Ravens

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Lawan moved her queen.  Her opponent countered with a knight, and Lawan prevented herself from smiling.  He was trying to set a trap for her.  She moved a bishop, preparing her counter offensive.  He shifted his own queen, and she poked his trap with her rook.  He blinked, then sighed.  She smiled then.  “Mine in two.”

“Another game?”  He raised an eyebrow and gave her an eager grin.

“Set up the board.”  She smiled.  Prisoner transport was normally one of her least favorite duties.  Moving violent and often hostile individuals from one section of the country to another was all too often a brutal task.  This time, though, she was transporting hostages rather than captives.  Still prisoners, but much more polite ones.

Mihail Argyris was the eldest of them at barely seventeen.  He was Prince Dimitar’s second son.  The heir apparent had been wounded in the fighting, and there was some question as to whether the man was even going to survive.  Mihail, however, was pleasant enough company, and he kept the younger ones in line.  It didn’t hurt that he’d taken an interest in the game when he’d seen her board.  After three weeks, he was getting good enough that she had to pay attention to the game.  He’d even managed to win the time she’d gotten distracted and misplayed.  It also didn’t hurt that he was very easy on the eyes.

With any luck, the fighting was over.  The rebellion had been short, and not particularly bloody.  Safiya had expressed the opinion that it was a political maneuver that had gone off the rails rather than a true revolt, and she had to admit there was some support for that position.  In any event, it had nearly been over before the Raven Guard had arrived on the field.  Aradal liked to grumble about being one of Sa-dia’s dominions, but throwing off the yoke might get their clothes mussed.

She moved her pawn, and he sat up straighter as he reached for his own piece.

#

Mihail brought Bisera water, then sat down next to her.  He rubbed her back as she hiccupped a couple more times before finally taking a drink.  “They say that Bassam’s hanging gardens are always in bloom.  You can walk among the flowers year-round.”

She sniffled.  “Can I pick some?”

At eight, Bisera was the youngest of the eight hostages, and one of only two girls.  She was Lord Gavril’s eldest, as his sons had been deemed too young to travel.  They were only four and three.  He’d spent the few days before they’d left convincing the others they were off on some grand adventure, with opportunities awaiting them.  The latter part, at least, was true.  Although hostages, they were still of noble birth and would be allowed to study at the university if they desired.  And it was likely they’d all have marriages arranged for them at some point.

Gorica was the only other girl.  At fifteen, she’d likely be married off quickly.  Her father had no sons, which meant Gorica’s husband would be heir to Spiros lands and more importantly its docks.

The rest of them would all be allowed to go home to inherit, after having spent years in Sa-dia and picking up their customs.  A threat against them to keep their parents in line, raise them in the culture of Sa-dia, and then send them back to have Aradal become more and more part of Sa-dia.

At least that was the theory.  He dared not share the plan with the others.  They were too young to be entrusted with secrets.  He waited until they were all asleep before slipping out of the room.  One of the guards at the end of the hall held up her hand as he walked casually toward the stairs.  “Where do you think you’re going?”  Akilah raised an eyebrow, but smiled at him.

Three dozen of the queen’s Raven Guard had been dispatched to serve as their escorts.  It was, in theory, an honor.  The truth was they were some of the deadliest warriors in Sa-dia.  If he raised their suspicions, he’d be in serious trouble.  That was why he was doing all he could to be a model prisoner.  Mihail smiled.  “The Captain mentioned there was a library here?”  He ducked his head.  “I was sort of hoping I could sneak past you, steal something fun to read, then sneak back here without getting caught?”

“And how were you hoping to sneak past us?”  She shook her head, but her face betrayed amusement.

“I was going to distract you.”  He pointed behind her.  “Look, a dragon.”

Akilah rolled her eyes, then glanced at the other guard.  “I’ll take him up.”

The other guard nodded.  “Hopefully no one needs their diapers changed while you’re gone.”

#

She looked up at the sound of voices.  Lieutenant Akilah entered the library, accompanied by Mihail.  He smiled when he saw her, and she returned the expression.  “Captain.”  He bowed before glancing at the Lieutenant.  “Lieutenant Akilah says the fire at the beacon the Raven Tower was lit by one of the last dragons and hasn’t gone out for over three hundred years?”  His eyes were wide.  “Is that true?”

“It’s the story, anyway.”  She chuckled.  “It will burn as long as the Ravens stand true.”

“Wow.”  He stared at her, awe on his face.

“What are you doing in here, Mihail?”  She glanced at Akilah.

“I took Akilah prisoner.”  He shrugged.  “I’ll ransom her back to you for…”  His eyes fell upon the bookshelf.  “Oh, Modilon’s compendium.”  He grabbed up the book.  When she stared at him, he gave her a shy smile.  “I’m running low on bedtime stories for Bisera.  Please?”

“You…”  She laughed.  “I’ll pay the demanded ransom.”

He glanced at the book, then at Akilah.  Then he grinned.  “Akilah is a skilled warrior, a lieutenant, and she has royal blood.  She’s…”  He glanced at Akilah and tilted his head before coming up with the number.  “Ninety-fifth in line for the throne.”

“And…”

“Can I look around for a few minutes?  See if there is anything else?”  He gave her a hopeful look.

“Go ahead.”  She waved a hand, and he went deeper into the room.  The library had once been a massive room, but nearly half the books were gone and many of the others were damaged.  Still, it was likely he could find something suitable.  And him keeping the children calm did make their lives easier.  She looked up at Akilah.  “Messenger bird said the snow is melting faster than anticipated.  We may need to detour if the river is too high.”

“That will add almost a week to the journey.”  Akilah shrugged.  She glanced in the direction Mihail had gone.  “I wonder if the queen has matches planned for all of them yet?”

“Lieutenant…”  Lawan drawled the title.

“Just wondering who the lucky girl might be.”  She chuckled.  “Though even young as he is I can’t say I’d mind stealing a taste.”

#

Bringing down a ward was difficult enough.  Doing it while the captain of the Raven Guard was thirty feet away was taking its toll on his nerves.  Mihail narrowly stopped himself from breathing a sigh of relief.  The small glamour he’d worked out gave the ward the illusion of still being in place.  He grabbed a tattered copy of a Sa-dia history text from the shelf, and headed back.  Both women smiled at him, and he smiled back.  “May I?”  He held up the book.

“Go ahead.”  Captain Lawan gave him an indulgent smile.

He kept up a light banter with Akilah as she escorted him back to his quarters.  She was a pleasant enough woman, if he could forget she was the enemy.  The Raven Guard were the queen’s elite.  Every one of these women had proved their mettle, proved they were killers, before they earned the black wings that graced their armor.

Two wards left to go.  His brother was waiting with their army.  As soon as the last one went down, they could cross the border.  The tyrant would never see them coming.  And it was the Raven Guard ensuring he reached them all safely.  The irony made smiling at them easy.

#

“You’re getting better.”  She smiled at her opponent.  “You saw the trap this time.”

Mihail beamed under the praise.  “I’m just not sure how to…”  He frowned down at the board.  “Every time I try to trap you, you spring it and get me.”

“I do have more experience at this than you do.”  Lawan smiled.  “Come find me in ten years, and I’ll bet you’ll win as many as you lose.”

“First thing I’m going to do when I visit the Sa-dia market is get my own set.”  He started to reach for his queen, then stopped.  His hand went to the bishop, then stopped, and then he sighed.  “I don’t…”

Lawan leaned forward, and turned the board around.  Then she moved a rook.

His eyes immediately widened, and his hand moved over the board.  “Oh, and then…”  He nodded.  “So, if I…”  He moved what had been one of her pawns.  “And now…”

“Now it doesn’t really matter what I move…”  She demonstrated by moving her queen.

Immediately he moved the knight.  “You have to move your king…”  He waited for her to do so.  “And then…”  He shifted the queen.  “Checkmate.”

“Very good.”  Lawan smiled proudly.  “Maybe come see me in five years.”

“Will you visit?”  He gave her a hopeful look, then blushed. “I mean…”  He laughed a little.  “It would be nice if there were a few familiar faces.”

“You’ll be Queen Jumana’s ward.  Our paths will cross.”  She reached over and ruffled his hair.  “We’ll have time for a game now and then.”

