eyes were visible as he knelt a little way off, by the frozen river, and thrust his fur cloak around him to hide his actions. The dagger flashed in his hands as he sawed a small opening through the thick ice and dropped his mother’s seal within. He watched it disappear forever and then rose, ready to return to the palace...

And face Daran.

*~*~*

‘’Ah. Your majesty!’’

Meridan didn’t turn at the title, truthfully too busy studying the tapestries of house Starteller – adorned with (of course) golden stars – that had been brought out for the celebrations of King Tristan’s thirty first birth day. Merry only realised he was being called when Captain Sathe Heartman put a hand on his shoulder. He jumped, surprised, and turned to the smiling omega woman, ‘’did I startle you?’’ she asked brightly.

‘’Yes,’’ Merry deadpanned. He had been left largely alone by the guests at Tristan’s birth day ceremony, the King managing effectively to herd them away from him.

‘’Aren’t you going to dance?’’ the Captain asked after giving a quick, apologetic bow.

‘’I can’t dance with the King,’’ Merry said matter-of-factly, ‘’he’s blind.’’

The corner of Heartman’s lips tugged upwards in amusement, ‘’with someone else, I meant.’’

Merry frowned, ‘’why would I dance with anyone else?’’

At that, Heartman laughed, ‘’hilarious as ever, your majesty,’’ she shook her head, grinning, ‘’so...how is everything?’’

‘’What do you mean?’’ Merry asked wearily.

The Captain gestured to Tristan, who was speaking with a group of guests, ‘’with your husband. How is he to you?’’

Merry faltered. No one had asked him about that before and so he had not thought about it. Suddenly strangely nervous, he wrung out his hands, ‘’he’s...kind.’’

‘’Yes,’’ Heartman agreed, ‘’what else?’’

‘’He’s a good King.’’

The Captain shook her head with a sigh, smiling fondly. Getting Merry to talk about what he felt was virtually impossible, ‘’do you want to get a drink?’’

Merry nodded, glad not to be under interrogation anymore. They went over to the table and Heartman poured them goblets of wine. She passed one to the King Consort, ‘’by the way, did you know Salar is opening its borders?’’

Merry’s goblet stopped before it reached his lips, ‘’to the witches?’’ he clarified.

Heartman nodded, ‘’it is the buffer zone between Moriya and Kainan, after all; the easiest place for Moriyan and Kai witches to reach.’’

‘’Huh.’’

‘’I don’t know how I feel about that,’’ Heartman said in an uncharacteristically quiet voice, ‘’what about you?’’

Merry took a healthy gulp of his wine, ‘’I think it’s the right thing to do,’’ he whispered.

*~*~*

Room after room after room.

Each time Bas barged into one, Soren’s heart stopped. He held his breath as Bas checked the wardrobes, under the beds, tapped walls and ceilings... and each time the room proved empty. And still Bas prowled on. Soren jogged to catch up with him as he came closer to clearing the corridor, ‘’General, please, there’s honestly no one here...’’ he hoped the witch, hearing the commotion, had ran. So maybe Bas would never find out he had lied to him.

And yet the General pretended he didn’t hear him, barging into yet another room – Soren’s own. Soren followed him inside as he went straight for Soren’s closet, brimming with pretty clothes, each a considerably sum added to his debt. As Bas sieved through the clothes, Soren scanned the room – and froze. Because something, ever so quick, had flashed in the corner of his vision. Like a hand disappearing under his bed. Soren had no idea why the witch was in his room, couldn’t think of a good reason, not when Bas abandoned the closet and walked over to the bed, a couple of seconds away from finding his victim.

Soren made a split second decision.

As Bas reached the bed, Soren stepped forward and shoved him on top of it before the General could bend down and discover the witch. Bas blinked, surprised, ‘’Soren, what are you-‘’

‘’Take your clothes off, General,’’ Soren demanded, perhaps a little more demanding than necessary.

Bas’ eyes shuttered as he sat up, ‘’do you enjoy taunting me? Is that it?’’ he asked bitterly.

Soren shrugged the silk robe off his shoulders before Bas could get up and the General stopped altogether at the sight of his milky white skin, ‘’take off your clothes,’’ Soren said, softer now, like a caress. Bas hesitated for only a moment longer but when Soren hooked his fingers into the sash keeping the robe around him, Bas scrambled to undo his belt. Soren watched, half forgetting about the witch under his bed as Bas threw off his armour, revealing hard, honey-gold muscle. As Bas kicked off his shoes, Soren undid the sash, let the robe fall off him and pool at his feet like a puddle of blood before crawling on top of Bas. He prayed the witch would remain silent.

‘’Soren,’’ the General breathed with so much want it actually scared the Cat a little. He flipped them over easily, pinning Soren under him with his weight.

And that’s when Soren forgot completely about the danger lurking under his bed. His eyes fluttered shut as Bas’ hands and mouth descended on him. It was faster than before, harder and more desperate, with Bas’ mouth and fingers leaving occasional, accidental marks on Soren’s skin. As Bas moved into him, Soren grabbed his face and kissed him breathlessly. He had many clients since he abandoned Bas at the bunkers, and he had not kissed one of them. He now found that he had missed the feel of Bas’ lips on his, achingly. He savoured every move of his mouth, every brush of tongue, every sigh he caught with his lips as Bas thrust into him. Somehow, it was different to the other men who took him – during the acts, Soren tried not to think too much about what was going on. Now, he seared the image of Bas above him into his mind. Their eyes met and Bas slid his hand against Soren’s face. Soren tilted his head into it, feeling the calluses from handling a sword scrape against his delicate skin. He revelled in it.

They climaxed together, bed creaking, before Bas collapsed atop of him.

A moment later Sawyer burst into the room. Soren saw the wide, panicked eyes, the mouth slack with fear – but when he saw the General atop the Cat, he schooled his features into perfect delight, ‘’dear me!’’ he said, whipping out his fan and Bas sat up suddenly, Soren wincing as he pulled out roughly, ‘’don’t let me disturb you!’’ Sawyer pranced back over to the doors, ‘’oh, don’t forget it’s one gold piece for my lovely Soren!’’ he sing-songed, before slipping back out.

The room fell silent, save for their panting. Realisation of what had gone on hit Bas and the pain in his eyes that followed made Soren flinch. The General slid off the bed and gathered his clothes, in his hurry forgetting to look under the bed. As he pulled them on, Soren felt ashamed. Of lying to Bas. Of selling himself, even though it was the only thing he could do to keep a head over his mother. Of throwing himself at the General like the whore he was, even if it was to save the life of the witch under the bed, ‘’sorry,’’ Bas said finally, as he did up his belt, ‘’this never should have happened.’’

‘’No, I-‘’

‘’As a soldier, I should have more discipline,’’ Bas’ voice was neutral, emotionless, and it hurt Soren as much as the pain in his eyes had, ‘’I won’t come here again.’’

‘’General-‘’

‘’Here,’’ Bas dug out a golden coin and tossed it onto the covers Soren had pulled over his naked body when he sat up. Bas hurried towards the doors.

‘’I didn’t do it for the money,’’ Soren said, voice raw and shaking. He clutched the covers with his fists. Bas stopped at the door and gave Soren a look full of longing. Then he shook his head and disappeared behind the doors.

Soren scrambled off the bed and grabbed his robe. He tied it around himself, opening the doors as Bas thundered downstairs. He heard the voices of the Generals as they floated upwards, ‘’anything?’’

‘’No.’’

He exhaled, relieved, even though a part of him felt like it had been ripped to shreds.

Soren closed the doors behind him slowly. And then came the voice, floating from outside the window, ‘’listen, people of Ashta!’’ it was the voice of General Magana, booming and furious. Soren ran to the wooden window and opened it, peeking outside.

General Magana, Bas and their soldiers stood around the pole outside the Cathouse in their plague-masks, snow settling in their hair. The workers of the various establishments on the street, and those who lived there, peeked out of their windows and doors. Many were on the streets already, some without plague masks, having had their houses searched like the Cathouse had. One of the soldiers was nailing a decree onto the pole, ‘’from now on the right to liberty of the witches is suspended,’’ Magana continued, his voice carrying, ‘’if anyone is found aiding the escape or hiding witches from authorities, they will be executed on the spot without the right to trial. By order of the King,’’ he added, although no one was under any illusion that the orders came from Morten Hyndestane.

Soren swore quietly and closed the window, partly shutting out Magana’s voice. Slowly, he turned.

A young, Moriyan girl of about seven stood in the middle of the room, her double coloured eyes glazed over with tears. And Soren understood why Arlen and Mr Sawyer had taken the witch in the first place. Because it wasn’t just a witch, but a child, ‘’I want mama,’’ she whispered, clinging to her tattered dress.

Soren gave her a sad smile, under no illusion as to what had happened to the witch’s mother, ‘’I’m sorry you had to...hear that,’’ he said, ‘’hold out a little longer. We’ll get you out of here.’’

*~*~*

‘’Let my mother out,’’ Airen demanded, striding into Daran’s office where the King was once again slugging through paperwork.

Daran’s blue eyes flicked to Airen’s and he raised a bemused eyebrow, ‘’are you an idiot, or are you just pretending?’’ he dismissed Airen, turning back to his paperwork, ‘’I don’t feel like explaining to you once more why your mother is a traitor.’’

‘’You have no proof,’’ Airen stopped at Daran’s desk and slammed his hands down.

Daran gave a long sigh before reaching into a drawer and pulling out a stack of letters, the castle seal broken, ‘’her letters,’’ he said, crossing his arms over his chest, ‘’to her supporters in the North, plotting my demise. Sealed with her seal, signed with her signature.’’

‘’Her ring is missing,’’ Airen said levelly.

‘’No its not,’’ Daran deadpanned.

‘’Yes, it is,’’ Airen pushed, ‘’she couldn’t have sealed those letters with her seal missing.’’

Daran stood abruptly and the muscle in his jaw jumped, ‘’do not make a fool out of me. If it’s missing, that means you hid it in some pathetic attempt to get the traitor out of the dungeons.’’

Airen was unfazed, ‘’you should have put her on trial. You have no proof of when the seal went missing.’’

‘’There’s still her signature,’’ Daran hissed.

‘’Signatures can be faked,’’ Airen said easily.

Daran glared at him, ‘’I’d take that smug look off your face. Don’t think I’ll let her out to hunt for a culprit that doesn’t exist. I know she wrote those letters, and so do you. No one will believe her seal has been missing at court. I will have her executed if you want me to put her on trial.’’

‘’Then you will prove to the world that you are indeed a monster king,’’ Airen said in an ice-cold voice, ‘’unjust and cruel.’’

‘’She planned to kill me!’’ Daran lost it.

‘’You have no proof,’’ Airen countered right back.

Daran shook his head and gave a mirthless laugh, ‘’go, look for more evidence. You could drag someone else before me, make them confess that they stole her seal and faked her signature and I still wouldn’t believe you,’’ he stared Airen down, breathing hard, before sliding back into his chair, ‘’your mother will remain in the dungeon. You may go now.’’

Airen’s demeanour shattered. Melancholy swept over him, followed by a crumbling feeling of defeat, ‘’please,’’ he whispered, ‘’you have grounds to let her out; no one will perceive you as weak if you let it be known that he seal has been missing...please, Daran.’’

‘’Get out, Airen,’’ Daran said, deathly quiet.

But Airen wouldn’t give up, ‘’you’ve taken everyone away from me!’’ he yelled, voice raw with emotion, ‘’my lover, my sister...’’ he shook his head, pleading eyes finally meeting Daran’s as the King raised his eyes, ‘’I beg you, don’t take my mother away from me as well. I couldn’t bear it. I...’’ he choked up, ‘’couldn’t...’’

Daran looked sharply at Airen. He realised that if he didn’t listen to Airen, next time his Consort would walk out into the snow...and not come back. Because he wouldn’t have anything to come back to. Daran exhaled angrily through his nose and sat back, staring at his husband. The pleading note in his voice... Daran closed his eyes briefly in frustration, ‘’if what you say is true and her seal ring is missing,’’ he said finally, voice quiet, ‘’then I will have her released.’’ 

Airen’s posture slackened with relief, ‘’thank you, I-‘’

‘’Get out,’’ Daran’s voice was emotionless, empty.

This time, Airen listened. He bowed quickly and hurried out of the room.

*~*~*

‘’Merry.’’

Meridan glanced up at Tristan, who had come to stand by his chair, hand resting at the back of it so the King could get his bearings. Merry had been sloshing his wine in his cup for what felt like hours, Sathe Heartman long gone. He was tipsy, he knew as much – he didn’t have much experience with alcohol but he enjoyed sloshing his wine around his goblet. It was funny, ‘’your majesty,’’ he said, hiccupping gently at the end.

Tristan’s eyebrows shot up, ‘’are you drunk?’’

‘’No,’’ another hiccup.

A warm smile spread across the King’s face, followed by a chuckle, ‘’oh dear. Would you like to go to sleep now?’’ Merry thought about it, then brought the goblet to his mouth and drank the last of the wine in a few large gulps. Tristan blanched, ‘’Merry, did you just chug the wine?’’

Merry didn’t reply, standing and stumbling right into Tristan, ‘’bedroom,’’ he mumbled, sleepiness coming over him.

Tristan didn’t move, one arm coming around Merry’s waist to support him, nose nuzzling into his hair and inhaling his scent, ‘’alright,’’ he relented finally, keeping an arm around Merry to keep him from stumbling. He led the man out of the ballroom, going by touch and memory until he reached their bedchamber. He sat on the bed and pulled Merry onto his lap. The man swayed sleepily there so Tristan took it upon himself to get him into his night clothes. He began undoing the buttons of Merry’s jacket. As he did so, slowly, he felt Merry’s fingertips brush beneath his eyes, ‘’your majesty,’’ Merry said in a soft, wine-induced voice, ‘’open your eyes.’’ Tristan hadn’t even realised they were closed. He opened them and flicked them up to where he assumed Merry’s own eyes were. Merry gave a quiet hiccup, followed by, ‘’much better.’’

‘’I’m sorry,’’ Tristan blurted as Merry shrugged off his jacket, ‘’for...being like this,’’ he gestured to his eyes.

He imaged Merry scowled at him, ‘’stop feeling sorry for yourself,’’ he grumbled, taking Tristan’s surprised face in his hands, ‘’I don’t mind that you’re blind. I don’t notice it most of the time. I like your eyes. They’re my favourite thing about your appearance, although,’’ he hiccupped again, ‘’the rest of you isn’t bad either. I don’t mind that you’re blind because you’re kind and strong and brave.’’

‘’Brave?’’ the King huffed a surprised laugh – he was blushing from Merry’s sudden wine-induced confession; he promised himself he’d get his husband drunk more often.

‘’Mmmh,’’ Merry affirmed, ‘’with opening the borders. Captain Heartman told me. I think it’s really brave, taking in all those witches. You’re admirable, really,’’ Merry’s voice dropped to a whisper and he pressed a careful kiss to Tristan’s temple, then below his eyes were the skin was a little lighter from where the acid had struck. The King’s heart fluttered. Merry so rarely showed affection on his own, ‘’so stop apologising for something that isn’t your fault.’’

Tristan nudged his nose against Merry’s, hands sliding to his hips to shift him more comfortably on his lap, ‘’you’re surprisingly sweet today.’’

‘’Well it is your birth day,’’ Merry said, nudging Tristan’s nose right back.

Tristan surged forward and kissed Merry, long and deep and slow. Merry kissed him back, slightly sloppily thanks to the alcohol. Then he fell against his husband, nuzzling his cheek into his mop of light brown hair, hooking his arms around his neck. Tristan embraced him back, closing his eyes, for once not because he was afraid of freaking someone out but because he felt content.

*~*~*

Port Maisdal was completely empty in the evening. It was largely empty during the day, too, thanks to the plague, but at night no one dared to venture out – except a silent procession of assassins, clad in black, moonlight shining off the leather beaks of their plague masks. They were like death’s entourage, deathly silent.  A single ship bobbed in the distant, dark waters, its pirate flag fluttering in the wind. The pirates had made it, as promised. Jamael ushered the witches disguised amongst them along – forty year old Kaimana, taking care of the ten year old twins, Runar and Itzal, and elderly Haamid hobbling after them. The princesses of Moriya were counting on Jamael and his team to deliver the witches to the pirates and that was what they were going to do. The assassins were silent and graceful as they made their way to the beach, the witches stumbling over wet rocks.

When her feet hit the sand, Vysarane raised a little metal contraption of her own making and fired a shot into the sky. A burning bright blue light swung in an arc over the beach and hung suspended in the air for a second before falling and extinguishing itself in the dark waves below. The sign for the pirates to lower a boat to pick up the witches.

‘’What now?’’ Kaimana asked nervously, voice muffled by her mask.

‘’Now we wait,’’ Jamael said gravelly, surveying his team. Vysarane put her contraption back in her belt and scanned the abandoned area. Sidara stood perfectly poised on a rock, her dark skin and dark outfit blending in with the night. Leit kept the side protected. Four other assassins fanned out in a lose circle, ready to protect the witches if need be. Jamael glanced at the ship in the distance – did they see the sign? Would they send the boat now? He hated standing out in the open like this, but he couldn’t risk leading the witches between the houses where people slumbered.

Suddenly, Vysarane’s head turned sharply towards the houses in the distance, ‘’did you hear that?’’ she demanded in a quiet voice.

‘’Oh, shit,’’ Leit proclaimed.

Because a dark mass was pouring out from between the houses – soldiers, the fire they carried glinting off their bronze armour. Jamael breathed in the stuffy, hot air, ‘’calm down,’’ Leit snarled at the witches, who gasped. The twins started crying, ‘’Jammy, what are we doing?’’

‘’If we fight we’ll get swarmed,’’ Jamael said. The army was still a dark mass, rushing towards them. Someone must have seen the witches being brought to the keep, or the pirate ship that had bobbed on the waters for however long, and notified the army – the signal alerted them of the assassin presence on the beach. Jamael hoped the princesses were alright, ‘’protect the witches,’’ he decided. The assassins took on a defensive stance.

Over the roar, clang and thundering of the small army, no one heard the splash of oars on the water until the two pirates aboard the boat sploshed their way onto the beach, ‘’thank the gods,’’ Kaimana breathed.

‘’Let’s go,’’ one of the pirates said, ushering the witches onto the boat as her companion paled, watching the army descending towards the beach. She nodded at the assassins, ‘’Captain Altha gives you her thanks. We will be in contact.’’

Jamael nodded and she jumped into the boat. They started rowing and soon enough they disappeared into the darkness. Jamael turned; the army was nearly upon them. He opened his mouth to usher an order...

...just as an arrow slammed into his shoulder.

The impact nearly knocked him off his feet and a muffled cry escaped his lips, ‘’shit,’’ he swore, but before his team could rush towards him, he barked, ‘’retreat.’’

The assassins melted into the darkness. It took Jamael a little more effort. He held the arrow, gritted his teeth and broke away the edge before running sideways. He jumped over rocks, avoiding puddle that would give away his location. He ran down the beach and not up the hill back towards Cana Kaale, like the soldiers now upon the beach expected him to.  They thundered up the hill and dispersed, searching. Jamael kept running along the beach, the night swallowing him. Blood coated his shoulder but he was no stranger to pain. Once he reached the forest, he slowed his running.

He was glad to see that his whole team was safe when they rendezvoused by the horses.

Their first drop off had been successful, but would they be so lucky next time?

*~*~*

‘’You’re hurt!’’ Jex blurted as soon as Jamael came into his room and slammed the doors shut.

‘’Yeah,’’ Jamael went straight for the ropes keeping Jex tied to the bed when he was gone, lest he tried to escape, and untied them.

‘’What happened?’’

Jamael gave him a grim smile, ‘’concerned?’’ that shut Jex up but he kept staring at the bandage that Thais had wrapped around her son’s shoulder, ‘’we were dropping off witches on the coast. I got hit by an arrow,’’ Jamael finished untying the rope and grabbed Jex’s ankle, yanking him down so he was lying on the bed, ‘’I want to fuck you,’’ he grumbled, then stopped, ‘’can I?’’

Jex frowned, ‘’since when do you ask permission?’’

‘’Can I?’’ Jamael repeated, softer, brushing a finger against Jex’s ankle.

Jex blushed from head to toe and Jamael nearly gobbled him up right there and then. Jex’s grey eyes flicked to the bandage again, ‘’do as you like,’’ he said gruffly. Jamael hooked his thumbs into Jex’s pants and pulled them off in one swift movement. He took his limp member into his hand and stroked him until Jex was hard. Then, he spread Jex’s legs and settled between them. But he didn’t bother taking his own pants off. ‘’what-‘’

Jamael caught Jex’s question with his mouth, kissing him deeply. When he pulled away, he kept kissing him, so gently Jex’s breath stuttered out of him, ‘’what are you doing?’’ he asked, voice trembling, when Jamael shifted to kiss the mole under his eye and then the one under his mouth.

‘’Fucking you.’’

‘’This is not fucking,’’ Jex’s voice was strained – he was wholly unused to such treatment.

‘’Fine,’’ Jamael pressed a chaste kiss to Jex’s lips, ‘’I’m making love to you. Better?’’

‘’Why?’’ Jex breathed, his face for once void of glares and anger.

‘’Because I can’t actually fuck you with my messed up shoulder,’’ Jamael said with a small smile, cupping Jex’s face, ‘’and...’’ he kissed his neck, long, slow, ‘’because I want to.’’ Jex didn’t protest anymore but when Jamael went back up to kiss him on the lips again, the assassin was surprised to find the thief’s golden hands slipping against his cheeks, pulling him closer, ‘’you seem to want to, too~’’ Jamael mused, pleased.

Jex didn’t tell him to shut up. He just nudged his lips against the assassin’s, prompting another kiss which Jamael was eager to give. Finally, Jamael pulled down his pants and pulled back long enough to get rid of his tunic. Naked, he fell back against Jex. When he entered him, and as he began thrusting, he remained gentle – and, gods, it was worth it, if only to hear the breathy moans that spilled from the thief’s mouth. Jex didn’t fight any of Jamael’s affections, not when they climaxed and not after, when he kissed Jex’s temple and settled down behind him, completely naked, and not when Jamael wrapped his arms around the thief and held him close.

It was really unsurprising that it was the calm before the storm.

*~*~*

In the morning Jex awoke by himself in the bed, untied. He sat up quickly, staring at his wrists in disbelief – and spotted Jamael sitting on a chair in the corner, a satchel thrown over his body. He pointed to clothes folded into a neat pile on the edge of the bed, ‘’get dressed,’’ he ordered. Jex didn’t dare question him. He got off the bed and pulled on clothes – underwear and a short-sleeved tunic and pants, proper clothes he hadn’t worn for a while, ‘’come on,’’ Jamael said when Jex was fully dressed and, to Jex’s surprise, led him out of the room. By the way Jamael checked around corners and walked quietly, Jex knew he didn’t want to be seen.

‘’Where are we going?’’

‘’Shhh,’’ Jamael said and continued leading Jex around the keep, up the stairs...until they finally reached a door. Jamael pushed it open and for the first time in weeks, Jex found himself outside, pushed gently by a hand at his back. He whirled round to face Jamael.

‘’What’s going on?’’

‘’I’m letting you go,’’ Jamael said gravelly. Jex gaped at him. Gaped and gaped, until Jamael took off the satchel around his body and passed it to Jex, ‘’I’m sorry. For what I did. It was wrong. Here’s a small apology, though I know it’s not enough. Provisions and some money and one of my medallions, so you can get accepted into your guild,’’ he said.

Jex made no move to take the satchel, ‘’you got bored of me,’’ he whispered finally.

Jamael went as if to shake his head, as if to say something else, but then he faltered and eventually just nodded, ‘’yeah. I did.’’

Jex felt something rise up in him – the complete opposite of what he thought would rise up when he was finally released.

Disappointment. And hurt.

But it was closely followed by anger and irritation and embarrassment, and Jex snatched the satchel from Jamael’s outstretched hand, ‘’thanks for nothing,’’ he snarled.

Jamael wanted desperately to tell Jex to wait – so he could look at him properly one more time, take in his beautiful face before he released him from what was quickly becoming the most dangerous place to be in Moriya – but Jex just dug out the plague mask from the satchel, put it on, turned swiftly on his foot and began his descent down the mountain.

Chapter Text

The witch was seven years old, her name was Jescha, she was from the Saalam, the Moriyan quarters in Queensbane and her mother had been killed by soldiers for being a witch – that was all the Cats managed to drag out of the little refugee now hiding within the brothel. She mostly sat in the corner crying or stared at the wall. The little girl was clearly traumatised. Mr Sawyer had explained that Jescha was a distant relative of his – the daughter of his cousin – but a relative nonetheless, and he wouldn’t have dreamed of endangering the Cats otherwise. It was the first time Soren had seen him look guilty but once the immediate danger of the soldiers and the shock passed, he was glad Sawyer had saved the little witch. To Soren she was just a child. He didn’t care what her double coloured eyes marked her as.

‘’What do we do with her?’’ red head Ardis was, for once, completely serious and concentrated. They were in the pantry in the basement of the Cathouse, mostly depleted thanks to the plague, but Sawyer had given little Jescha the last of the sweets and she munched on them quietly in the corner, a curtain of greasy black hair hanging in her face. Ardis leaned against the wall, arms crossed, half-hiding the young witch from view.

‘’Maybe we could get her to the Witch City?’’ Jeane asked nervously, sweeping her mass of silver curls over her shoulder. She faltered, ‘’although...I don’t even know if it truly exist...or where it is...’’

‘’Even if we knew how to reach it,’’ Arlen, who was the only one Sawyer had asked for help bringing Jescha to the Cathouse, hoping true ignorance would save the others in case they were found out, said gravely, ‘’I doubt it will be safe for much longer. No, we need to get her out of Hailbronn.’’

‘’Solin is getting as bad as Hailbronn; Rhein is a ghost kingdom,’’ Libby shook her head, ‘’Koln could be our best option.’’

‘’We wouldn’t make it,’’ Cyril said softly, glancing at Jescha in case she heard; the little girl was busy eating her sweets, ‘’we’d have to get through Darien and get over the border to Kanalei – who knows how bad Darien is, if our little town of Ashta is under such heavy fire. Or we could go around Darien, through no man’s land – but the winter is still raging and I don’t think she’d...’’ he trailed off and everyone dropped their eyes to the floor. Wotan, the northernmost city in Hailbronn, was surrounded by miles and miles of wilderness – treacherous forests, ravines, cliffs, abandoned hunter traps... even more dangerous with a thick, icy blanket of snow. By themselves, they could maybe do it, but a seven year old would tire easily, and fatigue was deadly in the freezing weather...

‘’There is...’’ Mr Sweeney bit his full lip, ‘’...a man in Arcadia. He’s known in underground circles as the person who will make you disappear if you need him to, and these days rumour has it he’s smuggling witches out of the country. I know Koln is far, and its dangerous, but if we could only get her to Arcadia, he could help Jescha go somewhere safe...’’

The Cats exchanged looks. They knew what Sweeney was asking. General Magana’s men were already suspicious of the Cathouse, loitering nearby most days after being dispatched to Ashta – if Sweeney disappeared, it would confirm their suspicions and they’d have a chase on their hands. But if one of the Cats happened to, say, visit their families for a couple of days...to disappear for a while...

‘’I’ll do it,’’ Arlen said quietly, ‘’I’ll get her to Arcadia.’’

‘’No!’’ Lucio’s sudden cry, followed by his small, brown hands grasping Arlen’s own, surprised everyone. Arlen looked down at the auburn-haired Moriyan with wide eyes as Lucio’s own brown ones went teary, ‘’no, please, Arlen...’’

Arlen swallowed, hard, and squeezed Lucio’s hand, ‘’I knew about this. I knew what I was getting you all into. We were lucky; we could have all ended up hung in the city square for what I and Mr Sawyer did,’’ he pulled his hand free of Lucio’s gently, ‘’I need to get her out of here, before the soldiers do a second check. Before something happens to you,’’ the Cats had a feeling the ‘you’ was directed specifically at Lucio.

Lucio opened his mouth and Soren knew what he would say – that he was coming with Arlen. And Soren could see the outcome as easily as if he was a Seer witch – Lucio, sweet, gentle Lucio, tripping up, over lies or a story they made up when questioned by border patrol, slowing down when chased, thinking with his heart not his head, being found out as a smuggler, somehow – and Arlen not thinking clearly, either. Arlen throwing himself into whatever shit was about to ensure to save Lucio, to make sure he was alright.

They’d come back to the Cathouse in a wooden coffin.

Soren stood before Lucio could volunteer and said, very quietly, ‘’I’m going to give her a bath,’’ he motioned to Jescha who, frankly, was in a large need for one, ‘’and tomorrow I will get her to Arcadia, to the man you speak of. And it will be known that not all of Hailbronn has been damned.’’ 

*~*~*

Without Orin around, Wrath was restless. Late one evening, he found himself wandering the empty corridors of the Kolnese palace. Storm season was upon Kainan which meant Koln was even more thunder-and-lightning than usual. Wrath was making his way to the floor-to-ceiling windows of the palace on one of the upper floors, overlooking the drop of the chasm on one side of the building, from which the rolling, flashing clouds could be admired. Orin and Wrath loved that spot and his subconscious propelled him there, as if hoping he’d find the King staring out of the window, waiting for him. It was cold – this corridor always was, what with the glass-less windows, but Wrath couldn’t be bothered to return to his chambers for a cloak to throw over his night clothes. He hated it when Orin was gone and he had to take care of palace business. The court loved him – they found him amusing and charming, despite (or maybe because) of his temper – but without Orin around, they gritted on Wrath after a while.

As Wrath approached the windows, he noticed that he wasn’t alone – he recognised the gentle slope of shoulders, the wavy, silver hair spilling down the nape, the slim legs and arms...Bren stood at the windows, staring out at the storms. Wrath stopped, about to turn around – he felt like a fool around Bren. Like he was pushy. It was clear Bren wanted to be Orin’s, rather than Wrath’s, and the thought made him as angry as it made him sad. But Bren was already turning from the window, alerted by the sound of Wrath’s footsteps, so the Archduke simply started walking again, face impassive, ‘’what are you doing here, Wicker?’’ he asked, voice harder than he intended. He always had a bit of a problem controlling his body.

Bren flinched, blinking those gorgeous green-gold eyes. He quickly curtsied, ‘’forgive me, your grace.’’

‘’I wasn’t...’’ Wrath sighed, ‘’never mind. You should be in bed. It’s cold.’’

‘’Yes,’’ another curtsy and Bren turned as if to hurry away.

‘’No, I-‘’ Wrath nearly groaned, ‘’it was a suggestion. Not an order. You may stay, if you want.’’

Bren looked at him uncertainly, but at least he didn’t scuffle away. Wrath approached, trying to appear casual – but he knew he looked angry, stiff, no matter what. He had the resting face of a man about to cut someone’s balls off for fun, as Orin had once pointed out fondly before kissing the frown that bloomed on Wrath’s face away. At the thought of Orin, Wrath’s whole body sagged and he leaned on a column framing the corridor of windows. The freezing cold wind picked at the flimsy night clothes he wore, ‘’Orin and I come here a lot...’’ he whispered, feeling like he needed to get the crushing, consuming feeling off his chest.

Bren looked down, ‘’I’m sorry for intruding, you grace.’’

Wrath sighed again, ‘’I didn’t mean it like that. I just...wanted to say it.’’

He felt Bren’s eyes flick to him but he didn’t look, instead observing the lights flashing against the grey clouds in the dark, night sky, ‘’you miss him,’’ Bren said in a quiet voice.

Wrath huffed a laugh, ‘’you’re perceptive.’’

‘’And you’re easy to ready.’’

Wrath glanced at Bren and found him offering a small, kind smile. Wrath’s heart ached. He pushed himself off the column, ‘’get some sleep, Wicker,’’ he was halfway across the corridor, back to his chamber, when Bren grabbed his hand. Wrath turned, surprised.

Bren’s face was shockingly open, eyes glistening with desperation, ‘’is it strange that I don’t want to be alone right now?’’ he whispered, voice trembling, from the cold or something else.

Wrath stared at him for a long moment before twisting his hand in Bren’s grip, to hold his hand better in his own, ‘’no,’’ he murmured, and tugged on Bren’s hand, leading him towards his chambers.

Wrath barely remembered the walk, getting to his chamber or falling on the bed, Bren under him. They were kissing already at that point, soft and lingering but desperate at the same time, Wrath spilling all his anguish and longing for Orin’s presence into Bren. Bren clung to his sleeves with his small hands, craning his neck up to kiss Wrath more. They soaked up each other, and it helped with their aching hearts a little. Because Bren missed Orin, too – he missed a man he didn’t know, not really, but whom he felt some soul-deep connection with and he knew it was wrong. But he was also aware with every cell in his body that it was Wrath above him, not Orin, and his mind didn’t betray him by flitting to the golden-haired king this time. With his very being, Bren wanted to comfort Wrath, to apologise for their last time together with his body, with his voice, with anything he could. Because Wrath was kind, and gentle and protective, behind the impatient, hard mask he put up.

Wrath cupped Bren’s face with calloused fingers, kissed him over and over again. The buttons of Bren’s night shirt were open – when did that happen? But Bren didn’t care, not when Wrath’s fingers ran over his chest, cupping his hips, stroking the soft skin there. They didn’t part, didn’t stop kissing, not once, not even when Wrath began thrusting into Bren slowly but surely. He swallowed each one of the omega’s soft gasps and quiet moans, relished in the way his fingers dug into his shoulders and back, adored the way the soft, crackling fire in the fireplace cast a warm orange  glow on Bren’s long lashes an soft cheeks when he opened his eyes slightly to watch him as they kissed, ‘’Wrath...’’ Bren half-whispered, half-moaned under him, against his mouth and a shiver went down Wrath’s spine at the sound of his name uttered by that beautiful voice.

He came first, shortly after that, and Bren followed closely after. Wrath rolled himself off the omega and dumped himself on the pillows and furs, giving a content sigh. Somehow, he felt just a little bit better. He closed his eyes, listening to Bren catch his breath next to him. And then the floor shifted.

Wrath’s eyes snapped open and his hand shot out, closing around Bren’s hand, ‘’stay,’’ he blurted before Bren could fully get off the bed. He took in the surprise on Bren’s face, the way his lips parted gently, and he brushed a thumb over the inside of Bren’s hand, ‘’stay,’’ he repeated, softer, more sure, ‘’please.’’ Hesitantly, Bren crawled back on the bed and lay down on the pillows, ‘’can I...hold you?’’ Wrath’s voice was slightly choked as he extended an arm towards Bren shyly, looking at the fire rather than at the omega.

Bren slipped under Wrath’s arm, relishing in the warm weight of it as it was draped over his waist. He laid his head on Wrath’s shoulder and pulled up the furs to cover them. Then, with a gentle, delicate hand he tilted Wrath’s face towards him and brushed his lips ever so slightly against his. When he opened his eyes, Wrath was finally looking at him, ‘’he’ll come back soon,’’ Bren assured quietly.

Wrath only nodded, tucking a curl behind Bren’s ear and leaning down to kiss his button nose, ‘’thank you,’’ he murmured.

*~*~*

Like with everything, the Day of the Dead wasn’t a big deal in Arnheim.

People were expected to take a moment in their day to say a prayer to the gods for those who had passed that day – and, gods, there were many. Airen rose well before the sun and in the darkness of the grimy apartments, he knelt and prayed. For those who had died in that wretched war between Arnheim and Yame.

But mostly for Fionn.

The tears were still silently streaming down his face when Marietta, now out of the dungeons, touched her son’s shoulder gingerly, ‘’it’s time, Airen,’’ she said softly, ‘’it’s time to tell him.’’

*~*~*

‘’Captain Altha Blackwood!’’ the herald at the doors announced. Merry, who had been leaning on his hand on the throne, bored out of his mind, in the request room next to Tristan, who was listening to the grievances of peasants who had braved the plague-infested air, raised his head. ‘Blackwood’...a pirate. What was a pirate doing in the palace of Salar?

The groups of people within the chambers burst into quiet whispers. They looked bizarre in their plague masks, turning to talk to each other or look around, like beaked half-people, half-birds. Tristan made a beckoning motion towards the doors and they were opened. Merry leaned forward, intrigued. Captain Altha was a young woman of wheat-coloured hair, falling out in wavy strands from under her Captain’s hat, and large, brown eyes, one of which was covered by a leather eye patch. Behind her came a group of...witches, Merry realised with a start. He gaped at their double coloured eyes. A young girl of about fourteen stood behind Altha Blackwood, dark haired with eyes of silver and black. She made Merry feel strange. He sat back, even as Tristan smiled.

Altha sketched a bow, ‘’your majesties, the witch community if forever in your debt for opening your borders.’’

‘’Please, Captain. It is the least we can do,’’ Tristan said even as the whispers of peasants gathered around the audience chamber grew to a harsher, more violent sound. Tristan frowned at them, eyes closed, and they quietened down.

‘’I have seven witches with me, from the coast of Solin and Moriya. Raaisel here has helped the cause greatly, evacuating many witches. She is happy to continue to do so, under your patronage.’’

Tristan nodded, ‘’you are all most welcome at court, until I organise accommodation for you.’’

‘’Thank you, majesty,’’ the witches murmured.

Merry scanned them. Moriyan twins clung to each other; two elderly people with them made signs of blessing towards Tristan; Raaisel did not move, her face grave, ‘’there is one more issue, majesty,’’ Altha continued, ‘’under the orders of Hailbronn’s General, Niktohal Magana, Lieutenant Kali Dairmuid has personally began the hunt of pirates aiding witches in Kainan. We think...Rhein could prove an ally we desperately need, close enough to save more witches.’’

Merry frowned, ‘’Rhein is a ghost kingdom.’’

Altha inclined her head to him, ‘’the towns around the border, which have been braved, have been reported to be deserted, but we have reason to believe the Queen lives – and she may still have her army.’’

‘’What do you suggest Salar does about that?’’ Tristan questioned.

‘’Some of my crew has volunteered to venture into Rhein, and Raaisel says she will lead them,’’ she explained; Merry frowned – how was a fourteen year old witch to lead an expedition? ‘’But we need manpower. Manpower that you can supply, your majesty.’’

Tristan stared at her with closed eyes, ‘’I see,’’ he said finally, ‘’you propose a venture to Rhein because Koln will not stand for long against both Solin and Hailbronn.’’

‘’Yes, your majesty.’’

Tristan nodded, ‘’keep bringing witches here. Save as many as you can,’’ his face turned grave, ‘’you will have your manpower.’’

*~*~*

Daran stood in the foyer of the palace, speaking with his family. His fathers were setting out to check on the war camps and they were going over last details of what had to be done by the time winter was over with their three oldest sons. The war had taken a toll on everything, from economy to politics to national mood. There was much damage to be fixed – and it would take years. Daran boiled with anger just thinking about it.

Suddenly, Kane stopped talking and nodded at someone behind Daran’s shoulder. The King turned just as Marietta Moreland curtsied to the royal family. The sight of her still made Daran see red, but he kept his mouth shut. Airen said nothing, did nothing. There were dark circles under his pale green eyes, like he hadn’t been sleeping properly. Kane’s voice was cold as he addressed Marietta, ‘’is something the matter?’’

Marietta sent him a charming, venomous smile, a viper dressed in pretty dresses, ‘’we have news, King Father,’’ she said sweetly, eyes flicking to Daran, ‘’for his majesty the King.’’

‘’Speak,’’ Daran all but snapped.

Marietta beamed and Daran couldn’t decide if it was genuine or not – but Daran stopped caring about that as the words fell from her mouth, ‘’Airen is with child.’’

Daran felt as if the room sucked in a breath collectively, and them...

‘’Congratulations!’’ Kane boomed with genuine glee, clapping his son on his shoulder and giving him a mighty, shake. Airleas laughed, bright as morning temple bells, and covered his mouth with his fingertips, eyes going glassy. Daim gasped and grinned, staring at Airen and Brannen threw an arm around his brother’s shoulders, laughing, too.

Airen stood there patiently, until suddenly Daran broke away from his family. They immediately fired a tirade of questions on Marietta, ‘’how do you know?’’

‘’A physician examined him yesterday.’’

‘’Yesterday!? And you’re only telling us now?’’

‘’How many months?’’

‘’Two or three. The child is still very small.’’

But all that was blocked out of Daran’s head as he approached Airen, stunned. For once, Airen couldn’t meet his eyes. He stared at his feet, hands fisted at his sides, ‘’I...’’ Daran’s hand rose, all by itself, to brush against Airen’s cheek, ‘’thank you-‘’

‘’I’m tired,’’ Airen took a sharp step back before Daran could touch him, ‘’I’d like to retire to my chamber.’’

‘’Of course,’’ Daran said immediately, dropping his hand, ‘’I’ll escort you.’’

‘’No need. My mother will take me,’’ Airen said quietly and Daran didn’t push him, though his happiness dampened briefly as Marietta stepped towards her son and took his elbow, steering him away.

But in the next instance, the reality of the situation hit Daran again – he would have a child. He would be a father. And the happiness soared through him. He grinned as his brothers jumped him, squeezing him so hard he couldn’t breathe for a moment.

*~*~*

Soren’s and Jescha’s faces were hidden by plague masks as they hurried down the snowy streets of Ashta, Soren’s hand holding Jescha’s. They had packs and money, and were to purchase a horse as soon as possible to ride like hell to Arcadia, so Soren could hand Jescha over to a man named Kaliq. There really were soldiers everywhere, Soren realised. For some reason, General Magana suspected Ashta of harbouring witches and his men passed between alleyways and trudged in the snow like beaked shadows. In the bright, icy sun of the day, Soren felt exposed. He was glad for the plague masks hiding Jescha’s eyes but if they were stopped...Soren didn’t let himself think about that. They just needed to get a horse. Then they’d be fine.

A particularly large group of soldiers turned the corner around the butcher’s, now boarded up and run down after the whole family fell to the plague last summer. Soren veered smoothly into an alleyway to avoid the group. Here the snow was piled up higher, shin-deep. Jescha was stumbling, clutching Soren’s hand. She was soaked and shivering, ‘’it’s alright,’’ Soren said, voice muffled by his mask, ‘’just hold out a little longer.’’

If they kept up their pace, they could get to the stables in ten minutes and...

With a sudden cry, Jescha tripped and fell face-first in the snow. She scrambled into a sitting position immediately. Both she and Soren saw what she tripped over at the same time.

A dead man, face bloated and grey from the moisture, eyes wide open and glassy, eyelashes frosted over, face covered with sores and boils.

Jescha screamed before Soren could get to her.

Her scream carried around the silent town like a thunderclap. It broke off abruptly when Soren fell to his knees by her and clamped a hand over her mouth, ‘’shhh!’’ he hissed urgently, ‘’shhh-‘’

‘’Hey! You two, get up!’’

Soren’s blood ran cold as he turned to whoever had demanded they rise from the snow – three soldiers stood in the snow, having ran, alerted by Jescha’s scream. Soren got up quickly, pulling Jescha with him, and inclined his head, ‘’forgive us, sirs. We hadn’t expected to come across a body.’’

‘’Shouldn’t be scuffling round alleyways then, should you?’’ one of the soldiers said suspiciously, voice muffled by his mask, ‘’where were you heading?’’ Soren’s throat closed up. A dozen answers pushed themselves against his tongue but as he shifted through ones that had closed in the last few years due to the plague, the soldiers shifted – their hands went to their swords, ‘’masks off,’ they demanded.

‘’But sir, the plague-‘’

‘’Masks off,’’ the soldier snapped, drawing his sword. Jescha stepped behind Soren, whimpering, ‘’I want to see your eyes.’’

Very slowly, hands trembling, Soren undid the buckles of his mask with snow-numbed fingers and slid it off his face. The chilly air hit his red cheeks as he blinked his green eyes at the soldiers, who jerked their chins at Jescha, ‘’now her.’’

‘’Please, sir, don’t expose her to the-‘’

The soldier took a menacing step forward, ‘’did you hear what I said?’’ he hissed.

‘’Enough.’’

The three soldiers turned – and Soren’s breath caught because there was Bas. He recognised him now, even with his plague mask on. The soldiers saluted, ‘’General.’’

‘’I’ll deal with this,’’ Bas said, voice as cold as the snow, ‘’you’re meant to be patrolling the streets, not hounding pedestrians.’’

They looked inclined to argue, but eventually nodded, beaked masks nearly touching their chests, ‘’yes, sir!’’ they saluted again and hurried away.

Bas waited until they were gone before he turned to Soren, ‘’put your mask back on,’’ he said. But Soren couldn’t, not with fear freezing his veins. Bas stormed over to him, yanked his mask out of his hands and hastily fastened it around his head. As he did so, he spoke in a quiet, urgent voice, ‘’you won’t get out of Ashta this way. They’re setting up a blockade,’’ Soren thought he’d faint. Fear coursed through his veins like a deadly disease. He didn’t protest when Bas grabbed his forearm in a vice-like grip and barked at Jescha, ‘’move,’’ he led them out of the alley, yanking Soren along. No soldier questioned them, no one stopped them, and soon enough the Cathouse loomed in front of them again.

Bas banged on the front doors a couple of times as Mr Sawyer opened, he shoved Soren, and the Jescha, inside, stepped over the threshold himself and slammed the doors shut, ‘’are you insane?’’ he barked at Sawyer, ripping his mask off to reveal eyes burning with anger; Soren had never seen him so furious.

‘’General,’’ Sawyer said neutrally, not even glancing at Jescha, not hinting at what she may be. Soren pulled his mask off, too, but Jescha remained in hers.

‘’You...why would you...a witch...at such a time!’’ Bas spluttered, too mad to think of a proper sentence, ‘’and Soren...how could you endanger him!?’’

‘’He volunteered,’’ Sawyer’s voice was steel.

Bas’ head snapped to look at Soren just as the Cats came thundering in through the beaded curtains. Soren pushed Jescha gently towards Arlen and she ran to him, hiding behind his leg, ‘’come,’’ Soren said quietly to Bas, and walked through the curtain and up the stairs. He stopped only when he was inside his bedroom – and Bas walked in a moment later.

‘’You lied to me,’’ he said, voice raw with anger.

‘’Yes,’’ Soren said – because what else could he say?

‘’Why?’’

Soren raised his head, ‘’you came here with a witch hunting party, General,’’ Soren said, ‘’how could I have told you the truth when I didn’t know whose side you were on?’’

‘’I’m on your side!’’ Bas said heatedly, stepping towards him.

‘’Why?’’ Soren echoed Bas’ question.

The General swallowed, ‘’because I trust your judgement more than I trust the judgement of my best friend.’’

Soren stared at him but eventually nodded, ‘’thank you for helping us today.’’

‘’Soren-‘’

‘’Please. Don’t tell anyone she’s here. She’s just a child,’’ he said, ‘’if you cannot bear this...then leave. Go. Forget about this place. But, please, don’t sell her out.’’

Bas fell silent. He stared at Soren.

Soren stared at his feet.

‘’What if I can bear this?’’ came Bas’ quiet voice.

Soren looked back up; green eyes met brown, ‘’then stay. And help us. Gods know we’ll need all the help we can get.’’

Bas looked at him. A boy he barely knew, a boy he was so drawn to, for some strange reason. A beautiful boy. A brave boy. A house of sin filled with sinners fighting against monsters. Doing the very thing that was contrary to the institution he was part of. But...he was meant to protect his people. Not divide them and set them on each other. And even if Soren hadn’t been the one asking...Bas would have come to the same conclusion.

He took a deep breath.

‘’We need to get her out of here. We must send word to your contact.’’

Soren exhaled, heart settling for the first time since he set out of the Cathouse with a witch in tow. He reached out and squeezed Bas’ hand, eyes now lined with silver, ‘’you’re a good man, General,’’ he whispered.

*~*~*

When Jasper woke up, he was outside, in the snow. He frowned as the icy snow under his palms bit into his skin. He looked around. He was in the forest, above the wolf caves, and the wolves...

Oh, gods, the wolves.

They were everywhere. Wolves of every colour, huge beasts, mouths open, canines dripping with saliva, eyes glowing with hunger and hatred. An infernal growl picked up around the clearing, a death song the wolves sung before they pounced.

Dead wolves.

Wolves that had died on the Island of Kai. Hundreds of them – all out to get the witch who walked between worlds.

‘’Shit, shit, shit-‘’ Jasper scrambled back.

And in the next instance he found himself sitting on a pile of furs, Othelen crouched over him, shaking his arms, ‘’what the hell was that?’’ he demanded.

Jasper gasped for breath and forced himself not to look down – because Othelen was naked, having shifted from wolf to human form; Jasper blushed, ‘’h-huh?’’

‘’Where the hell did you go? Your eyes were all glassy and shit.’’

‘’U-um...I opened a door...’’ he shook his head, ‘’I...it doesn’t...can you put some clothes on!?’’

Othelen gave a low growl, revealing his ever-so-slightly elongated canines. He let go of Jasper’s shoulders, ‘’didn’t I tell you to sleep on your side, whelp?’’

Jasper glanced around Othelen’s cave where he had slept for the past few days (Othelen had no choice in it). There were two ‘nests’ now, on either side of the cave and Othelen had a strict rule about Jasper keeping to his side of the cave. Except...

‘’Um...Othelen? You’re on my side...again.’’

Othelen’s eyes flashed again as he looked around sharply and realised where in the cave he was – and that his nest was on the opposite side of the cave. He swore mentally but Jasper was unsurprised – every night, without fail, since he got to the caves, wolf-Othelen came to him and curled up with him. And every morning a grumpy, naked Othelen got mad about it.

An early morning storm rumbled the caves and Othelen stood abruptly, ‘’whatever,’’ he growled, returning to his nest. He paused and turned back to Jasper, ‘’whatever you just did, whatever...door you opened...don’t do it again.’’

*~*~*

Jamael heard the frantic knocking early in the morning and groaned into his pillow. When the knocking persisted, he swore and got off the bed. He had been miserable the past few days; he couldn’t sleep, his mind returning to Jex – so some idiot knocking on the doors of the assassin keep, interrupting precious moments of rest, pissed him off. He slipped from his room, bare-chested, just as Vysarane walked out of hers, hair a mess, pulling her goggles on, ‘’the hell?’’ she demanded and Jamael shrugged. Together, they climbed the wooden stairs form the basement. The knocking had stopped – someone must have opened the doors.

‘’Medic! MEDIC!’’ Jamael heard his mother screaming when he was half-way up the stairs and he broke into a run, sprinting the rest of the way up, Vys hot on her heels.

He burst into the corridor of the keep, ‘’mother, what-‘’ he froze and Vysarane slammed into him.

‘’The hell!?’’ she demanded again and then fell silent.

Because there were two boys in the foyer.

One of them was a witch, double coloured eyes hazy with pain as he was kept up by his companion, trailing blood that ran from a wound on his side.

The other was Jex.

Jamael hissed in a breath as Jex spotted him and his grey eyes turned pleading, ‘’he needs help,’’ he said in a choked voice as the medic of the assassin keep – as hard and trained as the rest of them – relieved Jex of his weight. Two other assassins ran to lift the witch and carry him away to the med room. Jex stood in the middle of the corridor, covered in the witch’s blood, eyes wide and terrified. Jamael had never seen him like that. He wanted to go to him, to hold him...

‘’What happened?’’ Thais demanded. Amir stood, grave faced, behind her.

‘’I...I...’’ Jex swallowed, ‘’I found him running. I heard that it was safe here. He got hurt by a witch hunter, I...’’ he took in a shuddering breath.

Thais’ eyes softened, ‘’you got a name?’’

‘’Jex.’’

Thais nodded, ‘’I’m Thais Hyndestane, Queen of Assassins,’’ she introduced herself, ‘’bringing the witch here...that was very brave of you. Jammy,’’ Thais turned to her son, ‘’come, get him clothes, food, rest, anything he needs,’’ Thais clapped Jex’s shoulder with a tan hand; she had a soft spot for self-sacrificing, brave boys, ‘’this keep...it’s becoming very dangerous, Jex. We expect the Sultan himself will take action against it soon, but we will be prepared. If you want to leave, you must do so today or tomorrow, before it gets too dangerous,’’ her blue eyes sparkled, ‘’but, since you went so far to save the witch’s life...well, let’s just say that if you want to stay, we’ll gladly have you. We’ll take any help we can get. Sleep on it,’’ she waved her son over, ‘’come on, Jamael. Vys, get someone to clean the floor.’’

Jamael stepped forward, heart pounding hard in his chest. He had let Jex go and he’d regretted it with every breathing moment, even if it was for the best...and now he was back again Jammy was terrified, because that meant Jex was in grave danger.

But a small, selfish part of him was secretly elevated. Because beautiful, endearing, dangerous, fascinating Jex was back.

‘’Hi,’’ he said, ‘’I’m Jamael.’’

The thief nodded, still shaking a little, ‘’Jex.’’

Chapter Text

Winter seemed to be never-ending.

It had been, what, a couple of weeks since Jasper landed in Kai? And the snow refused to melt. With only the wolves for company it was hard to keep track of time but the winter clearly raged on, so Jas tried to tell himself that he hadn’t been on Kai for that long. That he hadn’t been away from Rethymon for long enough for his whole world to be turned upside down. Now that Jas managed to push his near-death experience to the back of his head, he was out on the snow most of the time. With his common brushes with the dead thanks to random doors he stumbled upon, Jas managed to get over trauma faster than most. Plus, being inside the caves, mostly with grumpy Othelen who avoided him like he was on fire was tiring.

‘’Jas,’’ Ryiah said as she saw him coming back from his evening walk amongst the woods. Each day he ventured a bit farther, mapping out the area in his head. But until the storms that hung over Kai most days dissipated, he’d not get rid of the feeling of purposelessness that clung to him.

‘’You guys going somewhere?’’ Jas questioned the omega woman, watching the wolves emerge from their caves into the snow-white forest. By now, Jas knew where everyone fit within the pack. Jethil was the father, Illiliorn his mostly silent ‘wife’ who turned out to be surprisingly doting, even though he was more than half of Jethil’s age. Jas didn’t think he’d ever heard him speak, but he was very affectionate with the other wolves; they all were, with each other. Ryiah was the loud, fun aunt; Niraya was the scheming kid. And Mara and Othelen were like twins, almost inseparable. If they weren’t all together, then Othelen was brooding by himself or hanging out with Mara. They worked well together. Othelen was almost always in a strop and Mara had a resting face of a serial killer. Other than always ending up naked next to Jas, Othelen steered clear of him.

‘’We’re going for a run,’’ Ryiah said. Jas nodded; he’d gotten used to it over the past few days. He’d not seen them shift yet, though. Somehow that would just drive the fact that he was living with a pack of wolves home. He flipped his shoulder length brown braid over his shoulder and started towards the hole in the ground, covered with a wooden trapdoor, just as it opened and Othelen emerged. He climbed out, wearing a fur-tipped tunic and pants. He kicked the trapdoor closed and glanced down at Jas.

‘’U-um...excuse me...’’ Jas tried to side-step him. It was awkward enough waking up next to a shape-shifting, naked man every morning. They didn’t need to interact during the day.

But Othelen just grabbed his forearm and steered him towards the pack, ‘’you’re coming with us.’’

‘’I’m not a wolf,’’ Jas protested, ‘’I won’t keep up.’’

‘’Not for the run, whelp. You need to meet the alpha,’’ he gave Jas a wolfish grin, exposing his slightly sharpened canines, ‘’else he’ll eat you on one of your walks.’’  

‘’I thought Jethil was the alpha,’’ Jas said, fighting off the shiver the dangerous tone of Othelen’s voice induced; but he didn’t protest as the pack began venturing deeper into the woods, feet crunching in the snow.

‘’I am,’’ Jethil said with a smile, putting an arm around Illiliorn as they walked, ‘’of the human pack, though. The wolf pack lives and thrives on its own. We run together sometimes but that’s pretty much it. We stick to our territories. And so, naturally, they have their own alpha. He actually used to be the alpha of the human pack, before I took over and before he turned into a wolf fully.’’

Jas nodded, wrapping his cloak – borrowed from Ryiah – tighter around him. He didn’t know how he felt about meeting a pack of actual wolves, or if he wanted to see the pack he lived with temporarily shift. He didn’t know what to expect. Would their bones break? Would it be bloody and filled with gore? But he didn’t want to chicken out, especially not with Othelen glaring daggers into his back even as he held Niraya’s hand as he walked alongside her. The pack chatted animatedly with him about everything and nothing as they trekked for a quarter of an hour to a little clearing amongst the snowy forest. Jas mentally marked the way in his head, so he could return to the caves after he met the wolf alpha. Now that he had been on Kai for a while, the forest didn’t melt into one undistinguishable mass of trees anymore. The omnipresent hum of the sea always told him which was the caves were.

Jas slowed and fell in step with Othelen and Niraya. He kept his eyes on the snow as he said, ‘’so, uh...the storms...?’’

He could tell Othelen rolled his eyes, ‘’nothing I can do about them, whelp. Stop pestering me.’’

Jas sighed. He hated being powerless, ‘’I seriously need to get back to Kainan.’’

‘’So you’ve said. Like, twelve times,’’ Othelen sighed, irritated, ‘’look, if you quit talking about it then once the storms are over and the snow melts I’ll personally deliver you to Kainan. So shut your mouth, alright, whelp?’’

Jas nodded. That sounded at least a little like a plan, ‘’alright. Thanks.’’ He jogged to catch up with Ryiah again.

Once they reached the clearing, the pack shrugged off their cloaks and cleared snow off the lower-hanging branches of the trees around the clearing, hanging them out. They at least retained from taking their clothes off for now – they always stripped before shifting, else their clothes ripped, and in a place like Kai, especially during winter, there weren’t many things they could make clothes out of. Ryiah said that if they were truly desperate for something, the ventured into Kainan but they tried not to, since their markings and fangs marked them as abnormal, especially with the plague raging for the past three years. They waited for the wolf pack. Jethil brought Illiliorn closer and nuzzled his nose below his ear, murmuring things that made Illiliorn smile and his golden eyes twinkle; Othelen sat on a rock nearby with Niraya in his lap, braiding the girl’s red-orange hair – it was strange to see him so affectionate with his pack, when most of the time he gave Jas serial-killer vibes; Ryiah engaged Jas in conversation. She was good at that. She could talk about anything and still made it interesting. Mara stood at the edge of the clearing, staring out.

After maybe ten more minutes, Jas glanced towards her and he swore he saw her ears prick, ‘’they’re here,’’ she announced, backing back into a clearing.

Jas held his breath as the first wolf , larger than a normal one, broke out from between the trees – a slightly frail looking black one, followed closely by a black wolf pup that ran around the first wolf’s legs excitedly, glancing at the human pack with bright eyes. Then came two medium sized, ruddy wolves; then a brown one. And, finally, the alpha leapt from the trees. Tan white, like Othelen’s wolf form. Larger and stronger looking than the others. 

All the shape shifters, save for Jethil, inclined their heads to the alpha. Jethil nodded at Othelen, who stepped forward, ‘’father,’’ he said to the white wolf, startling Jas as he was shoved forward by Othelen, ‘’this is Jasper. He has shipwrecked on the island and we have taken him in until the storms pass,’’ the wolves stared, perfectly still, at Jasper; the prince fought off the urge to shift nervously on his feet, ‘’get on your knees,’’ Othelen said in a low, quiet voice. Jas didn’t think about even questioning him. He sank to his knees, the snow immediately penetrating the material of his trousers. For a second, the alpha didn’t move. Then it stepped forward. Jas didn’t flinch, though he wanted to, as the alpha approached and stopped so close to Jas that his noses nearly brushed. The wolf had deep, calming eyes that exuded intelligence. Jas relaxed a little under that gaze, so different to Othelen’s angry glares. Then, without a warning, the alpha angled his head and nudged his nose against Jas’ neck in a playful manner. Jas giggled despite himself and the wolf blew out a breath, the sides of his closed mouth flapping, as if he was letting out a chuckle, too.

Jethil smiled as Othelen nodded for Jas to stand, ‘’Jas, this is Aodhan, the alpha of the wolf pack,’’ he pointed to the brown wolf that had come second-to-last, before the leader who closed the ranks of the pack, making sure no one stayed behind, ‘’that’s Einion, his beta. Those are the twins, Sloane and Wynnie,’’ he motioned to the identical, ruddy wolves, and then to the two black wolves, ‘’that’s Lycus. He is the oldest wolf on Kai. And that’s Marian, his great grand-daughter.’’

 At the sound of her name, the pup broke away from the group, unable to contain her excitement any longer. Aodhan made a growly noise at the back of his throat, like a sigh of ‘I give up’ as Marian sniffed around Jas’ feet and then lunged herself at him. Jas yelped, topping over. Marian landed on his chest, licking his cheek in excitement. Jethil and Ryiah chuckled, and Jas giggled again. The pack moved to greet the wolves, leaving Jas alone to attempt and calm the pup on his chest down. He managed to sit down after a solid minute and Marian fell in his lap, her little tongue lolling as she panted happily. Jas chuckled and ran a hand down her back, feeling the soft black fur against his fingers. She seemed to like that. Jas looked around the clearing. The rest of the pack was talking with the wolves, who clearly understood what they were saying. And a little way off, Othelen was on his knees in the snow, embracing his father who rested his large head on his shoulder. Othelen’s eyes were closed, his face buried in the tan-white fur of Aodhan’s side, arms tight around him. Jas wondered briefly how long the packs hadn’t seen each other.

‘’Everyone ready?’’ Jethil asked, straightening from where he had been talking to elderly Lycus. His pack nodded. Jas glanced down as everyone started casually stripping their clothes off. He glimpsed enough of naked Othelen as it was. But he couldn’t stop his curiosity as they began shifting, and he raised his eyes. For a moment, Othelen was nothing but muscular back, (undeniably perfect) butt-cheeks and strong legs. And then his spine seemed to move under his skin and Othelen leaned forward, and kept leaning forward till he was practically bent in half. The miniscule hairs on his body grew into tan-white fur and in the next instance where Othelen had been bent over was a massive wolf. Jas glanced around the clearing, at the red-furred Niraya, dark-as-night Illiliorn prancing around brown Jethil, his flank streaked with grey, at snow white Mara and silver-black Ryiah, as the wolves turned towards the forest. As they leapt into the woods, the wolf pack followed.

Only Othelen remained.

‘’Go on,’’ Jas said softly as the wolf stared at him. While he held a level of disdain towards Othelen and his grumpy moods, he couldn’t deny that his wolf was a sweet, affectionate creature. Jas practically treated them as separate beings, ‘’run with the pack.’’

But Othelen walked over and nudged his nose against Jas’ hand. Jas smiled and patted his head, level with his thigh. Othelen nudged him backwards and the prince sighed affectionately as the wolf began leading him back towards the caves. Only when Othelen made sure Jas was by the entrance did he turn to go. Jas put a hand in the air in silent fare-well, watching the wolf disappear behind the trees, running to catch up with his pack.

*~*~*

Orin was barely back in the palace for two minutes before Wrath came running into the room. Orin didn’t even have to motion for the servants to leave his chambers, where he had been taking off his travel clothes; they were gone a moment before Wrath flung his arms around Orin’s neck, ‘’I missed you,’’ he breathed.

Orin held Wrath tightly to him, feeling the muscles of his body, drawing his hands up and down his back. It had only been over a week, but Orin had felt as if someone had cut off his leg. He hated leaving for business without Wrath, who was not only a skilled warrior but also a good advisor, ‘’Wrath,’’ he whispered, ‘’my love.’’

Wrath pulled away slightly and cupped Orin’s cheeks, kissing the tip of his nose affectionately, making the King giggle, before kissing him properly, their lips sliding together as easily as if they were made just to do that. Wrath didn’t protest as Orin slipped his hands under his tunic and pulled it over his head. He grinned as Orin practically tossed him onto their shared bed and stripped in record time, ‘’new scar?’’ he asked, kissing the small, white slash on Wrath’s shoulder.

‘’Courtesy of the Captain of the Guard,’’ Wrath slid his hand into Orin’s mess of gold hair as he kissed down his chest, calloused thumbs hooking into his pants to yank them down.

‘’Oh, you’ve been spending a lot of time with the Captain, have you?’’ Orin teased, lips pressed against Wrath’s bellybutton, making the archduke chuckle, considering the Captain was an elderly man.

‘’I had to entertain myself with someone while you were-‘’ Wrath gasped as Orin pulled down his underwear, yanked out his erection and slid his mouth around it, ‘’gone...’’ he finished in a strangled voice.

Orin pulled back with a wet pop, ‘’don’t worry,’’ he said, voice now low and promising action as his hand pumped up and down, ‘’I don’t plan to leave you again anytime soon.’’

Wrath grinned, pulling Orin up on top of him and wrapping his legs around his hips, ‘’as if I’d let you go,’’ he said softly, nuzzling his lips against Orin’s. They settled into each other easily, Wrath stroking his hands up and down Orin’s muscular back, Orin holding his hips as he thrust into him, kissing him over and over, as if he was trying to imprint the sensation of it into his head.

Later they lay crumpled on the bed, Orin on his stomach, spread out like a massive, golden cat, eyes closed, Wrath draped over him like a blanket, playing with his hair, ‘’how were the defences? Good?’’

‘’Mmmh, good. Let’s not talk about that now.’’

Wrath made an impatient noise, sitting up so he was straddling Orin’s back, ‘’come on, you can’t just leave me in the palace and then not tell me how our soldiers are faring,’’ he scratched his nails lightly down Orin’s back, already marked with angry red lines from their previous activities that had yet to fade.

Orin groaned and grabbed a pillow, settling it under his head and getting comfortable, ‘’right. So. The bandits are not causing any trouble. There hasn’t even been one raid by them this year, since they refuse to leave their mountains in time of plague, so at least we don’t have to worry about that. The navy is patrolling Hyuuga and the coast of Yarah in case Hailbronn takes Solin’s ships, but an oceanic attack looks unlikely,’’ Wrath listened attentively, braiding and unbraiding a section of Orin’s blond hair; the half-assed waves that formed usually led to knots so Wrath quickly gave up on the braids and started working the knots out with quick fingers, ‘’Kanalei worries about a Hailbronese attack launched from Darien, since the border runs between the two, so I’ve stationed a garrison in the city, and more soldiers along the border further south, in no-man’s lan- ouch! Wrath, don’t pull!’’

