Refusing to let him dress had been petty of her, she knew that. Yet the look on his face when he realized he was going to have to be stark naked in front of a dozen of her dinner guests had been hilarious. Her friends weren’t making it easy on him either. He sat next to her, hunched in front of the table, trying to keep what modesty he could. Janna trailed a hand across his shoulder, leaning in behind him as she poured wine into Ileana’s cup. Then she ‘accidentally’ dumped half the flagon of iced wine into Thomas’s lap. He yelped when the cold liquid hit him, but managed not to jump out of his seat. Several of her guests made disappointed sounds.
The slyph produced a towel. “Here.” She grinned. “Let me get that for you.”
He caught the towel. “Thank you, but I can manage.”
“No, really.” Janna licked her lips. “I insist.”
“I have the matter under control.” He tugged at the towel, but Janna didn’t release it.
“It is a big mess.” On the other side of him, Keffer picked up his napkin and started toward him.
Thomas immediately released Janna to catch Keffer’s wrist. “I appreciate the…” He trailed off when Janna started reaching into his lap again, and caught the towel with his other hand.
“Maybe he just likes being wet and sticky.” Tsara laughed.
“Well, then…” Keffer pulled his wrist free of Thomas and set the napkin back down. “If that’s the way he likes it.”
“Hmmm…” Janna shrugged, then pulled the towel away before going back to her seat.
Ileana hid her smile behind her wine cup. Then she set her glass down. “Thomas. Would you be so kind as to go to the sideboard over there…” She pointed. “And fetch me another roll?”
His glare was luminous. Then he shoved his chair back, stood, and stalked toward the sideboard. Several cheers accompanied the action. He grabbed a roll and brought it back, holding it out to her. She smiled. “And could you put some butter on it?”
He breathed a sigh of relief when he escaped back into the room. After a couple deep breaths, he began looking around the chamber. The only other door led into the bathing chamber, and there was no means of escape through there. The room seemed to have been grown rather than built. Given time, he could likely push his way out through the branches. Thomas lifted his hand to touch the collar. As long as that was around his neck, escape was not an option.
The door opened and she entered, followed by the satyr. The damn thing had actually pinched him. Thomas remained facing away from them. Ileana laughed. “I don’t recall you being this shy, husband.”
“Is humiliating me necessary?” He clenched his fists.
“You courted me, married me, and bedded me so you could attack my family by surprise and steal our lands.” She shook her head as she went to sit in the chair. “And you think being unclothed is humiliation?”
Thomas stood, frozen in place. She couldn’t really believe that, could she? After so many letters? Surely she had to… “Ileana…”
“Tell you what.” She leaned forward “If you crawl to me and beg for them, I’ll give you back your pants.”
“I’ll not give you the satisfaction.” He shook his head.
“Then stay naked. I’m entertained either way.”
“I like him like this.” The satyr’s voice practically purred. “Look, he’s turning red again.”
“Your brother, Nicolas.” Ileana leaned back again. “He has installed himself in my father’s castle. Ardal has gone with your father to the King’s seat. Ciaran and Ruarc remain in the south. Garvan holds Stormkeep. Tell me, why has Bran gone north?”
“You know I’ll not cooperate with your plan, Ileana.” He took a deep breath. “I’ll not help you harm my brothers or their families.” He looked over his shoulder at her. “Bran wasn’t even —” The collar constricted, cutting off his air entirely. He struggled, but it did not release him again until he had fallen to his knees. Thomas drew in a breath, then started to stand. The collar constricted again, and he sank back to his knees. It loosened, allowing him to draw air into his lungs.
“I think you’ll be surprised at what you’ll do if I demand it of you.” Her voice was cold.
“There are things you don’t know about that night, Ilean —” The collar cut him off again.
“You will speak to answer my questions. I have no interest in your voice otherwise.” She stood. “Why has Bran gone north?” She walked to stand in front of him. Part of him wanted to just give her a lie. Something told him she would know if he did. He simply glared up at her. She smiled. “Stand.”
When he didn’t immediately obey, the collar went cold against his skin. His body moved of its own accord. He blinked as he felt the satyr behind him. The thing grabbed his left arm, and a branch lowered from the ceiling. His arm was placed against it, and the branch wrapped around his forearm, holding it firmly. His right arm followed with a different branch, and then the satyr bent. The floor moved under his feet as branches moved, and each of his ankles were secured. The collar’s chill vanished. “Wha—”
He was cut off as the branches suddenly moved apart, stretching his limbs to the point that it was almost painful. His arms were above his head, spread apart, high enough that his heels no longer could touch the ground. His legs were also spread. Unclothed, the position felt obscene. And vulnerable. He swallowed. And then the branches of one of the walls moved aside, opening the room up into a garden. Several of those who had been at the dinner were still present. He felt his skin redden as he realized how thoroughly he was currently displayed.
