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Introduction:

Not a lot of sex in this one. Hope you're all enjoying the series.
Chapter Forty-nine

ADRIANNA

The woman’s name was ‘Hannah,’ and she was a scout in Esmerelda Giana’s rebellion. The force was made up primarily of women and the elderly, which had undoubtedly been laughable to the nobles of the Feractianas province when they’d first heard of it. They weren’t laughing anymore. Esmerelda’s army had swallowed entire swaths of the southern Highlands, moving untouched through estates that would’ve been armed to the teeth in peacetime. If the gentry of Feractianas had thought that an army of women could not be brutal, they were now dissuaded of that notion. Esmerelda was carving a name for herself.

I poked at the morning fire with a stick. The rolling hills of Feractianas shown like glitter in the dew-frost, catching the dawning sun in a trillion spectacular fractals. I hugged my knees beneath my robe, wishing for the first time in months that I had more clothes on. Hannah stirred in her sleeping bag. We were camped a few hundred yards off the road, deep in the brush so that no one could see our fire. It felt like ages since I’d last made one, but Thomas Adarian’s old skills came back to me readily, and there was no smoke to signal our position.

As I tended the heat, I watched Hannah pretend to sleep, and I wondered what I was getting myself into with her. I could tell by the looks she stole, that she was more than just curious about me, but she never said anything, and I didn’t press. Lesbianism wasn’t as scorned in the Highlands as male homosexuality, but it was still a mark that would stick on her if she was ever caught, and I got the feeling that Hannah wasn’t really gay; she just hadn’t been with a man in quite a long time—if ever—and she was in the full bloom of her womanhood. She’d made little noises in her faux-slumber last night, soft moans and hushed gasps that weren’t quite quiet enough for me to be ignorant of what was going on in her sleeping bag. It had made it damned hard to sleep myself, and I’d had to bite into my pillow and cure myself of insomnia with a few practiced caresses between my legs. I was much quieter than she was. She had tried to conceal her orgasm with a cough, while I played the veteran move, and ruffled my sleeping bag loudly to muffle the breathy hiss. Even afterward, neither of us slept the entire night. I didn’t know what plagued her mind, but all I could see behind my waking eyes, were the faces of those I’d betrayed. I wondered if they’d ever let me sleep again.

“You’re not fooling me, you know.” I said.

She opened one eye. “Are you watching me?”

“Yes.”

She scooched deeper in her sleeping bag, and rolled herself into a sitting position. The frost hung from her blonde hair, making it twinkle in the fire and sunlight. She assessed me with a critical eye. “Have you thought about what we talked about last night?”

“I have.”

“And…?”

I prodded at the fire some more, nursing the flames back to life. “I told you, Hannah, I’m a traitor. The Dark Queen didn’t send me here to help you. She doesn’t even know your rebellion exists, or if she does, she doesn’t care.”

“But you—”

“There’s nothing I can do for you.” I said resolutely.

She sniffed, and scooched herself down the log to get nearer to the fire. We stared into the flames for minutes before she next spoke. “I heard…” she said pensively, “I heard that… there was rumor, anyway, that Thomas Adarian was captured by the Dark Queen, and… changed. That estate we were in… it was his by birthright.”

I nodded.

“It’s just strange that you were sent back to his estate, you know.” Her eyes flicked to me.

“Thomas Adarian is dead, Hannah. Whatever rumors you heard were just rumors.”

“You expect me to believe that?”

I smiled at her. “I don’t really care what you believe.”

She screwed up her lips. “I know who you are.”

“You know nothing.”

She bundled herself tighter in her sleeping bag, and glared at me from across the fire. “You think you’re so much better than me, don’t you?”

“Should I lie to you?”

She spat into the fire. “That’s how I know you’re Thomas Adarian! That undeserved sense of superiority that nobles have; why would it change just because your race did?” She leaned toward me, “Maybe you are better than me, Alkandran, but a hybrid of earthly means would still see me as an equal!”

“What do you know about hybrids?”

“I know about people!” She snapped, “Everyone thinks high-elves are all pompous peacocks, but it’s just you nobles! The rest of us are humble folk, but the world doesn’t know about us because we’re tending the earth while you gallivant around and make us all look bad! And now that the screws are in, where are our allies? Nowhere to be found, because nobody likes us! So superior is our race, oh, yes-yes-yes, so pure, and elegant, and wise, and high-minded we are. That’s why the poor starve while the rich are fat! That’s why most of us have to scrape and claw while the few of us lounge and moan! Oh, I know exactly who you are, Adrianna.

I opened my mouth, then closed it. Hannah’s piercing blue gaze cut right through the fire, and I suddenly found it very difficult to meet it. “I uh… I’m sorry, Hannah.” I muttered, “I didn’t mean to be a bitch. You’re right, on all accounts.”

“So?” She asked sharply, “Are you going to help us make it right?”

“Make what right?” I asked, splaying my hands hopelessly, “What good will come of this? You tear down the structures of society, and then…? You think you’ll get freedom, but you’ll just get anarchy. Your rebellion isn’t unjust, but it is misguided. Also, the whole part about Esmeralda chopping off the cocks of her prisoners is—”

“Lies by our enemies!” Hannah snapped.

“Even so, you see my point.”

“The structures of society have already been destroyed. The new king abolished the Noble Court, and sends his army—our own sons, brothers and fathers—to kill us! If we don’t stop him, all of us will be put under his heel. Esmerelda knew it was coming. She knew it was only a matter of time before those with most of the power took away what little the people had left. If you have any love at all for your country, you’ll help us.”

I put my head in my hands. “Why am I always called to duty? Even when I’m convicted of treason, I’m guilted with my loyalty!”

“Maybe someone up there is just giving you second chances.” Hannah said, “You have a chance to do it right this time.”

I sighed, and kneaded my brow. “I told you, there’s nothing I can do.”

“You know that’s not true, Adrianna.” She said softly.

I closed my eyes, and took one breath, then another. I let them both out, and they steamed in the cold air, and joined the scant smoke that billowed whitely from the fire. “Fine then. Take me to Esmerelda.”

SHERMAN HUNTIATA

Catherine Jonias guided me into a warehouse she owned. It was off the docks of the merchant district, and since wartime rationing, it looked like the place hadn’t gotten much use. She lit an oil lamp, and directed me through the dank corridors until we came upon a cellar door. Water dripped freely from cracks in the ceiling, and rats scurried away from the light. Huge spiders made webs in the corners, their many eyes glinting, their shadows forming large arachnid nightmares.

“This doesn’t seem like your kind of place.” I muttered behind her.

“How would you know what my kind of place is, Sherman?” she asked, and opened the door. Green light spilled out from the staircase, and she walked deftly down it, ignoring the centipedes and roaches that scurried underfoot. She turned her lamp off when we came into a large chamber. And there, in the middle of it, lay Elena Straltaira. Eight thick tubes were inserted into her every orifice, and scores of smaller-gauged tubes were pierced into her veins and arteries, the clear capillaries filled with dark blood. A pump and pinwheel served as the dynamic parts of a contraption that seemed to force her chest to rise as though breathing. Her flesh was pallid and tinted blue, her eyes were milky and rolled back, and the inside of her mouth was black. She was as dead as dead could be.

“What the fuck?” I gasped.

“I saw her fall from the high tower and crash into the bay. I had my manservant fish her out of the water, and I checked for a pulse. When I found one, I had her rushed here. I secured her necklace and gave it to Lucas as proof of her death.”

“I mean what the fuck are you doing to her?”

“My mage is not very skilled in healing, so we had to employ… different methods.” She said, “Elena fell hundreds of feet and hit the water on her back. Six vertebrae were broken, all her limbs were shattered, and several organs were damaged, but her brain only suffered a concussion.”

“She’s dead.”

“Very-much so.” Catherine nodded, “We had to stop her heart to fix her. This is an artificial heart. It mimics the pumping of blood to keep her organs fresh so that necrosis doesn’t occur, but everything is shut down except for her brain. Javi—that’s my house mage—he’s devoting all his energy to keeping her brain alive.” She gestured to the corner, where a little bald man was sitting cross-legged, his eyes rolled back and alight with magic, the astral stone on his forehead illuminated, sending a faint beam from his head to Elena’s.