#

Another ward down, and one left to go.  Mihail slipped back to his quarters unnoticed.  They hadn’t bothered to put guards upstairs at all this time.  No doubt by now they figured there was nowhere for them to go even if they did take it into their heads to flee.

Though with some frustration, he was forced to admit they might be right.  Spring had come early, and they were delayed.  Worse, it seemed that even after they reached the Tower of Ravens, they’d be delayed at least a few more days before more of their number gathered, and he could no longer be certain of getting more than two thirds of them.

Still, that should be enough.  The poison was slow.  It would take several hours before the first effects were felt, but by then it would be too late.  With the wards on the hall down, his brother’s men would be able to get inside easily and dispatch whoever was still breathing at that point.  Taking out the Raven Guard would be a suitable symbol.

The tyrant would fall.  And his people would finally be free.

#

Lawan frowned at the servant.  News in the middle of the night was never good.  She drew on her clothes before heading downstairs.  The messenger also wore raven wings.  She handed Lawan a sealed scroll case.  She took it, and broke the seal on the case, then the seal on the parchment itself.

Her face darkened as she read the words on the scroll.  Then she crumpled the parchment before looking up.  “New orders.”

#

His head rested on the cold stone for a moment before he headed back to his quarters.  The last of the wards were down.  His brother’s forces could move freely.  For the first time in a century, they stood a real chance of regaining their freedom.  Mihail went to the window, and climbed out.  Balancing on the ledge was tricky, but it was the only way to get where he needed to be.  He slipped back in through the window, then pasted the innocent expression back on his face before going back into the hall.  “Nadra…”  He made himself look relieved.

“Mihail…”  She frowned.  “What are you doing here?”

“I…”  Mihail made himself blush.  “Munya escorted me to the privy, but I think I went the wrong way when I came back out and…”  He shifted his weight from foot to foot.  “I think I’m lost.”

“You should be more careful.”  She patted his shoulder, and her hand lingered for a moment.  “Come on, I’ll get you back where you need to be.”

“Thank you.”  He smiled at her, keeping his face friendly.  “The architecture here is so different.  I keep stopping to look at things and getting turned around.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t let you out of our sight…”  She licked her lips a little as she looked him over.

He wasn’t at all surprised when she pulled him close in the darkened stairwell.  Her hand caught his wrist.  “Any manner of thing could happen.”

“Oh?”  He smiled at her shyly.  She wasn’t the first to seize an advantage.  He met her lips, letting her take a few small liberties.  At least they were disciplined enough not to go further than stealing a few kisses and a couple light caresses.  Allowing a couple of them tease the innocent boy in the dark corner was a small enough price to pay to keep them unsuspecting.  So, he kissed her back, making himself seem as eager as she was.

It was with some reluctance she finally took him back to his room.

#

She set up the chess board, and waited for Mihail.  Lawan smiled when he entered, and gestured at the game.  “I had some free time.  Thought you might like another game.”

He gave her one of his friendly smiles.  If she hadn’t known it was fake, she’d have been warmed by it.  “Always a pleasure, Captain.”

Lawan waited for him to sit down.  “I thought this time, perhaps, we could add a twist.  A little wager, perhaps?”

“I fear I’ve not much to barter with.”  He ducked his head apologetically.

“Oh, I’m sure we can come up with something.”  She shrugged and gestured to the servant to pour the wine.  “There is news from the capital, if you are interested.”

“Always.”  He accepted the glass, his gray eyes attentive on her face.  Almost adoring.  She wondered if the color of his eyes and his family name were related.

The wine was delicious.  She savored the first sip before setting the glass down.  “Lord Gavril decided the risk to his daughter was too great.  He tipped off the queen.”  She saw Mihail go still, for the briefest of moments.  If she hadn’t been looking, she wouldn’t have seen it at all.

“I…”  Mihail managed to look confused.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You should be congratulated.”  Lawan leaned back, and set the flask of poison she’d found in his belongings atop her desk.  “Your plan was nearly perfect.  Taking out the queen’s personal guard…”  She narrowed her eyes.  “And if it wasn’t for Gavril’s information, we’d never have seen you coming.”

“Captain Lawan…”  He started shaking his head.

“Your brother managed to escape, but your father has already been executed.”  He looked away from her as she kept speaking.  “All the nobles involved have been stripped of their holdings.  Your rebellion has been broken, Mihail.”

The boy held himself together.  There was no sign of tears, no trace of panic.  Just a calm, composed face.  No, not a boy.  She was getting a glimpse of the man who’d been intending to kill her.  “What happens now, Captain?”

“We play chess.”  It was a bit galling, how easily he’d charmed her.  A big eyed young man, hanging on her words as she taught him the game.  A smiling, eager student hungry for her wisdom, worming his way into her office.  How much had he overheard, put together in that cunning mind of his?  Patient and controlled, playing on her ego to let her think his skill was a result of her attention.  It actually hurt.  She’d but adopted him as a little brother.  Half the guard had.  They’d welcomed their would-be murderer with open arms.  “With a wager.”

“And the nature of this wager?”  He sat up, his face composed.  He was calculating.  Now that she knew what he was, she could almost see wheels turning in his mind.  Given half a chance, he could turn the situation to his advantage.  Seventeen, and if not for a traitor, he’d have brought them down.

“If you win…”  She ran her fingers over the chess pieces.  “You will be given to the Raven Guard as a slave.”  Her eyes became cold.  “You will spend the remainder of your life being tortured.  You will be at our mercy, and we will show you none.  When we tire of your suffering, you will be crucified.  That will not come soon.”

The expression that flickered over his face was impossible to read.  “And if I lose?”

“You will be delivered safely to the capital.”  She smiled, showing teeth.  “You enroll at the university, and remain there until your brother has surrendered, at which point you will be permitted to return home.”

There was confusion now, in his eyes.  “That does not sound like incentive to play well, Captain.”

“And excepting Bisera…”  She met his eyes.  “All of the other hostages will be crucified at sunrise.”

Mihail went still.  His eyes went to the board.  He took a deep breath before swallowing and looking back up at her.  “I am white, then?”

“It seems fair.”  She leaned forward.  “Make your move, Prince Argyris.”  She was going to enjoy defeating him.  The execution of the hostages would demoralize the rebellion, especially when they left Andon’s own brother alive.  His support would fall away, and she’d have the pleasure of taunting her would-be assassin that it was all his fault.

He beat her in fifteen moves.

#

Gavril knew about the poison, but not about the wards.  If he could endure what was coming for a short time, his brother would be able to help him.  The important part of his mission had succeeded, with them none the wiser.  That was some comfort, at least.

He hadn’t been permitted to see the children after Captain Lawan’s chess game.  A group of the Raven Guard was taking them directly to the capital.  No further stops.  Mihail alone was being taken to the tower.  He still rode in the wagon, but this time it was bound and gagged.  The faces that once smiled at him now looked at him with cold, angry eyes.  None spoke to him.  Not even the captain.

Upon arrival, he’d been taken to a small cell and left there.  That had still be morning.  From what he could tell from the small window, it was approaching nightfall.  He’d been given nothing to eat or drink in that time span.  A small part of him was starting to hope they’d simply forgotten about him.

Keys turning in the lock dashed that hope.

#

Nadra and Akilah had volunteered to escort the prisoner to the hall.  They’d both done so eagerly enough she’d expected him to arrive already bloodied.  He must not have put up a fight.  A prince must maintain his dignity, after all.  He kept his head up as they brought him before her.  As she’d instructed, he’d been blindfolded.

The faces of her fellow Ravens were cold.  Word had spread, and even those he hadn’t played were glaring.  Mihail himself managed to maintain his calm composure.  This young man had intended to kill them.  Not even in the glory of combat.  That, at least, they could have forgiven.  Eventually.  He’d been planning on using poison.

“Mihail Argyris.”  She stood.  “You’ve been found guilty of treason, and your sentence has been pronounced.”  Her smile was cold.  “Queen Jumana has given you to the Raven Guard.”  There were a few pleased murmurs of surprise from those gathered.  “Will you beg mercy?”

“I will not.”  He raised his head, and his voice was defiant.

Her smile widened.  “Yes, Mihail.”   She gestured to Nadra and Akilah.  “You will.”

