When Ira came to his rooms the next morning, Douglas didn’t think much of it, expecting it to be another method of her getting him out of bed. The moment the doors flew open, Douglas nearly raced out of the bed, not wanting a repeat of the morning from two days ago – where she dumped a cold bucket of water on him upon his refusal to get out of bed in time.
However, as he’s pulling on his shirt, he pauses when he finds the expression on Ira’s face.
Cold. Focused. The face of the Second of the coven. She’s wearing flying leathers and a cloak of a darker red is clasped to her shoulders. Her hair is braided down her back, resting over two deadly serrated swords strapped across her back.
And then the panic written on the two servants trailing closely behind her.
With her face completely placid, she grabs Douglas by the back of the neck, shoving him towards the door. “Don’t bother changing. Don’t ask questions, keep your mouth shut, and follow me.” The tone in her voice makes Douglas clamp his mouth shut.
Looking back, Douglas finds the servants working quickly and efficiently to remove the sheets from his bed, a third hurrying in with a mop and bucket. The water is heavily laced with the smell of coconut and vanilla. Ira grabs a shirt from the closet before a fourth servant comes to swipe all of them out and into a large wicker basket. Ira lazily tosses the shirt to him as they enter the hall, slamming the door behind them.
He barely gets the shirt on before Ira’s hand grabs his arm and is hauling him down the hallway. He bites back the pinch in her grip. “Ira –”
“We have visitors.” She interjects, and Douglas’ stomach sinks.
She lets him gather the information while his steps quicken to match hers.
Someone from another coven – it must be. There wouldn’t be such a need to eliminate his scent if this visitor wasn’t immortal. And if it weren’t for the predatory hatred in Ira’s eyes, making the stone grey as sharp as silver.
“My family. My friends.” Douglas almost whimpers as they turn a corner, down a narrower hallway and find another servant holding open a hidden door in the wall. The servants’ door.
Ira keeps her eyes focused on the servant as she says, “We’ve got them already. They’re down in the tunnels beneath the estate; in a room we’ve heavily warded.”
Douglas’ shoulder sag in relief. Those catacombs are the second strongest defense of this place, after the coven. Keelie showed him their power merely by grazing her fingertips along the stones. They radiate with power. Nothing will be able to smell or sense his company if they’re down there.
The servant quickly ushers them through, almost holding her breath as Ira passes her. They’re enveloped in a brief darkness, treading down stairs before the light of another door opens up at the end.
They slip out to the first floor, the servant hurrying ahead of them to another hidden door. As Douglas follows Ira, having loosened her grip, he can smell the rooms where his company may have been staying. The servants working feverishly to give them each their individual scents: cucumber-melon, apple-cinnamon, chocolate-caramel.
The servant girl – with tan, freckled skin and deep chocolate brown hair – opens a panel leading to another door and Ira ushers Douglas ahead this time, going down another spiral set of stairs. When the servant girl closes the door behind them, not following behind, Ira explains.
“Our surprised guest was uninvited, obviously, and we’re trying to get rid of your scents, so they don’t suspect anything. The last thing Keelie wants is for them to know you’re here, you and your family.”
Douglas doesn’t say anything, only focusing on his steps so he doesn’t tumble.
Ira continues. “The guest is Dahlia, the Heir of the Ebonywings Clan.”
His breathing hitches and he has to place his palm on the cold stone to balance himself. Despite her harsh tone, Ira gently places a hand at the small of his back to steady him. With a soft push, he continues on.
“She and Keelie have a long-standing rivalry, that Keelie of course has always won. Needless to say, they hate each other, and will do anything they can to gain an advantage on the other.” He can feel the smile on her lips. “Hunter was on night patrol when he noticed her coven flying our way. We can only assume Keelie’s grandmother summoned them to fetch us, as means to get under Keelie’s skin; as she always likes to do. Keelie had suspicions that her grandmother would be wondering where she had gone, what she is doing. Your family is going to be hiding down here until the exchange is over.”
Exchange, not even a true war meeting like Keeilie had said happens here sometimes. Nothing civilized, nothing decent. No pleasantries. This truly is a surprise visit. Or would have been since Keelie seems to be one step ahead.
Douglas feels a trickle of goose skin trail down his spine at the guttural growl in Ira’s words. They continue to descend, the torches continuing every fifth step and the air getting colder. Soon, his ears pop, and they reach a landing that extends to a long, yet familiar hallway. He doesn’t recognize the room where he had spoken to Marionette, but only assumes the layout is the same.