I walked over to the table Elena was laid out upon, and watched Catherine’s hands move deftly across the corpse, magic illuminating from her fingertips.

“You’re a mage?” I asked.

“I was always astute in academics; it’s people that I struggle with. Even so, I am but a novice at magic. If she had a broken arm, perhaps I could heal it, but her body has been destroyed. Living tissue is very hard to fix with magic, but dead tissue is just meat. As long as we keep the rot away, all we’ll have to do when I’m done is restart her heart, and wait for the body to wake up.”

“It can’t be that easy.”

She snorted. “Nothing about this is easy. If it works, it will be because I’m very lucky, not because I’m very good.”

I looked levelly at her until her eyes could not avoid mine. “Catherine…”

Her eyes shot down. “I’m sorry for deceiving you, Sherman, but you would make as terrible a king as I would make a queen. Elena, on the other hand, has all the prerequisites.”

“She’s a dark-blood.”

“A hybrid.”

“Our people won’t see the difference.”

Catherine nodded, and whispered an incantation under her breath. She touched Elena’s brow, and Elena turned red, then purple, then green with yellow polka-dots. She turned her back to her normal color, and gave me a frank look.

“That doesn’t change what’s inside.” I said.

“You know all about what’s inside, don’t you, Sherman?” She smirked. “And it’s what’s on the inside that I’m after. I believed that the war could be won because Lucas told me to believe it. Well, the war is lost. It was always lost. As the decades roll by, more and more of Elena’s kind will come into the world. Have you not heard the stories that come out of Alkandra? Have you not seen it with your own eyes? These hybrids are a different kind of elf. They’re smarter than us, faster than us, and they’re ageless. Need I say more?”

“They fuck better than us.” I grumbled.

She rolled her eyes. “They’re just better than us, Sherman, and they’re going to be everywhere. We have a chance now to get ahead of the curve. They’re still half-high-blood; who’s to say they can’t be Highlanders?”

“Catherine,” I said cautiously, “you hate Elena, you hate Yavara, and you hate Alkandra and everything it stands for.”

“Yes, I do.” She swallowed; her face become paler. “But I hate Lucas Ternias too, and I still would marry him if he offered it to me. I know what must be done to save my country and my family.”

I looked back down at Elena. “She belongs in Alkandra.”

“Dispel that notion, Sherman. Elena Straltaira is a born noblewoman and second-in-line behind a despot. She belongs on the throne.”

“She doesn’t want it.”

“We’ll just have to ask her ourselves.” Catherine said, then looked to her mage, “Javi, is she ready?”

“If we wait any longer, the rot may set in,” he answered, his eyes still rolled back.

“Sherman, when I tell you to, I want you to turn off that pump. Once these tubes drain, we’ll need to take them out as fast as we can. Ready?”

“Hold on. How do you turn this off?”

“Twist the knob to the left. Ready?”

I grabbed the knob. “Ready,” and twisted it.

The blood-filled tubes slowly emptied, and color returned to Elena’s body. When the red receded completely, I started yanking the tubes out of her. I was worried at first, for the holes the tubes made were large, and they were connected to arteries, but Elena’s heart could not pump the blood out, and so there were only circular orifices left in their wake. Catherine healed them as fast as I exposed them, and less than a minute later, Elena looked like her old self. Catherine laid her hand over Elena’s heart, and cast a spell. There was an electric jolt, and Elena’s body spasmed. Catherine placed her ear to Elena’s chest, frowned, then cast the spell again. Another electric jolt, and another spasm, and this time, I saw Elena’s pulse move down the veins of her body like an internal wave. The next heartbeat was less violent, only showing in her wrists, throat, and the veins at her temples, and the third was subtler still. Catherine nodded, then removed the tube from Elena’s mouth. For a moment, nothing happened. Then there was a faint wheezing sound, and Elena’s chest rose with her first breath. Catherine clapped her hands and squealed delightedly, then turned to Javi, and made a ‘kill’ gesture with her hand. Javi’s eyes rolled forward, and the ethereal connection between he and Elena broke.

Elena’s blue irises rolled into place, and focused. She blinked, then rolled her eyes to me.

“Lady Straltaira,” I smiled down at her.

She opened her mouth, and a steady stream of red vomit flowed out.

“It’s normal!” Catherine insisted, and pushed the tube back into Elena’s mouth, “Her stomach just restarted, and her esophagus doesn’t work yet. I suggest you don’t look at the other end.” The red bile flowed up the tube for an alarmingly long time before it was completely drained, and Catherine took it out. Elena coughed painfully, which Catherine took as a good sign. “Good,” she said, nodding to herself.

“Her skin is turning yellow.” I said.

“Fantastic! Her kidneys just restarted, and they’re very stressed.” Catherine said, and prodded at a vein in Elena’s arm, “She needs a lot of fluids, and her stomach isn’t ready for them yet. Sherman, hand me that syringe, and that saline bag. It’s the bladder with an ‘S’ written on it.”

I handed Catherine the bladder and the syringe, and she connected the two with a tube before injecting it into Elena’s arm. The yellow hue of Elena’s skin began to gradually fade. “The heart, lungs, stomach and kidneys are all working,” Catherine said, “the liver is a very durable organ, and the spleen and gallbladder should be fine. The intestines, bladder, and colon are obviously working—pardon the smell—and there seems to be no problem with the circulatory system. Lady Straltaira, can you wiggle your toes?”

Elena closed her eyes, and her left big toe moved a fraction. It seemed to take all her will to do it, but it was done.

Catherine sighed in relief. “The spinal column is intact, and the nervous system is functioning. How about that, Javi?”

“Very good, my lady,” the bald man said.

“Very good indeed.” Catherine smiled proudly to herself.

Elena hadn’t taken her eyes off me. They were filled with accusation.

I knelt until we were level. “I didn’t know you were up there until too late.” I said, “The queen’s guard tried to have me arrested, and when I saw that your manor was on fire, I made a connection that wasn’t there. Ternias… well, Ternias played us all.”

She parted her lips, and struggled to give sound to them. All she could do was push air from her lungs, and breathe, “Leveria?”

I shook my head.

Tears formed in her eyes, and dripped down her cheeks and nose. Her swollen and split lips parted once more, and she breathed, “Tell me.”

“You need to rest.”

“Tell me!” She screamed silently.

I looked up at Catherine. She just shrugged, ensconced in her work. I took a long breath, and told Elena everything.

ADRIANNA

I kept my face and flesh concealed as I walked beside Hannah onto the derelict farm. Esmerelda’s camp was barely large enough to fill the pasture, and her “army” was barely a militia. There were perhaps a few dozen fighters, mostly women, and most of them were barely armed. Repurposed farm tools, hunting bows, and old family swords made up their armaments , and the armor they wore was nothing but thick pelts and dishware. They were ill-fed, poorly-supplied, and horrifically vulnerable. The only security I faced walking into the encampment were two weary guardswomen standing outside the command tent, and the only passcode they needed to let me through was Hannah’s nod. They didn’t even bother looking under my hood to see my face. A novice assassin could’ve strolled right to the center of the camp, waltzed into the command tent, and stabbed Esmerelda in the back without so much as having to say a word.

Hannah had told me much about Esmerelda, but I had intuited more about her from the way Hannah spoke of her, than from what Hannah actually had to say. Esmerelda was undoubtedly beautiful. She was likely a savage fighter, skilled and confident with weapons, capable of engendering the awe of people like Hannah, who obviously had little experience with even holding a bow, much less shooting one. She probably was an excellent orator, and could inspire meek and timid people like Hannah, who were easily swept away by bravado. Hannah’s talking points about wealth inequality and the power-hoarding of the nobles were most likely regurgitated verbatim from the mouth of Esmerelda.