#

The women on either side of him grabbed his arms.  He was yanked forward, and then the binding on his wrists were cut.  With the blindfold on, there was no way to be sure what was going to happen now.  The captain had said she intended to torture him.  It was becoming clear she meant exactly that.  And from the sound of things, there were others gathered to watch.

Shackles closed, first around his wrists, then around his ankles.  His wrists were just above his head, and his legs were slightly spread.  He swallowed, trying not to betray his rising fear.  If he could only see what was happening, he could prepare himself.  It occurred to him that likely why they’d blindfolded him in the first place.

There was a sound of metal on metal, and then the shackles around his wrists and ankles began pulling tighter.  His legs were spread apart, and his arms pulled until his toes barely brushed the ground.  He bit back a small cry of pain as the chains pulled at his joints.  That was when they stopped pulling.  He heard a few small sounds of amusement from those gathered.

He could take this.  It hurt, but he could endure it.  He made himself take slow, steady breaths.  He felt cool metal touch his wrists, tugging a little at his sleeve.  Then it tugged more, and he heard the sound of fabric tearing as it was pulled away from his arm.  A moment later he realized they were cutting off his clothing.

Mihail wanted to struggle, for all the good it would do him.  The Raven Guard was entirely female.  He had no idea how many eyes were on him at the moment, but he knew his skin was starting to burn with shame.  It took them only a minute to strip him completely.  They even took the amulet from around his neck.

#

Like most of the Aradal, the man hanging between the posts clearly found nudity humiliating.  He was young.  Hadn’t yet built up the life experience to be able to shrug such a thing off easily.  Though it was clear he was trying.  Lawan smiled.  He did have courage, that much was clear from the crime he’d intended to commit.  He’d looked her in the eye a hundred times without ever betraying his plan.  Part of her could almost respect that.  It was a pity he was on the other side.

The brazier was dragged toward him.  She saw him react to the sound, clearly trying to figure out what was about to happen.  Lawan considered a moment, then smiled.  She gestured to Akilah.  “Let him watch this part.”

Akilah smiled before reaching up and removing the blindfold from Mihail.  He blinked in the sudden light, then saw the brazier.  His eyes widened, and blood drained from his face.  He swallowed as Nadra set the branding iron in the coals to heat.

His attendants were not making this quick.  Akilah wet a towel and cleaned the area where the brand would go.  On the left side of his chest, almost on the shoulder.  Lawan folded her arms, watching his face.  Brave and clever he might be, he was no warrior.  It was likely he’d never felt real pain in his life.  She watched Akilah draw it out, checking a few times to see if the brand was hot enough.  Mihail moved a little in the restraints each time she touched the handle.

The sight of the naked young man had drawn a few approving looks.  He was still boyishly slender, but his muscles were well-defined.  Even though it was betraying his fear, his face was still handsome, almost to the point of being beautiful.  He’d used his looks to charm them readily.

After a final check of the iron, Akilah looked up at her.  Mihail’s eyes went to her as well.  She smiled before nodding, and saw him pull at the bonds as Akilah walked toward him.  Lawan was curious to see if he would beg now.

He didn’t.  The brand made a sizzling sound as it touched his skin.  He screamed, but the restraints kept him firmly in place as Akilah held the searing metal to him.  Mentally, Lawan counted to ten, and just as she’d reached the end Akilah pulled the iron away.

#

They’d branded him.  They’d actually branded him.  The smell of his own burned flesh made him sick even over the actual pain.  Mihail’s breath came in short pants as he fought the urge to vomit.  And the urge to sob.

He was still hanging between posts.  And they hadn’t removed the brazier.  Akilah approached him, carrying a jar of a pale ointment.  He hissed in pain as she began spreading it over the burn.  “Tell me…”  Her voice was low and soft.  “Was it as good for you as it was for me?”

Whatever ointment she was using did nothing for the pain.  Mihail remained silent, though he couldn’t quite manage to calm his breathing.  At the front of the hall, Captain Lawan was still on her feet, watching.  A chill went through him as he realized that meant whatever they planned for him wasn’t over yet.

Nadra came toward him a moment later.  She held up a long sliver of metal, turning it to catch the light and ensuring he got a good view.  He swallowed.  With her left hand, she reached up and began teasing his nipple.  He had just a moment to realize what was about to happen before she drove the needle through it.  He cried out in pain.  She left the metal in place as she repeated the action on his other side.

Akilah returned, and nodded to Nadra.  Nadra removed the needle, eliciting another groan from him.  Then Akilah forced a small metal hoop through the hole Nadra had made, sealing the ring shut as she finished.  That too, was repeated on the other side.

Then they each went to the posts.  The chains holding him in place were once again tightened until he cried out, taking up the slack his struggles had created.  Lawan held up a hand, and attention turned toward her.  She picked up something from the table in front of her, and threw it to Akilah.  Akilah caught it and held it up.

Mihail shook his head at the sight of the strap, and heard a sound of amusement from Nadra.  “Don’t worry, sweetie…”  Nadra patted his hip.  “Before long, you’ll even learn to like it.”

“This man intended to kill all of us.”  Lawan’s voice rang through the chamber.  “And each of you deserve the right to make him answer for it.”  She nodded to Akilah.  “Ten each, in order of rank.  Note who was up when he passes out.”  She met Mihail’s eyes.  “That’s where we will pick up again tomorrow.”

The line they formed was only a few people long.  The rest seemed inclined to wait their turns in their seats, sipping at their wine.  Mihail hung his head.  Lawan remained where she was, and it was her second in command that took the handle of the lash.  He took a deep breath as Ramlah walked behind him, trying to brace himself.  He was an Argyris.  He would be strong.  He would…

He screamed as the strap connected with his back.

#

Five of her lieutenants had taken their turns before Mihail went slack in the restraints.  He’d started begging after Sabah’s third blow, and those assembled had responded by cheering for Sabah.

She ordered him taken to the tower healer.  Unlike a whip, the strap was not intended to break the skin.  But the women of the Raven Order were warriors in their prime, strong and powerful.  And they were furious.  He’d been bleeding from a dozen places when they’d taken him down.

The Raven Order was three hundred strong.  At this rate, it was going to take some time before everyone got their turn.  Perhaps she should have him beaten twice a day.  Yasmeen would ensure he survived it.  She’d kept many alive under strenuous interrogation, and this was not so different.  The ointment Akilah had used ensured the brand remained even as the rest of the marks vanished under the healing spell.

Lawan waited until Yasmeen had finished before reaching forward and grabbing one of the freshly placed rings.  Then she twisted.  Mihail returned to consciousness with a cry of pain, his body yanking at where he’d been secured to the healer’s table.  “Mihail.”  She picked an item up from the table, and fastened it to the ring.  The small bell made a tinkling sound.

“Captain Lawan.”  He swallowed.  He winced as she attached the second bell, and pulled at the restraints keeping his wrists fastened to the table.

“Would you care for a game of chess?”  She raised an eyebrow.

Mihail stared up at her.  “Why would I?”

“If you win…”  She held up another metal ring, this one a bit larger and heavier.  “This goes in your tongue.  If you lose…”  She smiled.  “It goes in your cock.”

“And if I decline to play?”  He yanked at the restraints again, then went still as she simply held up a second ring.  “You’ll have to untie me to play.”

“No.”  She began setting up the board.  “You can tell me where you wish to move the pieces.”  She chuckled.  “You’ll excuse me if I find I no longer trust you.”

#

He blinked back tears as the healer used a strap to bind his head into place.  Captain Lawan stared down at him as metal was forced between his teeth, ensuring his mouth stayed open.  The healer handed the captain a pair of metal tongs, and she used them to catch hold of his tongue, pulling it forward and holding it in place.  If he could have, he’d have begged them to stop as he saw the healer heating a thick needle.

Mihail still managed to scream as the needle was driven through the thick muscle of his tongue.  It burned as the healer left it in place, letting the heated metal cauterize the wound.  Having it yanked back out hurt almost as much as when it had been put in.  The healer had to use pliers to put the ring in place and close it.  Only then did the captain release his tongue.

The taste of copper, iron, and burned flesh filled his mouth as the restraints were removed again.  Mihail panted.  Lawan reached forward, and brushed her fingers through his hair.  “Tomorrow, after you are beaten again, we will discuss your duties.”

