He was no longer certain how many days he’d spent hanging from the tree. At least a week, maybe more. Time seemed to pass strangely where ever it was they were. At seemingly random intervals he’d take his meals with Ileana and her strange companions. He was becoming somewhat inured to their taunts. The delicate winged woman had even expressed disappointment in the fact he no longer blushed just by sitting at the table. The satyr, however, could still make him turn red, though at least half the time it was anger rather than embarrassment. It would whisper to him when it put him back in the tree, of things it would like to do to him. Ileana seemed to find it amusing, though she never let the creature go beyond words.
The few hours he was given to sleep were never quite enough. He’d be woken, and set out to be displayed in her garden again. Her silent trophy. She never let him speak, save to make him beg for basic necessities. And to make him ask the satyr to be put back in the tree.
They were plotting against his brothers. Ileana viewed Nicolas as a threat, and rightly so. Nicolas would have known what all these creatures were. If anyone could get this blasted collar off, it was him. There had to be some way to get a warning to him. With warning, he could prepare, could… Do something. Thomas had nearly forgotten what it felt like not to hurt.
She was waiting for him outside the privy door. Waiting to put him back in the tree. Thomas took a deep breath. The satyr had suggested a collar for Nicolas, and Ileana had laughed. Said it was only fair that the beast have a pet prince of his own. He couldn’t stomach the thought of his brother at that thing’s mercy. If she would just listen… He looked up, and met his reflection’s eyes. Then he took another deep breath, and went to the door.
Something in Thomas’s face had changed when he emerged. “Ready to go back in the tree?”
He dropped to his knees. “May I speak?”
Ileana blinked. This was new. “Another plea for mercy, for the lives of your brothers?” She smirked. “You know I’ve no interest.”
“An offer.” His voice was quiet.
She’d started to focus energy into the collar, and stopped. She released it again. “An offer?”
“You want to see me suffer.” He raised his eyes, then glanced at where Keffer stood before returning his gaze to her. “I will submit to your pet. He may do to me whatever he likes and you may direct as you see fit, with my full cooperation.” He swallowed. “If after, you listen.”
Magic could compel him, that was true. But it required will and effort, concentration. She was somewhat surprised at just how interested she was in his offer. Being a willing participate would be so much worse for him. The thought of him at Keffer’s mercy had featured heavily in her recent dreams, to the point she was having some difficulty continuing to make the satyr leave him be. From the look on Keffer’s face, he was more than willing to play along. “And what is it you wish me to hear?”
“My explanation of what happened that night. And after…” He swallowed. “Should you not like what you hear I suppose I shall remain at your mercy.”
“If I do not like what I hear…” She narrowed her eyes. “There will be no more mercy.”
“I understand.” Thomas nodded.
A slow smile spread across her face. “Keffer, he’s all yours.” She met the satyr’s eyes. “Make him enjoy it.”
“Oh, I will.” Keffer answered her smile.
Thomas thought he’d prepared himself. Still, he had to fight not to clench his fists when the satyr kissed him. It’s tongue danced over his lips, forcing its way into his mouth. He parted his lips, reminding himself that if he didn’t keep his end of the bargain, he’d lose his chance to reason with Ileana. And the damn thing tasted of… Cherries? It caught his wrist, and gave him a knowing smile when it released his mouth.
Then it shoved him. He fell backward onto the bed, and then the creature was atop him. It took more effort than he expected not to shove it away, to fight and flee. It pinned his wrists down before crushing his mouth again, then it gently nipped at his lower lip before moving it’s head down to nuzzle at his neck. He could see Ileana sitting in the chair, watching. And she wasn’t alone. Several of her dinner guests had joined her. “We’ll give them a good show, won’t we?” The thing whispered into his ear.
“When I am free…” Thomas kept his voice low. “I will kill you.”
“And long before then…” The thing nibbled his earlobe. “I will make you beg me for more.” It’s hands began caressing him, and it moved it’s mouth down. It’s tongue flicked against his nipple, then returned, light and teasing.
He’d expected pain. The thing had threatened him with pain. Threatened to bruise and hurt. He’d prepared himself for pain. Pain hadn’t been a stranger even before he’d been taken prisoner. No one could ride tilts and escape without battering. Pain he could take. He felt himself gasp as the satyr brushed its claws very lightly across his inner thigh. Pain he could handle. Feeling himself responding to the creature’s touch was something else entirely.