“You make an excellent trophy.” Ileana was smiling. “One way or another, you will be of use to me. Be silent until I give you permission to speak again.” She turned, and strode away.
The satyr smacked him across the rear, then followed her.
“He’s a tempting bit of fruit, hanging from your tree.” Keffer licked his lips.
“He’s not to be touched.” Ileana shook her head.
“Is that a note of jealousy?” Keffer raised an eyebrow.
Ileana glared at him. “I need him in one piece, Keffer. There are those here who play far too rough.”
“She no let me eat him.” Vula piped up. She hopped up into the chair, curling up next to Ileana. Ileana put her arm around the goblin. “Not even a toe.”
“I’ve taken prisoner a man who wronged me, and hung him up for all to see.” She shrugged. “That alone makes acquiring him worthwhile. He betrayed me, and now he is my slave.”
“A show of strength, making your enemy kneel at your feet.” Keffer nodded. “And should word of his fate reach his brothers, no doubt the news will incite them.” He grinned. “Perhaps they will be foolish enough to march their armies into the woods.”
“One can hope.” She frowned. “That’s not a bad idea, actually. We can take him with us when we move on one of the others, ensure a survivor knows we have him. Kill one brother and force another to his knees…” She shrugged. “The others will come. They really won’t have a choice.”
“So you’ll be wanting your father’s castle back, then?”
“I’d rather it not be a target, actually. Still, eliminating Nicolas would…” She sighed. “He’s a scholar. The smart one, and that makes him dangerous.” She’d liked Nicolas. The man was knowledgeable about the most unusual things, and a fascinating conversationalist. “Though acquiring Nicolas might not be a bad idea. Thomas was willing to trade himself for Nicolas’s daughters. I imagine Nicolas would do much the same…” She smiled. “And there are still many secrets in my father’s castle.”
“Hmmm, a matched pair of princes.” Keffer waggled his eyebrows.
“Not quite matched. Nicolas is…” She tilted her head. “Some twelve years older than Thomas. He’s the second eldest.”
“The seventh son does have value you’ve not considered.” Keffer glanced back in the direction of Thomas. “His blood could be worth a great deal.”
“It could.” She nodded. “But for now, at least, I need him alive.”
“Bed him.” Vula looked up. “Make seven boys. Fey blood seven seven.”
“Now that…” Ileana sat up. “Has some potential.”
“And who knows?” Keffer grinned. “Tame him properly, and you might even enjoy having him in your bed.”
“Shoo, both of you.” Ileana rolled her eyes, then picked up the grimoire as they left. She read a couple pages, then glanced up. Spread like that, his muscular form was quite appealing. If anything, he was more attractive than when he’d courted her. The past three years had filled him out in the chest and shoulders, and the muscles were attractively defined. A warrior, powerful and in his prime. And completely at her mercy. Maybe not all Vula’s ideas were bad. She returned to the grimoire, occasionally looking up. The position did not create too much strain, but even a small amount built over time. He was coated in a light sheen of sweat now, and his face betrayed his discomfort. Now and then he squirmed, testing the bonds.
It occurred to her he’d been held like that for close to four hours now. She set the grimoire aside, and walked over to him. He glared at her approach, but said nothing. The collar would have prevented him from speaking even if he’d tried, and it was clear he’d figured that out himself. Ileana walked a slow circuit around him, making no secret of the fact she was admiring him. To her delight, he was actually turning red again. She reached out and gently brushed her fingers over his hip and buttock. “Keffer is right. You are a tempting bit of fruit.” She walked around to stand in front of him again.
He struggled in the bonds, then sighed before glaring at her again. “Is there something you wish to say?” He nodded. She released the magic in the collar. “You may speak.”
For a few moments, he stayed silent. Then he made a frustrated sound. “I need to use the privy.”
Laughter escaped her, and he turned red again. Ileana slowly nodded. “Then beg.”
“You can’t be serious.” He stared.
“It’s a simple enough choice, Thomas. Which will you find more humiliating?” She smiled. “Begging, or messing yourself where everyone can see?”
Silence answered her. She shrugged, and started to walk away. “Wait.” She stopped at the sound of his voice, and smiled. “Please.”
Slowly, she turned back around. “What was that?”
If glares could set people aflame, she’d be not more than ash. “Please, may I use the privy?”
“Oh, Thomas.” Her smile widened. “You can do better than that.”
“Please, Ileana, please, I beg you, may I use the privy?” His voice was barely more than a growl.
Her hand lifted, and the branches released his limbs. He fell, landing on his knees. “You may.”
He glared at his reflection in the looking glass. “If you could stop blushing, I’d appreciate it.” His reflection did not reply. Thomas shook his head, and sighed. The largest scrap of cloth in the small chamber was no larger than his hand. Certainly nothing he could reasonably use to cover himself. Even if he thought for a moment she’d allow him that small mercy.