Yes, I could intuit much about Esmerelda from Hannah, for Hannah was as easy to read as a children’s book. She was a country girl in the bloom of her youth, too common to rise above her station, but too pretty to feel comfortable in it. Esmerelda came along with her fierceness and charisma, and Hannah saw in her, not just a means to break the bonds of society—for it was likely that Hannah never thought much about the inequities of feudal monarchies—no, Hannah saw in Esmerelda, a symbol of what Hannah could be herself; living proof that the path set out for her could diverge, and that there was a chance to be part of something truly great. As I looked around the camp, I saw scores of ex-Hannahs; those who had already been disenchanted, and had faces that were gaunt with worry and regret. Hannah was one of the few foolish true-believers left, and I wasn’t about to let her rope me into this bullshit.

“What?” Hannah asked, “Why did you stop?”

I eyed the command tent. “Nah… I’m not going in there.”

“What?!”

“I was the commander of the rangers, Hannah. I know a doomed cause when I see one. I put down scores of them myself. I’m not getting into this.”

“But you said—”

“I said I’d see what I could do. There is nothing I can do here.” I turned toward her, “If you want my advice, you’ll leave now. Take those who you care for, and go back home. By the time you get there, everyone here will have already been massacred.”

“I’m not leaving, and neither are you!” she growled, and snatched my arm.

I grabbed her gripping hand, and easily pried her fingers off me. “You know who remembers dead rebels?” I asked, “No one. There’s no marker. There’s not even a fucking plaque. The only symbol they’ll put on your mass grave, will be Esmerelda’s mutilated body when they’re done raping and torturing her.” I yanked my arm away. “Now, I’m sure she’s a charismatic and brave woman, and maybe you have a cute lady-crush on her, but she’s not worth dying for, Hannah.”

Hannah flushed to the roots of her hair, and her face twisted.

I smiled companionably, and patted her shoulder. “Did you bring me here to impress her? Were you hoping I’d be your ticket into the dashing rogue leader’s bed chambers? Take it from someone who’s been that rogue leader; we’re not worth it. We’re self-centered, self-righteous shits, and we’ll disappoint you every time.”

Hannah snorted, and shook her head. “You think I’m that easy to read, huh?”

“You’re an open book.”

She ran her hand through her blonde mane, and let out a sigh. “Maybe you’re right, Adrianna. Maybe this whole thing is doomed. Maybe I’ll die horrifically for nothing.” She gave me a furtive look, “But you’re wrong about one thing: I’ve already fucked Esmerelda.”

My brows went up.

“Oh, yes.” Hannah chuckled, “I’ve fucked her in her bed, I’ve fucked her in the kitchen, I’ve fucked her in the barn, and I’ve fucked her in the closet.” She brought her fingers to her nose, and smelled them dramatically, “Do you want to know an even dirtier secret, Adrianna?” Esmerelda asked me with a wicked grin, “While you were asleep right next to me, I was fucking her all, night, long.”

ELENA

I was never religious, but I always believed that death was not the end. There had to be more to consciousness than the neurons and synapses that fired through my brain, but between my impact in the Bentius Bay, and my awakening in the dark cellar, there was nothing. When I opened my eyes, I could feel the passage of time, an awareness that there had been space between my last moment and my rebirth, but that space was empty for me. Nothing.

“Maybe you just weren’t aware of it.” Huntiata said.

“There was nothing to be aware of.” I croaked; my voice shot.

He washed my shoulders carefully with a sponge. My limbs floated lifelessly in the bathtub; the veins pocked with marks for where Lady Jonias had stuck me with needles. I could feel my arms and legs, but the only movement I could manage was a slight wiggling of my fingers and toes, and that seemed to take all the effort of my being.

“Time is for the living.” Huntiata said.

“What?”

“Time. When you’re dead, time doesn’t matter to you.” He planted a gentle kiss on my head, “Something had to come back when Catherine performed her witchcraft. You went away, and now you’re here again. It’s not a miracle; it’s proof of the eternal soul.”

“I sometimes forget you’re an old man.” I groaned.

“Sometimes you made me forget it.” He chuckled gently.

Catherine Jonias’s heels clicked against the stones as she made her way into view. She was always so uptight in court; her face pinched and rigid, her posture stiff and jerking, her clothes and hair seemingly bound together with such intricacy that cutting a strand from her dress might cause her to collapse like a failed ball of yarn. Now she wore a filthy hospital apron covered in my blood and awful, her hair was loose and unkempt, and her face was relaxed in satisfied exhaustion, the tight flesh now eased into subtle age-lines that framed the contours of her cheeks and the corners of her eyes in pleasant smiles. It was like I was seeing her for the first time, and she was quite pretty.

“Did Sherman fill in the blanks to your satisfaction?” She asked, sitting beside me. I could tell that she still detested me as a person, but her eyes also carried a fondness for me as her patient.

“Yes.”

“And…?”

I swallowed. “I’ll do it.”

Her brows went up. “You will?”

I smiled with cracked lips. “It was my evil plan all along to gain the throne.”

She sneered. “Ah yes. You meticulously planned for your hated rival to fish your near-dead body out of the water during the midst of a coup, drag you into a warehouse, and perform dark magic that you had no idea she possessed. Such a grand schemer you are; I never had a chance.”

I coughed a little blood with my laughter. “You were just my pawn all along!”

She gently blotted the blood from my chin. “You really were in love with Leveria, weren’t you?”

I could only nod.

She smiled pitiably at me. “You poor fool, Lady Straltaira.”

“That makes two of us, Lady Jonias.”

She offered me a small smile, and went about inspecting the puncture wounds in my arms. “Sherman was sure you wouldn’t agree to it.” She gave him a furtive look, “He said you were adamant about only supporting peace. Well, now peace is at hand. Ternias has secured it for a generation at least. You risk upsetting the balance by going for his crown.”

“There is no balance. Ternias’s kingdom is built on a lie. Too many people know what he did to gain power, and that will kill his legitimacy. If there’s no justice, then there’s just anarchy, and the Highlands will fracture into civil war.”

“Still a selfless patriot, huh?” Jonias chuckled, “Why don’t you tell me the real reason?”

I hacked up another throatful of blood. “Because that rat piece of shit had Leveria raped and sent to die, and I am going to feed him his severed balls!”

Lady Jonias snorted, and gave Sherman a look. “I told you she’d be perfect.”

ADRIANNA

Hannah—or, Esmerelda as I now knew her—was a crafty commander. The shoddy encampment I’d walked into had been a charade. Royal scouts had been tracking her movements for weeks, and so she’d strategically shed away pieces of her army, making it look like they were deserting in mass until only thirty soldiers remained to guard a run-down barn. In secret, the deserters had all rendezvoused to an abandoned mining village off the coast of the Western Sea, a mere twenty miles from Bentius. Esmerelda had a unique portal in her tent that she used to transit to the village. If the barn was ever attacked by the army, it would take no time at all for the thirty soldiers to disappear into the tent, and reappear hundreds of miles away.

“It wasn’t a coincidence that you found me at that estate.” I said from the window of her house, watching the gentry walk past us. No one yet knew of our arrival, and I dreaded the introduction.

She thumbed the portal in her hand, an ancient gemstone glowing with astral power. “This is an imperial weapon from before the age of kingdoms, when the mages threatened to take over the Highlands.”

“Where did you get it?”

Her brow furrowed. “I pulled it from the cloak of the man who raped me.”

I inspected the stone, my eyes running over the intricate knotwork and calligraphy. It wasn’t ancient Highland at all; it was old Alkandran. Zander, I thought bitterly, and a piece of the puzzle fell right into place.

“It tells me if someone has used magic within the vicinity, and it transports me to them,” Esmerelda explained. “Royal mages are our greatest threat now, and this gives us the edge.”

“Why did you feign weakness when you ambushed me in that estate? Why let me capture you?”

She smiled. “I didn’t need to feign anything. I was expecting some feckless old man to be dusting off his robes when I rounded the corner. When I saw a full-blooded Alkandran instead, well… I guess I wasn’t as brave as I thought I was.”

“You’re a general, and you can’t even properly string a bow.”

“I was a baker, Adrianna. Our best markswomen were huntresses, our best swordswomen were sugar-cane farmers, and our best calvary were cowgirls.” She gave me a stern look, “When it comes to killing, it doesn’t really matter what you were.”

“Any maniac can justify murder.”

“Is that what you did when you raided orc villages?”

“Are you a rebel or a bandit?” I snapped. “What’s your endgame? To sit on the throne yourself? To tear it all down and start over? It’s been done. It’s a cliché.”