“My duties?”  The thing in mouth made it almost impossible to talk.

“And your training.”  She patted his hand.  “You are a slave now, Mihail.  And I’ve no doubt other traitors remain still.  Your fate will be a lesson to them all.  Men will rally behind a martyr.”  Her smile was cruel.  “So, we won’t be killing you any time soon.”  She brushed her fingers through his hair again.  “No matter how much you beg us to.”

#

She stood on the ledge, watching two of the guard exercise the prisoner.  The exercise consisted of running him around the tower.  Each of the women with him carried a switch.  If he faltered, slowed, or they felt like it, they used the switch on him.  Despite the chill in the air he was permitted no clothing, and she could see from here they’d been using the switch often.

When the women tired of keeping the pace, others would take their places.  Mihail was run until he collapsed, and once that happened he’d be punished for it.  Twice already she’d had to rein in one of the guard for going too far.  Dead, Mihail was a martyr.  Alive, he was an example.  Lawan smiled.  Even after only three weeks, he was running better.  The first time he’d collapsed after three miles.  She thought today he might make it five.

Not quite.  Just a short while later he fell.  He tried twice to get back to his feet, but despite the guards ‘encouraging’ him, he failed.  She told Israa to have him brought to her after he’d been punished and taken to the healer.  Lawan could hear him start to scream as she walked back inside.

#

The women who brought him to the captain’s office made him crawl on his hands and knees the entire way.  There were always at least two of the guard with him, carrying switches or riding crops.  Last night they’d woken him in the middle of the night to run him again, only to do the same thing after he’d recovered from his morning beating.  They ran him until his feet bleed and he couldn’t get back to his feet.

None of them shared news with him.  Asking, or for that matter even speaking without permission, earned him lashes.  There were rules he was expected to follow, though rather than tell him those rules they simply punished him every time he broke one.  And each of his captors seemed to have different rules.  Some wanted him to look them in the eye when they spoke.  Others wanted his head demurely bowed, and would punish him if he looked higher than their waists.

They told him to stand as they reached the door, and he obeyed immediately.  Hesitating at all when given an order resulted in being punished.  That rule was consistent.  Both the guards followed him into the office, though they remained at the door.  Captain Lawan sat inside, the chess board already set up in front of her.  Mihail swallowed.  “Sit down.”  She gestured at the chair on the other side of the desk.

He started toward it, then stopped in his tracks.  There was a protrusion in the seat of the chair.  A thick, slightly curved rod sat in the center, near the back.  It was coated in something that made it glisten just slightly.  He stared at it in slowly dawning horror.

“Mihail.”  Captain Lawan’s voice sounded vaguely amused.  “I told you to sit down.”

“Please, Captain.”  He knew it would do him little good, but…

“Jinan, Muna.”  Lawan gestured.

The taller of the two women grabbed his arm.  She didn’t take him to the chair, as he’d expected.  Instead she dragged him to the desk and twisted his arm up behind him to hold him in place.  The other woman picked up a short leather belt, and brought it across his ass.  He cried out.  She struck him four more times before he was released.

“Mihail.”  Lawan smiled.  “Sit down.”

“I…”  He shook his head.

“Jinan, Muna.”

A small laugh came from the tall woman as she bent him over the desk again.  Again, they brought the belt across his ass.  The double cruelty of the punishment struck him.  When they finally did make him sit, the bruising they were inflicting was going to make it even worse.  He looked up at Lawan, and she nodded.  “Sit.”  She narrowed her eyes.  “Down.”

Mihail blinked back tears as he went to the chair.  He positioned himself over the protrusion, trying to steel himself for what was about to happen.  For what he was about to do.  Bitterly he acknowledged the captain’s cruelty.  Making him do this himself just made it worse.  He felt the wood against his passage, and tried lowering himself slowly.  A small cry of pain escaped him as he felt the wooden phallus start to breech him.  “Please, Captain.”

“Sit.”  Her voice was firm.  “Down.”

#

Tears were falling from his eyes as he hovered over the chair, trying to force himself to continue sinking down.  She’d considered not putting oil on the invader, but decided there’d be time for that later.  Almost a full minute passed before he succeeded in lowering himself further, and he whimpered in pain.

The wooden thing she’d chosen for this was not the largest available, but it was close.  Mihail was virginal and unprepared.  She let him lower himself a little further.  From the looks of things, he had less than half an inch of it inside himself.  Both Jinan and Muna were looking at her, anticipation in their eyes.  She gave Mihail another minute before nodding.

Both women moved simultaneously.  Mihail screamed in pain as they kicked his legs out from under him, letting his own body weight impale him on the wooden phallus.  He tried to get his feet back, tried struggling, but it did him no good.  Muna was laughing as his struggles just made him sink more quickly.  They secured his ankles to the chair, making sure he couldn’t get his feet under him again.  His hands were secured behind his back, and fastened to the chair, preventing him from being able to get himself free of the invader.  He tried to stop himself from sinking further, holding himself up on his knees.

When Jinan went to stop him, Lawan waved her away.  He couldn’t raise himself high enough to get off the phallus, and he wouldn’t be able to hold himself up for long.  A small smile came to her face.  And in the meantime, his struggling made for an appealing show.  “Please.  Please.”  He looked up at her.  “Please.”

“Who are we at, in making sure everyone gets a turn?”  Lawan looked up at Muna.  Mihail continued his quiet pleading in between sobs.

“The ranking officers have all had their say.  A fair number of the lower ranks are in the field.  They’ll get put at the head of the line when they get in.”  Muna nodded.  “We’re going through the rest by seniority, and if that’s equal, from shortest to tallest.”

“Word’s likely reached the —”

Mihail’s cry of pain as he slipped a little cut her off.  She turned her attention back to him.  He only had less than two inches inside him.  That left a full hand still to go.  “Please…”

“Remaining rebels in the hills.  As it appears his brother is leading them, we should expect at least one rescue attempt.”  Lawan smiled.  “If it doesn’t come soon, we’ll have him flogged in public or something.  Something they don’t dare ignore and can’t dismiss as a rumor.”

A choked back sob came from Mihail.

#

He cried out as his legs gave again, causing him to slide down further.  The first couple times, he’d tried lifting himself back up.  That just made things worse when he slipped again.  It felt like he was being torn apart by something made of fire.  Mihail swallowed another sob when Jinan laughingly assured him he was a third of the way there.

Bait.  They weren’t just torturing him as punishment, but to taunt his brother into a trap.  Did Andon know Gavril had betrayed them?  Or did he still consider the man a trusted adviser?  They spoke as though he wasn’t in the room, wasn’t being raped by a chair only a couple feet from him.  Gods.  He couldn’t bring himself to consider what his brother’s fate would be if the queen captured him.

Mihail slipped again, and the invader forced its way deeper inside.  “You’re halfway there now, Mihail.”  Captain Lawan smiled at him.

His eyes closed, and he took a deep breath.  Dragging it out was only making it worse, and they’d not grant him any sort of reprieve or mercy.  He let himself fall, and screamed as the full length of the thing was impaled inside him.  His whole body shook at the onslaught.

It took him a few minutes to get his breath back.  He could feel the thing inside him, driven up into his bowels.  Mihail made himself go still.  Any movement just made it hurt more.  He swallowed before looking up at the captain.

#

Exhausted as he was, she beat him at the game twice in a row.  His breath came in pained gasps.  With a smile on her face, she set the board up again.  Mihail gave her a pleading look, but remained silent.  Knowing how much he was suffering just sitting there was giving her no end of pleasure.  But she did have duties to attend.  “One last game.” Lawan raised an eyebrow.  “Shall we play for a wager?”

“Please…”  Mihail closed his eyes.

“I think, given time, you’ll come to enjoy your new friend there.”  Lawan leaned back.  “After this game, Jinan and Muna will take you back to your cell.  If you win, they’ll simply secure you inside, and you can rest until your evening beating.”  She set a strap on the desk.  “If you lose, I’ll let them take turns wearing your new friend, and helping you get better acquainted.”

His eyes widened and he hung his head.  “Don’t do this to me, Captain.”

“You were going to poison us, Mihail.”  She shook her head.  “You were going to kill all of us in a cowardly act of treason.  This is your punishment, Mihail.  And it is deserved.”  She turned to the board, and moved a pawn.  “Your move, Mihail.”