‘’Keep going,’’ Wrath prompted, going gentler on Orin’s hair, judging the weaknesses and strengths of the new defence lines in his head, ‘’what about the border with Solin?’’

Orin sighed but stretched out under Wrath, yawning, ‘’the defences in Monterrey were sufficient, but they need more equipment. I’ve already issued an order for more. But I don’t think General Magana would attack us from Solin. The closest city to the border is Mirabad, and that’s saying a lot since it’s pretty far. They wouldn’t risk marching in, since they’d be engaged in battle at the border, and with no higher ground or keep to fortify behind, they’d be picked off quickly.

Wrath hummed in agreement, running his hands through Orin’s hair, ‘’still, I don’t like that we’re surrounded.’’

As it stood, Koln was in a pretty isolated position. To the south was Hailbronn; to the west, occupied Solin. The Kolnese territory was house shaped, and the tip of the roof collided with the Sorata river that split a small section of Koln from Rhein. The only reason why the heavier version of the plague that had killed most of Rhein didn’t reach Koln was thanks to the empty no-man’s land around Wotan. Wrath shuddered at just the thought of what Koln would look like right now if not for that treacherous stretch of trees that no Rhein person had dared to brave. But the problem remained. They could, in theory, be invaded from either side, especially since they took witch refugees, enraging the General; to the north lay a wasteland that was Rhein. The only thing that could save them in the face of an invasion would be international aid from the sea. They could count on Salar, which had opened their borders. Maybe. Maybe if House Aldane still ruled Salar, and House Hyndestane still ruled Koln, an alliance would be easier, since the houses had been linked by marriage over sixty years ago. Who else? Arnheim had been silent for the last three years, once again engaged in one of their never ending wars. Asakura’s borders remained as closed as three years ago. Typical. During the godly plague hundreds of years ago, they had turned their backs on Kainan, too. Moriya wasn’t an option, not with the Sultan on a witch-hunting crusade. Sahr was a possibility, but with the young King freshly on the throne, it wasn’t certain. And Mutzre was too far away.

Wrath yelped when he was suddenly dumped on the bed as Orin flipped himself over. Before Wrath could sit up, Orin pinned him down with his body, tucking his chin on top of Wrath’s head, ‘’stop worrying,’’ he said softly. As always, he could pick apart Wrath’s mood from his silences and body language, ‘’we’re strong.’’

Wrath stroked Orin’s tan arm, ‘’you’re doing the right thing,’’ he murmured.

But that didn’t make him feel any less worried.

*~*~*

Jas woke up in the middle of the night to a cave-full of fur. He had waited for the pack’s return but they had been out for longer than usual, probably because they were running with the wolf-pack, so eventually Jas gave up and went to sleep in his corner of Othelen’s cave. Now he woke up to warmth pressing all over him. The pack, exhausted from their run, was sound asleep in their wolf forms. Around Jas. Niraya, smaller than the rest as the youngest of the pack, had her furry head on his stomach; Ryiah was curled atop his legs like a foot-warmer. Illiliorn and Jethil were by Niraya, tangled together and pressed against Jas’ side. Mara was curled in the corner by his head, taking up a large portion of his pillow. And Othelen...Othelen was awake. He made a quiet, happy noise, seeing that Jas is awake, and bent his head. His pink tongue flicked against Jas’ cheek.

Jas flushed. That had, very clearly, been the wolf-definition of a kiss. Othelen settled down against Jas other side, lying his head against his ribs, next to Niraya. After a moment, Jas sunk his hand into his tan-white fur and went back to sleep, trying not to think about how he would wake up in the morning surrounded by six naked bodies.

*~*~*

Raaisel, the fourteen year old witch, was gathering her team to sail to Rhein and find the Queen with, hopefully, and army...and Meridan couldn’t shake the feeling that he should go with them, ‘’your majesty...’’

‘’Merry,’’ Tristan had just finished making love to him, in the middle of the day. He argued that ‘producing an heir’ was as much part of his duties as paperwork (which he filled out with the help of a scribe) and taking requests. Of course, it was only a pretext to spend time with his husband, but as he did the strings of his tunic back up, he seemed irritated – because he knew what his husband would ask, ‘’I told you. There is no way you could go. There is no way I could go. This is...probably the most dangerous venture I can think of right now. Rhein is diseased, and they’re in the middle of a civil war. I know you feel obligated to help witches – but think of our kingdom. They will need both of us if we’re to get through this plague. And,’’ he sent Merry a smile, ‘’they will need a new ruler.’’

Merry plopped back in the pillows and sighed. How many of the philosophers and astronomers in his little house in the country had been witches? Countless. He’d spent his whole life around them. And his brother...his half brother...Merry closed his eyes briefly at the painful memory of the young boy, the only family who would visit him. From the moment his House was deposed from the throne, Merry had been a threat as a man the country could rally under. He had been locked away and grew up away from his family, from most people, in the countryside. His family would not visit. They were more concerned with royal favour then one of them locked away.

But August hadn’t cared. He’d been young, half Merry’s age, and a bastard child – not a threat to the throne. Merry still remembered how he’d come running into the house, amongst tutts of the scholars, and embrace Merry around the legs. How he had a head for learning, even better than Merry’s. But August had been a witchling. And Merry remembered being told, three years ago, that the eleven year old boy had been surrounded in the forest surrounding the town. How he had been dragged amongst trees. How grown men and women put a rope around his neck, threw it over a tree branch and hung him until he stopped kicking. Merry remembered the rage and then the hopelessness – the same hopelessness he felt now. He remembered the nightmares he had for a year straight, about his brother’s legs kicking in the air, about bruised fingers clutching at a rope digging into skin, about a mouth gasping for breath and eyes bulging out...

He had been permitted to leave the house for August’s funeral. That was the last time he saw his family. With August dead, they meant nothing to him; August had been the last connection between them. After that year, the most miserable in his life. After, he had pushed revenge out of his head and concentrated on his studies. He didn’t know who his half-brother’s killers were, or how he could punish them. But since Raaisel showed up at court and asked Tristan for manpower, it all came back. How he couldn’t do anything for his witch brother back then. But how now he had the opportunity to do something for witches – to gather an army and aid Tristan’s cause of helping them. Maybe then he could get over August’s death that was always in his subconscious. He still dreamt those dreams, sometimes.

But Tristan wouldn’t let him go.

‘’Raaisel will do just fine,’’ Tristan promised, ‘’I’m sending Captain Heartman to Rhein with her. And the best warriors,’’ he reached for Merry on the bed. The man rolled off and, very quietly, backed away. Tristan dropped his hand and sighed; as long as Merry didn’t make a noise and the floor didn’t creak, Tris wouldn’t be able to tell where he was. Merry knew it was cruel, especially as he watched Tristan move ever so slightly, trying to figure out where his husband was. But he was getting angry. Really angry, ‘’Merry,’’ Tris sighed.

Merry moved, quick and precise, towards the doors. He was out before Tris could react, slamming the doors behind him.

He’d barely made it down the corridor when suddenly Raaisel rose up in front of him with a bone-chilling grin on her young face.

*~*~*

‘’You’re coming with us, majesty?’’ Captain Sathe Heartman was surprise to find Merry amongst the team setting out to Rhein from the port in Eden.

‘’Of course he is,’’ Raaisel said easily, her silver and black eyes flashing. Heartman blinked and then the confusion disappeared from her face.

‘’Course you are,’’ she said brightly. Merry had no idea what Raaisel had done, but he was glad for it. If anyone knew how adamant Tristan had been about Merry not going on this expedition, it would be his Captain of the Guard. As it stood, he’d managed to sneak out of the palace with Raaisel the following evening, leaving behind a servant boy, Kiden, to substitute for him. He was to avoid speaking and being around the King at all costs, so he wouldn’t realise he wasn’t Merry; he could hopefully get away with it for a couple days, pretending to sulk over Tris’ refusal to let Merry go, and by the time Tristan realised his husband had sneaked away, Merry would long be in Rhein. He’d deal with the shit-storm that would cause after he came back, ‘’let me introduce you to everyone,’’ Heartman led Merry and Raaisel over to a huddle of people warming their hands by one of the fires lit in the port in ankle-deep snow as they waited for their ship to begin boarding.

‘’These are the pirates Captain Altha offered from her own crew. Slava, the doctor,’’ a deeply tanned, golden haired, middle aged woman inclined her head, ‘’and Luciana, the navigator. She will make sure we don’t get lost.’’

Ginger-haired Luciana grinned and nodded at Merry, ‘’nice to meet you.’’

‘’If we don’t bring them back in one piece, Altha has threatened to set all of Salar on fire,’’ Heartman chuckled, as she gestured to a man of maybe thirty, all brown – brown hair, eyes and skin, ‘’this is General Riese Sarin, and these are his best soldiers, Drest, Yago and Itzel.’’ Drest was a pretty man with a couple wrinkles by his green eyes, still young, a mop of curly brown hair atop his head. He gave Merry a smile. Yago was the complete opposite – he looked Arhanese, with a square jaw, pale skin, light blond hair and calculating grey eyes. He was massive and one of the older soldiers in the group, hefting a huge, iron sword across his back. Itzel was the only female soldier, curly haired and of Asakurian descent; she was also incredibly tiny, especially compared to Yago. All three wore the red and gold of the Salarian flag.

‘’That is Lady Archana Starteller, King Tristan’s cousin,’’ Heartman went on, pointing to a twig-thin woman of dull blonde hair, standing apart from the group, talking with irritation to what looked to be the Captain of their ship, ‘’she insisted that someone should represent the Starteller Dynasty before the Queen of Rhein.’’

‘’If she is even alive,’’ Merry murmured despite himself.

Heartman either didn’t hear, or pretended not to, as she gave an icy smile to two men standing under the guard of a third, an omega, ‘’and this is Bernhard.’’

The forty-something, broad shouldered man of greying red hair tipped forward his scruffy hat, ‘’it’s a pleasure, your majesty,’’ he said with a grin, revealing a golden tooth; he looked more like a pirate than Slava and Luciana.

‘’Bernhard killed three people in a tavern brawl last year,’’ Heartman dead-panned, ‘’this venture is his parole.’’

Bernhard didn’t seem fazed by Heartman’s accusation as he clapped a much slimmer, much younger, Moriyan boy at his side on the shoulder, ‘’your majesty, my apprentice, Venus.’’ Venus just nodded.

Heartman shrugged, ‘’they seem to have bonded in the prisons. Venus was there for thieving and now they are inseparable. Kip,’’ the omega guard nodded, ‘’has been charged with keeping an eye on them. ‘’

‘’We’re all ready, Captain!’’ came a warm, chipper voice.

Merry and Heartman turned to the last two members of the expedition – a short haired, double-colour eyed woman and a middle aged omega knight, ‘’ah,’’ Heartman took a basket full of provisions from her, ‘’good job, Kasimira. Your majesty, Kasimira is a witchling volunteer; she senses danger so I recon she will be rather useful,’’ Kasimira gave a neat curtsy, ‘’and this is Axel. He’s kind of a legend around here,’’ Axel the knight gave a nod to Merry.

‘’I didn’t know you’d be travelling with us, majesty,’’ Kasimira said with a smile.

‘’Yes,’’ Merry glanced into the distance, as if he could see the palace, and Tristan in it, ‘’me neither.’’

*~*~*

‘’You wanted to see me?’’ Airen’s voice was cold, clipped, as he stood straight in front of Daran in his bedchamber.

‘’Yes,’’ Daran rose swiftly, with a little smile, shockingly un-sarcastic, ‘’how is the baby?’’

‘’I don’t know,’’ Airen said wearily, ‘’it can’t exactly tell me.’’

Daran gave him a look, ‘’well, how do you feel?’’

Airen contemplated the question. He wanted to tell Daran that he felt awful – that he was lonely, that his chambers were cold and miserable, that everyone stared at him weird and he hated the palace and didn’t want to be within it, that just the thought of birthing and raising Daran’s child made him feel sick, that he missed his sister, that he missed Yame, that he missed Fionn... ‘’fine.’’

Daran walked over to the doors and opened them, ‘’I have something to make you feel better. Walk with me.’’

It wasn’t as if Airen had a choice. At least Daran didn’t offer him his arm as they walked down the cold corridor and down the steps. Airen didn’t know where Daran was taking him until they emerged into the foyer on the ground floor.

And Airen saw Faeryn.

‘’Ai!’’ his sister squealed, abandoning one of her trunks on the nearest servant as she shot across the foyer. Airen ran, too, meeting her half way. They slammed into each other, embracing so tightly it looked painful to Daran. He couldn’t tell if the siblings were laughing or crying as they clung to each other.

Brannen rose next to Daran as if he’d been hiding in the cracks of the marble floor, ‘’you brought her back,’’ he all but hissed, quietly enough so that no one but then heard.

‘’I did,’’ Daran said calmly, looking at the siblings rather than at his brother, ‘’he needs to be around people he loves in his condition. He was unhappy without her.’’

‘’And she will be unhappy here,’’ Brannen snarled.

Finally, Daran faced his brother, ‘’no, she will not. She will be grateful for being able to care for her brother. And as long as both you and I watch our mouths,’’ he looked towards the siblings again, watcher Faeryn bring her hands to her brother’s stomach as Airen laughed, ‘’this should all work out.’’

*~*~*

In the end, Mair left Amaria a note. She could hardly tell her mother she was going on a quest across kingdoms to find an ancient people on an island all while risking death. She wished she could embrace her mother, though, just in case...

‘’Are we all ready?’’ Mardin asked, adjusting the leather pack on his back. They were travelling on foot as that way they’d be less likely to be noticed. Mystic bordered with Koln. They’d be safe there, as long as they made it through the day-walk stretch of land between Mystic and the border. They could get horses in Koln before entering Solin. But they weren’t thinking about that now. One step at a time.

Mair looked at her team, bundled up in winter clothes despite the summer heat. Fynn, with his over-long auburn bangs hanging in his hazel-and-gold eyes; Rain with the massive, metal hammer concealed across his back; Mardin and his brother Nythil, double-checking provisions; and Arlana, dressed in a deep-green cloak, brown pants and a fur tunic, flowing silver-white hair bundled in a high ponytail, revealing mesmerizingly-light eyes and night-dark, freckled skin. She definitely stood out the most, hence the thick, large hood she would cover her face with. She gave Mair a small nod, ‘’yes,’’ she said.

Fynn slid closer to her and squeezed her hand, ‘’I think you made the right decision,’’ he whispered.

Agreeing to the Fae-Witch Queen’s proposal, travelling back through the fae forest, unbothered, preparing for the mission...it all felt so surreal. And now they stood in front of the ancient stone arch that marked the beginning of Mystic. Mair took a deep breath and squeezed Fynn’s hand back before letting go, ‘’let’s go.’’

She was the first one to step through the gate. He boots crunched on a fresh layer of snow as she emerged into a stretching field of white snow and faraway trees. She turned as her friends filed through the gate. Through the arch, Mair glimpsed lush green grass and the summer breeze rustling trees. Out in the human world, the wall making up the gate crumbled rather quickly into a couple of grey bricks that lay in the snow. Beyond the arch there was nothing but snowy plains and Mair knew that if a human gazed upon the spot, they’d just see more snow, more trees and more nothingness. They could walk straight through the gate and not realise they had just been denied access to the ancient witch city.

Mair looked into the arch one more time and then turned, leading her friends towards the border.

*~*~*

Tristan knew instantly that whoever sat opposite him at dinner was not Merry.

The person walked differently – lighter, quieter, like a servant used to not being heard or seen as they cleaned. The way they drew out their chair reminded Tris of a servant, too, quiet and mannered. Merry was the most tactless person Tris knew; he always dragged his chair out, making an infernal screech before apologising quickly. The way they ate, so silently – Merry’s cutlery always clanked against the plate. Sounds that Tris was sensitive to, and that he’d quickly grown accustomed to.

And Merry would have told him to open his eyes already.

Tris did not touch his food.

‘’Who are you?’’ he demanded. He heard whoever was opposite him at the table choke on their wine, ‘’name,’’ Tris said again, deadly quiet.  

The cutlery was set down, ‘’Kiden,’’ came a quiet voice. Definitely not Merry’s.

Tristan’s chest tightened. For a second, he forgot to breathe. Merry was gone. Merry had gone on that infernal expedition. His Merry...

Tris stood violently and the chair tumbled back, smashing on the floor as he stormed for the doors.

*~*~*

Mair’s group turned out to be slower than they expected, mostly because of the snow and the freezing wind that had picked up. They were still a good two or three hours away from the border when night fell. They had no choice but to settle for the night. Arlana ventured into the snowy forest – kind of miserable, compared to the Fae Forest – and returned with an armful of dry twigs and branches, gods only know how. Nythil started a fire. Fynn had transformed into an eagle and perched himself on Rain’s arm. They went hunting. Mair hadn’t hoped for anything but the dry provisions they brought with them as she cleared away snow and helped Nythil drag over rocks for them to sit around the fire, but Fynn and Rain returned half an hour later with a couple small animals they could eat. Arlana adamantly refused. She ate dry crackers, glaring at the dead animals Nythil cooked over the fire. She was clearly very tied to the nature she was princess of.

After they had eaten and Mardin had created and heated up water for tea, they were discussing who would go on first watch when suddenly...

‘’Quiet,’’ Arlana whispered, her pointy ears prickling.

All fell silent immediately. Rain rose first, reaching backwards as if to take hold of his hammer, scanning the dark forest. Mardin heard it next. One second they were all illuminated by the fire; in the next it was gone, put out by Mardin’s water-magic. And then Mair heard it too – footsteps. Then whistles, calling, jolly and dangerous.

‘’Run,’’ she breathed.

Her group did not question her. They scrambled to their feet, grabbed provisions and sprinted through the snowy forest, going for the border a couple hours away, as the excited whoops and flares of fire rose from the witch hunters patrolling the border, that had just sniffed out their prey.

Chapter Text

The assassin keep of Cana Kaale quickly became the sole place in Moriya to offer sanctuary to witches. It also very quickly became overcrowded. The three princesses in the Moriyan palace worked quietly and carefully, bringing witches rarely and far in between but word had spread and many made their way to the keep themselves, and with pirate pick-ups having to be organised carefully and not too often for safety, the keep was becoming overcrowded.

And the King of Assassins found himself writing to the Asakurian emperor, begging him to open the borders and aid the witches before it was too late.

*~*~*

The soldiers of General Niktohal Magana returned to Ashta before Jescha the nine year old witch could be smuggled out of the Cathouse.

‘’They’re here!’’ red-head Ardis, who had been on a private visit to one of the high-born clients, flew into the Cathouse at least an hour before she was supposed to end her meeting. The Cats were gathered around the bar, having water chicken-bone soup for dinner; they all raised their heads as Ardis slammed the doors shut, ‘’they’re starting from the south end of Ashta, ransacking houses and establishments. I could hear them all the way down the street.’’

‘’The soldiers?’’ Jeane clarified.

‘’No, the bloody priestesses. Yeah, the soldiers!’’ she pointed a finger at Jescha, who ate alongside the Cats. Her brown skin had gone ashy, ‘’we need to get here out.’’

Sawyer spread his hands helplessly, ‘’we have made contact with Kaliq in Arcadia days ago, but we have not received a reply. Without him, we cannot smuggle Jescha out. We’ve tried.’’

‘’Shit. Shit.’’ Ardis said as Jeane clamped her dainty hands over her mouth.

‘’We’re all going to hang,’’ Cyril said in disbelief.

Jescha started crying. Arlen stood, ‘’Lucio, go upstairs.’’

The auburn-haired Moriyan boy stood, also, but shook his head, ‘’no way,’’ he turned to their boss, ‘’Mr Sawyer, there must be a way...’’

‘’We need to hide Jescha,’’ Soren said. He had already gotten up and now held Jescha against him as she sobbed in fear, ‘’that’s our only chance. You need to go out the back, run for the trees...’’

‘’It’s too cold, she won’t make it,’’ Libby shook her head, ‘’Jescha, you need to shift your eyes. Hide that they’re double-coloured.’’

‘’I can’t,’’ Jescha sobbed, ‘’mommy tried to teach me but...but...’’ she was growing hysterical now.

The sounds of banging, screams and harsh, loud voices sounded from down the street, ‘’shit,’’ Ardis said again, ‘’they’re already here.’’

Lucio whipped to Mr Sawyer, ‘’we need to make a decision,’’ he snapped.

‘’I want to go home!’’ Jescha wept.

‘’Someone shut the kid up!’’ Ardis snarled as Jeane began sobbing, too.

Mr Sawyer was pacing up and down the main room of the Cathouse, breathing hard as he concentrated.

‘’Lucio, please, just go upstairs,’’ Arlen begged his friend, but Lucio just shook his head.

The sounds of the approaching soldiers grew louder. They were running out of time.

‘’Mr Sawyer, please!’’ Soren cried, ‘’we need to make a decision!’’

Before the soldiers were upon them and their time was up.

*~*~*

‘’Where are you going?’’

Jamael had slipped into the pantry of the keep to snatch up some food for the witches that had arrived at the keep wounded by soldiers or civilians hoping to get a prize or because of their own prejudices. He hadn’t expected to find Jex in the pantry, stuffing his satchel with food. The keep was so overcrowded Jamael barely had time to speak to him – Jex seemed to avoid him, unsurprisingly. Jamael didn’t even know where he slept, ‘’I’m leaving,’’ Jex said curtly.

‘’No way,’’ Jamael stormed over and grabbed Jex’s tan wrist to stop him packing more food into the satchel, ‘’it’s dangerous. The sultan’s soldiers are watching this place. If they catch you, you’re dead.’’ Jex didn’t say anything, just pulled his wrist out of Jamael’s grip and closed his satchel, ‘’Jex, seriously.’’

‘’Oh, shut up,’’ Jex snapped finally, ‘’I can do what I want and that includes leaving. If you want to control what I do, try trying me up again,’’ he added mockingly, and walked right past Jamael.

And that’s when Jamael realised that he could do absolutely nothing to make Jex stay in the keep, even if it was for his own safety. The thought made the young assassin ram his fist into the wall of the pantry.

*~*~*

‘’I don’t know how to ice-skate,’’ Bren said helplessly as Wrath did up the silver buckles of the new cloak that Bren had received that morning. It was beautiful, made from silk with a fur underside for warmth, silver and white. Bren’s curls had been pulled back from his face with silver clips and silver earrings dangled from his ears, ‘’really, your grace...’’

‘’You’re scared,’’ Wrath mused, producing a pure white ribbon and tying it around the collar of Bren’s black jacket peeking over the cloak, as was the fashion in Koln lately, ‘’it’s just a party, Bren. There’s nothing to be scared of. If you’re worried you’ll trip, just hold onto my arm.’’

‘’I don’t even understand why you’re bringing me,’’ Bren mumbled.

Anyone else would say it was because Bren was beautiful. Instead, Wrath straightened the cloak on Bren’s shoulders, ‘’because I enjoy your company,’’ he said and extended his arm to the omega, who took it. They walked out of the foyer, where Wrath had met Bren to give him the cloak and the ribbon, and out into the snow. They descended the hill upon which the Kolnese palace was built till they reached the frozen river below. It was set like a ballroom would be, with tables of wine and various food and a band in the corner. Nobody wore a plague mask, as the palace did not permit the plagued within. A dancing area had been set apart but instead of simply dancing, the people skated around each other on boots with iron wedges at the soles.

‘’Bren! Wrath!’’ Orin called from the edge of the river and waved. Wrath waved back but Bren was too astounded by Orin’s beauty to respond. Today the King was dressed in blood-red, standing apart from the white and blue landscape, and his waterfall of golden hair was tied back in a ponytail with a scarlet ribbon. As they approached, Bren spotted a pair of skates in Orin’s hands – worn and used. Wrath’s skates.

‘’Fetch Wicker’s skates,’’ Wrath called to a nearby servant as Orin set down his own skates upright in the snow.

‘’My lord,’’ he teased.

Wrath rolled his eyes but stepped into the skates, balancing his hands on Orin’s shoulders. To Bren’s astonishment, the King went down on his knees in the ice to tie the ribbons of Wrath’s skates. As he rose, the servant returned with a wooden box holding another pair of skates, ‘’I had these made for you,’’ Wrath said, producing a pair of quality leather boots with polished iron blades and royal blue ribbons running in a criss-cross down the front of them, ‘’do you like them?’’

‘’Yes,’’ Bren breathed. He had never received such an extravagant gift before, ‘’thank you, your grace.’’ Wrath quickly bent down to help Bren out of his shoes and into the skates, to hide the blush of embarrassment and pleasure that spilled onto his cheeks. Orin, knowing that Wrath was blushing, smiled fondly at his lover and extended a hand out to Bren to help steady him as he slipped his feet into the skates. After they were fastened and Wrath had cooled down, he rose and took Bren’s other hand. Bren’s eyes widened, ‘’w-wait, I’ve never...’’

‘’We’ll teach you,’’ Orin said soothingly, tugging Bren towards the icy edge of the river.

‘’The ice is thick,’’ Wrath assured with an amused smile as he slid onto the ice alongside Orin as easily as if he was walking. Meanwhile as soon as he stepped onto the ice, Bren wobbled. Wrath laughed and caught him around the waist, straightening him.

Someone called out to Orin and the King sighed, ‘’come dance with me later,’’ he said to Wrath and skated away to whoever demanded his attention, a slash of scarlet on the ice.

Bren clung to Wrath desperately, ‘’truly, your grace, I cannot...’’

‘’You can,’’ Wrath said levelly, ‘’here just try.’’ And then he let go and skated a few feet away.

Bren wobbled on the ice, ‘’oh my gods, no, no, I’m going to fall, oh gods...’’ he stammered, trying to balance himself.

‘’You’ll get used to it,’’ Wrath laughed.

‘’You promised I could hold onto you!’’ Bren complained, forgetting his place through the panic.

Wrath didn’t seem to mind. He just extended his arms towards Bren, ‘’then come here,’’ he said softly. Bren swallowed nervously but knew he had no choice. If he attempted to turn back towards shore, he’d definitely trip. He took a deep breath and slid his feet forward minimally. Then again. And again, ‘’that’s it,’’ Wrath said patiently, kindly, ‘’keep going. Nearly there.’’

Bren slid forward more and more, but on one particular slide he wobbled again. A squeak escaped is lips and he lunged himself at Wrath, sliding through the ice and slamming into his chest. Wrath folded his arms around a shaking Bren and laughed, ‘’see? You did it!’’

Bren laughed, too, nervous but relieved, ‘’yes.’’

‘’You can hold onto me from now on,’’ Wrath promised and offered his arm to Bren, who immediately wrapped both arms around it. Wrath skated slowly over towards the area where the guests of the ice party danced to the music, pulling Bren along. Bren stared down at his feet, gliding through the ice, in awe. Wrath stopped a little way away from the dancers and Bren admired the dance and the way the guests glided effortlessly around each other. As the dance came to a close, Wrath looked down at the omega, ‘’do you feel like dancing, Wicker?’’

Bren looked up at him dubiously, ‘’only if you promise you won’t let me fall,’’ he said. Wrath grinned, ‘’deal,’’ he glided gently with Bren towards the dancers as the new song picked up and put one hand on his waist, taking his hand with the other. Soon enough he had Bren laughing and staring around in wander as he was twirled and glided and turned on the ice, ‘’it feels like I’m flying,’’ he said in awe.

‘’You’re about to,’’ Wrath said with a wolfish grin and picked Bren up with the rest of the dancers, twirling him in the air, before setting him back down on the ice. Bren bit down on his cry of surprise and laughed when he landed back on the ice neatly. The dance ended all too soon.

‘’Once more,’’ Bren blurted before Wrath could pull him off the ice.

Wrath blinked, surprised, but smiled, ‘’as you wish.’’

*~*~*

Before a decision was made, the doors of the Cathouse rattled as a fist banged on them.

All Cats flinched. Jeane sobbed harder. Jescha clung to Soren. Mr Sawyer stopped pacing and froze. Arlen stepped in front of Lucio automatically. The banging sounded again, ‘’keep your head down,’’ Sawyer snapped at Jescha, whom Soren tried to largely hide with his body as Sawyer walked up to the doors and opened them.

It wasn’t the soldiers.

A hooded woman in a beautiful dress entered the Cathouse, the beak of her leather plague mask peeking out from under her hood, which she threw off, revealing dark hair and a silver tiara. Sawyer closed the doors behind him, stunned. They’d never had anyone this rich come into the Cathouse. The woman looked around at the room and her beak stopped when she spotted Jescha, ‘’I am Princess Annamaria Hyndestane,’’ she introduced herself, ‘’Kaliq sent me,’’ she added. Jeane let out a sob of relief and Lucio slumped, leaning his forehead against Arlen’s back. Annamaria nodded at the Cats, ‘’Kaliq and I thank you for helping our cause, and welcome you to the Citadel,’’ Soren had a feeling she was smiling behind her mask as she extended a gloved hand towards Jescha, ‘’come, little one. I will bring you safely to Koln.’’

Jescha clung to Soren, who smoothed back her hair, ‘’go on,’’ he said gently; the soldiers were still approaching. Soren could hear them and right then, Annamaria was their only chance at getting Jescha out safely, ‘’she’ll get you home,’’ it wasn’t a lie, not completely. Koln posed the possibility of Jescha growing up safely, of creating her own home, even if she had no one in the whole world yet.

Jescha gave Soren one last worried glance of her double-coloured eyes but she slid off her chair and padded over to Annamaria, taking her hand, ‘’good girl,’’ the princess squeezed her hand and produced a beautiful royal blue cloak in which she bundled the little girl up. She unclipped an extra plague mask from her belt and slipped it onto the little girl’s face, pulling her hood up. She rose and nodded at the Cats once more, ‘’we will pick up any refugees from here regularly on the last day of each month,’’ she said by way of goodbye and pulled Jescha out of the brothel.

Soren ran for the window and wiped the fogged up glass to peer outside. A beautiful, bedazzled carriage stood outside. Annamaria ushered Jescha inside and Soren understood. In a little town of Ashta, there was no one, short of the General himself, who would dare stop someone who was clearly royalty for questioning. That carriage was Jescha’s ticket to freedom. Soren sighed, relieved, watching the carriage ride away and pass the soldiers storming the nearby houses without trouble.

‘’Did we just get roped into saving witches?’’ Cyril asked, stunned.

‘’Well, at least we have a name now,’’ Soren turned from the window, shrugging, ‘’welcome to the Citadel, Cats.’’

*~*~*

Daran was taking breakfast alone with Airen. Neither spoke to each other, the clank of cutlery the only sound in the dining chamber. Airen wasn’t stupid enough not to eat in protest. Daran would probably shove the food down his throat if he thought it would help the baby. Instead, he ate as much as he liked, not letting himself be bothered by Daran and his strange behaviours. He aggressively ripped bread apart to wipe the meat juices of his plate. He also didn’t have to pretend to be happy with the alone time. Daran didn’t react, continuing to munch his food. They hadn’t spoken at all through the breakfast but once Daran finished his wine, he sat back in his chair, ‘’how is the baby?’’

‘’Fine,’’ Airen said, chasing around the last of the vegetables on his plate with his fork, making sure to scrape it loudly on the plate in hopes of annoying the monster King.

Daran didn’t tell him to stop, ‘’I’ve arranged for you to take different rooms.’’

The scraping stopped and suddenly the dining hall was suffocatingly quiet, ‘’why?’’

Daran shrugged, avoiding Airen’s eyes, ‘’I thought it would be more suitable for the father of my future child.’’

‘’Which rooms?’’

‘’The Consort rooms. Next to mine. And Faeryn will be moved to the one adjoining yours, so she may help with any pains or needs you may have.’’

Airen clenched his teeth, ‘’and what of my mother?’’

‘’She may stay where she is,’’ Daran said, a bit sharply, finally looking at Airen. He crossed his arms over his chest defensively, ‘’you know how I feel about her.’’

Airen snorted without humour, ‘’she is my mother.’’

A muscle jumped in Daran’s jaw, ‘’I’d thought you’d be pleased,’’ he said tightly.

‘’Don’t act like you desire to please me,’’ Airen snarled, ‘’you tell yourself that you’re the better husband here but really all you care about is that I pop out an heir that lives through childhood.’’

‘’And is that wrong?’’ Daran snapped, ‘’that I want my child to be healthy? That I worry the cold of those chambers will make you sick?’’

Airen couldn’t argue with that, so he took a different approach, ‘’and you don’t worry my mother will get sick.’’

‘’I do not care about your mother.’’

Airen gave him a mocking smirk, ‘’and you care about me?’’

Daran faltered, ‘’I care about our child,’’ he said truthfully.

Airen sighed. As always, Daran gave him a headache, ‘’I suppose someone must,’’ he said, rising.

‘’I didn’t allow you to go,’’ Daran said in a dejected voice, with no real bite, slumping in his chair. It seemed that the arguing drained his energy, too.

‘’I’m tired,’’ Airen said coldly, ‘’the child makes me want to sleep.’’

Daran didn’t have any more of fight in him, so he just waved a hand, ‘’I expect to see you in the consort chambers tonight. You may go. And don’t forget to go see the physician at noon.’’

*~*~*

Naha was a ghost town.

Dolls stared at Merry from every window and doorway with glass, emotionless eyes as he disembarked the boat, the only creatures left in Naha. The ship that had brought them to Kainan stayed a healthy distance away from the diseased Naha and the boat hadn’t even taken them all the way to the shore. It had stopped in the shallows and the party now walked into the snow with water soaking theirs trousers up to their knees. The humble homes of Naha were partially crumbled, the hay of the roofs rotten and untended, walls crumbled, windows boarded up. The dolls themselves were dirty and forlorn. They made Merry think about how many children had died in this plague. Once upon a time Naha had been the town of dolls. Now it was the town of ghosts.

As Raaisel helped her team lug provisions from the boat onto the shore, Kasimira, the only other witch on the expedition, came to stand next to Merry. Her double coloured eyes were clouded as she said, in a voice muffled by her plague mask, ‘’I don’t like this. This doesn’t feel right. Rhein doesn’t feel right.’’

Kasimira had the power to sense danger but at the time, Merry didn’t make much of her warning, putting it down to the feel of death in the air.

Later, he wished he had paid more attention to the witch’s warning.

*~*~*

Airen walked into his chambers – ‘his’ for the last time – to see Marietta Moreland sealing a letter with Faeryn’s seal, which she had given to her after Airen dropped hers in the lake.

Airen hurriedly closed the doors, ‘’not again, mother,’’ he hissed, snatching the letter from the desk. More conspiration, more call for rebellion. More evidence that could get her killed, ‘’if they catch you writing letters again...’’

Marietta grabbed his hand, ‘’we are so close, Ai,’’ she said heatedly, ‘’so close to gathering enough support to overthrow this monster dynasty.’’

Airen snatched his hand out of her grip, ‘’no,’’ he snarled, walking over to the nearest candle and setting the letter on fire. It burned in his hand, ‘’we do this my way. We wait for the child to be born and we use it as leverage to improve our position. But there will be no rebellions, mother,’’ he said, ‘’no more wars. I cannot bear it. Yame cannot bear it. Better it is absorbed by Arnheim, better we strive for peace then fight again. I will...’’ his voice choked, ‘’I will live as the monster King’s husband. I will give him this child and more, if he desires, as long as it means I can keep you and Faeryn safe. Comfortable. We can have all we had, before, if we play this child to our advantage – a house, a family. Happiness.’’

Marietta shook her head, ‘’we will not have Yame.’’

‘’Yame is gone, mother,’’ Airen whispered, choking up, ‘’and so is my phantom throne. And so is Fionn. We must move on now.’’

*~*~*

Tris tossed and turned in his bed.

Merry was gone. For days now. Weeks, it seemed. Tristan’s guards did not intercept him in the ports, thanks to a heavy layer of snow that fell and slowed the progress. The thought that Merry was out there, in danger, without his protection, vulnerable to the plague and the sea and the cruelty of humans... it was unbearable. It made him rage and yell; he had destroyed his study and smashed his fist straight through a window and beat the guards halfway to death during training. It made Tristan unable to sleep. Unable to eat. Unable to breathe properly.

It felt as if he had been blinded all over again.

*~*~*

The second time Jex left, Jamael didn’t expect to see him again.

And yet he was back the next night, with half a dozen weary, tired, hungry witches in tow, ‘’I found them on the edge of the forest,’’ he was explaining to Thais as Jamael strolled into the foyer of the keep, ‘’they were lost.’’

‘’Good job,’’ Thais nodded her approval. Already, assassins were rushing to take them to the dining hall, which was being quickly converted into a sleeping room for newcomers, with blankets laid out on benches to make them more comfortable. Even though each newcomer meant another mouth to feed, it also meant a small victory. Thais saw her son approaching, ‘’Jammy, take Jex to your room. Let him sleep there for now. I’d given away his sleeping spot to someone else,’’ she winced, ‘’sorry, Jex. I thought you weren’t coming back.’’

‘’Yeah, me too,’’ Jamael said quietly. Jex glanced at him.

‘’We’ll know not to give your spots away anymore,’’ Thais nodded, ‘’go, you’re probably tired,’’ she hurried down the corridor, to where the newcomers had disappeared. Jex strolled past Jamael and down the stairs to the basement. Jamael followed him to his own room.

‘’I thought you were gone for good,’’ Jamael said as Jex stripped to his underwear, discarding sand-dusty, sweaty clothes on the floor. Only now did Jamael realise how tired Jex looked.

‘’I don’t like not doing anything,’’ Jex said gruffly, crawling onto Jamael’s bed, too tired to pull covers on top of him, ‘’thought I’d be useful.’’

Jamael watched the muscles in Jex’s golden back, the gentle curve of his spine, his long legs... ‘’we have a name now, by the way,’’ he said quietly, unsure if Jex was awake, ‘’the Citadel.’’

‘’What a dumb name,’’ Jex mumbled and chuckled tiredly.

Jamael chuckled, too, ‘’I kind of like it,’’ he approached the bed and slid in next to Jex, ‘’by the way, next time you decide to go witch finding, I’m coming with you. At least you’ll have someone to watch your back.’’

Jex made a non-committal noise. Jamael admired his face, the long lashes, the moles scattered across his face, ‘’I’m sorry,’’ he whispered, ‘’for letting you go.’’

Jex didn’t reply. He was already asleep. Jamael smiled and pulled the covers over his body.

*~*~*

They had been running for so long Mair didn’t feel her legs. For a whole day, and half the night. They had ran all through the first night and eventually they lost the hunters when the sun rose, but they didn’t dare stop. They ate on the move, walking fast towards the border. The running had made them disorientated, and it took them a couple hours to begin walking in the right direction. But as the sun began setting, the whoops and fire of the witch hunters found them again. And they begun running once more.

Now they stood huddled in the snow, taking a moment of break; for now, the hunters had gone silent, ‘’we can’t keep this up for much longer,’’ Mairwen said, gasping for breath. They were all too fatigued to run for more than another fifteen minutes and it was beginning to snow. If the snow got any deeper, they were done for, ‘’we’re going to have to split up.’’

‘’Someone’s going to get caught like that,’’ Nythil shook his head.

‘’He’s right,’’ Rain, who was the least out of breath, stood, ‘’they’re hounding us. They don’t know what powers we have so they’re hoping we wear ourselves out so much by running that when they reach us, we’ll have no chance to protect ourselves. Our best bet is,’’ he pointed to the group, ‘’if you guys run. I’ll stay and fight them off.’’

Fynn stared at him, ‘’I know you’re a warrior witch and all, but there’s only one of you.’’

‘’It’s our best chance.’’

Arlana stood straight and pressed her dark hand to her chest, ‘’let me stay,’’ she said gravelly, ‘’I will gladly fight and die for my team.’’

Mairwen put her hands up, ‘’let’s not be extreme,’’ she said, ‘’we need to think of a better plan. There’s no point of you staying here to fight if we won’t make it to the border in the first place.’’

Mardin hesitated before looking at his brother, ‘’Nythil...maybe...?’’

Nythil seemed to understand, because he nodded and undid the strings at the high collar of his tunic to expose the five witchling marks along his collarbone, ‘’I can teleport you,’’ he said.

Mairwen paled, ‘’but there’s only five...’’ and once they were gone, Nythil would not be a witchling anymore and he would be barred from Mystic.

Nythil gave her a sad smile, ‘’I can’t teleport myself anyways. By myself, it’ll probably be easier to get away.’’

Nobody believed that. If Nythil stayed by himself, he’d die.

That’s why Rain stepped forward, ‘’teleport them,’’ he said gravelly, ‘’we’ll stay here and kill those motherfuckers.’’

Nythil nodded. Mardin grabbed his brother’s hand, ‘’but promise you’ll get back safe.’’

‘’With a warrior witch by my side, how could I not?’’ Nythil assured gently.

‘’I will remain, also,’’ Arlana said.

‘’No,’’ Rain replied, ‘’you and I are probably the best fighters here. You need to stay with the group. This is not the first nor the last time danger will find us.’’

Arlana hesitated but nodded stiffly.

They all turned to Mairwen. She was the leader of the escapade, the one chosen by Queen Nara. She had the final say. To the left, between the trees in the distance, the flames of the hunters flickered. They were upon them again. If they all stayed, they’d be dead. But if what Rain said was true, and the hunters planned to tire the witches out before closing in for the kill, then two had a better chance of sneaking past them than six, ‘’we’ll rendezvous at the border at this time tomorrow,’’ she said.

The cries that chased the witches thus fur began echoing from all around them, picked up by the hunters running in a lose circular formation with their hounds. If they were going, they had to go now. Mairwen looked at Rain, at the scar singing his cheek, his dark hair and double coloured eyes, his strong body, and at Nythil, at the pale blond braid running down his back, at the little goatee and the five exposed witchling marks and said desperately, ‘’tomorrow. Be there.’’

‘’We will,’’ Rain assured with a nod, ‘’take care of them, Arlana.’’

Arlana slammed her fist into her chest and bowed her head. An oath. Then she tossed a dagger to Nythil, which he slid into his belt with a nod of thanks. Mardin lunged himself at his brother and hugged him tightly, ‘’love ya,’’ he said in a strangled voice.

‘’Love you, too,’’ Nythil assured.

Rain glanced at Fynn. The hunters were getting closer, their taunting cries growing louder. Before Rain could say anything, Fynn blurted, ‘’if you make it back, I’ll give you a kiss.’’

Something glittered in Rain’s double coloured eyes, ‘’it’s a deal,’’ he whispered.

‘’Make sure it’s safe for them on the other side,’’ Nythil extended his fingertips towards Arlana. The warrior princess stepped forward. Smoke began curling from the first of Nythil’s five marks, and sweat appeared on his temple. His fingers hovered inches away from Arlana’s face for a few seconds. Then he touched her cheek.

And Arlana was gone.

Nythil gasped, a shudder going through him as the smoke stopped, revealing a burned out circle where the first mark had been, ‘’next,’’ he panted, extending his hand again. His fingers trembled slightly. He had never practiced his teleportation on anyone, and it took a lot of concentration and strength. They didn’t even know if they’d land in the same place, or in the right place, but Mairwen stepped up anyway. After the second mark began smoking, Nythil touched her shoulder and she disappeared, too. Just like that. As if someone had clicked their fingers. Next was Fynn. Nythil’s fingers shook properly now, and sweat rivuleted down his temple. Those marks were not supposed to be used all at once.

Fynn cast Rain one last, desperate look before Nythil touched him and he disappeared. Finally, Mardin stepped up, eyes shining with tears. The whoops and cries of the hunters were so close. Nythil was panting. Rain reached behind him and pulled out his massive hammer out of the ether. The second to last mark on his collarbone smoke as he reached out both arms. Mardin stood rooted to the spot. A tear rolled down his cheek. Then he flew forward, slamming into his brother, grabbing him into an embrace. As soon as the brothers arms closed around each other, Mardin disappeared.

Nythil fell into the snow, on his knees, panting and shaking badly. He rubbed at the four burned out marks on his collarbone. Rain scanned the forest, getting brighter and brighter with the hunters torches. Something was wrong. Something... ‘’shit,’’ he whispered, ‘’get up, Nythil. Get up.’’

Nythil struggled to his feet. He pulled free the dagger Arlana had tossed to him. His posture was shaking but at least he was on his feet.

At least he was standing when two dozen hunters and their dogs burst from the trees, grinning with wild excitement.

Rain had been wrong. The hunters weren’t waiting to tire them out but had been trying to catch up to them all along.

Or maybe Rain was right – maybe they had been waiting.

And now they knew the witches had tired out.

Chapter Text

Two dozen witch hunters burst from the snow-covered trees, brandishing heavy, crude weapons; swords as long as their arms and four times as thick, chipped and covered in dried blood; jagged, double edged daggers strapped to belts with leather;  wooden spears sharpened into fang-like points, decorated with what looked to be double coloured eyeballs and shrivelled, burned fingers. Rain, holding his own massive hammer, knew with one look at the blood-thirsty faces, illuminated by the torches of fire, that he and Nythil would not make it out alive. Rain was a warrior witch and he’d take out at least six, if not half, of the hunters before he went down, but Nythil would be dead in seconds. Already, he was barely holding himself up, spent from using most of his witchling power all at once. The dagger Arlana had given him shook as his hand trembled but to his credit, he stood his ground, panting and glaring at the hunters closing in. Whoops of victory and jeers broke the wintry silence of the air.

Rain drew the most efficient route in his head. He’d run straight; take out the bulk of them coming up ahead. That would leave Nythil to fend off the hunters coming in from the sides, but hopefully Rain could double back to help him before he was overwhelmed. Plan in mind, he told Nythil, ‘’stay here and keep them off.’’

There was no way they’d make it. They’d have to run for the rest of the way to the border with Koln and if they didn’t take out each and every one of the vicious hunters, they stood no chance. But then again they stood now chance of killing twenty four brute fighters with only one warrior witch and a barely standing witchling. Rain took comfort in the fact that Fynn and the others had made it out. At least they still had a chance at stopping all the killings. And at least Fynn would be safe. Mairwen would take care of him. Rain’s hands tightened on his hammer. He wished he’d gotten the chance to marry Fynn, after all. To make him happy, to start a family. He’d even picked out a house in the centre of the town in Mystic that he’d like to buy for them. He’d walked past it countless times since, imaging what it would be like to share it with Fynn. He held onto the fantasy as he gritted his teeth and charged, roaring like a beast.

A woman – little more than a young girl, really – came charging ahead of her group, grinning wolfishly, her eyes mad with the urge to kill. She hefted a mighty, chipped sword above her head just as Rain slammed his hammer into her face. Her head caved in, blood and bone and brain splattering over the pristine snow as her body fell with a dull thud onto the ground. Rain had no time to rejoice at the first victory, which was important to boost his morale, as the other hunters from the column were upon him. He took out two burly men in the blink of an eye, his hammer swishing through the air left to slam into the throat of one hunter, crushing his windpipe, leaving him grappling at his neck, bloody from the bones protruding through it, as he suffocated. On the swing right, the hammer connected with the sword of the other man, shattering it to pieces that found their mark in the hunter’s stomach. Rain kicked him backwards and he landed in a heap on the snow. He didn’t get up again.

In Mystic, Rain could do a great many things with his warrior witch power. Out in the world of humans, his power was muted. He imagined creating great snowy monsters from the icy blanket coating the clearing that would devour the hunters whole. Instead, he mobilised the snow to crop up like icy rocky, tripping the hunters up. With a quick thought, the ice under the hunters running for Rain turned to ice and they slipped, falling one over the other. It would have been rather funny to see, had Rain not known that Altessa, the grim reaper of the gods, now stalked his every move.

A female hunter ran through the ice, managing to keep her balance. The man in front of her tripped and she viciously jumped onto his back, using it to propel herself into the air. The spear in her hand was raised viciously, ready to be thrown like a javelin at Rain. The witch intercepted her, slamming his hammer into her stomach with another inhuman roar. She sailed straight through the air and disappeared into the darkness outside the light of the torches, the dull thud followed by the cracking of bones as she hit a tree the only testimony of her fate.

For what felt like hours, Rain cleared the column of the hunters, painfully aware that each human he took down meant another one was veering past him and going for Nythil. He didn’t even know if his comrade still stood. By the time Rain reached the ice he created, he was covered in minor cuts from where weapons had reached him. He veered around on the ice, taking in the damage, breathing hard. Six hunters lay dead, mutilated, on the snow. With the woman in the darkness, crumpled at the base of a tree, that was seven. Rage bubbled in Rain’s veins as he took in Nythil’s situation. He was desperately trying to parry two hunters while the others stood in a lose circle, laughing and watching Nythil fight for his life, unbothered by the fact that Rain had just slaughtered seven of their members.

Rain’s roar shook snow off the trees as he charged for the grouping of hunters, hammer raised above his head – he would not let Nythil die like this. They’d go out together. Rain wouldn’t let Nythil die alone.

 And that was when Nythil, panting and pale, broke away from his opponents, who were too surprised to give chase for a few seconds. Nythil ran straight for the charging Rain, hand extended, as if begging for help. Rain realised what he was doing a second too late and he dug his ankles in, snow spraying everywhere, ‘’Nythil, no-‘’

‘’Take care of Mardin,’’ Nythil breathed, finally reaching him.

The final tattoo on his collarbone flared.

Nythil’s outstretched fingers touched Rain’s chest.

And Rain disappeared.

*~*~*

In the last days of winter, Koln was throwing a party for the celebration of the first blossom festival. Bren’s head spun from all the celebrations the Kolnese court held, so often Bren received new outfits almost every week. Orin was, of course, in his element, dancing, gossiping and drinking to his heart’s content. Bren was pretty sure by now that the majority of the Kolnese court were raging alcoholics with attachment issues. In times like these, where he felt lost and out of place, he sought out Wrath.

‘’Your grace,’’ Bren found Wrath leaning on a column, admiring Orin, and gave a quick curtsy. He hadn’t seen the Archduke yet that evening.

Wrath looked him up and down, taking in the high collared black tunic and the spill of Bren’s silver curls brushing the shoulders, ‘’you look uncomfortable,’’ Wrath pointed out.

A shy smile tugged on Bren’s lips. As always, Wrath was able to look beyond his cursed beauty and see how Bren felt, ‘’I’m not very good with parties...’’

‘’Still? I thought we indoctrinated you rather well,’’ Wrath gave him a grin and took his hand, pulling him towards one of the tables. He poured two goblets of wine and handed one to Bren before drinking heavily from his. Bren sipped his wine and cringed.

‘’That’s strong,’’ he said.

Wrath chuckled and finished his wine, setting his goblet down. Bren did the same. Wrath chuckled again, putting a curled finger under Bren’s chin to tilt his head up, ‘’your lips are stained red,’’ he said easily and bent down.

Bren dipped his head away, ‘’people will gossip...’’ he mumbled, blushing. Somehow, even for all his experience with males and their behaviours, Wrath still made him feel jittery inside.

‘’Let them gossip,’’ Wrath whispered and bent down to capture Bren’s lips in his own. Bren melted into the kiss, not really feeling like saving his reputation tonight. He let Wrath tug him behind a column, into an intimate dimness, and kiss him harder. One of the Archduke’s hands found their way into Bren’s hair, tangling in the curls. The other rested on his hip, pulling him closer. Bren slid his hands up Wrath’s chest, careful of the first flower of the year tucked into his breast pocket, a gift from Orin, a symbol of his love, and up to his face, to cup his cheeks. He’d never wanted anyone before. He was always the one people pined for, and in the end always got. For him, sex and affection and giving someone attention were chores and duties. But now he wanted to give all of those to Wrath, freely, like he gave it, without a second thought. They kissed and kissed, soft and slow, until a drunken pair of ladies stumbled in behind their column, breaking the moment.

‘’Want to dance?’’ Wrath asked sheepishly, extending a hand to Bren as the two women took their place, kissing fiercely against the column.

‘’Yes,’’ Bren smiled, and took Wrath’s hand.

*~*~*

‘’We’re here,’’ Mairwen breathed, ‘’we’re in Koln!’’

Nythil had teleported them to the wall bordering Koln and Hailbronn, albeit a distance from each other. Arlana found Mair twenty minutes after she found herself standing by the wall manned by confused soldiers but finding Mardin took them a good hour. The soldiers had readily helped them into Kolnese territory, as the kingdom was open for witch refugees. Now, as Mair and her team stumbled into the town of Kanalei after a good day of marching, the realisation that they had succeeded, at least for now, hit them. The whole group tried not to think about the fact that Rain and Nythil were still missing. They were supposed to rendezvous with them at the wall in a few short hours. Mairwen and Arlana had decided to drop Fynn and Mardin off at a tavern and hire a horse to ride back to the wall and search for them along the border.

Mairwen knew the area well and as she led her friends into a nearby tavern, she looked out at the dark, imposing shape of the Moher Mountains in the distance. Somewhere within was her mother. She wished, more than anything, that she would hold her now. But Mair reminded herself of her mission and of Nythil and Rain waiting for them, and ventured within the Lone Mountain.

Aunt Elspeth was out from behind the bar in a flash, ‘’Mair!’’ she bellowed, grabbing her adopted niece into a crushing hug. Elspeth was a gypsy who raised Amaria, Mairwen’s mother, like her own. They had started the tavern together and Amaria kept her witch heritage a secret until Mair was born and she travelled to Mystic to raise her there. Elspeth disliked Elysia, Mair’s other mother, who had once upon a time kidnapped her future wife from the tavern sitting on the border of Koln and Hailbronn, but she loved Mairwen. She hadn’t seen her in almost a year. It was too dangerous to travel from Mystic in the turbulent times.

Now, grateful for the embrace, Mair hugged her aunt back tightly. She pulled back and, before a tirade of questions could spill from Elspeth’s mouth, starting with who her companions were and ending with if she’d found herself a spouse yet, Mairwen grabbed her hand, ‘’aunt, we need two horses, immediately.’’

Elspeth’s sparkling eyes darkened and the large woman nodded, ‘’I’ll send Lottie with you to the stables. The horse-master will lend you some.’’

Mair nodded in thanks, ‘’and we need a room, too.’’

‘’Of course,’’ Elspeth took her in, then glanced at the grave-faced witches behind her, her eyes lingering on Arlana’s face, half-hidden by her hood, ‘’oh, Mair, what have you gotten yourself into?’’

*~*~*

‘’Where are you going?’’

In the midst of preparation for his departure, Daran had forgotten all about Airen until his husband cropped up in the courtyard, where he and half the Arhanese court were preparing to leave. The King glanced at Airen and frowned, ‘’you shouldn’t be out in the cold dressed like that. The baby might get sick.’’

Airen ignored the remark, glancing around the courtyard. Fifty armed warriors, plus Captain Illyria Helm, Brannen and King Father Kane. From the looks of it, a good portion of the higher ranking nobles were amongst them, too, ‘’where are you going?’’ Airen repeated. Daran’s eyes flicked to his stomach. With a lose, silver tunic on, and a thick cloak, you couldn’t tell that it bulged ever so slightly with a child nearly four months old.

‘’Progress,’’ Daran said. Airen frowned. An extravagant tour of the kingdom of the King and the majority of his court hardly seemed to be the style of Arnheim. Daran read as much from Airen’s face, ‘’we’re freshly merged with Yame and the war just finished. War had taken a toll on Arnheim. The people must see that I and my family are safe and healthy, so that they do not lose hope for a peaceful kingdom.’’

‘’Shouldn’t I be going, then?’’

‘’That was the plan, but I don’t want to risk the child’s health,’’ Daran said, eyes flicking to Airen’s stomach again. Airen shifted uncomfortably under his stare, ‘’forgive me for not telling you. I was busy.’’

Airen shrugged, ‘’how long will you be gone?’’

‘’A few weeks, I suppose. If all goes well, I shall return at the end of the spring.’’

‘’Good,’’ Airen said, ‘’the end of spring is very far away.’’

Daran flinched, as if Airen had slapped him, but quickly recovered, ‘’you’re in charge when I’m gone.’’

Airen’s eyes widened, ‘’you’re putting me in charge?’’

Daran’s voice was colder than before, ‘’you are my consort. The kingdom must see that I trust you, but don’t get too excited. I’m leaving my father, Airleas, here to keep an eye on you. Daim will be here, too, so don’t even think about scheming.’’

Airen said nothing and Daran simply turned back to saddling his horse. Finally, the King Consort turned on his heel and returned to the palace. And that was that for their goodbye.

*~*~*

Raaisel’s team stood on the outer edges of Mor, the first large city of Rhein they had come upon. After they left Naha, the town of dolls, they had a choice. Bump off west to Whailla and avoid the long abandoned Moracay Canyon later on, but add at least a day to their journey to the capital in Perth, or move slightly east and go through Mor, straight through the Canyon and get to Perth faster. Raaisel, Captain Heartman and Merry chose the latter, but...

‘’I still thing we should go through Whailla,’’ Kasimira, the witchling danger-radar, said in a quiet voice, ‘’this place...it doesn’t smell right.’’

‘’Yeah, most of these places won’t smell very nice, lass,’’ Bernhard, the murderer on parole, hefted one of the heavy satchels filled with provisions over his shoulder and marched towards the crumbling gate signalling the entrance to Mor. Venus, Bernhard’s Moriyan apprentice, hurriedly jogged after his master and Kip, the omega guard charged with keeping an eye on them, slinked after them like a shadow, though he looked paler than usual. Dust rose in the rays of sunlight peeking from between grey clouds. The snow began melting, leaving the ground muddy and unstable. Beyond the gate, the ruins of Mor were visible. During the outbreak of the plague, Mor had been one of the first badly hit cities and riots soon destroyed it. One of the last things Queen Lian did before she fell to the plague was to send an army to Mor, to cease the riots. The whole thing turned into a mass slaughter of both civilians and soldiers.

‘’I’m serious, your majesty,’’ Kasimira’s short brown hair was ruffled by a cold wind as Merry came to stand next to her, ‘’this place is dangerous.’’ Merry had no doubt about that. Even without Kasimira’s ability to sense danger, his gut told him that walking through that gate would not end well. But he had no choice. Already the expedition was trudging through the sludge-like snow to walk through the gate, hoping to find someplace to rest, out of the direct cold, even though most of the houses were crumbled ruins by now. Many were charred remains, burned during the riots and even more were just one or two walls still standing, revealing what used to be rooms. Merry flinched when Kasimira grabbed his arm, digging her fingers into it, ‘’it’s dangerous,’’ she said quietly.

‘’I know,’’ Merry pulled his arm free of Kasimira’s grip. He wasn’t great with people, especially not crowds. How was he supposed to tell the whole expedition, including the more-than-creepy fourteen year old leader, that they should turn back and go through Whailla?

He couldn’t. So he simply walked towards the gate, leaving Kasimira no choice but to follow him.

They entered Mor together.

*~*~*

Jex fell back into Jamael’s bed, shirtless, with a deep sigh. Jamael, already lying down, glanced at the thief. The whole keep was on edge. They knew retaliation from the palace would come, sooner or later, and with no word from the princesses coming in a long while everyone was stressed out. Still, Jamael felt his muscles relax for the first time that day as his eyes glided over Jex’s pretty, mole-speckled face, the curve of Jex’s honey-tanned shoulder, the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest, the slim, muscular dip of his stomach before the rest of his body was covered with a blanket... Without really thinking about it, Jamael reached out and stroked a brown hand down Jex’s stomach. Jex frowned, not opening his grey eyes, ‘’what are you doing?’’

‘’Nothing much,’’ Jammy whispered, pulling himself up onto a seating position, ‘’just...’’ he stroked up to Jex’s chest and then down again. Despite himself, the thief relaxed under Jamael’s hand, ‘’...relax,’’ the assassin shifted so he could hover above the boy. Jex kept frowning but he didn’t push him off as Jamael traced his fingers up the column of his neck, brushing his thumb against the outline of Jamael’s bottom lip. He smiled when a shuddering breath escaped Jex, ‘’I think,’’ Jammy whispered, ‘’that you secretly like this.’’

It was the wrong thing to say.

Jex’s grey eyes shot open and he shoved Jamael off him with a growl, pouncing on top of him and pinning down his arms, ‘’like hell,’’ he snarled.

Jamael laughed. He was always up for a challenge. He easily ripped his arm from Jex’s grip and grabbed the boy’s hips, thrusting his now-prominent erection up against him. Jex made a noise, half between an aghast yelp and an angry snarl, and shoved himself away from the assassin. As Jamael sat up, Jex flew at him again. Jamael easily caught the smaller boy and flipped him over his shoulder. Jex landed on his back on the bed, his breath knocked out of him. Jamael laughed again. He hadn’t play-fought with anyone since he was in training. Even if the whole affair had Jex red and fuming. Jex was relentless. He surged at Jamael again, wrapping his arms around his neck. Jamael chuckled, ‘’are you trying to get me into a headlock, kid?’’

‘’Shut...up...’’ Jex growled out, muscles tensing as he fought to keep the assassin in his grip. It failed. Jamael tilted himself back and grabbed Jex around the waist, flipping him back over his shoulder. The boy landed, sprawled on the bed, his head in Jammy’s lap. He growled again.

Jamael laughed and grabbed his arms before he could attempt to get up, ‘’stay down, kitten,’’ he said in an amused, warm voice.

‘’Like hell,’’ Jex said again, struggling. He managed to get his wrist out of Jamael’s grip, who instead grabbed his hips and flipped him over onto his stomach. Jex made a surprised, unhappy noise at the back of his throat that made Jammy chuckle again.

‘’You,’’ he said in an amused voice dripping with lust, ‘’deserve a spanking,’’ he slapped Jex’s ass, now lying before him on his lap.

‘’I am going to kill you,’’ Jex promised darkly.

‘’I’m sure you are,’’ Jamael sniggered, resting his hand on Jex’s buttocks before grabbing a handful. He marvelled at the soft fullness in his hand and Jex kicked out, ‘’you’re so endearing when you’re angry,’’ Jamael said with a fond smile as Jex finally managed to get out of his grip. Jamael saw what Jex was planning to do – go for the candlestick on the little table by the bed, probably to bash Jamael over the head, and he lunged. He grabbed Jex around the waist and wrestled him out of his undergarments. The entire time, Jex kicked out at him and spilled insults from his mouth.

Before Jex knew it, he was lying on his side and Jamael was entering him roughly from behind, ‘’oh my god, you fuck-‘’ his sentence trailed off into a groan as Jammy sheathed himself inside him.

‘’What was that?’’ Jamael mused, his voice warm and breathy from pleasure.

Jex craned his neck backwards and bit Jamael’s neck none too gently. Jamael winced, but didn’t say anything, ‘’asshole,’’ Jex growled out against his skin, his breath already coming out in laboured pants. He reached behind, curling his arm around Jamael’s neck, ‘’move,’’ he ordered.

‘’Oh, now you want me to move,’’ Jamael teased, nipping at Jex’s ear, but didn’t protest as Jex moved his hips a few times to prompt the assassin into action. They were both tense from the last couple of days. Pent up, too. They needed release, badly, so Jamael didn’t tease Jex any longer. Instead, he grabbed his hips roughly and began thrusting. Jex’s breath came out in hot pants against Jamael’s neck, interlocked with a couple hot, wet, harsh kisses and bites. At one point Jamael grabbed Jex’s jaw and tilted his head back, kissing him savagely in a clash of teeth and tongue.

Jex came first, his muscles relaxing as a flood of warmth and bliss washed over him, followed by a flood of hot come inside him, ‘’idiot...’’ Jex grumbled half-heartedly, eyes already flickering shut as Jamael pulled out, making a mental note to get a potion after a quick nap.

Jamael was already fast asleep.

*~*~*

Orin disappeared and Wrath wanted to find him. The first blossom ball was slowly but surely coming to an end and a slightly tipsy Wrath wanted Orin to take him into his arms and cuddle him in bed. But the King was nowhere to be found. The last Wrath had seen of him, he was dancing with Bren. And now Bren was gone, too. Wrath looked everywhere – in the parlour, in the kitchens, in the various room and corridors...no sight of Orin. Finally, confused and irritated, he decided to just go to sleep. Orin would crop up eventually; he always did. Sleepily, he stretched as he walked and finally pushed open the doors to his and Orin’s chambers.

And froze.

Because Orin was on his bed. On his and Wrath’s bed, with Bren in his lap. And they weren’t having sex. No, Orin had his arms wrapped around Bren and Bren cradled Orin’s beautiful face in his hands. Their eyes were closed as they exchanged slow, deep, almost desperate kissed. And, maybe, if they’d just been having sex, Wrath wouldn’t have minded. He’d seen the two together before and the image put him at ease. But now a different image snaked into his head. Of how easy it would be for Wrath to be replaced, by both of them. He was coming to really, really like Bren, very quickly, and he’d been in love with Orin for so long... but now, Orin held Bren exactly how he held Wrath, in their bed. And they were kissing and holding each other like they were in love, like they’d been two souls separated that finally reunited. In the image Wrath saw, there was no space for him. Bren was more beautiful than he ever could be. He was the perfect lover – gorgeous and gentle and soft spoken. Wrath was a weathered soldier with snarky remarks and a scar-littered, muscular body. And the other way round...well, Orin rivalled Bren’s beauty. He was better built, more open, full of smiles and kindness and warmth. If Wrath was Bren, he’d chose Orin in a flash.

Wrath’s eyes watered and he blinked back tears, replacing them with anger.

Gods, why were they kissing like that?

Wrath had thought he was someone special to Orin, and he’d never listened when people told him Kings changed lovers like they changed cloaks, but now he did.

Now he did.

The doors banged shut behind Wrath and Bren scrambled away from Orin, looking up at Wrath in shock. Guilt shone in his eyes, because he knew that Wrath could see he had fallen for Orin as soon as he laid his eyes on him. And they couldn’t both have him, ‘’your grace,’’ Bren curtsied quickly.

Wrath looked towards Orin, who slid off the bed, ‘’Wrath...’’ he said gently, as if he hadn’t just...as if he wasn’t...

