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winter prayer

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Fall had made her complacent.

Those first few months as Archivist had left Wasp in relative peace, living a new life that was – for the most part – one of relative ease. 

She had to do her ghost-work, but it was only more tedious than troublesome on the worst days. She had to forage for her food, no longer able to count on it simply being there at dinner time if she just behaved enough to earn it, but autumn was mild this year and there were still enough berries and nuts to be found to sustain her.

And though she had to deal with giving her daily reports to the Catchkeep-priest, which was never a pleasant experience, the fact that she was no longer an upstart under his roof dulled the blade of those encounters greatly. What, after all, could be so terrible about spending ten, fifteen, twenty minutes at a time exchanging acid-saturated words with the man when Wasp knew what it was to spend hours under the flaying gaze of him within his own household with no hope of leaving it for even the shortest reprieve until he deemed that she could?

Wasp now had a place of her own, a place to escape to, however temporarily that may be. Her little house may be barely big enough to fit her, may have the lingering imprint of a hundred Archivists before her occupying it, may not even be hers another year from now, but for the moment, it was a refuge. 

She did not have to share it with anyone but the jars of ghosts she sometimes brought back to it and no matter how much the Catchkeep-priest vexed her, threatened her, played with her as a cat would a mouse, she always knew that soon enough the encounter would end. She would have her leave to walk away from him, to go back to her house, to shut the door to him and the hungry looks of the upstarts and the hateful looks of the townspeople pinned to her back, and for another day, solace. 

A measure of privacy.  A sense not of peace but of fragile yet unyielding safety. The upstarts could not kill her, not yet. The Catchkeep-priest was not allowed. The townspeople would not dare. For three hundred and sixty four days, Wasp would not have to fear another living soul and the dead ones could not cross into her sanctuary unless she brought them into it. 

It was as safe as Wasp had ever felt in her life, and in those early days it was easy to let herself forget that it would not last forever.

Those first few months were not as difficult as Wasp had feared. She found a rhythm. She started a routine.  She began to think that, perhaps, being the Archivist would be worth it after all, for the continuance of all that almost-but-not-quite contentment she felt that Fall even if she had no true passion for the life she now found herself in.

But then, of course, Fall could not last forever.

As the leaves dropped from the trees to rot on the ground, so too did the temperature drop with it.

And then it dropped some more.

And some more.

And with Winter, Wasp learned just how much she’d been fooling herself, just how blinded she’d been.

Because Winter as the Archivist was nothing like Winter as an upstart before or even after she’d come into the Catchkeep-priest’s home. 

Then, there was some measure of security. Some sense that, no matter how difficult the season might be, she would get through it because she was with people who were also dedicated to getting through it and soon it would be over at last. 

In the homes of the townspeople she bounced around in as a small child, there may have been less food than she would have liked and the blankets may have been threadbare and the bedding she slept in sparse, but she had always had enough to survive even if she had nothing more beyond that; and in the home of the Catchkeep-priest, there was always more than enough – plenty of food and plenty of warmth, a plenty that she was allowed her share from as long as she didn’t displease the Catchkeep-priest and provoke him into denying it to her, for she knew she was not at the mercy of the cold, barren season so much as she was at his.

And so Wasp had walked gently, held her tongue, and shown him a respect she did not actually feel and an obedience that sometimes sickened her for how spineless it made her sound to her own ears. Spring and summer were the time to talk back, to disobey, to toe the line and see what she could get away with, how much she could push without the threat of being thrown out into the snow held over her head if she pushed too far. Winter was not the time for that, it was too dangerous; Winter was a time of being the ideal upstart and in return she would not want for anything except perhaps her solitude, a thing that no upstart would ever be allowed unless she drew her lucky straw the next year and fulfilled every upstart’s fantasy of becoming the new Archivist by killing the old one.

Now, as the new Archivist herself, Wasp had that much-desired solitude and she found herself cursing it greatly.

Solitude meant there were no townspeople in the Archivist’s house who kept a supply of food for her to take a fair share of, much less a Winter larder so well-stocked like that which belonged to the Catchkeep-priest and which he doled out from (in smaller portions than his own, of course) to the upstarts who lived with him; it meant there were no blankets, full of holes and fraying thread from years of use, sitting in a cabinet just waiting for Winter to arrive so that they could be plucked carefully out and wrapped around some shivering person’s shoulders; and it meant there was no great supply of firewood to warm the house and no upstart who Wasp might curl next to for warmth in the absence of a fire.

Solitude meant there was only Wasp and what Wasp could scavenge herself, which was very little even though she went out every day after her work was done hoping to find more, and what the townspeople saw fit to leave as offerings at her door to appease their Archivist with, which was more but still meager – so meager that Wasp was not appeased at all, and could not help but to feel a certain insult at it no matter how much she told herself that the townspeople had little to offer in the first place and she should be thankful to receive anything at all.

Still, she thought they could have offered more. Knew they could have. Wasp who had lived in their homes as a child, who had spent Winter with them, knew that as well as they surely did; she knew they were giving her not what they could spare her, but much less, and it rankled her – how could it not?

And so the days grew shorter and the nights colder and as slowly they descended into Winter one child’s footstep at a time, within Wasp began to fester a quiet but iron-strong sense of panic, of desperation, that only strengthened by the day.

She had fought so hard to become the new Archivist and yet here she was, worried that she might not last a few months after. That it wouldn’t be an upstart who killed her a year from now, but the cold in a few weeks or months. Not a blade in her throat, but her limbs turning blue in her sleep. Her body not falling to the ground in battle, but her corpse frozen on that little bed in that tiny house to be found by the Catchkeep-priest or whatever upstart he sent to check on her in the morning when she never left to do her work or the night when the day went by and she never came to give him her report. 

Other Archivists before Wasp had died in such a way, she well knew, but she had never thought she might be one of them.

She hadn’t fully grasped what it meant to be the Archivist, to be so well and truly and utterly alone in a time where survival had always before meant relying on others to see her through.

And then, just as her head was scratching at the bottom of its barrel for ideas of what she could possibly do to survive the Winter, the Catchkeep-priest came to Wasp’s door and held aloft in his hands an offer that Wasp felt powerless to refuse.

 

*

 

Wasp caught him rummaging through the latest offerings the townspeople had left at her door and was so surprised at the sight of him, at the sight of what he was doing, that she stopped in the doorway frozen in her tracks for reasons that had nothing to do with the wave of icy cold that hit her front like a body slam.

The Catchkeep-priest, for his part, did not share Wasp’s surprise. 

He didn’t even flinch at the door opening in front of him, nor did he stop his rummaging until he finally found something worthwhile – an apple, impossibly still red at this time of year, impossibly shiny and lacking in worms, so perfect a piece of fruit that Wasp’s stomach clenched with hunger at just the sight of it.

“That’s mine,” she blurted out of instinct, out of a hunger that made holding her tongue around this man impossible in the face of food – good food, more food than she’d seen in days – right in front of her.

The Catchkeep-priest stood back up from where he’d been bent over the offerings. He shined the apple on his shirt, not that it needed the help, and looked from it to her with a glint in his eyes and a small, mean little tilt at his lips that made Wasp hold herself still, regretting that she’d said anything at all.

“Is it?” he asked, like it was news to him. Like he hadn’t a clue the offerings left at the Archivist’s house were for the Archivist only, that they were all she’d have to get her through Winter, and that he had no business so much as touching them. Like he hadn’t been caught in the act doing something that Wasp’s gut told her was immeasurably wrong. Like it wasn’t absurd that he, who had a larder full of food in his own warm home, was stealing from her who had nothing but crumbs and the cold in the house behind her.

Wasp said none of this, however. She was not stupid enough to do so.

The Catchkeep-priest smiled at her silence. He brought the apple to his mouth a took a large bite out of it that sent juice flying from it and falling down his chin. 

Wasp had to clench her fists at her side at the sight of it, at the sight of him , to stop herself from – from – 

She didn’t know.

Something violent.

Something that would get her back whipped raw, most likely.

Her stomach ached badly and gurgled loudly. Wasp bit the inside of her cheek at the embarrassment she felt at the sound.

The Catchkeep-priest chewed what should have been hers, swallowed, and wiped the juice from his mouth with his sleeve. He looked entirely unperturbed at the sound of her hunger. 

The rest of the apple held in his hand, even with his teeth marks and spit all over it, still looked horribly enticing to Wasp who had eaten nothing but nuts and stale bread over the last several days from a supply that had barely anything left in it for her breakfast this morning. Wasp could not remember the last time she had seen such a perfect piece of fruit. Spring, maybe. Or Summer. Both of those seasons seemed a lifetime ago and the return of them eons away.

The Catchkeep-priest held the apple up to her eye-level and turned it about thoughtfully. Wasp got the feeling that he was teasing her with it, baiting her like a fish staring up from the water at the worm on the hook just skimming at the pond’s surface, daring it to leap up and beg for its own last meal. Baiting her like a well-trained dog he trusted not to snatch the food he held from his hand. Not to bite, even though he deserved it. Deserved to be bitten bloody, to have his fingers ripped off.

Wasp kept these observations quiet, too, but she thought privately that the Catchkeep-priest would have approved of them – after all, it painted him in the guise of cunning predator and Wasp as his manipulated prey. Him as the master and Wasp as the servant.

Wasp did not like that perception at all. What she liked even less was how she was in no position to argue that it wasn’t true.

“Not much of a supply our townsfolk have given to our newest Archivist to get her through the Winter, is it, Wasp?” asked the Catchkeep-priest. He tsked as if disappointed and tossed the apple into the air, making Wasp tense in anticipation of it hitting the ground, but the apple only landed easily back into his palm unharmed. He lowered the hand and held the apple down at his side.

Wasp forced her eyes not to follow the movement of it. She wasn’t a dog. She wouldn’t perform that trick for him, show him how much she wanted what he had. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of it. 

“I hope you don’t feel unappreciated,” he said. 

“No,” Wasp said, “I appreciate anything the townspeople see fit to give me.”

And she did not add: I only wish they’d give me more, because I know that they can.

But as if hearing her anyway, the Catchkeep-priest smiled and lied, “I’m sure they’ve given you all that they can afford to without endangering themselves.”

“Of course they have,” Wasp lied without smiling back. 

“But, I must say, dear Wasp, that I am worried that what the town can spare isn’t enough. I don’t judge them for not giving what they don’t have, but I worry about how you can possibly make it through the winter with so very, very little.”

The hell of it was, he actually sounded concerned, but Wasp knew that was as much of a lie as the one about the townspeople giving her all that they could. If the Catchkeep-priest was actually concerned for her, then Wasp must have had an entire room full of apples just like the one he held in his hand stuffed floor to ceiling in the house behind her.

More likely he was eagerly waiting for the moment of her death from starvation or something equally as humiliating.

Wasp raised her chin at him, defiant. Stubborn. Unwilling to let him see her waver. 

“I’ll find a way,” she told him.

“Of that, I have no doubt,” he said with that same glint in his eye, that same look that Wasp didn’t like and couldn’t trust. He held the apple up again and this time Wasp couldn’t stop her eyes from darting to it. The Catchkeep-priest caught the look. His smile widened. Wasp hated him even more for that. “You should get to work now, Wasp. There are only so many hours in the day now, you know, but here---”

He tossed the apple at her and Wasp reached for it on reflex. She fumbled with it in her surprise but caught it in her hands. She could feel the wetness of the place he bit on her thumb, could feel the juice of it against her skin, could squeeze it and feel no mushy give, could tell it was as fresh as it appeared.

Wasp stared at the Catchkeep-priest with shock. What was he doing? Was it a cruel trick? Would he demand the apple back a second later, threaten to whip her if she didn’t return it? Wasp would have to take the whipping. He would have to tackle her to the ground if he wanted the apple back. Wasp didn’t think she could give it up now that it was actually in her hands. 

But the Catchkeep-priest didn’t do any of that.

“Something to get you through until dinner,” he said. Nonchalant. Like he’d done nothing out of the ordinary at all. Like he was prone to acts of kindness and this was just one of many he’d performed throughout the day. “Who knows, Wasp? Maybe by then, you’ll have found yourself a way after all.”

And then he turned around without another word and walked sedately away, while Wasp could only stand and gape at his retreating back like she was a fool who’d seen the sun for the first time.

Only after the Catchkeep-priest disappeared from Wasp’s line of sight did she get herself together enough to hold the apple up to look at it. In that cold morning light, the apple looked to her as if it were an entire feast and not just a single piece of fruit. She spared a second’s look at the Catchkeep-priest’s teeth marks on it, a second’s more thought on the disgust she felt at putting her mouth where his mouth had been, and then her hunger won out. 

She bit into the apple and moaned aloud at the taste of it, at the juice of it bursting into her mouth. She ate all around the spot the Catchkeep-priest had eaten and then she ate over that spot, too, with no hesitation, her disgust from before all but forgotten in the taste of sweet fruit, the crunch and the burst of wetness, the waxy glossy skin that went down more roughly but that she savored nonetheless.  

She ate all of the apple’s skin and all of its inner flesh, then its seeds and its core, until nothing was left of it but the woody line of its stem, little more that the size of an inch-worm on her palm.

And then Wasp put that in her mouth and with effort, ate it, too.

 

*

 

The apple sated Wasp’s hunger for the morning, but by noon she could already feel the familiar pangs of it in her stomach yet again. 

There was little for it.

Wasp had not brought any food with her for that day’s work because she had none left to bring. She’d went ghost searching around routes that she knew had berry bushes and walnut trees hoping to forage something to sustain her, but she found no berries left and only long dropped walnuts on the ground whose shells had turned an unpleasant looking grey and whose insides were fetid black when she cracked them open. These old nuts Wasp tried eating anyway and managed to gag down a few of them before she felt that she might vomit if she attempted another, and though the apple was likely long digested she had no desire to lose what was left of it, if anything, in her belly.

There were few ghosts out that day. Maybe they could feel the cold, too, and had as little desire to be out as Wasp did. Or maybe they could sense her mood and had no desire to be poked and prodded by her icicle fingers.

Eventually, Wasp decided she’d done enough. If the ghosts did not want to be found, then she would not find them, and there was no use staying out and freezing her ass off hoping otherwise. She gave up her work early and went back to her house just at the start of afternoon, only pausing once in her trip back to stop and look up at the Catchkeep-priest’s house, to toe the first cobblestone on the ground that led in a path up to it without making any move to walk up that path and get to his door.

He would expect her report, but this morning had left Wasp with even less desire to see him than usual. His cruelty, she was used to. That, she could handle. 

Wasp did not know what to do with his kindness, if that was what this morning actually was. Wasp doubted it. She mistrusted his behavior. She did not think it was born of good intentions, of genuine concern. She suspected a trick, some sort of trap, and she thought there was no better place for him to spring it than in his own home. No better place for him to corner her or humiliate her in front of others.

As she was watching the house, Wasp thought she saw a curtain twitch in a window and her feet started  moving before she could think about it – moving not up the path to the Catchkeep-priest’s house, but back to her own house, her heart racing like she’d been caught with her hand in someone else’s purse.

Alright then, fine. She would just skip her report today. 

Tomorrow, she would deal with the Catchkeep-priest’s ire.