“Pawn…”  His voice shook.  “To E 4.”

The game was hers in twenty moves.

#

Jinan held his head between her legs.  She moaned as he cried out in pain again.  Muna was behind him, wearing a rod on a harness and ramming it into him over and over.  She was laughing.

He’d been tied over a bench.  Jinan had put the harness on first.  As she’d taken her position, Muna had removed her clothing.  Then she’d grabbed his hair and seated herself in front of him.  They’d informed him that Jinan would fuck him with the rod until he’d satisfied Muna.  Then they’d switch places.

Mihail licked at Jinan desperately, his tongue working over her inner parts.  His brother had once described this in the vaguest of terms, enough for him to figure out what he should be doing.  He could tell he was bleeding from what Muna was doing.

Finally, there was a rush of wetness, and Jinan shuddered.  Muna withdrew the rod.  They cleaned themselves off, then secured him face down on the hard-studded wooden slab that served him as a bed.  Between the tightness of the bonds and the studs digging into his body, restful sleep was not easily found.  Most of the time he simply collapsed into exhausted semi-consciousness.

The healer came by soon after.  The captain took few chances.  He’d not be allowed to die from their tortures any time soon.  Mihail felt the healer’s magic work its way through him.

She took the lantern when she left, leaving him in darkness.  They’d come collect him soon, for his evening taste of the lash.  He’d be stretched nearly to the breaking point between the two posts, then beaten while most of the guard enjoyed their dinner.  Entertainment to go with their meal.

Each of them spoke before taking their turn with the lash.  Just a few words.  You tried to kill us.  You deserve this.  This is justice.  Now and then they’d make him say it, when doling out other punishments.  I tried to kill you.  I deserve this.  This is justice.

Another sob escaped him as he lay in the dark, exhaustion and despair warring with each other.  He closed his eyes, and searched in vain for sleep.

#

“How the hell did Andon get his army to the…”  Lawan stared at the messenger.  “The entire border is warded.  Someone would have had to take down nearly a dozen wards to…”  A chill went down her spine and she turned to look at the map.

“Captain?”  Lina raised an eyebrow.

“Which wards fell?”  Her voice was calm.  She took the parchment Lina handed her, and looked it over.  The fallen wards were listed.  Her fingers touched the map, tracing the trail.  They’d used the castles as waypoints.  They, the queen’s own Raven Guard, had escorted him from ward to ward, and utterly failed to notice him taking down Sa-dia’s defenses right under their very noses.

She couldn’t help but feel a sense of grudging respect.  They’d been torturing him for a month now, and he hadn’t given them anything on this.  Granted, they hadn’t asked, having assumed the entirety of his plan was the poison.  “Have Mihail brought to my office.”

“Yes, Captain.”  Lina bowed.

Lawan was beginning to wonder why Andon hadn’t tried to rescue his brother.  Now, however, she’d be forced to dispatch the guard to defend the queen.  There were two hundred of them at the tower right now.  Two hundred elite in one of the most defensible fortresses in all Sa-dia.  Within a couple days, only forty would remain.  The rest would be in the field.  He hadn’t come for his brother yet because he’d been biding his time for this.

Mihail dropped to his knees when they brought him in.  They hadn’t taken him to the healer before bringing him.  His chest was covered with red marks that were starting to blister, and she could see bits of candle wax still stuck to him.  His arms were secured behind his back, twisted up between his shoulders painfully.  There were dark circles around his eyes, making them appear sunken and hollow.

Her fingers caught his chin, turning his face up to look at her.  “This plan must have begun years ago.  Hiding your magic while still learning what you would need to know…”  She ran a thumb over his lips.  “They had to send you while you were still young.  Barely more than a child, so that none would suspect.  Which tells me that your brother is a patient man, capable of making decisions with a cold, pragmatic head.”  She smiled.  “I look forward to meeting him in battle.”  She patted his cheek.  “You’re going to tell me of his plans.”

“No.”  The word was quiet.  That he could still say it at all was admirable.

“Yes, Mihail —”

“My getting captured was always a possibility…”  He met her eyes then.  “I cannot reveal what I do not know.”

“We will find out, won’t we?”  Lawan brushed her fingers through his hair.

#

Mihail hung limply in the restraints.  After a month in their hands, he’d started to think things couldn’t get any worse.  If he’d known anything, he’d have told them.  He did tell them everything he knew, and could only hope it wasn’t enough.  By the time Lawan had finished, he’d been desperate to find something he could tell her, guessing, trying to extrapolate from what little he did know.

He barely managed a whimper when they brought him to the healer.  It was…  Mihail started thrashing when he realized they were taking him back to the interrogation room.  “No.  Please.  Please, Captain.”  He twisted, trying to stop them from taking him back there.  “Captain, please.  I told you everything. Please…”

They spread him on the wooden frame again, despite his sobbing protests and pleas.  Captain Lawan caught his hair, tilting his head back so he was looking at her.  “Please.  No more.”

“Shhh, Mihail.”  She rubbed his shoulder in a soothing gesture.  “Shhh.  You did good.  Nadra is going to reward you now, for your cooperation.”

The younger guard moved in front of him as the captain picked up a strap and walked behind.  He stared at Nadra, who smiled at him.  “I’ve wanted to do this for a while now, Mihail.”  She stepped closer, and her hand trailed over his side.  “If you hadn’t tried to kill us, you’d have found it much more enjoyable.”  Her lips brushed the side of his neck as she kissed him, and then her hand trailed down.

His eyes widened, and he shook his head in confusion as her hand began stroking his shaft.  “What are you —” He was cut off by her kissing him, claiming his mouth as hers as she started caressing him.  Her hands were gentle, as they had been when she’d cornered in the darkened hallway.  He could feel himself growing hard under her ministrations.

A scream, as much surprise as pain, tore from him as the captain brought the strap across his back.  Nadra laughed softly as she kept toying with him, pleasuring his body as the captain brought the strap down over the back of his thighs.  “Mihail…”

“Captain.”  He choked back another cry of pain.

“You did good, Mihail.”  The captain’s voice betrayed amusement.  “So, we won’t be leaving this room until Nadra has brought you to your…”  He could almost hear her smirking.  “Reward.”

“Don’t…”  He gasped as Nadra’s caresses continued.  “Oh god…”

#

The rescue attempt came three days after she’d dispatched the majority of the guard.  Unfortunately for the rebels, Mihail had told them what his brother’s men knew about the tower.  They were aware of two potential weaknesses.  They tried the second one, the cistern’s drain.

Her forces captured three of them alive.  She tied the results of the interrogation to the leg of one of the messenger birds, and dispatched it to the capital.  Then she smiled, and went to Mihail’s cell.

As instructed, he wasn’t on the studded slab that served him as a bed.  She’d no interest in permitting him to rest.  His wrists were secured behind his back, and had been attached to a chain fixed to the ceiling.  He was hanging from those wrists, his toes barely brushing the floor.  His legs were forced apart by a spreader bar.  Weights dangled from the piercings in his nipples, and she could see other weights had been attached to his genitals with clamps.

Tears stained his face, but he made no sound other than an occasional small whimper.  “Mihail.”

Pain filled his voice.  “Captain.”

“I wanted to thank you.”  She ran her fingers through his hair.

“Thank…”  He swallowed.

“Yes, Mihail.”  She smiled.  “Thanks to your cooperation, we captured the men who tried breaking into the Tower.”  He let out a choking sob.  “They are telling us about your brother’s plans as we speak.”  Mihail started shaking his head.  “Thank you, Mihail.  For your service to the Raven Guard.”

She was nearly to the door when he spoke.  “Who?”

“Mihail…”  She turned toward him.

His head was up, and his tear-filled eyes stared at her.  “Who tried to save me?”

“Mihail…”  She walked back over.  Then she crouched down, and tenderly kissed him.  “They weren’t trying to save you.  They were trying to steal you.  To take you away from us.”  She caressed his hair.  “You are still atoning for your crime.”

“This…”  His voice shook.  “Is justice.”

“Yes, Mihail.  This is justice.”  She kissed him again.  “And?”

“I…”  He swallowed.  “Deserve this.”

