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Trellig’s quarters were generously appointed, and came complete with full plumbing, right down to heated water. I was able to bathe in something approaching luxury, complete with a conspicuously-placed scented soap that in no way resembled a scent I’d actually smelt on her person; I could only guess that it was there specifically for her “guests” to make use of, and was thus a scent that pleased her.

It was as I was drying myself afterward that I became aware of some additional time pressure: criers going through the streets, announcing that the Duke was to be wed in the capital within four days’ time. The thought of such haste was impressive; he’d not be riding in any great comfort, to reach the capital in time for that.

But Trellig had also revealed that she’d not be leaving him much time to enjoy his marriage before it was cut short. And that the assassins would somehow implicate his other principal rival, against whom he’d already been stirring up whisperings of misdeeds in the form of her deploying the Army without a Queen’s right.

Either the plan would cement Wafret’s hold on the throne, or it would plunge the nation into war. And there I was, stuck in a woman’s bedchamber, waiting for her to come and be pleasured by me, unable to bear any word of all this to anyone who could prevent it from happening.

It was enough to drive a man mad. But I forced myself to keep cool, outwardly if not within. I groomed myself to the best of my ability, and I took my time; the sixth bell had just rung, and Trellig had told me to expect her for the ninth.

After the seventh bell, I had run out of things to fritter away my attention upon, I risked a nap. I tossed and turned for half the hour before finally drifting off, only to be woken by what I gathered was the eighth bell; as Trellig didn’t show by the time the bell tolled the quarter-hour, this seemed to be correct.

As the hour drew around again, I did my best to put myself in the mood, pondering some of the women I’d had the good fortune to encounter. Not least among them was Rebecca, whose fate I’d not had a chance to learn. Had Travis and Helen found her, and found her safe? Or was she already slain by the Duke’s guards?

Was all of this for naught?

I struggled to stop fretting, and to recall the pleasant times we’d had. Certainly they had been pleasant; whether the few times she’d been on heat, or the rather more numerous times she’d not, she had always been able to coax my body into vigorous response.

I was at least enough of a success that by the time the bell tolled nine times, I had myself arranged, artfully I hoped, across the bed, my fingers dancing along rigid flesh, my breath and heart a little quick. Around five minutes later, when I heard the key turn in the lock, I felt a sudden surge of trepidation, almost panic; but I forced it down, kept my fingers busy caressing my manhood.

Trellig let herself in, locking the door behind her before she turned to face me. By the sudden gleam in her eyes and the burst of lust in her thoughts, I’d arranged myself well; she prowled across the floor toward me, licking her lips, peeling out of her uniform as she did, dropping it carelessly on the floor in her wake.

Rather disturbingly, she kept hold of her pistol even when she let her breeches, and with them the holster on her belt, drop to the wood.

“You do know how to listen,” she husked, sidling up alongside the bed. “And how to present yourself, too. I’m impressed; it’s not often I see that sort of initiative in a man, certainly not in one of your like.”

“I give it my best, ma’am,” I offered. What else could I say?

“I’m sure you do,” Trellig replied, pulling the magazine from her pistol and ejecting the bullet. “Yes, I’m sure you do. Especially if you know what’s good for you. Eh? Now, let me get a good look at your face.”

Before I could even process the words, she seized my jaw, tilting my head toward hers. I had absolutely no need to feign fear; there was something subtly different about her mask, something that made her eyes seem darker, harder. Too, behind them there was a sinister intent, a harshness that could only arise in one who had not the least scrap of concern for the object of her gaze.

And this was the sort of woman in whose power I found myself. What would she do if I displeased her? She still had her pistol in her other hand; I had no doubts that she wouldn’t be shy about using it if I gave her the least cause, even one that made no sense to my mind. With her own soldiers, she’d had some call to be lenient, even as her authority let her command them to things she couldn’t seize the general citizenry of Wafret to do; but she knew I wasn’t from Wafret, and so far as she was concerned, I had nobody to care about my loss.