Tomorrow, she would take whatever punishment he devised for her for not making her report to him like she was supposed to.

Today, let him stew up there and take his annoyance out on the upstarts. Wasp would deal with him again once she was more on balance, once his odd behavior that morning was shaken off of her. Catchkeep knew she had more pressing matters to concern herself with. She would not play his game, whatever his game might be. She would not be predictable to him.

Wasp went home.

The place was even colder when she arrived than it was when she left and the one log that she threw in the fireplace did little to warm it, but it was all she thought she could spare from her small stock of firewood. Winter was only going to get colder, after all, and Wasp didn’t want to waste now for comfort what she might desperately need later for survival. 

She sat as close to the fire as she could and stared into the flames of it, thinking, a litany in her head.

She needed food. 

She needed wood.

She needed blankets and warmer clothes.

Wasp needed a great many things, but she had little means of getting them. 

Buy them? She had no money. Being the Archivist was not a job that paid.

Trade them? The only thing she had to trade were her skills with ghosts, but when the townspeople had need of those they would tell the Catchkeep-priest and he would inform her of what needed to be done and where. If something were to be bartered for her service, it would be up to the Catchkeep-priest to name what it was and likelier than not, he’d keep it. It wasn’t as easy to trade her skills as going door to door to peddle eggs or milk. The people were too afraid of her to deal with her directly and her skills, while useful when needed, were hardly in such constant demand they’d keep her warm and fed throughout all of Winter.

And ask for them? Ask who? Archivists were given occasional offerings from the townspeople, sure, but Wasp had never heard of an Archivist begging for more than what people decided on their own to give, as little as it might be, and she wouldn’t let herself be the first to try. The little upstarts living with the Catchkeep-priest wouldn’t give her a boot full of piss if she were dying of thirst and as for the Catchkeep-priest himself? 

Wasp could laugh. That morning was a one-off, a trick, an anomaly. He was messing with her head by giving her that apple. Taunting the starving Archivist with food so that, perhaps, he could do it again only next time he wouldn’t give her the apple – he’d laugh at how she would expect for him to, to hope for it, and then he’d eat the whole thing in front of her very eyes. Maybe he’d throw just the core at her and then have the satisfaction of watching her try to stop herself from eating the disgusting leftover only for her hunger to beat down her pride and make it impossible to resist.

But that was something to worry about tomorrow. 

Wasp had endured the Catchkeep-priest that morning and thwarted him that afternoon. He was a problem put aside for now, to be dealt with on another day. On this day, Wasp had her litany. Food, wood, blankets. Those were her worries. The Catchkeep-priest was not a part of that.

Except – 

Except that then there was a knocking on Wasp’s door, three heavy knocks in a slow succession. 

Knock. Knock. Knock.

The sound of them startled Wasp and made her look over at the door from her place by the fire in surprise. She stared at the door and after a beat of silence, three more knocks rapped against it. 

Knock. Knock. Knock.

Wasp got up and made her way over to it. 

No one, not once in the months since she’d become the new Archivist, had ever knocked on the door to Wasp’s house. The townspeople who left offerings did not knock and – as far as Wasp could tell – expressly chose to leave them at times they knew she was out or thought she was asleep so they would never have to interact with her. The upstarts never came near the house at all and the only other person who ever had come by for the purpose of actually seeing and speaking to Wasp was – 

The Catchkeep-priest this morning.

Wasp’s stomach sank. Somehow – she didn’t know how, but somehow – she already knew who would be behind the door. Had she believed in magic, she might have thought she’d summoned him here merely by thinking of him or trying not to, but Wasp didn’t believe in any such thing.

Maybe you’ll find a way by dinner – wasn’t that what the Catchkeep-priest had said before? And here it was, dinner time even if Wasp didn’t have a thing to eat, and someone was knocking at her door for the first time since she’d moved into the little house to be the Archivist. 

Those words the Catchkeep-priest had said hadn’t been an idle comment, then, but a warning. A warning for what, Wasp didn’t know, but clearly the man had been planning whatever this was all day or longer. Maybe he’d meant to trap her in his home and when she didn’t show, he decided to come to hers. Maybe –  

More knocks. Two this time.

Knock. A pause. Knock.

It could be nothing good, Wasp knew that much, but – 

But, but, but.

But despite herself, she was almost noxiously curious. She wanted to know what it was he wanted, what it was he thought he was doing, what game he was playing at. This change in his behavior, his manner – why? What was the purpose of it? What in Catchkeep’s name did he want to get out of her?

It couldn’t be some ploy to kill her. He could toy with her, he could beat her, he could do plenty of things but he couldn’t kill her, he wasn’t allowed, and there was little else he could do to her that hadn’t already been done. All Wasp would suffer if she opened her door to him was his presence but she’d suffered that often enough and would have to suffer it every day she was Archivist as well and so it would not hurt her all that much to suffer it once more.

Wasp was more frightened of not knowing what it was he wanted than she was at knowing and finding out it was something horrible. Of course it would be something horrible, but the black widow on your pillow was always less frightening than the monster under your bed. One you could see, catch, handle – the other was a mystery.

Wasp did not like mysteries. She especially did not like mysteries with rows of sharp teeth, a good hiding place, and a menu that listed her for dinner.

Knock. A pause.

Wasp opened the door and there the Catchkeep-priest stood just like she knew he would be, hand still poised up in the air to knock a second time. At seeing the door was opened, he dropped the hand quickly, and gave Wasp a wan smile.

“Wasp, I thought you’d leave me out here to freeze,” he said in a chiding tone that was mild in comparison to the annoyance Wasp could see burning in his eyes at having been made to wait. The Catchkeep-priest had never been, in Wasp’s experience, anything close to being a patient man except when he was drawing out a punishment – and even then, his impatience always shined through. “And when I walked all this way to bring you dinner, too.”

“Dinner?” Wasp parroted. The word felt as out of place as if he’d said he brought her a live bear, and it was only then that she noticed the pot the Catchkeep-priest was holding in his other hand by the handle. 

The pot was covered by a lid that hid whatever the contents inside of it might be and Wasp, for her part, couldn’t picture them easily. It seemed beyond the realm of belief that there would actually be food in there, that the Catchkeep-priest would walk in the cold to her house to bring her food. 

If it was food, though, then surely it was inedible. Molded food, rotten food, food that not even the shrine-dogs would eat.

Or maybe the pot was empty. Maybe he’d walked in the cold to bring her an empty pot, to get her hopes up that she was about to be fed only to pull back the lid to see there was nothing in there but air. Kill her hopes as surely as he wished he could (but yet could not) kill her. 

Maybe this was to be her punishment for skipping her report today. It was the exact kind of punishment the Catchkeep-priest would think up. Wasp often thought he liked inflicting emotional pain even more than physical, liked causing wounds that couldn’t be seen except for the tears they caused, the red faces and cries that were poorly hidden into pillows at night while a dozen other upstarts listened silently in the dark. Those wounds may not have been visible, but they rarely healed, which was probably why the Catchkeep-priest favored causing them. He was an expert in the subject of inflicting injuries that would last, whether on the body or in the mind or both.

Wasp could easily imagine the Catchkeep-priest extending such effort towards an act of cruelty or punishment but not an act of mercy. She would sooner believe that Catchkeep herself would show up at her door baring gifts of food and freedom.

“Aren’t you hungry?” asked the Catchkeep-priest. He lifted the pot as if gesturing with it, as if drawing her attention to it, just as he’d done with the apple that morning. “Won’t you let me in while it’s still hot or would you like it to freeze out here with me?”

Wasp hesitated. 

She could tell that the Catchkeep-priest was trying to keep his tone civil, but she could also hear the impatience underneath the pretense pushing through, and she knew as much as anyone who had ever been an upstart what the consequences or testing his patience were. She told herself again that he couldn’t kill her – but he could hurt her, he could take whatever cruelty he had in mind for her and make it worse, and just because Wasp could handle the hurt didn’t mean that she wanted to.

And though the house was supposed to be the Archivist’s domain, Wasp didn’t know of any rules that said the Catchkeep-priest was not allowed in or that the Archivist had any right at all to deny him access if he demanded it.

And no matter how politely he tried it, Wasp knew that that’s what he was doing now – demanding it.

She stepped aside out of the doorway and the Catchkeep-priest brushed past her to go in.

Wasp might have expected him to look around the place in curiosity, just as she’d looked around on her first day as Archivist, curious despite the wounds she was still nursing. 

The Catchkeep-priest didn’t seem curious at all. Instead, he only headed straight for Wasp’s little table where he gently sat the pot down on its surface and then headed to the kitchen area where the dishes were to pick out a bowl and utensils to sit next to the pot.

He moved, Wasp realized with some surprise, like someone who had been in the house before. Like someone who was familiar with its every nook and cranny, who knew where things were kept as well as if he lived there himself, who did not feel any curiosity about his surroundings because he’d already seen all there was to see. 

Wasp wondered why that was – had he been in the house before with a different Archivist? Or had he been in the house while the Archivist was gone – while Wasp was gone – rummaging through the insides of the building as brazenly as he rummaged through the offerings left at its door? 

There was no lock on the house to keep him out, but that was only because it was thought that no one would try to get into the Archivist’s house in the first place – whether because they respected the Archivist’s role or whether because they were just afraid. That fear and respect had kept people out of and far away from the house. A lock had never been necessary before. It had never been made necessary.

Before, that invisible fence made from the Archivist’s reputation had always seemed to be enough.

But suddenly now, Wasp’s sense that this house was hers , that it was her safe place, seemed a little more fragile. Watching the Catchkeep-priest touch her things, watching him pull a second chair out to her table – the only other chair she owned, the one she’d never needed to move from its spot against the wall as she’d never had a guest, not once since she became Archivist – and sit in it felt at once like both a strange dream she wanted to boggle at and a violation she wanted to flinch back from.

When the Catchkeep-priest looked at Wasp from where he sat, Wasp felt keenly like a small mouse encountering a shrine-dog for the first time. She was not afraid, but not because she felt safe; she was unafraid because she was so confused about what it was she was seeing that it muffled any sense of fear anyone with a lick of common sense should have at having such a strange beast in front of them.

So when the Catchkeep-priest gestured at the empty chair and said, “Take a seat, Wasp,” Wasp found her legs moving without her permission towards the table. She found herself taking a seat.

And if Wasp looked at the Catchkeep-priest like he was a strange animal she didn’t know how to deal with, he was certainly looking at her with a familiarity that raised the hair on the back of her neck and made her sit perfectly straight and perfectly still like she thought that if she just didn’t move then it meant that he couldn’t see her.

A stupid thought, that. He could see her and there was nowhere in this little house she could go where he couldn’t.

Wasp looked away from the Catchkeep-priest. She couldn’t stand holding his gaze for a moment longer. Instead, her eyes landed on the pot he’d brought with him. The pot he’d claimed had food in it, food for her. 

Wasp did not have to be looking at the Catchkeep-priest to know when he noticed her looking at the pot because he said in a deceptively light tone, “Well, if you’re hungry, then go ahead and eat.”

Wasp was hungry, she was starving, but she still made no move to take the lid off the pot. She only continued to look at it and forced herself to think of every nasty trick that could be inside of it. Rotten food, empty air, a dead animal, an upstart’s head. Anything but food, everything but food, because the Catchkeep-priest would never feed her unless it was poisoned and he was forbidden from killing her. Wasp could not count on many things in life, but she felt certain she could count on that – that every year she would have to kill three upstarts if she wanted to continue being the Archivist and that the Catchkeep-priest was forbidden from killing the Archivist just as upstarts were forbidden from killing her outside of the annual choosing.

Wasp took a breath and reached out. She pulled off the lid and set it aside. 

The smell hit her before the steam did and that smell was so intoxicating that it made saliva pool in her mouth and her teeth clench together on a phantom bite of air.

In the pot was not something nasty. It was not empty air. What was in the pot was a thick stew, the color of it a red as vivid but much more bright than the red of the apple Wasp had eaten that morning. She could smell the pungent scent of garlic wafting towards her in the steam coming off it. She could see in the red broth tomatoes and large dark red beans, white chunks of potato, some kind of leafy green gone a deeper color from being boiled, and grains of barley bloated to thrice their size from being steeped in the broth for too long. 

Wasp could also see white shredded meat that could have only have been chicken, but Sweetwater’s few chickens were depended on in winter to give a steady supply of eggs and so for someone to have killed one for just a night’s meal was an extreme act of indulgence – as was the garlic, the herbs Wasp could smell with it, and whatever other spices were in the stew. Spice was sparsely used even in the Summer, but in Winter?

It was a rich meal in more ways than one, richer than any meal Wasp had ever seen, and Wasp – 

Could not trust it. 

She tore her eyes away from the food to look at the Catchkeep-priest who was staring at her with something like amusement in his eyes, like this was all a joke and it was being played on her.

Again, like that morning with the apple, Wasp expected the Catchkeep-priest to tell her she couldn’t have the food in front of her after all. To take it away, to threaten her into handing it over. To throw it on the floor and tell her if she wanted to eat it, she’d have to eat it like a shrine-dog.

And again, like that morning, the Catchkeep-priest did none of that.

The Catchkeep-priest picked up the ladle he’d laid on the table and used it to fill the bowl in front of her with the stew, making the food all the more tantalizingly close, the smell all the more heavy, the steam warming her face in a way that the lack of a roaring fire in the room could not.

He pushed the bowl even closer to her. It made a scraping noise against the table as it went. “Go ahead and eat, Wasp. A blind shrine-dog could tell that you’re starving for it.”

Wasp’s throat clenched on what felt like a stone. Her empty stomach felt like it was being stabbed and the temptation of the food in front of Wasp was the knife twisting in it.

“Why are you doing this to me?” she asked, and if the question sounded like an accusation then Wasp certainly meant it as one.

But if the Catchkeep-priest felt accused of anything, he didn’t show it. He sat back in his seat and laughed in apparent delight. “ To you? You make it sound like I’m torturing you, sweet Wasp. I’m doing something for you, my dear. Showing a little gratitude wouldn’t hurt.”

Wasp wasn’t so sure about that last part. She also wasn’t so sure there was anything yet to be grateful for. Kindness from the Catchkeep-priest was unheard of and Wasp couldn’t believe that it came without a single string attached, just dangling off the end waiting to wrap around Wasp’s neck and hang her with it.

She couldn’t believe that this was not a punishment, a trick, a wound being inflicted rather than a hunger being sated.

“Fine,” she said. “Why are you doing this for me?”

“That doesn’t sound like gratitude.”

“You’ll forgive me if I’m suspicious of favors being given to me by someone who once whipped me for the great offense of being five minutes late in completing my day’s chores.”

“Will I?” mused the Catchkeep-priest. 

It would have been a menacing warning that Wasp would have to heed or else at another time, perhaps, but his voice was light and for some reason now Wasp thought the man was having a grand amusement at her expense and that surpassed whatever anger he would normally have had at her for back-talking him. In fact, Wasp was suspicious that her back-talking was a part of his amusement. He sometimes liked it, when she was an upstart, liked to spar with words because it gave him an excuse to be more severe in his inevitable punishment. Because he gained some sort of sick glee at staving that punishment off, as though it gave him some pleasure to deny himself what he wanted for a little while longer, to drag it out. 