His back arched with the satyr’s mouth closed around his shaft. It’s tongue teased and caressed as its hands continued playing with his body. Someone laughed, and he felt his skin begin to burn with shame. He wanted to fight, to grab the thing by the throat and beat it bloody, anything to make it stop. He was panting now, and then the creature was trailing kisses back up his belly, flicking its tongue lightly across his nipples again. It’s teeth grazed him, teasing him with a reminder that pain was an option. And that it had chosen instead to torture him with pleasure.
He was squirming beneath the creature now, no longer in full control of his body. Thomas groaned softly as the creature began teasing him to the edge of orgasm again. Something probed inside him, gentle and teasing. He arched away from it, bringing himself closer to the creature. The satyr responded by teasing its tongue over his shaft again, then sliding up to kiss his mouth. The fucking thing still tasted like cherries.
Sensation rose and kept rising, even as he fought against it. To his horror, he heard himself make a small sound of protest when the creature took its hand away again. It’s laughter rumbled softly in his ear. “Sing for me, human,” it whispered.
Need ached, worse somehow than the tree or the ropes. The creature was bringing him to the edge again, with slow tormenting caresses. It had to stop, he needed to make it stop to stop… “Please.” He barely heard his own voice.
“Louder.” It’s tongue teased his neck.
“Please.” His hips rose as he squirmed, pushing against rather than away.
“Louder.” It pulled him closer.
This time he screamed the word. “Please.”
The creature laughed as his body betrayed him.
Ileana exhaled, feeling a shiver go down her spine as Thomas collapsed beneath Keffer. The satyr grinned up at her, evil dancing in his eyes. Thomas’s cry still echoed in her ears. He was shaking now. “Go.” She rose, waving the audience away. They left quietly enough, with just a few snickers. She saw Thomas flinch at the sound. It took only a bare trace of concentration to raise the walls of the chamber once more. Then she walked to the bed, and sat down.
She caught his hair, and lifted his head to see his face. It was hard to tell if the tears on his cheeks were rage or shame. Likely both. Her lips curled into a smile. “Go wash.”
He staggered to his feet and all but fled into the bathing chamber. Ileana glanced up at Keffer. “What the hell was that?”
“Exactly what you requested, precious heart. He enjoyed himself.” The satyr smirked.
“You were supposed to…” She glared. She’d expected Keffer to ride him, to dominate him thoroughly. She’d wanted Thomas to know just how thoroughly he was owned and mastered. Wanted him to suffer the same degradation that… Her fists clenched.
“I was supposed to what?” Keffer raised an eyebrow. “Do to him what those men did to your sister?”
“You son of a…” She slapped him.
Keffer merely gave her a lascivious grin in response. “Oh come now. I know you can do better than that.” He lowered his head, offering up his other cheek. “Well?”
“You promised to help me.” She glared at him.
“You wanted him humiliated. He is.” Keffer glanced at the bathing chamber. “Thoroughly.” He slowly nodded. “I will help you, Ileana. My precious heart.” He turned back toward her, and his eyes darkened. “But do not mistake me for either your toy or your weapon.”
“I…” She sighed, and then nodded. “I apologize, Keffer. I…” She looked down, and took a deep breath. Then she looked back up at him. “I’m sorry.”
“You have your end of the bargain to keep.”
“He better not…” She started to narrow her eyes.
“Ileana.” Keffer’s voice was sharp. “He did as he promised, and it cost him. You will listen.”
For all that she knew the satyr cared for her, she also knew better than to cross him. “I will listen.”
His stomach ached from the dry heaves. Slowly he rose, and splashed water from the font onto his face. He cupped his hand and took a slow swallow of the cool liquid. Thomas stood there, fighting the urge to vomit again for some time before he dared a second drink. She’d watched while that thing had… Heard him… He leaned over and vomited again.
It took him three tries to begin the battlefield medication. Push everything aside, clear your mind, and prepare for war. The next attempt at a drink went fine, and he was able to met the eyes of his reflection. He’d kept his end. He could only hope she’d keep hers. He opened the door, and stepped back into the chamber.
The satyr was still there, leaning against the wall, it’s arms crossed over its chest. Ileana sat cross-legged on the bed. He squared his shoulders, and walked to her. A deep breath, and he sat down on the side of the bed, facing away from her. “After our wedding night, Father asked if he could have a word.” Thomas took another deep breath. “He’d received orders from the king. Your father and your sister’s husband were to be arrested and brought to the capital for trial. Father was to take control of your holdings in the meanwhile, and given the circumstances I was to act as steward until the trial’s completion. You and the rest of your family were to be taken into our custody.”