“Yes, Mihail.”  She stroked his cheek.  “You do.”  She smiled.  “And because you were a good boy just now…”  She lowered the chain securing him by exactly two links.  His feet touched the floor, and he could go onto his tip toes, relieving some of the strain on his shoulders.

Another sobbing sound escaped him.  “Thank you, Captain…”  He looked up at her.  “Thank you.”

#

After being healed from his morning beating, he was led out to the courtyard.  There was a small pile of lumber, and two of the guard had just finished digging post holes.  Mihail frowned uncertainly.  Why would they need posts in the courtyard?  He glanced at his handlers uncertainly, and then he heard a small commotion.

Turning in that direction revealed four of the guard were dragging another man into the courtyard.  Mihail went still when he recognized the other captive.  Ilarion.  One of his brother’s best friends.  He started to take a step toward the other man, and Akilah caught his arm.  “None of that now.”

Slowly, he started to nod, and then his eyes caught sight of the wood again.  Wood and post holes meant…   “No.  No, no…”  He started forward again, and this time both Akilah and Jinan caught hold of his arms, keeping him in place.  “No, no…”

“Mihail.”  Ilarion saw him.  His eyes widened in shock.  “Mihail.”  Ilarion nearly managed to pull free of his own captors before Muna struck him in the back of the neck.  Ilarion nearly went limp.  His assailants dragged him to where a plank was already laid out.

“No.”  Mihail managed to say the word one more time before he too, was dragged toward the courtyard.

The captain was already waiting, the chess board laid out in front of her.  The chair and its protrusion were on the other side of the table.  “If you want to play, Mihail…”  The captain gestured at the chair.  “You’re going to have to sit.”

“I…”  Mihail stared at the chair.

“If you refuse…”  Lawan glanced at where Ilarion had been laid on the plank.  His arms were spread, positioned, but all the women were doing was holding him in place despite his struggles.  “They crucify him.”

He took a deep breath.  He’d known Ilarion his entire life.  The man was almost a brother to him.  He took a deep breath and started toward the chair.  The women released his arms.  “And the wager, captain?”

“You win…”  She glanced at the prone man.  “We take him to the gate and give him a ten-minute head start.  We catch him, we bring him back here and crucify him.”

A chance.  Victory would give Ilarion a chance.  A small one, but a chance.  “And if…”

“If you lose…”  She set four heavy iron nails down next to the board.  “You nail him to the cross yourself.”  She smiled.  “Then we play again for the next prisoner.”

Mihail stared at the pieces of metal.  They were more spikes than nails, each of them longer than his hand.  He turned toward Ilarion, who was struggling and cursing at his captors.  Then he took a deep breath, and went to the chair.  Forcing himself to sit was easier this time, that particular pain more familiar.  He felt the invader work its way into him as he impaled himself upon it, and he tried not to make a sound.  Somehow, he couldn’t bear the thought of Ilarion knowing what he’d just done.  He looked across the board at Lawan.

The board was twisted so that neither color was in front of them, and there was a pawn missing from each side.  Lawan held out her fists, and raised an eyebrow.  Mihail swallowed before indicating her left hand.  She opened it to reveal the black pawn.

#

Even tortured, exhausted, distracted by the stakes, and with a large wooden phallus embedded inside him, he was a hell of an opponent.  Not for the first time, Lawan wondered what might have been if he were on their side.  He could have been the sort of general of which legends were made.

She thought she’d won when he sacrificed his queen, and saw the trap only a heartbeat later.  He moved his knight into position, then looked up at her before swallowing.  “Checkmate.”

“Well played.”  Lawan inclined her head.   Then she turned toward the guard.  “Take the prisoner to the gate and let him go.  Wait ten minutes, then bring him back here.”

“Mihail…”  Ilarion tried to turn toward him as they picked him up off the ground.

“Run, Ilarion.”  Mihail swallowed.  “Tell my brother…”  He winced.  “Not to try again.”

The prisoner let out a string of curses as he was taken to the gate.  Lawan began setting up the board again.  “You don’t want to be rescued?”  She raised an eyebrow at him.

There was just a small trace of defiance in his eyes.  “This is justice.”

Lawan laughed as she picked up the two pawns.  “So, it is.”  She waited until a dozen members of the guard had gone after the fleeing captive before holding up her fists again.

This time, he selected white.

#

Marjin hadn’t made it.  Halfway through the third game, the Raven Guard dragged him back and threw him down on the plank.  Mihail’s shoulders shook as he heard the spike being driven through the warrior’s wrist, followed by the sound of Marjin’s agonized scream.

By the time they’d put the cross into the ground, his strategy was shoot.  Captain Lawan moved a bishop into position.  “Check mate.”

“I can’t…”  His eyes went to where four of the guard were holding Nedelko in place.  “Please, Captain.”

“I held up my end, Mihail…”  She narrowed her eyes.

She had.  Ilarion was out there, still running.  “I…”  Standing was almost as bad as sitting had been.  “Please.”

“You lost, Mihail.”  She shrugged.  “If you wanted him alive, you should have won.”

#

Lawan watched as their captive was taken for his run.  Despite one of the prisoners succeeding in their escape, the crucifixion had broken Mihail.  What had begun by forcing him to drive the nails in had finished when the corpses were taken down and burned.  Mihail no longer resisted when they tortured him.  He screamed, but if she told him to sit on the chair, he did it.

She sighed when she looked down at the latest missives.  Mihail, it seemed, was not the only strategist the Argyris family had produced.  Though he was outnumbered and outmatched, Andon’s tactical decisions were netting him victories.  And each time they did, he won more support.  Rather than being yet another failed revolt, it was starting to appear his rebellion had an actual chance of success.

There had not been another attempt to rescue Mihail.  Whether the one released had carried Mihail’s words back or Andon had made the cold but pragmatic decision, he had not tried again.  Yet he had sent a message of his own, and it was clear.  Two of the Raven Guard had been taken in the fighting.  Andon had clearly known she wouldn’t trade his brother for them.  The queen would not have allowed them to negotiate with rebels at the risk of them going after more of her nobles.  So, Andon had ordered both prisoners burned alive.

Andon was clever, and worst of all he was an unknown.  His tactics came from unexpected angles, and the queen’s army had trouble anticipating his moves.  More than once now he’d taken out forces with cleverly laid traps.  She didn’t know how he thought.

A small smile came to her face.  But she knew who did.

#

Things had changed.  There were fewer of them in the tower now.  He was still beaten daily, still tortured, but other aspects of his treatment had changed.  The punishment when he broke their semi-arbitrary rules remained brutal, and they still took delight in hurting him.

Now, though, there were rewards.  Running a lap further before collapsing had earned him a small piece of candy and a pat on the head before they’d given him the customary caning of the soles of his feet.  What Nadra had done to him had been repeated twice more.  One of the guard would pleasure him while another tortured him.  The torture wouldn’t stop until he’d surrendered his body to them completely.

Some of them had even started to show him the same affection they had back when they thought he was an innocent boy.  After torturing him, they’d ruffle his hair and tell him what a good boy he was for accepting his punishment.  As though that itself were a reward.  Remembering who he was, who they were, became harder every day.

Lately, they’d been playing other games with him.  This morning he’d been blindfolded, and then his head placed between their legs.  The game was simple.  If he could identify who he was tasting, he’d be rewarded.  If he failed, he’d be punished.  Akilah had taken him into her mouth when he’d guessed her correctly, leaving him moaning with pleasure.

Jinan entered the chamber to collect him for his evening beating.  He dropped to his knees and bowed his head the moment the door opened.  “Good boy.”  She held out her hand.  He turned his head and took the candy from it, kissing her palm as he did so.  She smiled before petting him.

He smiled back.

#

She was sitting by the cot in the infirmary when he woke up again from the evening beating.  His wounds had already been healed.  Lawan smiled, and saw him shyly smile back.  “I thought you might enjoy a chess game.”  She gestured at the board.  “You win…”  She set a plate containing a cookie next to the board.

“And…”

“If you lose, I eat the cookie.”  She grinned. “And I make you watch while I do.”

The smile he gave her was reminiscent of the one that had so charmed her when they’d first met.  He picked up the pawns, shuffling them behind his back, then held out his fists.

Lawan selected the left, which was revealed to be white.  She gave a disappointed sigh when he won.  “Another game?”