Cats never killed mice the instant they caught them. They batted them around until they were in a daze then held them down by the tail and let them struggle to get free. Sometimes they even let them go just so they could catch them again. 

The Catchkeep-priest was too much like that.

He was definitely playing with her, Wasp was sure of that if she wasn’t sure of anything else. What she just wasn’t sure of yet was what game he was playing and what the end of it would be. The object of any game was to win, but Wasp didn’t know what that would mean here. If he only wanted to be cruel to her, then Wasp didn’t know how this kindness now would help him do that.

She looked thoughtfully down at the bowl of stew on the table and reached a hand out to slowly turn it clockwise. She relished in both the noise it made as it moved and the heat that sank from the bowl into her stiff, cold fingers when she touched it. 

“Is it poisoned?” she asked, even though she didn’t believe it was.

“You know I’m not permitted to kill you,” he chided her.

“But you could still make me ill. You could have put something in here that would make me so sick I wished I were dead.”

“I have better ways of making you wish you were dead than by soiling a perfectly good bowl of stew.” He said this in such a matter of fact way that it made Wasp’s head jerk up away from the temptation of the stew to look up at him.

“Is that what this is about?” Wasp asked. “You want to, what, mess with my head until I can’t take it anymore and I go jump off the ledge out there? You want me to want to die, so by the next choosing I’m happy to let some upstart kill me and take my place?”

“My dear,” the Catchkeep-priest said in that gentling way of his that always made Wasp’s skin crawl, “this is about you lasting through the winter. You’re starving. I bet that apple I gave you was the only thing you ate all day. All I want to do is see you fed so you don’t expire in the night.”

Wasp scoffed in disbelief. “And what’s it to you if I did? Bringing me a meal so extravagant – what are you getting out of this? The pleasure of my company?”

At that last bit of sarcasm, something odd happened to the expression on the Catchkeep-priest’s face. His eyes narrowed, then darkened, and the amused, placid smile on his face became sharper at the end. 

The way the Catchkeep-priest looked at Wasp then was not unlike how she’d seen shrine-dogs look at a piece of meat thrown in front of them that the Catchkeep-priest himself had not yet given them verbal permission to snatch up in their jowls. Hungry, wanting, but waiting still because they had been trained to wait until the right time – the right time being when the Catchkeep-priest dictated it to be.

That look made Wasp wish she’d kept her mouth shut. It made her wish she’d never opened her door to him. Whatever game he was playing she felt like she’d just stepped onto a trap in it and she didn’t like the feeling of it at all.

“Yes,” said the Catchkeep-priest thoughtfully. “Yes, I suppose that’s as good a way to put it as any.”

“To put what ?”

The Catchkeep-priest leaned forward and then when he wasn’t even satisfied with that close proximity to Wasp, he scooted his chair closer to her, close enough that their knees now touched and Wasp had to hold herself still so she could resist the urge to push her own chair back and away. 

“I’d like to make you a deal, Wasp,” the Catchkeep-priest said, but Wasp only barely processed the words.

She was too hyper aware of their touching knees, of the warmth radiating off the Catchkeep-priest’s well-cloaked body into her more frigid one. That warmth made her head muzzy in the same way the food still in front of her made her stomach clench, made her thinking slow from being clouded with thoughts of what she didn’t have but he did – namely, warmth. Namely, meals like the stew whenever he wanted them.

It also made her afraid. Not so much because of the warmth, but the calmness of the Catchkeep-priest’s body. The stillness in how he sat. The way he took up space. Wasp had never had the Catchkeep-priest this close to her except when he was whipping her and he was never so calm, so still then. He made her anxious now the way a rattlesnake would when it was just sitting calmly on the ground, body coiled, head raised up high and unmoving but for the forked tongue flicking in and out of its mouth, tasting the air, tasting the scent of the person in front of it who was scared that if they moved, if they breathed the wrong way then it would strike.

Wasp had not been afraid of the Catchkeep-priest – not truly, totally afraid – since she was a small child. Cautious, yes. Nervous, yes. But not terrified. To have the feeling well up inside of her again now made her nauseous with nostalgia, fraught with nerves.

She wiped the palms of her hands on her pants. They felt wet, sweaty even in the cold. 

“A deal?” she asked.

“An arrangement. A sort of...relationship.” The Catchkeep-priest faltered there for but a second and Wasp thought he looked unsure, but the moment passed so quickly that she couldn’t be sure of what she’d seen herself, and when he continued speaking, he sounded plenty confident to her ears, “I’m willing to help you survive the Winter, Wasp. I’ll make sure that you’re fed and warm and that you have everything you could possibly want – within reason, of course.”

“Of course,” Wasp repeated, as she looked at him with disbelief, “and what is it you want in return for this great charity?”

A relationship, he’d said. That could not possibly mean what Wasp thought it did. It could not possibly mean what it sounded like.

The Catchkeep-priest’s smirk widened like he could hear her thoughts. Widened so much that Wasp might even almost call it a grin. 

“Only the pleasure of your company,” he said, throwing her own words back in her face, and then he was reaching his hand over the short distance that it took to land on Wasp’s knee. 

And there the hand rested.

And then it squeezed down.

And then moved slowly up Wasp’s thigh and slid inward and at that point whatever spell had come over Wasp and had her frozen in her seat when he first touched her was broken.

She couldn’t help herself, couldn’t stop herself from pushing her chair back with a screech against the floor and standing up and jumping back as quickly as she would have if he’d pulled a knife on her and threatened her life.

She stood there staring at him, breathing heavily and not knowing why she was breathing heavily. Her heart pounded in her chest and her throat was tight and Wasp realized she hadn’t felt like this in months, not since she’d been fought the prior Archivist and won. Not since she’d killed her. Not since she’d been so terrified of that other girl killing her instead that she thought her whole body would be ripped apart at the thrumming energy of it.

The Catchkeep-priest leaned back in his chair and now looked up at Wasp not with a grin or a smirk but with a face that was blank but for the knowing look in his eyes. Like he could see through to the very marrow of her and knew everything she was, had been, and was still yet to be.

Wasp was getting tired of the Catchkeep-priest’s eyes. She was tired of having them on her and the way his gaze made her feel like she had bugs crawling up her skin. 

He watched her standing there for a moment longer and then stood up suddenly. Wasp froze and hated herself for freezing. She half-expected him to come at her and to – to – to do something, but all he did was nod in her direction. If he wore a hat, he might very well have tipped it at her like she’d heard men used to do to greet women in stories from Before.

“Think on it, then, my little Wasp,” said the Catchkeep-priest. He sounded as he looked: entirely unperturbed. “Think about it and I’ll come back tomorrow night for your answer.”

He turned around to go then, only stopping for a second to pause at the door.

“And Wasp?” he called back without bothering to look over his shoulder at her. “Do eat the stew. That meat is too expensive to feed to the dogs and if I find it’s been wasted – well, my great charity as you called it can only allow so many concessions.”

And then the door was opening and he was gone through it. Wasp was left alone in her house like she had always been before. 

Her heart continued to pound until it slowed back to its regular rhythm. Her breathing eventually calmed. She eventually thought she could no longer feel the imprint of the slide of the Catchkeep-priest’s hand up her thigh and then over, over closer to her most private place, and the horrible strange jolt she’d felt there under her clothes at the caress of his hand closer to her center that had sent her jumping from her chair.

But yet Wasp still stood there thinking of nothing, doing nothing, for what seemed like a very long time until finally her stomach gave a long, embarrassing growl and she was reminded of her hunger.

Wasp pushed her chair back up against the table and resumed her seat in it. She picked up her spoon and, after a long pause of hesitation, dipped it into the stew and took a bite.

It was only lukewarm then, but for Wasp it was still the best thing she’d eaten in her entire life. If it had been poisoned, it would have still been worth eating.

 

*

 

After Wasp finished off the whole pot of stew and her stomach hurt not from hunger but from unfamiliar fullness, she laid down on her small bed and stared up at the ceiling. 

Think about it, the Catchkeep-priest had said and though Wasp was loath to follow any of his advice, that was what she found herself doing.

Thinking about it. 

Wasp had a good idea of what the Catchkeep-priest’s proposed arrangement entailed for all that he didn’t spell anything out in explicit terms about what it was he wanted from her – and though she had little estimation about what the Catchkeep-priest wasn’t capable of doing, she was still shocked that even a man like him would have suggested such a thing in the first place.

There were no official rules against the Archivist having sex. 

There were no official rules against the Catchkeep-priest having sex. 

There were also, as far as Wasp was aware, no official rules against the Archivist having sex with the Catchkeep-priest – though she wondered if the reason such a rule didn’t exist was because no one had yet been depraved enough to consider that it would be a thing that anyone would need to be dissuaded from , but someone had clearly thought to make a rule against the Catchkeep-priest killing the Archivist himself so perhaps the Catchkeep-priest doing such a thing wouldn’t displease Catchkeep as much as a killing would. 

Wasp didn’t know. She couldn’t even begin to understand how Catchkeep’s mind might work and she knew it wasn’t her place to try.

But, while there were no rules against these things, neither were they encouraged in any sense of the word.

Upstarts didn’t receive the sorts of talks about their bodies that other girls – normal girls – might have. Not about what their bodies did on their own or what could be done with them with another. If an upstart learned about these things, it was on her own – from something she overheard or glimpsed at in the homes of the townspeople she lived with when she was young or from another upstart later on. 

Some upstarts learned these things together – did things together under the cover of night, trying to be quiet lest someone overhear them and tell the Catchkeep-priest, or in the day when they should have been doing chores – but the Catchkeep-priest always punished those who were caught together severely for it. 

He would take an almost savage glee in punishing one heavily but not the other in order to make the girl being punished feel that she had been betrayed by the one who wasn’t, or in making one punish the other with her own hands in order to escape punishment herself. He would turn them against one another with surgical precision, turning them from girls who looked to each other for comfort in a cruel world to the bitterest of enemies.  

Most upstarts learned from example that it wasn’t worth it to try anything and get caught, but there were always those who prized temporary comfort over the inevitable discovery and pain that came from it.

For the Catchkeep-priest himself, Wasp had never heard of any man in the role ever being married or having children within or without of wedlock. She had never seen the current Catchkeep-priest with someone who might be his lover. She had never heard of anyone else seeing him with someone, either, and nor had she ever heard a whisper of him doing anything... untoward towards any upstarts or even any of the prior Archivists – and the Catchkeep-priest’s house might have been bigger than Wasp’s house, but it was still small enough that if such a thing had happened then she felt sure she would’ve known. 

There was a reason why upstarts who dallied together always got caught eventually – there was no room in the house to have such a relationship and not have it be discovered. Too many people around and too few doors that could close on them and chore schedules so tight that frequent deviations from them were easy to catch on to very quickly. 

The Catchkeep-priest had no heavy schedule, but it would be no easier for him to have a relationship than it would be for the upstarts to. Harder, even, because while the upstarts looked at one another like rival cats sharing the same barn, they looked at the Catchkeep-priest like mice would a tiger. They knew where he was and what his mood was at nearly all times, save for the few occasions a year he left Sweetwater to find more of Catchkeep’s marked children to bring back to the town with him.

Perhaps he visited brothels then or had lovers in another town, but Wasp was certain he didn’t here. Not in Sweetwater and not in his house. If he did, everyone and their grandmother would know about it. Wasp herself would know about it, too, and Wasp knew nothing of the sort.

And as for the Archivists? The townspeople were too terrified and wary of the Archivist to even speak to her, so Wasp could not imagine how an even more intimate relationship could be possible. The Archivist’s life made it impossible to have friends, so to have lovers was even more absurd. If the Archivist didn’t have some relationship as an upstart with another upstart – and those, always, were limited to what could be kept secret, what could be done throughout a highly scheduled day’s worth of chores with little free time, and what one was willing to do with someone they might very well later have to kill or be killed by – then she likely would never have any relationship at all. 

Wasp, herself, had never even had that. She had never trusted any of her fellow upstarts enough to start something and would not have thought it worth it to try even if there would have been someone who caught her eye and earned her trust. 

All she knew about sex was second-hand, all puzzle pieces that didn’t quite form into a whole picture:

There was the family she’d lived with as a child in a small one-room house where her ‘room’ was only a small curtained off section from which she could easily see into the husband and wife’s ‘room’ just feet away – where she could easily see the husband climbing on top of the wife and doing something under the sheets before he started moving on top of her, grunting all the while, his pale skin turning red and glistening with perspiration while his wife had a look of pain on her face until he got off of her and then she looked relieved. 

There were the couples Wasp had occasionally caught kissing in various states of undress around the town, sometimes in the woods, and – once – on the ledge she enjoyed climbing up. The women almost always had the same sort of expression that wife did on their faces, as though they were in pain or sometimes as though they were bored. 

And then there was the midwife, the only person in Sweetwater who actually talked to Wasp though what the midwife did was less talking to Wasp and more talking at her about her various patients – gossip about women who had gotten pregnant and who with and whether they wanted to endure it until the finish or end it while they still could without the treatment killing them along with what was growing inside of them.

Wasp never talked back to the midwife – and she was sure the midwife didn’t want her to anyway and would likely stop talking to Wasp at all if she did ever reply – but she did listen and she did learn. 

She learned that sex involved a man putting his cock inside the space between a woman’s legs. She learned that more often than not, the woman rarely enjoyed it and sometimes did not want it at all. She learned that the townspeople thought very little of women who had sex with men who were not their husbands but did not think at all on men who had sex with women who were not their wives. She learned that, sometimes, the act felt pleasant but usually it didn’t and no matter how pleasant it could have been, the pregnancies that resulted from the act were always horrible – it was horrible when the child was wanted and worse when it was not – but there were teas that could be made that could prevent a pregnancy or end one and that selling those teas was how the midwife made most of her living.

Understandably, none of what Wasp learned endeared her very much to the idea of having sex herself. She could not, in fact, think of why any other girl would want to have it with a man at all unless she wanted a baby because she couldn’t see what else a girl might get out of it but a child and a lot of discomfort and a lot of mess, and Wasp’s life was uncomfortable enough without adding to it. 

According to the midwife, the whole act was something women endured and frequently suffered for, and through her chattering, Wasp had often thought herself lucky, in a way, to be an upstart and then the Archivist for being able to avoid it. No one would force themselves on the Archivist, no one would court her, no one would want to marry her or expect her to have their children. No one would even go so far as to desire her, either, for who could desire the Archivist when she was so completely avoided and feared?

Except the Catchkeep-priest, maybe, who had no reason to avoid Wasp and no reason to fear her; who, apparently, desired her or at least desired to do that thing to her. 

Which probably shouldn’t have been such a surprise, in hindsight, because the Catchkeep-priest had always enjoyed tormenting her before. He had always relished in whipping her when she erred, beating her when she misstepped more severely. Why should Wasp be surprised that he’d want to hurt her in this way as well, when girls who weren’t upstarts and weren’t archivists were hurt in this way so often that the midwife’s profession saw a steady procession of them into her care?

Wasp realized then that it wasn’t what the Catchkeep-priest wanted from her that surprised her the most. No, what surprised her the most was what he offered her in return.

Everything you could possibly want – within reason, of course.

That galled Wasp more than the idea of him hurting her did, more than the image of him crawling on top of her like she’d seen that husband do to his wife and then doing whatever it was to her. 