Ira resumes the lead, taking his arm – gentler this time – and guides him down the hall towards the last doorway on the left.
Inside, he doesn’t see his company. In their stead he sees two more servants standing at the center. Their faces are calmer, but still focused as they stand next to a large tub filled with water, and the table set against the back wall holds a pile of fabrics. He flinches as Ira near slams the wood door behind them and approaches him and the servants.
“Wait, what about –”
“They’re going to wash you and change you.” Ira says crossing her arms. “My Lady reeks of your scent and you reek of her. Along with a little of her own female arousal.”
Douglas’s cheeks heat heavily.
“They will smell you on her. It’s too strong, too much trouble, and too late to hide it. So we’re going with an alternative. Once you’re finished, they will guide you up to a different room we’ve already set with your scent to give the impression that you’ve been staying there.”
A room more likely fit for a servant. Douglas looks back towards the small pile of fabric scraps and then back to Ira. Her features soften, and she sighs. “You’re going to have to play a part. An unfavorable part it is, but it’s the only way that you will be guaranteed safety.”
His heart skips a beat for a minute, already having a faint idea of what it will have to be.
“Keelie wanted me to tell you she’s sorry. That there is no other method that she can think of. Not without attributes that won’t allow her to keep claim of you. I know you may be scared, but –”
“I’m not afraid.”
Ira looks to him in bewilderment, but a playful smile tugs at the corners of her mouth. Almost . . . impressed.
“I understand why she has to do what she does.”
“She won’t be the same Keelie you’ve grown used to. She will be the Heir of the Scarletbloods. She won’t be allowed to have room for mercy, understanding, or compassion. For anyone.”
“I’m not afraid.” He repeats. “Tell me what I have to do.”
Allowing herself to smirk, Ira nods and explains the role he must play.
The servants strip him naked without a second glance, and scrub him roughly, but he doesn’t protest. It isn’t intended to be cruel, but proficient. Then they start to paint his body.
Their brushes are cold and ticklish, and they quickly withdraw whenever he wriggles. They paint him everywhere; all along his arms and legs, down to his fingertips and toes. Things only get uncomfortable when they have to paint the more intimate parts of him, of which they quietly apologize.
They offer no explanation as to why they’re doing what they are – part of Keelie’s plan. Keep the identity a secret so that his reactions will be more believable.
From the neck up, they make him look regal: his face is lightly adorned with cosmetics — a smearing of gold dust on his eyelids, contouring the shadows of his cheekbones — and place a small golden circlet imbedded with lapis lazuli across his forehead.
But from the neck down, he is a heathen goddess’s plaything.
Once the glittering-gold paint has dried, the servants’ hands start to glow and – to his horror – begin to remove the hair from his body. His legs, his arms, and his intimate areas. Then they place him in a gauzy turquoise skirt.
If one can call it a skirt. It is little more than two long shafts of gossamer, just wide enough to cover his bum, pinned at each hip with gold brooches that join into a jeweled belt that hangs low across his hips. The single pieces of fabric hang between his legs and to the floor. It barely covers him, and the cold air on his hairless skin gives him constant goose bumps.
They accessorize him with ornate gold cuffs around his wrists and ankles, matching the choker necklace that has thin chains wrapping around his shoulders, and one that draws a straight line down his abdomen.
Once they are all finished, they escort Douglas down the hallway towards the stairs.
Instead of finding Ira as expected, Raven is leaning against the wall, arms folded, and ankles crossed. In similar leathers as the Second, Raven’s hair is coiled into a knot atop her head. She looks over to him and offers an apologetic smile. Her golden eyes glow in the darkness, her lips painted a heavy rouge. A sheath of fresh arrows and her bow are strapped to her back.
“Is this necessary?” Douglas says, gesturing to the paint and clothing.
“Of course,” she says coolly. “How else will Keelie know if anyone else touches you?”
She approaches, and Douglas braces himself as she runs a finger along his neck, smearing the paint. As soon as her finger leaves his skin, the paint fixes itself, returning the design to its original form. “The skirt itself won’t mar it, and neither will your movements.”
Ice wraps around his stomach.
“She wants to make it look like you belong to us. Because the “rules” are that even her private coven cannot tamper with the heir’s “belongings” without her permission. Punishment is a beating, or worse. She wants to avoid that as much as possible.” Raven must’ve noticed the fear on his face, or perhaps smelled it, because her features soften, and she says with a comforting calm. “No one will touch you, Douglas. You will be with us. Protected by us. If anyone dares to, they will basically be handing over their asses.”