‘’What the hell, Orin?’’ Wrath whispered, taking a step back.

Orin froze, looked back at Bren. His brows furrowed, ‘’I thought you didn’t mind...’’

’Didn’t mind!?’’ Wrath exploded, ‘’I didn’t mind if you wanted to fuck him, Orin! I mind if you’re going to fall in love with him!’’

‘’I wasn’t-‘’

‘’Oh, really?’’ Wrath laughed bitterly, taking a step back when Orin tried to approach him, ‘’because he’s already in love with you, that much is clear.’’

Orin reached out towards Wrath, ‘’what are you talking about, my love? He’s not-‘’

‘’Tell him!’’ Wrath demanded and Bren flinched at his harsh tone, ‘’tell him, Wicker.’’

‘’Bren,’’ Orin said gently, ‘’tell Wrath he’s wrong,’’ but Bren didn’t say anything. He shrivelled in on himself, wrapping his arms around his body as if he could hide himself from view. Orin’s eyes widened a little, ‘’Bren, please.’’

But Bren remained silent.

‘’And now tell me you won’t fall in love with someone so beautiful?’’ Wrath said, voice trembling.

‘’I won’t-‘’

Bren flinched as if someone had punched him. Orin looked between the two of them helplessly, ‘’we didn’t mean to go behind your back, Wrath...’’

‘’Oh, I’m sure you didn’t. That’s why you were embracing each other in our chambers.’’ Wrath felt his body begin to tremble. Gods, because he knew why they were doing it. Because what he felt for Orin...he was starting to feel it for Bren, too. Not so hard, not yet, but it was getting there. And the fact that they both chose each other over him...it hurt. It hurt as if he was being stabbed by a hundred swords. Making love to Bren and being loved by Orin...it had made him so happy, for a little while. And now it looked like he didn’t fit in where he thought he had.

‘’Wrath, please, I love you...’’ Orin reached for Wrath again but the Archduke flinched away from him.

Bren finally raised his head. His lip wobbled, ‘’your grace-‘’

‘’Shut up!’’ Wrath snarled at him, so viciously even Orin looked appalled, ‘’don’t speak to me! It’s your fault. You showed up here. Why did you have to come!? It was all fine before. We were fine before – how did a slave manage to mess this up?’’ Wrath knew he was being unfair, but he was hurting so much, like he’d never hurt before – and he wanted the other two to hurt as well. To know what it felt like to be so completely and utterly disregarded.

‘’Enough, Wrath,’’ Orin said quietly but the damage was done.

Bren stared at Wrath with wide, glassy eyes, ‘’I’m sorry...I didn’t mean...’’ he was stumbling towards the doors, ‘’I...I just...’’ and then it was as if a dam had burst because Bren turned on his heel and sprinted from the room.

He ran through the dark corridors, down to the ground floor of the palace where guests were filtering out, outside into the icy rain that was coming down on the snowy landscape and further out. Out, out, into the plains, into the forest, as far away as he could get, feet slipping in mud, rain trailing down his face.

He’d trip and fall somewhere and die, or break a bone or hit his head or freeze to death or be ripped apart by wild animals. He didn’t care. He could take all that.

As long as he didn’t have to see Wrath hurt like that again, because of him.

*~*~*

When Nythil awoke, he immediately knew he was tied to a chair. Everything hurt. He had a black eye, a split lip and a broken nose, a couple broken ribs and a broken leg from what he could tell. He tried not to move too much. There was a strange emptiness in him and he knew that if he opened his eyes, they’d be one colour, not too. He was no longer a witchling, having used up all five of his witch marks – but, somehow, he didn’t feel heartbroken over it. Because he knew he managed to save his team, his brother, and through it, hopefully, the rest of the witches. If the mission succeeded.

‘’I think he’s awake,’’ came a rough voice and Nythil’s eyes flew open as he let out a bark of pain when someone kicked the chair, rattling his broken bones. His vision blurred and then focused on the partly caved in roof, and wooden poles visible from beyond it. From the looks of it, he was in some kind of abandoned windmill. And the hunters – the ones Rain hadn’t taken out – were gathered around him. It was dawn. Light filtered through the broken roof. Nythil was glad that the hunters were gathered around him. That meant they hadn’t given chase to the others. They were safe.

An ugly mug of a bald hunter loomed in front of Nythil, who cringed away from him, ‘’hello, witch,’’ he said, ‘’don’t think you can fool us with the eye trick. I know what you are.’’

Nythil didn’t bother telling him he was no longer a witchling. Instead, he spat blood straight into the hunter’s face. The hunter cried out and stumbled back, clawing at his skin as if Nythil’s blood was acid, ‘’shit,’’ a girl, sitting on the uneven windowsill of a broken window jumped down and unsheathed her blade, ‘’hold him down.’’

The hunter pulled his hands away from his face to put them protectively before himself and the girl, ‘’no, no! Wait, hold on-‘’ a muscular woman and a man grabbed his shoulders and forced him down on his knees, ‘’please, Alda, I won’t get sick, I won’t-‘’

‘’Witch blood,’’ Alda said in a cold voice, ‘’witch plague. You know the code.’’

‘’ALDA WAIT!’’ the man shrieked but the huntress slashed her blade through the air. The man’s decapitated head lolled onto the ground. Nythil stared at the body in disbelief. Prejudices that deep...they scared him. But maybe he could spit blood on every single hunter in the windmill and hope they just took each other out.

Unbothered by what had just happened, Alda approached Nythil, ‘’that’s eight of my people you and your friend killed,’’ she said calmly, as if she hadn’t been the one to cut off her companion’s head for no reason, ‘’where did he run off to, hm? The witch city?’’ she put a hand on the back of Nythil’s chair and leaned in close. Nythil gathered enough blood from his mouth, gathering in his throat – one of his broken ribs must have pierced a lung slightly. He braced himself to spit it in Alda’s face.

In the blink of an eye, the huntress slashed her dagger through the air. She caught Nythil’s severed braid in her hand and was around him in a split second, the braid she held in both hands now around his neck as she pushed the air out of his neck. Nythil gasped, blood dribbling down his jaw, ‘’I don’t think so,’’ Alda hissed in his ear. Just as the edges of his vision started going black, she dropped the pale blond braid and wiped her hands as if it was a filthy snake, ‘’he’s not going to spill the location of the witch city,’’ Alda said coldly to the hunters gathered in the windmill.

One of the hunters frowned, ‘’you don’t know that-‘’

‘’I can tell,’’ Alda snapped and waved a hand, ‘’bring the boy in.’’

Nythil watched, head spinning, as a witch boy of perhaps twelve, paled and terrified, was dragged into the windmill by two huntresses. Alda gave him a venomous smile, kneeling down in front of him, ‘’hey, you. Remember me?’’ she asked in a voice dripping with fake kindness as she played with her dagger, ‘’I killed you mamas three nights ago, remember that?’’ the boy stared at her, terrified, and in a flash she reached out, grabbing his face, ‘’I ASKED IF YOU REMEMBER!?’’ she roared in a voice so brutal a few of her hunters flinched and the boy nodded in panic. A smile returned to her face, ‘’good. You’re going to do something for me, or else I’m going to kill you right here.’’ The boy nodded again and Alda pointed her dagger at Nythil, ‘’I want you to pry open his brain and tell me where the witch city is, since your tiny brain is too useless to remember,’’ she stood and dusted her knees off casually, ‘’go on, do it. I know you can. You’ve tried to scramble the brains of three of my hunters before. Do it to him,’’ she nodded her chin at one of her hunters and a piece of parchment was brought along with a piece of charred wood.

Trembling, the boy took both and knelt in front of Nythil, who could barely concentrate on his wide, moist eyes. Then, a second later, it was as if a second someone had been crammed into his brain. It felt cramped, like he’d been moved to the side, and memories flashed through his head as the boy filtered through them. Nythil’s eyes rolled back in his head as he tried desperately to shove the witch’s presence out of his head, to get rid of him before he stumbled across Mystic, but he couldn’t. In his panic and fear, the child had a grip on Nythil’s mind and soon enough his small, trembling hand was scribbling down coordinates onto the parchment.

‘’Stop...’’ Nythil growled out. Even if humans couldn’t get into Mystic...if they knew the coordinates and forced witches to do it...it’d be a slaughter house, ‘’they’ll die...’’

‘’I’m sorry...’’ the boy whispered, tears streaming down his face, ‘’I’m sorry, I’m sorry...’’ he finished the coordinates and crumbled atop them, sobbing. The presence yanked itself out of Nythil’s head and he slumped forward, gasping for air. Everything hurt. He could feel his ribs jabbing at other organs. Even if the hunters didn’t kill him first, he didn’t have long to go.

Alda yanked the boy up by the collar unceremoniously and tossed the coordinates to one of the hunters, ‘’see?’’ she said pleasantly, ‘’you got to live a few minutes longer,’’ then, in a flash, she slit the boy’s throat. The child fell to the ground, eyes wild, gurgling as blood filled his mouth. Then he went still. Alda walked up to Nythil and smiled down at him, ‘’you’ve been very useful, too. General Magana will be very grateful for the location of the witch city and we will be grateful for the money he offers,’’ she waved a hand at her hunters, ‘’get him outside. It’s rather chilly, don’t you think?’’

*~*~*

‘’What a hell-hole,’’ Luciana, the ginger haired pirate navigator, commented as Raaisel’s team made its way through the destroyed, abandoned Mor. It stank of death and swarms of flies could be heard buzzing close by. She and Slava, the pirate doctor, stuck together mostly.

‘’It’s not so bad,’’ Drest, a curly haired, green eyed soldier, who was quickly proving to be a right ray of sunshine, said, adjusting his plague mask on his face, ‘’I’ve seen worse places, and those had living people in them.’’

Kasimira, who took to sticking with Merry, glanced around uneasily. Merry tried not to let her worry rub off on him, ‘’quit chatting and it’ll be less of a hell-hole,’’ Yago, a much older soldier, grumbled at his comrade. He was a grumpy man but an excellent soldier, as Heartman had told Merry.

Suddenly, Kasimira stopped in the middle of the mud-slugged street, looking around at the crumbling buildings. Raaisel glanced at her, ‘’what is it?’’

‘’Something...’’

It all happened so quickly.

In one second, they were standing in an empty, dirty ghost town. In the next, the monsters were upon them. Drest screamed as he went down under what looked to be a human woman. Yago grabbed her around the waist, ‘’what the hell-‘’ he gasped as he stared down at Drest. A large portion of the soldier’s neck was missing and his eyes, behind his mask, were wide, unseeing. The woman struggled in Yago’s grip, making inhuman hisses. In the next instance more like her – humans – poured from between the crumbling houses and attacked the group. Yago, with no backup, slipped on the mud and went down, too. The woman pinned him down and bit into the first piece of flesh her rotting, missing teeth could find – Yago’s thigh. The soldier howled and ripped the woman away from him. A large chunk of his flesh hung from between her crooked teeth and blood poured from Yago’s thigh. He stared at her. At first glance, she appeared human.

But she wasn’t. Not anymore.

Her face was covered in boils and sores. She had the plague. But she wasn’t dead. No, clearly, by the state of her teeth, her bloodshot eyes and broken, dirty fingernails she’d been like this for quite a while. Somehow, she and the humans attacking Raaisel’s team had lived through the plague. But it had driven them mad. Yago didn’t hesitate. He hacked the woman’s head off, even as his leg screamed in protest. Itzel, their fellow soldier, and Axel, a celebrated knight, were there in a second. They hauled Yago to his feet while fighting off the humans. They had all come at once but on second look, there weren’t that many. Only about fifteen, and most were frail looking, too thin and malnourished. Yago couldn’t believe something like that had killed Drest.

Slava and Luciana were back to back to each other, waving their weapons around to keep the diseased humans at bay. Captain Heartman jumped to Merry and Kasimira, wielding her own sword, ‘’your majesty, get back!’’ she yelled at Merry, who stumbled back, terrified. He had thought they’d be exposed to the dangers of the plague...but not in such a form.

General Riese Sarin was busy protecting Tris’ cousin, Archana Starteller, but Bernhard, Venus and their guard, Kip, were taking out the bulk of the attackers. No one would get closed to Raaisel, who was looking around as if trying to figure out where to attack best. The diseased humans attacked out of desperation, hunger and madness but when they saw the team retaliating, they quickly skulked back between the houses. Merry was breathing fast and Kasimira was shaking, ‘’I told you,’’ she kept whispering, ‘’I told you...’’

Merry looked around. Yago was groaning, his bleeding leg being bandaged by Itzel. General Sarin hovered over Drest’s body. Bernhard and Venus were arguing with Kip that their parole terms did not include fighting crazy, diseased cannibals. Merry was still shaking when Raaisel, mask-less like Kasimira, came over, ‘’well, your majesty?’’ she asked, ‘’what do you think we should do?’’ he silver eye seemed bemused, cold, irritated even. The black one shone with a dark glee that scared Merry to the bone.

‘’W-we need to bury him,’’ Merry pointed to Drest’s body. His voice shook but slowly gained more strength as he focused on the logistics of what they had to do rather than on the emotional side – the fact that he’d nearly been eaten by malnourished human monsters, ‘’else they’ll come back and eat him,’’ at that, Kasimira turned around and threw up loudly in the mud. Slava, who had made her way to inspect Yago, hurried over, ‘’Slava, can you get Yago mobile?’’

‘’I can try,’’ the pirate said dubiously, the gold earring in her ear sparkling in the sun.

Merry nodded, ‘’the rest of you...we need to get rid of these diseased humans. We’ll probably have to come back through here at some point and we don’t want to be ambushed again...’’ and just the thought of leaving these people here, to rot, made Merry shudder. He might have been a person who thought with his head but he wasn’t so cold as to not realise that death would be a mercy for those creatures.

Captain Heartman nodded, ‘’the King is right. Stay in pairs and be careful.’’

The fighters broke off to venture further into Mor, where the diseased humans had disappeared – Luciana with Captain Heartman, uncertainly leaving Slava to tend to Yago; Bernhard and Venus with Kip, who was eyeing them suspiciously as much as his surroundings, in case they tried to make a run for it; Axel and Itzel went together; General Sarin was followed by Archana Starteller who had drawn a dagger. Raaisel ventured off alone. Merry crouched in the mud, glancing uncertainly at Kasimira who was full out kneeling in the filth, breathing hard, ‘’are you alright?’’

‘’I don’t know,’’ Kasimira whispered, ‘’that soldier...Drest...’’ she dry heaved at just the mention of him. Merry looked towards the body and didn’t feel so good himself. The chunk of his neck which was missing was spurting blood that mixed with the mud. Merry was starting to regret leaving Tris without at least saying goodbye – what if something like this happened again and he never got the chance to?

‘’Do you sense any more danger?’’

Kasimira shook her head, ‘’I don’t know...my head is spinning, I can’t...I can’t tell...’’

Merry nodded, ‘’we need to move on, anyway,’’ he stood. Kasimira dry heaved again. Slava was helping to bandage Yago’s thigh. Drest lay abandoned in the mud. There was no one left around to bury him, so Merry braced himself, adjusted his plague mask and walked over to the body. Drest had died a savage death no one expected; Merry hoped it was at least fast as he dragged him away by his legs to find a good place to bury him.

*~*~*

Fire.

A burning, blazing fire.

So bright she could nearly feel it on her skin.

Tied hands. Her hands.

Tied legs.

People.

Hunters.

Chanting.

A forest. A sky.

The image of a blond boy. A brother.

A last memory.

A goodbye.

Fire.

Consuming all.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

‘’It’s alright. Shhh, it’s alright...’’

Mairwen blinked and realised she was crying. She was crumpled on the floor of the room she and her friends had been given at the Lone Mountain, and Arlana was holding her, cradling her back and forth. Her silver curls spilled over her shoulder in a curtain of starlight, shielding Mair from the view of others. Her silver and blue eyes were closed as she held Mair through her vision. A sob broke out of Mair’s chest, broken and choked, and Arlana pulled away, tucking her hair behind her ear, ‘’what did you see?’’ she asked gently. She reminded Mair of Queen Nara.

Mair scanned the room, trying to find her footing back in reality. Her eyes fell on Mardin and filled with fresh tears, ‘’oh my gods...’’ she whispered as she realised what she saw, ‘’Nythil...Nythil...’’ she clamped her hands over her mouth to stop any more sobs from spilling out.

Mardin shot to his feet and Rain, lying in the bed where Fynn had been nursing him since they found him half-frozen at the border of Hailbronn, sat up violently, ‘’what did you see?’’ Mardin demanded, eyes wild with worry, ‘’where is my brother?’’

‘’They burned him,’’ Mair said in a choked voice, ‘’they burned him to death.’’

‘’No,’’ Mardin shook his head, ‘’no, no, no, no...’’ the rain thudding on the window increased in pace and speed. Rivulets of water started pouring in through the wooden shutters. The flames of the candles flickered as the temperature in the room suddenly dropped, ‘’you’re lying...he said...he said...’’

Rain’s eyes were wide, shocked, ‘’I shouldn’t have left him...I shouldn’t have...’’

Mardin sank to his knees and burst into heart wrenching sobs. Mair joined him, unable to keep her grief at bay. She had taken on this quest, she had made the decision about teleporting...and now Nythil was dead. Arlana said nothing. Fynn took one of Rain’s hands, which was trembling, in his, ‘’it wasn’t your fault. He teleported you out. He saved us,’’ he said, as levelly as he could. He and Mair had known Nythil as long as they’d known Mardin. Their whole lives, really, but Fynn fought to keep his voice steady, ‘’now we must save others.’’

Rain looked at Fynn with grief in his eyes. Fynn leaned over and pressed the promised kiss to Rain’s lips, short but comforting, ‘’you did all you could,’’ he whispered and let Rain crumple against him.

Chapter Text

Wrath paced the foyer of the Kolnese palace. He’d been pacing for hours. He’d regretted what he’d said as soon as the words fell from his mouth, but Bren had run off so quickly...then the storm picked up. Not just rain, but lightning and thunder rumbling as if an avalanche was coming down on the world. With each thunder clap, each flash of lightning, Wrath became painfully aware that Bren was out there, not even dressed properly. Finally, unable to take it anymore, he ordered a servant to bring his cloak, ‘’I’m coming with-‘’

‘’You’re staying here,’’ Wrath snapped at Orin, who had been standing by the doors, hoping that Bren would come through them at any moment, ‘’I made him leave so I’m going to bring him back.’’

‘’Take guards-‘’

‘’I don’t need any,’’ Wrath said gruffly, clipping his cloak in place, ‘’I’ll be faster alone.’’

Orin’s golden eyes were pleading as he stepped closer to his lover, ‘’Wrath...’’ he reached for him but the Archduke slapped his hand away. Orin’s eyes flashed with hurt, ‘’I didn’t mean to...’’

‘’Fall in love with someone else?’’ Wrath snarled.

Orin reached for him again, ‘’I love you-‘’

Wrath stepped out of reach, ‘’yes, and you love Bren, too, even though you barely know him. Don’t deny it. I can see it in both of your eyes. It’s like you’re mates,’’ Wrath’s voice turned bitter. Of course he couldn’t hold onto Orin, not when he was so beautiful, so kind and strong and brave, so powerful and so full of love.

Orin closed his eyes briefly, as if he had a headache, ‘’if we were mates, then I wouldn’t love you anymore. But I do. I love you as hard as I’ve always had. As hard as I did when I invited you to court.’’

Wrath shook his head, ‘’and in time, you’ll love Bren more. Everyone would. If I was you, I would,’’ Wrath said, backing up. Before Orin could protest, he turned swiftly on his foot, ‘’don’t worry. I’ll get him back for you,’’ he marched up to the massive front doors which the guards promptly opened for him and out. He found the stables, his horse, and in minutes he was riding down the gentle sloping bridge leading up to the palace, the hooves of his horse as loud on the ground as the thunder above him. He was soaked in seconds, the hood of his cloak clinging to his forehead and body. Wrath gritted his teeth, urging his horse on. Even though Bren had a couple hours on him, he was on foot. He’d find him soon enough.

The sparse forest growing between the Kolnese palace and Yarah, the capital, was dark, the tall trees illuminated once in a while by lightning that thankfully didn’t spook the horse, wholly used to it. Spring had finally crept up on the world and the snow had rapidly begun melting. Now it lay in small heaps here and there amongst wet grass, melting into the muddy road Wrath now thundered down. He knew there was no point trying to look for footprints; the mud and rain cleared everything away in seconds.

Wrath had hoped it would be easy to find Bren. He couldn’t have gotten far in the rain. And yet Bren was nowhere to be found. After nearly an hour of searching, cold and shivering, Wrath emerged at the other end of the forest, on the edge of Yarah. He stopped his horse. He hadn’t been out in the city without a plague mask, but if Bren was there... he hesitated. Bren didn’t know the woods. He could have easily gotten lost. It would have taken him longer to clear the forest without a horse, so was he really out of it? Wrath closed his eyes, tried to think how a scared, young boy, cold and impulsive, would. Would he have really tried to brave a dark, scary forest in the middle of a stormy night?

No.

He would have looked for shelter.

Wrath opened his eyes, turned his horse and flew back into the forest.

The old hunting lodge had been abandoned for decades. It had still been used by Hyndestane Kings when Kainan was one kingdom and not four, but after a large portion of the forest had been cut down to change Yarah into a port, it became a poor hunting ground and the lodge was abandoned. Wrath found it in ten minutes flat. The roof was partly caved in and the barred windows looked ghastly, but it was the only building between Yarah and the palace. Wrath slowed and once he reached the lodge, he jumped down from his horse and tied it to a nearby tree.

The doors of the lodge opened when pushed, creaking slightly. At first Wrath thought it was empty but a sudden flash of lightning illuminated Bren, quivering in a dusty corner. He had his forehead pressed to his knees, his arms wrapped around himself to keep out the cold. Wrath approached him and stopped a foot away, ‘’Wicker,’’ he said quietly, emotionlessly. Bren raised his face, his green gold eyes surprised. Wrath forgot how to breathe for a moment. Gods, did Bren have to be so gods damned beautiful? He rose, still in a state of shock, ‘’come on,’’ Wrath barked at him, turning.

A few steps later, Bren’s quiet voice reached him, ‘’I’m not going.’’

Wrath whirled around, feeling anger rise up. Anger was good. Anger was better than guilt and hurt. Bren looked at him. His eyes were moist with tears. A raindrop ran from his hair down his button nose, ‘’Orin wants you back,’’ Wrath said, walking back to him very, very slowly. Lightning flashed, illuminating the inside of the lodge through the open doorway, ‘’you got what you wanted. You’ve got Orin. What sense is there in running now?’’

Bren shook his head, wet curls slapping his cheeks, ‘’this is not...this is not what I wanted-‘’

‘’Enough,’’ Wrath snapped, ‘’I don’t want to hear any more or yours and Orin’s stuttered excuses. I get it, alright? You love him. He loves you,’’ Wrath’s voice faltered and came back softer, unsteady, ‘’how could he not. You’re so...’’ he shook his head, ‘’you’ll be happy together. So let me bring you back,’’ he said in a choked voice.

‘’Wrath-‘’

‘’I didn’t let you call me by my name!’’ Wrath snarled. He just wanted it all to end. He wanted to slip into some bed, away from Orin and away from Bren, close his eyes and fall asleep, ‘’get on the horse, Wicker,’’ Wrath whispered and stormed out of the lodge. A moment later Bren emerged. Wrath unceremoniously picked him up and put him on the horse. The entity of the ride back to the palace was filled with miserable silence, broken up only by the patter of the rain and the rumble of the storm.

When Wrath walked into the foyer of the palace, pulling Bren in by the wrist, Orin was pacing the foyer like his lover had before. His golden eyes widened when he saw them walk in, ‘’you’re safe!’’

Wrath said nothing. As Orin approached them, he all but tossed Bren into his arms, ‘’I will be sleeping alone from now on,’’ Wrath didn’t look at Orin and quickly turned, walking away.

Orin stared after him, shocked, ‘’wha...Wrath? Wrath!’’

But Wrath had already disappeared through one of the doors. Orin forced himself to stay together. Wrath was just moody. Tomorrow...they’d be alright tomorrow. Orin would apologise properly. For now, he looked at Bren in his arms. Tears were running down his face and he was shaking, ‘’you have me quite the fright,’’ Orin murmured, taking off his cloak and wrapping it tightly around the omega. He called servants who escorted Bren to the baths. Orin needed to be alone.

All night, he tossed and turned. His bed was too big without Wrath in it.

*~*~*

Until the last day of the month, the Citadel branch of Hailbronn had three witches in hiding. One, a pretty, golden haired boy, was disguised as one of the Cats. His Cat persona – a weathered pirate – hid one of his double coloured eyes with an eye patch. An older witch who had the rare skill of making both her eyes look the same colour was hired as a temporary cook. The third, a young girl, hid in the basement of General Bas’ barrack. He’d snuck her in under the cover of night and the pretext of alcohol, arm around her shoulder. She’d played shy as the soldiers in the camp cheered for their Generals catch, keeping her head down to hide her double coloured eyes. No one would dare think one of the three great Generals hid a witch in his barrack when his best friend was so involved in hunting all of them down. Each day brought more tension to the Cathouse. They were all on edge, waiting for Annamaria to come pick up the witches so the Cats could finally breathe easy. Somehow, with General Bas on their side, Soren felt less afraid than he had when he only had Jescha to worry about.

But it was not Annamaria who came at the end of the month for the promised pickup.

General Bas was in the Cathouse, just in case, under the pretext of wanting to release pent up tension. The Cats were all downstairs in the main room, lounging around and pretending to rehearse their roles while waiting anxiously for Annamaria to show up. The witches, including the one Bas had been hiding, whom he had brought with him, were hidden upstairs. Soren sat on one of the chaises next to Bas, as if he was flirting with his client. If someone walked in, though it was unlikely so early in the day, the scene would not look anything out of the ordinary, which was exactly Mr Sawyer’s goal.

‘’Don’t look at the doors that much,’’ Bas said.

‘’There’s no one here,’’ Soren said reproachfully. His whole body was tight with nerves.

‘’Yes, but you’re making me nervous,’’ Bas said quietly. ‘’what time will she be here?’’

‘’I have no idea,’’ Soren mumbled. There had been so many raids on Ashta already, it was too easy imagining soldiers bursting into the Cathouse before the witches were safely handed over to Princess Annamaria. He sighed and leaned back on the chaise, ‘’are you still angry about me lying to you?’’ he asked.

Bas looked at him, surprised that he was bringing it up, ‘’I wasn’t angry at all. I was just...alright, I was a little bit angry. But only for a moment.’’

Soren nodded, ‘’thank you for helping us, General. It can’t be easy, going against your best friend.’’

‘’It is rather easy, actually,’’ Bas said. Soren looked up at him, ‘’when you know what kind of monster your friend is becoming,’’ Bas studied the shorted boy, ‘’are you scared, Soren?’’

‘’I think we all are.’’

Their eyes met again and they stared at each other. It was true – they were all risking everything for the Citadel. Even Bas’ high position wouldn’t help him if he was caught. And yet, he managed to smile gently at Soren. Soren’s breath caught when Bas hand slid into his. The General laced their hands together and squeezed lightly, ‘’I suppose we are.’’

Soren didn’t pull his hand out of Bas’ grip, not even when Bas brushed a thumb along the back of it, ‘’why are you helping us, General?’’ he asked instead, quietly.

Before Bas could answer, a knock sounded at the doors. Mr Sawyer approached the doors and glanced out of the peep hole, ‘’customer,’’ he hissed at the Cats, who immediately draped themselves over furniture. Soren adjusted his body language, throwing his legs over Bas’ lap and leaning forward seductively. He hoped his nerves didn’t show. Bas cupped Soren’s thigh, leaning forward till their nose brushed, though his eyes, sharp and weary, were directed at the doors. That, at least, allowed Soren to work off the blush that arose from being so close to the General before he saw. Mr Sawyer opened the doors with a flourish, his flirty smile plastered on his painted lips, ‘’welcome, dear customer!’’ he ushered in a rather slight, Moriyan looking man, whose short black hair was tied at the back of his head. He entered and Sawyer closed the doors behind him. The man looked around, studying the space. With the beaked plague mask on, it was impossible to tell what he was thinking, ‘’please, darling sir, pick any of my lovely Cats.’’

But then the man grabbed the leather straps keeping the mask on and tugged it off, revealing a youthful face – and a broad grin, ‘’I’ll take the witches I’m supposed to pick up, thank you very much.’’ The Cats all stiffened. Bas pulled away from Soren, ready to attack if need be. But the small man walked up to Sawyer and shook his hand. Mr Sawyer looked stunned at the vigorous handshake as the man said, ‘’you must be Sawyer Chapman, it’s a pleasure, really,’’ he turned to the room of stunned Cats, ‘’when Annamaria told me about your willingness to aid the Citadel, I was so grateful – I just had to meet our newest ‘stop’ in Hailbronn,’’ he paused and winced, ‘’ah, sorry, I forgot to introduce myself. Hi, I’m Kaliq. I’m the founder of the Citadel.’’

Everyone but Bas relaxed slightly – the General wasn’t a very trusting person. Kaliq turned to Sawyer, ‘’how many do we have?’’

‘’Three.’’

‘’Perfect; I was worried I’d have to make two trips. This time we’re using the Sorata river – Annamaria’s carriage gig can’t be used too many times lest the border soldiers suspect something,’’ he explained quickly. The Sorata river ran all through Kainan in two strands – one marking the border between Solin and Rhein, the other branch through Rhein itself. Both came to meet into one strand just a couple kilometres away from Ashta and went all the way down to the sea, ‘’I have a rowboat waiting in a well hidden place but we must wait for the cover of darkness – at midnight, I’ve arranged a pick-up with the lovely Captain Altha who will take our witches to Salar,’’ Kaliq grinned, ‘’now then, what does a man have to do to get a drink here?’’

*~*~*

Daran didn’t plan to make his progress long. In only a couple days he and his party made it to Theia, the southern city of Silvestrum, an area that once belonged to Yame. Ever since passing Ashiya, the white wall that had once separated Yame and Arnheim, the people that came out onto the streets to see their new King seemed more hostile. Daran expected it and didn’t let it bother him. Once peace and prosperity finally blessed the icy kingdom, any insurgence would be forced down. Daran had planned the trip so they’d visit Yame as soon as possible before doubling back to Arnheim. That would extend the trip for at least two more weeks, but he had to exert his authority on Yame as soon as possible. Their next stop would be Radegast in Hellriver, and then they’d ride along the river Bast to the smaller towns of Zorya and Mitra. After a quick stop at the St Lamentin Monastery they’d do a rather fast ride down the east coast of what used to be Yame before finally entering Arnheim again.

Daran’s head hurt just thinking about it, but he kept his chin lifted, jaw set and shoulders squared as he rode into Theia. It was, essentially, like most cities in the kingdom. Large, stone buildings, snowy paths and war-worn people crowding in the streets. They were daintier in Yame, less warrior like, but still the harsh weather and constant conflict took a toll on them. Their houses, on the other hand, were decorated with fir tree branches and painted, woven baskets with candles inside. Most houses were painted here and there with flowers, landscapes and birds. Some were completely covered in colour. Daran wrinkled his nose at all that – no wonder the Yamese were weak wimps. No wonder they enjoyed things like dancing.

Daran met the eyes of those who crowded in the streets. Expressions ranged from apprehension to hate to tentative kindness, though the latter was the rarest. A lot of the Theians expressed curiosity. Daran tried very hard not to look like a cold hearted bastard. He didn’t smile but he tried to make his features appear softer. He had no idea if it worked. He glanced at his brother. Brannen looked like a cold hearted bastard, his nose wrinkled, his eyes flashing, but with his light brown, wavy hair falling down his back he looked a bit like a fairytale prince, so it wasn’t as noticeable. Daran fought back a sigh and looked ahead, just when-

‘’Yame lives!’’ came a shout.

Brannen’s head whipped to his brother, ‘’DARAN!’’

Too late.

Daran’s eyes widened as he saw a spear fly straight for him through the air. And then he was falling off his horse. He had no idea what had happened until he hit the sludgy, icy path and Brannen fell down next to him, letting out a bark of pain. The spear had gone straight through his shoulder when he’d lunged himself from his horse to push Daran out of the path of the weapon. Daran rose, ‘’medics!’’ he yelled as the two physicians that had come onto the progress scrambled off their horses. Daran grabbed his sword and drew it out. The people gasped; some, the younger ones, scrambled back. People hoarded their children away as Daran sprinted after the man who had thrown the spear. Many were yelling; the crowd roiled with fury. At any moment they could go after Daran and kill him with incredible ease. Two guards set off after Daran, trying to keep pace with his King.

Daran tackled the man who had tried to kill him into the snow and punched him in the face. His nose cracked under Daran’s fist and blood spurted. The two guards reached them and hauled the man up. Daran rose, too, ‘’this,’’ he yelled to the crowd now watching with quiet tension, ‘’is what happens to those who will not accept peace.’’

He raised his sword and beheaded the man with a neat, quick slice.

Some people screamed but most watched gravelly. Daran left the guards to drag the body and the head away and marched back to his party. The two physicians were bandaging up Brannen’s wounded, now spear-less shoulder. Daran knelt down by him in the sludge and grasped his forearm, squeezing in silent thanks. Brannen squeezed his back, weakly. Daran stood and turned to his father. Kane was giving quiet order to the remaining guards but turned when Daran approached, ‘’this was not a single man’s actions. He was part of a larger group.’’

 ‘’Yes, and I’m pretty sure I know who this group follows,’’ Daran said quietly, ‘’we’re turning back,’’ he told his father quietly.

Kane’s brow furrowed, ‘’they will think us weak-‘’

‘’I won’t risk another attempt at anyone’s life,’’ Daran shook his head, ‘’we’ll post-pone the progress until Airen is mobile again. They won’t accept me until they see my Yamese consort.’’

Kane hesitated but after glancing behind Daran at his second son, standing and wincing, he nodded, ‘’you’re the King. We do what you command.’’

*~*~*

Jas woke up at the same time as Othelen. By now, Jas wasn’t surprised that he was in Othelen’s arms, their furs haphazardly thrown over them. His head was on Othelen’s bicep, the wolf’s free arm around his waist. Jas opened his eyes just as Othelen blinked sleepily. He didn’t jerk back, still half asleep, his brain not catching up to what was going on. Jas held his breath as Othelen suddenly tilted his head and nuzzled his nose against Jas’, closing his eyes and letting out a quiet, sleepy, satisfied hum. Jas blushed head to toe, and let out an embarrassed squeal as Othelen shifted closer to him and his naked member brushed against Jas’ stomach, ‘’u-um, O-O-Othelen!?’’

Othelen was startled awake by Jas’ high pitched, panicked voice. His eyes snapped open and he scrambled away, ‘’what in the fu-‘’ Othelen demanded, grabbing his undergarments from the corner of the room and pulling them on, ‘’why does this keep happening!?’’

‘’Don’t yell at me, it’s not my fault!’’ Jas squeaked, slapping his hands over his freckled face while trying to get rid of his blush.

Othelen grumbled angrily under his breath, searching for his clothes. Jas peeked from between his fingers. His blush rose back up full force as he watched Othelen’s muscled, tan back. Suddenly, Othelen stopped and tilted his head up, sniffing lightly, ‘’oh,’’ he said, surprisingly soft, ‘’the storms have passed.’’

‘’You can smell that?’’ Jas asked and Othelen shrugged. Jas chewed his lips. The snow had been melting over the last days, and if the storms were really gone...

‘’Don’t say it,’’ Othelen said, slightly annoyed, ‘’I know what you’re gonna ask.’’

Jas peeked at him again, ‘’w-well, what’s the answer?’’

Othelen pulled a tunic over his head and tied the strings, ‘’I promised I’d get you to Kainan as soon as the snow melted and the storms stopped. I intend on keeping my promise,’’ he flashed Jas a wolfish grin, ‘’besides, I’m looking forward to sleeping by myself again.’’

*~*~*

‘’Shit...’’ Yago growled out as he slipped in the melting, muddy snow. Slava, who was keeping him up with the help of General Riese Sarin, nearly toppled under the weight of the soldier. His pale blond hair was pasted to his sickly pale forehead and blood was seeping out of the makeshift bandages wrapped around the wound on his thigh.

‘’Someone switch with me,’’ Slava ground out.

Kip, the omega guard in charge of keeping an eye on Bernhard and Venus, hurried to relieve the pirate medic. He was quickly proving himself as the most helpful person in the squad.

‘’Let’s keep moving,’’ Raaisel ordered. It was strange taking orders from a child, but no one protested as they hobbled towards the entrance gate of Calahoun. They’d been caught out in the open two nights in the row, forced to make camp out in the dark, cold outside. The sun was already setting; Archana Starteller was looking around for a good building they could squat in. Calahoun, like Mor, was completely empty but not as destroyed. A little wooden church stood eerily in the snow. Empty houses spread out beyond it. The air reeked of death but the group was quickly getting used to it. Itzel, who was still miserable after the death of their fellow soldier, trailed after Archana when she pin pointed a decent looking house to spend the upcoming night in.

Slava stopped Merry before he went inside and peeked at him, the outline of her eyes barely visible behind her plague mask, ‘’he’s not going to make it if we keep pushing him like that.’’

‘’I know,’’ Merry said tightly. He was raised by physicians and philosophers – he knew what Yago needed was medicine and rest, and they could not provide either of those, ‘’just...let’s get some rest.’’

Slava nodded and they went inside the house. Merry glimpsed Axel, the celebrated knight, dragging away the rotting body of the pervious inhabitant of the house they had chosen. No one even dreamed of taking their plague masks off in the deadly, stinking air. Merry sat heavily at the wooden table in the room they had picked as their camping site. Captain Heartman started a fire and Kip and Venus set about making food, arguing the entire time. Merry studied Yago from a distance, the way he cringed in pain at every little movement.

They ate in silence and Merry volunteered to take the first shift. He didn’t like being the only one awake in such an eerie place but he needed time to think. When everyone was sound asleep, spread out around the room, some snoring lightly behind their masks, Raaisel came to sit next to Merry on the bench. He wished she’d wear a mask. Her eyes, especially the black one, creeped him out. It was as if her eyes were always in conflict with each other, the silver one almost nice, the black one...evil, ‘’we need to decide what to do with Yago,’’ she said in a calm whisper.

‘’It’s your call. You’re the leader.’’

Raaisel shook her head, dark hair flying, ‘’but you’re the King’s consort. For such a drastic thing, they won’t listen to a little girl,’’ she gave him a little smile that told Merry both he and she knew she was anything but a little girl, ‘’should we put him out of his misery?’’ she asked innocently.

Merry flinched. After Drest, he didn’t even want to think about death. He glanced at Yago, frowning in his sleep. His face was pale and sweating. There was no way of telling if the woman’s diseased teeth that had ripped open his thigh had infected the wound and no one was willing to check. Slava changed the bandages as quickly as possible, unwilling to look more closely at the wound since there was nothing to heal it with. The company had set out knowing they’d be in danger of contracting the plague and there was no medicine for that. They hadn’t expected to encounter starved, diseased cannibals, ‘’we’re not killing him.’’

Raaisel shrugged, ‘’well, whatever. I’ll support whatever decision you make,’’ she gave him another one of her chilling smiles and it seemed ever so slightly too big for her childish face, ‘’but I suggest you make it quick.’’

Merry watched her curl up in the corner and when he was sure she was asleep, he sighed. His brain flitted over to Tristan. Now that they were apart, Merry realised he...cared for him. Enough to miss him. Enough to crave his smile and voice and those strangely glowy, brown eyes of his. Enough to want to be touched in bed at night. He wondered if Tristan missed him too – if he’d be very angry when Merry returned.

Or if he’d be sad if Merry didn’t.

Even after Merry was relieved by Luciana, he couldn’t sleep. In the morning, he was tired and weary but everyone listened to him as he said, ‘’Yago can’t walk. He’ll bleed out at this rate. He needs to rest and this house looks pretty solid.’’

Yago glared at Merry. He hadn’t gotten up from where he had slept yet and Merry wasn’t sure he’d be able to, ‘’you leavin’ me behind, your majesty?’’

‘’No,’’ Merry said, ‘’we must go through the Moracay Canyon next, and that’s uneven terrain. With your leg, you’ll slow us down,’’ he said bluntly. He needed to put it straight – only then would Yago respect his decisions, ‘’from the Canyon it’s a straight shot to the palace in Aldhard. We’ll find the Queen and her army reserves and come back this way. We’ll pick you up in a couple of days – the Queen will have medicine that will help your wound,’’ no one argued with the Consort and he glanced at his team, ‘’Captain Heartman, you’ll stay with him.’’

‘’No,’’ Yago snarled before anyone could reply, ‘’I don’t need a babysitter. I can take care of myself.’’

‘’With all due respect, you can barely walk,’’ Heartman said bluntly.

‘’Then I’ll bloody crawl to the fireplace and back,’’ the soldier looked at Merry, ‘’leave me some food and water, your majesty, and I’ll make do.’’

Merry stared at him. Yago thought it would be an insult to have someone take care of him. Merry sighed, ‘’fine, if that is what you want. Stay inside and keep the fire going,’’ Heartman passed him one of the satchels filled with food and other essentials, ‘’we’ll be back in a few days.’’ 

*~*~*

Dearest husband,

As you have probably heard, there has been an attempt on my life while on progress in the North of the country. Don’t get too excited, I’m completely fine. Though you will undoubtedly be pleased to hear my brother was injured in the process which is why we are now returning home – I am sorry to disappoint you. Oh, by the way – how is your mother? Gloating in her victory, I presume. Does she know we survived? I know you wouldn’t want to burst her happy bubble but, please, do tell her – you may also add that she will be returning to her cell immediately. We have search the house of the man who tried to kill me and found letters from your dear mother, his childhood friend. Such loyalty would be admirable if it did not bring harm to my family. Don’t attempt to conceal the letter – I have sent direct orders to have your mother imprisoned to my guards and my father. I warn you now, if you beg me to release that hag one more time I will lose my temper. Upon my return, we will have a conversation and if I find out that you have been in any way involved in this, you’ll join your mother in the dungeon, pregnant or not.

Your most loving husband,

Daran Kane Eiris, King of Arnheim

Airen scrunched the letter from his husband in his hand, ‘’smug bastard,’’ he hissed. His mother had been dragged into the dungeons that morning before the letter arrived and Airen spent most of the day pacing his new, more comfortable chambers, adjoining to Daran’s, and wondering what the hell was going on while Faeryn sobbed quietly on his bed. Now he cursed his husband in about ten different ways – and then he cursed his mother. He told Marietta that this would happen and she hadn’t listened. And now she was imprisoned once more. Before Airen could think of any more creative phrases to toss at his mother or husband, the doors opened and Daim rushed in, ‘’Airen, there’s people at the gate!’’

‘’Why are there people at the gate?’’ Airen sighed.

‘’They’re demanding their grievances be heard,’’ Daim gushed. He was panicking, ‘’father is at the temples and Daran put you in charge and I don’t know what to do-‘’

‘’Calm down,’’ Airen walked to him, ‘’what does your brother usually do?’’

‘’He’s not been taking grievances. There hadn’t been much because everyone’s been busy with the war and recovering after it...’’ he faltered. This was the first time Airen had saw him so afraid, ‘’they could carry the plague.’’

Airen breezed past him, ‘’nonsense. The ports have the plague and those have been contained. Let the people in – I will hear them.’’

‘’What!?’’ Daim blanched. He looked a Faeryn, who had stopped crying and was looking at her brother, retreating down the corridor, in shock. Daim hurried after him, ‘’if you’re doing this to get on Daran’s nerves-‘’

‘’Not everything is about Daran, Daimhin,’’ Airen said calmly, ‘’I’m as keen on keeping the peace as he is, and having an uprising when he is away because the people’s troubles are not being heard will not do peace any good.’’

Not half an hour later, Daim found himself standing by Daran’s throne, on which Airen now sat. He had a scribe on his other side. Daim watched him, for hours and hours, listening to the people of Arnheim, even though they had fought against the Yamese. He offered advice and promised solutions, all while acting like none of those people could be carrying a deadly disease. Daim felt something akin to the respect he felt for his brother rise in him. Daran was good at war but Airen was good at peace. And Daim realised that those ‘wimps’ from Yame had something the Arhanese warriors lacked – compassion.

Suddenly he didn’t feel so worried about the marriage between Daran and Airen anymore.

*~*~*

Vysarane, Jex and Jamael were in the armoury. Jamael was taking inventory over everything they had while Vys showed Jex newly imported weapons from Asakura, made by the genius weapon-maker known as Aldric, ‘’see, this way, it’s a dagger,’’ she turned a simple dagger around for Jex to see, ‘’but like this...’’ she moved her thumb along the hilt and a section moved, revealing a round hole. Vys blew in it and a tube retracted from the hilt along the top of the hilt that could now be used for better aim. She blew again and a little arrow, shorter than Jex’s pinkie, shot out and impaled itself into the wall. Jamael didn’t even react. Vys pulled the dagger from her mouth, pleased. Her goggles whirled as her lenses adjusted from looking at the faraway object to looking at Jex’s face, ‘’those little babies have the hit power of an arrow and contain poison that could knock down a grown man. Perfect for when we smuggle witches out and have someone tracking us, but don’t want a full out fight.’’

‘’Shit,’’ Jex breathed in awe, ‘’how many of those do we have?’’

‘’Twenty four. Prototypes, but Aldric promised to send more. She’s been living in Mutzre ever since Asakura closed the borders, manufacturing weapons for the Citadel, so it might take a while, but twenty four is still good,’’ Vys assured.

‘’Alright,’’ Jammy turned from the trunks and boxes that lined the walls of the massive room, all holding weapons. He looked at his notes, ‘’we have twenty nine broadswords and thirty two short swords, twenty one battle axes, twenty five clubs, seven spears, forty daggers, twelve long, fifteen-‘’

The doors burst open and Sidara Fairbanks, one of Amir’s best assassins, flew into the armoury, ‘’it’s happening,’’ she panted out, her night-black skin damp with sweat, ‘’we’re under siege.’’

As if on cue, the keep shook.

Jamael’s Hyndestane blue eyes widened, ‘’they have cannons!?’’

Sidara swore, ‘’Amir said they wouldn’t use them in fear of an avalanche!’’

‘’Well, he was wrong,’’ Jammy ran to a trunk and kicked it open. He pulled out two daggers and added them to the other two on his person. He tossed one to Jex and yanked him up, ‘’tell everyone to stock up on weapons,’’ he said and pulled a surprised Jex out of the room.

‘’Jamael, where are you going?’’ Jex asked as the assassin pulled him down the corridor and into a random room.

‘’The sultan has finally attacked us for saving witches,’’ Jamael said, opening the window in someone’s bedroom, ‘’so you’re leaving.’’

Jex stared at him, ‘’what?’’

Jamael gave him a desperate look before groaning and shutting the door shut. In the next instance he was in front of Jex, cradling his face in his hands and staring at him with burning eyes, ‘’I don’t have time to explain, but you need to go, okay? As far away from here as you can get.’’

Jex shook his head, his grey eyes confused, ‘’I don’t get it – I’m part of this now, I need to-‘’

‘’Shit, fuck it,’’ Jamael said and kissed Jex, short and hard and passionate enough to make Jex gasp into the kiss. Jamael pulled back, still cradling the thief’s face, ‘’look, I don’t know how to explain it,’’ he spoke quickly. Jex’s head spun, ‘’I’ve never felt like this about anyone, okay? I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t know how to act. But I didn’t let you go because I got bored. I got scared this would happen – that we’d come under attack. All it takes is one well-placed avalanche and we’re buried. I don’t want you here when I can’t protect you from that – where you can’t protect yourself, okay? There’s no way the soldiers can win the keep by waiting us out but it can become a coffin real quick. So I need you to go, alright? I need you to be safe.’’

Jex stared at him, holding his breath. His heart thundered like crazy in his chest, ‘’I...shit, Jamael, are you in love with me or something?’’

Before Jamael could reply, the keep shook again. Dust fell from the ceiling, ‘’you need to go,’’ Jammy said, ‘’now.’’ He let go of Jex’s face and grabbed his arm, dragging him over to the window. They were on the first floor. They were facing the drop. Below the window was a narrow rocky path leading into the mountain, ‘’follow that path around there. It’s hidden from view. Go down there,’’ Jammy pointed, ‘’you’ll emerge into a forest. Get to a town and lay low, alright.’’

‘’Jamael-‘’

‘’Just go, Jex, alright?’’ the assassin pleaded, voice desperate. He reached out to cup Jex’s face, ‘’please,’’ he bent down and pressed a kiss to a surprised Jex’s lips again. Then he all but picked Jex up and set him on the windowsill. Jex glanced back at Jamael, uncertain, but under his intense gaze he jumped down, landing on the path. He glanced up in time to catch a satchel filled with provisions that Jamael had brought with him. Jamael gave him a hopeless grin and disappeared from the window. Somewhere from the other side of the keep, cannons fired again. The keep, set on the steep side of the small mountain, shuddered.

Jex sprinted up the path, away from the fight.

*~*~*

The snow lay around in small, miserable clumps in the damp grass by the edge of the sea. Standing near the boat he and Othelen were to take, Jasper could just make out the faint outline of the Kai mainland in the distance, ‘’you have everything?’’ Jethil asked, ‘’food? Money?’’ in record time, he had gathered provisions for the venture – Jas had no idea where he got all the stuff from.

‘’Yeah, quit worrying,’’ Othelen said, giving his alpha a quick, strong hug. He and Jasper were bundled up in warm furs and ready to depart. Othelen went around his pack, saying his goodbyes.

Ryiah came up to Jas and pulled him into an embrace, ‘’good luck with saving the world,’’ she said, rubbing his back, ‘’come visit us if you succeed.’’

‘’Thanks for the hospitality,’’ Jas embraced her back and bent down to give Niraya a hug, too. The youngest wolf nuzzled her nose below his ear making a little, unhappy noise at the back of her throat. When he straightened, Jethil was there, extending his hand out. Jas clasped it, ‘’honestly, thank you.’’

‘’We should be thanking you,’’ Jethil smiled, ‘’apparently you’re the only person who wants to do anything about the plague.’’

Jas smiled gratefully. The moment was broken by Othelen’s voice, ‘’oi, whelp, are we going or not?’’

‘’Bye!’’ Jas said to the pack as a whole with another smile and hurried to help Othelen pull the boat – the same one Jas had used to get to Kai in the first place – into the sea. They hoped inside and Jas extended the oar to the wolf.

Othelen snorted, ‘’you wish, princeling. We’re taking turns.’’

Jas sighed but began rowing. Othelen raised an arm in farewell to his pack on the beach and then settled down on the bottom of the boat, next to the provisions pack, to take a nap. Which left Jas with a lot of time to think about what he would find in his kingdom upon his return.

*~*~*

‘’Oh, shit,’’ Captain Heartman cringed behind her plague mask, ‘’that is one hell of a stink.’’

Kasimira covered her bare face with her hand and even Raaisel wrinkled her nose. Merry heard the buzzing before the path they were on even grew narrower as the Moracay Canyon began. Once upon a time it had been the biggest, cruellest work camp in Kainan – now a black cloud of flies buzzed above it, ‘’why is there so many?’’ he wondered out loud.

And wished he hadn’t.

‘’Oh, holy hell...’’ Itzel whispered.

Venus suddenly lunged away, grabbing his plague mask. Kip was on him in seconds, tackling him to the floor as Venus ripped his mask away...and threw up all over the half-frozen grass. Kip cringed, ‘’aw, dude...’’

Bernhard’s apprentice rose to his knees and wiped his mouth angrily, ‘’thanks for that.’’

‘’I didn’t know you were going to...’’ Kip gestured, then cringed and turned back to the Canyon.

It was incredibly deep, the walls chiselled and straight, to stop any prisoners escaping. Now they were filled with rotting bodies which the flies feasted on. It looked as if all of Rhein’s dead were at one point brought here, turning the Moracay Canyon into a mass grave. Merry didn’t even want to think what kind of state the bodies at the bottom were in – the stench was indication enough. The bodies on top, nearly on level with the path running over the top of the canyon for overseers coming and going, were grey and bloated, eyes and mouth spilling maggots.

‘’Move,’’ Luciana said, sounding like she’d be sick herself, ‘’fucking move.’’

They gladly did.

*~*~*

The night had long since began by the time Jex, exhausted mentally and physically, finally found himself in the forest in Cana Kaale, cupping the city of Mar’murah. He was ready to collapse right there and then but he didn’t dare. He needed to find a place where he’d be safe. He tried not to think about what was going on with Jamael and the assassin by now. He’d long since stopped hearing the sound of the battle.

But now he heard a different sound.

Weeping. Followed by a sharp, quiet ‘shut up’ somewhere close by. And then ‘you shut up’ and more weeping. It sounded like...

‘’Children...’’ Jex breathed and slowed his footsteps, making them quieter, as he approached. Fire crackled nearby and soon enough Jex came upon a clearing where a group of children gathered. He relaxed and walked closer to the fire. As he appeared from the darkness, a girl – long haired and dark skinned who had been sobbing – spotted him and started screaming.

‘’Shush! Shut up!’’ said the first voice Jex had heard and a young boy ran for the girl to clamp his hand over her mouth. Then he spotted Jex and screamed too, ‘’hunter!’’

‘’No, no, no,’’ Jex said quickly, putting his hands up, as he took the kids in – and their double coloured eyes, ‘’I’m not, I’m not! I’m with the assassins.’’

The boy who had screamed looked at him untrustingly but the face of the girl who was crying lit up, ‘’we were trying to find you!’’

Jex winced, ‘’unfortunately, he keep isn’t safe anymore,’’ he frowned. There were six kids all in all, the oldest maybe twelve, ‘’where are your parents?’’

‘’Dead,’’ the girl Jex thought looked oldest said glumly, ‘’are you really an assassin?’’

‘’Uh...yeah, sure,’’ Jex said. He figured trying to explain that he was a thief who tried to kill the assassin King’s son wouldn’t go down well.

The girl who had been crying started weeping again, ‘’we’re gonna dieeeeee...’’ she bawled.

The boy who told her to shut up teared up, too, ‘’mister, do you know any safe places for witches?’’

Oh no, Jex thought, feeling his natural protectiveness for kids rise up in him, ‘’not in Moriya...’’

The oldest girl gave him an uncertain look, ‘’well, could you get us out?’’

Jex tried to tell himself there was no way he could get six young witches to the port Maisdal safely, even as his brain came up with a plan. There was supposed to be a witch drop off by the assassins to the pirates in three days in the port. The assassins wouldn’t be there, not if they were still under siege, but the pirates should be... ‘’right,’’ Jex sighed, ‘’what are your names and ages?’’

‘’I’m Aaliyah,’’ the crying, long haired girl mumbled, ‘’I’m one, two, three, four, five.’’ She rattled off.

‘’Five, okay. You?’’ Jex nodded his head at the oldest girl.

‘’Maha. I’m twelve,’’ she said wearily.

‘’I’m Hadi,’’ the boy who had screamed introduced himself, ‘’I’m ten, but I’ll be eleven soon,’’ he said proudly, ‘’that’s Qadir. He doesn’t talk much but we figured he’s eight,’’ Hadi pointed to a chubby kid staring into the fire. He had dark circles under his eyes – his whole body language screamed trauma. Jex wondered if he’d seen his parents get killed.

‘’I’m Yahya, I’m seven,’’ another boy said quietly. He had another little boy, a silver haired omega, by the hand, ‘’this is my little brother. Go on, introduce yourself.’’

‘’Diya,’’ the boy said around the thumb he was sucking.

‘’And how old are you, Diya?’’ Jex prompted.

Diya pulled his fingers from his mouth and held up three chubby, saliva covered fingers.

‘’Right,’’ Jex tried to remember the names, ‘’Aaliyah, Hadi, Maha, Qadir, Yahya and Diya. I’m Jex. In three days, you’ll be on a ship to a safe place but until then I’m going to keep you alive. First thing first,’’ he pointed towards the bonfire Qadir sat by, ‘’no fires. It’s like a flare telling any hunters where you are.’’

The older kids hurried to put it out. Jex bent down and picked up Diya. He was used to it from his time at the orphanage in Falain, ‘’shall we find a nice place to sleep, hm?’’ he asked in his soft voice that he used with the babies at the orphanage.

Diya stuck his fist back in his mouth and nodded.

Jex sighed to himself, watching Hadi and Maha argue over if the fire was out. All he had to do was keep six brats alive for three days.

Piece of cake.

Chapter Text

 

Author's Note - please look at the end notes!

‘’Most witches have either been disposed, are imprisoned or in hiding. We must get rid of all of them if the plague is to leave us be.’’

Cassian listened to his best friend and didn’t recognise him. Over the winter during which the witch hunts had sparked Niko’s wavy brown hair had grown out. He didn’t bother washing it and instead kept it in a short, greasy ponytail at the back of his head. His usually neat, manly stubble was slowly turning into an old man’s beard. His green eyes were outlined with dark circles. His body was bulging with rock-hard muscle; during the time in which he was not hunting witches he was rigorously training to best fulfil his mission, which he believed he did in the name of the King. Bas was gone most days and so Cassian was left to accompany someone who was quickly becoming a madman, ‘’and you think these people will help you do that?’’ Cassian asked, hurrying to keep up with his friend as they walked around the barracks to the war-camp tent set on the edge of Ashta.

‘’I hope,’’ Niko said, his voice a little...empty. It was as if he’d removed himself from all the suffering he inflicted. Cassian had given up on trying to stop Niko. And he couldn’t abandon him. He couldn’t.

Because he was in love with him.

He had been since they met but he would never tell Niko. He’d take the secret to the grave. But his selfish heart which ignored he suffering Niko inflicted on others would not let him abandon the man he loved.

So Cassian followed Niko through the flaps of the war tent. Lieutenant Kali Dairmuid stood in one corner, eyeing the group of hunters who had reported to the tent and demanded to speak with General Magana. One of the soldiers kept an eye on the hunters from the other end of the tent. A dark skinned woman with short hair stood at the forefront of a group of rag-tag hunters that didn’t smell too good. She inclined her head and something sparked in her eye – something Cassian didn’t like. Something he’d seen in Niko’s eyes, too, ‘’General Magana,’’ the woman said, ‘’it is a pleasure to meet you. We admire your cause. My name is Alda. My hunters are at your disposal.’’

Niko glanced at the group, ‘’I have my hunters,’’ he said calmly.

‘’Oh, but we’re the best,’’ Alda gave Niko a Cheshire grin, ‘’we hunt the witches that matter. The warriors and Elementalists. And,’’ her grin darkened, ‘’we drag information from them.’’

Niko’s eyes narrowed, ‘’about?’’

Alda shrugged innocently, ‘’about...the witch city, for example?’’

Niko stiffened and glanced at Kali and her soldier, ‘’out,’’ he barked.

Kali glanced at the hunters uneasily, ‘’but General-‘’

‘’Out.’’

Kali and her soldier reluctantly slipped from the tent. Niko looked at Alda, ‘’it exists,’’ he stated.

‘’Hire us,’’ Alda spread her arms, gesturing to her hunters, ‘’and all our resources are at your disposal.’’

Niko nodded before Cassian could protest, ‘’fine. But you have to lead me to the witch city.’’

‘’Or,’’ Alda slapped a crumpled piece of parchment onto the war table, ‘’you could lead yourself,’’ she purred.

Niko snatched the parchment up and gazed at the roughly written coordinates. He gave a breathless, crazed grin; finally. Finally, the witches would burn and the world would return to normal. He glanced at Alda, ‘’and the witch who you dragged this out of?’’

With a smirk, Alda reached into her jacket and tossed a long, pale braid onto the table. Indication enough.

Niko nodded his approval as Cassian paled, ‘’Niko, no-‘’

Niko ignored his best friend, ‘’from now on you eradicate the plague in the name of the King.’’

Alda inclined her head, ‘’we are honoured, General.’’

*~*~*

Orin took a deep breath. He stood before the dining room, where he heard Wrath was having late lunch. He clutched the year’s first flowers in his hand. He had to apologise, explain...then it would all be back to normal. He would not give up Wrath – but he wouldn’t give Bren up, either. They could work it all out, if only they talked. Orin nodded at the guards, who opened the doors and Orin marched in. He saw the back of Wrath’s head, his dark hair and his best green tunic that Orin had gifted him once. He rose as the guards announced the entrance of the King. Orin smiled, ready to greet Wrath...

And froze.

Because Wrath was not alone.

‘’Your majesty,’’ Duke Trey Breedlove hurried to stand and bow, ‘’my husband has not informed me you would be joining us for lunch.’’

Orin gave Wrath a heartbroken look. Wrath averted his gaze, ‘’I doubt your husband knew,’’ Orin murmured, dropping the hand that held the flowers.

Trey Breedlove. The thin, frail Duke of Yarah, one of the best astrologers in the kingdom who spent most of his time in solitary in a tower in the middle of nowhere, studying stars. He’d married Wrath before Orin knew him and left his young husband all alone in their estate. Rumour had it that Trey Breedlove did not feel desire for his husband – or for anyone else. When Wrath had been swept away to court Trey, who was a kind man despite all his peculiarities, had been more than happy to pretend it had been arranged with the King as to not stain Wrath’s good name.

And now he was back in court, because Wrath had requested his presence.

‘’Thank you for the invitation to court, your majesty,’’ Trey bowed again.

Orin gave him a thin smile, feeling as if he’d explode in the next three seconds if he didn’t get away from there, ‘’my pleasure...’’ he whispered and fled.

*~*~*

Airen’s hair tumbled down his shoulder in a golden curtain as he ran the comb through it. It was late and he was getting ready for bed, dressed in a white night tunic and linen pants. That’s when Daran, freshly returned from his progress apparently, burst into his husband’s new chambers. Airen hid his surprise behind a scowl, setting the comb down, ‘’have you ever heard of knocking?’’

‘’Have you ever heard of loyalties to your husband?’’ Daran snapped back, closing the doors to Airen’s bedroom and stalking up to him.

Airen sighed, ‘’I did not betray you, for the love of the gods. I’m married to you. I will have a child with you. Any rebellion would dispose of it, and as much as I find the idea of having a family with you repulsive,’’ he slid a hand over his slightly bulging stomach, ‘’innocent children should not be harmed.’’

Airen could have sworn Daran’s eyes softened, ‘’promise me you had nothing to do with the attack in Theia.’’

‘’Does my promise mean anything to you?’’

Airen waited for Daran to deny. Instead, Daran said softly, ‘’it does.’’

Airen sighed to, again, cover his surprise, ‘’fine. I had nothing to do with it. I promise. Now,’’ he rose from the bed, locking eyes with Daran, ‘’I know my mother did something despicable after you pardoned her once, but she is my mother and the grandmother of your child. I will not have her rot in the dungeons.’’

Daran gave him an icy smile – the monster king was back, ‘’right, would you like me to schedule the execution for the morning or for tomorrow night?’’

Airen kissed his teeth, ‘’you will not execute her.’’

‘’Oh? And what is stopping me?’’

‘’This,’’ Airen snapped, grabbing Daran’s hand and pressing it to his own stomach. Daran’s cold blue eyes widened and the mocking expression disappeared into a look of wonder, ‘’this is stopping you. So just...send her to an abbey. So our child doesn’t ever have to find out his father murdered his grandmother.’’

Daran’s eyes were on Airen’s stomach. He moved his hand gently over Airen’s tunic, touching the small bulge, ‘’is it kicking yet?’’

‘’No. Not yet.’’

Daran smiled. A soft smile. Airen hadn’t seen such a smile on him yet, ‘’it’s a boy.’’

Airen rolled his eyes, ‘’how do you know?’’

Daran shrugged, ‘’I can feel it.’’

‘’Well I think it’s a girl,’’ Airen said, yanking Daran’s hand away from his stomach. He was lying. He felt it was a boy, too.

Daran finally looked up at Airen and sighed, ‘’fine. Last chance. I’ll send her to an abbey. If she plots one more time, I will have her executed. I’d rather our child knows I killed his grandmother than that it grows up around a traitor.’’

*~*~*

‘’That’s the palace?’’ Captain Heartman stared up in quiet terror at the massive structure of stone that ruled over Perth.

‘’It’s big enough to hold an army,’’ Merry said, calculating it in his head, ‘’if the Queen barricaded herself in there with an army, they may be undiseased.’’

‘’Thank the gods, some part of this wretched kingdom must be,’’ Venus snapped at his feet.

‘’Don’t spit,’’ Bernhard said mildly to his apprentice.

‘’That’s a big hill,’’ Archana Starteller nodded towards the hill running from the abandoned city to the palace, made up of dead grass. The area was eerily quiet, ‘’we should get going unless we want to camp out here for the night.’’

Raaisel nodded her approval and the party set out through the abandoned, cold houses of the city at the foot of the hill. It was a chilly day but as they hiked up the hill, they grew hot. The insides of their plague masks grew moist and stuffy from their pants; Merry was seriously beginning to envy Raaisel and Kasimira for not having to wear them. Slava and Luciana, the two pirates, had the most difficulty with the hike, unused to living on land much less trekking. Merry, who spent most of his life in the house with his mentors and the smaller portion in a palace wasn’t far ahead of them, either.

By the time they reached the grey stone gate, most of the party were panting and sweating. Even the experienced soldiers – Itzel and General Sarin – and well as the knight Axel had to catch their breath. Or perhaps they were all delaying their entrance through the gate, afraid of what they would find. If they would find anything at all. It was Raaisel who finally stepped up to the gate and attempted to push it. It was sealed shut, ‘’great,’’ Venus said, ‘’what now?’’

‘’Now this,’’ Raaisel said darkly and pressed her hand to the stone gate.

A sound as if an army of people was knocking on the door echoed down the hill and around the castle. Venus shifted uncomfortably at the demonstration of witch power. Raaisel dropped her hand and no one dared to ask her to repeat the hellish knock, even several minutes later. Merry was half-way to gathering enough courage to do it when a figure appeared in the balcony high above the gate. From that distance, Merry saw only a black dress and black hair, ‘’what do you want?’’ the Queen or Rhein called, her voice echoing down to the party thanks to the complete silence.