Because Wasp had been whipped and she’d been beaten and she’d nearly been killed in her fight to be Archivist, but that was pain and pain was something she was used to. 

Kindness wasn’t. 

Even kindness that was only being offered in exchange for something else wasn’t.

And what struck Wasp most of all was the complete failure it would have made of her to accept the Catchkeep-priest’s so-called kindness, because every Archivist before her had either lived or died by her own doing. If an Archivist died during Winter, it was her own failure; if she survived, her triumph, but it was hers, either way. It was what she did, for good or for bad. It was a testament to her own strength or her own weakness, her own ingenuity or her own lack of resourcefulness. 

None of the others had ever had the Catchkeep-priest offering them a way out of that, a way to survive another season without having to claw to get through every second of it. None of the others had had the  Catchkeep-priest offering them food and warmth and whatever else just in exchange for – what? A little pain? The Catchkeep-priest could hurt the Archivist anyway for whatever reason he could think of. He could do whatever he wanted to her, save kill her, and no one would say a word about it. 

That was your lot in life if you were the Archivist, but none of the others before Wasp had ever gotten anything in exchange for their pain except a title and a duty and a house to live in on their own, none of which could really measure up to regular meals and warmth, could it? No other Archivist had ever been so extensively bribed in return for agreeing to receive her pain.

It made Wasp feel...less than to think that she might be different. To think that she wouldn’t survive – or not – on her own merit but on what the Catchkeep-priest chose to pay her pain with. 

It made her feel like a terrible Archivist, unworthy of the title, to even consider it.

But as the night went on and the fullness of Wasp’s meal faded, she did consider it.

She considered it a lot.

 

*

 

Wasp had no recollection of falling asleep that night, but when she woke up in the morning her fire was dead and her house was so cold and her limbs were so stiff from the chill of it that it was more of a struggle than it should have been to get out of bed.

She needed to go outside to get more firewood from her pile and Wasp knew she’d have to use two logs, because there was nothing else for it. One would not be enough to even up the temperature of the house a little, certainly not to a livable standard.

Resolved to this, she walked over to the door and opened it – or tried to.

It was stuck.

Wasp frowned and gave the door a hard shove with her shoulder and with the extra force the door opened to the sound of what was holding it up crunching and scraping as it was pushed back.

Wasp looked out and what she found was a world of white so pure that her eyes stung to look at it.

Snow. It had snowed during the night, and not a little bit, either, but a lot . Winter, it seemed, was finally in full swing and Wasp despaired at the sight of it.

She wasn’t prepared. At all

Yesterday when she’d made her litany of what she needed, the full brunt of Winter still seemed in the future, weeks away. It still felt like she’d had time. Time to prepare. Time to figure something out. Time to figure out how to survive.

But her time had run out while she was asleep, she hadn’t even been aware of it, and suddenly Wasp realized she had no time left at all.

She also had no food – and now she berated herself for being a glutton, for eating the whole pot of soup the night before; no matter how hungry she was, she should have stretched it out, could have made it last a week or longer if she kept it over a fire and watered it down, if she’d only thought to do it! She had little firewood left, too, enough for a week – maybe – if she only used one log at a time but that rationing could very well kill her rather than save her, it was so cold. Her clothes were not thick enough for this sort of snow, not nearly as good as the clothes she had as an upstart were. Nothing she had as the Archivist that she’d inherited from her predecessors was good enough for this sort of snow, not even the long and filthy coat she’d received as one of her tools and rarely wore because she hated the smell of it. It would make her a little warmer, maybe, but not warm enough.

It hit Wasp like a blow to the gut that she had no hope of surviving this. She had no way of making it, unless, unless – 

Think about it and I’ll come back tomorrow night for your answer.

The Catchkeep-priest. His offer. His arrangement.

Wasp had fallen asleep thinking about it the night before. She hadn’t come to a decision. She had been stuck – foolishly, so foolishly in the pale light of day – on her own pride as the Archivist, on how much of a wound to her pride it would be to survive the Winter with his help all the while knowing she would have died without it.

She’d forgotten the most important part of all about being a good Archivist – that the only pride they had was in staying alive, no matter what they had to do in order to do it. They stayed alive and they did their ghost-work and that was all an Archivist lived for. 

If she had to poison her blade to kill her enemy, she did it. She had done it. She was here because of it.

And if she had to accept a deal with the Catchkeep-priest to survive the Winter, Wasp supposed she’d have to do that too.

Wasp grit her teeth against the cold and went outside to get three logs of firewood, and when she went back in to her house to drop them to the floor she hesitated, and then she went outside to get two more logs. 

She set about building a big enough fire to warm the entire house and bit her tongue so she wouldn’t laugh to herself about what she was doing, about the waste of it when she had so little wood left.

If the Catchkeep-priest came that night, Wasp decided, she would accept his deal and ask for more firewood before anything else, even food, and if he didn’t come – 

If he didn’t come or if he did and he said it was all a joke after all, a trick he played on her and that she so stupidly fell for, then so be it.

Wasp would be dead without his help anyway and if it had to happen, she could at least die warm. 

And if it was all a trick? If he didn’t mean to keep his deal, if he never meant it?

She’d make damn sure to take the lying bastard with her when she went.

 

*

 

The sun was just dipping down into the sky when the knocks came on Wasp’s door. 

She had been waiting for them all day. Had, in fact, skipped her day’s work as much in anticipation of them as she had from her desire to stay within the warmth of the house and not to go out into the cold, biting air outside, to avoid having her feet sunk all the way down into snow that would soak into her socks and make her shoes too wet to walk in later.

Wasp had little to do inside the house but her thoughts were far too active for her to be bored, too busy working through every possible way things may go once the Catchkeep-priest came to her, and everything she might do if he didn’t come to her at all, if the evening and then the night and then the next morning went by with no sign of him.

Many of Wasp’s thoughts centered on what a lot of her mind was convinced would be the Catchkeep-priest’s inevitable betrayal and the potential – and increasingly violent – ideas she had on how she might react to it. The rest of her thoughts centered on that family she stayed with as a child – the image of that husband on top of his wife and everything she could remember about it, everything she could glean about what he was doing to her under the sheets, so that Wasp might figure out what the Catchkeep-priest might do to her that night if he did arrive.

And some of Wasp – but not much – was focused on her returning hunger. It was not a gnawing hunger that she felt now, the stew from the night before having more than done its work, but a low-grade need for nourishment that was easy enough to ignore with so much else on her mind. That Wasp, actually, was thankful for because thinking of what the Catchkeep-priest would want with her turned her stomach in a way that having food in it would not have been a remedy for.

One good thing to hunger, at least, was that it was harder to vomit on an empty stomach. Such a small comfort that was, but Wasp was not in any position to deny her comforts where she could get them, no matter how small and pathetic they were.

The hours whiled down. The sun moved in the sky, going across and then down and then – 

Knock. Knock. Knock.

Wasp was out her chair in an instant, jumping up quickly and heading to the door only to stop herself and pause. She didn’t want him to think she was eager to see him, Catchkeep forbid. She waited a beat, then two, then opened the door and moved aside so that the Catchkeep-priest could come in quickly. Wasp cared less if he were cold outside and was more worried that the warmth in her house that she’d been stoking all day might leak out.

If the Catchkeep-priest was surprised by her promptness, it did not show. Instead he only looked down at her with an inquisitive look in his eye as he passed her and sidled his way into the house. 

He must have felt the heat in the house blasting against him the moment she opened the door, must have noted the dwindled pile of firewood she had outside and how much she must have used out of it to get her house so warm. He must have known, just from that, that she had accepted his deal if she was burning the wood so freely when clearly she couldn’t spare it, or else that she’d lost her mind. Or both.

Still, whatever he knew or thought he knew, the Catchkeep-priest asked her as if he could not know and did not care what the answer was, “Well, little Wasp? Do we have our arrangement?”

And for a second, like she had at the door, Wasp paused. 

She paused and she doubted. A little voice in her head whispered to her that she didn’t have to do this, that there were other things she could do, that she could still beg the townspeople or even steal from them or – or – or --- 

Or nothing.

Just a little more pain, she told herself. She had been given pain from him before and had survived it and had gotten nothing from it in return. This was no different, except that she would get something back. She would get back whatever she asked for just like he promised and whatever pain she had to take from him for it, it would be worth it.

It would have to be worth it.

Wasp burned her doubts as callously as she burned her firewood and answered him, “Yes. We do.”

The Catchkeep-priest smiled like Wasp had never seen him smile before. He smiled at her with teeth, just a flash of them, and then walked further past Wasp and further into the warmth of Wasp’s house while Wasp watched the closed door he had just come through and stamped down the shrill voice inside of her head that told her to run through it out into the snow and away from him while she still could like the voice was little more than a cockroach on her floor.

And then she turned around and faced him.

 

*

 

The Catchkeep-priest had brought another pot with him this night and like the night before, he placed this pot gently on Wasp’s table. 

Unlike the night before, however, he did not go about getting Wasp’s bowl, her spoon, her ladle but instead turned to face Wasp with a smile that was less full of teeth than the one he’d given her minutes before but still made her skin crawl regardless.

“You didn’t give your report to me today,” said the Catchkeep-priest, and if Wasp had expected him to say anything to her on this night, it wasn’t that. 

“I didn’t give you my report today because I didn’t work today,” she said, and hated how stupid it sounded.

“And who,” the Catchkeep-priest asked in a musing sort of way, “told you that you didn’t have to work?”

Wasp opened her mouth to answer, then realized she had no answer and closed it.

The truth was that Wasp hadn’t worked today because she hadn’t wanted to go out in the cold, because she had been too anxious of this very meeting with the Catchkeep-priest and what might happen on this night, and because her duties as Archivist – today, of all days – didn’t seem as pressing as the snow on the ground or the lack of food in her house or the horrible uncertainty that faced her in the coming Winter, the uncertainty that only the Catchkeep-priest could suffuse. 

Wasp hadn’t, in all her thoughts about this meeting, considered that the Catchkeep-priest would be angry with her for skipping her duties for the day because he wasn’t angry yesterday and she could berate herself for the assumption.

When had the man ever cut her any slack before? Except yesterday, of course. Yesterday when he wanted something from her. Yesterday when he was sweetening her up for her to agree to his deal with his food and, likely, also with the fact that he hadn’t mentioned that she hadn’t brought her report to him then at all.

“Hmm,” the Catchkeep-priest hummed at her silence. He tapped his finger to his chin as he watched her, as if deep in thought. “We can’t have the Archivist slacking off, Wasp. Ghosts aren’t bears, they don’t hibernate during winter. You still have a job to do and as long as you’re still alive and still healthy enough to walk, I expect you to do it. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Wasp said. “I understand.” – and then after a pause of hesitation, she added, “It won’t happen again.”

The Catchkeep-priest smiled at that. 

“Of course it won’t happen again,” he said and just when Wasp thought that he might leave it at that, that she might get through this unscathed again after all, he continued, “but it did happen today, right after I was so graceful as to let you get away with it yesterday, and you’ll need to be punished for it. You understand that, too, don’t you, sweet Wasp?”

Wasp should not have been surprised at this. She should not have been surprised at all. Hadn’t the Catchkeep-priest always taken every opportunity, every failing on her part – no matter how small, no matter real or imagined – as an excuse to punish her? To give her extra work, to whip her, to make her go without dinner or a blanket or her bed?

Why, why, why had she thought that today would be different?

What about our deal? she wanted to ask him, to scream at him. Isn’t that why you’re here?  

Why had she so stupidly assumed that because the Catchkeep-priest wanted to fuck her, as she’d overheard the midwife calling it, it meant that he would suddenly be different to her, easier with her, more forgiving?

Wasp had erred. She’d been too caught up in her anxieties and she’d erred because of it and now she would have to reap the consequences for it.

“Wasp, I asked you if you understood,” the Catchkeep-priest said in that gentled tone of his. 

Wasp’s skin crawled at hearing it.

“Yes,” she bit out. “I understand.”

“How marvelous,” said the Catchkeep-priest in a bland voice that didn’t sound very marveled at all. He continued to watch her thoughtfully, his eyes narrowed at her, that damned smile playing about his lips. “Now, what do you think would be a fitting punishment for an Archivist abandoning her duties for an entire day, I wonder?”

This question was familiar to Wasp, at least. It made her feel like she was back on even ground, at least a little. The Catchkeep-priest had often asked a similar question to Wasp when she was still just an upstart who had misbehaved and he’d asked it of other upstarts, too. He often liked making them choose their own punishments. 

Wasp had always thought he got some sick sort of joy out of doing it, out of making them complicit in their own pain and the pain of the other girls, out of making them choose it and making them feel all the more that it was their fault.

Do you want the whip or the cane?

How many lashings do you think it would be fair to give her?

You can take twenty lashings on your own and spare your friend, or she can get fifty and you can walk away with none – which would you prefer?

The more open-ended the question, the trickier it was. Nothing was more dangerous than when the Catchkeep-priest simply asked them, “ What do you think I should do to you?”, because there was always a minefield of wrong answers they could give.

If you suggested too light a punishment, he would call you on it and decide on something much more severe – and every punishment an upstart suggested for herself was too light by the Catchkeep-priest’s standards. If a girl had said she deserved a thousand lashings, the Catchkeep-priest would up it to two thousand; if any of them had ever suggested her own slow and painful death, Wasp was sure that the Catchkeep-priest would imagine something to do to her that was even worse than that.

Wasp had learned that the best answer was a vague one: 

I deserve the whip, the cane, to go without meals, to do extra chores.

And then let the Catchkeep-priest put his own number to it – how many lashings, how many strikes, how long without dinner, how much extra work to pile upon the hefty duties she already had. 

You didn’t get totally free that way, but you got off easier. Better to say you wanted the cane and get twenty strikes than to suggest twenty strikes of the cane or whatever number you think would satisfy the Catchkeep-priest’s bloodlust and then have him double the number just to spite you. Upstarts had been injured beyond repair by trying to do that, trying to figure out the rules of the game and what move their piece had to make so they could win it. They had died from it.

Wasp had figured out long ago that there was only one rule that mattered: the Catchkeep-priest will do what he wants to you when you mess up – he decides, you don’t. Other upstarts deluded themselves into thinking the choice of punishment was actually theirs, but Wasp had understood that it wasn’t and that she would only suffer more to pretend that it was.

And now the Catchkeep-priest was asking her again to choose and so Wasp fell back on what she always had.

“The whip,” she answered, and waited for the Catchkeep-priest to pick his number – twenty lashings, thirty, fifty. Wasp couldn’t imagine what he’d choose. This was not an infraction she’d ever before committed.

She couldn’t in a hundred years imagine that he’d choose nothing at all.

“The whip,” he repeated. “Yes, the whip is a good choice, Wasp – but unfortunately I didn’t bring it with me today.”

Wasp faltered at that. This – this had never happened before. Not in any of the times the Catchkeep-priest had ever told her to choose had he done this. He was supposed to give a number and that would be that. That’s what had always happened before when she was an upstart.

The cane, then? she thought. But he hadn’t brought the cane, either.

I’ll go without dinner. Wasp had no food anyway and they both knew it, except maybe what he brought in the pot tonight and Wasp was loath to suggest he take that away, whatever it was.