“Yes, yes,” she whispered. “Finally a man who knows what it means to be near a woman of authority. You don’t want to offend someone of my standing, now do you?”

Swallowing hard, I shook my head against her hand.

She clicked her tongue, a flicker of mild irritation crossing her mind. It might have been less worrying if the response had been rage; but as she reached for the abandoned magazine, all she felt was mild pique. “When I ask you a question, I expect you to answer me properly, hoblet,” she declared. “Each time you fail to do so, or otherwise fail to show me respect, I will take one step toward readying this weapon.” She rammed the magazine home until it latched into place. “Do you understand me?”

Swallowing a rising tide of panic, I blurted out, “Yes, ma’am.” It was a wonder my manhood didn’t wither in the space of a breath; she had to be on heat, to keep my blood singing in spite of my terror.

“Better,” she rumbled. She reached for me again, this time running the backs of her fingers along my manhood, right up to the outward curve of her claws. Claws that didn’t seem to be quite as blunt as I was accustomed to. “Got a good piece on you, at least. Got a good bit of experience with it, do you?”

I wasn’t sure what sort of response she wanted; I settled for honesty. “T-two years in the trade, ma’am.”

“Experience enough, then.” Her fingers slid along my right ear. “Not so much as to earn anyone’s favour yet, though? Or… nearly?”

I hoped beyond hope that she wouldn’t take it in mind to tear out the steel stud. “Not yet, ma’am. Nearly, but it’s of no matter now.”

“You’re right about that,” she rumbled, her fingers sliding down to my balls. “Oh, well. If someone was about to put her mark on you, that should at least mean that you know how to use these.”

She was mollified for the moment, though I had no doubt that that casual irritation c0ould make just as swift a return if I wasn’t on my toes. So when she ordered me to touch her, to prepare her, I paused only long enough to gain the impression that she didn’t mean only with my hands, but didn’t want my manhood just yet; then, with a murmur of “Yes, ma’am,” I moved into immediate action. I pressed my hands against her, stroking along her stomach and sides, and my muzzle into the hollow between her breasts, turning my head to nuzzle at one, then the other.

Her pistol never quite faded from my awareness, but for the time being, it was let fall to one side; still in her hand, but that hand was on the bed beside her, forgotten or nearly. Her other hand was almost tender in the way it stroked behind my ears.

She spoke words of praise – not as though to a lover, or even to a man servicing her; more as one might praise an obedient pet. But so long as she was happy, she was at least somewhat less likely to shoot me out of pique.

Lacking any further direction, I had to guess, from her motions against me and the escalating sound of her breaths, when it might be safe to go further. If I tried to soon or if I waited too long, I was rather certain that the response would be the same; as I might not notice a signal, if indeed she deigned to gave one, it was a risk I had to bear. This time, it seemed, my estimate was good – or, at least, it was good enough; my fingers, delving between her thighs, found her loose and wet, and far from chastising me, she let out a low, throaty moan, thighs squeezing around my hand.

As i fingered her, I felt her hand shift, pressing down on the top of my head for a moment; not entirely a surprising instruction, though I’d expected it to be longer in coming. As the signal had been unspoken, so too did I stay silent, though I made sure to signal my motions quite clearly as I started shuffling down along her. Once my head was in place, I swapped my fingers for my tongue, delving into her, lapping up her juices. The taste of her was enough to make my head spin, so sweet I felt my balls churning with need; oh, yes, this was a woman who was ready for a man.

I did not, however, interpret her squeeze to my shoulder either correctly or in good time; her hand lifted away from its perch atop my head, and I heard the sinister clack of a bullet sliding into its chamber. “Enough of that,” Trellig growled. “Put that hard organ to its proper use.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I gasped, even as I was pulling my head up from her, and scrambled upward. Truly, there was nothing more dangerous, more terrifyingly unpredictable, than someone who placed no weight on the taking of a life. “How would it please you, ma’am?”