“I don’t have a plan.”

“What?”

“After I was raped, the town formed a mob, and we killed the taxman that came a day later. Once the wrath cleared, we knew we could not go back, so we kept going forward.”

“Holy shit.” I groaned, rubbing at my head.

“Yeah…” She sighed.

I leaned back into the couch, and watched the rebels pass us by on the village walkway. It would’ve seemed like paradise to a younger, male version of me. Hundreds of capable, beautiful, young high-elf women, all dressed in makeshift armor and standing proud in their newfound empowerment. Many of them obviously had eyes for each other, though they were very subtle—just not subtle enough for my Alkandran senses to miss. Though they were rebels, their Highland traditionalism still ran deep, and homosexuality was very taboo. Still, there was love here, yes, and fear. Esmerelda might’ve been a very crafty and charismatic leader, but a directionless leader was no leader at all, and it was clear that her troops were beginning to question the cause they were following. Fracture lines were forming in the army; women huddled in groups and looking over their shoulders, women staring out at the fields over the village walls, women pacing erratically without looking where they were walking. They knew there was no going back home after what they’d done. Once the army came back, there would be inquisitions, arrests, torture and executions. The new king would make certain that every rebel was made an example of. They were trapped, and I could sense the undertone of fear beginning to boil into panic.

“Tell me what you want from me.” I said.

“To become the battle commander of this outfit, and lead my people to victory.”

“I can lead you to safety. There is no victory to be had.”

“You said the same thing at the camp. Haven’t I proved to you yet that we are more than capable?”

“When the army gets here, you’ll be outnumbered a hundred to one, and those will be seasoned fighters.”

“Our sons, brothers and fathers.”

“A few of them, yes. To the rest, you’re all just uppity, murderous whores, and they’ve been getting their asses kicked for months by an uppity, murderous whore.”

“Victory is my only condition.”

“I don’t care.”

“You don’t have a choice, Adrianna.” She laughed harshly, “You’re a traitor of two nations, and you have nowhere to go. Do you believe it was coincidence that brought you here? It was fate.” She reached out, and touched my hand with her fingertips. “You’re easy to read, Adrianna. You’ll do as I ask, because you think it’s your ticket back to Alkandra. There must be a woman waiting for you there, perhaps one of the famed hermaphrodites of the court. Will she wait for long?”

“She’ll put a blade in my eye if she ever sees me again.”

“But at least you’ll get to see her one last time.”

I laughed bitterly, and ran my hands through my hair, my mind working. Being a battle commander of a woefully outnumbered and outclassed unit was actually rather simple. There was one path to victory, and it was probably suicide, but it was the only choice.

“Well…?” Esmerelda asked.

I looked at her, studying her face carefully. “You’ll give me full command?”

“Yes.”

“You’ll never question my orders?”

“No.”

I nodded. “Ok then. Come daybreak tomorrow morning, we’re moving out.”

“Why? The army is marching a hundred miles in the wrong direction to find us. No one will know we’re here for weeks at least.”

“The army will be at Bentius in five days, Esmerelda.” I said, “If you want to win, then we need to get there first.”

ELENA

I was in one of Lady Jonias’s plush bathrobes, seated at the head of the long table of her mansion in the Noble District. After I’d been cleaned and properly evaluated, they’d stuffed me in a shipping box full of hay, tossed fifty pounds of women’s clothing atop me, and nailed it shut with a hundred more nails than necessary. I’d been tossed unceremoniously into a gondola, and transported by canal back to the noble district. Lady Jonias’s cargo had been inspected lazily by some disinterested guards who’d likely been drafted for the job. They gave up with my container after three minutes, and let us go on our way. From there, I was hauled upright, wheeled into the house, then dumped into a wheel chair. I now sat in that chair, and contemplated the people sitting at the long table with me.

There was Sherman Huntiata and Catherine Jonias, of course, and one other man: Lord Harold Feractian.

“Your Highness,” he said, dipping his head, “I came as soon as I got Lady Jonias’s message.”

Your Highness? I thought, and struggled to keep my face composed. There would be no getting used to that, ever. There was only one queen of the Highlands, and she was either already dead, or wishing she was. I immediately silenced that part of my mind.

“I thought you were in the country, fighting a rebellion?” I asked Lord Feractian.

He smiled. “Once word got out from my barons that the city watch would soon be coming, the rebellion splintered to nothing. I know I have you to thank for that, and since Ternias was content with letting my province burn, there is only one royal I now recognize.”

“I thank you for your loyalty. I know it was well-earned.” I said, then looked to the other two. They looked expectantly back at me, and I sighed. “We don’t have a plan, do we?”

“That’s why we’re here right now, isn’t it?” Feractian asked, looking around the table.

Jonias nodded. “I have twenty-one bannermen in town, and one mage—two including me.”

“I have ten bannermen in town.” Huntiata said.

“And I have fourteen.” Feractian finished, “So together, we are forty-five strong.”

“Forty-six.” Sherman said gruffly, laying a scarred fist on the table.

“Forty-seven.” I answered, flopped my lifeless hand beside his fist, and dared anyone to challenge my proclamation.

Feractian laughed, and pounded his hand on the table. “Forty-eight then!”

Jonias twisted her lips, and daintily placed her finger on the table. “Forty-nine, if it comes to that. I imagine I’ll be a dead woman if it fails anyway, and I rather die in the streets than in the dungeons. Still, there must be a better way than violence. Forty-nine leaves us outnumbered more than ten to one.”

“It will most-certainly come to violence, Lady Jonias,” I said calmly. “It is the application of violence that we must now concern ourselves with. We will only get one shot.”

“Ternias is a paranoid man,” Huntiata said. “If he didn’t think us all wholly defeated, he would’ve had us executed or assassinated already. Still, he barricades himself in the castle, fearing a revolt from the lower wards. He will only present himself to the people after the army has arrived, and his power is secure.”

“He fears a revolt from the lower wards?” I queried.



“The war was unpopular with the farmers and villagers, as they felt its effects most keenly, but the metropolitans were in full support of it.” Jonias answered.

“The metropolitans can’t much distinguish between orcs and farmers as it is.” Huntiata said with a wry smile, “If you don’t wear lace and raise your pinky when you drink, you might as well be an ape to them. They’re high-class, no-substance people, but make no mistake, they’re just itching to get the guillotine out.”

I glanced at Jonias, who was giving Huntiata an angry look. “You disagree, my lady?”

“With the lord’s assessment of high-minded forward-thinking individuals, yes. Rolling in manure and mud doesn’t make you ‘down to earth;’ it just makes you smell like shit.”

“You can roll in the pig shit and mud with me anytime, sweetheart.” Huntiata sneered at her, then glanced side-eyed at me.

I scowled at him with one side of my face, and gave an imperceptible wink with the other, then turned to Lady Jonias. “I take it you have investments in the lower wards, my lady?”

“I am well-connected with high-society,” she said with an imperious tilt to her chin.

“Find me allies then. Not artisans and craftsmen, my lady; dangerous allies.”

She huffed. “You underestimate the danger artisans and craftsmen pose, Lady Straltaira—”

Your Highness.” I interrupted. I may not have liked the title, but if anyone was going to call me it, it would be her.

“Not yet, you’re not, you Alkandran whore!” She snapped, “And as I was saying, a good propaganda poster can do more damage to a tyrant than a thousand swords. I know just the man for the job.”

“Then I’ll leave you to it.” I said grumpily, admiring her a little for her persistent bitchiness. I turned to Feractian. “Besides your men at arms, what kind of support can you bring?”

He stroked his blonde beard. “What little money I had after Leveria emptied our coffers is now gone. I don’t know what support I can get you within the city that doesn’t require my wallet.”

“What of your barons?”

He raised his brows. “What of them?”

“Yes, Your Highness, what of them?” Lady Jonias sneered, her blue eyes swimming with mirth. Of course she knew.

“Your barons are quite… friendly… with me.” I said carefully, “If they have connections within the city that can be leveraged, I’m sure they would do it for me.”

The oblivious lord seemed quite surprised. “I’ll have to contact them then. I’m sure they have resources at their disposal.”