I’ll sleep on the floor. The Catchkeep-priest could never be sure that she’d actually do it. He couldn’t be in the Archivist’s house all night for however many nights to make sure she wasn’t in the bed. The upstarts at his house would run amok if he did and Catchkeep knew people would find out and how they would talk.

And there was nothing, truly, in the Archivist’s house that he could take from her. All she had, really, were her Archivist’s tools and the Catchkeep-priest could not take them even if he wanted to. Not if he wanted her to actually do her job.

“You’re waffling, Wasp,” chided the Catchkeep-priest. “How about this – how about, instead of the whip, I just use my hands. That’s a fair compromise, don’t you think?”

Wasp hesitated. She sensed a trap. The Catchkeep-priest had hit her with his hands before with open-palmed slaps across the face and while those blows made her cheeks ache and her ears ring, they were nothing so much as mosquito bites in comparison to the whip. 

Wasp had suggested a punishment but rather than countering with something more extreme, the Catchkeep-priest had countered with something milder.

Wasp didn’t understand it.

She didn’t understand what he was doing.

And little as she wanted to give the man ideas, Wasp felt it prone to ask, “Your fists?”

The Catchkeep-priest laughed like she’d told a grand sort of joke. He held up both hands in front of him in a gesture that might have meant surrender in another case, but Wasp didn’t think he was surrendering to her here. 

“Open hands only, dear Wasp. I promise,” he said.

As if Wasp could trust any promise the Catchkeep-priest made on a normal day – but this was no normal day. This was possibly the strangest day Wasp had ever had in her life, stranger than even the day she’d killed the last Archivist and won her title.

But Wasp had little choice in this matter and she was hardly going to try to argue the Catchkeep-priest into giving her a harsher punishment than the one he was suggesting just because that was what she was used to, so she gave the Catchkeep-priest a jerky nod of acceptance and braced herself for him to approach, for her face to be hit.

The Catchkeep-priest was not approaching her, however. He only continued to watch her, continued to smile, and said, “I think this will be easier, Wasp, if you lowered your pants and got down on your hands and knees.”

A closed-fist punch would have stunned Wasp less.

She blanched and the Catchkeep-priest laughed at her again.

“Oh, Wasp, the look on your face. When have I ever used the whip on your front-side, hmm?”

The answer to that, Wasp knew and knew that he knew, was never – but nor had the Catchkeep-priest ever used his hands on her backside , either.

The Catchkeep-priest gave her another of those toothy, animal grins. “You said we had an arrangement, Wasp. What’s showing me a little skin now when I plan to see a lot more later? Of course, if you’d rather not have an arrangement after all, so be it. I can take back the food I walked through the snow to bring you and tomorrow when you come to me to give me your report, I can whip you raw both for your dereliction and wasting my time, and we’ll see how long you last after that.” He paused to cast a pointed glance at the roaring fire in the hearth behind her. “You’ve used so much firewood today. I can’t imagine you have much left, and it will only get colder after tonight. You won’t last long without fire, Wasp, to say nothing of the food. You’re a smart girl, you know this. I shouldn’t have to tell you.”

As the Catchkeep-priest continued to talk, Wasp could swear she tasted blood in her mouth at his words.

It took her another few seconds to realize she’d bitten the inside of her cheek hard enough to wound and that the blood she tasted was all hers. All her own doing.

“You said you agreed to the arrangement I proposed when I came in, Wasp,” the Catchkeep-priest said again, like she needed to be reminded once more. “Do you still agree? Or should I leave? The choice, my dear, is all yours.”

Her choice, he said.

Wasp could laugh. She could cry.

She could take her knife and kill him.

What about this was her choice? What about anything – about anything in this life – was her choice?

She had no more choice in this than she had when he’d asked her as an unruly upstart whether she wanted to be beaten by the whip or the cane. 

He knew what her choice was as surely as she did. He knew that she didn’t want to die, that if she had wanted to then she would’ve let herself be killed by the last Archivist instead of poisoning her blade and killing the girl in turn. If Wasp wanted to die she could have simply walked out into the snow and waited or she could have cut into her veins in the comfortable warmth of the house until all her blood spilled out of her and she turned into a ghost herself, waiting for another Archivist to come along someday – to capture her, study her, banish her to wherever banished ghosts go. 

Dying was easy, if that’s what Wasp wanted, but Wasp didn’t want to die.

And what she had to do to live – there was nothing easy about it.

What’s a little more pain? she’d asked herself the night before. What was an open palm when you’d already had the whip, when your survival was dependent on it?

It was nothing. No injury at all except to her pride and Wasp would not be fool enough to let her pride lead her to her grave.

“Don’t leave,” Wasp told the Catchkeep-priest, though she’d be happy at that point for him to die where he stood and never see him again. “We have our arrangement.”

“Good, Wasp. Good. But now I’ve changed my mind,” he said and Wasp swore her heart stopped for the second it took before he went on. “Not your hands and knees, no. Bend over the table. It’ll be easier for me that way.”

Wasp hated him. She hated him and the smug, hungry, taunting look on his face in that moment more than she’d ever hated anyone or anything in her life.

But she’d already decided. 

Catchkeep help her, she’d made her choice – however much of a choice it actually was.

With jerky steps and a clenched jaw, Wasp closed the short distance to her table. She stopped when she reached it and swallowed down her dignity before she lowered her torso down to it and turned her head so her cheek was pressed flush to the table’s cool surface. 

That cold anchored Wasp in a way. The warmth of the room, the warmth she’d spent all day building, suddenly seemed to be too much. Stifling. That one point of cold against her cheek was a welcome relief, a focus point, a distraction.  A weapon against the hot flush that wanted to creep up her face at the position she was in, even if it wasn’t an entirely effective one.

The pot the Catchkeep-priest had put down was the only thing in Wasp’s line of sight. Wasp had pointedly turned her head away from the direction he was in. She couldn’t stand to know how he looked at her as she lowered herself before him. She couldn’t stand the thought of him seeing her blush.

“And your pants,” the Catchkeep-priest said. The sound of his voice was muffled slightly because Wasp only had the one ear to the air but he was closer to her now, she could tell that, and she heard him all the same.

She let out a curse under her breath at him.

The Catchkeep-priest heard it.

Language, ” he warned, like he’d done a hundred times before when Wasp was but an upstart with a fisherman’s mouth that saw more soap in it in a week than the average pair of hands saw in a lifetime.

Wasp cursed him even more fiercely in her mind and continued to curse him as she lowered a hand down, lifted herself enough to work it underneath her, and undid the buttons on her pants. She fumbled with it and it took some effort, but she got them undone and then with more effort, she got the pants pushed down from her waist, down past her ass, and then she wriggled her legs until they fell and pooled around her feet on the floor, leaving her bare skin exposed to the warm air in the house and sending shivers up her legs despite the warmth.

Wasp could feel her face burning for reasons that had nothing to do with the temperature of the house and the cool of the table pressed to one of her cheeks was doing even less to keep that flush at bay than before. Wasp was thankful that she’d had presence of mind enough to face away from him, at least. 

If she’d had to look at him, she didn’t think she could do this. If she’d had to look at him, she’d walk out into the snow and die. Just sit in it and wait until she froze. She didn’t care how long it took.

When the Catchkeep-priest touched Wasp without her ever having heard his footsteps approach her, she nearly jumped out of her skin.

One second, there was nothing but the air, and then – a hand. Bare and warm and much softer and larger than either of Wasp’s own. It was on her ass and squeezing it, its long fingers gripping hard into the meat of her flesh and the closely-clipped fingernails at the end of them digging into her lower thigh.

Wasp felt another jolt between her legs, the same as she felt the day before when his hand on her knee slid up up up and in, and she had to bite the inside of her already mangled cheek to stifle a sharp inhale and steel herself from flinching. 

At the rate she was going, she’d be tasting her own blood for a week.

“How many strikes, Wasp?” the Catchkeep-priest asked her. “For staying in this cozy little hovel when you should have been doing your work and for making me wait --” at this, he squeezed her even more tightly “--how many do you think is fair?”

Now, at least, they were playing a game that Wasp knew the rules of.

Five ,” she bit out, aiming purposefully low just to vex him.

The Catchkeep-priest was not vexed. He laughed with delight and his fingers dug in deeper, his short nails biting into her skin. Wasp couldn’t stop the hiss that escaped between her lips or the way her hands clenched into fists on the tabletop. 

“So few?” he mocked. “Try again, Wasp.”

“Ten, then,” Wasp spat. 

He was silent. His nails were digging crescent moons into her skin.

Wasp huffed angrily. “ Fifteen .”

“Let’s say twenty-five,” the Catchkeep-priest finally countered, apparently done with this bidding game already. But twenty-five was not so many. He’d once given Wasp thirty lashings with the whip and she’d survived that. Twenty-five strikes of a bare hand was nothing she couldn’t live through. “You’ll count them out loud for me.”

And then he didn’t waste a single second before his hand was flying off of her and returning to slap her ass with a loud smack that stung and made Wasp yelp in surprise.

“That didn’t sound like a ‘one’ to me,” said the Catchkeep-priest right before his hand left her and came back down even more forcefully again.

Smack!

Wasp’s whole body jerked from the hit and she groaned.

“Wasp--” he started to warn, and belatedly Wasp yelled out:

“Two!” 

And the Catchkeep-priest hit her again – smack – and immediately Wasp gasped out, “Three!”

“Very good,” the Catchkeep-priest said and it sounded more genuine than any bit of false praise the man had ever given Wasp in her life .

He then struck her four more times in such quick succession that Wasp had to raise her voice so her counting – “Four, five, si---six! Seven!” – could be heard over the sound of the slaps.

Wasp’s fists on the table went white-knuckled as she fought not to squirm away from the hits, as she fought not to squirm away from him when he kept hitting her – through eight, through nine, through ten – and she felt her belly clench from the feeling of it, when – at eleven, twelve, thirteen – she started to feel a throbbing ache between her legs that was akin to the jolt she’d felt before but steady now and lingering, and when – fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen – the Catchkeep-priest pushed the lower half of his body flush against her and she could feel something hard pressed into left side of her ass where he wasn’t hitting her.

By the time twenty-five was finally ripped out of Wasp’s mouth with effort, the right side of her bottom ached and burned from the slaps to it, her fists had gone numb from being clenched so tightly together, and there was such a hot, aching feeling of emptiness between her thighs that Wasp had automatically clenched them together to try to relieve it to absolutely no avail.

And the Catchkeep-priest, still pressed flush against Wasp, stilled and kept his hand pressed into the bruised flesh of her ass while Wasp could only lie there prone against the table, panting a little, heart racing, and wondered what he would do next.

The quiet in the house – the absence of the sound of a hand coming down hard against skin – was so absolute that it seemed like a noise in and of itself. 

Wasp strained her hearing through the one ear that wasn’t pressed to the table and thought she could hear the sound of the fire lightly crackling behind her, the Catchkeep-priest breathing heavily above her, her own heartbeat pounding in her ears. The moment seemed caught in some sort of bubble – a pause in time, the moment after a page has just been filled with writing but before it’s turned to the next blank sheet of paper.

Wasp laid there and thought about that husband on top of his wife, fumbling under the sheets. She thought about how men had sex with women by putting their cocks inside of them. She thought about the hard thing pressing against her skin that must have been the Catchkeep-priest’s cock with only the fabric of the Catchkeep-priest’s own pants keeping it from being inside of her and her heart ached with panic at the thought of him doing it at the same time as that place between her legs ached at the same thought with something that also felt like panic but was something else on top of it.

And then the moment broke.

The Catchkeep-priest took his hand off of Wasp and pulled his body off of hers, and Wasp could hear the rustling sound of him behind her straightening out his clothes. 

He cleared his throat. 

“I expect you to work tomorrow,” he said. He sounded out of breath in the way that one does when they were exerted and desperately trying to hide it. “One day off was enough, I think. I’ll come by again tomorrow night for your report and something more and if I find that you’ve disappointed me again, Wasp, I won’t let you off so easily as I did tonight.”

And that, apparently, was it.

Wasp heard his footsteps retreating across the floor of the house. She heard her door open and then close again, signaling the Catchkeep-priest’s exit.

Wasp waited a few seconds, for what she didn’t know, and then took a deep breath and pushed herself off the table with a wince that turned into a grimace when she bent down to pull her pants back up her wobbly legs. 

Her thighs brushed together as she bent and she froze when she noticed they felt...wet. They moved together slickly in a way they usually only did in the bath and something about that observation made Wasp’s heart thump almost painfully in her chest. It made her feel filthy and even more flush than before. 

She ignored the feeling and the slow throbbing that went with it and hastened to pull her pants back up. She dragged her chair over to where she stood and braced herself before lowering her body down to the seat.

She cursed at that. It smarted to sit, but it was nothing close to being as painful as trying to get around after being whipped was, so Wasp supposed that the Catchkeep-priest wasn’t entirely wrong in saying she got off easily. 

She still ached between her legs, however, in addition to the wet feeling. She pressed her thighs together again without thinking about it and wanted to scream at how little it did to relieve the ache and wanted to bury her head in a pillow at how the wetness felt even more obvious, how it felt like it was leaking out of the hot center of her. 

She had to get her mind off of it. If she stopped thinking about it, then maybe it would go away.

Wasp focused instead on the pot the Catchkeep-priest had brought with him. She took the lid off the pot and found it filled with porridge that had some sort of purple jam swirled into it. It looked a bit congealed from sitting for so long and if Wasp didn’t already know it wouldn’t be hot from that, the lack of steam coming off of it would have been a tip off, but it still smelled appetizing and Wasp’s stomach was hungry for it. 

She looked across her house to the place where she kept her few dishes, debated whether it was worth the pain in her backside that getting up would cause to go get a spoon and bowl, and decided it wasn’t.

Wasp ate the cool porridge right out of the pot with nothing but her fingers. It wasn’t as delicious as the stew the night before – not even close – but it was good and it filled her. She went to bed that night warm and satiated, the ache between her legs gone at last even if the wetness had turned uncomfortably sticky and cool and the ache on her bottom would be there for a few days more, and found herself drifting off into an uneasy sleep.

 

*

 

In the morning when Wasp left her house to go to work, she found twenty split wood logs stacked outside her door and a bag placed on top of them. She stopped short at the sight of it and started doing the math in her head.

With twenty logs, she would be able to avoid freezing for ten days if she only used just enough to stay alive. Seven days if she wanted to be comfortably warm. Five days if she wanted to feel the stifling sort of warmth that filled her house the day before. But five days or ten or anything in between, they were days she didn’t have before – days she wouldn’t have had had that wood not been there.

Wasp picked up the bag and opened it. Inside was a good-sized chunk of bread and when she pulled it out and started nibbling, Wasp found that there were some dried berries and nuts underneath it. It was one decent meal’s worth or two small meals – unless Wasp rationed it further, but she knew she’d be hungry if she did.

Wasp looked at the wood, at the food. 

At least ten days of wood, but only a few hours worth of food. 

Wasp did not have to see the Catchkeep-priest around to know that he had left it. No one else would have. She also didn’t need an explanation for why there was more wood than food there. The food was now an excuse for him. It was the reason he came to her house last night and the night before – ostensibly, at least, even though they both knew he had ulterior motives – and would likely be the reason he used to come that night.