She shifted her weight behind him as if she was going to say something, but remained silent. He continued. “I told Father that whatever was happening, you could not possibly have been involved. I asked him to let me take you from the castle before…” He shook his head. “Father refused. He said the only way we could ever take that castle was if we started from the inside. I was to say nothing, play my part while he moved in more men, under the guise of them being my soldiers come to be presented to my bride. The king had given his orders, and we were sworn to obey. Ardal had…” He closed his eyes. “He’d made comments about you, suggested an interest in taking liberties that he had no right to…” His fists clenched. “I set men on your door not to keep you in, but to keep him out.”
“You knew what he was.” Her voice came from behind him.
“My father’s firstborn and heir and…” He bowed his head. “And cruel. My father knew as well. He…” Thomas swallowed. “His words may have been crude, but he was trying to protect you, I am certain.”
“Everyone died, Thomas.” Her voice was flat.
“I did lie to you, that night, about why I left the room. Father told me to order your guards back to the barracks. They’d accept the order from me. When…” He looked down. “Ardal attempted to arrest Lord Val, and Lord Val drew steel. Ardal was not expecting him to do such a thing. Who would? He dodged most of the attack, but Val drew blood and so Ardal…”
“Yes. Your sister saw her husband cut down in front of her. She started throwing everything she could get her hands on at Ardal, and by luck flung an object heavy enough to kill Ardal’s lieutenant. Ardal became enraged and…” His stomach felt sick. “And what he did was monstrous, I do not deny that. Nicolas and I heard her screaming. We stopped him but by then it was too late. Your father refused to cooperate at that point, attacking mine and ordering Nacio to get the guards. Our soldiers were already in position and…” He sighed. “Half your soldiers didn’t have time to dress. Our soldiers couldn’t tell guard from servant and so cut down anyone not wearing our colors. My father was wounded by your mother’s blade, and the command structure broke down because Nicolas had beaten Ardal senseless. By the time Nicolas managed to call them to order most of the damage was done. Nacio found me going toward your room and he assumed…” His shoulders shook a little. “I didn’t want to kill him, Ileana. I fought to disarm, to wound but he…” He took a deep breath. “He was a better swordsman than I was, blinded by fury. I meant to wound, not to kill him.” He closed his eyes. “Then I looked up at the balcony, and saw you…” He broke off. “It wasn’t supposed to happen that way, Ileana. None of it. Father was just going to take Val and your father to the king and…” He opened his eyes again. “The king is his cousin, the gold the crown owes us alone should have been enough to see to it the matter was dealt with in your favor. You have no idea how badly Father wanted that alliance.”
“Badly enough to offer one of his sons for it.” Her voice was contemplative. “Even if it was the youngest.”
“It was going to be Ciaran.” His thirdborn brother had married only a few months after the betrothal, to a southern baroness.
“What?” It took him a moment to realize her question was because he’d said the words aloud.
Thomas turned to look at her. “He intended to offer Ciaran but I…” He shook his head. “I’d seen you Summersmeet. You were dancing around the pole, barefoot with flowers in your hair. I challenged Ciaran to a horserace over the right to ask for your hand. I won by a full length.” He went silent, then met her eyes. “Your rage at Ardal is justified. As is…” He took a deep breath. “As is your rage at me. But Nicolas tried to save your people. He’s a good man. My family did not wrong yours out of malicious intent, Ileana. I don’t know why Val attacked. And if it is justice against Ardal you want then…” He slowly nodded. “Then I will aid you in seeing it done, as my penance for the wrong I did to you. But please, Ileana. The rest of my family does not deserve your wrath.”
“Your family betrayed sacred hospitality.” Her voice was cold. “Entered my family’s castle with the intention of deception. Your…” She shook her head. “One what charge was my father to be arrested?”
He was silent for a moment, then took a deep breath. “Treason against the crown.”
Her eyes went cold. “My father…” Her voice was soft, but he could feel the rage wrapped in every word. “Was no traitor.”
“Ileana, I…” The collar around his neck constricted, cutting off his words. He stopped speaking, but it stayed tight, choking.
“My father stood as the guardian lands, gatekeeper between the old kingdom and the new. He was the Keeper of the Keys.” He clawed at the collar around his neck as she stood, her voice thunder. “He was all that stood between your precious king and the wild.”
Dimly he heard the satyr yelling her name as he tried in vain to draw air past the thing on his neck. The beast leaped on the bed, grabbing her hand. The world went dark.