“Tell them who sent you.” I said.

“Is that wise?”

“Tell them my secrets won’t die with me.”

Fraction’s brows went up even more, but he did not object. I turned to Sherman Huntiata. “My lord?”

He opened his hands helplessly. “My only power was the city watch, and that has been stripped from me.”

“Totally? Completely?” I asked, “There’s not one man in the watch who would, say, give details on patrol schedules and guard changes? Not a single one of your ‘loyal boys’ who betrayed you the moment Ternias took power?”

His face fell in shame. “If I knew… if I—”

“I’m not blaming you, my lord; I’m making a point. Money bought your men’s loyalty, which means it is for sale. We only need to fill one man’s pockets—the right man, whoever that may be. I’m sure you know who that man is.”

He nodded. “I’m sure I do too.”

“Good.” I smiled, “Very good. All of you, keep low profiles. Lady Jonias has transformation potions that can be used for when you need to leave your homes. You’ll be disguised as one of your servants, and you’ll leave when their shifts change. Make sure you’re not being followed, and if you are, don’t do anything to attract attention. If Ternias gets even a whiff of a conspiracy, he’ll kill you all just for peace of mind. This is the most dangerous time for him, and so it is the most dangerous time for us.”

“Aye.” Huntiata said grimly.

“You are dismissed.” I said. The nobles stood up, bowed, and left the room—except for Lady Jonias, as it was her room. When the others were done giving their salutations, and the door closed behind them, it was only her and I.

I shifted awkwardly in my wheelchair. “I uh… I think I need your help to get around.”

“I know.”

“When will I get better?”

“With my help, in a week.” She said, watching me expectantly.

“What?”

“My services aren’t free, Lady Straltaira—can I call you Elena? Of course I can. I saved you, I brought you back to life, and now I am putting you on the throne of the Highlands. I am owed a queen’s ransom, if I do say so myself.”

“What do you want?”

She tilted her head, studying me. “The Tiadoanas province, the Terninianas province, and the Droughtianas province.”

I practically choked. “No!”

She smiled cruelly. “Yes.”

“That’s nearly half the kingdom! The Noble Court—”

“I have no interest in the Noble Court, Elena.” She said gently, raising her hand to silence me. “I never have. It’s a game I detest, but it was one I had to play. No longer. You can appoint your lackies to represent those provinces, I don’t care, but I will ultimately rule over their interests. Give me a title, something innocuous enough that it doesn’t draw too much attention. ‘Royal Consultant’ should be good.”

“And then?” I growled.

“And then, I’m free. My family will no longer own me, I’ll be richer than god herself, and I’ll leave this worthless nobility to pursue avenues of actual worth.” She spat on the table, “Politicians. Has there ever been anything so useless?”

“Greedy whores.” I muttered.

She sneered at me. “Does the queen need her diaper changed?”

I shifted, and felt the warm squishiness between my cheeks. I sighed. I hadn’t even noticed. I would be incontinent for at least another day, and wouldn’t have my full strength back for several months. If I could stand by the end of the week, it would be a miracle.

“The queen has indeed, shat herself.” I grumbled, and bowed my head pitiably as Lady Jonias laughed musically, and wheeled me to the bathroom.

ADRIANNA

The rebel army stared slack-jawed as Esmerelda led me hand-in-hand through the village. She kept her chin held high, and so did I, though it itched with the expectation of a blade. My eyes faced forward, but my vision was focused on the periphery, watching for hateful hands to reach for knives. I remembered well how much high-elves despised those of other races, and I was the very worst; not just a dark-elf, but a bastardization of high-blood, my silver-blonde hair and blue eyes shining just like theirs, a mockery. My hands stayed in my robes, gripping the daggers I had concealed in the sleeves. These women were killers, yes, but not well-trained. I could cut my way through fifty of them with enough luck.

We reached the center of the village, and stepped upon a platform there. Five-hundred high-elf faces stared at me from all directions, their bewildered expressions and scrutinizing eyes collectively solving the puzzle that was me. Though I was in more clothes than I’d been in since my transformation, I’d never before felt so naked.

“Sisters and mothers.” Esmerelda said, addressing them all, “Our brothers and fathers are returning to us with thirsty swords.”

There was an uncomfortable murmur, and Esmerelda silenced it with her raised hand. “We fought to send a message to Bentius, a proclamation that we—the downtrodden and exploited—would no longer be slaves to their avarice. The message was well-received, but it fell upon deaf ears.” She paused, then said, “But our message was heard elsewhere. Queen Yavara Alkandi was once a princess of this land, a high-elf like you and me, and she remembers the plight of—”

“We don’t fight for the Dark Queen!” someone cried from the crowd, and there was a roar of approval.

“Send that abomination back in a box to her whore mistress!” someone else yelled, and there was another concurrent roar.

“I’d rather be sentenced to the rack than follow that thing! At least then when I die, I won’t have to face the judgement of God!” another one proclaimed to the wrathful adulation of the devolving rebellion.

Esmerelda raised her hand for silence, but she was not heeded. The murmurs became growls, and the growls became a growing rumble, the crowd only seconds away from becoming a mob.

“We need help!” she screamed over the noise, “If we have the backing of Alkandra, then we can—”

The crowd went silent. Esmerelda went silent. Her panicked blue eyes slowly drew from the audience, to the blade I rested against her throat.

“Trust me.” I whispered, “This is the only way you and I get out of this alive.” I looked over Esmerelda’s shoulder, my front pressed to her back, only the top of my head exposed to the crowd. “Did you see how easy that was?” I called to them, “It took nothing more than some honied words and a smile to get me this far.” I wrenched Esmerelda’s face to the side, and licked her cheek, flicking my tongue with a smile. She hissed, not quite as disgusted as she probably should’ve been, but the onlookers didn’t notice, for they were staring daggers into me. “What a cute thing your rebel leader is,” I mused airily, turning her face this way and that, “I heard she was publicly raped by her own taxman. It was the price for her village’s debts. Well, the Dark Queen’s services aren’t free either. What should I do with her, do you think?”

Adrianna?!” she hissed.



“Trust me!” I hissed back. I turned my attention to the crowd, and grinned wickedly. “Well?” I queried, “Should I fuck her right now? Or are you all waiting for the army to come and do it? Then you can watch them pass her around from officer to officer before they start cutting her open and pulling things out. Is that what you want to see?” I traced my hand down Esmerelda’s front, and made a slicing motion across her belly. “I heard the screams get higher the emptier you become.” I said, eyeing the archers readying their bows, “I wonder what music your dear leader will make when they unravel her?”

I pushed Esmerelda forward, and she stumbled to her knees. The archers loosed. Ten arrows came for me from the rooftops, all at different speeds, none too accurate. I side-stepped three of them, tilted my head to dodge a fourth, pivoted and twisted to dodge four more, then snatched the last two out of the air, and tossed them on either side of me, their tips imbedding into the platform, their hafts quivering with released energy. The archers all gawked. Esmerelda gawked. The entire army gawked. Only a distant crow could be heard in the pervading silence that fell over them. All eyes were locked on me, horrified, enraptured. I let my loose robe fall from my outstretched arms, and slide from the curves of my body until my spectacular nudity was exposed, my bronze flesh and supple curves all canvased in tattoos, all sculpted over hard muscle. A warrior the likes of which they’d never seen, a savage of legend, a wonder to behold. I knew I was better than all of them, and I wasn’t going to feign modesty.

“I am Adrianna Alkandra, formerly Thomas Adarian of the Highland Rangers, traitor of two nations.” I said softly, but all could hear it, and all were listening very carefully. “I don’t carry the power of the Dark Queen with me; she would kill me if she ever saw me again. I am an exile like all of you. I stand before you as a woman who has nothing left but the child in my belly. Call me an abomination. Call me a heathen. Call me whatever you like, and it is all true. It doesn’t matter. The men who are coming won’t differentiate between the heathen abomination, and you.” I reached to my side, grasped Esmerelda’s hand, and hauled her to her feet. I continued the motion upward until our joined hands were thrust in the sky, high and proud before the masses. “Do you think you will be forgiven for what you have done? Those bastards that rule this land don’t know what forgiveness is! The only thing they know is strength, and the only strength they know is fear! Together, will show them why they should fear us! Together, we will show them how strong we are! We are going to Bentius! We are going to break down the gates of the palace, and we are going to end a thousand years of tyranny in one bloody night!”