And knowing the Catchkeep-priest, it was probably a reminder, too. A reminder that she was at his mercy, and that any reprieve she had from winter was because of him and because of her continued cooperation with him. A reminder that this he left for her might be guaranteed but nothing further was, not if she didn’t behave. A reminder that he would feed her and keep her warm for now, for a few days, but if she stopped playing along, he could deny her later. He could deny her any time he wanted to.

Last night had not changed the fact that Wasp still had fear that he would do just that, that this was all some trick he was playing, that he was being kind now only to make her complacent so that his cruelty would hurt her all the more later. 

The Catchkeep-priest wanted things from her, Wasp believed that, but she was not unconvinced that he would not suddenly lose that desire before winter was over or decide that he desired to see her suffer more than he desired...other things. That he gave her wood now did not mean he would give her more when this ran out. That he gave her food now did not mean he would bring her dinner tonight. 

For Wasp to believe otherwise would mean that she had to trust him and Wasps did not – could not – trust the Catchkeep-priest. A lifetime had taught her how foolish it would be to do so.

But still, Wasp did not want to spend all of winter scrimping and paranoid, rationing everything the Catchkeep-priest gave her to its limit because she couldn’t be sure if he would renege on their deal at any time. To do that would be to drive herself mad. 

She decided she would use three logs a day instead of only two. She also decided she would split the food into two meals, but no more than that. She would be responsible, not self-indulgent, but nor would she be miserly towards herself, either. That seemed the smartest thing to do, the most practical.

The Catchkeep-priest might lose interest in their deal at some point, but Wasp didn’t think it would be tonight. He would come. He would have more food for her. He would want something more of her than to just hit her, but what that something was Wasp could only imagine in foggy shapes built on secondhand knowledge, a remembrance of two people fumbling under sheets and the midwife saying in exasperation more times than Wasp could remember that women would be a much happier lot if only the men in their lives would keep their cocks out of them. 

Wasp could not predict the future a year from now or five or ten, she could not even predict all the particulars of what would happen that night, but she thought she could predict at least that the Catchkeep-priest would be at her door and he would not be empty handed.

That decided, she braved the cold and went to work. She would not give the Catchkeep-priest reason to punish her for a second time if she could help it.

 

*

 

The Catchkeep-priest came again that evening just as Wasp expected he would, but instead of another close-lidded pot, this time the Catchkeep-priest came baring a closed basket instead. 

It was a beautiful piece of work made of light brown strips of wood woven together to form a checkered pattern that went all around the basket and that matched with the closed top that hid whatever was inside and the upside down ‘U’ of the handle. It was fairly large – larger than the pots he’d brought the last two nights were, at any rate – and when the Catchkeep-priest came into Wasp’s house and set it on the table, Wasp could hear what sounded like clay pots clinking together inside of it.

Wasp eyed the basket with curiosity, the desire to walk over and lift the lid swelling in her chest, but she was distracted from doing that or even wondering what was in it any more when the Catchkeep-priest started to take off his coat. 

It startled her to see him do it.

He had not done that before, not in either of his previous visits. He had not stayed long enough to bother with it, and with a sense of dread, Wasp realized that meant that he likely planned to stay longer than he had before now.

The coat came off and the Catchkeep-priest gazed around the house looking for a place to put it. He looked somewhat put-out when he couldn’t find a coat rack or anything of the sort to hang it up on.

Wasp might have laughed at that, at how ridiculous it was, if she hadn’t been too nervous at the thought of spending a lot of time with him to laugh.

And if she hadn’t been so nervous at seeing him shed his outermost layer.

Taking off that coat should have made him seem smaller, more diminished. It was a thick, bulky, black heap of a thing and so long that on anyone else, anyone shorter, its bottom would be dragging on the floor. But the Catchkeep-priest was not a short man; he was a very tall one. His height often reminded Wasp of the tall, skinny, chalk-white trees that were in the forest – the ones that looked dead, but continued to grow to heights that the other trees that still produced fruit could not reach, that most of the townspeople did not like because there was something menacing about them, those trees. They were pale but their bark had black spots running up the length of them that people said looked like eyes and those eyes would follow you around if you walked through the woods.

Trees had never menaced Wasp who spent most of her time as Archivist outdoors, but the Catchkeep-priest had, and he lost none of his intimidation now without the bulk of that coat covering him. If anything, its removal only made his height seemed more pronounced. His wiriness more obvious, himself more like those trees. He was not diminished at all by its removal. He was not as bulky without it covering him, but the space he took up in Wasp’s little house could never be considered small.

He ended up folding his coat carefully and placing it on top of the basket. 

With that done, he turned his attention to Wasp, and his eyes were more probing to her than any black splotch on tree bark could ever be.

“You got the wood I left. And the food, too, I suppose. Good,” he said. He pulled her second chair out at he table and sat in it. He looked up at her expectantly where she remained standing. “You did your work today, I take it?”

Wasp held back a sigh. She hated small talk. She always had, but it seemed even more tedious now that she was waiting for more from the Catchkeep-priest than just a scolding, just a volleying of acid-covered words.

For once, she wished that he would just get to the point. Just get to it and get it over with quickly. The fact that she wished for swiftness was probably something he sensed and why he felt the need to delay. Just to spite her.

“You know I did,” she said. He could see her leave her house from his own, thus was the pain of living on top of a hill, and no doubt he heard of all her movements from the townspeople and upstarts alike once she left for the day.

Yes ,” he confirmed, somewhat impatiently, “but it’s always good to be reassured that the Archivist is doing her job, Wasp, so – reassure me.”

And so Wasp gave him her day’s report as though this was just any other day, as though he always came to her home baring gifts and getting comfortable as though it was his home, too. As though he were used to taking her report in this house rather than his own when this was the first time it had ever happened here.

Wasp told him about how there were few ghosts about outside of Sweetwater – but did not add that she wondered if they were as affected by the cold as the living were and if that was why there were so few of them around. She told him that she’d captured a small one in the orchard that did not speak or behave in any remarkable way and that she’d sent it on its way once it became clear there was nothing new to learn from it. She also told him that she went into town and saw several ghosts skulking about outside the baker’s place and thought it odd and worth watching – but did not add that she suspected it was because the baker was hoarding salt again because she had no proof of it and knew the Catchkeep-priest wouldn’t take her seriously unless she did, no matter that there was a salt ban and the baker had broken it before.

There was little else to tell. Winter was the Archivist’s busiest season when it came to trying to survive, not when it came to the ghost-work, and they both knew it. Still, he needed a report and she had to give it.

When Wasp was finished with it, she was tired of standing but made no move to pull out the other chair at the table and sit in it. She didn’t want to be that close to him – not yet, not while she could still avoid it. She did not want to be reminded of the last time they sat together at that table and the way it felt to have his hand on her thigh. She also had no desire to replicate all the other times she’d had to give the Catchkeep-priest her report, times when he’d make a show of inviting her to sit and used their conversation like a battleground, sometimes while upstarts watched and stared at her like they wished they could kill her right then and there.

There were no upstarts in her house, at least, and would not be if Wasp had anything to say about it but giving her report to the Catchkeep-priest was always a tedious, drawn out affair that repeatedly marked the most unpleasant part of Wasp’s days. Her house had always been her refuge from that, the place she could escape to, except that now the Catchkeep-priest was in it and would likely be for some time yet and Wasp had no escape anymore.

She remained standing. Her feet hurt but the distance between him and her was all the distance that she was allowed, temporary as it might be, and that was worth enough to bare the pain in her heels.

The Catchkeep-priest made a thoughtful noise when Wasp dropped into silence and it was clear her report was done. His fingers were steepled on the table – long things that they were, his hands soft like only the hands of someone who had never done any kind of hard work in their life could be. 

Wasp looked at them and couldn’t believe they were the hands that were on her just last night, the hands that hit her and the fingers that dug into her skin and the nails that had left little crescent moon marks on her body.

“The baker is probably smuggling salt in again,” the Catchkeep-priest said, echoing Wasp’s own suspicions even though she knew he never would have agreed had she suggested it first. “I’ll have a talk with him. We wouldn’t want his whole house overrun with ghosts because he couldn’t follow the rules, would we, Wasp?”

Since Wasp would be the one who had to clean up that mess were it to happen she could say honestly, “No, we wouldn’t.”

The Catchkeep-priest nodded, apparently satisfied at her agreement. 

He sighed and leaned back in the chair, head tilted back so he could continue to watch Wasp with a thoughtful look on his face – thoughtful and measuring and hungry. 

He looked at Wasp like a shopper would at the butcher in springtime as they pursued what was available of the first slaughter of the season, all hunks of meat hung up on hooks and bloodless. It was not a look Wasp enjoyed having directed at her at all.

“I suppose the only question now is what am I going to do with you, sweet Wasp?” he asked, and it said a lot about their prior interactions that Wasp’s first thoughts were: the cane, the whip. 

It took her a second to realize this wasn’t a punishment and that that wasn’t the question she was being asked – though it would have been easier if it was, Catchkeep knew. 

Wasp had enough experience being asked to choose her own punishments and no experience at all being asked to choose what things a man should do to her where the purpose was not to cause her pain for some infraction she had made. Wasp could not think of many things that a man could do to her, either, save the one, but she’d rather die than tell the Catchkeep-priest that he should put his cock between her legs. 

A more humiliating thing to say out loud to another person, and especially to this person, Wasp could not imagine. 

If he wanted to do that to her tonight, let him be the one to suggest it. She would not play and pretend that she was asking for him to do it herself, that it was her idea. She had swallowed enough of her pride to agree to this deal, she would not surrender all of it.

“I don’t know,” Wasp said. 

“No?” the Catchkeep-priest mocked. “You haven’t any suggestions for how we should spend our evening, Wasp? None at all?”

Wasp fought to keep the annoyance out of her voice as she reminded him, “This deal was your idea. I would think that you would have your own suggestions about how to go about it.”

“And I suppose that you’re sweet enough on me to let me do whatever it is I want, is that it?”

Wasp clenched her jaw. She had no answer to that little provocation. They both knew she’d let him do what he wanted just as they both knew that her being sweet on him had nothing to do with her apparent consent.

“Well then,” he said when it was clear Wasp would say nothing. “Who am I to say no to such open generosity? I think you look a little tired standing there, Wasp. Why don’t you come closer to me and lower yourself to your knees, hmm?”

Waves of humiliation at the thought of kneeling for him washed through Wasp like a tidal wave, though she could not imagine what it was he wanted her to kneel for. She pushed aside the humiliation and the confusion both. Gritting her teeth, Wasp walked stiltedly towards the Catchkeep-priest until she was only a few paces away from him. She stopped and eyed him warily.

The Catchkeep-priest’s lips twitched in a small, mean little smile at whatever he saw when he looked back at her. “Come a little closer than that, Wasp. As close as you can get.”

Wasp hesitated, but then closed the distance until she stood so close to the Catchkeep-priest that her knees were scant centimeters away from brushing against his. She swore she could feel the heat of his body radiating off of him even though her house was so warm now that such a thing couldn’t have been possible.

Her movements were jerky, strained, as she lowered herself down to one knee and then the other. It felt as though someone standing behind her was bodily forcing her to kneel, but of course there was no one behind her at all – only in front of her, and he hadn’t put a hand on her. Yet.

Wasp settled back, trying to find a more comfortable position that would alleviate the hardness of the floor against her knees. She looked up at the Catchkeep-priest and waited for whatever would come next.

The Catchkeep-priest’s pupils were dilated, his eyes dark. He had one hand resting under his chin as he looked down at Wasp as though she were a plate on his table at supper time and he was deciding what to stick his fork into first.

“This is a good look for you, Wasp,” he said softly, darkly. “Kneeling and quiet. If only I’d had you strip down first, this would be perfect, but I suppose there’s still time for that later. Tomorrow, maybe.”

The thought of kneeling before the Catchkeep-priest naked made Wasp’s throat constrict and her heart thump worryingly in her chest. She already felt uncomfortably vulnerable as it was. To increase that vulnerability made her feel sick with nerves. It did not help that Wasp still had no idea what it was the Catchkeep-priest wanted her to kneel in front of him for in the first place. 

Perhaps he sensed her confusion because he commented then, an almost amused lilt in his voice, “You haven’t a clue what it is I want to do to you, do you, Wasp?”

Wasp glared up at him, irritated that he was getting any amount of amusement out of her ignorance and the position she was in.

“How would I know?” she demanded. “It’s not like I can read your mind.”

The Catchkeep-priest laughed, apparently entirely unbothered by her tone when normally that kind of attitude would earn her a smack across the face at best.

“I suppose we do keep you upstarts in the dark about such things,” he mused. “We can’t have any of Catchkeep’s daughters turning into sluts, after all. What would the townspeople think?”

Heat and ire both rushed up Wasp at the slur. “I’m not---”

“No, no, no,” the Catchkeep-priest rushed to soothe. He reached out and placed a hand on Wasp’s head, running it down her hair until his long fingers came to rest under her chin, tilting her face up until her neck strained from the effort of looking up at him. Wasp froze at the first touch and stayed frozen as his hand moved against her. His fingers felt like they were burning her when they touched her skin. The softness of his own skin felt like razor blades touching her with their edges. “Of course you’re not, Wasp. Not yet. I’ll teach you to be, though, so that you might please me.”

He smiled down at her as though he was making some grand offer that anyone would be grateful to receive.

Wasp did not feel gratitude or anything close to it. All she felt was a great desire to jerk away from his touch and to bite down the fingers that were still on her until she made him bleed.

The Catchkeep-priest’s smile widened at whatever hate he could see in Wasp’s expression. 

He liked that she hated him, she thought. He liked that she hated him and that she could do nothing about it except follow his directions like the most doting of sycophants, like the upstarts who thought that the quicker they blurted out how high at the Catchkeep-priest’s demands that they jump, the kinder he’d be. 

Wasp had to remind herself of the basket of food on her table, of the fire burning in her hearth and the logs of wood stacked outside, of the fact that she was not doing this for nothing. That the humiliation she felt was only a small price to pay for her own survival.

It helped. Some. Enough that Wasp’s voice was even when she asked, “Why am I kneeling here? What are we doing?”

“Weren’t you listening, Wasp?” he chided. “You’re going to please me. I expect with how much you like using that smart mouth of yours that you’ll be particularly talented at the task.”

“I don’t---” Wasp started to protest, but her voice cut off as a thought came upon her and she could feel herself blanching at the very idea of it.

She’d always heard that men had sex with women by putting their cocks in the space between a woman’s legs and that when women did things with each other, like she’d heard of some upstarts doing with one another, they used their fingers or objects to penetrate the same place. 

Never, not ever , had Wasp ever heard that a man might put it in a woman’s mouth. That husband and wife she’d lived with as a child had never done it, the midwife had never talked about such a thing in Wasp’s hearing, Wasp had never read about it in any book. 

The entire thing seemed salacious, perverse beyond imagination.

But looking up at the Catchkeep-priest’s face, she could see that he was serious about it. That he wanted it. From her.

He laughed at her shock. 

Wasp was getting quite tired of the Catchkeep-priest’s laughter. She was getting tired of hearing it at her own expense.