He took a bite of the cookie, his face clearly betraying his pleasure at the treat.  Then he gave her an uncertain look.  “And the wager?”

“If you lose, you spend the night tied to your bed.”  Lawan smiled.

Mihail blinked.  “And if I win?”

Her smile widened.  “You spend the night tied to mine.”

#

Despite the wager she’d offered, she’d played to win.  And yet, so had he.  He followed the captain to her quarters.  The two guards remained outside.  Mihail shifted his feet uncertainly as she led him into her bedchamber.  “Lay down on your back, Mihail.”  Lawan caressed his arm.

Wordlessly, he obeyed.  She secured is ankles first, spreading his legs over the bed.  His wrists were fastened to the corners of the bed as well, though the ropes were not pulled tight like they were when he normally put to bed for the night.  The ropes were normally tightened until he cried out in pain.

As he watched, Lawan removed her own clothing.  She had only a few small scars on her well-muscled body.  Mementos of having been a warrior for longer than he’d been alive.  He squirmed a little as she ran her hand up his inner thigh.

Then she pounced, straddling him.  He let out a small gasp as she flicked one of the bells attached to his nipples, causing a slight tinkling sound.  Slowly, she leaned forward, and he raised his head to meet her kiss.  Her tongue probing his mouth.  Then she slid a little to the side, and started fondling him.  It didn’t take much effort for him to grow hard.  “You’re mine now, to do with as I please.”

He was hers, and he pleased her.  If she believed that, if he could…  And yet his body was already responding.  He was already smiling, eagerly raising his head to kiss her again.  “Yes, Captain.”

She slid over to impale herself upon him.  He wasn’t sure if his moan was pleasure or despair.

#

She didn’t untie him after she finished.  After a glass of wine, she climbed back onto the bed and rode him a second time.  He’d been tortured every day for two months, but he’d also been well fed and exercised, and he was still young.  She untied him before the third round, and he’d been obedient to her every instruction.  He’d almost quivered in his eagerness to please her.

Lawan secured his wrists to the bed before laying down beside him.  Even as docile as he was now, sleeping next to him while he was unbound was too great a risk to take.  He’d fooled them all quite well the first time.  It was always possible he was making a second attempt.

The threat of dawn woke her, and she rose from the bed.  Mihail was still asleep.  Even tied as he was, he was still on an actual bed.  It was possible this was the best night of sleep he’d had since leaving his home.  She was surprised to feel just a little reluctant about waking him.

In the bathing chamber, she passed him off to Akilah.  Akilah wasted no time pushing him down onto one of the stone benches and taking him for a ride.  The woman moaned with pleasure when Lawan grabbed Mihail’s hair and directed his head to Akilah’s breast.  Mihail quickly followed the unspoken instruction, and began using his hands and mouth to pleasure Akilah.

When she left the bath chamber, Jinan was taking her turn.  She chuckled to herself, wondering if they’d exhaust him before breakfast.

#

The guard rotated out as the fighting continued.  It was made clear to him that whoever was most recently returned got priority, though he was expected to still honor matters of rank.

He was still tortured, but if he took it well enough they’d permit him a release as well, when he pleasured them.  Several of them liked to ‘warm him up’ before taking him for a ride, using a strap or belt on his ass before taking him to their beds.  After a month, the sight of Nadra with a belt in her hand was enough to make him hard.

It was good, that they were letting him make up for what he’d done to them.  He groaned as Sahla drove the leather-covered rod into his bruised ass, while Naila squirmed beneath him.  He put his mouth on Naila’s heavy breast, running his tongue over her nipple.  Naila was gritting her teeth, trying to hold back.  If he came before she did, they were going to get the candles out again.  Sahla had taken an unholy glee in informing him of where she’d let the scalding wax land.

Mihail felt Naila start to shudder.  Sahla made a vexed sound before withdrawing, and yanked Mihail off the other woman.  “I almost had him, Naila.”

“I…”  Naila laughed softly.  “I know.  Then I started thinking about him squealing when the wax hit, and…”  She sat up.  “Sorry.”

His breath was ragged.  Sahla reached out, running her fingers through his hair.  “Poor baby.”  She smiled down at him.  “You were so close, weren’t you?”

“Yes, mistress.”  He nodded.  His body ached with the need for release.  He hadn’t been allowed, earlier.

“Mmmm…”  She pursed her lips thoughtfully before nodding.  “Ask me to use the candles on you…”  She gestured at the harness she wore.  “And I’ll put you on your hands and knees and fuck you until you cum.”

“Please…”  He shifted to his knees.  Small pain to escape worse, and they’d pleasure him and oh god he couldn’t help but be ashamed to realize he actually did want it.  “Please, mistress.  You…”  He looked up at her, hopeful.  “You can use two colors, mistress.  Make the wax swirl on me when it drips and…”

She grabbed his hair, and yanked him forward.  Then she moved behind him.

#

Lawan gestured at the chair when he entered her office.  He let out a soft moan as he lowered himself down upon the wooden phallus, exhaling when he’d succeeded in driving it all the way inside himself.  Then his eyes started to widen.  He made as though he was going to rise again, and she shook her head.  “Stay where you are.”

Yasmeen had provided the oil she’d used to lubricate the phallus.  It did its job, making the polished wood slick enough to enter him.  Then it started reacting to his body heat.  Once Yasmeen had uttered the words ‘like stinging nettles’, she’d all but snatched the vial out of the healer’s hands.  Mihail was squirming now, but he stayed on the chair.

She unrolled a map, and moved it so he could see it.  He made a small whimpering sound as he leaned forward.  A glance showed her that he was already hard, his own movements making it seem like the phallus was moving inside him.  As entertaining as breaking him was, putting him back together the way they wanted was proving even more rewarding.  She gestured at the map.  “Your brother’s latest movements.”

“He’s shoring up the center.”  Mihail moaned a little, his breath pained and ragged.  The metal ring in his tongue clicked against his teeth.  There was one in his cock now, though it was gold instead of iron.  She’d put it there herself, telling him it was a reward for being a good boy.  He’d smiled and thanked her.  “But not really.  He’s just bringing in the more mobile of his forces.  The skirmishers…”  He trailed a finger down the map, then tapped a section.  “Here, where it looks like the lines are already weakening.  It’s a ploy.”  He moved his finger back up.

As soon as he said it, she saw it.  Clever.  “Mobile forces that can move in quickly, as soon as we take the bait.  They’ve got a clear line to the high ground, and our forces will have to deal with the terrain.”  She nodded.  With a few strategic moves of her own, she could turn this trap neatly back on Andon.  “Good boy.”

“Thank…”  He was squirming for real now, groaning.  “You.”

“You deserve a reward…”  She leaned back to where she could watch his movements.  “Pleasure yourself for me, Mihail.”

His smile was grateful as he moved his hand to his own cock.

#

He crawled after Yasmeen on his hands and knees.  She’d strapped a tray to his back, and threatened him with a caning if he spilled anything.  And to make sure, the sandals she’d fastened to his feet were studded with sharp metal.  If he did try to walk, the spikes would be driven painfully into his feet.  The bells fastened to his nipples and cock rang happily as she led him from room to room.

On the tray were small silk bags.  Pay bonuses, gratitude from the queen for their recent victory.  They’d reclaimed the catapults on the hills, and with them the control of the harbor.  He smiled.  Each guard they encountered greeted them with delight, and most of them rubbed his hair before they moved on.  It was good, having them all pleased with him.  They didn’t hurt him as badly, and sometimes they pleasured him instead.

That part he could bear.  The captain was more difficult.  Each time she brought him into her office was a war with himself.  He feared her, and yet a growing part of him wanted to please her.  She’s show him his brother’s lines, and he’d try to figure out what she would see for herself.  Walking the line between betraying his brother and earning her trust.  If he could be patient, there was the possibility he could lead her to make a devastating mistake.

Assuming that when the time came, he was still capable.

#

Lawan stared at the message.  The orders she’d given had been clear, but General Sadaf hadn’t obeyed them.  Instead, that damn fool had countermanded them and ordered the army to press the attack after Andon’s false retreat.  If Andon hadn’t handled the matter already, she’d have had that arrogant git beheaded.