Her smile helps loosen his heart.
The Scarbletblood Heir’s Plaything. That’s what he is.
He belongs to her, and if anyone dares to touch him, it will result in a cruel retribution of Keelie’s choosing. At least, according to whatever code the witches follow. This will also make him look nonthreatening; a simple mortal man she captured and exploits to her own leisure.
“I will guide you towards the foyer. From there you are on your own.”
Douglas nods, taking a deep breath. With his legs, sides, and stomach exposed, he has to clench his teeth to keep them from chattering. His bare feet are half-frozen, and he hopes that he can stop by one of the fireplaces before seeking out the coven.
“Come,” Raven says, beckoning with a hand.
They walk up the stairs and into the levels above. Douglas immediately sighs in relief upon the warmth of the manor washing over him once he and Raven emerge from the hidden door. They take two left turns and a right, and the familiar furniture of the foyer emerges from behind the corner.
He barely turns around, ready to ask her one more question, but the witch is already gone, having vanished into the shadows.
Rubbing his arms, Douglas observes the familiar enough room of the first floor. He’s still more towards the back of the house – this particular foyer being closer to the back gardens – which means he’ll have plenty of time to find a warm fire.
He begins to navigate his way towards the front of the house, and thankfully, he stops into a small sun room to warm himself. Both from the skylights and the fireplace, he tries to calm his stomach as he huffs into his hands, rubbing his arms and legs. It feels alien to not have hair there, but at least the removal was painless. He can only hope they’ll allow it to grow back, but seeing his role, it may not be for a while.
A part of him wants to visit each and every room on the way to the front doors, but he also wants to know what is happening between the two covens, and see this Dahlia for himself. A dangerous curiosity, but he’s already so entwined with these witches that taking a step back is no longer a viable option. Soon the rooms begin to look familiar, the smells of the kitchen heavy.
The sounds of heavy breathing and guttural growling rises ahead of him, and his face burns as he silently bemoanes the too-sheer fabric of his skirt. Beneath it, his intimates are visible to everyone, the paint hardly leaving anything to the imagination, and the resting fabric leaves an imprint.
His stomach growls, realizing he hasn’t had breakfast yet. Daring to stop into the kitchen, there are two more servant girls carrying on breakfast as normal. When they notice him, their eyes widen, and they cover their mouths to keep from yelping. However, they cannot hide the redness that floods their faces upon seeing him in his . . . attire.
Douglas snatches an apple with a terse nod and makes quick work chomping to the core. One of the servants works up the courage to hand him a glass of water, through which he nods in appreciation.
Finally digging for his own courage, steeling his spine, Douglas makes his way towards the front door. He doesn’t know if they’ve hidden his scent within the house, and the moment he opens the doors all heads will turn to him. So, he carefully approaches the narrow windows to peer through the curtains.
Outside on the frosted lawn, to the left is Keelie and her coven. There’s still green poking through, the sky relatively clear, but the skeletal remains of the trees are a heavy indication that winter will be in full swing. Only Ammerith stands among the riders. Everyone else’s must be in the stables, and to the right . . .
A clear line in the lawn divides the coven across from Keelie.
Even their dragons look different compared to Keelie’s. Most of them are big and burly, heavily scarred to indicate years of battles, their colors dark and grimy.
Something about them just reeks of viciousness, and possibly a little insanity.
He can see Agony shove past the other members, cursing filthily as she pulls out her sword – indeed a weapon forged by only the best smiths from Welyria.
A young woman emerges from behind a swamp-green dragon. She looks around Keelie’s mortal age – looking to be in her early twenties. Another dragon – one colored a burgundy red – hisses as the young woman approaches Keelie. Must be her dragon then, and she now swaggers towards the coven, a smirk on her beautiful face.
Her hair is a deep cherry red, set in delicate waves. Her eyes are a light olivine green, her skin as delicate as ivory. A pitch black cape clasped to the shoulders of her armor wavers behind her.
Dahlia, the Heir of the Ebonywings Witch Clan.
It is to her that Agony storms, practically stomping through the grass.
Both covens stare down one another, imperious and cold. No one bows to the other.
“What the hell is she doing here?” Agony demands, a hand on hip as she stops a healthy distance from Dahlia.