“You can’t mean that you want me to---” Wasp could not even bring herself to finish the sentence aloud. To her mortification, she could feel her whole face heating just from finishing it in her head.

“Oh, come now, Wasp. Don’t look so horrified. It won’t be as bad as you think.”

No, Wasp thought, it would be even worse.

The Catchkeep-priest moved the hand that was still holding her under the chin and brought it up to stroke the side of her hair again. 

“There, there, Wasp,” he said with a mocking sort of gentleness. “We have a deal, remember? You agreed you’d do what I wanted and this is what I want tonight. You don’t want to back out now, do you?”

Food on the table, Wasp reminded herself. Fire in the hearth, logs outside the door. 

“No,” she answered, and hated herself for it as much as she hated the Catchkeep-priest.

“Good girl.” The Catchkeep-priest somehow made the praise sound genuine.

His hand left her head then and he wasted no time in using it to undo his belt.  

Wasp watched the movements of his hands with a detached sense of numbness. She felt then how she imagined ghosts might feel after they first died, if ghosts felt anything, as though she were outside of her own body and above it, watching some stranger who happened to share her face as they knelt there on the floor and watched the man sitting in front of them undoing his belt and then the buttons on his pants. 

It was only when the Catchkeep-priest slid his hand beneath the waistband of his pants and pulled his cock out that Wasp seemed to snap back into her body and realize that the stranger kneeling on the floor was her , that she was the one watching the Catchkeep-priest so carefully, that she would be the one who would have to let him do what he wanted with her mouth.

The realization came with an increase in her heartbeat and a shocked sort of fascination with what was in front of her.

Wasp had only ever seen a man’s organ in books before, ones that belonged to the midwife that she sometimes flipped through when the woman was with a patient and Wasp was alone and bored. Those were only diagrams done in black ink that left everything but a vague shape to the imagination.

They did little to compare to reality of it right in front of her.

The Catchkeep-priest’s cock was perhaps a little longer than his own middle finger and thick with a blunt looking head that was darker than the length of it. The whole of it was hard and wet-looking, and Wasp imagined she could smell the heady salt scent of clean human skin coming off of it where she knelt. A pearl of white fluid glistened at the top, coming out of what looked like a slit in the bluntness of it. 

It looked painful to Wasp. It looked alien. The thought of putting it in her mouth made her swallow hard against a sudden tightness in her throat while revulsion churned in her belly and she prayed she would not be sick all over the Catchkeep-priest’s lap, though Catchkeep knew he would deserve it.

The Catchkeep-priest kept one hand wrapped around his cock, spreading his long legs wider before pumping it once, then twice. Wasp could see more fluid leaking from the head and though she was horrified, for some reason she couldn’t look away, too fascinated even with her horror. 

Only the Catchkeep-priest’s soft groan finally made her tear her eyes away from it to look up at him.

There was no smile on his face now and no amusement, mocking or otherwise. The Catchkeep-priest’s mouth was pursed and his eyes so dark that Wasp could hardly see the irises. That darkness, however, did nothing to hide that his gaze was totally and singularly affixed on her.

“Yes,” the Catchkeep-priest said softly, almost more to himself than to Wasp. “Yes, I’ll have to make you strip next time we do this.” Then louder, sharper, “Well, don’t dally, Wasp. Get to it.”

“I don’t –“

The Catchkeep-priest sighed impatiently. He jerked his cock again, almost gesturing with it.

“You lick it,” he said, like it was the simplest direction in the world. “Use your tongue, take it in your mouth, don’t bite . Even a simple-minded virgin would know what to do, Wasp, and virgin you may be, but I know there’s at least a working brain between those ears of yours.”

Wasp forgot her horror for a moment, she was so taken aback by what sounded almost like an honest to Catchkeep compliment coming out of the Catchkeep-priest’s mouth, and it caused her to pause long enough that the Catchkeep-priest’s impatience got the best of him.

He made an annoyed noise and the hand that wasn’t holding his cock shot out fast to grab Wasp by the back of her hair and pull her bodily forward until his cock was but an inch away from her mouth. Wasp tried to jerk back from it on instinct, but the Catchkeep-priest’s grip tightened to the point of pain, and escaping that hold was impossible.

“Wasp,” he warned, pulling her forward a little more so that the wet head of his cock was caressing her cheek, painting the bottom of Catchkeep’s own mark where it scarred Wasp’s face with the fluid leaking out of it, the thing teasing at the very edge of her closed mouth. “You’re starting to make me think you don’t want to hold up your end of our bargain after all.”

Food on the table, a faint voice in Wasp’s head said. 

Fire in her hearth, it said, sounding horribly weak.

Fighting down waves of disgust, Wasp slowly opened her mouth and darted her tongue out to give the Catchkeep-priest’s cock a tentative swipe that had him hissing and his head dropping back in the chair while Wasp made a face at the taste of him, salty and bitter, but – Wasp thought with some surprise – not nearly as nasty as she might have thought. The rotten black walnuts she’d scrounged for her breakfast days before were leagues worse, and Wasp had eaten more than a few of those in order to survive.

This was no different, she told herself, repeating it in her head like a mantra. No different at all.

“Keep going,” the Catchkeep-priest demanded, and slowly, Wasp did.

She licked at his cock in small, tentative swipes at first, getting used to the flavor of his skin and the texture of the fluid that leaked out of his cock’s head while he let out these breathy, groaning noises that sounded horribly loud in the otherwise quiet house. As Wasp’s tongue licked the underside of his cock and went around the tip, his noises got louder and he began to move, thrusting against her tongue, her face, smearing his cock against her closed lips. 

“Open your mouth,” he told her on a gasp, and as Wasp’s lips parted, the head of his cock pushed inside, shallowly thrusting in against her tongue before pulling out and repeating, not going in further than a few inches at first while Wasp’s lips automatically closed around him and her tongue continued to lick at him as he fucked into her mouth without her even thinking about it, all of her mind too busy focusing on breathing through her nose.

The Catchkeep-priest must have liked it, though, for he groaned loudly and tightened his grip on her hair at what she was doing, thrusting his cock in a little farther, hitting the back of Wasp’s throat and causing it to clench on a near-gag. 

Anxiety shot up Wasp’s spine, a startled noise coming out of her throat, thinking he meant to force his cock down her gullet, but her worry was for nothing as the Catchkeep-priest didn’t try to go further than that. He only pulled out and thrust back in, hitting the back of her throat again, and then repeated the motion again and again until Wasp’s throat stopped clenching every time and she became almost used to the feeling of his cock butting up against it.

And all the while as the Catchkeep-priest thrust his cock in and out of Wasp’s mouth, Wasp looked up at the Catchkeep-priest through bleary eyes and listened to him past the buzzing in her ears. 

His head thrown back, his eyes struggling to stay open, his face flushed ruddy, and his mouth half-parted with pants and moans escaping his lips that only got louder and closer together at his thrusts started stuttering. 

He looked and sounded less composed than Wasp had ever known him to be, unlike anything she had ever seen or heard of him before, and she didn’t know why her throat felt tight at looking at him more than it did over what he was doing to her or why she felt tears pricking at the corners of her eyes. 

Wasp pushed away her emotions and focused only on the physical sensations, then, for that was easier. 

She focused on the hard floor against her knees, of the velvet skin of the cock against her tongue as it went in and out, in and out of her, and the wetness that leaked out of it. Wasp went away from herself, a little, back to that feeling she had before of this happening to someone else while she was looking down at them from outside of her own body, watching, feeling nothing over it.

Wasp started to taste more of his fluid in her mouth and she had to swallow reflexively so her mouth would not drown in it until finally the Catchkeep-priest stilled and let out a long, loud sound, and suddenly a large burst of fluid came from his cock and spilled into Wasp’s mouth, causing her to choke in surprise and jerk her head away from him, managing to pull back and get his cock free from her, his seed still spilling out and spraying all over Wasp’s face, making her shut her eyes as she coughed and sputtered against what had gone down her throat while it was still inside of her.

And then finally it was done, the Catchkeep-priest’s cock stopped releasing and his grip on her head went slack enough that Wasp managed to get free of it and shuffle back away from him. 

When she opened her eyes, she found the Catchkeep-priest sitting bonelessly in the chair, as though exhausted, his chest rising and falling quickly as his breathed heavily, his cock laying limp in his lap, and his mouth slack. 

He looked down at Wasp through half-lidded eyes for awhile and then his lips twisted into a small, lazy little smile.

“Look at you,” the Catchkeep-priest said softly, and let out a breathless little laugh. “What a pretty picture you make, Wasp, with my come all over you.”

Wasp said nothing to this. The ability to speak felt beyond her. She felt strangely empty there, sitting  on the floor, too empty to feel anything at his words except that to note in some distant part of her mind that her knees felt numb from kneeling for so long and already she could feel the Catchkeep-priest’s spendings starting to dry unpleasantly on her skin.

The Catchkeep-priest, for once, did not seem offended at her silence. 

He simply hummed and closed his eyes, as though he meant to go to sleep, but Wasp knew he meant nothing of the sort for he soon said, “Stay on the floor, Wasp. I’ll get hard again eventually and I want your mouth another time before I leave. You’re such a natural at using it, I think I’ll despair that I can’t keep my cock buried in it all the time now.”

And still Wasp said nothing, still she felt too empty, too far away from herself to say anything at all.

And when the Catchkeep-priest became hard again like he promised he would some time later, Wasp still said not a word when he told her to come back to him and put her mouth on him again. She simply came forward and did as he said like a puppet on strings she couldn’t see, taking him back into her mouth and repeating the motions of her tongue that made him moan the loudest on automatic, her mind empty but for the low-grade buzzing that she heard in a place much deeper than her ears.

It was all easier the second time. 

When the Catchkeep-priest came again, Wasp swallowed every drop he fed to her without so much as a flinch.

 

*

 

It was long after the Catchkeep-priest got up from the chair to tuck his cock back in his pants and put his coat back on, promising Wasp he’d be back the next night and leaving her silent on her floor, before Wasp finally drew in a sharp intake of air and seemed to wake up from a deep sleep.

She blinked a few times in quick succession, her eyes feeling dry and dazed, and then grimaced at the taste in her mouth, going still when making the expression caused the skin on her face to feel tight, as though mud had went on wet and then dried on her face. Wasp raised a tentative hand to her cheek to check and felt something dry and flaky, but definitely not dirt, and rubbed her hand roughly on her pants when she realized what she felt was the Catchkeep-priest’s dried come.

Disgusted, Wasp struggled to stand from the floor on heavy legs. She managed to rise and half-stumbled to her sink where she wet a small towel down with water and then scrubbed her face in rough circles, splashing it a few times for good measure, and then scrubbed her hands equally as harshly before she deemed them clean enough to cup some water in them to drink from. She swished the water vigorously in her mouth and then spat it and most of the bad taste out with it.

Wasp stood there over the sink after, her hands pressed to the counter, just staring into the drain like the secrets of the universe had went down it with the water. The emptiness in her was fading into a dull throb and the buzzing in her head was still there, but quieter, just the sound of a few bees left from what was formerly a large and busy hive.

When Wasp’s mind went back to what the Catchkeep-priest had done to her – and also, more, what she had done to him – hours earlier, the buzzing increased until Wasp would have sworn she felt vibrations under her skin and that dull throbbing disappeared like a blown-out candle, going instant to blankness. 

Wasp tried to muster up some feeling about the situation, about herself, about the Catchkeep-priest, about her mouth on his...on him , but she found herself an empty well, dry to the very bottom, full of nothing but cobwebs and dust. She searched for anger and found not a drop of it. She searched for disgust and couldn’t even come up with that. It was not that Wasp was okay with any of it, but that she was empty of all emotion entirely. She felt nothing, she thought nothing, and at realizing this, Wasp suddenly did feel something – she felt a pang of terrible, painful fear at her own lack of feeling.

Wasp turned away from the sink quickly, the movement almost violent in its suddenness, the buzzing under her skin telling her to move. It was only as Wasp turned that she caught sight of the basket on the table and froze, the buzzing settling, remembering that there had been a point to the Catchkeep-priest’s visit and what had happened during it. 

She had thought she heard containers clinking together in that basket when he first brought it, she remembered, and when Wasp walked over to the table and lifted off the basket’s lid, she saw that there were indeed clay jars in there – three large ones and three small. Wasp pulled the large ones out first, handling them carefully as though they were made of precious glass rather than clay as she did, and set them down on the table before plucking off their lids, discovering that they were full of oats, rice, and dried beans. 

Stunned from the sheer amount of food in each jar, Wasp took out the small jars next, her movements even more careful, and found one filled with a dark red powder that burned her tongue a little when she dipped a tentative finger in to taste it, and the other two filled with tiny white grains as small as grains of sand. The first that Wasp tasted was sugar and the other – 

Salt, Wasp thought with exasperation – the first true feeling she’d felt in some time. 

The Catchkeep-priest wasn’t allowed to have salt any more than the baker or anyone else was with the ban, not unless he was getting it for the Archivist’s use, but Wasp had a feeling the salt in the small jar he’d given her was just a small bit from a larger stock in his own larder.  A man such as him would not be willing to go on eating unseasoned food like the regular peasants who lived in Sweetwater, after all, and there was nothing surprising about that to Wasp who had known him as such a man for her entire life. 

No, what surprised Wasp the most was the amount of food he’d given her. 

Enough for weeks, probably longer. 

The rice alone, possibly months, as it doubled in size when cooked. 

And the fact that he’d given her something to season it all with, too, was surprising in that it was so unnecessary.  The deal Wasp had made had been that the Catchkeep-priest would give her what she needed to stay alive, and one didn’t need their food to taste good in order for it to give them the energy they needed to go on. One could survive on the amount of plain rice, oats, and beans he’d given her easily, with nothing else required for it except water which Wasp already had. It may not have been the most exciting fare, but it would keep her alive and that was what really mattered.

The spice he’d given her, the sugar, the salt – it was all extra, all unnecessary. There was no reason for Wasp to have it except so that she might enjoy her food more, and Wasp’s enjoyment had not been part of the deal the Catchkeep-priest made her.

It puzzled her to wonder why he gave them to her. 

It made her extremely uncomfortable to consider those extras as being called anything like ‘care’. 

It also helped Wasp’s confusion little that her prior theory that the Catchkeep-priest would only continue giving her one meal at a time so to insure her continued compliance suddenly seemed to hold no weight at all.

It was all, Wasp thought, much more than just a fair exchange for what the Catchkeep-priest had had her do for him with her mouth earlier. 

It hadn’t hurt, that act. It had not been pleasant, especially when he spilled himself and got it all over her, and it had made her feel that empty-blank-buzzing thing that Wasp didn’t like and which persisted to ail her even now, but it hadn’t hurt her and had not even come close to hurting her, either. It was nothing compared to the whip or the cane. It was nothing compared to even being forced to do all the other upstarts’ chores in the same amount of time she was expected to complete her own like she had been punished with before she was the Archivist.

Looking at all that the Catchkeep-priest brought her and thinking about that, Wasp felt very much like she’d paid a penny for a loaf of bread and been given a whole bakery’s worth instead. She felt like she’d gotten the better end of the bargain and she worried over it as she knew the Catchkeep-priest was not the sort who would let anyone get the better of him in anything, not ever.