“Its proper use,” she repeated, slowly and firmly, as though to a small child. “Hard, fast, deep, and now –” She cut off with a gasp, as I fit the crown of my manhood to her folds during the word ‘now’, and drove into her in one stroke before the sound of that gasp had faded.

Her body was welcoming, even if her mind was less so; it was easy to lose myself in the motion, to just hammer into her with every ounce of my strength. The claws of her free hand raked along my back, her teeth pricking at my neck, and I scraped up every reserve I had, slamming my hips against hers time and again. It was a race, now, between the pleasure I could sense building in her, and my own – and if I lost the race by reaching the end first, I wasn’t entirely sure she’d limit herself to one step at a time with her pistol.

That thought was itself sobering enough to do the trick; though it didn’t chill my arousal, it at least allowed me to keep thrusting, even as she yowled under me, her sex clutching at my manhood. Her mind screamed for more, and I kept giving it to her, stroke after stroke, though even the threat of extinction couldn’t hold my release at bay forever. However hard I tried to hold off, I felt myself starting to fray.

The sound of a key turning in the lock was jarring. She was faster to recover, hauling off of me and giving me a hard shove. Unable to catch myself in time, I tumbled off the bed, landing hard on the wooden floor; I managed to keep from wrenching my manhood between it and I, though it was pressed uncomfortably against the smooth surface when she planted a hand on the small of my back, the barrel of her pistol pressed against the back of my head.

“Roberts!” she snarled. “What is the meaning of this? These are my private quarters!”

“So they are,” replied a sardonic female voice. “A perquisite of your station which, I cannot say I regret to inform you, no longer applies. You’ve new quarters waiting for you downstairs.”

I risked a glance upward; Trellig’s full attention was on the newcomers.

And my arm was right up against the bed.

The same bed I’d slid my pistol under earlier.

Slowly, carefully, I reached out under it.

“Like all the hells I do!” Trellig hissed. “You can’t relieve me, Roberts! Your rank is no greater than mine, and the Duke left me in charge!”

A snort. “So he did. I doubt he knew you were going to snatch a man off the street and hold him against his will.”

My heart leapt. So the word had got out, by some manner or another.

And now there was reason for Trellig to hesitate in pulling that trigger, if only because it would deepen her troubles.

Besides which… she’d loaded the gun, put a bullet in the chamber, and she’d never let the hammer drop before doing so, so it was probably still cocked, but she hadn’t taken off the safety. She could do so in a moment, but right now, if she dropped the gun, or squeezed the trigger in reflex, it wouldn’t fire.

My fingers found the grip of my pistol, and I exulted, nudging it toward me as quickly as I dared, any sound it might make covered by the ongoing argument, until I could wrap my hand around the grip. Like hers, it was loaded and cocked; I, however, thumbed the safety before I proceeded to bring the weapon outward. I would have a slight lead.

“Do you have the slightest idea what you’re talking about?” Trellig snapped.

“Oh, please, Anya. I saw you push him off the bed, and I know full well that’s the only reason your gun is pointed anywhere other than at me, now.”

Stung, Trellig let out an inarticulate growl.

My hand was back against my side, clear of the bed. With equal caution, I twisted it around, aiming it upward. I couldn’t see where Trellig’s body was, not exactly, but I did know where her arm was by the way she held her gun.

“You think this one’s worth something? Fine,” Trellig spat. “Lower your weapon, walk away, and take that rabble with you, Roberts. Get in my way again, and he -”

Dies, she was about to say, but my arm was as near to in place as I could judge it, the pistol aimed upward, more or less along my back; my ears were flat. Even so, the report as I squeezed the trigger was deafening.

Blood sprayed in front of me. Through the echoes of the shot in my ears, I heard Trellig howl, heard shouts from the new arrivals. Trellig lurched to one side, off of me, her gun falling to the floor; I rolled the other way, grabbing her pistol in the process, and, keeping my own gun trained on her, came up to my knees.