Dahlia wears leathers like Keelie’s, but it is set with minor modifications to express an individuality of the covens. He remembers how ruthless the Ebonywings were, even for witches. They kill without care – women and children included – and they have been shambolically trained, leaving their kills and meals all over the floor.
Dahlia ignores Agony and calls the Keelie. “The Ancients have been wondering where you have been.”
Agony hisses. “Be gone, Dahlia. No on invited you here.”
Dahlia lifts a cool brow. “Still yapping, I see.”
Agony spits at Dahlia’s feet. Dahlia’s riders tense, but Agony glares at them.
All of their stares shift.
Behind them, stone grass crunches, and then Dahlia’s eyes flare, bending her knees as if she’ll lunge for Agony – but takes a step back as Ira emerges from Keelie’s coven. Agony, in turn, taking a step back.
The Second flashes an iron smile, members of Dahlia’s coven placing their hands on their weapons.
Even their dragons rustle their wings at the Second, as if they, too, know what she is.
Keelie’s Second steps up to her side, behind her Luke emerges in wolf form.
A grey wolf. As large as a pony, and utterly ferocious. Luke levels with Keelie and sits beside her, Keelie scratching his fuzzy ears. To Luke’s credit, he lets her, even turning his head into her palm.
“So sweet to see your grandmother demoting you where you belong, Dahlia.” Ira speaks. “Courier. Finally put some good use to all of your babbling.”
Keelie merely stands next to Luke, scratching his ears. Unmovable. Uncaring. Bored.
Dahlia snaps her fingers in Keelie’s direction. “You cannot address me?”
Keelie gives a lazy smile. “Do you finally have something worth hearing?”
Dahlia bristles. Ira, smiling faintly, strolls to her Lady’s side. “We had business in these parts and stopped for refreshments.”
Dahlia wraps a hand around the hilt of a long knife at her side. “I wasn’t aware you had such an estate, Keelie. We had to rely on your grandmother.”
“Only because you’re so pathetic at doing work yourself.” Keelie’s face is hard as stone. The new of her grandmother being aware of this estate’s location has definitely wavered her, no matter how good she is at hiding it.
That draws a snarl from Dahlia, of which Ira steps in front of Keelie, a hand on her knife. Her smile is eager, ready for a fight – ready to sink her teeth into Dahlia. The Ebonywings Heir is smart enough to take another step back. Her Second and Third shyly ready to protect her from Ira.
“What brings you so far south?” Keelie demands, dropping her hand from Luke.
“The Ancients are beginning to unfurl their plans on invading the human lands. All are required to the city for number count and training.”
“I’ll be there. Now go.” Keelie dismisses with a jerk of her chin.
Ira declares, loud for all to hear, “You heard My Lady. Crawl back to your aerie.”
Dahlia gives Ira a mocking bow. “Go back to yours, and I will return to mine, Ira.”
Ira gives a sweet smile, iron still glinting.
Dahlia mounts her burgundy dragon with easy, powerful grace, the others flapping away at a jerk of her chin. She waits until they have all soared into the skies – safe for her Second and Third – before saying to Keelie, “I can’t wait to tell your grandmother about this place. I’m sure she will love to vacation here. Not to mention the lack of obedience in your members.”
“I will deal with my members in my own manner. Is that not the rule?”
Remembering his role, Douglas grips the brass knob and opens the front doors. Despite his belief, a soft chill caresses his face, rather than a chilling winter bite. Whatever magical wards surround the house, it also defies the seasonal changes. The level of frost permeating the lawn is thinner compared to the property line.
As his bare feet step onto the stone steps, all heads immediately turn towards him. Nostrils flaring and mouths agape, they gawk as he feet somehow continue to move forward. Whispers snake under the growls of the dragons, and Douglas lifts his chin, the weight of the circlet digging into his skull. He feels like a savage before the cultivating beauty of the covens.
A wind from inside the manor sweeps past his feet, conjured by one of Keelie’s riders, blowing his scent towards the covens.
Dahlia’s eyes immediately spark with hunger, and she quickly dismounts from her dragon. Douglas keeps having to flex his abdomen due to the chill the chain sends across it, emphasizing the contouring detail the servants painted. Raven is already at his side, walking close enough for it to be obvious that he is with them – that he belongs to them.
Words cannot describe the relief he feels when he weaves into the coven and next to Keelie. With Luke and Ira at his sides, he doesn’t break his stare from Dahlia, and she doesn’t break his. He almost shivers at the hunger thriving in her eyes and fights the urge to cover himself.