‘’We have come to see the Queen!’’ Captain Heartman called, ‘’Kainan is in grave danger.’’

Merry saw two pale arms extend as the Queen called down, ‘’and where was Kainan when my kingdom fell?’’

‘’Please, majesty! We need your help!’’ Archana pleaded.

‘’Leave me,’’ the Queen turned from the balcony, ‘’before you all die, too.’’

‘’Your majesty, please!’’ Heartman called desperately, ‘’we...we’ve travelled a long way and King Edlard is with us and-‘’

The Queen turned back around at the balcony, ‘’a royal?’’ she called down, almost curiously, ‘’I have not welcomed a royal in a long while.’’

All eyes turned to Merry. It was his turn – he’d have to convince the Queen or they were all lost, ‘’I’m sure you’ve been very lonely, your majesty,’’ he called, forcing his voice to sound more confident than he felt, ‘’you are a Queen and good manners dictate you welcome me. I would ask for your hospitality, for myself and my friends.’’

The Queen seemed to study him from the great distance, before turning and disappearing from the balcony. Kasimira turned frightened dark eyes to Merry, ‘’what now?’’

‘’Do you sense danger?’’ Merry asked. Kasimira shook her head and Merry looked towards Raaisel, ‘’perhaps we should turn around, then. We could make it back to Yago, soon.’’

‘’Just wait,’’ Raaisel said calmly.

‘’For what?’’

‘’She is coming.’’

The group tensed up and turned back to the palace. I seemed so silent. So abandoned. And yet, maybe twenty minutes later the gate finally moved with an ancient groan as the Queen moved it herself. Merry took her in. Scarily pale and thin, her shoulder blades, collarbones and wrist bones poking out. She wore a thin black gown, completely unsuited for the cold weather of the North. Her dark hair hung in a greasy, thin waterfall down her back. She wore no mask, so her brown eyes and red-painted lips were well visible. Her eyes felt...empty, ‘’welcome to Rhein,’’ she said with a hollow voice, ‘’I am Queen Orwyne Eiris.’’

Merry stepped forward and bowed his head, ‘’I am Edlard Kalinan, the King Consort of Salar,’’ something like recognition flashed in Orwyne’s eyes, so Merry stuck to introducing the more important members of their venture, ‘’these are Captain Sathe Heartman, General Riese Sarin and Lady Archana Starteller.’’

A blank smile graced Orwyne’s lips, ‘’come,’’ she said, ‘’the tea party is ready.’’

Merry and Kasimira exchanged uncertain looks but Raaisel followed the Queen within the palace grounds and the others followed. It took twenty minutes to climb from the gate to the second floor of the empty, cold, dirty palace. Orwyne sat at the head of a large table that must have once held her entire family and the expedition members sat on the chairs down it. Orwyne made no attempt to give them any food or drink, ‘’your majesty,’’ Merry said finally, ‘’where...where is your army?’’

The same blank smile graced Orwyne’s lips, ‘’my army?’’ she repeated and she sounded a little...sad, ‘’they are dead. Everyone is dead,’’ Heartman swore lightly under her breath and the Queen didn’t react. Their venture had been for nothing, ‘’my kingdom is dead. My mothers, my siblings...I was never meant to be Queen. But they all died...’’ her features suddenly twisted into fury, ‘’and the others...they locked us in here. They closed borders. They let us die. This,’’ she gestured around her, ‘’is our coffin.’’

Merry tried to calm her, ‘’Your majesty, we are sorry-‘’

‘’You are sorry?’’ Orwyne spat, ‘’do you even know what happened here? We did not have enough space to bury our dead. The small amount of food that we managed to grow did so from soil under which thousands of bodies decomposed. People died everywhere – in the smallest villages and in here. And I...I watched the all go,’’ Orwyne’s voice quivered and lowered as her too-thin body sank, ‘’because the plague would not take me...’’

And it had driven her mad.

General Sarin cleared his throat, ‘’your majesty, we thank you for the...tea party. Would you be so kind as to allocate some rooms for us?’’

Orwyne looked at him and her eyes clouded over. The blank smile returned to her face, ‘’it would be my pleasure – guests are so rare these days.’’

*~*~*

The morning after Jex ran from the assassin keep was damp and chilly. He awoke around the extinguished fire with the six kids he had promised to protect. Watching their sleeping faces, he didn’t regret it at all. Hadi and Maha, for all their arguing, were curled around each other; Aaliyah, who had cried well into the night, held the hand of Qadir, the trauma child; Yahya slept practically on top of three year old Diya, keeping his little brother warm. Unfortunately, Jex couldn’t let them sleep for long. If they were to survive until the pirate pick up in three days, they’d have to start now.

‘’Come on, wake up. Up you get. No complaints, come on, there’s work to do,’’ Jex went round all the kids, rousing them. They grumbled and yawned and cuddled to keep each other warm in the early morning. The night were cold, especially in the spring, though the days would get hot – they needed a shielded place to sleep in for two nights.

‘’Is there breakfast?’’ five year old Aaliyah asked in a voice hoarse from crying.

Jex bit his lip, ‘’there is,’’ he lied, ‘’but only after we find a nice place to sleep in, okay?’’

Maha raised her eyebrow, ‘’you want us to do the work before food? Where are we meant to get our energy from?’’ she demanded.

Jex flicked the forehead of the twelve year old, ‘’clearly, you have enough energy. Come on, kids; Maha, carry Diya if he gets tired.’’

‘’Why me!? Yahya is his brother!’’

‘’Because you’re the oldest,’’ Jex said seriously, ‘’and you need to take care of all the kids, because you’re the responsible one.’’

‘’Hey!’’ ten year old Hadi protested, ‘’I’m big, too! I’ll carry Diya!’’

‘’No,’’ Maha cut in quickly, not wanting to be one-upped by the younger boy, ‘’I’ll do it.’’

‘’Great, that’s sorted,’’ Jex kept back a chuckle, ‘’now, we go deeper into the forest. If you find a place you think would be hidden enough to be safe from the elements, let me know,’’ they set out into the forest.

The kids bickered and joked. Aaliyah started crying for her parents at one point and Jex had to pick her up and tell her stories about fairies living in forests so her wails wouldn’t attract any passerby’s, though there were likely none in the forest. At least taking care of the kids kept Jex’s mind off the assassin keep – and off wondering whether it still existed. He already knew that once he got the kids safely to the pirates, he’d go back to the keep. For now, he pushed Jamael out of his head.

In the end it was the mute Qadir who found their new temporary home. He pointed to a couple massive, ancient trees. From the way they came, it was impossible to spot the large clearing the trees hid between them. Jex did a quick round, checking if it was visible from any other angle – it wasn’t, ‘’damn, Qadir, how did you spot this place?’’ Jex laughed.

The eight year old shrugged but Aaliyah squeezed his hand, ‘’Qadi is really smart.’’

‘’Right, kids. We need to make this place a little more homey, don’t ya think?’’ Jex asked with a grin. The kids grinned back, ‘’Aaliyah, Hadi, I want you to find big branches; Maha and Qadir, you’re in charge of as much leaves and greenery as you can find; Yahya, you’ll be on watch – make sure to look after Diya. I’m going to get us our breakfast. Make sure to be quiet, and if you see someone – hide.’’

The kids dispersed and Jex walked off. They had munched through the provisions Jamael had given Jex last evening after the fire was put out, so Jex was left to his own resources. He slipped his dagger out from his belt and ventured deeper into the forest. He hoped for something big, like a deer, but in the end he found two rabbits. He climbed a couple trees and found a couple handfuls of small bird eggs. He climbed back down the trees and skinned the rabbits where he was – he doubted the kids would be too happy seeing two cute, dead rabbits.

He returned victorious to their campsite. They started a fire a ten minute walk from their camp site, for safety, and Jex cooked the rabbits over it as quickly as possible. He kept the eggs to fry on a heated stone in the evening for supper. He ate little himself – the kids had a raging appetite and two rabbits were hardly a feast, but Jex promised to go looking for more later.

It was late morning by the time they finally got a move on their campsite and afternoon was well underway by the time they were done. They had made a makeshift roof and walls from bark and branches, using the trees as pillars, and used the leaves and moss to stuff the bottom of their makeshift hut for comfort. That night, after the eggs and a couple birds Jex managed to get thanks to his silent thieving skills, they all settled down on the moss. It was dark, but the kids were nowhere near as scared as they had been alone. Jex wouldn’t let himself be scared – he had people to protect now. The little witches all somehow found a way to cuddle up to him, but Jex found that he didn’t mind.

They had made it through day one and that was all that counted.

*~*~*

Mair’s team had been tense and silent since they left Koln, with Elspeth’s blessing and provisions, which had been nearly a day ago. They were steadily making their way to Waycross but even if Solin wasn’t as dangerous as Hailbronn, they were still on edge. After Nythil’s death, none of them felt like talking much. Mair would have expected Arlana to be the most sensitive, but she seemed the strongest mentally. She had a connection with everything that was alive and proved surprising instinctive – she held Mair’s hand at one point when during the trek she felt like she would break down, lost in thoughts about Nythil; she pulled Fynn into a conversation after offering him water at the end of which he offered her a tentative smile; for most of the journey, she walked by Mardin, just so he knew he wasn’t alone. But none of her instincts prevented the second chase.

‘’Shit,’’ Rain just randomly stopped suddenly, when they were halfway through their careful trek around Rethymon, the capital of Solin, ‘’someone’s tracking us.’’

‘’You’re kidding,’’ Fynn paled.

Mair made a split-second decision, ‘’run,’’ she grabbed Mardin by the hand and started sprinting towards the forest in the distance to their left. It was off course but it would provide cover. Her friends didn’t argue and followed her. Twenty minutes later, the witches burst into the line of trees, ‘’stay together,’’ Mair said, out of breath. For a good ten minutes, they stood within the trees, clustered together. Arlana had her bow drawn, even though she had no arrows; Rain had his hammer. A nearby crack of a twig made all the witches tense up. Mair held her breath. This time they were not losing anyone, but if they could avoid a fight by staying quiet...

‘’Sorry,’’ a familiar voice said sheepishly, ‘’we probably should have said we’re the good guys.’’

Mair’s eyes filled with tears before she even turned, ‘’mother,’’ she chocked out, whirled round and threw herself at Elysia Amato.

Elysia laughed, holding her daughter to her tightly, ‘’hey, kiddo. Elspeth notified us that you might need some help.’’

‘’Ay, it really was Mair!’’ someone said and bandits – at least two dozen – broke through the trees. Rain and Arlana relaxed.

‘’Dante! Rhett!’’ Mair hugged her mother’s sworn brothers and then went to her god-father, ‘’Alden!’’ she threw her arms around her.

‘’We heard you had a very important mission,’’ Elysia nodded at the witches, ‘’and we love important mission,’’ she added with a grin, ‘’so we’re here to make sure you get to the pick-up point safely.’’

‘’Whose picking us up?’’ Mair frowned.

Elysia’s grin widened, ‘’why, our best friends the pirates!’’

*~*~*

‘’Dav, your baby is crying again,’’ Mr Sawyer said from the corner of his mouth. The man behind the bar at the Cathouse – a witchling with the ability to hide his double coloured eyes – slipped out and ran up the stairs following the cries of his three month old infant. The customers, having curiously looked at Dav running, turned back to the Cats entertaining them. The Cats had been feeding customers lies that the child was Mr Sawyer’s nephew come to visit and Dav was his nanny. In reality, Dav and his child barely escaped the house that had been set on fire by vengeful villagers, in which Dav’s partner perished – and they would be gone by the end of the week. The Cats were meant to wait for pick-ups until the first day of the month, but a baby was hard to find, and if they had a raid and the baby started crying... they had to wait until the end of the week because the pirates had arranged another pick up with the bandits from Solin first.

Soren looked out of the window at the darkening sky. The man in front of him tucked a finger under his chin and turned his face back towards him, ‘’do I bore you?’’ he asked gently.

Soren smiled dreamily, ‘’of course not. The sky is beautiful, don’t you think?’’

‘’The sky is the sky. What’s beautiful,’’ his customer leaned forward, ‘’is you...’’ he murmured, kissing the tip of Soren's nose.

The Cat was quickly developing the persona of an aloof, dreamy creature, whose attention customers could only hope to capture. He looked like he was spacing out when he looked out of the window, when in fact he was monitoring the smoke rising from a house too close for comfort. Hunters were on the prowl in Ashta again, but the Cats couldn’t exactly send their customers away. That would look suspicious. Instead, they pretended like they had nothing to hide and prayed Dav’s baby would shut up.

‘’How sweet of you,’’ Soren murmured, kissing the customer back. The man slid his hands gently over Soren’s hips. Soren’s persona, usually, made customers want to cherish and spoil him. He was ‘soft as a cloud, sweet as honey’, as Mr Sawyer advertised him. Usually, he got off pretty good – lounging in bed while he was kissed, attended to and taken care of. He mostly faked soft, breathy moans, and gave gentle, shy smiles when he gave blowjobs. Sometimes there were customers who relished in his faked innocence and did everything to make him scream and cry. Sometimes that involved belts, sometimes fists, sometimes other things. But the customer at that time didn’t seem like he’d be a problem.

A sudden commotion at the establishment opposite the Cathouse made the flirting in the room stop. Soren’s customer stopped kissing him and looked out of the window. Soren did the same and gasped.

A dark skinned huntress dragged a woman out of the building by her hair. The woman kicked out and screamed, ‘’this,’’ the huntress yelled, loud enough for the dwellers of the Cathouse to hear – for the whole street to hear, ‘’is what happens to those who harbour witches!’’ and then she stabbed the woman with a dagger, still holding her by her hair. The woman screeched as the huntress stabbed her again and again, missing vital organs. Her hunters cheered behind her until finally the woman went still, her glazed eyes open.

‘’Oh gods,’’ the customer whispered, petrified, pulling away from Soren, not interested anymore. He hurried to snatch his cloak from the peg and then out through the back exit of the Cathouse. Other customers followed suit.

Red haired Ardis grabbed Sawyer’s muscular bicep when the last of the customers fled, ‘’they’ll find them,’’ she hissed, ‘’they’ll find Dav and his kid and they’ll kill us.’’

‘’Who are they?’’ Jeane asked, frightened.

‘’General Magana’s new hunters,’’ Arlen’s voice was clipped, ‘’Lucio-‘’

‘’Don’t even try telling me to leave,’’ Lucio said, ‘’I’m staying here, whether we all die or not.’’

‘’We won’t,’’ Ardis said suddenly, ‘’I’m getting Dav and his kid out of here.’’

The Cats turned to stare at her, ‘’you’re kidding,’’ Cyril whispered.

‘’Back entrance,’’ Ardis said, determined, ‘’if they come in here, they won’t find anything and we will have time to run. If we stay here we risk too much – we risk their lives as well as ours.’’

They all gaped – but she was right. Sawyer gave her a sad smile, ‘’I have to give you a raise after this.’’

Ardis grinned, ‘’yeah, you do,’’ she turned to the stairs, ‘’come, we must get them ready.’’

*~*~*

‘’Airen Moreland,’’ Brannen reiterated, raising an eyebrow at his father as his hand fluttered over his still aching arm, ‘’took requests and complaints from our people.’’

A small intimate banquet was held at the Arhanese palace in celebration of the return of Daran, Brannen and Kane, and Airleas’ two oldest boys were clustered around him by a column as he re-counted what happened when they were away, ‘’they are his people now too,’’ Airleas said gently to his sons.

Daran felt as shocked as his brother felt. Airen always looked at Daran with so much hatred it was hard to imagine that he’d be kind to Daran’s people. Was that all part of a wider plan? Was he trying to one-up the monster king, to raise a revolt? Daran glanced towards Airen, standing in the corner of the room, engaged in polite conversation with King Father Kane. He couldn’t figure him out. Daran’s eyes shifted to Faeryn, walking with a goblet of water by them to get to her brother.

As fast as a striking viper, Brannen’s hand shot out and grasped her wrist. She gasped as Airleas’ eyes widened, ‘’Brannen, unhand the lady-‘’

‘’Your brother says he had nothing to do with the attack on Daran,’’ Brannen said. His voice held a strangely desperate edge Daran was not used to hearing from him, ‘’what about you?’’ he seemed to be almost...pleading.

Faeryn’s dark blue eyes were wide, frightened, but she managed an unsteady curtsy, one wrist clutched in Brannen’s hand, her other hand holding the goblet of water, ‘’our mother walked alone, your grace.’’

Brannen studied her with burning eyes for a long while, until eventually his father placed a calming hand on his shoulder, ‘’Brannen, that is impolite.’’

Brannen released Faeryn, ‘’forgive me,’’ he said curtly.

She curtsied again and hurried away. Brannen’s dark eyes followed her. Daran gave his brother a look, ‘’you need to be less obvious.’’

Brannen quickly looked away, ‘’I have no idea what you’re talking about.’’

*~*~*

‘’That Queen is creepy,’’ Venus muttered from where he sat on the windowsill of the dirty, spacious guest room the expedition had been assigned. Kip, the omega guard who stuck to him like glue, narrowed his eyes at his insult for a royal.

‘’This place is creepy,’’ Itzel pointed out from the floor where she was polishing her sword; none of them dared take their masks off in a place reeking of so much death, ‘’I’m not surprised she went crazy if she’s been here all alone.’’ 

‘’Never mind that,’’ Heartman said. For the first time since Merry met her, she seemed frightened, ‘’what are we going to do? This expedition was a waste of time. There is no army that could aid the witches here.’’

‘’We need to leave at dawn,’’ Merry said quickly, ‘’Yago is waiting for us at Calahoun.’’

Kasimira shuddered, ‘’just the thought of having to get past the Moracay Canyon again makes me sick.’’

‘’That’s the only way,’’ Raaisel said calmly, ‘’but we will not leave that quickly.’’

Itzel’s eyes widened, ‘’but Yago-‘’

‘’If he isn’t dead by now from infection,’’ Raaisel’s voice remained creepily calm, ‘’then he will survive a day longer without us there. And I have further business with the Queen.’’

‘’Oh, hell no,’’ Venus jumped down from the window, shoving Kip out of the way with one wiry, muscled shoulder. His voice, muffled by his mask, was angry, ‘’Bernhard and I won’t stay here any longer than we need to. Right, Bern?’’ Merry glanced at Venus’ master, who had collapsed in one of the rocky, rotting chairs in the guest room when they had arrived. He remained silent, staring ahead. Merry only now noticed the raspy quality of his breathing through his mask. Venus’ voice went from angry to vulnerable, ‘’B-Bern?’’

‘’Hey,’’ General Sarin clapped the man on the back, concerned.

It happened very quickly.

Bernhard grabbed his plague mask and ripped it off, snapping the leather straps, fell to his knees and threw up black blood. Kasimira screamed and stumbled back. Merry paled. Venus flew to his master and fell to his knees by him as he dry heaved, ‘’Bern!’’ he reached out a hand.

Kip was there in a second, grabbing his arm and pulling it away, ‘’don’t touch him!’’

Venus growled at the guard, yanking his arm out of Kip’s grip, but before he could reach for his master, General Sarin said with dread, ‘’don’t, Venus. Kip is right,’’ he pointed at the back of Bernhard’s neck, ‘’look.’’

When Venus didn’t move, staring at the puddle of black blood as Bernhard wiped his mouth, panting, Merry edged towards the criminal and peered at the back of his neck. His eyes widened at the small trail of circular, small boils growing from blackened skin. Soon, the boils would cover Bernhard’s entire body, ‘’he’s got the plague...’’ Merry whispered.

‘’Ah, damn,’’ Bernhard sat back on his heels. He looked tired but he offered Venus a miserable grin as his apprentice started shaking his head, ‘’I feared that’s what the tiredness was,’’ he glanced at Merry, ‘’is it advanced?’’

‘’No...’’ Merry breathed.

‘’Good,’’ Bernhard struggled to his feet, ‘’let’s keep it that way.’’

‘’No, Bern-‘’ Venus lunged for his master.

Bernhard held up a hand, halting him, ‘’it’s the end of the line, kid. We knew what we signed up for, and it wouldn’t be the plague if one of us didn’t catch it,’’ he gave Venus a fatherly smile, ‘’I want you to do it, kid.’’

Venus shook his head, ‘’no, a cure-‘’

‘’There is no cure,’’ Bernhard said.

‘’How can you be so calm!?’’ Venus demanded, getting more wound up. He’d been an orphan and a petty thief his whole life; Bern had been the first person to take him under his wing. Venus looked desperately around the group, ‘’there has to be a way...we can’t just...he can’t die...’’

Bern exchanged a look with Captain Heartman and nodded lightly. Heartman gave Venus a sad look, ‘’Venus, Bernhard was going to die anyway.’’

Venus stared at her, ‘’no...no, he’s on parole-‘’

‘’He’s a murderer,’’ Heartman said calmly, ‘’he’s on parole for you. So you’d get pardoned when we get back. Bernhard was always going to hang, whether he survived this expedition or not.’’

Venus’ eyes clouded with hatred, ‘’you lied-‘’

‘’They didn’t, kid,’’ Bernhard said, almost gently, ‘’I always knew of this arrangement. There is no point in fighting right now. You need to stick together if you’re to make it back safely,’’ Bern nodded at Heartman, who drew out her sword and extended it to Venus, ‘’please, kid. I want you to put me down.’’

Venus’ lip wobbled. For all his tough exterior, he’d never been good at hiding emotion, ‘’w-why?’’

Bern gave him a tired grin, ‘’cause I like you the most.’’

A few minutes later Merry and the others were crowded around the dusty window, looking out into the courtyard. Kip trailed after Venus, not trusting him, especially now that he wielded Heartman’s sword. Merry watched him say goodbye to Bernhard. He would have helped with the burial, but after Drest, he didn’t think he could take it. He watched as Bern got on his knees. He waited for Venus to angle his sword, to, probably, count himself down, to hesitate. Instead, a startled cry ripped itself out of Merry’s throat as Venus, down below in the courtyard, swung the sword and took Bern’s head straight off. For a second, Merry was okay – he saw Venus whirl round, drop the sword and run for Kip, desperate for consolation as he gathered the omega guard to him and sobbed into his shoulder. Kip seemed surprised but he patted Venus’ back, a little awkwardly but comfortingly nonetheless.

And then suddenly, Merry glanced at Bern’s body – the second body he saw in a short period of time – and vomit rose in his throat. He fell to his knees and threw up. Kasimira and Heartman fell down by him, gathering his fringe out of his forehead and rubbing his back.

Luciana wrinkled her nose, ‘’can we find a different room?’’

*~*~*

Ardis had been gone for a good half an hour, with Dav and his baby. Still, Soren couldn’t relax. The hunters had ignored the Cathouse tonight, since it got raided so often, but they loitered on the street, dragging people out of their houses. They beat a few up, seemingly for fun, and killed a couple more, preaching about the fate of those who aided witches. Arlen squeezed Soren’s shoulder from where they watched the street through the window, ‘’relax. Ardis is long gone by now.’’

‘’I’ll relax when she’s back,’’ Soren muttered around his thumb, the pad of which he had been nervously biting for the last half an hour. He wished Bas was here. He didn’t even try to convince himself otherwise. Bas was strong and calm and intelligent. It felt that with him there, nothing bad could happen. But Bas was not there and neither was Ardis, and the hunters were still out in the streets. They didn’t find any actual witches, and they were getting agitated.

‘’Step away from the window,’’ Mr Sawyer said numbly. Over the last weeks, he seemed to have shrivelled up a little.

The Cats obediently turned from the window.

And that’s when the joyful, muffled cry reached them, ‘’we found the plague-makers!’’

Soren whirled back to the window just as a struggling, red haired Ardis was dragged towards the leader of the hunters – followed by Dav, desperately clutching his child, ‘’we found them running for Darien!’’

The huntress in charge cried out in glee, ‘’traitors to King Morten and his trusted General!’’ she grabbed Ardis, who spat in her face. The huntress’ slap cracked across her face, ‘’and what have we here? A baby monster!’’ she tossed Ardis to one of her hunters, who kept her in place as the huntress snatched Dav’s baby off him. Tears were running down Dav’s face as he desperately tried to reach his infant, ‘’our duty is to eradicate the plague makers before they blossom!’’ she cried, loud enough for the whole street to hear.

And threw the infant against the cobblestones.

Dav’s scream ripped the air open. Blood splattered as his baby’s head cracked against the ground and its cries cut off abruptly. Lucio gave a muffled scream and whirled round, burying himself in Arlen’s chest. Arlen immediately folded his arms around him, cradling him while staring at the window with wide, shocked eyes.

The huntress gestured to her hunters who produced ropes and went up to the shoe makers, throwing both ropes over the bolt extended from the building with the sign hanging off it. Soren whirled on Mr Sawyer, ‘’we have to help them! They’re going to die!’’

Sawyer closed his eyes briefly, ‘’Ardis knew what she was doing.’’

Dav’s curses and heartbroken screams filled the street as his rage reached its pinnacle. The witchling struggled alongside Ardis as he they were dragged to where the two ropes hung, ‘’Mr Sawyer!’’ Arlen barked, still holding a silently sobbing Lucio to his chest, ‘’she’s a Cat!’’

Mr Sawyer gave them a strong, commanding look – they hadn’t seen it in the last couple of weeks, ‘’the Citadel needs us, and we are no use to them if we are all dead,’’ his eyes softened as he looked at his Cats, ‘’we lose this battle, but we win the next,’’ he turned to the window gravely, ‘’we lose Ardis today, tomorrow we save a hundred lives.’’

Soren knew that what Sawyer said made sense but he felt his heart shatter. He began sobbing. Arlen grabbed his arm and pulled him against his chest, next to the sobbing Lucio, too, stroking his hair and making shushing noises. The Cats had never felt so powerless. The rest of them watched as the hunters roughly, violently, tied the ropes around the necks of Ardis and Dav. There were no nooses; the ropes dug into their necks like cruel chokers. The Cats watched on, staring straight at them – letting them know they were not alone in the only way they could. And still they watched, as two hunters yanked on the ropes and raised Dav and Ardis into the air. The two kicked their legs desperately. A few of those who had been dragged out of their houses made signs to the gods in their name.

And then the kicking stopped.

Slowly, night fell. One by one, the Cats retreated from the window. The hunters eventually left, too, promising death for anyone who dared to take down the bodies of Dav and Ardis. Eventually, the people on the streets dispersed, leaving the two bodies hanging in the darkness. Only Soren remained by the window and when everyone was gone, he snuck out onto the street. He found the broken body of the baby and picked it up. His hands immediately became sticky with blood. Soren didn’t look down at the tiny witch as he carried him around the Cathouse. He had no shovel; he dug a shallow grave with his hands in the frozen earth and lay the poor baby inside. He fashioned a cross from two sticks and tied it with the ribbon that he had adorned his neck with, tucking it into the earth.

He said a short prayer over the grave, swearing that he’d make General Magana pay.

*~*~*

‘’Cassia Blackwood,’’ Elysia grinned as Cassia climbed out of the small boat, wincing as her back cracked.

‘’Ah, it’s my favourite bandit,’’ Cassia said with a sarcastic grin.

‘’You hate bandits.’’

‘’Exactly.’’

Nonetheless, Cassia approached Elysia, at the head of the bandit party, and clasped her forearm, ‘’you were so adamant about never returning to pirating. And look at you now.’’

‘’Yes, well...’’ Cassia gave her a pointed look, ‘’desperate times call for desperate measures,’’ she gave Elysia a sad smile, ‘’I just wish that I had gotten to see Kleia one more time...before she...’’

‘’She was a good Pirate Queen,’’ Elysia said, ‘’and Sharpe Blackwood is a good King, too. She has chosen well.’’

‘’That she had,’’ Cassia and nodded and extended her arms to Mair, ‘’hello, witch.’’

‘’Hi, aunty,’’ Mair hugged Cassia hard. Mair’s mothers, King Edgar and his husband Arne had stayed friends for life after their mission to save the world from a witch cult in their youth. Mair had grown up around Soren as much as bandit kids, and she visited Cassia in her hut by the cliff at least once a year, before the plague struck, ‘’you look great.’’

‘’And you’ve grown so much. Blood hell, what is Amaria feeding you?’’ Cassia chuckled, patting Mair’s back. They pulled apart and Cassia turned to the rest of the witches, ‘’I take it we’re to transport you to the island of Kai.’’

‘’That would be very kind of you,’’ Arlana said gravelly.

Cassia nodded at the boat, ‘’come, then. The pirates are not patient – and these days, we have a lot of other commitments.’’

Chapter Text

After what happened with Ardis, Dav and his baby, Soren was reluctant to stay within the Citadel but he knew he couldn’t stop now. The next witch that came into the Cathouse was a kid, this time about four years old and probably Arhanese. It made Soren physically sick to think about how they’d get him out of Ashta if the hunters returned. But he would not quit. Ardis had died for the cause and she had been a Cat – the rest of them would finish the job, even if it took years. Which didn’t make seeing Ardis’ slowly rotting body swinging from the building outside any less painful. Too afraid of the wrath of the hunters, no one dared to take down the body. Slowly, the rest of the snow melted and now outside it was more miserable than during the winter. The empty streets ran with muddy sludge; without the snow to freeze it, the stench of death, decay and faeces permeated the area. Soren was too afraid to walk out and face Ardis’ body. So for five days straight he stayed inside the Cathouse, sending a message to his mother that he was with a friend, helping with funeral arrangements for someone who had died. Nobody did funerals anymore but Soren had, of course, not given her the return address to the Cathouse so there wasn’t much Alys Sparrow could do. Soren hated making her worry but he just couldn’t go outside with Ardis hanging there, a sign of their failure.

Five days after the attack of the hunters, General Bas returned.

‘’They should not be hanging here!’’ he bellowed, so loudly people poked their heads out of their shuttered windows, despite the plague mask on his face. Soren, too, ran to one of the windows to see the dark haired General take down the bodies of Ardis and Dav. Two soldiers helped him. Behind them was Lieutenant Kali Dairmuid. She looked slightly sick.

‘’Blasphemy!’’ she yelled, disgusted, ‘’those goddamn hunters...’’

A sliver of hope sprung up in Soren. It looked like at least some of the army wasn’t too happy with what General Magana and his hunters were doing. Perhaps it wouldn’t be too long before all of this was over, ‘’bury them at the church,’’ Soren heard Bas say through the open window. The soldiers and Lieutenant Kali took Dav’s and Ardis’ rotting bodies and hurried away. As soon as they disappeared around the corner and the people lost interest, hiding back inside their houses, Bas crossed the sludgy cobblestone street and walked towards the doors to the Cathouse. Soren sprung to them and yanked them open, letting Bas in.

‘’General...’’ Soren said, relieved.

Bas quickly closed the doors behind him and yanked his mask off. His eyes were sad, ‘’I’m glad you’re safe. I’m sorry about what happened with Ardis,’’ he said quietly, but then was all business, ‘’Mr Sawyer sent word that you have a witch here. I came as fast as I could.’’

Soren nodded, grateful that someone had finally buried Ardis and Dav like they deserved, ‘’it’s just a kid.’’

‘’I think Ni- General Magana is onto us,’’ Bas said carefully, glancing around to make sure no customers were present, ‘’or at least he suspects there’s a witch hideout in Ashta. I was present at the meeting yesterday. He plans on sending a group of hunters under a woman called Alda here periodically, without a warning. They think they’ll wear us down.’’

Soren paled, ‘’so this place isn’t safe anymore...’’

‘’We need to let the Citadel know,’’ Bas said gravelly, ‘’and we must get that witch out of here.’’

Soren thought about the four year old hiding upstairs. He would not have another child die, witch or human, ‘’tonight,’’ he said, gaining some colour back into his face.

Bas nodded, ‘’meet me by the chapel tonight at midnight, with the witch. I’ll be waiting, ready to take them over the border.’’

Soren nodded, and then looked hesitantly at Bas. He was risking so much, being so close to the enemy. He had the highest chance of getting caught, ‘’be careful,’’ Soren said feebly.

Bas’ face softened and he reached out, caressing Soren’s face with the back of his hand, ‘’you, too,’’ he murmured. The General dropped his hand, ‘’I’ll see you tonight.’’

‘’Yes.’’

Then Bas was gone, out of the doors and down the muddy street.

*~*~*

Wrath angled the bow and pointed it at the tree, eyes narrowing as he pulled back the string, ready to let it fly loose. Spring was finally upon Kainan and Wrath was able to escape the palace under the pretext of hunting. He’d ridden out far into the forest of Koln, the trees finally a vibrant green, the snow a distant memory. Still, his thoughts were jumbled. He’d never gone so long without spending his time around Orin and Bren was always on his mind right alongside the King. Wrath kissed his teeth, impatient, adjusted his aim and fired.

The arrow hit the bark of the tree with a defeated thump.

The bird Wrath had been aiming for flew away in a flutter of iridescent wings. Wrath sighed and lowered his bow.

A branch crunched behind him, loudly and obviously.

Wrath whipped around, bow drawn once again; the tip of his quickly knocked arrow now pointed at the terrified face of Bren. Wrath made an impatient noise and lowered the bow, ‘’it’s just you,’’ he observed dryly.

‘’Yes,’’ Bren shuffled from one foot to the other, ‘’just...me.’’

Wrath felt a painful squeeze in his chest. He wished he could avoid Orin and Bren for the rest of his life. He wished he had the courage to get out of the palace and return to that empty, cold estate that belonged to his husband, ‘’did you follow me here?’’ Wrath asked numbly. Every time he saw either Orin or Brín, this strange sadness overtook him. Like he was looking at something he could never have. Right now, he felt like crawling into a hole and sleeping for a hundred years. When Bren didn’t reply, Wrath shook his head and turned away from him, ‘’you should remember your place,’’ it was so much easier abusing his status than facing Bren.

‘’Wait, Wrath-‘’ Bren skirted around the Archduke quickly and came to a stop right in front of him. For a second, Wrath’s train of thought came to a halt. Bren was just so heart-achingly beautiful. But then Wrath remembered himself.

‘’How many times do I have to tell you?’’ he snapped, ‘’it’s-‘’

‘’Your grace,’’ Bren amended quickly and Wrath gritted his teeth. Even the sound of Bren’s voice scrambled his insides, ‘’I want to apologise.’’

Wrath gave a mirthless snort and walked around Bren, as if he was a branch of a nearby tree and not the most beautiful boy Wrath had ever seen, ‘’spare me. I do not care for your apologies.’’

Again, Bren rose up in front of Wrath. This time he grabbed his wrist, as if his feeble body was any match for Wrath’s, ‘’but you will hear it,’’ Bren said with surprising strength in his voice that immediately made Wrath turn defensive.

‘’You are stepping out of line-‘’

‘’I don’t care!’’ it was the first time Wrath had ever heard Bren snap and he flinched. Bren’s voice immediately softened to something that sounded as broken and lost as Wrath felt, ‘’you’re killing yourself...’’

Wrath pulled his wrist out of Bren’s grip, ‘’you’re reading into it too much,’’ he stormed past Bren one more time, this time to cover his anguished expression, ‘’go back to the palace, Bren. You have what you wanted. You have Orin.’’

This time Bren didn’t charge to keep up with Wrath. Instead, his broken-hearted voice reached the Archduke and made him stop, ‘’he loves you.’’

Wrath wanted to keep walking. Instead, his body swivelled around all by himself, ‘’and what about you?’’ he demanded, voice cracking.

Bren’s lip trembled but his voice was steady, ‘’it doesn’t matter what I feel.’’

‘’Do you love him?’’ Wrath’s eyes stung.

‘’It doesn’t matter,’’ Bren whispered.

‘’Do you love...me?’’ Wrath’s voice cracked again.

Bren raised his beautiful, anguished eyes up at to the Archduke, ‘’it doesn’t matter what I feel,’’ he repeated softly, ‘’I just want you two to be happy. Like you were before I came. If that’s what it takes, then I’ll leave, I’ll-‘’

But Wrath shook his head, shocked that his first instinct had been to lunge forward and cry ‘NO!’ at the very idea of Bren disappearing, ‘’this isn’t how this works, Wicker,’’ he started backing away, feeling as if his heart was being ripped out of his chest, ‘’go back to the palace.’’

He turned and disappeared between the trees.

*~*~*

King Daran Eiris was turning twenty three and Airen was using the commotion to see his mother.

Daran had strictly forbidden Airen from doing so after he returned from progress and so for a good two weeks, Airen did not see or speak to his mother. The staircase leading down the dungeons was heavily guarded at all times (Airen knew – he walked past there a couple times to check, under the pretext that the walking was good for the baby) and the servants could not be trusted to keep their mouths shut and deliver a message. None of them liked Yame-born Airen and the last thing the young consort needed was for Daran to think he was plotting against him.

He wasn’t.

He just wanted to speak to his mother.

It wasn’t as if the dungeons weren’t as heavily guarded as usually during the feast in Daran’s honour, but everyone important was gathered in the banquet hall – which meant that when Airen excused himself under the pretext of feeling tired, no one would bother coming to check up on him like they usually did when not busy drinking and discussing politics in the great hall. Airen’s determination was fuelled by that morning’s conversation with the King Father Airleas, who told him to be nice to Daran as today was his special day (pfft, as if).

So Airen walked at a luxurious pace down the corridor. He recognised the guards at the staircase leading to the dark and cold dungeons; he’d passed them a couple of times on his walks. They didn’t look surprised to see him. They inclined their heads. Airen offered them a small smile and turned from his usual pathway to come to a stop before them. Now the guards looked confused, glancing at each other, ‘’Ah...h-hello,’’ Airen said, putting on a perfect ‘shy, delicate Yame boy’ facade on, ‘’there was some wonderful food at the feast and I thought it would be high time that I get to know some of the palace staff,’’ he produced a cloth within which were a couple of tarts, ‘’I thought you might like some?’’

The guards exchanged looks again, ‘’we really shouldn’t, your majesty.’’

‘’We are on duty, but we thank you.’’

‘’Oh,’’ Airen gave a sheepish grin, steeling himself for the next part of the charade, ‘’I just thought-‘’ he gasped and relaxed his hand so that the cloth and the tarts toppled to the floor. With eyes wide with terror, he clutched his stomach. He made himself breathe fast and erratic, looking around in panic. A couple of winces later he had both guards at his side, too terrified to touch him.

‘’Your majesty, what is going on!?’’ one of them cried. They might have been seasoned warriors like most of the palace staff but when it came to children, they were in the dark.

‘’The baby...’’ Airen rasped out in what he hoped was a convincingly pained tone, ‘’something is wrong...’’

‘’I-I’ll go get the physician...’’ one of the guards said, looking eager to do anything but get away from something outside of his control.

‘’Please...’’ Airen nodded gratefully, bent nearly in half with his fake pain. The baby was, of course, completely fine, though there was a small persistent kick, as if it knew what was going on and disapproved of being used in such a way. The guard hurried down the hall. Meanwhile, Airen leaned on the other one, ‘’I need to sit...’’ he panted.

‘’Of course,’’ the guard took hold of Airen’s elbow and lead him over to the staircase, propping him up against the wall. His eyes kept shifting in worry to Airen’s legs, as if he’d start bleeding at any moment. All the panting was making Airen dizzy. He looked up at the guard with pleading eyes, ‘’water...’’

The guard looked uncertain, ‘’I shouldn’t leave you alone, your majesty-‘’

Airen gave a hopefully convincing cry and clutched his stomach, ‘’please!’’ he begged.

‘’R-right,’’ the guard hovered a second longer but then went charging the opposite way, to the kitchens.

As soon as he disappeared around the corner, Airen stood, breathing normally. He had maybe five minutes before both the guards reached their destinations and then came back with the physician and the water. He didn’t hesitate as he hurried down the dark staircase into the gloom.

The dungeon glowed faintly with a couple fiery braziers and the cells were all empty save for the one holding Marietta Moreland; clearly, she was the most frequent inhabitant. As soon as she saw Airen descending the stairs, she shot to her feet and ran to the doors, grabbing the bars, ‘’Airen!’’ she cried in a hushed whisper. She looked like she’d been trekking through the Arhanese wintry landscape for the last two weeks. Her face was pale and pasty and she had lost a lot of weight; her hair was a tangled mess and her eyes had an unhealthy, worrying glow. The glow of a madman.

Still, Airen went to her, ‘’mother,’’ he said, touching one of her hands clutched on the iron bar. It was deathly cold, ‘’why did you do it?’’ he asked in a whisper, ‘’you knew this time I couldn’t get you out.’’

Marietta did not answer his question. Instead, her eyes burned brighter with that terrifying light, ‘’we may have failed now but Yame believes in us,’’ she whispered heatedly, ‘’they support your claim to the throne, Airen. All you must do is call for them and they shall answer,’’ her eyes fell to Airen’s bump and her face twisted in distaste, ‘’and the spawn of the monster king...we do not need it anymore. It will only make you seem like you are on their side.’’

‘’Mother-‘’

Marietta didn’t listen. She grabbed Airen’s hand and pinned it to the iron bar painfully, ‘’pennyroyal, mugwort and vervain will get rid of it nice and easy. You won’t feel a thing!’’

Airen ripped his hand away and stumbled back. He put a hand protectively over his bump. Even if it was Daran’s child, it was still a child, ‘’mother, this is your grandchild!’’ he said, appalled.

‘’It is a beast. It will grow to be like him. Violent, cruel...do you want to give birth to a monster?’’

Airen pressed his other hand to his bump, as if he could hide it from view. He would have expected to be torn, to properly consider his mother’s words. Instead, he was overtaken by a fierce wave of protectiveness, ‘’my child will not be a monster,’’ he said. His voice trembled with emotion.

‘’Fine,’’ Marietta waved a hand, ‘’if you do not want to kill it, then bribe the midwives to proclaim the child dead and give it away to some peasant couple. Either way, it cannot be here when the revolution comes.’’

Airen looked at his mother sadly – and realised he had lost her.

‘’There won’t be a revolution, mother,’’ Airen whispered, knowing well that he would not shatter his mother’s delusions.

‘’But there will!’’ Marietta clutched the bars, her eyes glowing with that terrifying glow, ‘’there will and you, my son, will be the King of Yame!’’

‘’Yame doesn’t exist anymore, mother,’’ Airen’s voice was so quiet he could barely hear himself, ‘’all you can do now is beg Daran for forgiveness.’’

‘’Never!’’ Marietta spat, stepping away from the bars. Her face twisted with the same disgust with which she gazed at Daran. It hurt. But it did not change Airen’s mind, ‘’if you dare...if you choose him...you will all perish together!’’

Airen’s eyes filled with tears. He had done everything he could for his mother and now he saw, truly and clearly, that nothing more could be done, ‘’revenge has consumed you,’’ he said and shook his head, ‘’goodbye, mother,’’ he turned and fled from the dungeon.

He was too busy blinking back tears as he hurried up the stairs to notice Daran standing in the doorway of the dungeon; and he slammed straight into him.

Airen inhaled sharply, realising what deep trouble he was in just as Daran hissed, ‘’you little shit,’’ grabbed his wrist and yanked him down the corridor. They passed a bewildered looking guard with a chalice filled with water. Airen struggled but Daran’s grip was as strong as the iron bars of Marietta’s cell. Daran didn’t even look at him as he dragged him up the stairs and into his own chamber, all but tossing Airen inside. He slammed the doors shut behind them, ‘’you traitor-‘’

Airen took a step back despite himself. He was suddenly afraid Daran’s temper would get the better of him, ‘’she is my mother!’’ Airen yelled, pushing his fear back.

Daran laughed bitterly, ‘’you keep saying that.’’

‘’Because it doesn’t change!’’

‘’She is a traitor!’’ Daran roared, making Airen flinch, ‘’and your secret meeting with her make me think that you are, too!’’

Suddenly, Airen wasn’t afraid of Daran anymore. If anything, it was Daran who should have been afraid. Airen stalked up to him, much shorter and slighter than Daran, belly enlarged from the growing child, and yet still looking like a dragon who had just been cut loose, ‘’are you an idiot?’’ he hissed, seething mad. He shoved Daran in the chest and the surprised King stumbled back, ‘’are you goddamn blind!? I’m carrying the fucking heir to the throne!’’ he stood his ground while Daran got his footing, staring him down, ‘’if I conspired with my mother Yamese rebels would march in here and kill you and your brothers and my child, because he is yours too. And the fact that you think I would ever endanger it like that makes me sick.’’

Now Daran looked defensive, a little like a kicked puppy – well, more like a lethal kicked tiger, but still, ‘’what am I supposed to think? You sneak away from my birth day feast and do the exact thing I told you not to do!’’

Airen gave a mocking laugh, ‘’forgive me, did I hurt your feelings?’’

‘’What am I meant to think, Airen?’’ Daran demanded, in a raw and honest voice that made Airen’s laugh die in his throat.

‘’I don’t know what you’re meant to think, Daran,’’ he snapped, ‘’but you’re supposed to trust me. I’m your husband and your consort!’’

‘’That means nothing!’’ Daran said with spite.

‘’Why?’’ Airen demanded.

‘’Because you hate me.’’

The phrase killed any argument that might have arisen from Airen. Daran had never said it outright. Never acknowledge it – that their marriage was filled with hate and resentment and distrust and that their child would not be one born of love but of a sense of duty and a lot of anger. Daran shook his head and turned around, ‘’it doesn’t matter-‘’

‘’I loved him.’’

Daran stopped dead in his tracks at the sound of Airen’s broken, trembling voice. He’d never heard it like that. Airen was always so calm and cold and calculated around him. So full of strength and power. And now...now Daran heard, for the first time, what hid beneath all that. Heartache. He turned slowly. Airen looked at him with such an expression that Daran’s heart squeezed painfully. He sucked in a breath when he realised Airen was crying. Tears dripped down his face as he whispered again, ‘’I loved Fionn, and you took him away from me.’’

The question came out of Daran all by itself, in a soft whisper, ‘’do you wish I had died instead?’’

Airen did not reply. He closed his arms around his stomach and dropped his head, sobbing silently. Tears splattered on the tips of his boots.

Daran shook his head, feeling his throat close up. He’d never felt like that before – like he’d burst into tears, too. He hadn’t cried since he was three years old, ‘’how can you accuse me of killing him?’’ he whispered, and then, stronger, ‘’how can you, Airen!?’’ he couldn’t hold it in, ‘’I didn’t want to! I didn’t want to go to war! You don’t know what it was like! You were locked up in your stupid little tower awaiting your prince charming to come back like in some bloody fairytale. I was on those battlefields. I saw my friends get slaughtered. All of them. All the people I’ve grown up with. I was seventeen,’’ his voice trembled, ‘’there was no glory on the battlefield. There was just blood and death and I never want to go through that again. I saw my own brother change on that field, and now I don’t even know him anymore. I did not kill Fionn Beirne to hurt you Airen; I killed him because he and his father declared war on Arnheim after we finally had peace and because I had to. Do you think I didn’t want to drop my sword and beg for peace the moment the first of my men were cut down? That’s not how it works, Airen! The only way I could save my family, my soldiers, was to kill the people who declared that gods-damned war! And you have no idea what that was like so don’t you dare accuse me of taking away your lover from you when that man murdered half the people I have ever cared about. You have no idea what it felt like to kill all those people,’’ his voice cracked, ‘’sometimes I wish I’d died on that battlefield. Just so I wouldn’t have to live with it. So don’t...just don’t...’’ he trailed off, his throat closing up fully.  

A shocked silence descended on the room.

Daran was breathing shakily. Airen stared at him with wide eyes, mouth parted. His hands were trembling on his stomach.

After that outburst, Daran deflated. He felt tired. He hadn’t spoken about the war and what it had done to him since it finally ended. He never wanted to speak of it again, ‘’get some rest. All that emotion can’t be good for the baby,’’ he murmured emotionlessly and turned, leaving the room – and leaving Airen in a state of shock.

As the doors slammed shut, the full realisation of what Daran had to go through – what Fionn and his father, whom Airen had always thought of as a hero had done. He stumbled back, gripping the edge of the bed as his knees buckled.

He fell to the floor and sobbed.

*~*~*

‘’Where did you brother go?’’ Brannen slid into Airen’s vacant seat by Faeryn.

‘’I don’t know,’’ came the girl’s quiet reply, ‘’where did yours go?’’

‘’No idea,’’ Brannen was clearly slightly drunk, judging by the blush on his face. Faeryn had wanted to leave the moment Airen excused himself. Without him, she was all by herself in a hall full of sullen warriors and talk of politics. No one danced. There was no music. Faeryn longed for the Yamese court that no longer existed. Brannen grabbed Faeryn’s empty chalice and she flinched at the sudden, violent gesture. Brannen gave her a long look, ‘’sorry,’’ he said eventually.

He poured wine into the goblet and passed it to Faeryn, ‘’thank you,’’ she squeaked.

Brannen filled up his own goblet, which he had brought with him, and mutely extended it to Faeryn without looking at her. Hesitantly, Faeryn clinked her chalice against his, ‘’to our nephew,’’ Brannen said.

‘’Or niece,’’ Faeryn added shyly.

‘’Or niece,’’ Brannen agreed.

They drank.

*~*~*

‘’Are we really going to Port Maisdal tomorrow?’’ five year old Aaliyah asked. She was sucking her thumb as Jex braided her long hair for bed. The other kids were gathered around him in their makeshift hut. They had survived their second day out in the forest and tomorrow, the kids would finally be taken to safety.

‘’Yep,’’ Jex tied the end of the braid with a daisy chain he’d made earlier in the day, when the kids were taking a nap after a lunch of berries and pigeon.

‘’And what then?’’ Yahya asked. He cradled Diya, his three year old brother, in his lap. Diya was already asleep.

‘’I told you; my friends will pick you up,’’ Jex didn’t feel like mentioning the fact that his ‘friends’ were pirates was the smartest move. He just prayed they hadn’t gotten derailed and would be there for a pick up as promised.

Tough twelve year old Maha suddenly slipped her hand into Jex’s and gave a squeeze, looking up at him with double coloured eyes, ‘’thanks for taking care of us,’’ she said seriously.

Jex gave her a smile, ‘’you’re welcome,’’ he turned to the other kids, ‘’come, let’s settle down for sleep.’’

He tucked the kids in, snuggled closely to each other for lack of space. Once they were all lying down comfortably, warmed by the steamy spring night, Jex took up his watch at the tree nearby. Sometimes he switched with Maha or ten year old Hadi, but then he just made them sit up in the makeshift hut and keep an ear out for any noises while he caught some much needed sleep. By the end of the second day, he was exhausted but glad he’d managed to keep the little witches safe.

As always when he had a moment to himself, Jex wondered if Jamael was dead yet.

*~*~*

The ceiling rumbled for the nth time and dust descended on the assassins. Jamael looked entirely like an omega, his dark hair covered in grey dust, ‘’don’t they ever run out of ammunition?’’ he asked as the side of the mountain rumbled, having been hit by a boulder the size of Jamael’s room. Thankfully the assassin keep was located on the side of the mountain by the chasm so it was hard to hit, especially since the Sultan’s soldiers could only fit two catapults on the narrow mountain side. Still, with every hit Jamael wondered if this was it – if this time the mountain would collapse and bury them all.

‘’Well, this is a mountain,’’ Vysarane peered out of the window, her goggles whirring, ‘’they kind of have an unlimited supply.’’

Jamael and the rest of the assassins were gathered in the training room upstairs. For the last two days they had been busy getting the non-combatant witches out of the keep and into safety further up the mountains. Now finally they were all gone and Jamael’s parents were deliberating, alongside Sidara Fairbanks, about what to do next.

‘’We’re all going to die,’’ Leit, one of the assassins, said lightly. He’d always been pretty easy-going about death; after all he was an assassin. He could die at any time.

Jamael did not share that view. After helping Jex get away, all he could think about was finding him again. He rubbed his jaw, rough with a two-day stubble. He first had to survive this and, past the two catapults, was a whole garrison of soldiers ready to kill them all. The only thing keeping them at bay was fear of an entire keep filled with deadly killers.

The doors to the training room opened and the King of Assassins strolled in, followed by his wife and Sidara Fairbanks. Amir looked around at the assassins, ‘’we have been given an ultimatum,’’ he said gravelly, ‘’if we give up the witches and promise not to harbour any more, the Sultan will mercifully call off the attack,’’ the room burst into whispers; no one was willing to do that. They had made friends with the witches that were now somewhere up the mountain. Plus, they were assassins. They did not run, ‘’if anyone wants to second that option, speak now,’’ the room fell silent. No one said anything. A small smile played on Amir’s lips, ‘’so I thought. I think we all are a bit tired of getting shelled all the time,’’ a dangerous glint lit up his dark eyes, ‘’we are the assassins of Cana Kaale.’’

Thais stepped forward with a wolfish grin, ‘’so let’s assassinate.’’

Once the assassins, not worried for the witches anymore now that they were safely away, started counter attacking, they quickly realised Sultan Moein had sent their most inexperienced garrison, mostly because he probably believed the mountain would crush the keep and hand-to-hand combat would not be necessary.

Well, the last part was right – there was no hand-to-hand combat.

A couple hours after Amir’s speech, night fell and the assassins were ready to fight. Jamael and Vys stuck together, slinking in the shadows, dressed all in black with their noses and mouths covered. They had the advantage. The soldiers did not know they were coming, they were highly trained and they knew the terrain better than anyone. The soldiers, mostly sitting around the jagged, narrow mountain path and drinking wine as a couple manned the catapults, did not even notice deadly shadows slinking above them, climbing through crevices and natural handles made in the mountain.

When the assassins finally descended, the army fell into panic.

There were more of them than Jamael could count – the assassins were outnumbered probably five to one. But with the cover of the night and their training, they actually stood a chance.

Even so, it didn’t look as if Jamael would find Jex anytime soon.

*~*~*

Wrath lay next to Trey Breedlove in their bed.

Wrath wasn’t used to sleeping in it; he usually slept in Orin’s chambers. He and Trey did not touch. They never did. They lay side by side and stared at the ceiling, ‘’something is bothering you,’’ Trey observed. He was a rather thin, wiry mind, skilled in knowledge and not the sword. When the Duke of Yarah had been prompted to marry, Wrath’s parents had been more than happy to marry him to such a high ranking noble. What ensured was years of loneliness in that estate in the country, with nothing but books and empty halls for company.

Orin had saved him from that, and now...

‘’It’s nothing,’’ Wrath said.

Trey raised an eyebrow at the ceiling, ‘’is it about the King?’’

‘’No.’’

‘’Of course it is,’’ he tilted his head to look at Wrath with a small, knowing smile, ‘’you wouldn’t have called me here otherwise. Are you trying to make him jealous?’’

Wrath scowled. Was he, subconsciously? He didn’t want to think about that, ‘’you are my husband. I thought it was about time we saw each other.’’

Trey’s smile disappeared and he glanced back at the ceiling guiltily, ‘’I am not much of a husband.’’

‘’Stupid, don’t say that,’’ Wrath reached for Trey’s hand, forgetting himself. His fingers folded around Trey’s hand. Trey flinched and seemed to shrink in on himself, making a little distressed noise. But he did not pull away his hand. Wrath did, ‘’sorry,’’ he said quickly, snatching it back as if Trey’s hand burned, ‘’it’s been so long I forgot you don’t like to be touched.’’

On their wedding day, Trey had barely managed to stomach pressing a quick kiss to Wrath’s lips. He’d always been like that, he confessed to Wrath later. The thought of physical contact and affection made him nauseous, for some reason. He could not satisfy or love Wrath in the way he needed, which he constantly put himself down for – he stayed away from the estate most of the time, hoping that in his absence Wrath would take lovers to fill the gap. His work kept him occupied most of the time. At best, contact made him severely uncomfortable. At worst, when prolonged or forced, he could be physically sick. Wrath never understood Trey’s condition but he did his best to accommodate it. Sometimes, especially after such a long time with affectionate Orin, he forgot himself.

‘’No, I’m sorry,’’ Trey rubbed his face and sighed, ‘’I wish you and the King would figure out whatever problem you have. You deserve to be happy, Wrathan.’’

Wrath rolled onto his side, towards Trey. If he couldn’t touch him, maybe at least soaking up his presence would make him feel a little better, ‘’you do, too.’’

‘’I am happy,’’ Trey said with a small smile, ‘’I love my work, even if I don’t work in the city,’’ Trey had always wanted to work in the city, ‘’and I’m married to someone I consider a great friend,’’ he added knowingly.

Wrath snorted, ‘’you wish.’’

But it was true. Wrath was glad for Trey’s company, at least, even if he felt like his heart was shrivelling a bit more every day that he was away from Orin...and from Bren.

*~*~*

Bas threw his cloak over his shoulders and hurried outside. It was spring but it was still chilly and the plague made Ashta seem permanently grey and desolated. His plague mask in place, he hurried towards his horse when suddenly Cassian rose up in front of him, the beak of his mask nearly bumping against Bas’, ‘’Bas,’’ Cassian’s voice was muffled, ‘’are you off somewhere again?’’

‘’Patrol,’’ Bas said quickly.

Bas imagined Cassian raised an eyebrow, ‘’Patrol? By the Cathouse? Again?’’ he paused, ‘’is this about that strawberry blond whore?’’

‘’No,’’ Bas said. He didn’t want the high chain of command taking an interest in Soren – or the Cathouse, now a part on the citadel, ‘’I’m honestly just patrolling. Those witch hunters...they don’t sit right with me,’’ at least he didn’t lie about Alda and her hunters.

Cassian cringed, ‘’yeah, me too,’’ he said quietly, ‘’either way, Niko is getting suspicious. You should probably try to go out less. You know how...paranoid he gets these days.’’

Bas nodded, ‘’thanks, Cassie.’’ He turned to go.

‘’You’re...helping them, right?’’

Bas froze, paused a second too long. He turned around with a confused smile, ‘’helping who?’’

Cassian gave him a sad smile, ‘’it’s brave,’’ he said quietly, ‘’I could never do it.’’

Bas’ blood ran cold. He stormed over to his best friend and grabbed him by the shoulders, ‘’Cassian, for the love of the gods, don’t say anything,’’ he hissed.

‘’You think I’m find with all the killings?’’ Cassian scowled at him but then his face relaxed back into that sadness, ‘’I just...I can’t abandon Niko.’’

Bas studied him for a moment but then relaxed. Cassian had always been the most empathetic out of the three of them. Of course Cassian wouldn’t be fine with the killings – he probably steered as far away from them as possible. Bas gave his shoulders a light squeeze, ‘’I need to go to help one of them,’’ he said quietly, ‘’if what you said is true then Niko might try to follow me. Please, keep him occupied.’’ Long enough for me to get that witch out of the Cathouse, Bas added in his head.

Cassian took a deep breath, ‘’I can do that.’’

*~*~*

‘’Drinking on the roof?’’ Niko mused, sitting on the flat stone rooftop of his bunker, only about ten feet above the ground. The sky was dark and sprinkled with a million stars. For the first time in a while, Niko and Cassian had their plague masks off. It was as if the plague could not reach them here, ‘’what’s the occasion?’’

‘’I think you need a breather,’’ Cassian said, uncapping the wine skein and passing it to Niko. The General looked like hell. Dark circles framed his hollow green eyes; his curly light brown hair was a tangled mess kept back in an unruly ponytail; his beard, usually kept as a neat goatee, was so overgrown it made him look twice his age. His muscles under his clothes seemed unhealthily pronounced – all he did these days was hunt witches and train to hunt some more.

‘’That I do,’’ Niko laughed. His laugh did not resemble how he used to laugh, before he turned to genocide. Cassian was glad when he put the skein to his mouth and the laugh ended. He remembered, as if through a fog, a time when he and Bas and Niko had been on the roof watching war-camp brides line up outside. It felt like a lifetime ago. When did everything go so wrong? ‘’You okay?’’

Cassian snapped out of it and took the skein a worried Niko passed to him. It was perverse, almost, how Niko could worry about Cassian’s well-being while not batting an eyelash at the murder of hundreds. Cassian felt guilty that his body felt a little warmer at Niko’s concern, ‘’yeah,’’ he said, taking the skein and drinking.

‘’You seen Bas tonight?’’

Cassian nearly choked on his wine but forced himself to keep his composure, ‘’I asked him if he wanted to come drink with us, but he crashed early.’’

Niko hummed, unconvinced, ‘’he’s been out in Ashta an awful lot. Dedicated to the cause.’’

‘’I suppose.’’

‘’I didn’t think he’d go along with it,’’ Niko said suddenly, ‘’he’s such a goody-two-shoes. Always been.’’

Cassian swallowed thickly, ‘’he’s loyal to his friends.’’

Niko turned to Cassian, ‘’and you?’’ he demanded softly, ‘’are you loyal to me?’’

Cassian knew he should blurt out a ‘yes’. But he hesitated, ‘’I...don’t like what we do.’’

‘’It’s for the greater good.’’

‘’But...we’ve killed so many,’’ Cassian dropped his head and stated at the wine skein in his hands, ‘’and still the plague rages. I don’t think its working.’’

‘’Of course it’s working,’’ Niko tucked a finger under Cassian’s chin and tilted his head up. He gave the General a smile that made Cassian want to believe him, ‘’we just need to get rid of all of them before we see the effects.’’

‘’But...Niko, we kill children-‘’

‘’Little plague spreading monsters,’’ Niko scoffed, taking his hand away from Cassian’s face, ‘’if you’re going to preach at me, we’re leaving.’’

Cassian knew he should shut up. He needed to keep Niko on the roof, for Bas’ sake. But his mouth worked by itself, ‘’preach at you? Niko, we’re murderers.’’

‘’One day the world will thank us for that,’’ Niko stood.

Cassian got up, too, ‘’will they?’’ his voice trembled, ‘’after this is over and you’ve reached your cause, will you be able to live with all you did? You’re fuelled by revenge and purpose right now but after that-‘’

‘’This is no different to any battle,’’ Niko said coldly, ‘’we are soldiers. And I, for one, sleep perfectly fine after a victory.’’

He turned and stormed to the side of the roof, climbing down and disappearing into the darkness.

Except he didn’t go back to his own bunker.

He walked off towards Ashta.

*~*~*

Soren was halfway to the chapel, the little witchling boy next to him, both covered with plague masks, when General Niktohal Magana emerged from around the corner.

Soren recognised the man immediately. You tend to memorise the characteristics of monsters.

Without really thinking about it, Soren shoved the little witchling into the alleyway. He landed on the side entrance of one of the shops, long closed down after the owners died. He didn’t have to be told to cower in the corner and press himself into the shadows. Thankfully, he was small and hardly visible.

But Soren stood in plain view.

‘’Who goes there?’’ Magana demanded, stomping over to Soren who stood frozen in place. The General sounded distraught, like he’d just come out of a fight.

Soren quickly snapped out of his shock at being caught so close to his destination.

‘’Why, hello~’’ he purred when the General reached him, sliding a hand seductively up his arm even though touching Magana made Soren want to stab himself. He prayed the witchling in the alleyway would keep silent. He was already late to his appointment with Bas; he’d been delayed by another one of Alda’s patrols, ‘’aren’t you handsome? How about a little something special on this fine night? I give a fair price.’’

Magana kissed his teeth, ‘’spare me the pointless flirting,’’ but he grabbed Soren’s arm nonetheless, clearly in need of letting off some steam. He all but shoved Soren against the nearest building. At least he didn’t go into the alleyway, though Soren was not used to doing it in plain view.

Oh, gods, they were going to do it.

The realisation hit Soren like one of the bricks he was leaning against. His eyes cut to the alleyway where the kid was cowering in the corner. He couldn’t see him in the dark but he had to make sure the General didn’t, either, ‘’rough, are we?’’ Soren purred, though his voice trembled slightly. Don’t look in the alley, don’t look in the alley, don’t look in the alley...

‘’You have no idea,’’ Magana snarled, yanking down Soren’s pants. Without a warning, Magana picked him up, pinned him to the wall and entered him.

Soren bit his lip to keep back the scream of pain. He was still relatively new to the whoring business and his customers usually took time to prepare him. A couple of drops of blood hit the pavement but Magana didn’t seem to care. He didn’t wait for Soren to adjust, thrusting into him again and again. He had no plague mask but Soren’s beak dug into Magana’s shoulder with each thrust. Soren scrunched his eyes shut, trying to keep any groans of pain at bay. He hoped the little boy was looking the other way. Magana grunted above him, reminding Soren of who he was. Soren felt sick but he forced himself to think of something else. Of Bas. Except Bas would never treat him like this. Bas...

Soren opened his eyes and there he was.

Soren’s green eyes widened to match Bas’ behind his plague mask. The General had appeared out of nowhere and now he watched Soren, his body posture telling Soren that he was in a state of shock. Lost in the sensation of Soren, Magana did not notice his best friend. Soren felt like he would definitely throw up. Not only was he being soiled by the most vile man in Kainan, but Bas had now seen it. Soren shuddered against Magana, which the General took as a sign of pleasure, ‘’you like that, whore?’’ he snarled in his ear.

‘’Oh, yes,’’ Soren assured, breathless from pain. He inclined his head towards the alley over Magana’s shoulder, so the beak pointed at the boy in the shadows. Bas turned his head, realising what Soren was pointing at. Soren moaned, loudly enough to cover Bas’ footsteps as he slipped into the alley and picked the boy up. He moaned a couple more times. Bas did not remerge; he walked deeper into the alley and down the longer path. Soren was grateful at least for that. His moans died down. The pain kept him from even getting hard but Magana didn’t seem to notice. He pulled out, came over the brick wall and left Soren with his pants around his ankles, leaning against the wall, a few more drops of blood trickling down his thighs.

Soren closed his eyes, catching his breath. At least the witchling was safe.

After a moment, he pulled his pants up and hurried back to the Cathouse, His thighs and ass ached like never before. Each step was like sitting on a chair made from iron nails. But he kept going. His skin crawled. He felt as if he’d been dipped in a bathtub full of slugs. He wanted to take a shower and scrub himself clean. He wanted to cry. He wanted to scream. Instead, he kept his head down all the way to the Cathouse.