Thomas rolled his shoulders, trying to alleviate the dull ache that had settled into his bones. Leaving this room likely meant hanging from her tree once more. Even if his brothers knew he was still alive, they had no idea where to find him. All he knew was he was somewhere with trees. He’d lost track of time in his initial capture, and been unconscious for stretches. For all he knew, he was a hundred miles from where he’d been abducted, if not further.
The knowledge that his situation could be much worse really didn’t make his current circumstances any easier. Compared to how he’d been bound earlier, hanging from the tree was torturous mainly in its tedium. Her trophy. He glanced again at the mirror. It was Ileana. There had to be some way to get her to listen, to hear the truth.
A knock at the door. He went still at the sound, then sighed. It appeared his respite was over. He walked to the door and opened it, stepping out into the other chamber again. And despite his best intentions, he found himself turning red again upon realizing Ileana wasn’t alone. The satyr had returned, and was openly grinning. “Ileana, I…”
The collar constricted around his neck once more. “I did not give you permission to speak.”
Slowly, he nodded. The collar released him. “He’s learning.” The satyr smirked. He really was starting to hope he’d have the opportunity to cleave that thing’s head from its shoulders.
“Are you ready to go back in the tree, Thomas?” Ileana raised an eyebrow. Deep breaths. He glared at her instead of answering. It only made her smile. “Your choice. You can let Keffer put you back in the tree…” She gestured to the other side of him, and he glanced down to see the grinning goblin. Holding a rope. He swallowed. “Or Vula can tie you up again.” She raised an eyebrow. “Or you can refuse to answer, and get both.”
His fists clenched. The ropes had nearly killed him. “The tree.”
“Then ask Keffer nicely.” She waved a hand at the grinning satyr. “On your knees.”
When he did escape this predicament, he was going to make boots out of that thing. Thomas took a deep breath before dropping to his knees. “Please, Keffer. Put me back in the tree.”
The satyr grabbed him by the hair and began dragging him back to the branches. He started to struggle, and the collar chilled for a moment. Thomas clenched his fists and let the satyr pull him along. His wrists and ankles were fastened once more, the branches grabbing hold of him. Then the satyr actually licked the back of his neck. “How long, do you think, before she lets me have you?”
“Get —” The collar constricted, cutting off his voice. He pulled away from the satyr, but the branches held him fast.
It laughed softly, then ran one of it’s clawed fingers down his spine. A pleased humming sound came from the creature. “You will scream and squirm for me, mortal.”
“Keffer.” Ileana’s voice carried a note of warning.
It moved away, and for just a moment, he was grateful to her. Then the branches moved, pulling his body tight again.
She sat up in the bed and reached for her robe. A low chuckle came from the blankets, and she turned. Keffer propped himself up on one arm. “If I’d known you’d enjoy tying a human up so much, I’d have gotten you a dozen of them by now.” The satyr sat up, waggling his eyebrows. “An orchard.”
Ileana laughed. “If I had known, I might have let you.” She glanced through the window. Thomas still hung in the lit chamber, though his head was bowed. He must be exhausted by now, but with Lan keeping an eye, she had no concerns that he’d suffer any lasting physical harm from his current situation. “It could just be that it is that particular human.”
“You still have feelings for him.” Keffer tilted his head.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” She shook her head.
“You wouldn’t hate him so much if you didn’t care.” He folded his legs under him.
“He seduced me. Then he murdered my brother while his kinsmen…” She clenched her fists.
Keffer’s arms went around her, holding her tightly to him. “I know, Ileana.” He rocked her gently. “I know, precious heart.” He petted her hair. “I can make him sing for you.”
“Not yet.” She took a deep breath. “I want him tamed, not broken.”
“A stallion must be broken, before it can be tamed.” Keffer chuckled. “You intend to make a pet of him?”
“Why not?” She folded her arms. “It is what he intended to do to me, after all.” She rose, not bothering with the robe. The cool night air felt good on her skin. Given that he was out in the open, Thomas was likely freezing. “His little wife.” Ileana exhaled, watching her breath turn to mist and float away.
“Instead, he has made you cruel.” Keffer rose. He came up behind her, brushing her hair behind her ears. “You will not like what you become, precious heart.”
“Keffer…” She rolled her eyes at him.
“I speak truth, and you know this. It is why you tried to get the children away.” Keffer leaned on the wall. “Try again.”
“I am getting lectures in morality…” She chuckled. “From a satyr.”
“I am what I am, and that is all I can ever be. Yet even such as I have limits. That is what separates us from mortals. And you, precious heart…” He stepped away from the wall to stand behind her, and wrapped his arms around her. “Have a mortal soul.”