These country-girls had never seen even a glimpse of such glory in all their days; how could they not cheer me? They raised their arms, and roared. Some had tears streaking down their cheeks, some were grinning from ear to ear, some were screeching like banshees, and all of them were in awe of me. I was spectacular, a vision, a radiant angel delivered straight from hell. And as I looked across the mob of Highlanders that had been so easily turned by my words, I realized I didn’t care about them at all. These had been my people, and now I viewed them more as livestock. I would send them all to the slaughterhouse for just one chance to get back home. My real home. Alkandra.

“How did you know that would work?” Esmerelda yelled in my ear over the noise.

“I didn’t’!” I smiled at her, but she wasn’t smiling back.

ZANDER

I sighed as I sat down in my chair, and opened a book. Not a second later, my bedroom door burst into a thousand splinters with a deafening crack. A white figure emerged from the debris, and moved so fast that the falling shards of wood seemed to float by him. He tore through the floorboards with his pounding feet, every step propelling his eight-foot frame closer toward me, his strides covering five paces in one bound. He flexed his mighty legs, his teeth bared, and he launched himself atop of me, clamped his hands around my head, and tore it clean off my shoulders. A moment later, he was suspended in air, snarling and swiping helplessly at the projection I had displayed in the chair while I hid in the closet.

“Drake Titus,” I called, stepping from the closet, “I’d say I was disappointed in you, but I understand that love makes even the most rational of us crazy.”

He hissed at me, his usually-calm visage turned to a horrifying display of predatory savagery; every vein bulging, every tooth sharp and bright. Then, just as soon as he’d come across the room to attack my apparition, he calmed himself. He cleared his throat, adjusted his black hair, tidied his robe, and dabbed the spittle from his face.

“Well, this is rather embarrassing,” he said in his posh accent, “would you be so kind as to put me down?”

“No, I don’t think I will.” I chuckled, and walked toward him, “Not until I tell you that Adrianna is alive.”

His brows went up. “I beg your pardon?”

I released him from the spell, and he dropped gracefully to the floor. “Adrianna is alive.” I said simply, “I broke your connections with her, then exiled her. I don’t doubt that she’s in the Highlands right now, doing whatever it is she needs to do to get back here.” I tapped the floor with my staff, and my chair slid behind me. “I’m glad that there’s love still left in that black heart of yours, Drake, but I fear it’s rather misplaced.”

Titus swept his robes away, and sat down opposite me. “Don’t be ridiculous, Zander; Adrianna is my blood-child, and I defend all my blood-children the same. And besides, Adrianna is the kind of woman you find once in a lifetime. She’s fierce, highly-intelligent, charismatic, fearless, cunning, classy, beautiful, and compassionate. She’s a seasoned battle commander, a crafty diplomat, a visionary governess, and a great leader. Oh, and she’s also an absolute animal between the sheets.”

“Yes, she is all of those things, and she’s also not in love with you at all. She used you.”

Titus just grinned. “Who am I, Zander? I’m Drake-fucking-Titus. Adrianna will come around eventually.” He gestured to the empty chair where my apparition had been, “You were expecting me, I see.”

“I was.”

“I imagine you have a conversation planned for us then, and the topic of that conversation is: why did you keep Adrianna alive, why did you lie about keeping her alive, and are you about to ask me to betray Yavara?”

“I lied about keeping Adrianna alive because Yavara would have searched for her endlessly if she thought she still lived. I kept Adrianna alive because I need you, and I knew you would never help me if she were dead. I need you because your mother is Gloria Titus. I need Gloria Titus because she is the only woman alive who can confirm or disprove a suspicion of mine. I am not asking you to betray Yavara, but I am asking you to keep this a secret, for now.”

“Depending on whether your… suspicion is proved or disproved?”

“Exactly.”

Titus tapped his temple, studying me. “I can intuit much from your request, and I like none of it.”

“What exactly can you intuit?”

“The only reason you would need Mother, is for her blood-memory. The only reason you would need her blood-memory, is because she tasted Alkandi. The only reason you would need that information, is if you think something is wrong with the current Dark Queen.” Titus tapped his temple with more force, his intelligent red eyes scrutinizing every inch of my face, “I can tell you what’s wrong with her right now. I can smell a woman’s menstrual cycle, you know.”

“I actually didn’t know that, and I also didn’t want to.”

“Yavara’s is irregular. She ovulates, but her body rejects the egg, making her infertile.”

“She’s infertile?”

He smirked. “I guess I know something you don’t.” He cocked his head, “Dark-elves are notoriously fertile. They can mate with any creature and become pregnant. So, why is Yavara infertile?”

“Incubus mutation, perhaps? Her mother laid with one, and you know how those offspring are.”

“I’ve tasted Yavara, and there is nothing genetically wrong with her. There’s certainly nothing sexually wrong with her.” Titus frowned, and puzzled over something for a moment. “Incubus mutation…” he muttered, “Adrianna once told me she thought Yavara’s ability to transform people to hybrids was a result of her incubus venom, but like you said, Zander, incubi only change the offspring of those they infect, not the host-mother. Why is it, do you suppose, that Yavara has the power when none of her predecessors did, and furthermore, why is it that she can only change elves?”

“Do you have a working theory?”

“The question arose to me just now.” Titus narrowed his eyes at me, “Zander, why are you even humoring me right now? If you were ignorant of Yavara’s infertility, then you must be concerned about something else.”

“My concerns are my own.”

“You know they won’t be for long,” he smiled wryly, “I’m going to learn them when you answer this question: what exactly are you trying to find out from my mother?”

I stroked the top of my staff. “It is said that Gloria’s palate is so refined, that she can taste beyond blood. She can… detect the flavor of the soul.”

Titus sat back, the realization dawning on him. “Kindred spirits,” he muttered, “you think Yavara wasn’t meant to be the Dark Queen!”

“It’s just a suspicion!” I growled, “Nothing more!”

“But it makes so much sense now, don’t you see?!” Titus laughed, “The hybrids! The transformation isn’t a magical ability! It’s the result of spiritual instability! Alkandi merged with her high-elf hosts through orgasmic sex, and so when Yavara has orgasmic sex with a high-elf, there’s a partial merge! A failed transformation! That’s why they only become half dark! Zander, what happens when Yavara fucks the woman who was supposed to be Alkandi?!

“Enough!” I roared, “I made a mistake talking to you! I made a mistake letting that Highland ranger-bitch live—all of them, Elena especially! All they do is poison Yavara with stupid ideas, take her off the path she was born for! Yavara is the Dark Queen, she always was meant to be the Dark Queen, and that’s that! I’m just being haunted by the parting words of a spiteful, dead, orc!” I pointed an accusing finger at Titus, though it was really meant for me, “I’m just an old man filled with regret, trying to makes sense of why all my triumphs feel like failures!”

Titus looked at me with a bemused smile. “Ah, so you are human after all.”

I took a deep breath, and dried my eyes. “I guess we both showed our human sides to each other today, Drake. Neither of them are very pretty.”

Titus nodded. “Fine then. I’ll go to Mother, but I’ll need Yavara’s blood.”

“You’re her blood-father; it shouldn’t be hard for you to get it from her.”

“I’ll also need the blood of the other woman.”

I frowned. “I’ll have it tomorrow.”

ELENA

Lady Jonias levitated me from the bathwater, the magic coming off her fingertips like tendrils of dusty light. Her entire face was contorted in exertion, the veins standing on her forehead, her eyes bulging slightly. When she laid me on the makeshift hospital bed she’d made of a table and some towels, she let out a great sigh of relief.

“I wonder if it would’ve been easier just to pick you up and carry you,” she said breathily. She mopped the sweat from her brow, her blonde hair disheveled and hanging in strands about her face, her cheeks flushed, renewing her mid-thirties portrait with elven youth. She was in her evening gown, and though the garb was modest, it was revealing enough for me to see her robust breasts heaving from her bodice, the alabaster globes glistening in the candlelight with tantalizing droplets of sweat. She grabbed a nearby towel to begin blotting me dry, and I knew the moment I felt her touch upon my flesh, that a new part of my body had awakened from its deathly state.