Soren fell in through the door and closed it quickly. The Cats were gathered in the main room. Soren ripped his mask and cloak off and rubbed his arms as if he could get rid of the feel of Magana on him. Arlen appeared before him, ‘’hey,’’ he said softly, worriedly, ‘’what’s going on? What happened? Did you get the kid to General Basden safely?’’

Soren wanted to reply.

Instead, he burst into tears and sank to his knees.

Arlen was kneeling in front of him in seconds, cradling him against his broad chest. Lucio appeared a moment later, wrapping an arm across Soren’s back and stroking his hair while making small shushing noises. And Soren cried and cried and cried...

*~*~*

Merry felt dejected that they were leaving the Rhein palace without an army. Still, nothing could be done. Yago was waiting for them in Calahoun and there was no point staying in the disease-infested kingdom for no reason. Heartman and the two pirates, Luciana and Slava, raided the pantry of the palace in hopes of finding something edible within it. They came back to the guest bedroom with strings of dried fruit and a couple jars of pickled vegetables. Remembering the events of the previous night and the death of Bernhard, Merry threw up again through the window. Venus didn’t look much better, either. Strangely enough, he now seemed glued to Kip’s side. The omega guard didn’t seem to mind. Heartman was walking around, refilling water skeins when Queen Orwyne Eiris swept into the room.

‘’You are leaving,’’ she said emotionlessly.

The room bowed. Merry inclined his head. His stomach churned again at the sight of the queen and the thought of leaving her by herself again. She had clearly lost her mind. Merry liked solitude but he couldn’t bear to imagine what it must be like to have no one to speak to. To know every single person in your kingdom is dead – or worse. Before Merry could suggest, futilely, that the Queen come with them, Orwyne raised her eyes to the leader of the expedition, ‘’you are Raaisel,’’ she said. This morning, her eyes seemed a little more sharp, a little more clear. As if something she had awaited was finally here, ‘’I have heard stories of you.’’

Raaisel gave her a half-delighted grin, a little too wide for her face. Merry shuddered. There was something unsettling about the witch, ‘’I am indeed.’’

To everyone’s surprise, Orwyne replied to the gruesome grin with a smile of her own, ‘’then,’’ she said with quiet strength – the last that was left in her, ‘’Raaisel Banrion Era Marana, I challenge you to a game of cards.’’

The air seemed to crackle with electricity. The hairs on Merry’s arms rose. He felt unsettled by Raaisel’s grin grew, ‘’very well,’’ she said and her voice didn’t sound quite like that of a fourteen year old anymore, ‘’what will you give me if you lose?’’

Orwyne didn’t miss a beat, ‘’my soul.’’

The air crackled more, with a deadly glee, ‘’and what shall you have if you win?’’

The small, sad smile played on Orwyne’s lips again, ‘’a gentle death.’’

‘’You’re majesty-‘’ Merry stepped forward but Raaisel raised her hand in the air, stopping him.

‘’She has made her choice, boy,’’ her voice definitely didn’t belong to her anymore, ‘’anyone who challenges Raaisel Banrion Era Marana, hell-witch and sister to the Queen of Hell, will give me my game.’’

Merry was about to argue that the desolate palace hardly seemed to have any cards when Raaisel reached into the sleeve of her too-big jacket and produced a deck of red, worn cards. Heartman put a hand on his shoulder and he finally backed down.

Raaisel sat on the floor, cross-legged, in a gruesome parody of a child. Orwyne swept to the ground in a flurry of black, dirty silk. Her dark hair draped over her shoulder like a curtain as she silently decided on the game and began decking out the cards. Merry had never played card games and his eyes helplessly followed the movements of the Queen and the witch, though he did not understand what was going on. Next to him, Captain Heartman tightened her hand on his shoulder. The Queen seemed to enjoy herself. The smile stayed on her face and her features relaxed, as if she was remembering a game from years ago, when her family had been alive and she was not the Queen of a ghost kingdom.

The game was over faster than Merry expected.

‘’Ah,’’ Orwyne said as Raaisel gathered the cards back into a deck and they disappeared within her sleeve, ‘’I lost.’’

Merry stepped forward, ‘’Raaisel-‘’

‘’Its fine,’’ Orwyne gave him a smile that hinted at what kind of woman she had been before all of this. A kind one. One fit to be a Queen, ‘’I have lost,’’ she looked towards Raaisel, still smiling, ‘’I will gladly let you have my soul. My wish is fulfilled. I may finally leave this dead place.’’

‘’Good girl,’’ Raaisel crooned just as Orwyne gasped and grabbed a handful of her bodice. It looked like she was trying to gasp for breath but couldn’t. Raaisel rose up slightly and reached out. Her smile had disappeared, leaving something like a look of pity. Her fingers cupped the Queen’s cheek and the gasps stopped. Instead, a second later, Orwyne’s empty body crumpled across Raaisel’s lap, ‘’let’s bury her,’’ Raaisel said calmly.

As the stronger members of the group dug a grave for the Queen in the garden, Merry approached Raaisel – though after the display with the cards, he didn’t really want to. Still, there were some questions to be answered, ‘’what now?’’

‘’Now,’’ Raaisel gazed out at the dead, overgrown garden as the grave was dug, ‘’you return to Calahoun, get Yago and go back to Salar.’’

‘’So, what? That’s it? We came here for nothing...’’ Merry froze and turned fully towards the witch, ‘’wait... ‘you’?’’

Raaisel gave him a razor-sharp grin, ‘’you catch on slow, majesty.’’

Merry’s brown furrowed, ‘’this was never about an army. You knew there was none.’’ Raaisel nodded, ‘’then why did you bring us here? You don’t need our protection. You’re powerful enough.’’

‘’This kingdom is deadly for humans. But not for witches. I will rebuild this kingdom but even if the rest of the world is healed, I will make sure Rhein remains plagued,’’ Raaisel smiled her strange smile, ‘’and I needed you to be my messengers. I needed you to deliver a proclamation to the world and to the Citadel.’’

‘’What proclamation?’’

Raaisel looked at Merry and for once both her silver and black eye glowed with the same power, ‘’that Mystic will no longer be the only Witch City in the world.’’

*~*~*

‘’My Sultan, please wait!’’

‘’Have you been in cohorts with the assassins too, Marjan?’’ Moein bellowed. He had Ilithiya by her hair and was dragging the princess down the corridor towards the dungeons as her wife ran after them helplessly. Aradhana hurried down the corridor after them, Rohit closing the flanks, looking terrified.

‘’No! No, you’ve got this wrong, she hasn’t-‘’

Ilithiya whimpered, trying to get a foothold somewhere as she was dragged across the floor. Her feet kicked at the ground helplessly, ‘’I saw her with those witch bastards! My guards saw her, too!’’ Moein’s face was contorted with rage, ‘’lying traitorous bitch! She blackens the memory of our parents!’’

‘’She is our sister!’’ Aradhana cried, trying to get to Ilithiya. In his free hand, Moein wielded a sword which he slashed through the air when she got too close, ‘’Moe, she is our sister!’’

‘’Begone, or you will join her!’’ Moein roared, mad with rage. His eyes were bloodshot and craze. They reached the couple of stone steps leading to the dungeons. Moe yanked harder on Ilithiya’s hair and she tumbled down the stairs after him, crying out every time her spine hit the hard stone steps. Marjan and Rohit were sobbing now. Aradhana was pleading with her brother but her words fell on deaf ears. Ilithiya had been caught in the palace gardens where a group of desperate witches had found their way to her. Moein had gotten to her before Aradhana or Marjan could.

‘’Moein, stop!’’

‘’SILENCE!’’ Moein screeched in a voice like a banshee. Ilithiya was sobbing now, too, clutching at her aching scalp. With a last yank, Moein tossed her into one of the cells and slammed the doors shut. He called for guards to guard the cell. Ilithiya pressed herself into the wall and sobbed. Aradhana cradled her crying wife in her arms, putting her free arm around Rohit.

‘’You’re a monster!’’ Aradhana roared at her brother, tears pouring down her own face now.

Moein ignored her, giving his little sister a mad smile, ‘’you will die for this, Ili.’’  

Chapter Text

Merry didn’t understand what kind of magic Raaisel possessed.

He wasn’t sure he wanted to understand it.

It wasn’t like the cogs and springs of a clock that he studied as a child; it wasn’t like books on mathematics and philosophy, with ordered words and numbers; it wasn’t even like the strange way the human body reacted to touch, to pain, to love. It was a force, unstoppable and dangerous. But there was something else in it. Not beauty, but survival. Raaisel’s power was that of a hell witch, a being who suffered through the fires of the seven hells, who faced all sorts of things one could never phantom, and came out on top.

Merry and the team spent one more night at the cursed palace, after the search for supplies stretched out till sunset. No one was willing to set out at night, not with the memory of those strange half-dead beings still fresh in their minds. Merry had been feeling woozy and uneven for quite a few days. The memories of all the bloodshed were still fresh in his mind. He didn’t argue when the group decided to crash at the palace for one more night, even though he found that he missed Tristan and the feeling was almost as strange as Raaisel’s powers, which they first glimpsed the next morning.

Spring was well and truly underway and yet in the gloomy, dark, death-ridden kingdom of Rhein, it wasn’t noticeable. Snow-turned-sludge ran down the unwashed cobblestone streets; the palace echoed with abandonment and darkness; the very air stank of death. But the morning of their departure, Merry found it stank of it a little less. He noticed other things as the morning dragged on, filled with packing and re-packing, consulting maps and exchanging warning. The massive, uneven, stone structure of the palace that loomed over Perth seemed to gleam as if the dull, dirty grey stone had been polished; the sea, that had been as dead as if it had been struck by the plague, too, lapped at the end of the palace in surprisingly merry waves; the stench had given way, just a little, and after breathing it in for so long it was easy to tell. The biggest change was in the interior of the palace – Merry walked up and down the corridors many times, fetching supplies, and each time it seemed healed, just a little. The echoing council room was now empty of broken chairs and the statues in the niches in the wall, representing the greatest rulers of Kainan – Queen Magne, Lisandro the Liberator, King Diahan the Bastard, Queen Ezra the Builder, Lady Bloody-Axe, Toan the Blessed, King Johan I the Brave, Queen Muhida Hyndestane, King Johan II the victor and then, finally, Cedric the Invader – were cleaner and less...soulless. The massive throne room still lay in tatters but the broken windows let in more light. The temple’s marble interior gleamed white.

Raaisel’s power was helping the kingdom survive.

Merry knew it was her doing. No one else could transform a country, transform stone and earth and the dead air, give it life. Merry knew Raaisel was keeping back, until they were out, to fully blow life into her new kingdom. Until she could raise the barriers that would never let anyone but a witch set foot in Rhein again; the barrier that would make it the safest place in Kainan next to Mystic.

And she would be its Queen.

The thought didn’t unsettle Merry as much as it should have.

By late morning, what was left of the expedition held multiple packs stacked with provisions, wearing better clothes against the unforgiving weather. Merry thought he might have been imagining the sun shining a little brighter, though. Raaisel came to the gate to see them go, as Queen Orwyne had come to see them come. This time the kingdom’s fate seemed a little more promising. Merry met Raaisel’s double-coloured eyes, ‘’what you’re doing,’’ he said, ‘’it’s good. Salar will help, if you ever need it.’’

‘’I doubt we will ever need the help of humans,’’ Raaisel said with a snort, more arrogant than a simple fourteen year old could muster. But then her silver eye twinkled with something like...entertained admiration? ‘’But thank you,’’ she dipped her head. She did not bow. Not anymore, not as Queen, no matter how self proclaimed. 

Captain Hartman took stock of the team, ‘’ready to set out? Yago will be waiting for us,’’ despite the failure of their mission, she didn’t seem defeated. They lost the possibility of an army but they gained the hope of a city that could save all those witches seeking refuge. Merry would spread the word of the Witch City of Rhein and Queensbane would be the city of lights once more. Merry was broken away from his solemn promise by Heartman’s confused question, ‘’Kasimira, where is your pack?’’

Merry looked at Kasimira, the only other witch in the expedition and the one he’d become closest to out of all his team-mates. The witch was standing pack-less, looking a little sad, ‘’you can’t possibly expect me to go back out there. It’s suicide for one of my kind.’’

Merry blinked, ‘’you’re staying.’’

Raaisel smiled. It was not the gruesome, too-large smile Merry had glimpsed but a normal, self-satisfied, a little arrogant smile, ‘’the first of my court,’’ she said easily.

Heartman looked appalled. After all, Kasimira had been hired by the crown. She opened her mouth but Merry stepped in, ‘’she’s right,’’ he nodded at her, knowing he’d never seen her again. Once he left Rhein, there would never be a gate that would grant him entrance to it again, ‘’be safe.’’

‘’Send as many witches here as you can,’’ Kasimira said, though her hands trembled. She was afraid of what the future held and Merry didn’t blame her.

Merry knew he should comfort her. He should hug her or hold her hand. But he didn’t know how to do it with ease and he didn’t want the last gesture towards Kasimira to seem forced. So he dipped his head, in the direction of the two witches, and turned.

Apparently he was a self-proclaimed leader now, too, because everyone filed into step behind him.

*~*~*

The trip to Port Maisdal was harder than staying alive in the forest.

The kids under Jex’s care had not been trained as thieves or otherwise. They tripped over roots frequently and many cried, prompting Jex to desperately quiet them down. Once they were out of the cover of the forest, it didn’t get any better. They set out early in the morning to make it to Port Maisdal in time for the midnight pirate pick-up but with the kids’ pace, they made slow progress. With the late morning sun spilling over Mar’murah when Jex and the children reached it, Jex knew they were in danger. Mar’murah was a desert city, the globes and domes of its magnificent buildings visible over the high wall made of golden stone. Mar’murah was famous for its festivities, markets, trade, music and dancers but like most cities, it was now dead. Its once colourful, vibrant people were huddled in their stone-and-sand homes, deathly afraid of the plague or the Sultan’s soldiers. The silence seemed to exude from the city for miles and the fact that it was inhabited, but still so silent, made it even worse.

Jex pressed himself flat to the foot of Mar’murah’s powerful wall and the kids did so, too; Yahya had a hand on three year old Diya’s hand and was pretty much just pulling the clumsy child along most of the time. The shade the wall provided was a welcome relief after crossing the small stretch of desert from the forest to the city, which left them exposed to the sun and prying eyes. Now they could breathe easy, just for a moment. Jex etched slowly along the walls. There were no patrols up on the walls as there once had been. With the plague raging, there was no threat of war and guards would do little against the sickness. The gates were closed shut and Jex knew there was no getting in and crossing the city. They’d have to go around.

Morning went into afternoon when the group, sweaty and thirsty and itching for the safety of the forest, finally saw the spill of Mar’murah’s peasants. Once upon a time Mar’murah had been a traveller city with tents and camels. When they settled in the deserts of Cana Kaale the massive city rose behind them and the original traveller community grew. Now they were considered scum by the rich men and women that lived in the domed buildings within the walls. The caravans and tents of the poor slid from the walls of Mar’murah in a river of colour. The people clearly had been barred from the city when the plague struck and now they fended for themselves before the unforgiving golden walls. Between the red, tattered materials of tents, the bustling of thinned animals and the movement of people, covered head to toe in material, it was the busiest, most alive place Jex had seen since leaving the assassin keep.

As Jex approached, he was glad for the noise of the community, after the silence of Mar’murah. He left the kids in a huddle a little way off, so their eyes would not be recognised, and would approach the spill himself. He still had some money from Jamael and he’d use it to buy water and provisions, if there were any to be had. When asked, he’d say he was travelling with his siblings and cousins and they had to make fast progress, which was why they didn’t approach.

But as Jex got closer, his nerves spiked. His anxiety heightened.

And then he realised why.

Most of the noise came not from the people but from scarlet-clothes guards, wearing the plague masks the poor could not afford. They barrelled through the tents and stands, taking what they wanted, overturning tables, ripping clothes off people under the pretext of looking for witches, chortling at the sight of their exposed skin. A couple men and women were dragged off into tents, screeching, by their hair. The soldiers were here on Sultan Moein’s orders, hunting witches – but they spared no measure of cruelty when doing so.

Jex stopped dead a couple feet away from the first tent and back-tracked. Anything useful in the shanties of Mar’murah would already be gone, looted by soldiers, and Jex couldn’t help these people, not with a handful of children depending on him already. As casually as he could, he backed a few more steps and turned away from the scene, walking briskly across the sand towards his cluster of kids. They’d have to avoid Mar’murah completely and press south-west, towards the port. They’d get there by nightfall so-

‘’Stop!’’

Jex nearly froze at the guttural command, clearly coming from a soldier, but forced himself to keep walking. A couple more steps. Three, two, and he’d be with the children. He could see their double-coloured eyes, wide with fear and uncertainty.

‘’Gold-hair! Stop!’’

Jex cursed the fact that he hadn’t covered his head as he finally reached the children.

An arrow swished past his ear, plummeting out into the sand, barely missing Maha’s head. And then those horrible words that Jex had prayed they would not hear.

‘’WITCHES!’’

‘’Run for the trees,’’ Jex hissed at his kids, ‘’stay together.’’

And then they were running for their lives.

*~*~*

The Little Cutlass was the ship Mair and her crew had been put on. The rest of the pirate flotilla was scattered across the world but the ships that always stuck to the Little Cutlass – the Queen’s Ghost, once Captained by bandit Arleen Blackwood and now the flagship of the flotilla under the command of her godson, pirate King Sharpe Blackwood, the Flying Victory, the newest ship in the flotilla and the many-sailed Devil’s Whore – circled Kainan as the Little Cutlass, Cassia’s old ship, sped for the Island of Kai. There had been some storms and the passage was longer than expected. There had been little grumble from the crew, accommodated to taking in witches at that point, but space was still scarce. The pirates took one larger crews, set on helping the witches, so there had only been a few hammocks available in the sleeping quarters of the ship. The room was large, hollow, filled with mattresses and hammocks that hung anywhere from a few inches to a couple feet above the ground. Three of those hammocks had been made available to the witches of Mystic.

They’d all seen Mardin’s need to be alone and so he got a hammock for himself. Mair and Arlana took one hammock and Mair felt more than a little embarrassed, sleeping pressed up against a real fae princess. And, of course, Fynn and Rain were put in one hammock. Fynn was more flummoxed than he thought he’d be. After all, he’d never slept with his fiancé. Rain was all about being proper, courting Fynn and planning a wedding. They’d barely kissed a couple times, and most ended with Fynn transforming and flying off in embarrassment. Fynn wished he could fall asleep now but he was unused to the sway of the ship that carried the hammocks left then right, left, right, left, right...

The cabin was chilly with moist sea air but Rain was incredibly warm. The hammock forced both of them to lie right in the middle, its canvas sides rising up on either sides like walls. Thus, Fynn ended up lying on Rain’s chest, trying not to listen to the steady rhythm of his heart-beat or to breathe in his scent, the smell of home, and trying to ignore how every time Rain shifted, he found an excuse to touch Fynn more. A turn of his body, so they were pressed closer. A hand resting loosely against his back, under the pretext of lack of space. That same hand then tracing patterns across the back of Fynn’s tunic. Rain’s other hand, draped over his own stomach, fingers relaxed near Fynn’s waist. And then the brush of those fingers, then the weight of Rain’s whole hand resting on it. Finally, the press of Rain’s lips to Fynn’s forehead.

Fynn did his best to tuck his face into Rain’s chest, to avoid those lips. His heart was pounding like mad. He hated himself for not hating Rain’s touch, which brought him comfort, though he supposed it was good. They were to be married. It would be a small relief to at least be able to stomach the touches of his husband. But Fynn was more than stomaching it as one of Rain’s hands moved shamelessly to Fynn’s chin, popping his head up to kiss his forehead again. He wanted it. Those kisses. The touches. They distracted him from what was going on. They made him think of Mystic with its eternal summer, made his mind float to a pretty cottage at the edge of the wood, to him and Rain, sitting on the porch and a child playing in the grass, with dark hair and-

Rain’s lips slid against Fynn’s and Fynn pushed him back firmly. There was nowhere to fly to in the cabin, ‘’stop it,’’ he said quietly, more out of habit than anything. He didn’t want any of the snoring pirates to hear.

But Rain pressed his hand firmly to Fynn’s face, keeping him in place, and kissed him again, tongue first. It was outrageous. Rain never kissed him in such a desperate, heated way. His kisses were always gentle and wholly proper. Fynn didn’t know what to do. He’d never been kissed by anyone like that. Had he been standing, his knees would have gone weak. He pressed his hand against Rain’s chest again, with less force this time. He felt like he was melting but he managed to push Rain away. But the warrior witch leaned closer again, his mouth a breath away from Fynn’s, ‘’please,’’ he whispered hoarsely.

‘’W-what?’’ Fynn asked defensively. He was bright red in the pitch darkness of the cabin.

‘’Let me,’’ Rain murmured, ‘’I never got the chance to kiss you like that. I may never get it.’’

Fynn stared at Rain, where he was barely visible in the darkness. He’d been so afraid this whole time. He could sense the fear in Mair, occasionally, and in Mardin. He saw the grim worry and anxiety in Arlana on rare occasion. But Rain had been their rock, their warrior witch, ready to fight and protect his way out of any situation.

Not for a second had Fynn thought that Rain was afraid, too.

Without his command, Fynn’s body relaxed. He found his eyes fluttering shut. He told himself it was because Rain deserved this but Fynn wanted it, too. He didn’t know how he felt about the marriage. Maybe he still hated the thought, as always. Maybe, in daylight, he’d find Rain overprotective and annoying and arrogant. But being so close to him, being kissed by him...it felt good. So Fynn just closed his eyes and let Rain kiss him.

They kissed until morning. Rain didn’t do anything else; he was still proper about not touching Fynn liked that until morning, even though Fynn often found himself getting hard. At those points, he’d kiss Rain harder, bite his lip, and Rain would retaliate in the same way, sometimes drawing blood from his nips and bites. It helped to get rid of Fynn’s erection sometimes; sometimes it just made it worse. They kissed until Fynn’s lips were wet and swollen and the kisses grew almost painful, but neither wanted to stop. Fynn grew familiar with the taste of Rain’s mouth, the feel of his tongue, his warm hands.

They fell asleep in the very early hours of the morning, their lips so close their breath mingled, Rain’s arms wrapped around Fynn.

And then Cassia strolled into the sleeping space and announced that they had docked at the Island of Kai.

*~*~*

Othelen and Jasper landed in occupied Solin. They didn’t risk docking in the port at Rethymon, the capital. Instead, they hid their boat in the green shrubbery of the cliffs of Waycross and made it to the capital on foot. It took them a day and Othelen seemed fine – as in, he was grumpy and didn’t talk much, but at least he decided to get Jasper safely to a city rather than leaving him to fend for himself. ‘We all remember how it ended last time’ he’d said glumly. Jas marvelled at Solin. When he’d left, it had been covered in snow, frozen over. Now spring was in full swing. Despite the plague, the trees were green, the grass lush and the sky clear. Being in Solin also made Jasper feel like he was finally doing something. He didn’t exactly have a plan. So far he was one young witch that would attempt the rescue of his royal parents from the clutches of a psychotic general. But he’d think of something. As long as he wasn’t holed up in the wolf caves.

Waycross was even more deserted than Rethymon. The stone buildings closer to the shore were crumbling. Many were overgrown by weeds and vines. There was no market and the only sign of anyone inhabiting the town were the few brave children that flashed between the buildings as they attempted to play. Their beaked masks freaked Jasper out and he subconsciously moved closer to Othelen. The wolf wore a black cloak and a hood was pulled low over his face. They both donned plague masks. Othelen’s thankfully covered the tattoos of his face and the hood covered his hair, but Jasper wasn’t going to risk his capture. The evening was still a little way off but without a plan, Jasper decided that entering Rethymon would be stupid. Othelen was tired, too, and he needed food. When Jas proposed they crash in a tavern, Othelen had agreed with a mute nod.

Jas entered the tavern alone. The only thing that distinguished it as one was the sign swinging out front in a forlorn wind. The doors and windows were closed but the doors opened when Jas pushed. The inside of the tavern was dark and the atmosphere heavy. The only two customers huddled in the corner drinking dubious ale from mugs. The barkeep stood behind the bar, polishing glasses out of habit more than anything. His eyes lit up with a cautious but hopeful light when he saw Jas enter. The prince figured it was hard to make a living these days, when most remained holed in their houses, ‘’mask off,’’ the barkeep said and Jas stopped a step from the bar. The barkeep gave him an apologetic smile, ‘’the General’s orders. All witches to report to him.’’

‘’I’m no witch,’’ Jas said with surprising ease even for himself. The words left a sour taste in his mouth. He unhooked his plague mask and popped it off.

The barkeep raised his eyebrows at the eye-patch covering Jas’ blue eye. Only his green one remained exposed, ‘’pirate?’’ he asked wearily.

‘’Privateer,’’ Jas replied with a smile.

‘’What’s under the eye-patch.’’

‘’You don’t want to see,’’ Jas said, ‘’trust me. It’s not pretty.’’

Thankfully, the barkeep seemed to belong to the squeamish folk because he glanced over Jas, eyes catching on the salt in his dark brown hair from the long voyage from Kai, and eventually nodded, ‘’pardon, sir. It’s just precaution. Some ale?’’

‘’Just a room. And food, if you have any.’’

The barkeep produced a brass key and a tray of two-day bread and dried strips of meat. Jas paid and took both upstairs. The stairs were narrow and mouldy but upstairs it was dry and warm, which was all Jas needed. He found the right room which was as dark as the rest of the tavern. There was a small table, a narrow bed and a window with wooden shutters. He set the tray down, got a fire going in the small fireplace and peeked out of the window. He’d hoped outside would be empty but a woman, possibly the barkeep’s wife, was burning linens out back. Probably after guests, to avoid the plague – an expensive precaution.

Jas remained by the window for as long as it took the woman to reduce the sheets to a pile of dust. He put out the fire, wiped her hands on her apron and disappeared inside the house as the sun began to set. The reek of smoke hung in the air, a little stronger than the scent of death. Once Jas was sure the woman would not re-appear he opened the window wider and gave a low whistle. A moment later Othelen appeared, still hooded. He climbed the side of the tavern with astounding speed and a moment later he landed on the wooden floor. He practically jumped on the meat on the tray, scarfing it down. Jas calmly walked over, cut himself a piece of bread and left Othelen to devour the rest of it.

Jas perched himself on the edge of the bed and ate his bread, thinking as he chewed. No brilliant idea on how to save his parents and his kingdom came to him. He was just one man. He had no army, just a hungry, grumpy wolf-man who would leave soon, anyway. Othelen was still eating when Jas finished, hood fallen back to reveal white hair. Jas locked the doors for safety and returned to the bed, braiding his long brown hair. He was tired. Maybe a plan would form once he’d rested.

Jas was about to tell Othelen that he was going to sleep when out of nowhere they were not alone anymore.

Jas’ eyes widened as he took in the very naked witch in front of him. He recognised the hell-witch by her horns and the blackness of the whites of her eyes, ‘’Pendragon,’’ he said.

‘’Glad I’m remembered,’’ Pendragon said cheerfully, double-coloured eyes shifting to Othelen who stared at her with wide eyes, crumbs around his mouth, ‘’I see you have gone to Kai, as I have told you to.’’

‘’It was pointless,’’ Jas said miserably.

‘’Was it?’’

‘’I didn’t find anything that could help me find a cure to save Solin.’’

‘’You didn’t?’’ Pendragon raised an eyebrow and Jasper realised she was still staring at Othelen.

Jas’ eyebrows shot up, ‘’um...he’s a person, not an ingredient.’’

Pendragon shrugged, like it didn’t bother her, ‘’I’m not the one who will decide that. You need to find the potion-master.’’

‘’What potion master?’’

Othelen suddenly stood, ‘’hold up, what are you talking about?’’ he demanded, the growl in his voice more prominent than usual, ‘’I’m going back to my pack tomorrow morning, as soon as I can.’’

‘’If you do that,’’ Pendragon said calmly, ‘’you will doom the whole world.’’

‘’Why should I care about humans?’’ Othelen snarled, ‘’they don’t mean nothing to me.’’

Now Pendragon’s entertained eyes slid to Jas, ‘’I don’t think that’s true,’’ Jas flushed, ‘’either way, do as you like. But if you want to have a shot at stopping this madness, you need to seek out the potion-master at the Moriyan Quarters. You will recognise them by a rose tattoo on their body.’’

‘’The assassin rose?’’ Jas stared, ‘’you want me to find an assassin potion-maker and make him co-operate with us?’’

Pendragon sighed. Now she looked irritated, like this was all more of a bother than it was worth, ‘’gods, you two just need to get your act together. Wolf-boy, yes, you need to stay here if the humans are ever to get rid of this plague for the witch hunts to stop. Princeling, yes, you need to co-operate with assassins and shape-shifters and a whole posse of other strange beings, so wipe that annoying look off your face,’’ she crossed her arms over her bare chest, ‘’any other questions?’’

Othelen glowered at her but Jas’ mind whirred, ‘’the potion-maker in the Moriyan Quarters with an assassin rose. I understand.’’

‘’Great,’’ Pendragon rolled her eyes and turned to go.

‘’Why are you doing this?’’ Jas blurted, before he could stop himself, ‘’you don’t seem like the kind to help from the kindness of your heart,’’ he wondered if that comment would end with him impaled on one of Pendragon’s horns.

But the hell-witch looked more amused than anything, ‘’my sister is building a witch empire in the North,’’ she said, ‘’I don’t like being bested, so I can’t exactly sit on my ass,’’ she gave a wave, swiped her hand in front of her and was gone.

Once Pendragon disappeared, Othelen grew agitated. He stormed around the room, from one corner to the other, ranting and raving. Jas figured it was as much to do with Pendragon’s announcement as it was with the closed quarters of the tavern. Othelen knew he couldn’t leave the room. He felt trapped. The animal in him wanted out, ‘’sit down,’’ Jas requested softly.

‘’Who does she think she is?’’ Othelen stormed across the room, hands fisted, ‘’you stupid witches are always poking your noses into our business, telling us what to do. Oh, Othelen, take me to Kainan,’’ Jas flinched as Othelen mimicked him poorly in a high-pitched, childish voice, ‘’oh, Othelen, stay in this gods forsaken place away from your pack and help save humankind. To hell with that,’’ he snarled.

‘’If you don’t help us, witches are going to die out.’’

‘’So what?’’ Othelen was getting more and more wound up, ‘’you don’t see anyone crying over my kind, and there’s a handful of us left!’’

Jasper didn’t know what to say to that so he just whispered again, ‘’please. Sit down.’’

His heart was pounding. He couldn’t think straight and Othelen’s temper wasn’t helping. Here was his chance. Maybe he couldn’t help his parents straight away but if he really could come up with a cure, then there’d be no more plague. Witches would be left alone. This was possibly their only shot to save the world and Othelen wasn’t going to do it...he wasn’t...

Jas’ eyes filled with tears and his voice cracked as he said, ‘’Othelen, please.’’

It happened in a flash.

Jas blinked and where Othelen had stood a second before, a white-gold wolf now gazed at him with calm brown eyes. The wolf pounced and Jas flinched, but Othelen only landed on the bed next to him. His massive furry shape took up most of the bed as he settled down, leaving enough space for Jas to lie down. Jas took a long look at the wolf, at his gentle eyes and calming presence and wondered if it was really Othelen. Had it not been for his clothes in tatters on the floor, Jas would have doubted it. Slowly, he shuffled closer to the wolf that had graced his nest over the last weeks and extended his hand.

Just before it touched the wolf’ cheek, it disappeared.

Jas flinched again when his wrist was locked in Othelen’s vice-like grip, inches from his face. Othelen was back, naked, where the wolf had been, ‘’don’t,’’ he growled, but his voice wobbled, and Jas realised something.

‘’You’re touch starved,’’ he said softly.

‘’I’m not.’’

But as Jas pushed his wrist forward, Othelen’s hold on it wavered, loosened. The fingertips of Jas’ hand touched his cheek and Othelen’s grip loosened even more. He was gritting his teeth, putting everything into trying to hold Jas off, but they both knew he needed this. Being alone could be deadly for a wolf who’d been part of a pack his whole life. Othelen’s grip slipped further and finally Jas’ hand cupped his cheek. It was soft and smooth and warm. Othelen slumped in defeat, dropping his hand, ‘’you’re not pack,’’ he whispered miserably.

Jasper had never seen him so vulnerable. He put his other hand on Othelen’s other cheek, cradling his face, ‘’I’m the only thing you have right now,’’ he leaned in closer, ‘’let me help you. As a thank you for keeping your promise.’’

Othelen glanced at Jas and the prince was surprised to see that he looks anxious, ‘’you won’t like it.’’

‘’That doesn’t matter.’’

‘’It’s weird. For someone who isn’t a wolf.’’

‘’Do whatever you need to,’’ Jasper pushed. He could do this, if it meant Othelen would stay, if it meant he would help. Somehow, he was vital to this mission.

Othelen looked at him again. He looked so open. He wasn’t frowning or getting angry, like he usually did around Jas. Now the prince could see similarities between Othelen and the wolf that had saved his life. Finally, Othelen said, very quietly, ‘’lay down.’’

Jasper did. The mattress was thin and uncomfortable, the covers worn, but that didn’t matter. He closed his eyes, hoping that whatever Othelen needed wouldn’t be painful. Did wolves bite each other? Othelen in wolf form could easily take Jas’ head off. Those morbid thoughts clouded Jas’ mind but he stayed still.

And then Othelen touched him.

Jas’ breath caught at the softest brush of Othelen’s nose against his neck as he inhaled his scent. Othelen’s eyes were closed as he took in Jas’ smell, brushing his nose down the nape of his neck. Once he got Jas’ consent, it was hard to control himself. His wolf was riling inside him, uncontrollable for the first time in a long while. It was hard not to replace his nose with his lips.

Jas held his breath as Othelen pressed himself flush against Jas, heavy but warm and the witch was suddenly very aware of how naked Othelen was.

At first Othelen’s touches were slow, experimental, and Jas could tell he was holding back. But gradually, his hands grew bolder. Jas found himself relaxing. And then, with a yelp, his eyes flew open as he was yanked up. In a split second Othelen sat on the bed, leaning against the wall, and Jas fell in his lap. The prince didn’t even have the time to be embarrassed. Othelen nuzzled into his neck again, hands sliding over his hips and waist, brushing his thighs, moving back to his stomach and up his chest in broad, warm circles. Jas bit his lip, leaning into Othelen. Othelen seemed to like that. His hands ventured down and on the way up, his fingers hooked into Jas’ tunic. He made an impatient noise in the back of his throat and tugged it up. Jasper blushed, ‘’w-wait Othelen...’’

Othelen pulled back a little and Jas saw that his brown eyes were glazed, his mouth relaxed... he’d let whatever instinct controlled his wolf to take over. Dumbfounded, Jas let Othelen peel the tunic off, ‘’do you do this with other wolves?’’ he squeaked as Othelen pressed his hands to Jas’ bare chest. Othelen didn’t reply and Jas knew that the way Othelen touched him was due to whatever connection the prince had to his wolf. Othelen’s calloused fingers brushed against Jas’ nipples, accidentally, but Jas sucked in a breath anyway, and shuddered. Othelen’s hand went back down, repeating the action, and the further down, thumb skimming Jas’ belly-button. Othelen’s hands ventured to Jas’ thighs and on the next upstroke, one hand brushed Jas’ clothed member.

Jas turned scarlet and squeaked. Othelen seemed to like that, too, because his hand returned. He palmed Jasper through his trousers and the prince grasped his wrist desperately, ‘’O-Othelen, um...’’ he felt himself go hard under Othelen’s hand.

Othelen made an impatient noise, swatting Jas’ hand away. His hands returned with vigour, sliding over Jas’ back and chest and shoulders, arms, thighs, legs. His fingers tangled into Jas’ braid, brushed the back of his neck. Then came the first skim of Othelen’s mouth against Jas’ jaw. After that, the first proper kiss, behind his ear, and Jas knew that things were getting out of hand. However Othelen had decided to touch him, this wasn’t it – he’d lost all control. And Jas had never been touched in such a way. He was a sheltered prince. And he knew in that moment that if he didn’t stop Othelen right then, he’d let him do whatever he wanted.

And they’d both regret it the moment Othelen regained his senses.

‘’Othelen,’’ it took everything Jas had to put his hands firmly on Othelen’s shoulders and push him away enough to look at him, ‘’you need to stop.’’

Othelen’s brown eyes darkened and Jas yelped when suddenly he was pulled into a crushing hug. Othelen’s hands pressed to his back, hard, his mouth latching onto Jasper’s neck. Othelen’s touches became more intent, harder, hotter, and Jas’ mind went woozy. He needed to calm Othelen down, fast, or there was no helping either of them.

Jasper shoved all his weight forward. Othelen blinked, surprised, as he found himself toppling backwards, hands splaying across the bed. Before he could touch Jas again, the prince pinned his wrists down. He felt Othelen tense, ready to rip out of his grip, and quickly pressed a kiss to Othelen’s temple.

Othelen stilled.

Just for a second. Jas could feel his curiosity and confusion and he took advantage of it, kissing Othelen’s temple again, ‘’you need to calm down now, yes?’’ he moved his hands from Othelen’s wrists, lacing their fingers together. He kissed his cheekbone and Othelen took a deep breath, eyes fluttering shut. Jas went further, kissing his cheek, then his jaw, his chin and then his lips, because he couldn’t stop himself. It was brief, the barest of pecks, and Othelen didn’t notice. Thankfully. If he was aware, Jas would probably find himself with a ripped out throat because of it. And yet he couldn’t help kissing Othelen again before forcing himself to lean back. He watched Othelen for a moment, the gorgeous mix of honey-gold skin and white hair, the perfect shape of his mouth, the beautifully sculpted chest...he was like a god. A god Jasper couldn’t fall for.

You’re a prince, Jasper reminded himself, you have a mission. Snap out of it.

He unlaced his fingers from Othelen’s and brushed his hair out of his face, wholly innocent. Calming. The kind of touches they should have exchanged.

Without a warning Othelen opened his eyes and they were clear, sharp. Othelen was back. He stared up at Jasper and the witch snatched his hand back. Othelen stared and stared, unable to contemplate why Jas was straddling him shirtless. Mostly because his eyes concentrated on the sprinkle of freckles across his shoulders and chest, the light dusting over his stomach. On the blush on his cheeks and the parting of his mouth. On the way his dishevelled braid fell over his shoulder. Oh, gods, no. Othelen shut his eyes, promising himself not to open them until Jas got off him, ‘’I told you it’d be weird,’’ he said tightly. Gods only knew what his wolf had made him do.

‘’It wasn’t,’’ Jas voice was...soft. He never spoke softly to Othelen. Not like that. Othelen fought back a shiver, ‘’it was just...intense.’’

‘’Get off,’’ Othelen said, not harshly. Just...tiredly. He missed Jas’ weight as soon as it was gone and it confused him. He quickly threw the frayed tavern blanket over himself. When he opened his eyes, Jas was putting his tunic on. Othelen licked his lips nervously, ‘’did I...kiss you?’’

‘’No,’’ Jas lied, back to him.

‘’Not anywhere?’’

‘’Not anywhere.’’

‘’Did we do...anything sexual?’’

‘’No,’’ Jas turned to him, fixing his braid, ‘’don’t worry. It was wholly appropriate.’’

Jas’ voice was suddenly cold, withdrawn, and Othelen found that it stung. He wanted to snap that if Jas had been shirtless then it hadn’t been appropriate. Did he not want it to be appropriate? Before he could say anything more, Jas said, ‘’I’m going to go get some fresh air. Stay here.’’

Othelen made a split-second decision. Or, rather, he’d know what he would do from the start and had been irritated by his moral compass.

‘’I’ll do it.’’

Jas turned from the doors, ‘’do what?’’

‘’I’ll stay,’’ Othelen promised, ‘’until we find that potion-master.’’

Jasper looked taken aback.

Then, finally, Othelen was graced with a smile.

*~*~*

For a long time, Bren grappled with what to do. He came to a final decision late at night and only realised the mistake he made with coming to Orin immediately when he entered his chambers. And found Orin sitting up in bed, shirtless, reading a small, leather bound book. Bren went bright-red as Orin looked towards him, ‘’o-oh, I’m sorry, y-your majesty,’’ he stammered.

Orin put his book to the side and smiled, ‘’are you alright?’’

‘’I-‘’

‘’Close the door.’’

Bren’s heart skipped a beat but he did as he was told. When he turned, Orin patted the spit next to him, ‘’come here.’’

‘’It’s not proper.’’

‘’Come.’’

Uncertainly, Bren approached the bed. He stopped by it and Orin patted the spot next to him pointedly. Flushed, Bren slid onto the bed, sitting back on his heels, ‘’your majesty,’’ he whispered, before Orin could request more, ‘’I’d like to ask you to assign me a job.’’

Orin raised both eyebrows, ‘’a job?’’

‘’So that I may earn money. I will pay you back the money you paid for me,’’ he averted his gaze, ‘’so, please. Let me leave the palace. I will find a dwelling in the city.’’

Orin’s heart stopped. He’d lost Wrath. Now he would lose Bren, too, ‘’you were very expensive.’’

‘’I’m a hard worker.’’

‘’Bren-‘’

‘’It’s the only way,’’ Bren blurted and when he looked up, his eyes were filled with tears, ‘’getting me out of here is the only way you’ll get Wrath back.’’

‘’Bren.’’

‘’Please, your majesty-‘’

 ‘’Bren,’’ Orin pointed to his lap, ‘’come here.’’

Bren shook his head desperately, ‘’I beg you-‘’

‘’Come here.’’

‘’I can’t. I can’t, please-‘’

‘’Bren,’’ suddenly Orin had a hold of one of Bren’s small, pale hands. He was tugging him towards him, ‘’come here.’’

Bren felt his resolve crumble. A tear ran down his cheek as he crawled into Orin’s lap, straddling him. Orin cradled his face and wiped away his tears, ‘’you’re not going away.’’

‘’Your majesty, please, I-‘’

‘’We’re going to get him back,’’ Orin whispered.

Bren closed his eyes. A sob broke from his mouth, ‘’it’s not possible. He won’t even speak to me.’’

The King tilted Bren’s head up, ‘’open your eyes,’’ Bren did. Orin leaned forward and kissed a tear away. Bren flinched and Orin felt sad that Bren was so scared of love, ‘’I want to be with Wrath. He’s had my heart since I met him and he will have it until I die,’’ Orin gave Bren a small smile, ‘’but I also want to be with you. And it’s not because you’re beautiful. We’re connected. I know you feel it, too. It’s why we can’t stay apart. I know you want to be with me, and with Wrath. And I think Wrath wants the same thing.’’

Bren stared at the King with wide eyes, ‘’but how?’’ he asked finally, voice wobbly, ‘’there’s three of us.’’

‘’So what?’’ Orin chuckled softly, ‘’this is the court of Koln. It would hardly be the strangest thing to happen here,’’ he bumped his forehead against Bren’s, ‘’we’ll get him back.’’

A weight lifted off Bren’s shoulders, ‘’yes.’’

And then they were kissing, holding onto each other desperately, Bren’s hand fisted in Orin’s thick, golden cascade of hair, Orin’s hands on his face, keeping him in place. They tumbled into bed. Their clothes disappeared.

Orin was a wholly different lover to Wrath. The Archduke was like a tornado, a volcano, a force to be reckoned with that swept through Bren mercilessly, that destroyed and put him back together, rearranged him, set him on fire. Made him want more. Orin was a river, full of turns and twists but always calm, controlled, beautiful and wild below the surface. Every touch was a caress, every kiss an ocean’s song and Bren was melting, melting...

After, neither felt like parting. It would have felt perverse, lying where Wrath had lain, except Bren knew that soon, they’d all be together. Orin had sounded so sure that only a madman would doubt him. So he allowed himself to lie with his head on Orin’s chest, tracing patterns across his gold skin. Orin’s large hand was at the back of his neck, comforting, secure. He made Bren feel safe, ‘’tell me how you met,’’ Bren requested softly.

Orin brushed his hand through Bren’s hair. He was silent for a moment, and then, ‘’I was a young King. I wanted to secure good relationships with all nobles. I’d arranged to visit Duke Trey Breedlove and his young husband at their estate one summer. Except when I arrived, the house was empty. The Duke, lost in his studies, had forgotten about me,’’ Orin smiled at the memory, ‘’it would have been insulting if it hadn’t been so ridiculously funny. The guards with me went about harassing the limited staff of the gloomy house into making some grand meal. They rushed to contact the Duke. And I went exploring. The Breedlove estate is rather removed from everything. It’s surrounded by wheat fields. There wasn’t much to see but it was relaxing, so I went for a long walk.’’

‘’It was hot, since it was summer. I decided to rest and spotted a tree in the distance. I went to it. And there he was,’’ Orin’s smile softened, ‘’Wrath had fallen asleep under that tree, reading a book. When I saw him, I wondered how someone could look so much like a soldier and yet so much like someone who needed protecting. And then Wrath roused and the first thing I saw in his eyes was this exuding loneliness of a soldier called from the barracks to marry rich for a family that died of sickness.’’

‘’From then on, I visited when I could. The Duke was there rarely. But Wrath was always there, abandoned like a jewel tossed to the bottom of a desk drawer. We slotted together so easily, like me and you, Bren. I couldn’t get enough of him. I suppose at first I was the only interesting thing that had happened to him; and then I was his ticket out of that forlorn house. But once I brought him to court for the first time, that changed. He actively seeked me out, spent time with me, asked me to dance at parties. And not because I was King. He’d had enough wealth not to care. He had a husband already. But we enjoyed each other’s company.’’

‘’I fell in love first, as you can imagine. Wrath was immune to my charms,’’ Orin chuckled, ‘’I knew it was wrong. He had a husband. But I couldn’t stop myself, not when the Duke didn’t treat him like Wrath deserved. He started staying over at court more and more often. When Wrath figured out that I was wooing him, he was shocked. As if no one would ever want someone like him. But I wanted him with all my heart and one day I came to their house, when the Duke was there, and laid out my offer. The Duke could have anything he wanted if I could have Wrath as my mistress. The Duke took one look at the way Wrath gazed at me, and agreed. It still took me quite a while to get him to say he loves me, but...’’ Orin’s smile turned sad, ‘’we were always happy.’’

Bren’s heart clenched painfully. He was the reason that happiness disappeared. But they’d set it straight. He snuggled closer to Orin to let him know as much. The King brushed his hand through Bren’s silver hair, ‘’what about you?’’

Bren didn’t like talking about his past, ‘’it’s exactly as you might imagine. I was born poor but pretty. My family took advantage of that when things got tough. I got sold. I kept getting sold ever since.’’

‘’You’re not getting sold ever again,’’ Orin said and there was an edge to his voice, as if he was mad at everyone who had ever hurt Bren. He kissed his temple, ‘’from now on, all you’re going to be is happy.’’

*~*~*

Merry woke up the next day, wretched from sleep on the damp, infested earth of Rhein by a sickening feeling. He lurched into the nearest bushes and was loudly sick, waking up the whole camp in the process. Hartman was at his side in a flash, ‘’what is it? Are you ill?’’

‘’I don’t know,’’ he’d been throwing up a whole lot.

‘’He ate the same thing as us,’’ Luciana frowned.

Slava gave the King an uncertain look, ‘’maybe...maybe he’s caught it...’’

‘’Don’t be stupid,’’ Archana Starteller said with surprising force, ‘’vomiting is not a symptom.’’

‘’We should check,’’ Riese Sarin said, forever the voice of reason, ‘’majesty, would you mind undressing.’’

Merry was shuddering in the early morning chill and he felt like crawling into a hole and dying, but he nodded. He didn’t want to think about what would happen if he lifted his tunic and was covered in sores and boils. He tried to look confident as he pulled his tunic over his head.

He heard the party gasp and his blood ran cold. Oh, gods, how had he not noticed the boils...

But then there was a hand on his stomach and that wouldn’t happen if he was sick. Merry heard Heartman’s awed whisper, ‘’how had we not noticed?’’

Merry threw his tunic off and looked down. He immediately felt sick again. He’d been in the same dirty tunic since the ship, he hadn’t even though to look down under its too-big folds...

‘’A child...’’ Hartman whispered, voice muffled by her plague mask.

His stomach was large. Merry had studied pregnancies. He was...possibly four, if not four and a half months along. That would mean that it happened during his wedding night with Tristan, maybe a little later, ‘’oh my God.’’

‘’That’s why he has been vomiting!’’ Slava, the pirate doctor, rushed forward, ‘’let me see.’’

She examined Merry as best as she could without her tools, calling for a cloak and drink. She proclaimed the baby intact, heart beating. Merry was bundled up in his clothes and a cloak, in a state of shock. Gods, he had been so exposed to the deadly air...the baby had to live. Tristan would never forgive him if the baby died because he’d disobeyed his orders.

‘’Don’t worry,’’ Riese said, as if he could read Merry’s thoughts, ‘’we’ll get you home safe.’’

*~*~*

Jex figured they would have made it to Port Maisdal by nightfall. With the soldiers hot on their heels and the kids’ pace, they barely made it for midnight.

They were all bone-tired and terrified. They still had not lost the soldiers. Jex heard them calling, saw the flash of their fire, in the forest that they picked their way through, down the cliff to the port. He at least hadn’t lost any of the kids. They were all unharmed but that wouldn’t be the case if they didn’t get on that pirate ship before the soldiers reached them.

Through the trees, Jex saw the first flash of the sand of the beach. He reached behind his belt, pulling out a flare; with his other hand he pulled along five year old Aaliyah who was crying, as always.

They broke through the trees onto the abandoned beach, breathing hard. Jex inhaled a breath of relief. They’d made it. He raised the device Vysarane had made, ready to let the flare fly.

And froze.

The waters were dark, the night black, but Jex was not blind.

The horizon was empty.

‘’Where are they?’’ Maha looked around desperately, ‘’where are your friends?’’

Through his panic, Jex hadn’t anticipated the pirates not being there. The assassins could have sent word that there was no cargo. They had no idea about the kids. And Jex hadn’t come up with a plan B.

He raised the device desperately. A flare shot into the sky, giving away their location, but maybe...just maybe...

The bright light hung in the air for a moment and then fell, extinguished by the black waves.

No reply flare came. No boat. No ship appeared on the horizon.

The shouts of the soldiers were closer now. Any moment and they’d break out through the trees and see the gathering of witches on the beach. They’d all die.

‘’Run,’’ Jex whispered.

He had no idea where to, but the pirates weren’t there. That meant Jex was the kids’ only shot at survival.

And that shot wasn’t looking very good.

They set off sprinting.

Chapter Text

‘’Jamael!’’

The assassin prince stood at the front of the assassin keep, or what was left of it. Behind him, the massive building hugged the walls of the mountain, strong and untouched. Unfortunately, the front of it had been exposed to the mountain paths below where the Moriyan soldiers camped with all their canons and endless supply of rocks. What had once been the foyer and the front doors was now a pile of rubble. The stone cracked in spider webs and disappeared under rocks and dust. That was all the damage the keep would sustain. The assassins made sure of that. They picked off soldiers, one by one, and disabled the cannons and catapults as they went. Now they only had to fear two things. One, the remaining soldiers growing desperate enough to charge the keep and engage in hand to hand combat, and two – the assassins starving to death with their only way down the mountain blocked by militaria.

Now safe from the reach of the flying rocks, Jamael stood in the ruined foyer, leaning on the ruined wall and looking out at the stuffy Moriyan night. Summer was coming and a painful feeling in Jamael’s chest reminded him how long it had been since he’d seen a certain someone.

Three months.

Nearly three months since Jamael forced Jex out of the keep.

He wished he could go and look for him.

Upon hearing Vysarane’s shout, he turned, ‘’what is it?’’

The other assassin stopped in front of Jammy, out of breath. Her goggles whirred as they adjusted to the darkness of the foyer, ‘’a flare,’’ Vys panted, ‘’a flare has gone up.’’

Jamael’s heart gave a tiny, hopeful beat before he realised that he hadn’t given Jex a flare, ‘’where?’’ Jamael demanded, pulling himself away from the wall.

Vys matched his pace as they hurried down the foyer and into the keep, lit by candles, ‘’at the back path leading up the mountains. Whoever it is must have travelled down the border with Aramea and Falain to avoid the soldiers.’’

Jamael swore under his breath and broke into a jog. This was possibly the worst time to take in refugees but then again he wasn’t going to leave them stranded. In ten minutes he cleared the keep and came bursting out of the back door, onto the narrow path...the narrow path Jex had taken when Jamael had last seen him. He tried not to think about it as he edged along it in the darkness. The residues of the flare hung above in a pale blue puff of smoke. A couple minutes later, Jamael spotted figures in the distance. Dark shapes, women, by the looks of it. He sped up and a moment later he came face to face with them. The moonlight shone on their faces.

‘’Princess!’’ Jamael’s eyes widened as he took in princess Aradhana. She clutched Madarlon, princess Ilithiya’s wife, by the elbow. Madarlon looked like she might collapse at any point, ‘’what is it?’’ Jamael demanded, heart spiking in panic, ‘’where is princess Ilithiya?’’

He knew what had happened before Madarlon burst into tears, before Aradhana whispered, ‘’King Moein has executed his sister,’’ a tears rolled down her brown cheek, ‘’Ili is dead and the Citadel has lost its Moriyan link.’’

Jamael’s Hyndestane blue eyes darkened, ‘’not yet,’’ he said tightly, ‘’not until the assassin keep stands.’’

*~*~*

‘’We need to split up,’’ Jex said urgently.

Maha liked to pretend like she was a fearless twelve year old but right then, panting and tired, in the middle of the dark forest, Jex’s words made her flinch. She could hear the soldiers pursuing them still. They cracked branches and called orders. Jex and the kid had been trying to lose them for...what, two days? They were all hungry and tired and terrified, but they couldn’t stop.

‘’Go for the mountain,’’ Jex said in a hushed, desperate whisper, ‘’you all know where it is. Go up to the assassin keep. It is our only chance.’’

To Maha, the mountain seemed impossibly far, but there was no time for objections.

‘’In pairs,’’ Jex hissed, ‘’go!’’

He grabbed five year old Aaliyah by the hand. She was crying again. Even though Maha was much older, she wished it was her going with Jex. He was tall and strong and he knew what he was doing. But Aaliyah needed him more and Maha forced herself to be strong. She felt a wave of gratitude when Hadi slipped his hand in hers, even if they argued all the time, ‘’let’s go,’’ the ten year old boy whispered, pulling Maha left.

They set off. They were both skinny and lithe; they jumped over logs, avoided branches and slipped past bushes. Maha cleared her head. She was the oldest out of all the kids; she had to take care of them. She ran faster and pulled Hadi along. In her head, she drew a mental map. They had been heading towards the mountain before they split up. So if they were going left, they would have to do an arc and get back on track, many kilometres down. Well, as long as they got clear of the soldiers that shouldn’t matter.

Maha was so concentrated on running without tripping that she didn’t hear it until Hadi urgently squeezed her hand, ‘’what’s that?’’ his voice trembled.

The sound of hooves filled the air; the earth below Maha’s feet trembled. Her blood ran cold, ‘’horses,’’ she breathed, ‘’they’ve got horses. Faster, Hadi!’’

But it was no use. Soon enough the spaces between the trees lit up with torches. The yelling of the riders filled the air as loud as the thundering of the hooves of their horses. There could only be, what, three of them? But to Maha it was too much. Three grown men, with weapons, on horseback...she imagined them cutting her down without even getting off and shuddered.

He appeared out of nowhere.

One moment the path was dark and clear. In the next, with a triumphant cry, a soldier thundered into view, blocking their way. The other three followed, grinning wildly. The fire of their torches illuminated their faces. Maha and Hadi froze. Hadi gripped her hand so hard she couldn’t feel her fingers.

‘’I’ve got it,’’ one of the men said. Maha realised he had a bow in his hands, an arrow already aimed.

And he was pointing it at her.

With a strangled cry, Maha shoved Hadi out of the way and lunged herself at the ground. The arrow swished past their heads as they fell to the ground. The soldier laughed, as if he was hunting rabbits, not children. Maha gave Hadi a terrified look. The torches reflected against his double coloured eyes, filled with tears.

Maha’s eyes widened.

The torches.

They had fire.

And she was a fire witch.

She jumped to her feet, ‘’fire,’’ she hissed at Hadi, pressing a hand to his chest.

His eyes widened, too, and he scrambled to his feet, ‘’wind!’’

Maha whirled round and raised her hands.

The soldiers cried out as the flames of their torches erupted upwards, scalding their hands. They dropped their torches on instinct, at the hooves of their horses, and Maha willed the fire to burn, to not be extinguished by the grass. Hadi, who couldn’t have much training at all, threw up his hands with a cry. A small wind picked up – not hard enough to throw the soldiers off their horses.

But hard enough to feed the fire.

It spread in an uneven line, separating the soldiers from the witches. It cut off their path, but it didn’t matter. Maha would find them another one. She narrowed her eyes, gritted her teeth...sweat broke out on her brow. And the fire shot up again. The horses made distressed noises, backing up, buckling. But it didn’t do much. Already, the fire was lessening. The man in the middle jumped off his horse and with a blood thirsty glare, he drew his sword and covered his eyes as he breached the flames.

‘’RUN!’’ Maha yelled at Hadi, and they split up, running in opposite directions. The soldier would have to choose one of them to follow...but at least that would mean the other one could get away.

*~*~*

The Moriyan quarters were more alive than the rest of Solin.

The walls had pretty much been closed off to outsiders since the plague broke out. It took Jasper and Othelen quite a while to bargain with the guards to let them in. Jas had some Moriyan blood in him – his great grandfather had been the second prince of Moriya, although you couldn’t tell by looking at him and it certainly didn’t help with getting in. By the time he and Othelen stepped onto the cobblestone streets, the wolf was irritated and snappy. To be fair, he had been like that since morning and Jas had insistently avoided his gaze. After what happened the night before...well, there was definitely tension in the air.

Jas forgot about that when he entered the Moriyan quarters. He wore his plague mask and the eye patch underneath for extra protection; Othelen wore a mask, too, and a hood covering his white hair. Here, though, no one else did. Little kids played in the muddy street with balls and home-made dolls. Women and omegas walked to and fro with baskets of laundry or small children propped up on their hips. People rushed about, lugging wood, carts and animals with them. It was as if the plague had never reached this place.

‘’So where do we find this potion master?’’ Othelen asked quietly, ‘’we can’t just walk up to someone and ask if they know an ex-assassin.’’

Jasper chewed his lip. He hadn’t thought about that. But the answer proved much simpler than either of them expected. As they walked down the streets, Jas spotted a wooden sign hanging from one of the narrow buildings – HERBS & MEDICINE. And below it, in the corner, was a rose bud etched roughly with a knife, almost like a hint, ‘’there,’’ Jas breathed and hurried across the street, narrowly avoiding a hay cart. Othelen kissed his teeth but followed him.

Inside it was only slightly warmer than outside and it smelled strongly of incense and medicinal balms. Othelen, with his heightened sense of smell, nearly gagged. He was glad for the plague mask. Shelves took up most of the wall space, housing everything from potions to dried herbs to strange looking, gooey concoctions. And behind the till stood an elderly woman.

Her back was slightly hunched, her hair grey, her Moriyan-brown skin wrinkled. She could have been perhaps seventy, but her dark eyes were sharp behind her goggles. She was crushing bits of herb into a pouch and didn’t seem to pay Othelen and Jas any heed. Jasper approached her and cleared his throat, ‘’um...excuse me, we are...looking for the master potion-maker.’’

Silence.

‘’He will have the,’’ Jas lowered his voice, ‘’assassin rose on his body.’’

Before he even finished his sentence, the woman snapped, ‘’never heard of him.’’

Jasper’s eyebrows shot up. He took his mask off, revealing his eye-patch, ‘’there is a rose on your sign-‘’

‘’A mere flower,’’ the woman snapped, giving him a stern look, ‘’good for teas. Now, are you going to buy something or are you trying to waste my time?’’ before Jas could reply, she turned around and began rummaging in a wooden box filled with vials. Jas picked up on her mutterings, ‘’master potion-maker...oh, please, after all this time...bit late now, isn’t it?’’ she turned back around with a vial of purple liquid in her wrinkled, brown hands. She shook it and Jas watched as it solidified into tiny crystals that she poured into the sack, ‘’why won’t your friend take his mask off?’’ she demanded, irritated, ‘’bad manners. Kids these days.’’

Jasper paled, ‘’he’s not...um-‘’ the woman froze and her eyes shot to Othelen, suddenly. Jas blanched, ‘’uh, he’s not sick or anything!’’

‘’No,’’ the woman agreed, her voice softer now, more...intrigued, ‘’but there’s something off about him. Or, rather, he’s not entirely human.’’

‘’We should go,’’ Jas said quickly, feeling the foul taste of panic in his mouth.

‘’Easy, witch,’’ the woman said casually, ‘’I don’t like the authorities and they don’t like me. No one in the quarters will report you.’’

Jasper stared at her, ‘’but how...how did you know I was-‘’

‘’Vibrations,’’ the woman said simply. She hobbled out from behind the till and approached Othelen, who shifted uneasily, fighting off the urge to growl at her. She reached him.

And with surprising speed for her age, she snatched the mask off his face.

She gasped when she saw the black markings running down either side of his face and the white eyebrows. Jasper braced himself but instead of shrieking, a relieved grin spread on the woman’s lips, ‘’finally...’’ she whispered, ‘’the key ingredient.’’

‘’What?’’ Othelen blinked at her.

But she’d already turned to Jasper. Her back seemed a little straighter, and her eyes behind her goggles were bright, ‘’you have done well to find me,’’ she said, ‘’I am Chaya, assassin and master potion maker. I will make you a cure.’’

*~*~*

‘’This is Mehedi,’’ Chaya motioned to the man at the desk. She’d brought them upstairs, to her room. The small bed had been pushed to the side to make space for a laboratory of sorts. Mehedi sat at it, busy mixing things, ‘’his husband has fallen ill. He has helped me with attempts to manufacture a cure,’’ she gave Othelen and Jas a secretive smile, ‘’and his son runs the Citadel.’’

‘’No progress,’’ Mehedi looked tired but as he raised his eyes to Othelen, his tiredness faded, ‘’oh my gods,’’ he whispered, ‘’is...is that...’’

Chaya nodded, ‘’a Kai wolf,’’ she picked up a thick syringe off the table and turned to Othelen, ‘’I will need your blood.’’

‘’Uh...’’ Othelen didn’t look convinced, ‘’all of it?’’

‘’No,’’ Chaya nodded towards a wooden chair, ‘’just a little. Enough to see what makes you tick.’’

‘’I’m sorry, but...’’ Jas stepped forward, ‘’how is Othelen’s blood going to help?’’

‘’All humans are descended from the first wolf people,’’ Chaya said, readying her syringe, ‘’witches have a little bit of their blood left in their veins. The wolves of the Kai island, however, have kept an almost identical biological make up. The first wolf people were graced by the gods, borne of them. They were perfect beings, with immune systems far surpassing those of humans,’’ Chaya gave Othelen a look, ‘’of course evolution has left a mark on your people, too. If you were to come into contact with a sick person, you’d contract the plague,’’ she smiled, ‘’and then your body would fight it off. At least that’s the theory. I will mix your blood with the blood of Mudrik, Mehedi’s sick husband. That shall tell us if you are truly immune. If you are, your blood can help us manufacture a cure that will heal the world.’’

Othelen stared, ‘’that’s...a lot to take in.’’

‘’One step at a time,’’ Mehedi tried not to look too hopeful, ‘’first, the test.’’

To Jas’ surprise, Othelen glanced at him, as if for confirmation and courage. Then he slid into the chair.

Later, they all sat around one of the tables, filled with vials and liquids. Othelen was woozy from the blood loss so he’d been given a chocolate croissant – something he’d never eaten before. The rest drank tea. Jas couldn’t help but smile at Othelen’s expression when he bit into the chocolatey pastry; and then came a flood of profound gratitude for the wolf. He quickly turned to Chaya, sitting next to Mehedi, lest it make him emotional, ‘’Chaya,’’ he said, ‘’if you don’t mind, how...how did you go from assassin to a healer?’’

‘’A scientist,’’ Chaya corrected him mildly, ‘’and it had nothing to do with the plague. It happened in my youth, when I had barely finished my training at the Cana Kaale assassin keep. I came here with two other assassins to fulfil a revenge mission that made no sense from the beginning. Shady. Zee. Those girls were my sisters, in everything but blood,’’ she chuckled, ‘’stubborn creatures. I was the first who wanted to leave my assassin life behind, but I suppose it had something to do with me finding my soul mate, Leandro,’’ she smiled softly, ‘’we travelled around. We were wanted, for years – but eventually we were forgotten. Then we settled here and we lived out our lives, the four of us,’’ her eyes saddened, ‘’they are all gone now. Befallen to this plague, though I suppose I cannot complain. I lived out most of my life with them,’’ she unbuttoned the top three buttons of her colourful blouse to show Othelen and Jas the assassin rose tattooed above her breast, wrinkled but still prominent, ‘’now this is all that remains of my past life. A reminder,’’ she quickly buttoned up the blouse, ‘’I promised my girls, before they passed, that I would find a cure,’’ she gave Othelen and Jas a determined look, ‘’and find one I shall.’’

*~*~*

Qadir ran through the forest. He was a stocky, clumsy eight year old but every time he tripped or barged into a tree, he made no noise. He hadn’t spoken a word, hadn’t let any sound lose, since he lost his family to the plague. His escape was completely silent, but in the end, he was found anyway.

Maybe it was the cracking of the branches that he stepped on that gave him away.

Or maybe the dull thud of his body against the trees when he didn’t see them in the dark.

Either way, the end came, unexpected and swift.

One of the soldiers stepped out from behind a tree, blocking Qadir’s path. Qadir was only eight and a witchling – he didn’t know how to protect himself.

He could only scream, for the first time in a long time.

He let a terrified, helpless scream rip from his lungs as the soldier shoved him down and stabbed his sword through his back, all the way into his tiny, erratically beating heart. 