“And who is this?” Dahlia says, her smile not reaching her eyes.
“Our new pet.” Ira says sweetly.
Douglas stiffens as Keelie brushes a stray lock of hair from his face. She runs her fingers down his cheek – a gentle caress. The witches are all too quiet as Keelie speaks her next words. “You remember Douglas, don’t you? The little knight I was courting? I guess you can say he won me over.”
Dahlia’s eyebrows lift, and Douglas could’ve sworn her eyes bulge out of her head, and her tongue rolls to the ground.
“Well, he was just too sweet to let go.” She adds casually, but her eyes are upon Dahlia. “He is mine.”
The command was so dominating. So claiming.
The Heir of the Ebonywings straightens a little bit – even her Second and Third seem to be fixed on him, on Keelie.
He stares at Keelie’s profile, at the elegant eyes and sensuous lips. Games – Keelie has to play games, and it seems he is now to be a key player in whatever this one is.
Douglas keeps his chin up. He won’t let Dahlia notice the weakness – won’t let them know how much it embassared him to be so exposed to them, to have the symbols painted over nearly every inch of his skin, to see him so debased.
“Well, I hope to see him at the capitol.” Dahlia says with a flick of her tongue.
“What makes you think you’re even allowed near him?” Keelie sneers. “I said he is mine. And I can promise that if anything happens to him, I will have your head.”
Dahlia crosses her arms. “So special to you, is he?”
Douglas swallows tightly as he looks to Keelie. Before he can react, Keelie’s lips stretch into a sultry smile and her hand reaches down, gripping his loins. Douglas sucks in a breath, even a small whimper escaping him. “With a cock this good, you would be as possessive as I am.” She turns her head to the Ebonywings, a heavy snarl behind her white smile. “So don’t touch him, or you’ll lose your hand.”
The sneer Dahlia answers with doesn’t reach her eyes. Instead they remain fixated on Douglas, even as Ira places her hand at his lower back to turn him away, as if to guide the plaything back into the house like a dog.
Douglas doesn’t look back as he listens for Dahlia to take off on her dragon. Once the flapping of wings has ceased, only then does he look back to find Luke still sitting there, hackles raised as he stares after the heir. He doesn’t try calling out to him, just allows Ira’s hand to guide him back towards the house.
He does however look over to Keelie, who has since dropped her mask of impervious boredom, and is now snarling and forming a plan with the hand she has been dealt. Ammerith huffs and turns around to head back into the direction of the stables, wings fluttering.
Keelie practically bursts through the front doors, bouncing them against the walls. Douglas flinches, while he files in with the rest of the coven.
Before everyone can finish filing in, the sound of breaking bone and a female grunt echoes through the foyer.
Douglas snaps his head to the center of the room in time to find Agony with her head to the side, the red mark of a hand marring her right cheek.
And like before in the warehouse with Luke, Keelie approaches Agony and delivers a swift punch to the witch’s left cheek. The next blow to the abdomen nearly has Douglas holding his own as Agony grunts and heaves for breath. Keelie kicks at the witch’s knee, driving her to the floor before punching her ribs and then again at her nose. Douglas nearly gags at the sound of bone breaking.
Grabbing a fistful of Agony’s auburn hair, Keelie seethes, “Another outburst like that and my grandmother will have you strung up by your toes and baited to the hounds. Do you understand?”
Agony nods with a wild smile on her lips while blood streams down her chin, a small white bone poking out through one nostril.
Keelie releases Agony quickly, ordering someone to bring her to a healer immediately. Astrid and Hunter help the witch to her feet, Agony lucidly laughs at them to let it sit for a minute. Let it scar.
Douglas’ muscles relax slightly at the comforting touch of Arabella as she quickly places a threadbare blanket over his bare shoulders.
“Get him out of that outfit.” She sneers, near primal. She doesn’t look back when she says it, just continues straight down the hall between the grand staircases. Ira and Luke follow her, the Third shifting back to immortal form.
A gentle hand on his shoulder has Douglas looking to his right. Arabella is there, her hair pulled back into a tail, a small, careful smile on her red lips. One that apologizes for everything, including Keelie’s behavior, and leaves him with the decision to either obey Keelie’s orders – which he should do – or chase after her and see if she’s alright. She won’t stop him no matter what he chooses.
Taking a deep breath and huddling the cloak around himself, Douglas pads down the hall after Keelie.
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