“Sorry.” I groaned, wishing for the first time in my life to be impotent before a beautiful woman.

“Sorry?” Lady Jonias asked with a confused look, “Elena, did you shit yourself again?! If I have to give you another bath, I’ll boil you alive-- oh…” She noticed the five inches of fun that was throbbing between my legs, and she slowly retracted herself from me. “I see your sexual organs have… awakened. That’s… good…”

“Sorry.” I grumbled again, feeling myself blushing.

She stepped back from the bed, and examined my penis with a clinical eye. After a while, she said, “I thought it would be bigger.”

“Fuck you.”

She shrugged. “All anyone in the Noble Court ever talked about was how good a lay you were. Feractian’s barons made it sound like you needed a wheelbarrow to haul your goods around. Of course, the dresses you wore to court never left much to the imagination, but I’ve been told a man’s full potential is sometimes concealed.”

“There’s more to a dick than its size.” I muttered, now insulted and embarrassed.

She shrugged again. “I wouldn’t know.”

“What do you mean?”

“There’s no further explanation.”

“You’re a virgin?” I scoffed, “All those times I called you a whore…”

“I’m an unwed noble girl from a traditionalist family. Obviously, I’m a virgin.”

“Don’t most rich girls just get their hymen’s repaired before the wedding?”

“Or they prick their fingers, but my family was very protective of my virtue, and made certain I kept it.” She smiled ruefully, “I turned down every man they sent to me out of spite. Now that I’m older, I wish I hadn’t let them dictate my happiness.” Her eyes became slightly distant, “If you don’t fall in love when you’re young, you’ll never learn to. That’s what my mother always said, but what did she know? She never loved my father. All I learned from her was how to use marriage as a tool for advancement, and so I became her despite myself. Perhaps she was a spiteful twenty-something too.” She glanced down at me. “What’s it like to be in love?”

“It’s a surrender, I guess. Giving up yourself to become ‘we’ instead of ‘me.’”

“Is it truly all it’s made out to be?”

I shifted uncomfortably. “You’ll never realize there’s something missing in you if you never know it’s there. For you, maybe never finding love is better. I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, ‘something missing?’’’

“There’s something missing in all of us, and there’s another person out there who knows just how to find it.”

“Yavara is that woman for you.”

“She’s one of them.”

“And Leveria was the other.” She said, then laughed to herself.

“What’s so fucking funny?!”

“Oh, nothing. I was the one who tried to get Ternias to turn you against the queen, but after meeting with you before the battle, he said you would never do it. When I asked him why, he couldn’t give me a straight answer; it was just a feeling he had about you. Ternias was all-logic all the time. His non-answer was the first time I became suspicious of him. Ergo, I thought he must’ve been grooming you to be his bride behind my back. That was why I hated you so much in the court, and that was why I eventually betrayed Ternias to Leveria.” She blotted at her mirthful tears, “But too late, of course. Everything I do is too late.”

“If only I’d been more of a bitch to you in court, perhaps all of this could’ve been avoided.” I laughed bitterly.

“Perhaps.” She sighed, “But I don’t know how a woman like you could fall in love with an evil bitch like Leveria Tiadoa.”

“Maybe we just have a lot in common.”

She gave me a serious look, and shook her head. “I don’t like you, Elena, but you’re a good woman; perhaps the best of us. If you love Leveria, it is because opposites do indeed attract.”

I rolled my eyes. “You’re old enough to be my mother, and yet you’re so naïve.”

She laughed humorlessly. “I’m old enough to know people much better than you do. You think you’re special, but you’re still too young to realize you’re not unique despite all your… novelty.” Her eyes fell upon my cock once more. “Does this conversation excite you?”

“It won’t go down unless I come. It’s a blessing and a curse.”

She gave me a dirty look. “How many girls have fallen for that one?”

“It’s true.” I insisted.

“Can you use your hand?”

I lifted my arm, and my hand flopped uselessly from my wrist. I tried to will the fingers into motion, but they were numb and sapped of strength. I looked at Catherine Jonias with a pitiful expression. She looked from my face, to my crotch, then back to my face again. She laughed, then levitated me off the table, and tossed me unceremoniously into the bed.

“Goodnight, Your Highness.” she called as she walked out of the room, and slammed the door shut behind her. My wagging cocked waved its salutation back, the head throbbing and purple. It would not be a good night. As the silence filled my ears with dwindling boom of the slammed door, my thoughts filled with Yavara and Leveria.

“Please, Yavara,” I whispered to the night, “be better than your sister.”

ADRIANNA

Esmerelda’s army was loosely organized. There were no official officers, nor rankings of any kind. Hierarchy was formed based on the skillset of the individual, and how important that skillset was for a particular mission. In a raid, a bruising stonemason might become a captain, but in a scouting mission, a stealthy huntswoman would be in charge. It worked well for a group of untrained militias operating in squads, but it was a terrible structure (or lack thereof) for any army. Esmerelda couldn’t be both an agent of liberty and a disciplinarian. Her all-volunteer force relied on a perception of individual autonomy, and so she cultivated loyalty through her own actions and bravery. Her troops loved her, it was obvious, and I didn’t doubt many would die for her, but she had erred when the theme of her rebellion had been vengeance, and not hope. Wrath was a bright and fast-dying flame, but hope burned softly and persistently.

A fire crackled in the hearth of the village hall, and I sat before it on the furs. It was deep into the night, and almost all had retired to sleep, but a *********** few had stayed up with me. I had worked the women to the point of exhaustion all day, training them in the areas they were deficient, organizing them into a semblance of command so that the outfit could at least move as one. As a ranger commander, I had always instructed with a gentle hand, using positive reinforcement and constructive discipline to carefully mold my soldiers. There was no time for that now, and I no longer had the patience. I had been brutal. If someone stepped out of line, I humiliated them. If someone confronted me, I beat them into submission. If someone broke down, I harried them mercilessly until they were spurred back into action. Some hated me, some admired me, and some were terrified of me, but all of them respected me by nightfall. I doubted it would make a bit of difference. One afternoon of bootcamp hardly made a soldier, but it was the best I could do. Now, with their bodies bruised and battered, and their minds numb with fatigue, it was time to plant my seed of hope.

“In Alkandra,” I said into the fire, “the nobility and the homeless walk together in the streets. There are no districts, nor classes, nor castes. I was the governess there, but I was no better than a common street-whore.”

“How is that possible?” Sienna asked. She was a woman much like Esmerelda; brave, charismatic and idealistic. There were many such women in the camp, and their aura made them natural leaders. These leaders emerged from groups under times of stress, so as I ran the army through my rigorous drills, I’d searched the rows of women for those who others looked to. When I found them, I promoted them, and in securing their loyalty, I secured those who followed.

I smiled at Sienna. “What do you mean? That is how mankind is supposed to live; it’s people like King Ternias and Queen Tiadoa who corrupted it all.”

“What about laws? How do you keep everyone from… you know, killing each other?” Gianna asked. She was another captain. I had appointed five in total, each leading a hundred women. They surrounded me now—Gianna, Sienna, Alecia, Anna and Pricilla—hinging on my every word. Young, impressionable women they were, eager to please, eager to prove themselves to me. It was so easy to groom them; it almost felt like child’s play.

I touched Gianna affectionately, and she did not cringe away, but framed her cheek with my hand. “When someone wrongs you, is it your first instinct to go out and kill them?”

“No.” She said softly.

“Of course.” I said, letting my fingers play down her cheek, “It’s only tyrants who think like that. Unfortunately, we let those kinds of people tell us who we are. But we can be better. I know we can. I’ve seen it.”

“How?” Alecia asked, subtly nestling herself beside me.

I put my arm around her, and ran my fingers through her silver-blonde hair. “Society is a contract we sign with each other, and we all play our roles in it.” I slid my hand along the back of her neck, “When I awoke in the morning, I was only Adrianna. When I went to work, I was the governess, but when I left my office, I was only Adrianna again.” I smiled at her, enjoying the way she looked upon me with such girlish admiration, “Earlier today, I was your brutal commander, but now, I am just a woman.” I tilted my head, my smile broadening, “And so are you.”