*~*~*

‘’Your majesty, petitioners!’’

Daran frowned, turning away from Airen. They were in the throne room, having a quiet, somewhat tense and a little awkward chat about Airen’s diet and condition. He was six months pregnant already and his stomach was becoming a round globe. Daran had to resist touching it, ‘’I am not taking petitions today.’’

The guard who announced the petitioners looked confused, too, ‘’I know, majesty, but-‘’

Suddenly, the doors were flung open and a dozen hooded and masked peasant spilled into the room. Daran frowned at them, stepping in front of Airen automatically to shield him from view, ‘’what is the meaning of this?’’ Kaen, standing in the corner where he had been conversing with Brannen and Airleas quietly, demanded.

The figures went down on their knees, bowing their heads to Daran, ‘’your majesty, we come with a petition,’’ one said, voice muffled by the mask.

‘’The guards will take your request,’’ Daran said coldly, ‘’I will look it over with the others.’’

The figures rose, ‘’it is of the highest importance,’’ another person said, ‘’to be put in effect immediately.’’

‘’Don’t presume to rule for me,’’ Daran’s voice was ice. Airen peeked over his shoulder cautiously.

‘’I beg your forgiveness, majesty,’’ one of the hooded figures stepped forward. He unnerved Daran. As he approached, Daran gave a subtle sign to his guards at the doors. They marched forward just as Daran put his hand on his sword, ready to retaliate if weapons were drawn. But the hooded figure just stopped in front of Daran, the beak of their mask pressed against Daran’s chest, ‘’I beg your forgiveness,’’ they repeated, loud and bold, ‘’and offer you this gift.’’

Too late.

Daran’s eyes widened as hands were raised to his face.

Hands covered in boils and sores.

Plagued hands.

They pressed against his cheeks like vices, ‘’long live her majesty, Queen Marietta Moreland,’’ the plagued peasant hissed.

Daran drew his sword and struck the figure. His sword went through their chest and they crumpled to the floor in a pool of blood. Airen screamed, backing away and clutching his stomach. The other figures lunged for the other members of the royal family, with plagued hands outstretched. Without a second thought the guards grabbed them, hauling them away before anyone was touched.

Except Daran.

‘’Doctor!’’ Airleas shrieked, ‘’get a doctor!’’ he ran to his son but didn’t dare touch him.

Daran was trembling. For the first time since the war, he was trembling. Things had finally began aligning themselves...he was going to be a father...

‘’Get Airen out of here,’’ he whispered to his father, ‘’lock down the castle. Don’t let Airen leave the quarantine room. Pass food only through a flap in the doors.’’

Airen’s eyes widened. He looked truly terrified, ‘’Daran-‘’ his voice was chocked.

Daran concentrated his intense gaze on Airen’s green eyes for a long second, ‘’I won’t let you get sick,’’ he said sternly, with a subtle note of tenderness, ‘’father, please.’’

Airleas grabbed Airen’s elbow, ‘’come now,’’ he said, pulling Airen out of the throne room.

Kaen and Brannen stared at Daran in horror. A medic rushed through the open doors, ‘’what was that?’’ Brannen whispered. He took a step towards Daran and the King backed away.

‘’Don’t,’’ he said, ‘’I won’t let anyone else get sick, either.’’

Even Kaen looked shaken up, ‘’they touched you...’’

Daran’s eyes darkened, ‘’this was another attempt on my life. Someone opened the borders to the diseased,’’ he gritted his teeth, ‘’and we all know who it was. Brannen, you will ride and close the borders. Our people cannot get sick. Arnheim will not suffer the plague. Father,’’ he turned his eyes to Kaen, ‘’go to the abbey and arrest Marietta Moreland.’’

*~*~*

After Jex said to split up, Yahya didn’t think.

The seven year old grabbed his brother, hefted him up into his arms and charged off straight ahead. He was panting loudly and Diya was sniffling, confused. He was heavy. A three year old was a hefty weight for someone Yahya’s size but he had no intention of putting Diya down and letting him stumble and fall all by himself. And so they stumbled on, slowly, and Yahya knew that they could never outrun those soldiers. His best bet was to hide, himself and his brother, until the hunters were gone. He wished so that Jex could have taken him and Diya, but then if they were caught, all three would be killed.

This is our best shot Yahya thought even as desperate tears burned at his double coloured eyes.

He was a shifter witch. Some kind of lizard, or a snake – he wasn’t sure. So far in the seven years of his life, it had manifested in scales appearing randomly on his body. How he wished now that he could transform fully. But then there was Diya to think about. Yahya gripped his little brother tighter. With their parents dead, they only had each other and Yahya had to be the protector.

A shriek – a child’s shriek – somewhere in the forest made Yahya stumble and fall. He curled his arms around Diya to save him from the impact but the roots and hard earth still met them with a painful embrace. Diya started crying in earnest as the shriek cut off. Yahya quickly pulled them to a sitting position and brushed his brother’s hair out of his eyes, ‘’shhh, shhh,’’ he whispered urgently, ‘’you can’t cry, akhi. You need to be brave or we’ll be found.’’

Thankfully Diya was old enough to understand. He clamped both chubby hands over his mouth, blinking back tears, but Yahya knew that they wouldn’t get much further. He had no idea which direction he was supposed to go in; he’d lost his bearings. And now that he’d set Diya down, his arms and legs ached so much he doubted he could carry him for longer than a minute before he collapsed.

They had to hide.

With a soft grunt, Yahya scrambled to his feet and picked up Diya. He weighed twice as much as at the beginning of the run, or so it felt. Yahya stumbled forward on legs like jelly, arms shaking as he held his brother tightly. The moonlight shone from between the clouds, illuminating the dark forest a little. Yahya saw torches in the distance and wondered which one of his friends the scream belonged to. He was scared the moonlight exposed them but a couple seconds later he became grateful for it as he spotted a hollowed out tree trunk. It was a dark hole at its base, disappearing into bark. A perfect hiding spot, if you were small enough.

And Diya was small enough.

Yahya knelt by the hollow and set Diya down. He swiped his hand inside, getting rid of cobwebs. He then frantically ripped out moss surrounding the tree and padded out the inside. He needed Diya to fall asleep, or else he’d start crying. Once the haphazard nest was done, Yahya scooped up his little brother into his arms, ‘’be brave, akhi,’’ he whispered, kissing the top of his head, ‘’I love you very much. Now, sleep. I’ll come back for you in the morning,’’ he tucked Diya into the hollow of the tree and the boy, fatigued, closed his eyes immediately. Yahya shrugged off his rag tag cloak and put it inside, covering his brother. When he took a step back, the hollow looked empty and inconspicuous.

With the gods’ mercy, Diya wouldn’t be found by the soldiers.

Yahya set off running. He didn’t plan to go far; just far enough that if he was found the soldiers wouldn’t trace his steps to Diya. Just far enough that he found a suitable hiding place to wait out that bloody night. He was out of breath quickly but lighter on his feet than before. He jumped over roots and logs, glancing over his shoulder to check that the lights of the fire were far away and in the opposite direction.

And then he ran straight into something.

At first he thought it was a tree, so he scrambled to his feet.

But then the soldier set his torch alight and grinned down at Yahya maliciously, ‘’a trap always works,’’ he said sweetly. Three more soldiers stepped into the ring of light. Yahya’s heart came up to his throat; how many of them were there!? They seemed to be everywhere, hiding and waiting.

‘’Now,’’ the head soldier grabbed his arm, even though Yahya was too terrified to try and run, ‘’tell us how many of you are running around this forest, and we’ll make this quick.’’

Yahya rapidly counted off all his friends in his head.

Aaliyah, with her long hair and omnipresent tears. She was with Jex. Jex was strong and brave; he’d definitely save her. She had a shot.

Hadi and Maha. They always bickered but they were the oldest in the group, and the strongest. Maha was always so mouthy and confident. No one could break her. And Hadi always wanted to surpass her. If they got into a fight, they wouldn’t go down easy. They had a shot, too.

And then Qadir, the trauma child who never spoke. He was in shock but he was quiet. Maybe the soldiers wouldn’t find him. Maybe he’d live.

And Diya. Diya fast asleep in the hollow of that tree. He’d live to see the morning.

Yahya would make sure of it.

The first punch came as a shock. Yahya gasped and doubled over, trying to inhale futilely. He managed to stay on his feet only because the soldier still had a solid grip on his arm, ‘’I said,’’ he snarled, ‘’how many of you are there?’’

Yahya wasn’t allowed to use bad words. His mother had been very strict about that. Any time he even called Diya something like ‘stupid’, he was chased outside with a broom and made to feed the chickens. The chickens scared him, with their sharp beaks and crazy eyes. But they were nothing compared to these soldiers.

And, considering that he was still standing, Yahya figured he’d earned himself the right to use bad words.

One last time.

‘’Screw you,’’ he hissed.

The soldier glared at him and shoved him to the ground, ‘’useless creature.’’

A kick to the ribs had Yahya curling up into a ball and the next, to the back of his head, had him wrapping his arms around it. It was impossible. Once he did that, the soldiers laughed and someone slammed their foot into his stomach. He couldn’t protect all of himself. Another blow fell and he heard his leg crack before a nauseating wave of pain lashed out at him. He screamed and started crying. No matter how brave he wanted to be, he was just a kid. He squeezed his eyes tight, thinking of Diya.

And then he felt himself shift.

Scales covered his arms and legs and stomach and face and then he was shrinking and shrinking, until he was just a little green lizard on a pile of clothing.

I did it, he thought weakly, his tiny body aching just as much as his human one. But he still felt a last burst of pride, I finally shifted all the way.

The last thing he saw was the sole of a boot coming down to crush him.

*~*~*

Calahoun was even more of a ghost town than before, if that was possible.

You couldn’t even tell it was the end of Spring, not in Rhein. How long had Merry been gone? It felt like months. It probably was. He was more exhausted than ever. His mind kept wandering to Tristan through the tedious days filled with marching and pit stops to eat stale food and mornings spent throwing up into the bushes. He was sick of it, especially now, when he knew the whole venture had been futile. Well, not entirely. At least now the witches had another place to go.

As they entered Calahoun, Merry felt relief. All they had to do now was pick up injured Yago and make their way to Mor, to the shore where the ship would be waiting. It was supposed to return after two weeks. It had probably bobbed on Rhein’s horizon for a while longer. But at least they were close. Merry found his hand fluttering to his stomach instinctively. He hoped the baby was okay, what with all the disease in the air. Merry couldn’t even smell the death in the air anymore.

He saw the small wooden church in the distance as they entered the row of abandoned houses, ‘’do you remember which one it was?’’ Venus asked. He was sticking close to his guard, Kip, ever since Bernhard died.

‘’Yago!’’ Itzel, one of the soldiers, called.

‘’Shhh,’’ Hartman said sharply, looking around wearily, we don’t know what might be lurking around here.’’

Merry shuddered, remembering those half-human, diseased things that had killed Drest. He suddenly wished that Raaisel, and all her dark power, was present. But then again she hadn’t done much to save the lives of those in the team.

‘’It was that one,’’ Merry pointed and started towards it.

Captain Hartman drew her sword and stepped in front of him, ‘’I’ll go first, your majesty.’’

General Sarin nodded and went with her. Merry followed them in along with Slava, the pirate doctor. The rest loitered outside.

‘’Oh, God,’’ Hartman covered her nose with her free hand, ‘’nothing like the stench of an unwashed man.’’

Sarin’s laughter died on his lips as they entered the main room, where they had all camped, ‘’oh, shit,’’ he whispered, ‘’oh, shit.’’

Merry was struck speechless.

Yago was, of course, dead. He had wondered if he would be. He had food but that wound could have easily gotten infected.

Except that’s not what Yago died of.

The soldier sat propped up against a wall, his thigh black with blood, the bandage around it also dark and crusty with it. He was slumped, head tilted back, mouth open, eyes, too, staring at the ceiling.

Half of his face was gone.

Tendons, bone and nerve hung exposed, dark and dried. Bits of skull. Shredded skin. His shoulder was gone, too, gnawed at more recently judging by the fresh blood glistening off bone and muscle. One whole foot. One of his arms all the way to the elbow. One eyeball. A chunk of his neck.

‘’He was eaten,’’ Hartman said, looking green in the face.

Merry whirled round and vomited on the floor.

And Slava screamed.

Her shriek pierced the walls and carried far and white, a shrill alarm that only stopped when Hartman jumped to her and pressed a hand against her mouth, ‘’shut up! Shut. Up!’’

The others came running in, ‘’oh, gods...’’ Luciana paled. She grabbed Slava by the hand and dragged her away.

Archana, Tristan’s cousin, grabbed Merry and dragged him away.

General Sarin ushered everybody else out, ‘’quick. We need to move, now. Slava’s scream would have alerted the creatures that killed Yago.’’

But it was too late. Already there was a flicker of movement between the houses, amongst the roofs. Hartman, Sarin, the two pirates, Kip, Axel and Itzel drew their swords, forming a circle around the non-combatant Merry, Archana and Venus.

And then the creatures attacked.

It was the same ones that had killed Drest, those half-dead humans with dripping skin covered in boils, bloodshot eyes and yellow, cracked teeth. These, however, looked even worse. Some had broken limbs and chunks of flesh missing, like the others, in their hunger, had nibbled on the weak ones. Some charged at the group; others followed, limping miserably and gnashing teeth in the hope of tasting flesh.

‘’Too many,’’ Hartman said, ‘’we need to get King Meridan out of Calahoun.’’

‘’Go!’’ Itzel gripped her sword tighter, ‘’we will hold them back. With you running, they won’t follow. They are too weak.’’

Merry paled, ‘’you’ll die-‘’

‘’It will be an honour,’’ Axel braced himself, ‘’go, your majesty. We must save the future heir of Salar.’’

General Sarin nodded, squaring his shoulders, ‘’you’re in charge, Hartman.’’

Hartman looked torn, but she knew all the fighters couldn’t stay, ‘’good luck,’’ she said tightly, grabbed Merry’s hand and pulled him along as she sprinted. Her face was set in grim determination. She now had only one job: get Merry safely back home. Slava, Luciana, Archana, Venus and Kip followed, drawing their various weapons. Kip and the pirates could fight, if it came to that. The others would have to rely on borrowed weapons and luck.

But it didn’t come to that.

The sound of battle soon receded and it was true. The creatures did not follow them; which means the other three were likely over-run. Merry felt tears sting at his eyes. He didn’t like crying. He rarely did it. But he couldn’t help and shed tears for the expedition. How many people would still be arrive if he, the King carrying the heir, hadn’t come along?

There was no point thinking about that.

A day later, they got to Mor and the port. The ship indeed waited for them in the distance. The crew was undoubtedly hungry, underpaid and angry, but Merry didn’t want to think about that. The remaining members of the team made camp and took turns pretending to sleep. In the morning, they ate the last of their provisions.

They waited.

And waited.

When the sun set again, Hartman signalled for the ship to come pick them up. It was pitch black when the tiny boat sent to get them finally stopped by the ship and Merry climbed the little ladder. He was immediately swarmed by physicians while the sailors avoided him like...well, like he had the plague. Merry went into his cabin and checked every inch of his skin for boils or sores. He had no idea how he came out of that whole situation healthy and well; he only now realised how stupid he had been for coming, untrained and a liability.

The crew decided they couldn’t wait anymore.

They set off for Salar, leaving Rhein behind.

Axel, Itzel and General Sarin were never seen again.

*~*~*

Jex kept glancing up at the sky, fancying it a little bit more grey each time. He wished morning would come quicker. The dark was intimidating. By daylight, he could at least see where he was going and spot his opponent. The darkness was a stranger.

Aaliyah was crying, as always, but at least she was doing so quietly. She was only five so they kept having to stop so she could catch her breath. Jex carried her once in a while but it slowed them down considerably. He worried for the other kids. If they didn’t all make it to the mountain, he’d double back and look for them. He wished he could have taken all the youngsters with him. Hadi and Maha would be fine by themselves, but Qadir, Yahya and Diya...

Jex tried not to think about it as he ran on.

‘’I need...’’ Aaliyah panted, ‘’I need...to stop...’’

‘’Just a little longer, sweetheart,’’ Jex urged her on quietly. He heard the soft trickle of a stream and soon they broke out onto a clearing. Water ran in a thin ribbon through it, moonlight shining on lush grass and the silvery water. Jex propelled Aaliyah towards it, ‘’drink. Quick. We must keep going.’’

Aaliyah ran to the stream and knelt, greedily lapping up water directly from it.

Jex wanted to drink, too, but the idea of exposing himself long enough to kneel and drink made him feel sick. He grabbed Aaliyah under the armpits and hauled her up, ‘’come on, we need to-‘’

A movement in the darkness flickered somewhere to the side made Jex freeze. He yanked out his daggers as the soldiers stepped out into the clearing.

‘’Aaliyah,’’ Jex prepared himself for the fight, ‘’stay behind me.’’

*~*~*

Kai truly was the island of flowers.

Mairwen couldn’t help but feel a heaviness lift from her heart. After the wintry, dead landscape of the plagued kingdoms, followed by rain and sludge of a sad spring, it was a relief to see things that were alive again. The trees started a couple steps into the island, thick and lush. Vines covered the bark, draping off branches elegantly, sprouting pink and yellow and blue buds. Flowers grew in clumps at the bases of the trees and on bushes in little flurries. It reminded Mair of the eternal summer at Mystic. She glanced over her shoulder, to give the pirate ships a last goodbye as they disappeared at the coast, but caught Arlana’s gaze instead. There was a hint of melancholic happiness in her silver-and-blue eyes. Maybe Kai reminded her of the Fae Witch forest.

‘’How are we going to find the wolves?’’ Mardin asked. His sense of purpose was the only thing keeping him from completely breaking down over the death of his brother. Mair worried about what he would be like when they made it back to Mystic. If they made it back.

‘’I’m a good tracker,’’ Rain said simply. He started towards the forest and the others followed.

‘’I’ll check the island out from above,’’ Fynn offered.

‘’No,’’ Rain said immediately, ‘’it’s too dangerous.’’

Mair expected Fynn to snap at Rain, to argue or sulk. She only realised how much the venture had changed him when Fynn just simply said, ‘’I’ll be right back,’’ he turned into an eagle and with a powerful beat of his wings shot into the sky. Rain reached for the whistle that hung around his neck, his fingers hesitated, and eventually he dropped his hand.

‘’Let’s go,’’ he said simply.

They walked into the forest and Mair was cocooned by the sweet, comforting scent of flowers. Birds chirped in the trees. Bees bounced from flower to flower. It seemed like a shame to intrude on such a paradise. Mair was gripped with homesickness but before she could dwell on this feeling, Rain dropped to the ground. He touched barely visible tracks in the moss gently and then changed direction. Arlana, Mair and Mardin followed him. Wherever they were going, Fynn got there first. He cawed and circled around a spot in the forest. Rain broke into a run and the others followed, breaking into a clearing just as Fynn swooped down and shifted, feathers falling off him in a cascade to reveal the auburn haired boy. Five pairs of eyes turned to a dark haired, dark eyed, bearded man sitting on a rock in the middle of the sunny clearing. He had two twines of black tattoos running down either side of his face and he was sharpening a knife on a rock. Even so, he didn’t seem threatening. In fact, he looked up at the company with a light smile in his eyes.

‘’Ah,’’ he said, ‘’more witches. We smelled you as soon as you set foot on our island.’’

Mairwen kept back a gasp as four other figures peeked out from behind trees. She’d seen all sorts of creatures – moss beasts, bone witches, critters, Firethings, wood wives, the wild hunt... but these were real wolf people, the first creatures to ever be created, the stuff of legends. She wondered if she should maybe bow, or even fall to her knees in front of these ancient creatures.

Instead, she found herself stepping forward boldly, ‘’I have had a vision,’’ she said bluntly.

The man’s eyebrow shot up, ‘’oh?’’

‘’An island,’’ Mair gestured around, and then her eyes locked on the people dwindling behind the trees, ‘’wolves. And a boy of double coloured eyes and freckles.’’

‘’Jasper,’’ the man said thoughtfully.

Mair felt relief, knowing they had come to the right place. Queen Nara had been right to send them here to find a cure, ‘’we need him to end the plague.’’

‘’And who are you, exactly?’’ the man asked casually, as if the lives of every human on earth weren’t at stake.

‘’Mairwen of Mystic,’’ Mair introduced herself, and gestured to her friends, ‘’these are Rain, Fynn, Mardin and Princess Arlana of the Glenn, leader of the wild hunt.’’

‘’Hmmm,’’ the man’s eyes cut to Arlana, ‘’the last time one of our kind met one of yours, the wild hunt was not limited to the skies above Mystic.’’

‘’And soon we will all be dead,’’ Arlana said quietly, ‘’if this plague is not stopped.’’

The man stood from his rock, slipping the knife into his belt and tossing the rock away, ‘’I am Jethil, the alpha of the pack,’’ he gestured behind him, and then turned to Mair with an apologetic smile, ‘’and unfortunately, Jasper isn’t here any longer.’’

Mair paled, ‘’wha...but-‘’

‘’Your best bet is to wait for him,’’ a wind picked up and Jethil raised his face to meet it, smiling, ‘’you have been sent to the island for a reason. Jasper, on the other hand, was sent back to Kainan. It will all slot into place, trust me, witch.’’

‘’Blood and water...’’ Mair remembered the last of her vision, the most confusing part, ‘’that’s what will undo this plague. Blood and water.’’

Jethil sighed and shook his head, ‘’nothing quite like an unclear witch vision. Gods know we’ve had enough of those in our history,’’ he turned and started walking towards his pack, ‘’come, we will give you food and shelter. Perhaps you will distract us with tales of your ventures as we await the return of your freckled messiah.’’

*~*~*

After every sign of soldier lanterns was gone, Maha doubled back to find Hadi. The darkness was terrifying and Hadi was two years younger than her. He’d probably end up bursting into tears without the determination to show off his bravery. Maha truly wanted to keep on running, get to the mountain and wait for the others, but she couldn’t. She’d come to think of Hadi as a little brother and she couldn’t help but hope she’d bump into one of the others.

And bump into one of them she did.

At first she thought her foot caught in a log but as she toppled forward, she found herself atop something soft and squishy. Flinching, she scrambled to her feet. Her breath was coming out in pants. It was pitch black and Maha was sick of it.

She needed to know who lay at her feet.

She rubbed her hands together and sparks flew before a small flame ignited between them. She lowered her hands, directing the light at the ground.

And there was Qadir, lying face-first in the moss. His back was stained with blood and he wasn’t moving.

Maha gasped and stumbled back. She fell and scrambled away, flame extinguished, before getting to her feet and sprinting away.

Except Qadir hadn’t died in that spot – he’d been dragged over as bait.

And Maha had taken it.

In her desperation to get away from the body of her friend, she didn’t realise she was running straight into a trap until rope closed around her ankle and she was swung into the air. She shrieked as the branch creaked and she hung upside down by one foot, short hair dangling. Torches were set aflame and soldiers came out from behind trees. They were laughing and congratulating themselves on the traps. Maha gritted her teeth, ready to fight till the grizzly end.

And then her eyes fell on Hadi.

Or what was left of him.

His small body was propped up against the tree, head hanging so low his curls brushed his thighs. The back of his head was a caved in, bloody mess of tissue, bone and brain.

Everything went black as Maha squeezed her eyes shut tightly against the horror and screamed.

They had so very nearly made it. They had felt invincible, after stopping the soldiers with fire and wind. Like they could truly survive this witch hunt.

Maha was still screaming when her throat was slit and she was left hanging from the branch, gutted like an animal.

*~*~*

General Niktohal Magana slammed his fist into the wooden table in his tent, leaving a large dent. Cassian didn’t flinch, used to his best friend’s tempers. He put a calming hand on his shoulder but Niko shrugged it off. He glared at Alda, the leader of the witch hunters, across the table, ‘’you gave me coordinates for the witch city,’’ he hissed, ‘’but there was nothing there.’’

Alda was calmly cleaning her fingernails with the tip of her dagger, ‘’I told you. You can’t get in without a witch.’’

‘’ALL THE WITCHES ARE DEAD!’’ Niko roared, jumping up and slamming his hands against the table. He took a couple shallow breaths through his teeth, ‘’all the witches are dead,’’ he repeated, ‘’or in hiding. I can’t just...’’ he grunted and began pacing around the tent, ‘’I can’t just...just get one!’’ his eyes burned with fury and, Cassian feared, the first inklings of madness, ‘’where is Bas!?’’

‘’Doing rounds,’’ Cassian said, as gently as he could. He hated seeing Niko like that.

‘’You know,’’ Alda said casually, slipping her dagger into her belt, ‘’not all witches are out of your reach.’’

Niko stopped and gave her a cold look, ‘’what do you mean?’’

A slow, cruel smile spread on Alda’s lips, ‘’well,’’ she said innocently, ‘’don’t you have a King locked up in his palace?’’ her eyes darkened menacingly, ‘’with a witch bastard for his consort?’’

Niko’s face lit up with understanding and Cassian wanted to lunge across the table and throttle Alda to death. Instead, he gave Niko a horrified look but the General wasn’t even looking at him. Niko’s eyes were alight with a sick light, ‘’perfect,’’ he whispered and then, louder, to his guards, ‘’bring me Edgar Eiris and his husband, now!’’

*~*~*

There were six soldiers and Jex knew, straight away, that there was no way he was getting out of this situation alive. But maybe he could buy Aaliyah enough time to get away. He gripped his daggers tightly, ‘’first chance you get,’’ he whispered to the whimpering witch, ‘’you jump over that stream and run.’’

‘’Don’t leave me,’’ Aaliyah sobbed quietly as the soldiers approached, all hungry grins and mad eyes.

Jex glanced over his shoulder at the little girl one last time, ‘’I have to. I’m sorry,’’ he turned back to the soldiers, ‘’be ready.’’

And he sprung.

Perhaps the soldiers hadn’t expected him to rise up to meet them, because Jex’s blade slashed across the throat of the nearest soldier. He toppled to the ground. Aaliyah screamed, watching the scene in the faint moonlights, and Jex danced backwards, making sure to stay close enough to Aaliyah that no one snuck up around him to grab her.

Now the soldiers’ grins were gone. They sent Jex murderous glares as they ran for him.

They all had swords and Jex only had his daggers. They were okay for parrying, but they didn’t have the reach of the swords. He managed to get in a couple slashes on arms and stomachs before he was completely overpowered. His only relief was the splash of the stream as Aaliyah ran, before two neat cuts to the backs of his palms had him releasing his daggers on instinct. Before he could think of what to do to protect himself, the butt of a sword rammed into his gut, knocking the breath out of him. He doubled over but one of the soldiers grabbed him before he fell, hooking his arms under Jex’s and whirling him around, just as Aaliyah screamed.

Jex screamed, too. He didn’t know when he began. He shrieked and cursed the soldiers and struggled as a soldier easily caught Aaliyah and brought her over, draped over his shoulder as she desperately pounded on his back. And then she was dropped unceremoniously by the stream. Before the five year old could even get up, the soldier knelt by her and grabbed her head. His hand was big enough to crush it but he just shoved it forward, and Aaliyah’s face was submerged in the stream.

She struggled for a very short time, already exhausted and afraid.

Her body went limp and so did Jex’s. With a heartbroken sob, his muscles gave out, only the soldier’s grip keeping him up.

He’d failed them.

All the kids. He’d failed them.

The first punches and kicks fell. Jex felt his cheeks swell, his mouth bleed. The swords joined in the fray, cutting flesh, here and there. Jex waited for the end.

But it never came.

Eventually, when he couldn’t feel his body anymore, someone yanked him up by the hair. He tried to open his eyes but there was too much blood running down his face to see anything. He only heard the hateful whisper of one of the soldiers, ‘’scum like you don’t deserve mercy,’’ and then he was shoved forward and he passed out.

*~*~*

‘’What is going on?’’ Wrath frowned at the court yard filled with the Kolnese army’s best generals, lieutenants and commanders. Orin was speaking with a few individuals, clearly having given a speech before hand. General Dagnan, his sister, was giving orders out to the others.

Orin nodded at the people he was talking to and they dispersed, going to get their horses. They all seemed in a hurry. Orin turned to Wrath, wanting to answer his question, but just the sight of him made his heart seize up. Wrath had been avoiding him so much lately, he almost forgot the way Wrath’s fringe fell against his temple or the way one corner of his mouth tugged up when he was displeased. Well, no, not really. Orin could never forget these things about Wrath, or anything about him, ‘’I’m sending forces to Hailbronn,’’ Orin said. He wished Wrath wanted to talk to him generally, not just when he needed answers, but there was much to mend between them.

Wrath paled, his eyes going sharply to Orin, ‘’to Hailbronn!?’’ he shook his head, horrified, ‘’we are not prepared for war with Hailbronn, especially when Solin is overtaken and our allies are far-‘’

‘’We aren’t going to war, at least not yet,’’ Orin said as the generals and commanders thundered out of the courtyard, ‘’we are taking over the country, while General Magana is gone,’’ Wrath gave him a confused stare, so Orin explained, ‘’our intelligence has notified us that Magana and his closest lieutenants have left with the Kings of Solin to travel to Mystic. He left command in the hands of General Basden Frey,’’ a smile tugged on Orin’s lips because, finally, they had a chance to stop the slaughter, ‘’except General Frey is on our side. So we have a free hand to invade without opposition, and rally the country against Magana and the witch hunters before they return.’’

Wrath stared at him. And then a grin pulled on his mouth, ‘’that’s...’’ he laughed, ‘’that’s brilliant!’’

Orin smiled, too, and automatically reached for Wrath.

Wrath’s smile disappeared and he stepped back, out of Orin’s reach. Orin’s eyes saddened and Wrath asked, ‘’why am I not going to Hailbronn with the others?’’

‘’I need you here,’’ Orin said, ‘’in case the invasion doesn’t go as smoothly as we thought. Then we will ride to battle together,’’ Orin looked at Wrath intensely, trying to find the comradeship, love and respect they held for each other. That Orin hoped Wrath still held for him.

But Wrath just nodded and turned, walking away.

‘’Wrath!’’ Orin called after him before he could stop himself. Wrath paused and glanced over his shoulder, his eyes cold. Orin’s shoulders slumped. He needed Wrath. He had a gaping hole in his heart without Wrath around but he suspected letting Bren go would have a similar effect, ‘’please, I...let’s talk-‘’

But already Wrath was walking away again.

Orin watched him go. And then he decided that more firm action would be needed to win back the love of his life.

*~*~*

Jex should have died from his wounds, but he woke up. The sun had risen, but it was too late. It warmed Jex’s back and he didn’t want to get up. He wouldn’t have – if he hadn’t heard the crying.

The fact that one of his kids was alive gave Jex a last shot of strength. He hauled himself to his feet and stumbled forward, out of the clearing, grabbing trees. He could feel that there were some broken bones, ribs...it hurt to breathe. His head pounded. One eye was swollen shut. He was dehydrated and he wouldn’t last long. But he had to find the child crying.

The sound seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time but suddenly, and all too quickly, it came from Jex’s feet. There was a hollowed out tree here, visible in the daylight, and movement within. Wails. Sobbing.

Jex fell to his knees, knowing he wouldn’t have the strength to get up. He reached inside and pulled out the sobbing child and when he saw Diya, wrapped up in his brother’s cloak and unharmed, he burst into tears, too. He cradled Diya in his lap, leaning back against the tree. It looked like none of them made it very far. Jex should have done better. He still had to do better. He had to get Diya to the stream, get him something to drink, get him out of this death-ransacked forest...

But Jex’s eyelids were already closing. He needed sleep. He hugged Diya close to him in his lap and closed his eyes.

Just a little sleep...

Chapter Text

Bas burst into the Cathouse so suddenly that the Cats gathered in the main room flinched instinctively, used to raids from Alda’s witch hunters. Mr Sawyer rose from where he sat at the bar, counting money out into piles to pay his Cats, ‘’what is it, General?’’ he asked as Bas quickly closed the doors. Soren, who was tucked into one end of the chaise, legs pulled up to his chest, glanced away, feeling heat rise to his cheeks. He felt ashamed. Bas had seen him fraternising with the enemy, and even if it was to save a witch, Soren still felt shame. He still felt his skin crawl when he thought about Niktohal Magana’s touch. The touch of a monster. The monster who was...

‘’Gone,’’ Bas ran to the counter and slammed his hands down on it, staring at Sawyer with feverish, excited eyes, ‘’Magana is gone!’’

Sawyer immediately dropped the money, ‘’gone where?’’ he asked curtly.

‘’He’s taken King Edgar and King Arne and set out with his best soldiers to find the witch city of Mystic. He left me in charge.’’

Something twinkled in Sawyer’s eyes, ‘’now’s our chance.’’

Soren uncurled himself from the chaise and jumped up, looking behind his shoulder at the startled and confused looking Cats, ‘’our chance for what?’’

Bas looked at him. And then past him, quickly, as if he couldn’t bear to face him. He gazed out at the Cats as a collective, ‘’we rally the soldiers that have been left behind, fortify the city – when Magana comes back, he’ll meet an army that has turned against him.’’

Arlen frowned, crossing his arms across his chest, ‘’don’t you think that if the soldiers didn’t want to kill witches, they’d just...stop?’’

Bas shook his head, ‘’when someone as strong as Magana is giving out orders amidst chaos and panic, its hard to think for yourself’’

‘’You did,’’ Soren said quietly.

Bas’ eyes immediately shot to him. Their gazes met and this time Bas held it, ‘’that’s different,’’ he said softly and Soren sensed that he wanted to say more, to Soren, about what happened, but couldn’t with all the Cats gathered in the foyer of the Cathouse. Finally, Bas looked away, back at Sawyer, ‘’most of the soldiers are at their breaking point after all the killings. All they need is a push. And we’re going to give them just that.’’

Sawyer nodded, ‘’we need to hurry, before Magana returns.’’

Bas nodded back, ‘’Mr Sawyer, you need to contact the Citadel and relay our plans. Ride to speak with Annamaria or Kaliq. I need half the Cats to come with me; while I speak with the soldiers, you must get the captured witches facing execution out of their cages and set them free. Just in case something goes wrong.’’

‘’I’ll go,’’ Soren said immediately; the prospect of the hunts ending fuelled him with strength he hadn’t had since Magana took him against a wall.

‘’Me, too,’’ Arlen nodded.

Libby stepped forward, too, leaving Lucio, Jeane and Cyril in the Cathouse, ‘’Cyril, you’re in charge,’’ Sawyer said, grabbing his cloak and an empty sack to get food for the journey from the pantry, ‘’barricade the Cathouse when we’re gone. You never know who we’ll piss off on the way.’’

*~*~*

After all the tests Chaya ran on him, Othelen could barely stand.

She’d taken enough blood to make him woozy. A couple vials to mix with Mudrik’s infected blood and a couple more to study and dissemble to find genes that made the wolf people – theoretically – be able to fight off the plague.

‘’I got some tea for you,’’ Jasper slipped between two narrow shelves in the downstairs herb shop. It was closed now, dark, with only a single candle burning next to the pile of old blankets and pillows Chaya had fashioned a nest out of. The shelves hid the nest from view, making a sort of tiny room, in case hunters decided to raid the shop. Jasper slipped in through the thin crack, gingerly holding a clay cup between his hands. Othelen was already in the next but he pulled himself up weakly. His eyes were half-closed and his head lolled a bit. He needed rest, ‘’Chaya said it would make your strength return faster.’’

Othelen scrunched up his nose, ‘’smells weird.’’

‘’Just drink it,’’ Jasper knelt by Othelen and extended the cup towards him. He took it, frowning, drank the contents, shuddered, and put the cup on the floor, next to the candle. Jasper sat back against one of the shelves, putting his arms around his knees, ‘’thank you,’’ he said softly.

Othelen glared at the cup, ‘’for drinking that shit?’’

‘’No. For letting Chaya jab at you all day,’’ Jasper murmured and Othelen looked at him. He looked even more unreal in the soft light of the candle than usual, ‘’to save us.’’

Othelen gazed at Jasper for a while. Neither said anything. They were exhausted – Jasper emotionally and Othelen physically. Finally, the wolf lay down in the nest, ‘’come sleep,’’ he said gruffly.

‘’Its fine,’’ Jas gave him a small smile, ‘’I’ll sleep here. You need the space.’’

Othelen propped himself up weakly and glared at Jas, ‘’don’t be stupid. If you sleep there then I’ll go over anyway, when I shift. Just...come here,’’ he lay back down again, closed his eyes, and added grumpily, ‘’besides, I need you to touch me again.’’

Jas huffed an amused breath at Othelen’s attitude and gave in. He crawled over, picking his way over pillows, and lay down next to the male, slipping under the covers. The floor was cold, even under a couple blankets, but the heat beating off Othelen’s skin quickly warmed Jasper up. The prince reached out, resting his hand against Othelen’s collarbones and brushing his thumb over his Adam’s apple. Othelen whimpered softly and shifted close, ‘’more...’’

Jas shuffled closer, too, pressing himself against Othelen. He wound their legs together and started exploring with his hands. Othelen’s eyes fluttered shut as Jasper’s fingers moved through his hair, down his face, tracing the black markings, to his jaw, running over the invisible stubble there, down his neck, over his chest, tracing his arms, and back up. After a couple times, Jas thought that Othelen had fallen asleep but then the wolf murmured, ‘’I miss them. My pack.’’

Jas sighed and took Othelen’s hand. He cradled it against his chest and after a moment, kissed the back of it, ‘’I know,’’ he whispered.

‘’Do you miss your parents?’’ Othelen asked, uncharacteristically gentle. Jas looked up at him to find Othelen’s eyes open, peering down at him tenderly.

‘’Yes,’’ Jasper breathed, ‘’probably as much as you miss your pack.’’

‘’Yes, well...at least I know my pack is safe,’’ Othelen said. He slipped his hand out of Jasper’s grip and reached for the prince. Jas breathed out, surprised, when Othelen slid his hand against his cheek, caressing it.

‘’Y-you should probably shift,’’ Jasper said, feeling his cheeks heat up. Othelen slipped his hand down, brushing Jas’ long brown hair off his shoulder, almost curiously, ‘’you’ll feel better faster.’’

Othelen was quiet for a bit. Eventually, he dropped his hand and sat up slowly, ‘’I suppose you’re right.’’

He peeled off his tunic and wiggled out of his trousers. Jas looked away, feeling himself blush even harder. He’d seen Othelen naked plenty of times in the mornings but this...this felt much more intimate.

And then Othelen lay back down under the covers and pressed his naked body against Jasper’s. Jas squeaked, ‘’w-w-what are you doing?’’

‘’Shhh,’’ Othelen closed his eyes and wrapped an arm around Jas’ waist, ‘’I’m shifting. I’m just weak so it’s taking a while...’’

Jas swallowed thickly. He shifted and inhaled sharply when he felt Othelen’s manhood brush against his leg. And then, thankfully, Othelen sprouted golden-white fur and grew and then the wolf was in bed with Jas. Othelen whimpered and curled in a half moon on the nest, resting his head on his paws. His massive shape took up most of the space in the shelved-off area. Jas blew out the candle in case wolf Othelen knocked it over, grabbed a random blanket and lay his head against Othelen’s side. Wrapped in the blanket, with heat beating off the wolf, Jas quickly grew sleepy. He stroked Othelen’s side until he felt the wolf fall asleep.

And then Jas slept, too.

*~*~*

Orin felt so lost without Wrath and so confused about Bren that, one day, he decided to see the high priest.

The priestess at the temple was his proxy as he had vowed never to leave his little temple on a rise behind Monterrey, before the Moher Mountains. Orin went there one morning. He took his horse and then hiked up the hill, like he had in his early days as King, when he needed guidance. Spring was coming to an end – the evenings were still a little chilly but the day grew warmer with each passing hour. By the time Orin reached the small, wooden shack of a temple, he was wheezing and sweating. Panting, he put his hands on his knees and tried to catch his breath.

‘’Out of practice, your majesty?’’ said a merry voice.

Orin looked up and only then spotted the high priest sitting on a bench by the shack, in the shade of the roof. He wore his grey priest robes and his impressive moustache curled under a nose that had been broken many times. Rumour had it that he was a street fighter before taking his vows. He smoked his usual concoction of herbs that made the whole hill smell like a herb garden, ‘’brother Hearn,’’ Orin straightened and grinned, ‘’it’s good to see you.’’

‘’You, too, my boy,’’ Hearn chuckled and stood. He extended his arms and clasped Orin in a strong hug. He then led the King into his shack. It had two rooms – one large one, where the actual temple was, and one much smaller one, where Hearn lived. He put a kettle on while Orin sat at the small table, careful not to bang his head on the low roof, ‘’you haven’t visited me in a while,’’ Hearn observed.

‘’Ah, yes,’’ Orin shook his head, ‘’Kainan has been in shambles for a while.’’

‘’The witch hunts. Sister Tessa told me.’’

‘’Yes,’’ Orin chewed the inside of his cheek as hot tea was placed in front of him, ‘’but, actually...that’s not what I came here about today.’’

‘’Oh?’’ Hearn put his pipe out and sat down at the table, opposite Orin. He prodded a basket out from under the table with his foot and took out his knitting. He always knitted when he listened.

‘’It’s...about a boy.’’

‘’That Wrath of yours?’’

‘’No. And yes,’’ Orin sighed and rubbed his face with his hands. No wonder he couldn’t solve the issue when he could barely even figure out how to talk about it, ‘’I love Wrath. As much as I’ve always have. More. Gods, is it possible to love someone more and more each day, even after being together for years?’’

‘’Good question,’’ Hearn said merrily, ‘’I suppose it is.’’

Orin sighed again, ‘’then why...do I love someone else as well?’’

The soft click of Hearn knitting paused for a brief moment before resuming, ‘’we love many people in our lives,’’ he said gently, ‘’parents. Siblings. Friends. Lovers. Children. We are never limited to loving just one person, in just one way. And sometimes...well, sometimes we aren’t limited to wanting to be with only one person.’’

‘’Yes, but,’’ Orin felt his frustration surface, ‘’I want to be with both of them. How is that possible?’’

‘’Who is this other person that you speak of?’’ Hearn prompted.

Orin forced himself to calm down. He leaned back in the chair, ‘’his name is Bren. He was a slave. I bought him for Wrath at a ball because...well, I saw how he looked at him. Bren is beautiful. More beautiful than anyone I’ve ever seen but it’s not why I love him. Maybe I bought him because I couldn’t bear being parted from him. It was like we had a connection, right away. Every time I’m around him, I can’t...I want to...’’ he shook his head, ‘’but the strange thing is that my feelings for Wrath do not grow any dimmer. The thought of parting with either of them makes me want to toss myself off my balcony.’’

‘’Mates,’’ Hearn said simply.

Orin gaped, ‘’pardon?’’

‘’Have you considered it?’’ the high priest said cheerfully, clicking away at his scarf, ‘’that’s what it sounds like to me – that connection.’’

‘’B-But if Bren and I were mates then...’’ Orin shook his head in disbelief, ‘’then I wouldn’t be able to be with Wrath!’’

‘’Not necessarily,’’ Hearn said casually, ‘’times are changing. Look around you. Look back. Nearly a hundred years ago, omegas were rare, cherished, and special. These days, they’re rather common. A couple hundred years back, mates were rare, too. But these days we find each other more easily. There is transport, travelling, news...’’ he looked up at Orin and smiled, ‘’so who is to tell us that in a couple of years, we won’t be able to choose our mates? Ignore destiny, and write it for ourselves.’’

Orin stared at him, ‘’are you saying I have the power to disregard my mate? And choose my own lover?’’

‘’It would seem so, yes. But,’’ a mischievous smile played on Hearn’s lips, ‘’how does your Wrath feel about this Bren?’’

Orin thought about that. He knew that Bren and Wrath had become lovers. That first time, when he saw them nearly kiss, he’d called Bren to his side. Then he’d taken him to the Day of the Dead celebrations. And it was Wrath who went after Bren when he’d run. Was it...was it possible that Wrath felt the same as Orin? Which was why he felt so betrayed? Because two of the people he loved seemed to discard him...

‘’If I’m allowed a choice,’’ Orin stood abruptly, ‘’then I choose both.’’

*~*~*

The quarantine room felt more like a prison than anything. It was in a high tower of the castle, with winding stone steps separating it from the rest of the castle. The windows were tiny, barely big enough to look through. The doors were always locked. The inside had been bare when Airen arrived, the adjacent bathing room abandoned. There was a single maid who was permitted into the quarantine room. She cleaned it out and brought Airleas things every day – books, parchment and ink, food... she always came with a plague mask, never spoke and left as quickly as she could. She ignored Airen, even as he begged her to tell him what was going on in the castle.

A couple days in and Airen felt like he was losing his mind.

He paced around the room, clutching his pregnant stomach, until he tired himself out. He sat on the edge of the bed, impatiently brushing golden hair out of his face. He was afraid that the whole castle would die out from the plague and he’d never be let out of that tower. He was afraid that Daran would die of the sickness – where did that put Airen and his unborn baby?

And then Airen remembered how Daran had protected him. It had been so instinctive, for both of them. When the plagued intruders were revealed, Airen had clutched his stomach in one desperate, paternal gesture. And Daran had speared that attacker through the chest in one swift blow before he could even look at Airen. Then, Airen had been the one to be escorted into the quarantine room. Not Daran’s fathers or brothers...Airen. And Airen knew it was because he carried Daran’s heir but he couldn’t help but feel...

A wave of nausea rolled over him as the baby shifted and Airen lay down, exhaling shakily and closing his eyes, waiting for it to pass. When he opened them again, his gaze landed on the desk in the corner, where the parchment and ink were. An idea struck him.

The maid wouldn’t speak to him.

But maybe she’d deliver letters.

*~*~*

Jamael was perched on a rocky slate, inches wide. He had to stay perfectly still in order not to slip and fall the ten or so feet to the mountain path. Since the assassins began retaliating, the Sultan’s soldiers learned to scan rocky walls and crevices for assassins. In the stark light of the afternoon, Jamael had no choice but to choose such a precarious place to hide, as it was concealed by a jutting out rock. He scanned the mountain path. One of the cannons remained, jutted in between the mountain wall and the steep drop on the other side. It was rendered useless; if pushed any further, it would tip and fall into the chasm, and from this distance it couldn’t reach past the foyer of the keep mounted inside the granite of the rocky mountain. Behind it huddled soldiers. Jamael was pleased that there weren’t many left. Sultan Moe, in his madness, ordered the soldiers to continuously attack the keep until the assassins were dead. But without their canons, there wasn’t much they could do. The soldiers didn’t dare storm the keep – even if there were more of them, the assassins would undoubtedly pick them off, one by one.

Like they were now.

Many of the soldiers had deserted. Even more had died from the blades of the assassins or succumbed to the darkness of the chasm in the dark, unable to find footing in the unfamiliar territory. Now only a handful of the bravest – and stupidest – soldiers remained, weapons always at the ready. They didn’t slip from fear of having their throats slit in the night and it showed. They were manic, unsteady on their feet. A couple more days and they’d all kill each other, driven to desperation and bursts of anger by mere words or glances.

Except Jamael didn’t have a couple of days.

With each new rise of the sun, his agitation grew. He worried for Jex. It was stupid but... it was almost as if Jamael could feel the thief was in trouble. It was truly stupid. Jamael would probably never see Jex again. It had been weeks – Moriya would have swallowed him by now or, if he was smart enough, he wasn’t even in Moriya anymore, but somewhere safe. Jamael wished he could believe that, but each day he fretted for Jex more and more. Until that morning, when he woke up from a nightmare of Jex’s death and realised that if he waited any longer, he’d go as mad as the soldiers. That drove him to attack in broad daylight.

Now he crouched behind the jutting out rock. It hung there by sheer force of will, it seemed, and it wouldn’t take much to unleash its crushing force. Jamael had only planned to hide behind it, but now he drew his dagger, deathly quiet, and chipped away at the base of the rock, connected to the mountain. Between the groans and croaks of the mountain, the sharp chipping sound went unnoticed. When the rock trembled a couple minutes later, its foundation unbalanced, Jamael made sure he was resting solely on the narrow ledge. He straightened, leaned back and with all his force, slammed one foot into the rocky plate. With a groan, the rock gave way. As if in slow motion, Jex saw it fall. He didn’t wait for the aftermath. Using the couple of seconds he had as the rock fell, he scaled the wall messily, scraping his hands.

He landed on the ground a couple of moments after the rock. The soldiers were still getting over their shock. There were eight of them left, stepping back from the rock. A splatter of blood sprayed from beneath it, along with bits of human remains. A second soldier’s leg had been caught and crushed. Now he screamed, trying desperately to pull the bloody mess from under the rock where his comrade had perished. The others looked up at the mountain side, looking for any more falling boulders, but when Jamael landed, all eyes snapped to him.

‘’Time to die,’’ Jamael said darkly, and sprung.

His dagger caught the throat of the trapped man, ending his agonised screams. His hands slipped from his ruined leg and he toppled backwards, blood spurting from his throat long after he was dead. The eight soldiers remaining – two females, six males – drew their swords. Jammy didn’t wait for them to get their bearings. He sprung again, making sure not to stay in one place too long while the soldiers tried to desperately track him with their eyes.

Jamael propelled himself into the middle of the clutter of soldiers. An insane move – one that Jamael hoped wouldn’t get him killed. He kicked out and caught one of the men in the chest. With a shriek, he went flying off the path and into the chasm. The female next to him whipped her head round in shock, watching his fall. Only for a second, but it cost her. Jamael made a step and whirled round to face the soldiers with their backs to the mountain. As he went, he slashed his dagger through the female soldier’s face. She screamed and fell to her knees, clutching at bloody eyes. Jamael moved at the speed of light. He threw his dagger and it impaled a soldier straight through his forehead. Before it even finished flying through the air, Jamael grabbed the sword from the soldier screaming on the floor. As he straightened himself, he swung his sword. A good choice, considering it hit another sword with a clang.

The soldiers were finally retaliating. Jamael used all his strength as he straightened to send the soldier attacking him back. Already a second one attacked, nicking his shoulder as he moved away just in time. Five soldiers left, not counting the one blindly scrambling on the floor behind him, blinded. Jamael knew that with each second his advantage lessened as the soldiers got their bearings.

So he didn’t let the fight last long.

As the first soldier who attacked him swung her sword again, Jamael ducked under it, instead impaling a different one through the chest. His body fell to the floor as Jamael whipped back to meet the female’s second blow. He hissed as the blade of her comrade nicked his side. The other two charged at him from behind, yelling wildly. Just before they reached him, Jamael fell to a crouch and rolled, leaving the four soldiers to crash into one another. They were all knocked off balance. Jamael, still on the ground, swept his leg under the feet of the female soldier. As she fell to the ground, he jumped up and shoved her over the side, into the chasm. He was much steadier on the narrow path than the soldiers, having walked over the terrain all his life. He attacked the three remaining soldiers ferociously, drawing his second dagger. It wasn’t much against a sword but at least he could protect himself with one hand while attacking with the other.

He bit back a scream as a sword pierced his shoulder. A couple centimetres down left and that would have been his heart. Jamael knew he was running out of time, and fast. He wanted to attack but with three attacking him simultaneously, he was forced to pour everything he had into defence. With a sense of dread, he realised the three were trying to manoeuvre him towards the edge of the chasm, where they could push him off.

And then, like a god-send, Vysarane descended on the soldiers. She stabbed one neatly through the back of his neck while he was too pre-occupied with Jamael to notice her. As the others turned, Jamael drove the sword through one’s stomach while Vys slit the throat of the remaining one. As the bodies fell to the ground, Jamael nodded at Vys in gratitude. She finished off the blinded female and they tossed the bodies over the edge of the chasm. There were more soldiers stationed all the way down the mountain but for the first time, this part of the path was cleared of them. Jamael waited for Vys to yell at him for being reckless.

Instead, she took a satchel from across her back and tossed it to Jamael, ‘’provisions,’’ she said, ‘’your boy went down the other side of the mountain. Start with the forest. Find him.’’

Jamael didn’t have to be told twice, ‘’get those bastards,’’ he told Vys, referring to the other soldiers. He knew that when he came back, the mountain and the desert of Cana Kaale would once again belong to the assassins. For now, he gripped the satchel and sprinted back up the rocky path, past the keep and down the way Jex had gone.

No matter what, Jamael was going to find him.

*~*~*

After all the excitement and danger and constant move of the quest, coming to Kai turned out to be rather...uneventful. The witch party was forced to remain on the island of Kai with the wolves, waiting for the return of the freckled boy – Prince Jasper Eiris, a witch – and his companion, a wolf. Mair was sure the vision she’d had were about them. They were the key to healing the world and ending the witch hunts.

It was too bad that they were all bored out of their minds.

The wolves had readily welcomed the witches into their caves and shared their food, for which the witches were most grateful. But the waiting was driving them all insane. Mardin kept to himself, mourning his brother, while the others tried not to remember the tragedies of their quests. They had to concentrate on finishing their mission, no matter how long it would take. Queen Nara and all the witches of the nine kingdoms depended on them.

Mairwen sighed. She was sitting in the forest, not too far from the caves. Fynn and Rain were back to bickering. Once it had been amusing; now it just gritted on Mair’s already frayed nerves. As the leader of the expedition, she was charged with finishing the mission and finding a cure. It was painful to sit around doing nothing with such a weight on her shoulders. She often sat in the woods by herself. Summer was fast approaching and the forest, lush and green and filled with the chirping of birds, reminded Mair of home. Of Mystic. What she wouldn’t give to be back there, even if Amaria was going to kill her for leaving so suddenly. Before, the vision scared her. Now, she’d kill for one. Maybe it would tell her what to do next, give her something to do other than sit and mope.

‘’You’re alone again,’’ Arlana came up behind Mair. Her warm, dark brown hand descended on Mair’s shoulder, ‘’is everything alright?’’

‘’No,’’ Mair said quietly, before she could stop herself, ‘’nothing’s alright. Nythil is dead and after all we’ve been through, we finally reach Kai, only to find out the one person we need is gone,’’ Mair turned in the grass and looked up at Arlana, who was crouching behind her, ‘’what are we supposed to do now?’’ she asked quietly, voice cracking. She wasn’t made to be a leader. She wished someone would lead her.

Arlana sighed, ‘’we wait.’’

Mair looked away, ‘’I’m sick of waiting,’’ she hated that she sounded like a child.

Arlana stood and extended her hand down to Mair, ‘’come. Let me cheer you up.’’

Mair slipped her hand into Arlana’s and let the fae witch pull her up to her feet. She followed her deeper into the forest. They walked away from the coast and away from the cave, into the lushness of the forest inland. Mair enjoyed the forest, but she didn’t understand why Arlana brought her there. It all looked the same and the trees covered in flowers didn’t take Mair’s mind out of the numb boredom and sickening anxiety she constantly felt. She walked away from Arlana and towards one of the trees. She reached out, just to have something to do, and touched a low-hanging leaf, leathery and bright green. She drew her thumb over its back.

And the leaf sprung to life.

Mair gasped and stumbled back as the leaf folded in on itself and a gorgeous green butterfly fluttered off the branch where the leaf had been. The island of Kai might have been home to the world’s first beings, but it wasn’t magical – just ancient. Mair peered at the tree closer and as she did, another butterfly folded from one of the pink flowers of the vines snaking around the tree. It fluttered up and sat on Mair’s finger. Mair stared at it, astounded. She whirled round to face Arlana and the butterfly flew away, ‘’what-‘’ she stopped when she saw Arlana’s soft smile. Her hands were in her pockets, her silver hair spilling over her shoulders, and the ease in which she used magic was almost as astounding as her beauty.

‘’I didn’t know you could do that,’’ Mair breathed.

As if her voice was a spell, the nearest dozen trees all came to life. Leaves and flowers turned into butterflies and fluttered into the air. They whirled around Arlana and Mair in a cacophony of colours and Mair felt her chest tighten, her breath still in her lungs as she watched the glorious display. The butterflies lingered for only a moment before springing into the air and flying all across the island, ‘’I figured this place could use some magic,’’ Arlana mused.

Mair finally exhaled, ‘’thank you,’’ she said quietly. She turned to the fae-witch, ‘’you have the gift of life.’’

‘’It’s just a small trick,’’ Arlana said, looking away, ‘’my talents lie...elsewhere.’’

‘’The wild hunt,’’ Mair said. It was as notorious as it was mysterious. The witches of Mystic didn’t know much beyond that the hunt could be seen soaring through the sky often. Mair sat on the lush grass and crossed her legs, ‘’tell me about it,’’ she requested, realising how little she knew of Arlana.

The fae-witch hesitated and Mair realised that she didn’t want to scare her. The hunt was, after all, a dark and powerful thing. But eventually she, too, sat down, ‘’the fae-witch court is small. The wild hunt is like the fae army; we are charged with protecting the queen, my mother, but we are also independent. My mother is all about flowers and protecting creatures and holding her beautiful court. I have...darker inclinations. Which is why I lead the wild hunt. The fae that do not feel like they belong at court, not wholly...they join the hunt.’’

‘’Do you steal souls?’’ Mair asked before she could stop herself. It was an old myth, told as a story to little witches that misbehaved.

‘’Sometimes,’’ Arlana said wistfully, ‘’but mostly we hunt, outside of Mystic, concealed by moonlight, with bows that don’t require arrows,’’ she sighed, ‘’if I had my stallion with me now, I’d be so much more powerful. Maybe...maybe Nythil wouldn’t have had to die.’’

‘’He made a choice,’’ Mair said gently, even though it hurt her to say it, ‘’to save all of us.’’

Arlana looked away. She tugged at the grass with one hand, pulling out strands, ‘’maybe some of us don’t deserve being saved,’’ she whispered, ‘’I should have stayed.’’

‘’No,’’ Mair said sharply.

‘’You don’t understand,’’ Arlana said and Mair saw that she was ashamed, ‘’those in the wild hunt have a darker side to them. When we hunt, during a full moon, well...’’ she shook her head, ‘’I just hope you never have to see me like that.’’

‘’Well, whatever this darker side of you is,’’ Mair said after a longer pause, ‘’the good in your clearly wins,’’ she took Arlana’s hand in hers. The fae-witch glanced around. Some of the butterflies lingered, bringing the forest to life. She couldn’t help but smile in gratitude at Mair.

She let their clasped hands hang between them, ‘’what about you?’’ Arlana prompted, ‘’tell me about you, Mairwen.’’

And so they talked, and talked, until the sun began sinking in the sky.

It helped ease the wait.

*~*~*

General Basden Frey stood at a makeshift wooden podium at the head of the war camp, which Niko had used. He was indeed gone, taking his most blood thirsty soldiers with him, leaving behind a ghost camp. Soldiers walked around aimlessly, not really wanting to go out witch hunting, and too plagued with nightmares to sleep. Their masks made them look like flocks of confused birds.

Now that Bas had called a meeting, his troops stretched out in neat rows, far and wide. The sight of the sheer amount of them made Bas’ heart heavy – how many deaths was that? How many had died at the hands of a single army?

Bas knew he was supposed to start with a formal address, introduce the issue. Instead, as it hit him how much this army, whom he was a part of, had killed, he ripped off his plague mask, ‘’the killing stops now!’’ he said, loud and booming, and his voice carried across the silent yard.

Dead eyes that had been staring at him from behind plague masks now blinked in confusion. Soldiers stirred. No one dared whisper anything to their neighbours. Bas gripped the wooden rail of the podium, so hard his knuckles turned white. If these soldiers turned on him, he wouldn’t stand a chance, but this was their best shot at ending the Kai witch hunts, ‘’I look at all of you now, soldiers I have trained with, my family, and I see none of my trusted soldiers. Only dead-eyed walking corpses. Each one of you has killed witches – defenceless witches, and those who aided them. Children. The elderly. People who just wanted to live. I see how it weights on your shoulders and I know that many of you will not last like this. You will take your lives. And you will burn in the seven hells for what you have done. And those of you who live through this, who end the lives of every witch in the kingdom – how will you face your families? Your children, when you have killed witches just like them? Your husbands and wives, when you have hung whole families? Your mothers and fathers, when you have burned and stabbed the mothers and fathers of others,’’ he looked over the army, ‘’the killing stops now!’’

The crowd stirred. Now some whispers broke through the silence, ‘’I am your general,’’ Bas continued, voice booming and strong enough to match Niko’s, ‘’I will never lie or sugar coat the truth. This is the stark truth. This army has killed its nation, slaughtered its people, and for what? The ravings of a mad man. You all know general Magana has gone mad – I, his close friend, more than anyone. You did this to stop the plague but so many witches have been killed, and still the plague rages on. It has not even slowed. And I assure you, when you kill all witches you will continue to live in fear because the plague will continue, and your wrecked minds and bodies will not be able to hold it at bay.’’

‘’I now offer you the chance at redemption, at saving your souls and minds. Stop this madness. Protect the witches that are left. We will face general Magana and any bloodthirsty killers out there,’’ Bas softened his voice, ‘’it’s easy to do wrong when in panic and chaos, those around you do wrong, and your general orders you to do wrong. Now is the time to think for yourselves. What you have done cannot be undone. But what you do from now on can make a difference, save lives,’’ he stared, hard, at the army, ‘’the killing stops now!’’

A slow, sarcastic clap broke the silence. Bas looked sharply to his left where, through the ranks of the soldiers, Alda and her hunters walked, confident and dripping with weapons, ‘’nice speech,’’ Alda yelled, laughing, ‘’I wonder what General Magana will have to say about this when he finds out he’s been betrayed!’’

‘’He’s the traitor,’’ Bas said calmly, ‘’he has betrayed his nation and his people.’’

‘’Oh, please,’’ Alda mocked, hands on hips, ‘’the witch scum are not our people. They never have been! What are they doing to stop the plague? Nothing! They sit around, waiting for us all to die! They hide out in their little magical cities while we suffer!’’

‘’Maybe,’’ Bas said coldly, ‘’no witch has made a cure because you’ve been killing them, one by one. Maybe they have their city because history repeats itself, and in history the hunts always return.’’

‘’For good reason,’’ Alda fired viciously.

‘’The hunts have never achieved anything,’’ Bas shook his head, ‘’and they will stop. Right. Now.’’

Alda threw her head back and laughed, ‘’you can’t seriously believe there soldiers will let the plague run loose! We know how to stop it. We kill all the witches. That’s what the King wanted, that’s what General Magana wanted. And when he comes back, we will have you in chains, ready for him to drag out into the courtyard where he can put you down like the dog you are, you gods-damned-‘’

She didn’t say more.

‘’That’s enough,’’ Lieutenant Kali Dairmuid said coldly. Her blade rested below Alda’s chin, ready to slit her throat.

Alda glared at her. She waited. And waited. The air was tense and slowly, her smirk disappeared as no soldier stepped out of line to seize the Lieutenant or Bas. The soldier next to Kali finally reached out and put his hand on her shoulder, ‘’the killing stops now,’’ he said, voice hollow and tired.

Kali glared at Alda but sheathed her sword, ‘’we won’t kill you,’’ she said through gritted teeth, ‘’but someone else will. You have angered the whole kingdom. Your days are numbered.’’

Alda glared at her. She then whirled round, spat at the feet of the podium, made a vulgar sign towards Bas and stormed off, her twenty-odd hunters following her. Bas watched them go and then turned back to the army. They were silent, eyes on him. Waiting for instruction, ‘’get a barricade ready,’’ he called out, ‘’train. Prepare. When general Niko returns, we will face him in battle.’’

And that was that. The soldiers saluted Bas and dispersed. Bas wondered if he imagined them seeming a bit more alive, a bit more motivated. He inclined his head to Kali, who nodded back and went to oversee the barricade.

Bas stepped off the podium, suddenly feeling weak and nauseous. He had just condemned his best friend. If Niko returned and lost, he’d die. The thought made Bas feel sick, despite all that Niko had done. They’d known each other since they were children. Bas walked off the platform and towards his tent. There was much to be done; he needed to send messengers to soldiers posted across Hailbronn and Solin, to call off the hunts and-

‘’General!’’ Soren was suddenly in front of him, grabbing hold of his arm. His cheeks were flushed from running, strawberry blond hair dishevelled, ‘’the captured witches were mostly nobles. The other cats will send them to Koln.’’

Bas tried to look at Soren and found that he could not. Shame and guilt filled him. Soren had sacrificed more than any of them for this battle – Bas realised this when he saw Niko taking Soren again the wall. Soren had allowed the vilest men of all, the one who killed his friend, to do that, in order to save a witch. And Bas hadn’t been there to stop it – couldn’t stop it even when he saw it. He’d left Soren, even though he could have doubled back and informed Niko of an important mission, or something. Anything. He should have protected Soren better. Now his shame wouldn’t even let him look at the boy he was so in love with, ‘’good,’’ he said, ‘’you should go back to the Cathouse. Take my horse. Rest.’’

He walked past Soren and only stopped when the Cat, in a strangled voice, said, ‘’Bas, wait...’’

By themselves, Bas’ feet turned him and he looked at Soren. The boy looked lost, uncertain, standing by himself, looking at the General with a mixture of emotions Bas couldn’t begin to decipher, ‘’you did it,’’ Soren finally said, with a smile, ‘’we’re finally going to end the hunts.’’

Bas couldn’t find his voice. He wanted to tell Soren how vital he was to this, how important to the cause...how important to him. But now that he had looked at Soren, he couldn’t take his eyes away, and he was getting lost in him...

‘’Soren,’’ one of the other Cats – the dark skinned girl, Libby – appeared and took Soren’s arm, ‘’come. We need to get going.’’

And with that, Soren was gone and Bas felt like his heart had been impaled and left to rot outside the city gates.

*~*~*

Returning to Salar was like a dream.

The entourage that had set out to Rhein – or what was left of it – was stared at as they rode through the streets, from the port of Lycia to Hernandarias, the capital. Merry felt more and more anxious as Captain Hartman escorted him towards the palace. He realised how reckless he’d been. How worried Tristan must have felt. He was afraid of facing the King’s wrath. Not for the first time, he wished he was back in the Salarian countryside, where life had been so uncomplicated.