And since the army had ridden so neatly into the trap, Andon had been able to take to take the Northern Garrison.  Hind had met him at the portcullis and had handed over the keys.  All those supplies and stockpiled weapons were now in Andon’s hands.

Four of the Raven Guard had been taken, handed over by the traitorous Hind.  Andon had ordered them placed into an iron cage, and then had it placed in the center of a bonfire.  So far, he’d burned thirty-seven of her people.  The Raven Guard fought to the death, but forces that decided to switch sides had learned handing over any of the Raven Guard among them to Andon’s forces was well rewarded.

Andon had sent her a message, for the first time.  Give back his brother, or he would burn them all alive within their own tower, lighting the flame with the dragonfire from the beacon.  She’d considered having one of Mihail’s fingers cut off and sending that back to him in response.  And yet she could no longer bear to do that to the boy.

#

Mihail worked his hand over his own shaft as Akilah brought the strap across his shoulders again.  His cry was a mix of pleasure and pain, and he had difficulty telling them apart.  He came as she delivered another blow, and heard the onlookers cheer.  He smiled, then returned Akilah’s kiss.  “Such a good boy, Mihail.”  She unfastened his other wrist, letting him down from the dais.  “Now run along.”  She smacked a hand across the bruises she’d left on his ass.  “Captain wanted to see you before lunch.”

Only one guard escorted him now.  Sometimes they’d even let him go short distances on his own.  It wasn’t as though escape were possible, not from within the tower itself.  Inas led him to the captain’s office, and waited inside.

Once through the door, he dropped to his knees, then crawled to where Lawan sat.  His pressed his lips to her boots before gazing up at her adoringly.  “Captain.”  He smiled.  “You wished to see me?”

Her fingers went through his hair, and he wished the shiver of pleasure the gesture sent though him was entirely faked.  “Sit.”  She gestured at the chair.

It hurt, as it always did, when he lowered himself onto the invader.  After so many times though, he could almost ignore it.  At least this time, she hadn’t coated the thing in…  He stopped himself from squirming at the memory.  She shifted the map to where he could see it, and his eyes widened.  Andon was planning on taking the capital.  Not just planning, if the map were accurate, he could.  But Andon didn’t want the capital.  Didn’t truly need it.  He saw it then.  “Captain?”

“What does your brother plan here, Mihail?”

His brother didn’t need the capital.  Didn’t need to throw his men away fighting through the streets.  Not when he already controlled the harbor.  Andon didn’t need the capital.  He just needed the river.  Gods grant him strength.  “Andon is going to take the capital.”

“How?”  She gestured at the map.

If he had wanted the capital…  Gods, please don’t let Andon have changed his mind.  Please let my brother still be wise, and not blinded by rage.  Please.  Please.  “The walls are two thick and spaced wide apart, everywhere except here…”  He pointed.  “And here.”  Please Andon, the queen is just a symbol.  You don’t need symbols.  You need people.  He smiled up at Lawan.  “If he can breach those walls, he can drive his people through.  A quick stab to the heart rather than beating with a club.”

“Nice and neat.”  She nodded, then seated herself in his lap before kissing him.  It made the thing inside him bite a little.  She straddled him, playing with his shaft.  “And the castle itself?”  She nibbled his neck.

He ran his hands over her back.  “Once he has the city below, he can just starve her out.”

“The castle has food.”  She impaled herself on him, and he groaned as her rocking motions made him start to ride the thing inside him.

“But not servants.”  He leaned forward to kiss her breasts.  “Andon once said the queen would starve to death if she had to butter her own bread.”

Lawan laughed before kissing him again.  “He might have a point.”

#

Her forces were lost.  She’d positioned them to trap Andon’s army as it entered the city.  But Andon’s army hadn’t entered the city.  He taken the two garrisons on the river.  All trade, all food, all everything that flowed into the city now had to come through Andon’s lines.  Her forces hadn’t been taken by soldiers, but by peasants.  The people the queen had displaced to make room in the shanties for her forces had simply set their former homes on fire and run for Andon’s men while the army burned.

The queen still lived, shouting her orders to people who ignored her completely.  Andon had outplayed them, and she’d never seen it coming.  Her eyes went to the man tied between the posts.  “Did you?”

Mihail gave her a confused look.  “Did I?”

“You did.”  She narrowed her eyes. “You saw it.  You saw it and you…”

“You…”  He yanked at the restraints, raising his voice, and for the first time she saw fury on his face.  “MADE ME CRUCIFY NEDELKO.”  His shout echoed off the walls.  His tear-filled gray eyes glinted silver in the candlelight.

“Captain…”  Akilah’s voice broke the silence.  “They’re coming.”

Andon’s forces were on their way, and less than twenty of the Raven Guard remained.  “I should kill you.”  She stared at Mihail.  He just closed his eyes in respond.  Lawan unfastened his restraints.  He rubbed at his wrists.  “Kneel.”

She honestly wasn’t sure which of them was more surprised when he immediately obeyed.  She ran her fingers through his hair, and heard him let out a small sob.  His shoulders started to shake.  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”  He bent his head, pressing his forehead into her leg.  “Please, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

Lawan stared down at the broken young man.  He wasn’t begging her for his life.  He was begging her to forgive him for betraying her.  She shook her head in confusion, then caught his hair.  Tears were falling down his face as she made him look up at her.  “Follow me.”  She turned, and started out of the tower.

Behind her, he obeyed.

#

They made it out of the tower just ahead of his brother’s forces.  Mihail looked over his shoulder.  Fire was starting to spread through the fortress.  Only a dozen of the Raven Guard remained.

In their rush to escape, he could have run.  He’d started to, several times.  Then one of them would tell him to follow, and his feet would obey.  Akilah had fallen, and instead of fleeing he’d helped her back to her feet.

The war was over.  His brother had won.  Aradal was free, as was every other land that had chaffed under Sa-dia’s yoke.  And yet as he saw the Raven Tower burn, he felt tears in his eyes.  It was his fault.  He’d betrayed Lawan.

“They cut off our escape.”  Yasmeen’s voice was quiet.  “Andon put the wards back up.  Soon as we try to cross east, they’ll fall on us like boulders.  Andon controls the south and west.  And north is the mountains, that’s no…”

“North.”  Lawan shook her head.  “We don’t have a choice.  They catch us, we’ll…”  She sent a look toward Mihail.  “Andon’s effectively the ruler of the known world.  Trying to use him as a hostage will just paint a target on our backs for anyone who wants to get in good with the new king.”

“Your map mentioned caves?”  He turned toward her.

“Right…”  Lawan nodded.  “The caches will be old, but they will still be there.”  She took a deep breath.  “We can hide out, wait until they’ve decided we are all dead, and then…”

“Figure out where to go from there?”  Akilah sighed.  “Captain, we…”

“Lovendar and Helith are neutral territories.  We can head there.”  Lawan’s voice was firm.  “We’ve got gold, and we’ll have more when we get to the caches.  We just need to be patient, Akilah.”

“Right, Captain.”  Akilah nodded.

“Besides…”  Yasmeen caught Mihail’s arm, and shoved him a step forward.  “Not like we don’t have anything to entertain us while we wait.”

Akilah laughed.

He could run.  Even if he started now, he could…  Hell, if he even screamed, there was a chance someone would hear him.  And yet…

Mihail took a deep breath, and made a decision.

#

The caves themselves were almost cozy.  With natural vents, it was safe enough to make a fire.  Lawan ordered the camouflage put back into place.  Unless you already knew the caves were there, you’d not find them.

Most of the survivors were asleep.  Yasmeen was going through supplies, occasionally tossing something into a pile of rejects and cursing.

She was surprised to see Mihail coming toward her, carrying something.  He set the chess board down, and Lawan stared at it.  He sat down, and began setting the pieces up.  “Would you care for a game, Captain?”

Lawan sat down across from him.  “And the wager?”

“If I win…”  He met her eyes.  “You come with me, surrender to my brother’s forces, and I convince him to give you all painless deaths.”

“And if you lose?”  She raised an eyebrow.

“Then I…”  He held up his fists.  “Take down my brother’s wards, and go with you.  Your loving slave.”

For a long moment, she just stared at him.  Then she nodded, and selected his right fist.  He opened his hand to reveal the white pawn.  “Let’s play.”

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