Her face was like that of a porcelain doll; her lips pouty and plush, her nose pointed and narrow, her eyes big and expressive. Her breath fogged from her in the cold, but all of our bodies were warm in the furs we wore, in the glow of the fire, and in the press of our huddled forms. Five women surrounded me, all of them touching me in some way, all of them waiting for me to do what they knew I would. Oh, I had chosen my officers well. Lesbian women were already maligned by Highland society, so it was natural for them to be curious about their free-thinking enemies to the east. And here I was; beautiful and tangible, sympathetic and understanding, commanding and experienced. I would show them the way, oh yes. God, it was so easy. I closed my eyes, and kissed Giana.

An hour later, all five women were lying naked in an exhausted pile, snoring contentedly with my saliva drying between their legs. I had been rough with some, and gentle with others, but I had been dominating with all of them. Alecia and Sienna needed to be forced into submission, and so I’d ridden their faces hard and violently, lurching back and forth across their desperately-consuming mouths, making them taste my ass and pussy to the fullest as Giana and Anna nursed from my breasts, and I exchanged tongues with Pricilla. Then, I’d feasted on the two insolent whores, making them sing rapturously and sob to the ceiling with my tongue wriggling in their anuses and cunts, slathering their insides until not a single surface was left untasted. I had grinned around my meal, my face swallowed by their juicy backends, enjoying the surrendered expressions on their faces when they looked back at me. After I’d conquered them, I’d moved on to the weaker prey. Sienna and Anna, now my henchwomen in this game of lust, held down Pricilla so that I could torture her just how she liked. With my right fist all the way in her ass, and my left fist moving through her birth canal, she came so violently that she almost bucked off the women subduing her.

Anna was coy and shy, and I made love to her like it was her maiden night. At first. Then I got bored with that, and turned her cute portrait into an obscene visage of smeared vaginal nectar when I made her eat my cunt. She squealed muffled tones the entire time, for as she consumed me, I was instructing the other women on how to best torment her, and with all of their fingers in all of her holes, she became more and more of a slut until she was sloppily feasting upon me, her tongue moving with unbridled gluttony to taste every disgusting surface of my two holes.

Giana was very submissive, and never cried out nor screamed when she was pleasured. She just whispered urgently, her face contorting in the strain of ecstasy, her fingers balling into fists that were crossed together behind her back and subdued by Sienna and Anna. I made Giana lick everyone’s pussy, and she did so with relish, her cute little tongue darting out from her cute doll-like face, her mouth squeaking its cute little tones as she was forced to make each of us come. Then, rewarding her for her subservience, I made her the centerpiece of our meal, and we all buried our faces between her legs and cheeks, and comingled our tongues into her moist, pink holes. She was breathless when she came, and we left her convulsing in a puddle of her own juices while we moved on each other.

Now their snores echoed through the dark hall, and I was putting my cloak back on. I savored their scent on my fingers as I walked through the village, past guards who saluted me, through stone streets that bore windows glowing with warm fires. There were quiet sounds of lust, soft sounds of slumber, and a few hushed sobs in the night, but my feet padding the cobblestones was the pervading cadence as I walked below the pale moon, the light of dawn threatening the eastern sky. I made my way to Esmerelda’s house, and opened the door.

She was awake by the fire, mending a shirt with a needle and thread.

“Can’t sleep?” I asked her, shutting the door behind me.

“I haven’t slept for more than an hour at a time since that day.” She muttered, then indicated the couch with her head. “You can sleep there if you like.”

“So can you.”

“I just told you, I—” She looked sharply up at me, “No, Adrianna.”

I raised my brows. “Why not? Who’s going to know?”

“I said, ‘no.’” She replied.

I eased myself out of my cloak, and stepped naked into the firelight. Esmerelda couldn’t help feasting her eyes upon me, and I was spectacular in the warm flickering flame, the shadows dancing with every curve of me. “I know what it’s like to be violated.” I said softly, “I know what it’s like to be forced against my will, to be humiliated before those I love, to be made to feel pleasures I didn’t want to.” I stepped forward, “For a long time after, I wanted to keep myself locked away. Luckily, there was someone who wouldn’t let me.”

“Stay back, Adrianna.” Esmerelda whispered.

I stepped forward again, sliding my hands down the lines of my pelvis, tickling the folds of my pussy with my fingertips, then caressing the bows of my thighs. “I can heal you, Esmerelda.”

“No.”

“I can—”

“NO!” She snapped, “Are you deaf?! I said, NO!” She was quivering with rage, “I was raped in front of my father! I was made to do things I will never forgive myself for! I will never let someone else do that to me!”

I stepped forward again. “I won’t harm you.” I whispered gently.

She shook her head, a tear running down her cheek. “You’re a liar, Adrianna. I should’ve seen it before, but I see it now. You use people. It’s what you do.” She held up the sewing needle, “You won’t use me. I am refusing you! Do not ask again!”

“I thought I was easy to read?”

“I said stay back!”

I took another step forward, then stopped in place. There was nothing about Esmerelda that bespoke desire now. Had there ever been? Was I so used to being desired, that I had fabricated her attraction to me? I took a step toward the couch, and watched her as she watched me. Slowly, purposefully, I lounged into the cushions, displaying every asset I had, but she did not break. Her face was set like stone, resolute and unwavering, her eyes staring back at me with a wrath I was once familiar with. It had been me so long ago, staring at Yavara like that. She had tortured me, she had raped me, and she had forced me to watch as everything I held dear was stripped from me. Now, I would’ve wept with joy for her forgiveness. My capacity for hatred had been taken from me when I transformed, but it still burned coldly and persistently behind Esmerelda’s blue stare; that elven pride manifesting itself once more. I once thought it was something to be admired. Now, I only saw that it was infantile.

“You let that man take so much from you.” I whispered to her.

“He stole it!” She snapped.

“And you gave him the rest.” I replied coldly, “Do you think he thinks of you at all? He doesn’t even remember your name.”

“He will!”

I shook my head. “There will come a time when you’ll realize how foolish you are, and that time will be too late. I know. I was you once.” I gestured disgustedly toward her, “I was just like you, and I let that part of me fester when I should’ve let it die. Look where it’s gotten me; stuck in a room with a fucking child.”

“You can leave, Adrianna.” She whispered, “Go back to your Dark Queen and beg for forgiveness for whatever crime you committed.”

“Yavara’s capacity for forgiveness was always very small.” I muttered, “Now it’s gone. Elena Straltaira is dead.”

“Good.”

I raised my head. “What?”

“She’s the bitch who threatened to stick the city watch on us. She made a deal with the Feractian barons—those thieves, those rapists and torturers who steal country girls from their homes!” She spat onto the ground, “One more dead noble!”

“Elena Straltaira was a patriot who loved her country. She was a ranger, a—”

“She was a stupid whore-bitch who sided with evil men to gain her own power.” Esmerelda hissed, “If she’s dead, she didn’t die painfully enough. Why the Dark Queen gives a shit about her is anyone’s guess, but of course, even the Dark Queen was a noble girl once.”

“Elena Straltaira was a hybrid.”

“Liar.”

“I am not.” I said coldly, “She fought and died to save people like you from people like me.”

“People like you?”

“What am I, Esmerelda?” I said, splaying my hands, “A benevolent governess? A crafty seductress? No. Yavara put me in charge of Alkandra because I put bodies in the ground. I trained good, kind-hearted men and women to kill without mercy, to cut down mothers carrying babes and fathers shielding their daughters and sons.” I took a dagger from my robes, and slid it beneath my pillow, “And I trained them so well, that they thought they were the good guys for doing it. I’m a very special kind of evil.” I rested my head on the pillow, “I’m the kind of evil that masks horror with honor, and brutality with dignity. It’s why King Tiadoa needed me, it’s why Leveria needed me, it’s why Yavara needed me, and it’s why you need me.” I pulled the covers over myself, and nestled into the cushions. “Good night, Esmerelda.”

End of Part Fourteen.
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