Alas, Merry was King. He had to face his husband. And so he and the Captain rode into the courtyard, helped Merry down from his horse and took the beasts away, leaving Merry to face Tristan alone. A smart move on her part – his fury would extend to her, too.

As Merry walked into the palace, already shouts of ‘the King has returned!’ and ‘King Edlard is back!’ filled the marble foyer. Merry found himself lingering there, wondering when Tristan would come down. In the end, it was Lord Rivers, the master of finances that had met Merry when he first arrived, who hobbled down the stairs to him, ‘’the King is in his study,’’ he said in his croaky voice, ‘’please see him immediately.’’

So Tristan was so mad he wasn’t even going to come downstairs. Oh, well...Merry would rather get yelled at in private. He nodded and with his heart in his throat, climbed the stairs. The doors to Tristan’s office were closed and guarded. Merry didn’t miss the way the guards glanced down at his stomach in surprise. He was now over six months pregnant. He knocked on the doors to the office and slipped inside before he even heard a response.

He was surprised by the relieved, light, loving feeling that flooded him when he finally saw Tristan. The King was standing by the window, staring out at the garden with unseeing eyes. Merry’s happiness disappeared quickly when Tristan didn’t even turn towards him, ‘’your majesty...’’ Merry whispered, wondering if Tris had heard him come in.

But of course he has, ‘’so,’’ Tristan said, and Merry flinched at the coldness of his voice, ‘’you’ve finally decided to return. I was wondering if you were going to.’’

Merry shifted from one foot to the other, ‘’I’m sorry,’’ he whispered and it felt so, so inadequate.

Tristan seemed to think so, too. He huffed, mirthlessly, ‘’Captain Hartman had her orders.’’

‘’She was spelled,’’ Merry said quickly, ‘’by the leader of the expedition. The witch. Raaisel.’’

‘’Then she will be punished,’’ Tristan said.

‘’You can’t punish her,’’ Merry said quietly, ‘’she has remained in Rhein. It had been her plan all along to create another witch city, a sanctuary for the witches being hunted-‘’

‘’Enough,’’ Tristan snapped, ‘’I am not interested in the details of your little rebellious escapade. I don’t want to hear about it ever again.’’

Merry glanced down at his feet, flinching against at Tris’ harsh tone, ‘’as you wish,’’ and then, before he could stop himself, in a trembling voice he whispered, ‘’please don’t be angry with me.’’

Tristan laughed and it sounded cruel to Merry. He put his arms around himself as Tristan said, ‘’you have some nerve, making demands,’’ he pushed himself away from the wall and walked towards the doors. Merry realised with a sinking feeling that that was that. Tristan was done talking.

He ran after him and stopped him with outstretched hands pressed to his chest, ‘’Tristan,’’ he breathed, ‘’Tristan, please.’’

Tristan wouldn’t even look at him. He grabbed his wrists and yanked Merry’s hands away from his chest, ‘’I am your King. You will address me as such.’’

Merry felt tears gather in his eyes, ‘’you are my husband,’’ Merry whispered.

Finally, Merry heard some of the pain Tris was hiding in his voice, ‘’since when does one’s husband run away?’’ his voice quietened, ‘’did you want to get away from me that much?’’

‘’No!’’ Merry grabbed Tristan’s hand and cradled it between both of his. He was never one for initiating contact but he needed Tristan to listen, to forgive him, ‘’gods, no, that wasn’t...that wasn’t why I left...’’

Tristan closed his eyes, ‘’I’m done talking, Meridian.’’

So Merry did the last thing he could think of. He pressed Tristan’s hand to his bulging stomach.

Tristan’s eyes snapped open and went wide. His hand, ever so slowly, moved over the bump, ‘’you went on this mission while pregnant!?’’ he exclaimed. And then, suddenly, his eyes darkened. He snatched his hand back, ‘’oh, gods. Whose is it?’’

Merry’s mouth went dry with shock, ‘’what?’’

Tristan gave him a loathing look, and perversely, his blind eyes landed directly on Merry’s face, ‘’who did you fuck on that ship?’’

This time Merry laughed. It was a little hysterical and heart-broken, ‘’do you really think so little of me?’’ he whispered, and then something snapped in him. He clutched his stomach protectively, ‘’it’s yours, you idiot! I could never...gods, how could you think I would let anyone...’’ Merry stammered through his words, ‘’I found out on the way that I was with child. If I’d know before then I never would have left...’’ he turned away from the King. Too much had happened today. He felt that if he didn’t leave, he’d faint. He went to the doors quickly and pulled them open.

‘’Is it really mine?’’ came Tristan’s voice from behind Merry. He sounded...vulnerable. A little hopeful. Full of disbelief and weariness.

But then, so was Merry. And he was tired on top of that. So he just said, as coldly as Tristan had greeted him, ‘’I can’t believe you think I’d let anyone else touch me,’’ and then he left the room, letting the doors slam shut behind him.

Tristan stared in disbelief ahead of him, feeling his heart pound wildly. He was...he was going to be...

He left the room quickly and found a servant, ‘’get King Meridian into the confinement room. Make sure he is comfortable. Have the midwife and the physicians check on his health. Bring him everything he needs.’’

*~*~*

Arne was glad that at least he’d been put on one horse with Eddie. General Magana’s men had dragged them out of the palace in Solin days before, and they had been riding nearly non-stop ever since. Arne had no idea where they were going. He was unfamiliar with the route but he had an uneasy feeling that this wouldn’t end well. He had only two consolations. That Jasper hadn’t been caught. And that he was allowed this time with Eddie, even if, possibly, these were their last moments together. Arne sat, small and quiet, in front of Eddie. His back was pressed against his husband’s chest and Edgar rode with his hand around Arne, his chin resting atop his head. He dropped kisses on the top of Arne’s sandy hair every once in a while.

They didn’t stop often. Sometimes only for a quick meal or a couple hours of sleep. General Magana seemed anxious to get to their destination.

During one of the pit stops, Eddie and Arne lay down under a tree, curled together under a blanket. They were surrounded by soldiers, their backs to the Kings, in case they tried to run. Arne cast a small silencing charm so the soldiers wouldn’t hear them as they spoke, ‘’where do you think they’re taking us?’’ Arne asked Eddie. They were lying face to face with Eddie stroking Arne’s cheek gently.

‘’Wherever it is, it can’t be good,’’ Eddie whispered. He wasn’t one to lie to Arne or make false promises, ‘’I’m just glad Jasper is safe.’’

Arne nodded, scooting closer to his husband, ‘’we’ve faced a lot of bad things,’’ he murmured, ‘’but I fear this might be the worst.’’

Eddie kissed Arne gently, ‘’but we’ll face it nonetheless,’’ he sighed and leaned their forehead together, ‘’I hate to say it, but you were right. I should have never married you. I should have left you with Cassia in that little hut, and I should have let you raise Jasper there. Then you both would have been safe.’’

Arne leaned forward and kissed Eddie, hard and short, ‘’marrying you,’’ he said, ‘’was one of the best things that ever happened to me.’’

A soft pop let Arne know that the charm had disappeared and the soldiers could hear them again. Still, Eddie’s radiant smile told Arne all he needed to know. Me, too. I love you. They shared a soft goodnight kiss and fell asleep in each other’s arms, wondering if it was the last time they’d do so.

*~*~*

Raaisel awoke in the middle of the night in the empty, crumbling palace of Rhein. The Queen was buried in the gardens. The whole kingdom was dead or dying.

But not for long.

Raaisel sat up in her bed, feeling the shift in the air, ‘’they’re here.’’

She dressed calmly, slowly, before leaving the chamber she had claimed and walking down the stone steps, splattered with blood in some places, cracked and overgrown with vines in other. The witch walked out into the palace courtyard, just a fourteen year old child, bundled up in layers of clothing, the Queen of an abandoned, dead kingdom.

At least that’s what it seemed like.

‘’Brethren,’’ Raaisel said, almost fondly, as figures emerged from the shadows, ‘’you have answered my call. Brothers. Sisters.’’

She met the eyes of the other five hell witches – the only creatures she’d need to restore a kingdom to its former glory.

Naked, horned Pendragon, Raaisel’s closest sister. A being of immense power, a spirit of mischief, protector of the Wild Hunt. She could travel wherever she desired, between kingdoms and realms and time.

Naghemel, the night sky. Neither a woman, nor a man, with skin of the darkest brown, hair as black as ink and eyes of pure, molten silver. A being disinterested in the fate of the human world, one that resides in their starry throne in the sky rather than in hell – and one bound to family by blood and oath.

Mahamari, the witch of sickness, plague and pestilence, manifested as an old woman, leaning on a wooden cane, back bent, head lowered, so that Raaisel couldn’t see her eyes. The cursed eyes that destroyed lives with a single fleeting gaze. On days when the world was healthy, she was beautiful and young and alive. The plague wrecked her body as much as it wrecked the nine kingdoms.

Heriot, the bringer of death. You wouldn’t be able to tell, just looking at him. He was a beautiful, delicate boy, dressed in white, like an angel, navy-black hair curling over his brow, a gentle smile on his lips, double coloured eyes amicable and gentle. Death was not always violent and so Heriot was, often, soft and gentle.

And then Linnuruhmad, the oldest of them all. The birdsong. The first hell witch. She appeared as a girl of six, innocent, face framed by golden locks. But her eyes were alien, bright blue, no whites showing, and her teeth sharp as those of a beast. She was a beast. But that was the thing about them old beasts – her and Raaisel – they liked to make themselves look innocent. And then rip out the throats of the ignorant.

‘’Raaisel Mallukar Banrion Era Marana,’’ Linnuruhmad spoke in the sweet, innocent voice of a child that somehow still vibrated with all the knowledge since the dawn of time, ‘’the devil witch. Dealer of nightmares and soul taker. Sister. What do you summon us for?’’

Naghemel made an impatient noise at the back of their throat, ‘’she wants us to help rebuild her kingdom. To create a second Mystic.’’

‘’Careful, little one,’’ Raaisel said casually, ‘’I don’t think I care for your tone.’’

‘’It’s about time,’’ Heriot announced brightly, ‘’witches have been dying for far too long.’’

‘’Yes,’’ Raaisel narrowed her double coloured eyes at the ensemble in front of her, ‘’and while I have been trying to create a safe place, to preserve our kind, what have you all been doing, exactly?’’

‘’I do not meddle in the affairs of humans,’’ Naghemel said with disgust.

‘’THESE ARE NOT AFFAIRS OF HUMANS GODS DAMN IT!’’ Raaisel roared.

The others, all except Linnuruhmad, flinched. The castle behind them trembled in its foundations and Raaisel’s roar could be felt all over Kainan, as a tremor in the ground. Her eyes flashed with live fire as she glared at her siblings. She had not lost her temper in centuries and now fought to reel it back in, ‘’you are lucky,’’ she hissed, ‘’that my power is limited in my human form, for you would suffer greatly for your indifference. Our kind has nearly died out while you sat on your thrones, warming them. Useless. Pathetic.’’

Naghemel’s deep brown skin turned pitch black, briefly, with embarrassment and rage. But even the night sky knew that they were no match for Raaisel, even when she was contained in human form, ‘’we apologised,’’ Naghemel said through clenched, perfectly white teeth. Lights shifted in their eyes like constellations.

‘’I couldn’t get involved,’’ Heriot said quickly, apologetically, ‘’I am death. I do not choose who dies or who lives. I can only come for them when the time comes and give their souls to Altessa; although even we are powerless these days. There’s pockets, spirits trapped...’’ Heriot shook his head sadly.

‘’I have been helping,’’ Pendragon grinned at Raaisel, ‘’I couldn’t let you take all the glory. While you try to save witches, I’m trying to save the whole world. We will have a cure.’’

Raaisel nodded, the only sign that she was pleased, and turned to Mahamari. She was going to demand why she hasn’t done anything, but Raaisel stopped herself. She remembered Mahamari the last time she’d  seen her sister. Vibrant, alive. She was now a pathetic corpse of wrinkles and bones, too ashamed to even lift her head, cursed to forever be tied to the lives of humans. What could she have done when she herself was so wrecked by the plague? Raaisel instead turned to Linnuruhmad. She didn’t demand an answer outright; Linnuruhmad was still her elder sister, ‘’I will not apologise,’’ Linnuruhmad said sweetly, ‘’but I will help you restore this kingdom. That is what you have called us here for, isn’t it?’’

‘’Why have you called me?’’ Mahamari spoke for the first time, voice like dust and puffs of chalk, ‘’I am powerless. My powers are low. Until the pestilence retreats...’’

‘’It will,’’ Raaisel said, ‘’but not here. Which is why I need you.’’

Mahamari raised her head in surprise. Bones cracked in her neck. Her eyes, one mud-brown the other corpse-grey, looked surprised, ‘’I don’t understand.’’

‘’There is no need to hide Rhein from the world, like Mystic,’’ Raaisel said, ‘’humans will stay away. It will be decreed and ordered, and those who try and venture into Rhein will never be allowed back out, because the plague will rage here forever. It will not afflict witches, as it never has, and humans will leave us alone voluntarily.’’

‘’I understand,’’ Mahamari said, ‘’I will uphold the plague in this kingdom, once my powers are restored.’’

‘’Good,’’ Raaisel nodded, ‘’now. Help me bring back this kingdom.’’

And so they did.

The palace rose in columns of stone and granite above the sea once more. The fortress in Aldhard stood proud. All over Rhein, buildings repaired itself. Trees came back to life, grass grew rapidly, and flowers spurted from the ground. Mystic was the land of eternal summer, and Rhein would be the land of eternal spring. Under the bright, starry sky, Rhein repaired itself. Queensbane, the City of Lights, once upon a time Kainan’s jewel, came alight once more. Half-humans feasting on the corpses of the fallen, diseased but not quite dead, stepped out in wonder from their hiding places, watching the kingdom restore themselves. And when Heriot swept over them, they gratefully lay down in the soft grass, closed their eyes and finally died.

At least, some of them did. A few resisted and when the magic settled, they crawled into caves and forests and all the dark places in Rhein, curled up and fell into a deep, deep slumber.

But they would wake again. Someday.  

Chapter Text

Jasper tried to be as useful as possible. A couple days passed since they arrived in Chaya’s shop and every day after breakfast, Othelen was whisked away for tests. Jas had gone up to the experiment room once and upon seeing Othelen hooked up to various devices and tubes, nearly vomited and vowed never to go up there again. Chaya had mixed Othelen’s blood with the blood of Mudrik and, just as she predicted, within twelve hours the virus in the blood mixture was dead, after a quick, vicious flare. The flare worried everybody working on the cure. It was as if the plague attempted one last attack before it was snuffed out but would a human be able to survive that flare? Chaya continued to work, drawing Othelen’s blood and taking apart its molecules to find out what made it so immune, in order to recreate its elements in a cure. She took little samplings of his skin, hair, saliva, nails...everything she could get her hands on. She and Mehedi worked tirelessly.

Jas did his own work, too. He found an old, old library in the darker parts of the Moriyan quarters. There was one librarian, an old man with a dusty beard, who simply nodded every time Jas came. The prince borrowed Chaya’s leather satchel and came back to the shop with tomes tucked within it and under his arms. He could read in the library but he preferred to be close to Othelen, in case the wolf needed something or got hurt. And so he passed his days tucked into their secret sleeping nook, flipping through yellowed pages. He read everything he could in hopes of finding an answer to the flare. History books – for mentions of flares before death and of the closest anyone has come to a cure. Medicine books – reading through formulas and giving Chaya ideas of what to try. Herbal books – searching for a plant that could reduce or get rid of the flare. And of course magic books. Maybe there was a spell Jas could perform, though he had no idea how he would make it work on a world-scale.

‘’Jasper?’’

The prince looked up at Mehedi, who was peeking in between the bookshelves. Jas looked up from the book opened in his lap, ‘’what is it?’’

‘’Othelen is getting a bit...aggravated. I think it’s because his pack is not around and he’s in, um...’’ Mehedi glanced away sheepishly, ‘’a considerable amount of pain. His pack can’t comfort him...’’

‘’Got it,’’ Jas closed the book with a heavy thud and pushed it outside. He followed Mehedi upstairs, even though it made him feel sick, just thinking about all the blood and pain and experiments... thankfully Othelen was unclamped by the time they got upstairs. Chaya was hobbling around, goggles around her eyes. She was bandaging up Othelen’s arms and he sat with his head hanging and his hands fisted on his knees, knuckles white. Jas knew that what Othelen truly needed was to run with his pack, as a wolf. But he couldn’t, not in a city. And Othelen’s pack was back in Kai.

‘’All done,’’ Chaya muttered. Over the few days it was like she’d aged ten years. She looked more tired, back more crooked, eyes sunken deep into her bronze skin.

Mehedi and Jas took one of Othelen’s arms each and helped him up and then down the stairs. His feet dragged a little and his eyes were half-closed. He didn’t seem quite there and Jasper felt his heart clench painfully. However much he missed his family, Othelen missed his ten times that. Jas hoped never to know what it felt like, having every instinct scream at you to get back to the place of your birth while your mind knew you could not. While your body was abused and weakened.

Mehedi helped Jas lower Othelen onto the nest of blankets and pillows, leaning him against the wall, before leaving them alone. The sun was sinking. This was the earliest Chaya had called quits and Jas worried about Othelen’s health. He couldn’t go on for too much longer, powerful wolf or no. Jas left Othelen alone for a little while. He came back with a pail of lukewarm water and a cup of steaming herbal tea. He set the mug in Othelen’s hands and the wolf drank it in a couple gulps. Chaya was pretty intense with her tests; Jas wondered if she’d remembered to give Othelen drink on a different occasion than lunchtime.

‘’Here,’’ Jas said softly. He knelt between Othelen’s legs, dampened a cloth in the pail of water and wiped his brow off sweat. Othelen glanced at him with tired, brown eyes but said nothing, just set his empty cup down. Jas’ movements were feather light as he cleaned Othelen’s face, the cloth a cool, blissful touch in the growing heat of late spring. The witch brought the cloth down, cleaning Othelen’s neck and shoulders, trying not to look too long at a couple specks of blood. He didn’t even blush when the cloth travelled over Othelen’s impressive chest and stomach. All Jas could think about was how much Othelen had done for the humans and the witches, and how much he was suffering.

Because Jas had asked him to.

The prince tossed the cloth into the pail of water and sat against the wall, patting his lap, ‘’come lay down.’’

Othelen gave him a look. ‘’I’m not a child,’’ he whispered tiredly.

‘’It’ll make you feel better,’’ Jas coaxed.

With a sigh, Othelen shuffled, slowly, to a lying position. Jas didn’t miss the way Othelen was careful not to strain his arms. Under the bandages, they were probably a mess of cuts and scars and incisions. Othelen settled his head on Jas’ thigh and closed his eyes.

Jas brought his fingers to Othelen’s face, tracing, extremely softly, the marks running down his face. His eye-lids. His jaw. His cheeks. Brushing hair from his forehead. Caressing his skin. Othelen needed touch and Jas would provide it, as much as it took. He traced his thumb over Othelen’s lips and then cupped his cheek, stroking his cheekbone.

He didn’t realise he was crying until a tear hit Othelen’s cheek.

Jas quickly turned his head, wiping his eyes. When he looked back down at the wolf, Othelen’s eyes were open. Very slowly, he raised his injured arm and with a calloused finger wiped away a tear that clung to the bottom of Jas’ lashes, ‘’why are you crying?’’ Othelen asked.

Jas gave a sheepish giggle and looked away again, ‘’s-sorry.’’

He felt Othelen shift on his lap and then he pulled himself up. Othelen put a finger under Jas’ chin and turned his head back towards him. Their eyes met, ‘’that’s not an answer,’’ Othelen said, voice low.

‘’I’m just...’’ Jas felt his lip wobble and he bit it. He reached out and pressed a hand to Othelen’s chest, feeling his steady heartbeat, ‘’I’m sorry that this is happening. I’m sorry you have to go through this.’’

‘’Hey,’’ Othelen said sternly. He cupped Jas’ cheek, surprising the prince, ‘’we’re saving the world. That’s what you wanted.’’

‘’Yes,’’ Jas whispered, feeling fresh tears sting his eyes, ‘’but you’re the only one getting hurt.’’

‘’Well,’’ Othelen brushed the fresh tears away pointedly, ‘’that’s not quite true, is it?’’

Jas just shook his head, ‘’I’m sorry, Othelen.’’

‘’Don’t be,’’ Othelen resolutely wiped away the tears with both thumbs, ‘’I chose this. You didn’t make me.’’

Jas opened his mouth to reply and saw Othelen pale, ‘’ah, shit...’’ he whispered as nausea rolled over him.

‘’You should lay down,’’ Jas said quickly, helping Othelen to do so, ‘’don’t exert yourself.’’

Othelen looked up at Jasper, ‘’lay down with me?’’ Jas nodded and slipped under a blanket, pulling them over both their bodies, ‘’and...touch me a bit more?’’

Jas gladly scooted closer. He put his hand on Othelen’s shoulder, stroking, making sure to press his hand against Othelen’s skin in a way that he felt it. So that he knew he wasn’t alone. Only when Jas reached the bandages on Othelen’s arms did Jas go gentler, using just his fingertips. He caressed Othelen’s chest and stomach and face and hair, until the wolf drifted off.

When he did, Jas leaned over him. He tucked a strand of long brown hair behind his ear and kissed Othelen’s forehead, ‘’I hope this is all over soon,’’ he whispered. He sat next to Othelen until darkness fell, reading his books.

*~*~*

Duke Trey Breedlove entered Orin’s office and bowed neatly at the waist, ‘’you wanted to see me, your majesty?’’

Orin plastered a forced smile on his lips and motioned to the chair on the opposite side of his desk, ‘’please, sit,’’ he watched Trey as the man obeyed him. Orin couldn’t help but wonder how many times this man had touched Wrath, the way Orin yearned to touch him. How many times Wrath had cried in his arms, or spent happy moments with him, when it could have been Orin. The King knew he was being delusional. He’d found Wrath in an empty mansion with his husband far away; there were no happy moments for them. And he had often heard the rumours that Duke Breedlove detested touching others.

But he still couldn’t help but hate Wrath’s husband.

‘’How has your stay been?’’ Orin asked casually, flicking through the papers on the desk, pretending he was looking for the right one even though he knew exactly where it was in the pile. The moment he stamped the document with his seal, his fingers had been itching to give it to the Duke.

‘’Very pleasant,’’ Breedlove said, ‘’I am most thankful to your majesty.’’

‘’Aha! There it is!’’ Orin yanked the document from the pile and slid it over to Breedlove.

The Duke looked apprehensive, ‘’what...is this, my lord?’’ he knew of Orin’s love for Wrath. The whole kingdom knew. He was probably wondering if he’d be punished in some way for being married to Wrath.

‘’Read it.’’

Breedlove did.

Slowly, as he read, his eyes widened. He seemed to stop breathing. Suddenly, he snatched up the document and brought it close to his face, eyes frantically scanning the writing, ‘’this...’’ he blabbered, ‘’this is...’’

Orin leaned back in his chair, a slow smile spreading on his lips, ‘’indeed. It is.’’

*~*~*

‘’Your majesty...’’

Airen startled awake. He’d been sitting in the armchair by the tiny tower window, cradling his stomach and soaking up the last of the day’s rays of cold sunshine. He must have dozed off. In the late months of his pregnancy, his child was sapping his strength. When he’d fallen asleep, he’d been alone but now the maid stood a few feet away. She had her plague mask on, but she also donned thick gloves – a new addition. Airen’s heart gave an uneasy jump as he sat up; did the plague spread? ‘’What is it?’’

The maid reached into her apron and pulled out a letter. Airen breathed out a sigh of relief. Daran had written back. He reached for the letter but the maid kept it out of reach, ‘’please wear this protection, majesty,’’ she pulled out another pair of gloves, ‘’his majesty has touched this...’’

So he was sick...

Swallowing the feeling of dread coming over him, Airen pulled on the gloves and took the letter, unfolding it, ‘’come back in twenty minutes,’’ he told the maid, who departed. Airen read the letter.

Airen,

The people that attacked the palace have been apprehended and executed. The borders have been closed and the plagued that have managed to slip through have been quarantined by the coast. They will not be allowed inland. Arnheim will remain safe. My family is alright. None of them display sickness though I have advised them to stay away from me. I dwell in my rooms; the physicians are checking my body daily for signs of the plague. There have been none yet but I will not risk your health or the health of our child. You will remain in the tower until the child is delivered, or it’s completely safe for you to leave the tower. Let the maid known of any of your requests. Anything that you need or want, you shall have. Please don’t exhaust yourself worrying. It’s bad for the health of the child.

I feel it is my duty to inform you that we have retrieved your mother from the temples and she once again resides in the dungeons. She will face trial tomorrow but if she is found guilty, I will not execute her, at least not until I speak with you face to face. It is your decision to make. Or your right to say goodbye.

I’m sorry that I had to lock you away. I didn’t want to make you feel like a prisoner again. Truly.

I will write more with you, if that is what you wish.

Daran

Airen held his breath as he read the letter. After, he exhaled, slowly, as a wave of different emotions washed over him. He re-read the letter, slower now. He was glad that Daran’s family was alright. Brannen might have been a cunt and King Father Kane a bit distant, but Airen liked Daim, and Airleas was gentle and Cian was just a child. And he was glad that Daran seemed alright – for the sake of their child. Then came annoyance that Airen was made to stay indefinitely in the tower. It was driving him crazy already but he forced himself to calm down – Daran was right, powerful emotion wasn’t good for the baby. He skimmed the letter again.

Please don’t exhaust yourself...

Please. It was probably the first time Daran had asked him something. It felt like maybe what Airen had thought was Daran was actually his exterior shell of a warrior. Maybe it was finally cracking a bit.

And then the bit about Airen’s mother. Airen sighed. He wished he felt something about her, but he couldn’t bring himself to. All he felt was a heavy fatigue when he thought about her, like someone might think of a particularly unpleasant job to be done.

He moved past that part. He didn’t want to think about Marietta and all her scheming.

I’m sorry that I had to lock you away. I didn’t want to make you feel like a prisoner again. Truly.

Airen’s eyes hovered on that line. That...that made him feel something. Like...gratitude. And understanding. What Daran had said on his birthday – that he never wanted to kill anyone, that he was the same as Airen, protecting his family – had weighed on Airen. Now he felt like it was true. Like Daran never wanted to hurt anyone and he’d never wanted to keep Airen a prisoner in Arnheim. Airen finished reading the letter and his fingers skimmed the last words.

Daran.

No ‘your truly’ or ‘regards’ or anything formal. No ‘your loving husband’ with the same sarcasm Airen signed himself off when Daran was on progress... just ‘Daran’. It felt personal, somehow. Intimate.

Airen got off the armchair, got his parchment and ink, and wrote a reply.

Daran,

I’m glad there’s been no outbreak but I hate being in this tower. I know it’s not safe for me to come out but as soon as you can, at least transfer me to a closed off wing in the castle. Seriously, this place doesn’t even have a half-decent window.

There is no need to speak to me about my mother. I don’t want to see her. I don’t want to speak to her. In truth, I don’t ever want to think about her again. She’d endangered my child; she shouldn’t be around it. Please send her away, as far as possible – away from Arnheim, away from us. Just let Faeryn say goodbye. I know she’ll want to.

Airen chewed his lip and added,

The baby is doing well. I can feel it kicking more and more often. It won’t be long now till it’s ready to come out. Don’t worry, I’ll keep it safe.

Airen

Airen read over his letter, chewed his thumb and finally added a last passage,

Thank you. For what you said. I’m glad that we’re starting to understand each other

I’d like to keep writing with you. It’s my only source of entertainment.

He waited for the ink to dry, folded the letter in half and awaited the maid’s return.

*~*~*

Merry knew what confinement was and he also knew that he ever got pregnant, he’d be subjected to it.

Someone else might have found the tradition and superstition of being locked up in a single room until the birth of their child tedious, but Merry enjoyed it. It was much like being back in the country house with all the scholars and philosophers. He had books to study and parchment to write out theories – no kingly duties and all the time in the world. Tris’ wrath had began Merry’s confinement a tad earlier than usual but Merry was grateful for the time. He could study and read and learn and...remember what had happened in Rhein.

It plagued him at night with nightmares but he found that the more he thought about those who had died and what he had seen, the lesser the burden became. He had to come to terms with it, like he had with the death of his brother, finally, during the expedition. When he wasn’t buried in piles of books, Merry remembered. He committed the small memories to mind. He remembered the names of the people who sacrificed themselves for him and his unborn child.

Drest.

Yago.

General Sarin.

Bernhard.

Axel.

Itzel.

He remembered the things he saw, wrote them down, so he’d never forget. So even when Raaisel rebuilt the kingdom of Rhein, history would remember the horrors that ensued there. The un-dead diseased, with hungry mouths and broken fingers. The Moracay Canyon, once again the home of horrors – once filled with slaves, now filled with corpses. The palace in Perth, crumbling, the royal family dead, the last of the Rhein Eiris’ buried in the cold earth. He chronicled everything and pouring it out onto the pages gave him relief, because he could not speak to Tristan about it. Not yet.

Even though Tristan visited him.

Every evening, Tristan came to see him and it was...hard.

Merry was getting ready to sleep. He sat against a pile of pillows on the bed, reading a potion making book by candlelight. That’s when the soft knock came. Without looking up, Merry closed the book and waited for Tristan to make his way to the bed. He sat on its edge, far away from Merry, and even though the boy was used to it by now, it still stung, ‘’hello,’’ Tristan said. He wasn’t looking at Merry. He wasn’t looking at anything. His eyes were closed, almost out of spite. Merry wondered if the King had just fallen into old habits without Merry around to tell him to keep them open.

‘’Hello,’’ Merry said, smoothing his hand down the leathery cover of the book.

‘’How are you feeling today?’’

‘’The same as yesterday,’’ Merry said, ‘’and the day before. And the day before,’’ he hated how bitter he sounded. He used to be so good at hiding emotion. Now whenever he saw Tristan he remembered the horrible feeling he felt when Tris thought Merry had slept with someone else. He hadn’t thought there was so little trust between them, but then again Merry had broken it by leaving when Tris told him not to. It just hurt that Tristan didn’t want to hear his reasoning. It hurt that Merry couldn’t tell Tristan everything that happened, everything that made him wake up in cold sweat and rush to his book to write down the memoirs of the dead.

He wished he could share his guilt with Tristan, have someone understand.

Another big part of confinement was loneliness. Merry got maids to check on him every couple hours, and the physicians and midwives, but they were just faces. Captain Hartman wasn’t allowed to see him after her temporary suspension. Merry realised how little friends he had made. Then again, he was used to loneliness. Hadn’t he been lonely all his life? He didn’t mind it, until Tristan came. He couldn’t stomach the rift that came between him and the only person he’d ever felt an inkling of love for.

‘’I see,’’ Tristan said emotionlessly, ‘’and the child?’’

‘’Ask the physician,’’ Merry snapped, surprising himself and Tristan. Merry slid down under the covers, clutching his book to his chest. He felt tears sting at his eyes and he hated how soft he’d become since he came to the palace, ‘’I’m tired,’’ he whispered, wondering if Tris picked up on the tremble in his voice.

‘’Of course,’’ The King rose quickly, cleared his throat and nodded vaguely in Merry’s direction, ‘’goodnight. I’ll come see you tomorrow.’’

‘’You always do,’’ Merry whispered miserably. And it always felt like Tristan wasn’t really there. Or, worse, that he didn’t want to be there. Merry wondered if with him in confinement, Tristan would take lovers. Probably. It made him feel sick to think about it. Maybe he already had. Maybe Tristan had taken lovers when Merry had been in Rhein. The boy hid his face in his pillow, not wanting to think about it. It was just another thing to plague his mind.

Tristan walked briskly to the doors, having memorised the route. There, he paused. And then he said, quietly, ‘’I know it’s my child. I’m sorry I doubted it.’’

Merry didn’t reply and so Tristan left.

*~*~*

Jasper woke up alone.

The candles were out, the medicine shop covered in darkness, gloomy shadows gathering in the corners. Immediately, Jas felt something was wrong. The hairs on his arms stood up with dread as he scrambled into a sitting position, realising he wasn’t in the nest tucked safely behind shelves. He was lying on the bare floor of the shop. There was no nest. And Jas realised that wherever he was, it wasn’t the Moriyan quarters.

At least not the Moriyan quarters of his lifetime.

The prince jumped to his feet, looking wildly around the shop. In the dark, it was hard to see much but the feeling the place gave him – the sickening dread – made Jas certain that he’d walked through a door. When he’d been asleep. And now he needed to walk out.

A loud crash above his head alerted Jas that he wasn’t alone in the shop. He didn’t plan to stick around long enough to find out what kind of vengeful spirit he shared the space with. Taking a deep breath, Jas ran outside through the doors of the shop, hoping naively that the door was more than just that. That it was maybe a door back to his own realm, but no such luck.

Outside it looked to be autumn but Jas didn’t feel the cold. He looked around the street. It was empty as it was the middle of the night, but spirits trapped in pocket realms never slept, and soon they’d sense the presence of a living person amongst their midst. Jas needed to get out, and fast. If he died here, all hopes of getting the cure past the shop would be lost. Othelen would never make it back to Kai on his own with the way he looked.

Jas scanned the street, trying to sense the place where the exit doors were. The street looked different. The houses and shops were smaller, less sturdy. There were no candlelight lanterns in the streets which basked only in the moonlight. Jas exhaled, slowly. This pocket had been here for a long time. Judging by the make of the houses, a couple hundred years. Probably since the last plague, which meant the spirits here would be more dangerous and angry than other spirits. Jas tried to calm down but the thought sent his heart into wild, panicked heart beats. This time there was no Pendragon to save him.

Something moved in the corner of Jas’ vision and he whipped around, hoping it was the doors. But of course, it wasn’t.

It was a mob.

A blood thirsty crowd of plagued Moriyans, left here to die hundreds of years ago by the people of Kai who did not yet see them as people. The dead Moriyans carried blazing torches, machetes, knives, wooden spears... Jas swallowed thickly. Not good. Screw the door. He needed to lose the mob first. He turned on his heel, prepared to run...

And saw another mob approaching from that direction.

Both sides were closing in and Jas knew he was done for. There was nowhere to run. He looked desperately for a weapon, his brain not registering that he stood absolutely no chance against these spirits.

Both mobs approached at the same pace; they’d reach Jas at the same time. But then, suddenly, the one behind his back broke into a sprint. It was smaller than the one carrying torches and felt...different. They neared Jas at scary speed and the witch braced himself for the impact, having found nothing to defend himself with-

But the spirits ran past him.

They formed a line in front of him, drawing swords and daggers. Modern weapons. Their clothes looked more modern, too, compared to the shabby drapes of the mob. Jas exhaled, slowly, realising something.

They weren’t from around here.

And something else – their eyes were double coloured.

‘’BACK!’’ screamed a golden haired girl at the front. The mob stopped, torches wavering. They hissed, animalistic, driven crazy by millennia of shuffling around aimlessly through a Kainan long gone. Jas was surprised that they actually listened to the girl before noticing that some of the witches had thrown their hands up, warding the mob back with spells, ‘’Merethe,’’ the leader said to a small, dark girl, ‘’get him out of here.’’

The witch broke away from the group and grabbed Jas’ wrist. Her touch was cold, confirming that she was dead. Probably a victim of the witch hunts, ‘’come on,’’ she pulled Jas down the street and veered sideways, into a small alley. In the distance, the sound of fighting exploded.

‘’W-who are you...?’’ Jas managed, lungs burning from the sudden exercise, ‘’how did you...f-find me...?’’

‘’Zena felt you,’’ Merethe said. She ran head of Jas, lithe as a panther, pulling him along, ‘’she has the same power as you. You know, the door thing? She leads us around the pocket realms and we try to keep order, or at least protect the witches stuck in these pockets. Never stay in one place too long, although this pocket is pretty problematic,’’ she stopped in the middle of a grimy alleyway, looking around, ‘’feel the doors?’’

‘’Uh...’’ Jas turned, trying to seek the hint of familiar power.

Merethe cocked her head to the side curiously, ‘’you’re manufacturing a cure.’’

Jas paused, ‘’you’re a mind reader.’’

The witch nodded, ‘’we were trying to do that, too,’’ she said, ‘’find the cure, I mean. Got pretty close. Had the same idea as you – we wanted to find the Kai wolves, see if their isolation from mankind preserved their immunity. Oh!’’ she seemed to remember something, ‘’before hunters found us, we figured out that you actually need-‘’

A crash sounded nearby, yelling, and then a handful of spirits spilled into the alleyway. Merethe looked only mildly panicked – she was dead. They couldn’t harm each other, ‘’door. Quick.’’

Jas reached out his hand blindly, searching for a doorknob, heart in his throat. Merethe drew twin daggers and placed herself between Jas and the mob, though she wouldn’t be much help if she couldn’t actually kill any of them. Jas grappled at the air desperately, but there was nothing-

‘’Gods, are you blind?’’ snapped an irritated voice before golden haired Zena jumped down from the nearest roof. She landed next to Jas and reached past him. Her hand closed around an invisible doorknob, ‘’until next time,’’ she grabbed the front of Jas’ tunic and shoved him through the door.

.

.

.

Jas gasped, shooting up into a sitting position.

Candlelight blinded him momentarily and for a second he was afraid that it was the mob’s torches. But he was back in the Moriyan quarters of today. He was tucked into the nest. Slowly, he noticed the details. There was a hand in his hair – Mehedi’s. Chaya and Othelen leaned over him, peering at him. Othelen looked distraught, panicked, but when he saw that Jas’ eyes were awake he sat back and exhaled, ‘’what was that?’’ Chaya asked darkly.

‘’I told you not to do that again,’’ Othelen snapped, ‘’whatever it is that you do. Wherever you go.’’

‘’Can’t control it,’’ Jas sat up, mind whirring. Merethe had been about to tell him something, something vital...

‘’Where did you go?’’ Mehedi asked, confused.

‘’The Kainan of the past. There were dead witches...they...’’ he frowned, things clicking into place, ‘’they have the answers for the cure! They figured out the same thing we did, that we need Kai wolf blood, but there’s something we’re missing and one of the witches was going to tell me but then I had to go...’’

Mehedi’s eyes lit up with hope, ‘’then you must return!’’

Jas nodded, feeling his excitement give way to fatigue. Going through doors was never pleasant. He dumped himself backwards onto the nest, ‘’I will. Tomorrow night,’’ he said, ‘’right now there’s a mob there trying to tear me into pieces.’’

*~*~*

It was late evening when Wrath finally burst into Orin’s bedchambers, bringing fury as hot as fire with him.

Orin remained sitting on his bed, running a comb through his waterfall of golden hair. He was in his night shirt and pants, getting ready for bed, completely unsurprised by Wrath’s sudden, angry appearance. He’d been expecting him, ‘’Wrath-‘’ Orin barely managed to say before the pissed off raven appeared before him. He grabbed the comb out of his hand and hurled it across the chamber. It smashed into the mirror on the wall, breaking it into pieces. Orin assumed that Wrath had wanted to punch him in the face, but settled for throwing the hairbrush instead. Now, Orin received a somewhat milder shove to the chest that nearly sent him sprawling backwards onto the bed.

‘’How dare you!?’’ Wrath yelled, shoving Orin again before stepping back, trying to calm himself and failing, ‘’you...you...how could you!?’’

‘’I gave him what he wanted,’’ Orin said calmly.

‘’You...’’ Orin could see the anger boiling just below Wrath’s skin. The soldier could barely control the shaking of his voice enough to formulate words, ‘’you sent him away! To Kanalei! That’s on the other side of Koln!’’

‘’I’m aware,’’ Orin said, as calmly as he could, ‘’Trey Breedlove has always wanted to work in the city-‘’

‘’No!’’ Wrath interrupted angrily; his hands were fisted as he glared at Orin, ‘’no, you sent him away because he’s my husband. You...’’ Wrath took a deep breath and Orin saw that beneath the anger was still that aching heartbreak, ‘’you wouldn’t even let me have him...’’

Orin stood up sharply, ‘’you don’t want him. You never wanted him,’’ he approached Wrath and Wrath backed away, ‘’he left you in that house.’’

For a moment, sadness and anger seemed to fight for dominance in Wrath. Finally, the anger won and he spat, ‘’and I wish you’d never rescued me from there.’’

It was a blow that Orin felt in the very core of his being. It hurt, especially when he knew that Wrath was lying. When they met...what they had together...it was the most beautiful thing either of them would ever have, and Orin wasn’t going to give that up. He reached for Wrath and before the Archduke could slip from his grasp, he pulled him close, ‘’I love you,’’ Orin whispered heatedly and kissed him. As soon as their lips met, Orin felt like he could breathe again, even if it was brief and ended with a sharp slap to his face.

‘’Don’t lie to me,’’ Wrath growled, shoving Orin away, ‘’if you’re sending my husband away, then I shall leave, too.’’

Horror flooded through Orin and he grabbed Wrath, throwing him on the bed, ‘’you will not leave,’’ Orin said, crawling on top of Wrath and taking his face in his hands, ‘’you hear me, Wrath? You’re not leaving. I love you. And you love me. You’re not going back to that gods forsaken place.’’

‘’Get off me,’’ Wrath growled, slapping Orin’s hands away and trying to push him off. It was easy to forget how strong Orin was when he was so beautiful, with his golden hair and sunshine-bright eyes. But he was a giant of a man and now Wrath knew there was no point struggling, because the King could pin him down with one arm, easily. He struggled nonetheless, ‘’I don’t want to hear your lies! They’re doing my head in!’’

Orin grabbed Wrath’s wrist and pinned them to the pillows, ‘’I love you,’’ he said hotly, ‘’I’ll keep saying it until you understand!’’

‘’You’re a gods-damned liar, Orin Eiris!’’ Wrath roared, trying desperately to get Orin off him.

‘’I’m not lying!’’ Orin yelled back, ‘’tell me how to prove it! Wrath, just tell me-‘’

‘’Get. Off. Me.’’ Wrath ground out, managing to wiggle one wrist free. Knowing he wouldn’t be able to shove Orin off, he instead flipped them over, landing on top of the King. He scrambled up but Orin was faster. He sat up, making Wrath fall into his lap, and grabbed his wrists again, keeping him in place.

‘’Wrath-‘’

‘’Shut up!’’ Wrath barked, fighting to get out of Orin’s grip.

‘’I love you.’’

‘’Be quiet! Stop lying!’’

‘’I love you. So much,’’ even though Wrath was still yelling, Orin’s voice had gone quiet, gentle but firm and determined at the same time, ‘’just tell me how to prove it,’’ he begged quietly. Wrath was twisting in his grip, trying to get away. His head was tilted, his neck exposed, so Orin leaned forward and pressed a sweet, open-mouth kiss to it.

Wrath flinched and went quiet. Concerned, Orin looked up at him. Wrath was looking away, teeth clenched, face bright red, eyes blazing anger but at the same time exuding sadness. He hated Orin, but he still loved him, too, just as much as ever, which was why the whole thing was so painful. And as much as he wanted to shove Orin away, he also wanted to be close to him, to be held and kissed. His body, used to such treatment from the King, was yearning for his touch and Orin saw that, clearly. It was the only anchor to Wrath right then, and so he took it.

Orin leaned forward again and kissed Wrath’s neck again, gently, slowly, over and over, ‘’s-stop...’’ Wrath stuttered out.

Orin released his wrists and wrapped his arms around his waist instead, pulling him closer. Wrath pressed his hand against Orin’s chest, trying to maintain some space between them, ‘’just let go,’’ Orin murmured, kissing beneath Wrath’s ear.

‘’S-shut up,’’ Wrath ground out. He was quickly losing resolve, his body submitting to Orin’s against his wishes.

‘’I love you.’’

‘’You don’t.’’

Orin kissed Wrath’s jaw, ‘’I do. You know I do.’’

‘’Stop it...’’

Orin slid his hands up Wrath’s back, making sure the soldier felt him with every inch of his body, ‘’I love you...’’ he murmured, ‘’Wrath...’’

Suddenly, Orin was toppling backwards, having been shoved suddenly by Wrath. And Wrath was still there, on top of Orin, his fingers frantically undoing the strings of Orin’s shirt. He practically ripped it off before pulling his own over his head. It was happening too fast. It went from soft and loving to just sex, frenzied and fast and unfeeling. Orin knew that Wrath was trying to make it only that, and he didn’t want to let him. He reached out to slide his hands slowly over Wrath’s rock-hard stomach but Wrath shoved his hands away, ‘’Wrath, wait...’’

‘’Shut up,’’ Wrath snarled. His hands were lightning fast as he yanked his pants off and then shoved Orin’s down, too. He grabbed Orin’s member and got it fully hard in seconds with a couple hard pumps.

‘’Wrath-‘’

‘’I said shut up,’’ Wrath hissed at him and before Orin could register what was happening, Wrath lifted his hips and shoved himself onto Orin’s member. He hissed, eyes closing, from the sudden intrusion. He’d grown unaccustomed to Orin’s size.

‘’Idiot,’’ Orin hissed softly, overcome by sudden warmth and pleasure. He grabbed Wrath’s hips, trying to slow him down, ‘’stop hurting yourself.’’

Wrath again slapped Orin’s hands away and lifted himself up, lowering himself back down. Each time Orin tried to grab his hips to set a slower rhythm, or to touch him, Wrath slapped his hands away. He took full control, going fast and erratic and unfeeling. There was no love in the act, just pent up anger and frustration on Wrath’s part; helplessness and yearning on Orin’s. It was over fast, with both of their bodies yearning for each other. Wrath made sure to pull Orin’s member out before he came.

They collapsed side by side on the bed, trying to catch their breath. Moonlight trickled in through the window. The chamber was silent, save for their sped up breaths. Wrath felt all wrong, like he’d double-crossed Bren, somehow. It was clear Orin and Bren were meant to be together and it hurt, that Wrath had never been meant to be in the equation. Their love had been so instant and deep, Wrath could never compare. It felt wrong, intruding on that.

‘’It’s funny,’’ Wrath whispered into the darkness, ‘’no matter what the court said, I never felt like your whore. Until now.’’

Orin sat up sharply, ‘’no, Wrath-‘’

Wrath sat up, too, and slid off the bed. He gathered his clothes. Orin hurried to put his own but by the time he was done, Wrath was already half-way to the doors, ‘’Wrath, wait...’’ Orin ran to him and grabbed his hand.

Wrath looked at him, and this time there was no anger in his eyes. Only that heart breaking sadness. Orin wished for the anger to return instead but Wrath just have him the tiniest, broken smile, ‘’be with Bren. I want you to be happy, Orin.’’

Orin’s blood ran cold. It sounded like a goodbye, ‘’no-‘’

‘’I’ll be fine, Orin,’’ Wrath said softly, ‘’so just be with him. You both love each other.’’

‘’We both love you,’’ Orin said desperately.

Wrath just shook his head, ‘’no. You don’t. Goodnight.’’

He slipped his hand out of Orin’s and walked out of the door. Orin shot into the corridor after him and, helpless and afraid that this time he’d really lose Wrath, he called after him, ‘’I forbid your from leaving the castle! You’re not going back to that estate!’’

Wrath didn’t even turn, ‘’as you wish,’’ and then he disappeared in the gloom of the dark corridor.

Feeling numb, Orin slipped back into his chambers and then into bed.

For the first time in years, he burst into tears.

*~*~*

After contacting a few lone-assassins, Jamael managed to pin-point the last place where Jex had been seen. Apparently he’d run into a forest close to the coast – with children. Jamael would have doubted the claims, had Jex not had such tell-tale features. How many golden-haired boys on the run went through the area? Jex gathered a team of trusted informators and soldiers from the nearby villages and, twelve-strong, they set out for the forest. It was vast and Jex expected to search for hours and hours until they caught Jex’s trail.

But an hour into the search, with the sun shining brightly, bodies started turning up.

Children’s bodies.

It was a massacre.

A boy with his head caved in. A girl hanging from a tree, her throat slit. Tiny, crushed remains of a lizard, in a heap of clothes. After that, Jamael didn’t dare look. He was an assassin. He could kill without a second thought. But not children. Never children. He left some people behind to gather the bodies and ready them, to bring back to the keep for burial. The rest of the party spread out into pairs, searching the forest for more bodies. No one thought they’d find Jex alive anymore. Jamael set out with a small, soft-spoken girl and hurried deep within the forest. He didn’t want to think about coming upon Jex’s body. The very thought made him sick. He should have kept him in the keep. He could have kept him safe in there. Instead, he’d been out by himself for gods know how long...and where the seven hells had the children come from?

‘’Jamael...’’

Jammy stopped and the girl he was standing with pointed. There was a stream running nearby and it seemed so peaceful in the bright, beautiful sunlight streaming down on the forest. It took Jamael a second to spot the body – blue and cold, the head submerged in the stream. A girl, drowned, ‘’shit...’’ Jamael whispered, feeling sick. The grass here had been trampled by many feet. There was blood all over it, and a trail going further into the forest...finally, a trail, ‘’go,’’ the girl said, ‘’I’ll get the body.’’

Jamael gave her a thankful nod and set off to the forest. Here, the trees got thicker, denser. It was darker. Jamael knelt, rubbed dried blood from a leaf. It wasn’t fresh, but it looked like no one had gone this way since someone bled all over the ground. There was a lot of blood. Jammy didn’t know whether he wanted to find Jex at the end of the trail. His heart wasn’t beating properly. He felt like he couldn’t breathe. He hadn’t felt like this since his first kill, when he’d been still a kid. The forest was eerily quiet, save for chirrups of birds. Jammy wanted to call out, but he was too afraid. What if no one answered...what if he came upon Jex’s body...

Suddenly, sharp as ice, a baby’s cry cut through the forest.

As if a spell had been broken, Jamael broke into a run, following the cries. There was a child, somewhere here, still alive. Jamael sped up, shoving branches out of the way, ducking under them and jumping over logs. His breath came out erratically, matching the beating of his heart and then, out of nowhere, he broke free of the trees and skidded to a stop in a clearing.

And there was Jex.

He was resting against a tree, looking pale, eyes closed, mouth parted, body limp. His leg was bent at an awkward angle and he was shirtless, the shirt having been used to tie clumsy bandages over multiple wounds. A child, no older than three, sat by his side, desperately shaking his arm and bawling loudly. He was dirty and he didn’t look very well, either, but at least Jamael didn’t see any wounds. He shot towards Jex’s body and slid to his knees, ‘’Jex-‘’

The little boy shrieked and scrambled away from Jamael, tears pouring down his face, mixing with strange red liquid around his mouth. His eyes were two different colours and suddenly everything clicked into place. Jex had been trying to save witch children, ‘’hey,’’ Jamael wanted to help Jex, but the child required immediate attention, ‘’shhh, I’m not going to hurt you. I’m Jex’s friend, from the assassins.’’

The little boy seemed to calm down a little. He sniffled and looked at Jamael, tentative, ‘’I want my bwother...’’ he mumbled, sucking his little brown fist, ‘’I want Jex to wake up...’’

‘’Okay, we’re wake him up,’’ Jamael promised heatedly, ‘’just be quiet for a little while, alright?’’

The little boy nodded his head and Jamael turned back to Jex. He’d dealt with countless injuries before, but now his fingers trembled. This was Jex. His gorgeous, fiery Jex and he was clearly dying. Jamael checked his pulse and was relieved to find it there, soft and fluttering. Jex had lost a lot of blood. Jamael needed to get him out of there. He ripped off his jacket and tore more strips, bandaging up Jex’s remaining wounds, ‘’how long has he been like this?’’

‘’Breakfast...?’’ the boy whispered.

Only now did Jamael notice a small pile of wood, not quite finished into a bonfire, and the carcass of a rabbit nearby. Jex must have hunted the rabbit and passed out from his wounds and the little boy...Jamael cringed. The little boy’s mouth and fists were smeared with the blood of the rabbit. He must have eaten it raw, ‘’here,’’ Jamael unhooked his water canister from his belt and pressed it to the boy’s mouth. The child drank greedily and eventually Jamael pulled the canister away, pressing it to Jex’s mouth.

The first few gulps dribbled down Jex’s chin but after a moment his eyelids fluttered and he weakly drank the water, ‘’Jammy...?’’ he murmured, half-conscious.

‘’I’m here,’’ Jamael leaned over him, cupping his face. He was shocked to find his voice was trembling, ‘’I’m sorry, I should have never made you leave. You’re safe now. I’m gonna get you home-‘’

‘’The kids,’’ Jex croaked weakly, ‘’a-are...the kids...alright?’’ blood trickled from the corner of his mouth.

Jamael quickly wiped it away with his thumb, feeling his throat close. He couldn’t tell Jex. Not yet, not when he was like this. Thankfully, the little boy spoke up, ‘’I’m hwere...’’

Jex smiled weakly, eyes already closing, ‘’good...you’re safe...’’

He lost consciousness and Jamael looked sharply to the child, ‘’what’s your name?’’

‘’Diya,’’ the boy mumbled.

‘’Okay, Diya,’’ Jamael reached out and squeezed his tiny shoulder, ‘’I need you to scream for help. To get my friend here. Can you do that?’’

Diya gave a small, determined nod.

*~*~*

There was a shift in the air. Arne wasn’t sure what it was, or why. There seemed to be an air of expectation around General Magana’s party, even though they’d been riding through the same wood for the last two hours.

‘’We’re getting close,’’ Eddie whispered in Arne’s ear, noticing the change, too.

Arne nodded, stroking the mane of their horse, trying to calm himself. Where were they going? Surely, Magana wouldn’t have taken them this far just to kill them. Arne was hoping, at this point, that this was just an execution. He feared that anything else would be much, much worse.

Slowly, the trees began growing sparser until finally, the sun shone bright and clear on the horses and their riders. Edgar looked around, but he saw nothing but a huge, open field – a battlefield, perhaps? – bordered by trees as far as the eye could see, ‘’I’m not sure what’s going on,’’ he murmured to Arne, ‘’there’s nothing here except grass and-‘’

‘’Eddie...’’ Arne breathed and he sounded so terrified that Eddie nearly stopped the horse. Arne’s hand shot out and he gripped Eddie’s forearm. The King looked around frantically, trying to see what Arne was so afraid of, but there was nothing...

Except there was.

And only Arne could see it.

As he looked in pure terror at what rose before him, he understood why he had been brought along. Because in front of him was the high, arching gate of Mystic, with the village and forest, basking in eternal summer, stretching out behind it. He saw guards exchanging worried glances as Magana’s party approached. He saw witches strolling through the village, close to the gate, stop to peek out. Behind them stretched out the large expanse of houses and trees, filled with men, women, the elderly, children...

And it was all about to be destroyed.

‘’Halt!’’ Magana snapped. He had some sort of map in his hand. He jumped off his horse and the others did the same.

‘’Get off!’’ they barked up at Eddie and Arne.

Arne whipped round to face Eddie, gripping his forearm so hard it hurt, ‘’Eddie, no,’’ he whispered heatedly, ‘’no, we can’t...’’

‘’What are you seeing?’’ Eddie asked desperately.

‘’It’s Mystic,’’ Arne whispered, voice trembling, ‘’we’re right in front of Mystic...’’

But before he could say more, a soldier yanked him from the horse. Eddie jumped down after him and hurried to the soldier, shoving him out of the way. The soldier shot him a glare but Magana beckoned, looking crazily excited. Arne had no choice but to approach. Magana looked out over the field, his eyes sliding right past Mystic. He couldn’t see it, not by himself. Now there was a commotion at the gates; warrior witches and guards were gathering near the gates. And, oh gods...there was Amaria, looking horrified, right at the front.

‘’Now, little witchling,’’ Magana purred in the voice of someone who had won, and he knew it, ‘’why don’t you take my hand and lead me into the mythical city of Mystic, hm? I’m sure your husband won’t mind.’’

‘’I-It’s not here,’’ Arne stuttered but the terror in his face gave him away.

 Magana clicked his tongue impatiently, ‘’I have a map, drawn by a witch,’’ when Arne didn’t move, he marched up to him and glared straight at him, ‘’you are the only witch I could get my hands on. You and your husband are beloved by the people of Solin; I cannot kill you without risking an uprising. But there are worse things I can do to both of you,’’ he spat, ‘’so you will take my hand, right now, and you will lead me into your wretched city so that I may strike down the plague makers myself.’’

Arne felt sick. He felt like all blood was draining from his body. The sun glinted off Magana’s sword and in a desperate moment, Arne thought that all he could do was grab it and throw himself on the blade, before he could sell out Mystic and all the innocents that lived inside. Witches and magical creatures and the Wild Hunt and Amaria, who’d already helped them save the world once...

Arne thought he would faint.

And then he felt Eddie’s hand, squeezing his wrist.

And Arne understood what he must do.

‘’Well?’’ Magana barked, holding his hand out expectantly.

The crowd at the gates of Mystic gasped, stepping back, watching the commotion. Arne heard some of the warriors yelling at the non-fighters to get back, to run for the forest, alert the queen...

Arne cast one last look at his beloved city, where he’d been born. The city that connected him to his real parents, whom he never knew. The city where he had Jasper.

The city he would never see again.

Magna growled, ‘’you have until the count of three-‘’

Arne extended out his hand in one sharp movement. For a second, Magana looked triumphant. And then confusion overcame his features as Arne’s hand lunged for the sword. He grabbed it, swished it out of its sheath, whirled around...

And embedded the blade in Eddie’s heart.

The King looked down at the blade for a second before his knees gave out and he toppled to the ground. From the gates, Arne heard Amaria shriek Eddie’s name – a scream only he heard. She’d watched him die before; they both had. Arne had hoped never to have to see that again.

‘’WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?’’ Magana roared.

Arne ignored him, falling to his knees by his husband. He was already dead, eyes staring at the sky, unseeing.

Arne grabbed the sword and pulled it out of Eddie’ chest.

‘’NO!’’ Magana yelled, running for him.

Arne extended the sword, aiming it straight at Magana’s stomach. With no weapon close at hand, Magana froze. Arne gave him one cold, loathing look before turning to his husband.

He pressed a hand to Eddie’s wound and closed his eyes.

*~*~*

When Arne opened his eyes, everyone was gone – Magana, his soldiers, Eddie’s body...

He got up and felt the familiar, burning sensation in his wrist. He glanced down. The last of his five marks stood, stark against his skin, as his only anchor to the realm of the living. The mark that he had sworn for Cassia, his mother. The pain was strong; he only had minutes before he had to return.

But he didn’t need minutes.

Eddie was right there, standing a couple steps away. Or, rather, his soul was. It glowed with determination and love and pride that Eddie held when he was alive.

The soul smiled at him, ‘’you again,’’ it said softly.

‘’I can’t...’’ Arne whispered, and he realised there were tears pouring down his face. His mark burned as if it was on fire, ‘’I can’t do this...right now...’’

The soul’s smile softened, ‘’I know,’’ it stepped forward, ‘’I have learned once already that it is pointless to defy you, little witchling.’’

A sob spilled from Arne’s mouth, ‘’I am a witchling no more.’’

The soul smiled sadly and opened its arms, ‘’I know.’’

And with another sob, Arne ran for it and threw himself into its arms.

For a second, he was held in its ethereal embrace.

And then everything was gone.

*~*~*

Arne opened his eyes and let the sword he’d been aiming at Magana clatter to the floor.

The General snatched it up just as Eddie gasped and sat upright, gasping for air. Arne felt tears drip down his face, off his chin and onto his lap. He looked down at his wrist. Where once there had been five marks – the marks of his power – there now was nothing. He looked behind him.

Where Mystic had stood, now there was nothing.

He could not see it anymore.

He had used the five powerful gifts given to him, as a witchling, and he had used them all.

There was no longer magic coursing through his veins.

‘’Arne...’’ Eddie’s voice was soft. The man looked to his husband just as the man reached out, cupping his cheeks, brushing away tears. Magana and the soldiers looked between Eddie and Arne in silent shock. Arne and Eddie didn’t care.

A quiet, heart-broken sob fell from Arne’s lips, ‘’w-what colour...?’’ he whispered shakily, ‘’what colour are they.’’

Eddie looked Arne in the eyes, now both the same colour, ‘’brown,’’ the King whispered, ‘’the most beautiful brown.’’

Arne fell against him and broke down into tears. Eddie held him, stroking his hair. Over his sandy locks, he glared at Magana, staring down at them with an open mouth, ‘’he can no longer lead you to Mystic,’’ Eddie snarled, ‘’he has used up all his powers.’’

The enraged roar that burst from Magana shook the very earth.

He raged, slashing at the air, at the earth, and his soldiers watched him uncertainly.

Eddie didn’t care. He held Arne tight, stroking his back, as his husband lamented the loss of his home and his people. He would never again experience the eternal summer of Mystic. He would never look up at the sky and see the Wild Hunt fly across the moon. He would never step foot in the Fae forest, where magical creatures roamed. He would never again feel the presence, the life, in ordinary objects. He would never enter Mystic again.

But at least his city was safe.

Chapter Text

 

Orin, Bren & Wrath!!

 

 

With her brother locked up in the tower and her mother exiled, Faeryn found herself lonelier than ever. She spent most of her time in the mostly abandoned, cold apartments that her family had been first given upon her arrival. It seemed that everyone had forgotten about her, and she was glad for it. She didn’t have a courageous heart like Airen; she didn’t know how to fight House Eiris. She didn’t know how to find the scattered supporters of the Morelands, how to rebuild Yame...she didn’t know if she wanted to. For the first time in a long time, it actually felt like there was peace. Besides, she wasn’t much of a leader. Airen had been the one destined for great things and all her life, she had been happy to stand in his shadow and cheer him on.

But now their kingdom was gone, her mother was exiled, her brother was locked in a tower, pregnant with the enemy’s heir and plague was loose in the castle.

At least that’s what Faeryn knew she was meant to think.

In truth, she was glad Airen was locked away, even if there was no sign of plague; at least she knew he was safe. And even if her niece or nephew, growing slowly in Airen’s belly, were half-Eiris, she already loved them. She didn’t have the heart for hatred, like her mother did. So she hid in her apartments, having only stone-faced, weapon-clad maids for company.

Like now.

‘’Come in,’’ Faeryn said, hearing the knock on her door. She was sitting on her bed, knees drawn up to her chin, staring at the wall. Everything in the room was so drab and grey. She yearned for Yame, for their cosy castle and days spent frolicking in the wintry gardens. She knew it could never be like that again. She was the King’s sister and neither of them would ever return Yame. She just wished she could make Arnheim feel like home.

The doors opened and the familiar maid – who looked more like a warrior than anything else – came in. She bowed to the princess, ‘’his highness King Father Airleas asks if you shall join him for supper tonight.’’

‘’No, thank you,’’ Faeryn gave her a weak smile. Airleas asked almost every day for Faeryn to join the Eiris family, but Faeryn could not – not without her brother. Not when she would be the only Moreland there. Daran terrified her to death, though he rarely came out of his room after the attack, scared to infect his family.

The maid nodded and then reached into her fur cape. She produced a small wooden box, ‘’prince Brannen sends you this, princess,’’ she seemed as confused as Faeryn felt.

She got off the bed, her plain brown dress falling around the floor, ‘’I...thank you,’’ she took the box uncertainly, ‘’you may go.’’

The maid bowed again and left the room, the doors shutting behind her with a decisive bang. Faeryn looked down at the box in her hand, wondering if it was dangerous. What could be inside? Maybe a venomous snake from the golden lands of Moriya? Or a vial of poison from the gorgeous gardens of Asakura? Was it her end, lurking inside there? Or maybe...

With a deep breath, Faeryn opened the box.

‘’Oh...’’ she whispered, stunned.

Inside the box lay a beautiful pendant, fashioned from silver and rubies into two intertwined dragons. And the pendant hung from a beautiful, silk ribbon.

It was pale blue; the colour of Yame.

*~*~*

Brannen was outside in the courtyard, practicing his archery. His shoulder was practically completely healed from the attack at the start of the spring, but it still ached sometimes with phantom pain. Brannen was obsessed with training hard, so that his arm didn’t become weak and useless. He pulled back the string of his bow so hard his whole arm ached and aimed at the target, far down the courtyard. Suddenly, his ears picked up on snow crunching underfoot. Someone was behind him. He let his arrow fly for the target and turned around.

He was startled to find Faeryn there.

‘’O-oh...’’ he stuttered out.

Faeryn curtsied, ‘’hello.’’

Brannen tried not to fiddle with his bow. He averted his eyes from the princess. She was wearing drab, plain clothing, but gods, that only offset her beauty more, ‘’d-did you need something?’’

‘’I came to thank you,’’ Faeryn walked closer and Brannen forced himself to stand his ground. He could face whole hoards of armies on the battlefield without a flinch but this one girl got past all his defences, making him feel shy and embarrassed like a little boy. He knew it had been a bad idea to keep her at the palace, ‘’for the necklace.’’

‘’Oh,’’ Brannen looked up at her and noticed he blue ribbon tied around her throat, the pendant bumping against the hollow of it. Just as he thought, it suited her, ‘’I, uh...’’

Faeryn smiled and all thoughts went out of Brannen’s head. He tried to keep a neutral face, ‘’where did you find it?’’ Faeryn wanted to know, touching her delicate fingers to the dragon pendant, ‘’I doubt Arnheim has markets that sell pretty things like these.’’

‘’They don’t,’’ Brannen mumbled, tugging on the end of his wavy, brown ponytail nervously, ‘’I...made it.’’

Faeryn looked up, surprised, ‘’you...’’ a blush flooded her cheeks, ‘’I...didn’t know you could make jewellery...’’

‘’It was a childhood hobby,’’ he shifted, one foot to the other, feeling embarrassed, ‘’I just...thought it might remind you of home. Offer you some comfort.’’

Suddenly, Faeryn was right there, in front of him, looking up at him, ‘’it does. Thank you,’’ she tilted her head to the side curiously, her golden hair tumbling over her shoulder, ‘’you’re different than I thought you were. I misjudged you.’’

‘’You didn’t,’’ Brannen said quickly, ‘’I’m an asshole most of the time. So...don’t tell anyone about this? I’d like to keep my reputation.’’