The short, stocky woman in the lead, who had not a pistol but an actual rifle trained firmly on Trellig, now let the weapon shift slightly downward, her eyes widening. Behind her were two men in Wafret brown and green, their pistols drawn but held low; behind them –

“Edmond!” Elizabeth called out. Other bodies were behind her, too, other familiar forms.

Trellig tumbled over and sat heavily on the edge of her bed, clutching at her bleeding right arm. “You – you – what are you?!” She stared at me, unbelieving.

“Does it matter?” I shot back, coming to my feet. For a moment I was keenly aware that I was both naked and aroused, but for those that mattered, it wasn’t my manhood, but the pistol I held trained on Trellig’s heart, that was of interest. “I know what you are. Murderess. Betrayer. Usurper, given a matter of days.”

The shock on her face was a delight to behold. “You… you know no such thing!” she shrieked. All those who knew are dead, I made sure of it! There were no clues –

“You’re also wrong,” I snapped.

It was a strange feeling, this. Now that I was the one in power, she wasn’t so terrifying. Oh, she was a dangerous beast, doubly so for being unpredictable, but so long as my aim was steady and I didn’t allow her to distract me, she would not harm me. Not with her gun arm wounded and her pistol in my off hand.

I looked over to the other officer. “Ah – Captain Roberts, was it?”

She blinked, though her eyes stayed on Trellig. “Yes?”

“Forgive my ignorance, but what is the worth of a telepath’s words, here?”

Suddenly Trellig knew despair. “A what?

“A – why, proof in stone,” Roberts answered, “so long as he’s willing to submit to the Duke’s truthteller.”

‘You – a half-man, a hoblet like you, a -? You lie!

“Try me,” I snapped again. The tension in my right arm was making it ache; I fumbled to flip the safety lever on Trellig’s pistol from the wrong side, and then I brought it, too, to bear, only then lowering my own. “Go on. Think of a number. Any number at all.” I gave it a moment, gave her thoughts time to form. What I found there might normally have set me reeling, but I was still flush with the thrill of the narrow rescue, still riding the tide of bravado. “Or if you would rather think of the ways you’d like to mutilate and kill me – which you will not be able to do from a dungeon cell, by the way – go right ahead. Or of how much you were looking forward to marrying a Duke, no, a King. Of the power you might have wielded if only your plan had come to pass. All of your pretty little plans, tumbling down in shards around you because you chose the wrong man to rape.” She convulsed on her perch, a surge of frustration ripping through her, and I felt my muzzle quirk in a grin before I added, “Fifty-nine. You might as well believe it now, for your news is not about to get better.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Roberts lifting a few fingers from the stock of her rifle, wiggling them at her soldiers. The pair advanced, one of them ducking behind Roberts before following the other, pistols up and trained. I stepped over to the other side, as far as I could without getting into Roberts’s line of fire, allowing one of the soldiers to get to Trellig’s side without passing in front of my own weapon.

Once the man had taken hold of Trellig’s shoulder, I stepped back, letting the gun fall. I flipped the safety of my gun back into place, then brought that hand over to do the same to Trellig’s; and I stood there, suddenly dizzy, as she was marched out of the room.

Once she was gone, the familiar faces advanced toward me; ahead of them, though, was another man I’d seen earlier, first wearing the Duke’s blue and green, then plain civilian clothes, then nothing much at all; he wore civilian wear again, now. “Edmond?” he said, uncertain, reaching out to take my shoulder. “Is that your name?”

“Edmond Larson, yes,” I answered, trying to keep my eyes focused on him as the room wavered beyond him. “You?”

“Zachariah Martin,” he replied. “…Are you feeling well?”

“No,” I admitted. “I feel… rather faint.”

I had just enough time to feel his arms seizing me before the stress of the day claimed its due, and the room spun into darkness.

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