Faeryn laughed and Brannen couldn’t help but grin at the sound. He was glad he made the princess happy, even if just for a little while, ‘’don’t worry, your secret is safe with me,’’ Faeryn glanced at the bow and her eyebrows shot up, ‘’you can shoot?’’

‘’Not to boast,’’ Brannen smirked, ‘’but I can wield pretty much every weapon.’’

Of course, it had been a boast. He wanted to look strong to Faeryn. Not as someone who scared her but...as someone who could protect her. Maybe. Hopefully. Perhaps...? But Brannen didn’t expect Faeryn to look up at him with determined eyes and say, ‘’can you teach me?’’

Thrown off track, Brannen blinked, ‘’you want to learn how to shoot a bow?’’

‘’We are in Arnheim now,’’ Faeryn said firmly, ‘’even the maids know how to wield weapons.’’

Brannen didn’t want Faeryn to know how to fight – he never wanted her to have to do it. But she was right. This was Arnheim and everyone was a warrior. Plus, it was nice to see her out of her chambers for once. Maybe he could keep her out. Brannen grinned, ‘’alright, then. Come show me what you got.’’

*~*~*

Jasper had never tried to find a door on his own, on purpose.

He knew he had to get back to Merethe, Zena and their troupe of dead witches that travelled between the realms, but it was harder than he thought. For days, Jasper tried. He sat in the little nest between shelves; he tried doing it upstairs in the lab and outside in the diseased air. He tried going to the alleyways that he ran through with Merethe. Some of them did not exist; others did not hold any hint of magic or doors.

‘’Damn it,’’ Jas whispered when, for the nth time, he found himself still in his own realm. It was night. He was in the little nest with Othelen. The wolf lay behind him, head propped up on a bandaged arm, looking at him sceptically.

‘’Still nothing?’’

‘’Sorry,’’ Jas sighed and rubbed his face. He felt tired, worn out and useless, ‘’I don’t know why it’s not working. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong-ah!’’ Suddenly, Othelen was behind him, his bare chest pressed to Jasper’s back, his hands on his waist, ‘’w-w-what are you doing?’’

‘’We were doing this last time you went through a door,’’ Othelen said, nuzzling his nose into the side of Jasper’s neck.

Jasper went bright red, ‘’w-we were definitely not doing this!’’

‘’You always seem to go through doors around me,’’ Othelen mused. Jas jumped and gasped when he felt Othelen’s lips brush his neck. The wolf’s fingers tugged down his tunic, exposing his shoulder. He kissed it, slow and sensual, making Jas feel hot all over, ‘’maybe this will help.’’

‘’I-It won’t...’’ Jas whimpered when Othelen’s teeth grazed over his shoulder.

‘’Sorry if I’m rough with you,’’ Othelen whispered, kissing harshly up Jasper’s neck and settling just below his ear, ‘’I’m a bit pent up.’’

‘’P-pent up...?’’ Jas was getting distracted by the sensation of Othelen’s mouth on his skin. It felt good. Surprisingly good, ‘’y-you...there’s only a handful of wolves...on Kai...’’

‘’Mmmmh...’’ Othelen seemed to be getting equally distracted by the taste of Jasper’s skin.

‘’Jethil and I-Illiliorn are mates...and ah-‘’ Jas bit his lip as Othelen’s kisses grew more ferocious, ‘’Niraya is a child-‘’

‘’Mara is my lover.’’

Jasper froze, eyes flying wide open, ‘’Mara is your what?’’ he went as if to jerk away and then, suddenly, he was falling.

The world seemed to spin but when Jas blinked, it was stable once more.

Except Jas wasn’t with Othelen in their nest anymore.

He looked at what seemed to be an empty tavern, torches flickering in their holders on the walls. He’d walked through a door.

‘’Yes!’’ Jas pumped a fist in the air, ‘’finally!’’

‘’Took you long enough,’’ said a cool voice from behind him.

Jasper whirled around, surprised, and found exactly who he was looking for. Zena sat, golden haired and powerful, at a table filled with her witch wanderers. Merethe waved a dark hand at Jasper with a grin, ‘’we’ve been waiting for you,’’ Zena said, indicating a chair.

Jasper, stunned, walked over and sat down. Witches peered at him with interest. Most were polishing their weapons, ‘’where are we?’’ Jas asked. His skin still tingled from Othelen’s kisses.

‘’Kainan,’’ Merethe shrugged, ‘’a hundred years ago. Under the rule of King Johan Hyndestane.’’

‘’Damn,’’ Jas looked around the old tavern. He knew he could walk between the realms of the living and the dead, but he never knew he could go into ancient pockets, too.

‘’Listen,’’ Zena said firmly, ‘’the cure.’’

Jasper forced himself to concentrate, ‘’yes. The cure. Merethe said that you found out something vital, before hunters got you.’’

Some of the witches nodded grimly. Zena gave Jas a burning look, ‘’you can’t try to merge blood with the plague. You must merge the plague with the blood.’’

Jasper blinked, confused, ‘’pardon?’’

Zena sighed and waved a hand, ‘’Merethe, explain.’’

The dark skinned witch leaned forward, excited, ‘’you’re doing what we were doing before. Getting plagued blood and adding immune wolf blood to it. But that will never work. You’d have to drain all the wolves of Kai dry and you’d only heal a couple of people. But if you reverse it,’’ her eyes sparkled, ‘’you have an endless cure. See, all you need is one drop of plagued blood, added to Kai wolf blood. That one drop won’t disappear. It will mutate, until it is something wholly different. The opposite of the plague, if you will. All it takes is that one little droplet. When it comes into contact with infected blood, that one droplet will annihilate all of them, render them powerless.’’

Jasper stared at her, wide-eyed, ‘’did you try this theory out?’’

Merethe nodded, ‘’we only managed to do it on two people before hunters got us. They both became healthy again.’’

‘’But how would we distribute one single droplet of antidote blood to the kingdoms?’’

‘’Merethe exaggerates,’’ Zena said coolly, ‘’you will likely need more than that, but not too much. You won’t need endless supplies of wolf blood. As for distribution,’’ she shook her head, ‘’we did not get that far. That will be up to you. We have done our bit; now our duty is here, in the realms, keeping order and protecting our kind.’’

Jasper nodded and stood, ‘’I understand. I will finish what you started.’’

A shadow of a smile crossed Zena’s lips, ‘’perhaps when you do, we won’t be having so much trouble with the plagued anymore.’’

Merethe waved, ‘’good luck!’’

The other witches grinned and Zena reached behind Jasper. She made a move, as if she was opening a door, and shoved Jasper.

And then everything was spinning again.

.

.

.

.

.

.

Jasper gasped. He was still in Othelen’s arms, but now the wolf was holding him up, peering at his face with worry. When Jas opened his eyes, Othelen peered at him closely, ‘’did you find it?’’

‘’Yes...’’ Jas whispered.

And then he was up and running.

He awoke Mehedi and Chaya, relayed the messages. They were up and going straight away, firing up the equipment, bringing round samples of Mudrik’s and Othelen’s blood... ‘’you may rest,’’ Chaya said gravelly, ‘’chances are you’ll be returning to Kai soon enough.’’

Jas walked back downstairs and slipped between the shelves to the nest. He sat down heavily, feeling the adrenaline work itself off slowly, ‘’well?’’ Othelen asked.

Jas lay down backwards on the covers and sighed, smiling, ‘’we’ll see tomorrow.’’

Othelen leaned over him, eyebrow raised, ‘’is that it?’’

Jasper reached out and patted Othelen’s cheek, ‘’you’ll be going home soon. Don’t worry.’’

Othelen scowled down at him and lay down next to him, pulling the covers up to his chest. Jasper peered at him, ‘’aren’t you going to shift?’’

Othelen turned onto his side, careful of his hurt arm, to glare at him, ‘’maybe I don’t want to shift tonight.’’

Jas chuckled, ‘’you’ll end up in wolf form anyway,’’ but Othelen just scowled again and looked away. His cheeks seemed a little pinker in the candlelight. Jas’ smile disappeared, ‘’did I say something wrong?’’

‘’It’s annoying,’’ Othelen snapped, ‘’that you like cuddling with the wolf so much.’’

‘’The wolf?’’ Jas giggled, ‘’the wolf is you, Othelen,’’ he paused, and then... ‘’oh, gods. Are you jealous?’’

‘’No!’’ Othelen snapped and rolled over, putting his back to Jasper, ‘’don’t be stupid. And for the record, I did all that stuff before to get you through the doors. And only for that reason.’’

Jas was still chuckling softly, ‘’alright, alright. Whatever you say,’’ Jas scooted closer, knowing full well that Othelen needed affection, especially after all the tests, ‘’don’t sulk.’’

‘’I’m not sulking,’’ Othelen grumbled, very clearly sulking.

Jas wrapped an arm around Othelen’s middle from the back and snuggled into it, ‘’don’t sulk, Othee...’’ he repeated softly, feeling suddenly sleepy.

Othelen blushed, ‘’I’m not...’’ he whispered. He settled down in Jasper’s arms.

*~*~*

Tristan came, like he came every evening.

Merry heard the soft knock and sighed. He didn’t know how much longer he could take Tristan’s small talk, his closed eyes, his closed off heart... but Tristan came in nonetheless, and sat on the edge of the bed, away from Merry, as always, ‘’hello.’’

‘’Hello,’’ Merry said emotionlessly.

‘’Are you well?’’

‘’Yes.’’

Merry waited for the second question that always came, about the baby’s health. After that, he could feign tiredness and bury himself in the covers and cry, because these meetings broke him. Instead, Tristan paused, for a long while. Then, finally, ‘’the maids told me your were sick in the night.’’

Merry clenched the covers, ‘’it’s normal.’’

Tristan chewed the inside of his cheek, ‘’not this far in the pregnancy.’’

‘’The baby is fine, your majesty.’’

‘’I’m not worried about the baby,’’ Tristan said, ‘’I’m worried about you,’’ he turned to Merry. His eyes were closed, ‘’why did you get sick?’’

Merry looked away.

Tristan seemed to sense that because he stood with a sigh, ‘’good night,’’ he made his way to the doors.

‘’I had a nightmare,’’ Merry whispered. He hadn’t really meant to. It slipped out of him. His voice was so quiet he hoped Tristan hadn’t heard.

But of course he had.

The King made his way back towards the bed, his brows furrowed in light concern, ‘’what dream could have made you sick?’’ Merry started trembling just thinking about it, ‘’tell me what you dreamt about.’’

Merry shook his head, even if Tristan couldn’t see, ‘’y-you didn’t want to h-hear about it...’’ he managed, voice shaking. His eyes stung with tears. He had really gotten soft. He blamed the pregnancy.

Tristan sat down on the bed. Not on the far end, but right by Merry, ‘’tell me.’’

Merry sniffled, ‘’open your eyes...’’ he whispered.

He expected Tristan to deny him the request. But he didn’t. He opened his pale brown eyes and concentrated them on Merry – or close enough, ‘’tell me,’’ he requested gently, and Merry longed to throw himself in his arms. Instead, he gripped the covers.

And he told him.

He told Tristan about everything.

He told him about growing up, about his brother, about how he locked it so far away in his mind that he barely remembered him.

About Kasimira sensing the foul things that lurked in Rhein as soon as they stepped foot in it.

About those things in Mor, killing Drest and wounding Yago.

The mass grave in the Moracay Canyon.

Rhein, destroyed and empty, and the dead-eyed Queen in her crumbling palace, waiting for death.

Venus putting a sword through Bernhard.

Finding Yago’s half-eaten corpse in Calahoun.

Axel, Itzel and the General staying behind – sacrificing themselves – so Merry and his baby could make it back to the boat.

It took hours. Merry sobbed often. His voice trembled. He paused for ages, trying to get the words out of himself. It must have been near morning by the time he was done. But Tristan just sat there, listening. When Merry first started crying, Tris took his hand and held it in his lap, gently caressing his knuckles as he spoke, anchoring him. He didn’t let go for the entirety of the story.

Finally, Merry took a shuddering breath and fell silent.

He waited for what Tristan would say.

Finally, he felt the King’s hand in his silver hair, stroking it gently, ‘’I’m sorry I made you keep all that inside,’’ he whispered, ‘’I’m sorry...’’ he sighed and closed his eyes briefly, ‘’I’m sorry about many things, Merry.

‘’Me, too,’’ Merry whispered.

He took Tristan’s hand and put it on his stomach. For a long while, the sat there in silence. Tristan stroked Merry’s stomach, Merry soaked in his touch. It was strange. After all he’d been through, after feeling so horrible those last weeks, he finally started feeling alright. And all it took was Tristan.

‘’Merry?’’ Tristan said finally. He was so close that when Tristan tilted his head, their noses brushed.

‘’Yes?’’

‘’I love you,’’ Tristan whispered and closed the gap between them.

After so long, being kissed by his husband made Merry want to cry all over again. He latched onto him desperately, bringing him close, and kissed him for so long that his lips started aching, ‘’I missed you,’’ he whispered between kisses, ‘’I missed you so much, Tris.’’

The passion behind Tris’ kisses told Merry that he had been missed, too.

The sun started coming up.

Tris ran a hand through Merry’s silver hair. It had gotten quite long, ‘’you should rest.’’

‘’Stay,’’ Merry whispered, and his voice cracked. He couldn’t bear the thought of being away from Tristan again, after so long.

Tristan took his hand between both of his and kissed it reverently, ‘’of course.’’

Merry shuffled over and Tristan slid into bed with him. The King lay on his side, putting one arm under Merry’s head and the other on his stomach, stroking in slow, long, comforting circles. The baby was due soon, only in a couple weeks time. Merry chewed his lips for a moment. There was still one question on his mind that he had to ask, ‘’Tris?’’ he whispered.

A gentle kiss was brushed against Merry’s temple, ‘’yes?’’

‘’Did you take lovers?’’

He felt Tristan’s surprise, ‘’pardon?’’

‘’When I was gone. Did you?’’

Tristan kept back a chuckle, ‘’is that what’s been bothering you?’’

Merry shuffled closer to him, feeling anxious, ‘’answer me, please.’’

Tris bumped their foreheads together lightly, ‘’what do you think?’’

‘’Tristan...’’ Merry whispered desperately. As much as the King wanted to tease him, he relented.

‘’Of course I didn’t, dummy,’’ he said affectionately, kissing his forehead.

Merry played with the covers nervously, ‘’what about when I came back? During my confinement.’’

‘’No.’’

‘’W-what about...later,’’ Merry felt embarrassed and ashamed of being worried about it, ‘’will you take other lovers in the future?’’

Tristan pulled Merry close against him and leaned down, whispering directly against his ear, ‘’I don’t think you understand what it means to love someone as much as I love you, Meridan.’’

Merry’s heart skipped a beat and he blushed. It was nice, feeling like everything was back to normal. For a while, Merry could forget about Rhein. He tilted his head and gave Tristan a soft kiss on the lips, ‘’I love you, too, Tris,’’ he whispered.

*~*~*

‘’Daim!’’ Airen exclaimed, surprised to find the golden haired prince in his tower.

‘’Shhh,’’ Daim said with a giggle, ‘’don’t let the maids hear.’’

Airen hurried over to his guest excitedly, ‘’how did you get in here?’’

‘’Lied to the guards,’’ Daim took Airen’s hands and squeezed, ‘’it’s good to see you.’’

‘’Please tell me you’re here to get me out,’’ Airen begged, ‘’solitary is making me insane.’’

‘’Sorry. No good news,’’ Daim winced, ‘’it’s for your own safety.’’

Airen sighed and sat on the bed, ‘’I know,’’ he forced a smile despite his disappointment, ‘’tell me. What’s going on in the palace?’’

‘’Not much,’’ Daim shrugged, ‘’no sign of plague but Daran isn’t risking it. Everyone’s kind of tip toeing around everyone else. Its suffocating,’’ Daim shook his head and then perked up, ‘’oh! But your sister is our and about. She’s spending time with Brannen.’’

Airen’s eyes darkened, ‘’ugh. Great.’’

But he didn’t want to ruin the mood. Daimhin was the first person Airen had seen past the maid and the physician and he was a welcome change of pace. They talked for a while, until it was nearly lunch, ‘’I need to go,’’ Daim said, ‘’the maid will be here soon.’’

Airen stood from the bed and smiled, this time genuinely, ‘’thank you for visiting me,’’ he said.

‘’I’ll try sneak in again sometime,’’ Daim said with a smile and then reached into his pocket, ‘’oh! I have some things for you.’’

He produced a meticulously folded piece of parchment that Airen recognised now as a letter from Daran. Daim passed it to Airen alongside a small, leather bound book. Surprised, Airen took both. Daim said a quick goodbye and left. Only moments later the maid came in with lunch. She left it by the window, on the table. Airen waited for her to go before sitting down on the bed, the letter and book on his lap. The book was unusual. Daran had never sent him anything personally before. Airen opened the letter.

Airen,

Not much has been going on around the palace. I mostly venture between my room and my office, for work. The physicians have not found any sign of plague on me, but one can never be too sure, especially with the baby on the way. I hope we can move you to private rooms soon enough, so that you don’t have to suffer ‘that infernal tower’ much longer – your words, not mine. I happen to rather enjoy it.

Airen’s eyebrows shot up. Was Daran...teasing him?

I hope you’re feeling good. The physicians informed me that the child’s condition is stable. It should be born in late summer. I have to say, I’m rather excited. I hope you aren’t afraid. Please don’t be. If there’s anything I can do to ease your mind, tell me.

Airen’s hands tightened on the parchment. Daran often shower concern for the child. But he’d never made it seem like he cared much about how Airen felt, emotionally, at least until now. It was strange.

‘’Stupid paternal instincts,’’ Airen grumbled to himself, reading the last leg of the letter.

Daimhin has told me he’s planning on sneaking into the tower to visit you. Clearly, he has no idea that sneaking in involves not actually telling anyone.

Airen chuckled. Then he caught himself, cleared his throat and kept reading.

Either way, I figured this would be a good opportunity to offer you solace from boredom. I hope you enjoy the book. It’s the only thing I could dig out of my library that wasn’t about weapons or warfare. I almost forgot I had it; I used to read it when I was younger.

Still, I think you’ll like it. Just don’t tell anyone I own something like that. My reputation would be ruined.

Take care of yourself,

Daran.

Airen chewed his lip. This letter was different from the other ones. If someone picked it up and read it, they’d think it was a correspondence between two old friends or even... Airen shook his head, tucked the letter in with the others and opened the book.

He stared.

He didn’t know what he expected from Daran but it had definitely, infinitely, not been poetry.

The small tome was old and weathered. Some poems were so faded it was hard to read them – some had whole passages brushed away from age. But many poems were in good shape, with beautiful, old illustrations. It was the first beautiful, indulgent thing Airen had seen in the cold, warrior lands of Arnheim. He traced his fingers over the prettier pages. He closed the poetry book, inspected it...

Airen frowned. The yellowed pages were crinkles and jagged in some places. The spine was uneven and waved. And yet, as clear as day, there was a dog-tailed page. Slowly, Airen tucked his fingers into the book and opened the page.

The poem was almost completely gone, faded to such pale writing that Airen had no way of reading it. But there was one small, tiny passage still visible.

 

For weal or woe I will not flee,

To love the heart that loveth me.

 

Airen flushed bright scarlet. He had no idea who had marked the page but, somehow, his mind pin-pointed Daran. It was hard to believe. Ridiculous, even. But Airen could easily see a younger, more innocent Daran reading the poems in secret. Finding a love poem that he believed in. Tagging the page to read later. Throwing the book into his library when his father came in. Forgetting about it.

And then the war came, and everything changed.

Airen doubted that Daran read poems these days.

But he had, once.

Airen traced his fingertips over the faded ink. Once upon a time, Daran had been a romantic. A gentle, sweet kid. Months ago, Airen would not have believed it. Now, it wasn’t that hard to see.

Maybe Daran wasn’t a monster king afterall.

*~*~*

Everything hurt.

Every bone in his body ached, every tendon and vein throbbed, every muscle screamed. But, it wasn’t as bad as before. Jex had spent days in a lucid state, barely awake but unable to rest because of the pain. It had taken everything he had to instruct little Diya how to take care of himself. Where to find berries, how to scoop up water...

Diya.

Jex’s eyes flew open and immediately his vision went spotty. He blinked his grey eyes, willing it to clear and frowned lightly. Because it was not the canopy of trees he was met with, but a familiar ceiling, illuminated by faint candlelight.

He was back at the assassin keep.

Immediately, he tried to sit up and hissed in pain as his joints throbbed in protest, ‘’stop it,’’ said a familiar voice and suddenly, there was Jamael. Kneeling on the bed, helping Jex sit up gently, ‘’don’t push yourself.’’

Jex stared at Jammy with wide eyes, unable to speak for a good minute, frozen with shock and pain even as he was settled comfortably, sitting against the pillows. Finally, he was able to utter a broken, ‘’Jamael...’’ he’d never thought he’d see the boy again. Especially not in those last days, as he slowly died in the forest, his blood seeping into the grass, ‘’are you dead?’’ the attack on the keep...did they...had he...?

But Jamael smiled with a soft, amused huff. A relieved huff, ‘’no,’’ he assured.

Jex swallowed thickly. It hurt even to do that, ‘’then...am I?’’

‘’No,’’ Jamael was serious now. For a moment he stared at Jex sternly but then his shoulders sagged and he shuffled closer. His brown hand skimmed Jex’s face, ‘’though I thought you were, a couple times. I was scared,’’ Jamael’s voice cracked and Jex’s eyes widened. Jamael was an assassin, used to death. And yet here he was, looking so torn up Jex felt his heart squeeze. Jamael took a deep breath, ‘’I was scared you wouldn’t wake up. When we found you, you were...well, you still look like shit,’’ his smile was back, breathless and relieved and shaky, but it was Jamael’s smile nonetheless, ‘’you were out for a week and-‘’

Jex reached out before he realised what he was doing. His fingertips skimmed Jamael’s lips, halting his words, and then brushed against his cheek, unbelieving, ‘’you found me,’’ he whispered.

Jamael leaned into Jex’s hand with a little smile, ‘’did you doubt me?’’

‘’I didn’t think you’d go looking,’’ Jex said softly, disbelieving.

Jamael blinked, surprised, then leaned forward, kissing Jex’s forehead softly, ‘’you underestimate the hold you have on me, Jex Nox.’’

Jex exhaled shakily. That statement made him feel more alive than he had in days. He opened his mouth to thank Jamael, but then he remembered. He grabbed Jamael by the shoulders and the gesture sent needles of pain up Jex’s arms but he didn’t care, ‘’the children! Where are the children, where-‘’

And then he saw it.

That horrifying pain in Jamael’s eyes told Jex all he had to know.

It felt like he couldn’t breathe, ‘’w-where are they, Jamael?’’

The assassin took Jex’s hand in his, ‘’Jex-‘’

‘’Tell me where they are!’’ Jex demanded, jerking his hand from Jamael’s.

Jamael gave a heavy sight of a man who witnessed many horrors, and could not forget any of them. His voice, when he finally spoke, was so quiet Jex could barely hear him, ‘’we waited for you to wake up before we buried them.’’

And just like that, Jex’s heart shattered.

‘’No...’’ he whispered, ‘’no. You’re lying.’’

‘’I’m sorry...’’ Jamael whispered.

Hot tears blurred Jex’s vision and spilled over his cheeks, ‘’you’re lying,’’ he said again, his voice trembling, ‘’t-they got away. I told them to run.’’

Jamael put a hand on Jex’s knee and this time Jex didn’t push it away, ‘’they tried,’’ Jamael said softly.

Jex felt like he was breaking down, like he was disappearing, ‘’they’re just kids...’’ he whispered, tears dripping into his lap. It felt like he couldn’t move. Like he’d never move again, ‘’just little children. They didn’t do anything...’’

Jamael’s hand tightened on Jex’s knee, ‘’I know,’’ his jaw was locked, like he was trying to keep his own tears at bay for Jex’s sake, ‘’you did all you could.’’

And Jex knew that right there, right then, a part of him would have died. An important part. And he would have breathed and drank and eaten, and maybe one day he would move again, but he’d be a husk because the grief was too much and it was sucking him in, like a black hole...

But then Jamael said, ‘’Diya survived. You saved Diya.’’

And Jex was back. It was as if a pair of hands had shoved him from that black hole and there was hope again, tiny next to the raging red of revenge that threatened to consume Jex whole, ‘’I want to see him.’’

Jamael had protested. Jex had broken bones. He was bruised all over. He barely had the energy to stand. But Jex insisted, said he’d crawl if he had to and finally Jamael put an arm around his waist and helped him to his feet and they hobbled down the corridor, Jex wincing with each step but not giving up.

They walked for what felt like eternity until finally, they rounded a corner, and there was Vysarane and at her side, holding her hand, was Diya, looking healthy and happy, chatting away, ‘’Diya...’’ Jex whispered in disbelief because there he was, there was the youngest of the kids, alive and safe and...

‘’JEX!’’ Diya roared and ran for him as fast as his tiny legs would take him. The rest of Jex’s strength left him and he let go of Jamael, sinking to his knees, ‘’I wanted to see you!’’ he slammed into Jex with all the force of his run and it hurt like being stabbed, but Jex wrapped his arms around Diya anyway, holding his tiny body close.

And then he burst into tears again.

‘’I’m sorry, Diya...’’ he sobbed, messy and loud, unable to stop it, ‘’I’m so sorry...’’

And Diya was too young to understand what Jex was crying about. But he didn’t want him to be sad. So he put his chubby hands atop his golden hair and patted, like his big brother used to when Diya was sad.

*~*~*

It was weird, walking around with a broken heart.

It was as if Wrath was a ghost. He spoke to people but barely remembered what the conversations had been about. He ate food but it all tasted the same to him. Drinking only made his numbness more prominent. At night, he was freezing cold in his sheets despite the blazing fireplace. He tried to read and the words blurred; he tried to train and he missed his mark every time. He felt nothing.

Until he saw Orin or Bren.

Every time Wrath glimpsed Orin in the palace, it felt like he was shattering. He was flooded with unbearable emotion. Pain and love and desperation and loneliness and fear and anger. Every glimpse of Orin’s golden hair brought tears to Wrath’s eyes. The sound of his voice made Wrath want to throw himself in Orin’s arms. He was painfully aware of how much he loved the King. And it hurt, knowing that he could return to him at any time. But if he did, he would never be loved, not like he once was. Because Orin and Bren were meant for each other, somehow. It was clear as day to anyone looking. And Wrath couldn’t – wouldn’t – intrude on that love. Orin had forbid him from leaving the palace, but it didn’t matter. Wrath would one day die of heartache and it didn’t matter if that was in the palace or in that forsaken, forlorn house Orin had rescued him from.

He found a little bit of solace in the library.

Orin barely went up there so Wrath didn’t have to worry about avoiding conversations or accidentally catching the King’s eye. Because it seemed that Orin was as aware of Wrath’s presence as Wrath was of his.

The library was where Wrath was one afternoon. He’d come in, quiet as a mouse, and started wandering around the bookshelves. His fingers skimmed the spines of books, one after the other, his eyes barely registering the letters. Somehow, the soft bumps of the book spines as Wrath’s fingers passed them gave him a little comfort. He didn’t know what to read. He didn’t want to read anything in particular. He didn’t want to read at all, really, but he couldn’t allow his mind to wander to Orin and Bren. It hurt too much.

He turned into another row of shelves and nearly tripped over a sleeping person.

Wrath looked down in disbelief at Bren. The gorgeous boy was asleep, head tipped back, mouth parted, eyelashes dark against his porcelain skin. His silvery curls fell on his forehead, his delicate hands resting on a book he’d been reading. Wrath knew he should just go, leave the boy alone. Instead, he found himself sinking to his knees by his side. It was strange. If Bren hadn’t showed up, Wrath and Orin would have still been together. Wrath should hate the boy who destroyed everything. And yet he didn’t.

He loved him.

And not because he was beautiful. Those first weeks that Bren had been in the palace, they had bonded. Wrath had wanted to protect Bren with all his being, to make him feel safe and loved and at home. He hadn’t even realised that then. He knew it now and he still felt the exact same way and it hurt because he couldn’t have Bren, either. Because it would be Orin protecting and loving and taking care of Bren. Not Wrath.

Not both of them.

Wrath glanced down at the book Bren had been reading. A soppy romance. For the first time in weeks, Wrath felt something akin to amusement. He reached up and brushed a silver curl away from Bren’s face. He really was stunning. He didn’t even look human. More like a faerie, who wandered in from his realm and was shackled by man. With the backs of his fingers, Wrath brushed Bren’s cheeks, trying to memorise the feel of his skin. For a second, he let himself think about what it would be like if he allowed himself to go back to Orin. Maybe they could all be together, sometimes. But Orin and Bren...their connection was otherworldly. Wrath would just feel like an intruder. And it was better to be alone for the rest of his life than to barely be with someone.

Bren could make Orin happy. Happier than Wrath could. And Orin could make Bren happy.

Let him go, Wrath thought and it nearly drove him insane, let them both go. Let them be happy.

He leaned forward, closing his eyes, and pressed a gentle kiss to Bren’s forehead. The last one, Wrath promised himself. He’d never touch Bren again. He’d never touch Orin again, either. He’d back off. He’d beg to be released from the palace. He would become nothing but a shadowy memory to Orin and Bren, who would grow old together. And yet it was so hard to pull away, so Wrath’s kiss lingered.

Do it. Just let go.

Wrath forced himself to pull back and look down at Bren.

Whose eyes were open.

Wrath sucked in a shocked breath as Bren looked up at him with his golden-green eyes, confusion and hope and delight dancing in them. He smiled, ever so sweetly, and Wrath could barely take it, ‘’Wrath,’’ Bren whispered, reaching for Wrath’s hand, still on his cheek.

Wrath snatched his hand away and fled from the library.

And as he ran, he had the sinking feeling that he hadn’t really let him go at all.

*~*~*

Jex didn’t get to see the bodies. Jamael wouldn’t let him, said it was too traumatic. Diya wasn’t allowed to, either. Jex was thankful that the assassins had waited with the funeral until he woke up, even if they had been waiting to see if Jex would join the children in the earth. Now, Jex stood at Jamael’s side, holding Diya in his arms as the coffins were lowered into the chasm that had claimed so many soldiers during the fight. Jex didn’t want the children to rest in the forest, not after all that they had gone through in it. The chasm felt peaceful, endless. The coffins were lowered down into it.

Diya clutched Jex’s tunic with his tiny fists, ‘’is that where bwother is?’’ he asked nervously. He didn’t understand death, didn’t understand Yahya would never come back. Or Aaliyah. Or Hadi or Maha or Qadir. Jex had failed them all but he would live on; for Diya. For revenge. For Jamael.

‘’Yes,’’ Jex said, rubbing Diya’s back. His voice sounded strangely empty. He was barely standing, supported by Jamael’s arms around his waist. He refused to let Diya go and Diya didn’t want to be held by anyone else, either.

‘’Why?’’ Diya started chewing his tiny brown fist.

‘’He’s gone to sleep,’’ Jex murmured as Amir said an ancient Moriyan prayer over the chasm, Thais with her head hung at his side. The other assassins spread beyond, ‘’bad men put him to sleep.’’

‘’Bad men?’’ Diya didn’t seem to understand.

‘’Yes. Bad men. But don’t worry,’’ Jex pulled Diya’s fist from his mouth gently. Diya didn’t understand enough to cry and Jex had no tears left, ‘’I will find them. And, one by one, I’ll make sure they pay. And one day, when you’re all big and strong, you’ll make sure bad men like them never hurt anyone else again.’’

Diya frowned, not understanding, ‘’is bwother hurt?’’

Jex looked out sadly at the chasm, ‘’not anymore, Diya. Not anymore.’’

*~*~*

Queen Nara looked out at the generals of the Wild Hunt. At the fae witch warriors, the best of the best. At her daughters, gathered before her with their armies.

Aerith, the youngest, with hair white as snow and skin black as death. Her icy blue eyes were like shards of ice; like the icy kingdom that she dwelled in. Her cold-hearted armies had crawled out from the caves that led to the ice lands below the Fae forest in Mystic. They had long since been forgotten, but they had answered the call of the Queen.

Vamir, flame-haired and golden-eyed, with skin brown as tree bark, and her legion of demons. The bride of devils, permitted only to return to her fae homeland for the full moon, when the Hunt rode...and now.

Sarya, the queen of the skies, with navy skin and black hair and dark, calculating eyes. The wisest of all her sisters, ready for battle with her legion of dark faeries.

The one missing was the eldest, Arlana, on her quest to save the world. Nara herself had arisen to lead her troops – the inhabitants of the Fae forest – for her. For the faeries would sit quiet no longer while their own were slaughtered.

The witches of the town felt the same. As Nara rose from her magnificent throne, she inclined her head to the warrior princes and princesses. They were many, their own troops – any witch that could fight – spread behind them. They were headed by Amaria, one of the strongest witches in the world. The one that could summon the sword of ice and storm. The one who had put an end to the dark cult on their ship that did not exist.

‘’Brethren,’’ Nara called over the mingling of witches, dark and light, evil and good, the legendary and those long lost to stories. All come together to defeat a common enemy, ‘’the human generals and their bloodthirsty hunters have plagued us enough! They have killed and slaughtered our people! They have come upon our gates and tried to storm our city! But no more!’’ the vast armies roared their approval. At Nara’s side, the demon Pendragon gave a sharp-toothed grin, ‘’in all of history, the witches of Mystic have not marched out of our kingdom. The Fae queen has always remained on her throne. Witches have always stayed clear of war and conflict. And we have become cowards!’’ another roar from the crowd. Moonlight glistened off Nara’s armour as she called, ‘’tonight, we march out of Mystic, united as the witch people! And we will fight and kill every last one of those hunters, until there are none left!’’

Or until we are all dead.

Chapter Text

General Niktohal Magana wanted to kill King Edgar of Solin. But he could not. He could not risk the wrath of the people. Killing witches was one thing, though it was causing more and more of an uproar; killing their beloved King, however...

It had been immensely hard to order the two Kings to be escorted back to Solin when all Niko wanted to do was snap their necks.

Now, for the third night in a row, he camped with his soldiers in the forest near Mystic. A part of him couldn’t let the city go. He had been so close, and yet he hadn’t been able to destroy it. No matter, he told himself. He’d find a witch that would open the gates of that hellish city for him. For now, he was turning his murderous gaze elsewhere. He’d have the whole continent kneel before him – and then he’d eradicate the witches in the whole world. With the help of Moriya, the plague would stop. And Niko would be remembered as the saviour of mankind.

‘’General,’’ one of the soldiers approached Niko, who sat in front of the fire, holding his sword. His fingers were aching to just push it into someone, to take a life. He had been ready for bloodshed and he had been denied, ‘’uh...some of the others are wondering...how long are you planning on staying here?’’ the soldier clearly had no fate in Niko. The General couldn’t blame him. He probably looked like a mad-man, staring into the flames for hours on end.

Niko glanced up at his soldier with empty eyes, ‘’we wait.’’

He’d said that countless times and it had worked before. Now, the soldier shifted from one foot to the other, ‘’I...sir, for how long?’’

Niko felt his fingers physically twitch around his sword. He wanted to drive the blade through the man’s throat for insubordination. But he couldn’t. Not when his men doubted him, wondered why they were still in the forest...so he instead turned back to the fire, ‘’I have sent word,’’ he said, ‘’we wait.’’

The man took a deep breath; behind him, other soldiers were slowly slinking to the fire, uncertain and scared but unable to take the wait any longer. The soldier speaking cleared his throat, ‘’with all due respect, General, we-‘’

He was cut off when the ground shook. The soldiers looked amongst themselves in mild panic, wondering if it was an earthquake – or the wrath of the Mystic witches. Only Niko remained calm, staring at the fire, until light burst from between the trees and the thundering was joined by shouts and whines of horses. The soldiers in the clearing, only a couple handfuls strong, looked around in awe as the forest was flooded with a couple hundred warriors on horseback, flaming torches at hand. Some bore wicked smiles and the livery of Hailbronn. Others were grim-faced and tight-mouthed in the uniforms of Solin. Amongst them, dozens upon dozens, were witch hunters and mercenaries and handfuls of Moriyan soldiers sent by the Sultan.

General Magana now had an army waiting for his orders.

Niko stood, finally, and held his sword loosely in his hand. He glanced at the men and women dressed in armour, ready to fight. He gave a grim smile, ‘’I told you, we’d wait,’’ he told the soldier, giving him a cunning look, ‘’you will personally ride to Hailbronn and request reinforcements from the troops stationed there.’’

Where there had been doubt, now there was only awe and respect in the soldier’s eyes. He bowed his head, ‘’I will ride as fast as I can, General,’’ he glanced up with curiosity and asked, ‘’if I may...what will the reinforcements be for?’’

Niko grinned and looked west, ‘’for the battle,’’ his eyes narrowed with sick pleasure, ‘’for the invasion of Koln.’’

If he could not have Mystic, then he would have Koln – the last place in Kainan offering witches sanctuary.

*~*~*

Jasper pressed his hands to his ears, to drown out the screams from upstairs.

Othelen paced the length of the downstairs of Chaya’s shop, ‘’it’s been hours,’’ he growled, clearly agitated, ‘’what’s taking so long?’’

A piercing shriek cut through the shop and Jas flinched, curling in on himself where he sat on the floor by a case filled with potions. The screaming had been going on almost non-stop and Jas was too terrified to go upstairs, where the sick were. As soon as Chaya and Mehedi developed a prototype of the cure out of infected blood mixed with a drop of Othelen’s, they had sent word. Ten volunteers, including Mehedi’s husband Mudrik, swept into the shop only an hour later. They were all at various stages of the plague, covered in sores and boils, pale and shivering and shaking. They had silently filed upstairs, as if prepared to die.

And then the screaming started.

Jas didn’t want to imagine what went on upstairs.

Once in a while, a distraught Mehedi brought down basins of blood or soaked towels, asking Jas and Othelen to replace them. He didn’t mention whether the cure was working or not. From the sounds of it, Jas guessed negative...another scream sounded from upstairs and Jas whimpered. He felt Othelen’s hand on his shoulder out of nowhere, warm and comforting, ‘’hey,’’ Othelen said, gravelly, ‘’you alright?’’

Jas gave an unconvincing nod. He knew he was acting like a child, but he couldn’t listen to the screams. They made him feel sick.

‘’Come one,’’ suddenly, Othelen pulled him to his feet. He reached between the shelves into their little nest and yanked out a blanket before taking Jas outside, round the back. Here, a large herb garden opened up onto fields, overrun by weeds and wilderness. Othelen sat Jas on the bench by the wall of the building and wrapped the blanket around him. It was summer already and the heat was setting in; despite that, Jas was shaking and grateful for the blanket. Here, outside, the screams were just a distant echo. Othelen sat down by the prince, ‘’better?’’

Jas rested his head on Othelen’s shoulder, ‘’yes,’’ he said softly, ‘’thank you.’’

Othelen scoffed down at him, ‘’you’re like a pup.’’

But Jas didn’t feel like teasing. He hid his face in Othelen’s shoulder, clutching the blanket and Othelen sighed and relaxed, ‘’it’s going to be alright,’’ he said, a little  awkwardly, like he didn’t know how to convince Jas.

‘’It doesn’t sound like it.’’

Othelen knew that Jasper was right and he didn’t want to give him any false promises. So he just leaned his cheek atop Jas’ head and closed his eyes, letting the warm summer breeze rustle through his hair.

They didn’t even notice when they both fell asleep.

*~*~*

Soren walked into the war tent – the one that General Magana had occupied, that had now been taken by Bas.

And he froze as soon as the flaps closed behind him.

‘’Ah, Soren,’’ Bas said tiredly from the desk, ‘’thank you for coming.’’

‘’Uh...you’re welcome?’’

‘’Uhhmrgh!’’ the tied up, gagged soldier on the chair in front of the desk protested. His eyes were wide with anger and fear but he didn’t look like Bas had hurt him...much.

‘’W-what is it?’’ Soren asked, walking around the soldier to stand at Bas’ side. The General had a couple maps spread out, with statues scattered over it and writing here and there.

‘’Dorian here,’’ Bas motioned to the tied soldier, ‘’was sent by Niko to inform us the General needs reinforcement,’’ he looked at Soren, ‘’for an attack on Koln.’’

Soren gasped, ‘’on Koln!?’’

‘’Dorian spilled everything,’’ Bas gave the messenger a grim smile, ‘’Niko failed in Mystic. His anger is propelling him to taking Koln before he returns to Hailbronn. Dorian has informed me that he has a couple hundred, maybe a thousand, warriors at his disposition. They had come from all over Kainan, willingly or not. He will attack Koln in two days and he will expect us to join the siege a day later.’’

‘’But we will not come...’’ Soren breathed.

‘’Oh, we will,’’ Bas stood and took Soren’s hand, leading him away from Dorian. He dropped his voice, ‘’we will ride for Koln as soon as possible. Niko is confident he can lay waste to Koln with the soldiers he has but he needs the troops stationed here to take the kingdom. He expects reinforcements, but it is not him we will reinforce.’’

‘’It is King Orin,’’ Soren guessed, eyes wide, ‘’...you’re going to go into battle.’’

‘’We all are,’’ Bas said a little sadly, ‘’Niko has the numbers. There are five hundred of us here – if we manage to merge with King Orin’s army, we should have the upper hand, but we will attack from the rear. Surprise will be our strength, because Niko has the bigger army, at least until we join with King Orin’s men. But for a while, it will be only us versus him... and we will need every fighter we can get,’’ he reached out, surprising Soren when he cupped his cheek, ‘’I will need your Cats. I will need you.’’

‘’You have us,’’ Soren breathed, without hesitation, even though the thought of battle scared him to death. His fingers flittered over Bas’ hand, as if he wanted to cup it, ‘’you have me.’’

Bas nodded in gratitude and then whispered, ‘’I won’t let you get hurt,’’ he leaned forward and pressed a kiss to Soren’s strawberry blond hair. It sent a spark through his heart, ‘’go. Ready your Cats for war.’’

*~*~*

Jas jerked awake first and it took him a moment to realise what had happened. Night had fallen and he and Othelen had been sitting outside on the bench for hours. And there was something else...the screaming had stopped. Jas sat up, so violently he woke Othelen up. The wolf started grumbling at him but Jas didn’t listen. He threw the blanket off his shoulders and ran back into the shop, and then up the stairs.

Candles were lit all over the lab, illuminating faces.

Jas stopped, breathing hard from adrenaline, as he looked around. There were bodies in the corner – five, covered with white sheets. But...there were also five diseased people and they...they looked better than when they had come in. The sores and boils didn’t look so red anymore. Their faces weren’t so pale and ashen. Their eyes sparkled again with recognition and sharpness, not lucidity and pain. They sat under blankets by the wall, drinking hot herbal tea from cups. Two sisters whispered tearfully to each other, leaning their foreheads together. Two strong-looking Moriyan men looked close to tears. And Mudrik...he sat by the wall, his hand extended, fingers barely brushing Mehedi’s. Mehedi looked ready to throw himself in his husband’s arms, plague or not plague.

‘’It worked,’’ Chaya said out of nowhere. She stood by Jas’ shoulder, hunched over.

Jas looked sadly to the bodies, ‘’no, it didn’t.’’

To his surprise, Chaya touched a wrinkled, brown hand to the small of his back in comfort, ‘’it did. But, like the plague, the cure does not take everyone.’’

‘’What do you mean?’’

Chaya gestured to the bodies, ‘’two of them were the elderly. One was a child, barely past her first bleed. One was in tremendous pain, in the last stages of the plague. And one...one had lost her whole family to the pestilence. She had no will to live.’’

‘’So what you’re saying...’’ Jas said carefully, ‘’is that you have to have a will to live for the cure to work?’’

‘’Precisely,’’ Chaya said, ‘’the cure is like a fever. It is hard to get through and rather painful – one must want to live, must remain strong, for the fever not to claim their weakened bodies.’’

Jas exhaled shakily, ‘’so we cannot save everyone.’’

‘’No,’’ Chaya said, a little sadly, ‘’but you can save enough.’’

‘’How?’’ Jas looked to her, ‘’how do we get the cure out to the world?’’

Chaya gave him a little smile, ‘’I’m sure you’ll figure something out.’’

Othelen came thundering up the stairs, ‘’and?’’ he demanded, ‘’did it work?’’

‘’Prepare yourselves, both of you. I will pack all the provisions and equipment you will need,’’ her eyes blazed, ‘’and tomorrow, you shall return to the island of flowers and make the cure that will save the world.’’

*~*~*

The physicians burst into the bedchamber.

Merry, tense with pain and anxiety, let out a relieved breath, ‘’your majesty, we’ve been informed you’ve been having pains,’’ the head physician rushed to his side in the huge bed.

Merry put his hand on his stomach automatically and recoiled at the sharp pain. He winced, ‘’the baby is restless.’’

‘’Not just the baby,’’ one of the physicians said, more to the head physician than to Merry, as he inspected the consort, ‘’his majesty is running a fever...’’

‘’The baby is coming,’’ the head physician confirmed Merry’s worries.

‘’To soon,’’ he whispered, ‘’it’s much too soon.’’

‘’A couple of weeks,’’ the head physician agreed, ‘’it’s unusual but it’s not unheard of. Please do not worry, we will take care of you,’’ she waved away a couple of the physicians, who rushed to get appliances. White-apron clad midwives hurried into the room, carrying pails of warm water and cloths.

‘’Tristan...’’Merry remembered, weak from the fever and pain, ‘’where...where is my husband?’’

‘’At a council meeting,’’ the head physician said gently, ‘’shall I alert him of the situation?’’

Merry was about to answer, but something – some unknown, sickening feeling – pawed at him. Something was wrong, he knew it. He told himself it was the premature birth as he shook his head, ‘’the King is busy. Let’s worry about the baby for now.’’

The head physician inclined her head as a midwife rushed forward with the potion.

Merry knocked it back and before he could worry more about the strange feeling in his gut, he was unconscious.

*~*~*

Waiting for the return of the Kai wolf and the witch prince was agonising.

Arlana and Mairwen disappeared for whole afternoons in the forest. Mardin now had the time to mourn his brother properly – he did so alone, barely leaving the caves. Rain hated waiting perhaps the most out of all of his friends. He was a witch and so he had a connection to nature, but he was also a warrior, first and foremost. He longed for information about the war between witches and hunters – he wanted to be in its throng, helping, saving people, killing those who would dare hurt his family...instead, he was stuck on an island that had now blossomed with flowers, doing nothing all day. A small part of him had hoped that perhaps he could use the downtime to grow closer to Fynn. There were wedding logistics to discuss, things to talk about, things that had happened on this venture...but Fynn was more irritable than before. He stalked off by himself for whole days on end, snapped at Rain to go away, leave him alone...

Rain started spending most of his time around the wolves, learning stealth and fighting techniques from Jethil and Mara, improving his strength with Illiliorn and Ryiah while curious, fourteen year old Niraya watched.

But one evening, as the sun set over the beautiful island of Kai, Rain seeked out Fynn. It had been weeks since they arrived and Rain couldn’t recall having even one full conversation with his fiancé. He knew that they all had a lot to think about – the mission Queen Nara had trusted them with, the hunters that killed Nythil, the mysterious prince and the wolf finding a cure...but Rain had thought he and Fynn grew closer during their venture. Now it was back to how it was in Mystic, and Rain only now realised how horrible that had been. Fynn was distant, always slipping out of his grasp, avoiding him, putting up a wall...

Rain found Fynn by the sea. It took him a while to get there but Fynn must have flown. He sat in the soft sand, near where the pirates had deposited them, and looked out at the sea. It was calm, the gentle waves lapping at the bank, the soft noise of the ocean calming. Fynn sat with his knees drawn up to his chin, watching the sea, his auburn hair tousled by the sea breeze. Rain came to sit down next to his fiancé. Fynn didn’t even look at him, ‘’what do you want?’’ he asked.

‘’Why are you sitting here all by yourself?’’ Rain countered gently.

‘’Just thinking,’’ Fynn mumbled.

‘’About what?’’ Rain asked. Fynn didn’t reply, ‘’Fynn. Please. Why won’t you talk to me?’’

‘’I am talking to you.’’

Rain sighed, deeply. There it was. That wall. He reached out and brushed Fynn’s long bangs behind his ear. Fynn slapped his hand away irritably, as per usual. Rain sighed again, ‘’what’s wrong?’’

‘’Nothing,’’ Fynn snapped, ‘’I’m just sick of waiting.’’

‘’We all are.’’

Fynn gritted his teeth, as if just the sound of Rain’s voice set him on edge. It hurt. More than Rain thought it would, ‘’yes,’’ Fynn said tightly, ‘’I know.’’

‘’Fynn,’’ Rain said gently.

Fynn’s head finally snapped to the side and he glared at Rain, ‘’what?’’ he demanded.

‘’Let’s break it off,’’ Rain whispered, as soft as the breeze.

Fynn’s angry expression melted into confusion. His eyes widened, one gold, the other burnt bronze, ‘’what?’’ he asked, so quietly Rain barely heard.

‘’The engagement,’’ Rain said, and each word felt like a stab. But he knew he had to do it. There was no point binding Fynn to him when Fynn did not want to be bound, ‘’let’s break it off. You clearly don’t want it, so...’’ Rain stood and tugged on the whistle around his neck. The string gave way and he tossed the thing dejectedly into the ocean, ‘’let’s break it off,’’ he reiterated, feeling like he was breaking himself.

‘’Rain-‘’ Fynn said but Rain couldn’t bear to be around him anymore. He could barely bare being on the island. He turned sharply and walked briskly towards the trees, disappearing in the forest, leaving a stunned Fynn sitting on the beach.

*~*~*

Othelen was silent as he and Jasper rowed their way across the sea. Jas had been set on rowing the whole way but Othelen wouldn’t let him. Even though his arms were still sore and bandaged, he’d taken the oars from Jas when he got tired. If he was in any pain, he didn’t show it. It was completely silent, save for the cawing of sea-birds and the splash of the oars hitting the water. Jas had explained what Chaya told him about the cure to Othelen and since then, Othelen hadn’t said a word, mulling it over. Not everyone would be saved. They finally had a cure and still, it could not reach everyone.

Still, it was something.

 Othelen stared out at the sea as he rowed and Jas stared at him. Their relationship was different now. Jas wasn’t sure what it would evolve into. It scared him. He was a prince – he’d marry another prince, or a princess. Make Solin stronger. It was wealthy, but small. With Rhein destroyed, Jas would have many duties to fulfil to make Solin thrive after the plague was finally over. Hailbronn had no King – perhaps he would expand. Granted, Jas’ family had married all over the place. His great-grandfathers had started as enemies, with Prince Ilia plotting to eradicate the whole Hyndestane line so Moriya could invade. His grandfathers had been invader and the invaded, and yet that didn’t stop them from marrying. And then his fathers. Arne had been a commoner, a witchling living in a tiny cottage by the sea. So maybe...maybe marrying a half-wolf from a forgotten island wouldn’t be that bad...

Jas shook his head, blushing. Why was he thinking about marrying Othelen? They weren’t in love! And they had more important things to worry about – something Jas was constantly reminded of by the clink of equipment Chaya had given them, in sacks on the bottom of the boat. They didn’t even know how to distribute the cure yet. Besides, Othelen would never leave his pack, his island...just being away from them on the trip to the Kai mainland had nearly made him lose his mind.

Still, as they prowled on in silence, Jas couldn’t help but fantasise.

*~*~*

Despite the rift between them, Orin threw Wrath a birthday ball and Wrath couldn’t not attend.

He dressed himself into a smart, high collared black jacket with silver finishing and matching pants and trailed his way downstairs. He forced himself to plaster a fake smile over his face as he was greeted by a hoard of guests, kissing his cheeks and showering him with presents. Strange. Once upon a time he’d enjoyed this. Now he just felt empty, compelled to keep his head down lest he catch Bren’s or Orin’s eye.

Because of course they were there.

After Bren caught Wrath touching his face in the library, it was even more unbearable to be in their presence. To want them and not have them. And to have them know it.

The birth day ball was as fanciful as all parties. Even more so, Wrath noted. There were peacocks wandering about. The tables were bending under the weight of the food and the enormous birth day cake. There were jugglers and fire-breathers and comics and musicians in every corner of the castle, ready to entertain. Wrath noted that the band was only playing his favourite pieces – the ones Orin knew as well as his own.

It all hurt.

Wrath spent a good two hours greeting and dancing with the guests upon their insistence. Once, he wanted to go to the wine table and drink himself numb, but he spotted Orin hovering near it, watching him, and so he blended in with the crowd quickly. At midnight, there was a toast in his honour. After that, the guests gave in to temptations of sex, romance, wild dancing, libations and uncontrollable laughter.

And Wrath sneaked away.

He went back up to his chambers, where he knew none of the guests would venture. He was tired and overwhelmed and upset. He was always upset. He hated it. He wished he could be happy again but that was impossible in the palace, where Orin and Bren were always in the corner of his vision. As he stopped in front of his doors, he sighed and closed his eyes briefly. He felt a thousand years old. He needed sleep. He reached out, pressed the handle, entered his room...

And his mouth fell open.

Because there was Bren.

On his bed.

He was sitting on his heels, dressed only in a robe that uncovered his shoulder, seductively and alluringly. He looked towards the doors as Wrath walked in. His emotions were written all over his face – he was scared and nervous and hopeful and tense. But as the doors closed behind Wrath, he gave the Duke the tiniest of smiles, ‘’hi,’’ he said sadly.

Wrath found his voice after a good ten seconds, ‘’w-what are you doing here?’’ he tried to make the question sound demanding. Instead, it came out uncertain and confused.

‘’I’m your birth day present,’’ Bren said quietly.

Wrath’s eyes hardened, ‘’did Orin send you?’’

‘’I sent myself.’’

‘’Does he know, then?’’ Wrath asked coldly, ‘’or do you sneak behind everyone’s backs?’’

Bren looked like he got slapped, ‘’he knows.’’

‘’Right,’’ Wrath gave a bitter smile, ‘’so just me, then.’’

Bren’s eyes turned pleading, ‘’Wrath-‘’

‘’I told you not to-‘’ Wrath stopped, gave an irritated grunt, ‘’whatever. Just get out.’’

‘’No,’’ Bren got off the bed, pulling up the robe to cover his shoulder.

‘’Bren-‘’

‘’No!’’ Bren marched over to Wrath and stopped right in front of him, ‘’I’m not going anywhere! I love you! And so does Orin! Why can’t you understand that, why can’t you-?’’

‘’I don’t want to hear this!’’ Wrath snapped, ‘’not again! It won’t change anything!’’

‘’Because you won’t let it change!’’

‘’You two are in love!’’ Wrath yelled at him. ‘’why can’t that be enough!? Why do you have to torment me still!?’’

‘’Because we love you, too!’’ Bren yelled back, and it was the first time Wrath had ever seen him get angry, ‘’and we’re not going to let you go!’’

‘’I don’t believe you,’’ Wrath shook his head, taking a step away from Bren.

‘’Wrath-‘’

‘’No!’’

‘’Just listen-‘’

‘’I don’t want to!’’

‘’I love you-‘’

‘’Be quiet. Leave!’’

‘’Wrath-‘’

‘’I SAID SHUT UP!’’ Wrath roared and finally Bren fell quiet, stunned.

Wrath’s anger evaporated, leaving only loneliness. He felt lost and sad and scared. He wanted to crawl into bed and never get out of it. He reached behind him and pulled the door open an inch, ‘’leave,’’ he whispered.

Bren stepped past him. But he didn’t leave. He pressed his hand against the door and let it fall shut again. He was trembling with unshed tears that made his eyes glassy, ‘’then release me.’’

‘’What?’’

Bren looked up at Wrath with tear-filled eyes, ‘’I am yours. Orin bought me for you. Release me and I shall leave and never return.’’

Wrath shook his head, ‘’no. You belong with Orin.’’

‘’So do you,’’ Bren said softly, ‘’so please. It will be like I’ve never been here in the first place.’’

Something cracked inside of Wrath, ‘’I don’t want that.’’

‘’Why?’’ Bren’s voice was a breath.

And Wrath was too tired, too hurt, to try and make up an excuse, a pretence, a lie. So he just closed his eyes, as if he couldn’t look at Bren anymore, and a tear rolled down his cheek, ‘’because I love you,’’ he whispered, ‘’and I love Orin.’’

In the next instance, he felt Bren’s tiny hands on his cheeks. Wrath opened his eyes as Bren said, ‘’then release me,’’ he brushed Wrath’s tear away, ‘’or let me love you back.’’

And the thought of letting Bren go was unimaginable. The thought of letting go of this bright, wonderful, loving, gentle, fierce creature was unthinkable, ‘’I can’t...’’ Wrath whispered.

Bren leaned in closer, ‘’can’t what?’’ he murmured, brushing his nose against Wrath’s.

‘’I can’t...let you go...’’ Wrath whispered. As he said it, he sagged. It felt as if a huge weight was lifted off his shoulders.

And then Bren smiled, broad and oozing happiness, and kissed him, and Wrath didn’t feel like he was dying anymore. Just like that. All it took was a brush of Bren’s lips against his and he felt like it would all be okay again. Bren pulled back, long enough to whisper, ‘’I’m yours, as much as I am his. Don’t be afraid of that.’’

When they kissed again, they melted into each other. Wrath let himself kiss Bren back and when he did so, he felt a dam break inside him and all the emotions that had been held back filled the emptiness in him. And he surged forward and wrapped his arms around Bren and kissed him, over and over, intent on never, ever letting him go again. And Bren kissed him back with the same ferocity. Gradually, the kisses went from heated and desperate to gentle, filled with wonder and relief and love. They sank to the floor. Wrath leaned against the wall, gathered Bren into his lap. He held him close, brushing his hands over his back, tangling his fingers gently in his silver hair. Bren kept his arms tightly locked around Wrath’s neck, as if he was afraid that if he let go, he’ lose him again.

‘’It’s all going to be okay now,’’ Bren whispered, kissing Wrath again.

They stayed in each other’s arms until the sun came up.

Chapter Text

‘’You wanted to see me, your majesty?’’ Wrath asked, standing in front of Orin.

He had awoken that morning, feeling happier than he had in a long while, with Bren asleep on top of him. That well of sadness that he had felt for so long started to fill up with a warm, flutter feeling as he watched the boy sleep. He would have been happy to stay like that forever. But then a maid knocked on the doors and said that the King requested his presence, urgently. And so here was Wrath, in Orin’s bedchambers, standing a couple feet away from him with his heart in turmoil. Half of him wanted to hide, ashamed, feeling like he was somehow taking Bren away from Orin. The other half of him wanted to fling himself into the King’s arms, tired of staying away from the love he so craved. But Wrath couldn’t hide and he couldn’t throw himself against Orin, so he stood rooted to the spot, arms folded behind his back, trying to keep his face impassive.

Orin looked tired. Worn out. Upset. His golden hair was pulled back in a braid; a pale stubble covered his jaw-line. Orin usually shaved diligently but now he just looked troubled. Distracted. Even so, when he lay his golden eyes on Wrath, they seemed to brighten just a bit, ‘’Wrath.’’

‘’What happened?’’ Wrath demanded, unable to stop himself. Something had happened and even now, even though he knew he couldn’t, Orin was trying to shield Wrath from it.

‘’There’s been an attack,’’ Orin said quietly, ‘’on the eastern border.’’

‘’Hailbronn,’’ Wrath whispered, feeling dread fill his veins, ‘’General Magana.’’

Orin nodded, ‘’he has finally made his move. He brings with him the armies of both Solin and Hailbronn, mercenaries, hunters...’’ Orin’s shoulders sagged, ‘’I’m afraid we won’t be able to win against their numbers.’’

Wrath’s eyes widened, ‘’Koln can’t be taken! We’re the last kingdom that can help witches!’’

Orin gave Wrath a helpless look, ‘’we will fight. I won’t let them have Koln without a fight. I’d rather die. But the main bulk of their army will only just be arriving from Hailbronn and once they join up with the forces attacking our border, we’ll be done for.’’

‘’We must call for allies!’’ Wrath said desperately.

‘’What allies?’’ Orin asked, ‘’Solin is taken. Hailbronn is Magana’s stronghold. Rhein is a ghost kingdom without a living soul. Any forces from Asakura or Sahr will take months to mobilise...’’

‘’Then we must mobilise our own army,’’ Wrath said, determined, the soldier in him rising up.

‘’I have already notified every soldier stationed in Koln. We head for the border first thing tomorrow morning,’’ his eyes softened and he reached out. Instead of flinching back, Wrath found himself anticipating the touch. Orin’s warm fingertips brushed his cheek, ‘’I will not ask you to come with me to certain death.’’

‘’Don’t be stupid. I’m coming,’’ Wrath snapped, ‘’and don’t be dramatic, either. It’s not certain death. We’ve fought in battles before and we’ve lived to tell the tale. Now will be the same,’’ Wrath studied Orin and saw the fear in his eyes. He was afraid, but not for himself. He was afraid for all the soldiers that would march against Magana’s mass of fighters. He was afraid for those he would leave behind in Koln and what would happen to them if he was killed. He was afraid for Wrath and his sister Dagnan, who would fight at his side. He was afraid for Alinor and Bren, who would stay. Wrath took a step forward, ‘’don’t be afraid, Orin,’’ he said softly, ‘’we’ll face this together, like we always have.’’

Orin’s golden eyes widened but before he could say anything, the doors to his chambers burst open and a shocked looking Bren ran inside, ‘’you’re going to war!?’’ he cried out, looking terrified.

‘’Bren,’’ Wrath turned to him, ‘’I told you to stay in bed.’’

Too late he realised what he had just said.

Orin’s eyes widened even more, ‘’in bed?’’ he repeated softly.

Wrath looked between Orin and Bren, ‘’I-I...’’

‘’Tell me it isn’t true,’’ Bren pleaded, ‘’you can’t just...what if...what if you die...?’’ his voice cracked and his gorgeous eyes filled with tears.

Orin’s attention immediately went to the boy. He went to him and put an arm around his waist, ‘’hey-‘’

‘’Please,’’ Bren grasped Orin’s sleeve and tears rolled down his face, ‘’please don’t go.’’

‘’Shhh, my love,’’ Orin said softly, desperate to calm his lover down. He brushed away his tears with his free hand, ‘’calm down.’’

‘’Excuse me,’’ Wrath said faintly, voice hoarse, and went to walk past them, towards the doors.

But Bren’s hand shot out and he grabbed Wrath’s wrist, yanking him back with surprising strength, ‘’no!’’ he cried, ‘’no, please...’’ his voice cracked again and went very quiet, ‘’I can’t bare this anymore. I can’t...just...please don’t be angry at each other...’’ a sob broke through his body and both Wrath and Orin felt like someone had just stabbed them in the side at the sight of their beloved falling apart, ‘’I love you both so much,’’ Bren whispered, ‘’so please...please...’’

Wrath surged forward to embrace Bren, wrapping his arm around his waist, just under Orin’s arm, ‘’shhh, shhh, hey,’’ he murmured, caressing his face, wiping his tears away, ‘’Bren, don’t cry. Please don’t cry.’’

Suddenly he felt Orin’s other arm go around his waist. He inhaled sharply and turned to look at the King, ‘’Orin,’’ he said, warning, because everything was happening so fast. Too fast. But Orin just swept his hand up Wrath’s back, caressing the back of his neck and then tucked a strand of hair behind his ear before cupping his cheek.

‘’Bren is right,’’ he said quietly, ‘’I can’t take this any longer, either. I love you.’’

Wrath exhaled a shuddering breath, ‘’Orin...’’ he said, softer, pleading for Orin to stop. He couldn’t take it. It was all too much.

But Orin just said again, ‘’I love you. And I love Bren. I don’t plan on letting any of you go,’’ he dropped his voice, ‘’if this war claims my life, I don’t care. Because I get to love both of you. We all get to be together,’’ he kissed Wrath’s forehead, ‘’even if just for a little while.’’

Wrath felt his eyes sting. He’d been so stupid. He’d wasted so much time, thinking his misery would go on forever. And now their lives were threatened and these could be their last moments together and because of Wrath, that could be all they would ever be. Moment together, not a lifetime, ‘’I’m sorry,’’ Wrath whispered. He wrapped his other arm around Orin’s waist and pressed his face into his shoulder, blinking back tears. Bren’s sniffles went quieter. They all embraced each other, standing close, limbs intertwined. Orin kept kissing Wrath’s hair; he couldn’t believe he finally got him back, without having to let go of Bren.

Orin wasn’t sure how it happened but they stumbled over to the bed and all three of them collapsed atop it. Bren found himself on his back on Orin’s massive bed, his tunic having been stripped off, with Wrath and Orin hovering above him. He reached out, pressing a hand to each of their cheek’s, unable to quite believe that he had both of them, finally. Wrath leaned down and captured Bren’s lips with his own, kissing him slow and deep, their tongues intertwining. Orin kissed down Bren’s body until he reached his belt. He undid it and slipped off his pants, followed by his undergarments. Bren gasped when Orin’s mouth closed around his member and he started dipping his head, agonizingly slow, before going up and then down again. Wrath kissed the corner of his mouth and then his lips again, his hand playing idly with his chest, tracing his nipples, brushing against each rib, circling his belly-button...

Bren came suddenly and unexpectedly with a sharp moan that prompted Wrath to put his mouth somewhere – anywhere – on him. He settled for the neck, kissing in hickey after hickey as Orin kissed Bren’s inner thighs. Bren, head hazy from his orgasm, didn’t notice when he was moved into Orin’s lap until he felt him slide into him. Bren was straddling the King and he leaned in to kiss him, long and slow and passionate, like his thrusts. He felt Wrath’s arms go around his waist, pushing him up and down in rhythm with Orin’s thrusts, his hot mouth spreading kisses over his back and shoulders. Bren’s head was hazy. Everything had happened so fast that it had his mind spinning, but he didn’t care, as long as he felt Orin and Wrath around him. He tilted his head to kiss Wrath over his shoulder as O