He couldn’t have possibly enjoyed it so much that he thought this basket full of food was a fair exchange, could he?

That thought was as alien to Wasp as the first look she had at his cock was. 

He’d made noises, sure, and said... things to her, and he’d spent himself, but Wasp had never thought much on how men might feel during the act before. She’d only ever thought about the women and the mix of pain and boredom and resigned compliance they always seemed to greet the whole thing with, but of course men must feel something different about it all since they were the ones who initiated it. It made sense. Women let them do it because they had to, but men surely wouldn’t do it at all unless they liked it.

The thought that the Catchkeep-priest liked it was as disquieting to Wasp as it was confusing. She tried to imagine what liking it would feel like and she couldn’t do so easily. Oddly, she thought of the other night when he had her over the table and she had throbbed between her legs when he hit her…

But no, Wasp hadn’t liked that. 

She’d felt unfulfilled and uncomfortable and a little filthy from the wetness, but none of that qualified as enjoyment. The way her ass had smarted when he was done certainly didn’t, even if it didn’t leave her as pained as the whip or cane would.

Whatever the Catchkeep-priest was getting out of all this wasn’t something Wasp understood, then, but he must think it was worth it to give her so much for it and to promise so easily that he would come back again, and that was fine.

Wasp didn’t have to understand. 

She didn’t think she really wanted to understand. 

All Wasp wanted was for him to keep holding up his end of the bargain so she might make it through this winter, and so that by the time spring came she might get a head start on preparing for next winter and be able to get through that without the Catchkeep-priest’s intervention.

If she was around next winter, that was, a dark little voice in Wasp’s head told her. If some upstart didn’t beat her and take the title of Archivist away along with her life.

Wasp pushed that little voice away. 

She told herself instead that if the Catchkeep-priest thought he was getting the better end of the bargain when Wasp was the one who was truly doing so, then so much the better. The future was a worry for the future and Wasp would be better off if she built up as much good health and strength now so that she might be ready when the future came. 

If a little emptiness and a little swarm of bees buzzing under her skin was the worst price she paid for her deal with the Catchkeep-priest, then Wasp was fine with paying it. She was getting off easy.

What was a messy face and a bad taste in your mouth, really, compared to freezing and starvation? You could wash away some of that, but not the rest. 

No, Wasp was getting the better part of all this. She knew it. She only prayed to Catchkeep that the Catchkeep-priest would continue to think he was the one getting the most out of her. 

Let him think so until spring, at least, Wasp pleaded to Catchkeep. Let him keep feeling whatever enjoyment he gets out of this and not suddenly lose interest and leave me out in the cold. Let him keep being so damn giving, if that’s what he’s being, and let me not worry about whatever motivations he has for doing it so long as he continues. 

Let him, let him, let him…

 

*

 

The Catchkeep-priest kept his promise and came back the next night.

And the night after that and the one after that, and on and on and on until he was coming every night and Wasp learned to expect him to come even without him saying that he would.

It was funny, in a way, how something that had made Wasp balk so badly at first could so quickly become part of her routine. 

Wasp would wake up every morning and have oats or perhaps bread and jam or some other food the Catchkeep-priest had brought her for breakfast, eating until she was full. She would then put on the warm clothes he brought her and go do her ghost work, regularly discovering more wood had been added to the stack outside her door when she went out. When she was done with that, she would come back home and have lunch while she wrote her notes about the day’s work and after, she would read back the old notes from Archivists past, trying to glean something new from them, or do what exercise she could indoors or try to think of some other way to while down the time until the Catchkeep-priest came that evening with food or other winter necessities in hand.

And the Catchkeep-priest would always come, always making some mocking, leering greeting to Wasp in that gentling voice of his once he came through her door before he sat in the same chair as always and demanded Wasp give him her report, and after she was done with her report, without fail, he would tell her to get on her knees and please him with her mouth.

In a way, maybe it was funny how quickly that part of it became so routine, too. 

In a way.

Days after doing it for the first time, Wasp still did not enjoy the act, but it had become less disgusting, less horrifying, and more like a...like a chore . Like having to wash dishes or go out in the snow to do her work – she didn’t like doing those things, either, but they were necessary tasks she had to perform in order to get by. This was no different, and it was a good deal less unpleasant than walking around in a foot or more of snow was.

It was warm in her house, at least, so she didn’t have to freeze when she was on her knees, and Wasp had quickly taken to putting a pillow down on the floor so that it wasn’t so painful to kneel there – something that had made the Catchkeep-priest laugh and mockingly praise her for being so dedicated to spending time on her knees for him the first time she did it.

And if there was anything in the whole situation that bothered Wasp the most, it was that – the praise, for the Catchkeep-priest did it often now and even when he did it in the most sarcastic tone possible, he still somehow made it sound genuine.

He praised her when she licked his cock and suckled at the head of it, and when she took his cock deeper into her mouth, not even choking when he thrust it in down to the root or gagging when he came, painting her throat white; and he praised her, too, when he told her to use her hands with her mouth, showing her with his own bigger, softer ones where to hold his cock, where to put them on his balls, squeezing his hands over hers and moving them up and down to show her how much pressure he liked and how to move them.

He told her she was a smart girl, a clever girl with a clever tongue, a quick learner for figuring out how to use her mouth like an expert in such a short amount of time. He called her pretty, often, telling her she had a pretty mouth and a pretty face that looked all the prettier covered in his come. He even called her a pretty little slut once, and even through the offense she felt at the slur and the bright flare of humiliation that flashed up through her general apathy concerning the cock in her mouth, Wasp couldn’t help but notice that he said it without malice or mocking or insult. 

No, he gasped it like it was high praise when he was urging her to suck his cock harder, to use her tongue, like one might gasp Catchkeep’s name when in the midst of fervent prayer, and Wasp had felt her face heating and her heartbeat pounding at his words even as she thought very seriously about biting his cock for saying them.

It was probably that, her reaction to the praise more than the praise itself, that was the source of Wasp’s bother for while she didn’t like having the Catchkeep-priest’s cock in her mouth any more than she liked to have a pair of cold, wet feet, she did find herself liking the things he said to her while she did it despite herself.

And Wasp could easily hate herself for liking it. 

But it wasn’t her fault, she reasoned. Not really. It was just that Wasp wasn’t used to being praised for anything. None of the families she had ever stayed with as a child had ever complimented her, not once, and certainly none of the upstarts she’d been raised with in the Catchkeep-priest’s house had a kind word about her, either. 

The Catchkeep-priest was the only one who had ever complimented her for anything. He’d called her pretty before all... this started, but it had always been mocking, making fun of her, not like he meant her to feel good for him saying it, not like he meant it at all.

It felt different when he said it like he meant it. 

It made Wasp feel warm on her cheeks and up the back of her neck. 

It made her ache between the legs like she had that night when he’d spanked her, though not as deeply as then. 

It even – and this was to Wasp’s eternal chagrin with herself – made Wasp almost...like what she was doing to the Catchkeep-priest with her mouth. Or, not like , but it made her do more of the things that she knew made him groan louder or tighten his grip harder in her hair like tonguing at the slit in his cock or moving her mouth down to his sac to lave her tongue on that. It wasn’t that she consciously chose to do those things, really, they just...they just happened . It was just how she responded to his praise, without her deciding to respond that way.

Wasp couldn’t explain it to herself, and that emptiness in her head and buzzing beneath the skin feeling she got sometimes during or after pleasing the Catchkeep-priest came back much more strongly when she thought about her own reactions too hard, and so she learned to try not to think about it at all because it was easier not to think about it.

And when trying wasn’t working, Wasp just punched down any thoughts she had that resembled shame or guilt or self-reflection about the whole thing instead.

It wasn’t wrong if she got something out of this beyond just food and blankets and wood, she defended in her own head. If she liked it a little that he said nice things to her, then there was nothing wrong with her for it. 

That’s what Wasp kept telling herself, at least, when she couldn’t block the subject from her mind entirely, but always there was a twinge in the back of her head that seemed to whisper to her even then that there was something wrong with it. 

That there was something terribly, horribly wrong with everything.

And that there was something wrong with her most of all.

 

*

 

It was weeks into it before anything changed.

The night started as it usually did, for the most part. The Catchkeep-priest came with his basket of goods that he put on the table before he sat in the chair he always did and Wasp began to give him her report. The only odd thing was that he was quiet on this night from the start, not greeting Wasp when he first came in and never once interrupting her while she spoke, something that she noticed but didn’t think much of at first. It was only after she was done and all he did was continue to sit silently watching her that Wasp finally began to wonder if she had done something wrong that the Catchkeep-priest was waiting for her to admit to so that he could punish her for it, but Wasp could think of nothing about her actions since the last she saw him the night before that would displease him.

Wasp knew that she had, as of late, been doing nothing that would cause the Catchkeep-priest any displeasure at all, but just the opposite, and from deep within the numbness that had overtaken her in the last weeks she felt a bubbling of disgust at her own obedience, but it was only a simmer, little more than a twinge that was easily overcome by the apathy in her that was so much greater than it.

After awhile, the Catchkeep-priest finally said, “You know, Wasp, I believe I’ve been remiss in how I’ve been treating you since our little arrangement began.”

Despite the words, there was no remorse in the Catchkeep-priest’s expression or his voice, both of which only displayed that same cat-like curiosity that Wasp had gotten used to the Catchkeep-priest watching her with. Not that Wasp would have believed him to be remorseful about anything he’d done to her anyway when he never had been before, no matter how he looked or sounded, but still. 

She wanted to scoff at the very notion that he would be sorry for anything, another impulse rising up in her, but she refrained.

“Remiss?” she asked instead.

Selfish ,” he corrected himself, smiling as he continued to watch her. “Here I’ve been taking my pleasure from you, but I’ve done nothing to please you in return.”

Wasp’s eyes darted to the basket the Catchkeep-priest had placed on the table and he caught the look. 

“That hardly counts, Wasp. Surely I can do... more for you.”

“It’s all I want,” she insisted. She didn’t know what he meant by more but Wasp doubted she’d like it. Not when his generosity always came with a price. “That was the deal, wasn’t it? That I would get what I wanted within reason?”

“Actually,” the Catchkeep-priest said, his eyes darkening, his smile growing a fraction of an inch, “the deal was that you would get what you want so long as I could do whatever I pleased with you and if it pleases me to please you---”

“I thought you said you were sorry for being selfish?” Wasp snapped before she could think better of it.

She couldn’t find it in herself to regret saying it, though. Not when the Catchkeep-priest’s mouth closed so suddenly and his lips pursed and that hungry look on his face and in is eyes turned into more of an annoyed glower. 

It had been so long since she’d seen him look at her that way that Wasp could swear that she’d missed it – or, at least, that she missed being the sort of person who provoked it.

Again, she thought of how obedient she’d been lately and again she felt sick about it. Angry with herself. Disgusted with them both. This time it took a little longer for the feeling to go away, for the white noise that pumped through her veins to carry it off, but still it went.

“I’m not that sorry, Wasp,” the Catchkeep-priest said, just as snappish as she had been. 

Wasp said nothing in return. She just stood there, biting at the inside of her cheek and holding his gaze. He glared at her for a moment longer then made an irritated sound. He raised a hand to rub harshly at his face and then made another noise, a short laugh, nothing humored about it.

The Catchkeep-priest’s hand lowered and he looked at Wasp with barely disguised ire, a thin veneer of mockery over it that was likely meant to hide how vexed he really was. It was another familiar expression that Wasp hadn’t seen lately, but not one she could bring herself to have missed. 

“And here I thought I’d be kind to you tonight,” the Catchkeep-priest said, “but fine. If you’d rather I didn’t, Wasp, then I see no reason to argue.”

“What are you talking about?” Wasp asked, feeling wary in a way she hadn’t since that first day the Catchkeep-priest had crossed the threshold into her house. “What’s happening tonight?”

“I did tell you weeks ago that I would have you stripped, didn’t I? I meant to do it sooner, but –“ his lips quirked up a little and some of the heat returned to replace the ire in his eyes, “I suppose I was distracted. You have a talented enough mouth, Wasp, but now I want something more from you.”

Wasp’s throat clenched and her heartbeat pounded so hard she could feel it in her neck. “You want---”

“For you to take your clothes off? Yes. I assume you’re clean beneath them?” The Catchkeep-priest’s eyes ran over her as if to answer the question for himself. “There’s no need for you to bathe first, then. Good. It means I won’t have to waste time waiting any longer than I need to.” 

Wasp’s face was burning. Her throat was aching. Her skin was covered in crawling things that she couldn’t see, but she could certainly feel them on her. “I--”

“Don’t look so shocked, Wasp,” he scolded her when no more words would come out of of her mouth. “You must have known I would want this eventually. You can’t possibly be that ignorant of what it is a man likes to use a woman for.”

Wasp glared at him, but even as she did, she knew his words were true. She had been expecting this when she first made this deal with him, but in the last few days, she’d started to think that maybe using her mouth would be enough, that it would be all the Catchkeep-priest wanted. She had fallen into their routine like a sleepwalker wandering the same path over and over again, not questioning it, not able to expect that it wouldn’t always be the way it was.

A foolish assumption to make, especially as Wasp knew that she knew better than to have made it in the first place. It said plenty about what all of this was doing to her mind that she had and again, Wasp realized that she felt less like herself than she ever had.

“Are you ignoring me, Wasp?” the Catchkeep-priest snapped and Wasp blinked, taking in the harsh look on his face and realizing she’d gone quiet for...well, she didn’t know how long.

“I’m not ignoring you,” she lied.

“Let’s keep it that way,” he warned, scowling at her. “Well, then? Are we going to continue our bargain or not?” 

Wasp bit her tongue on the urge to say no, pushing down the panic crawling up her throat as she did. She didn’t know why she was balking so badly at this after everything she’d already done. What was the difference, really, between having his cock in her mouth and having it elsewhere? It was all the same thing, wasn’t it? She’d already done the one, so how bad could the other be? And how foolish would she have to be to be willing to do what she had for all these days only to back out now, making it all for nothing?

But still, something about what the Catchkeep-priest wanted of her now – the thought of being nude in front of him, totally bare – felt like it was...more than what being on her knees for him had been. It felt like it would make her more vulnerable, more exposed in more ways than the obvious. She would have to have more than just his hand on her, too, and the thought of that made Wasp feel like there was suddenly a hand around her throat already making it a little harder to breathe.

And then Wasp thought of the other things she’d overheard from the midwife and read in the woman’s books and her heart thumped painfully in her chest.

“I don’t want a child,” she blurted, unable to keep the panic the thought caused in her out of her voice. 

The Catchkeep-priest stared at her for a long moment, his expression blank like he didn’t know what Wasp was saying which only served to make her feel foolish for saying it at all, before some enlightenment came over his features and finally he seemed to understand. 

He made a dismissive noise. “There’s a tea you can drink that will prevent that. I’ll get some from the midwife and see to it that you get it by morning.”

“But...you’re not going to tell her?” 

Wasp was horrified at the very notion of the midwife – or anyone at all, for that matter – knowing about what the Catchkeep-priest had been doing with her, what she had been letting him do. The thought of everyone in Sweetwater knowing and gossiping about it...it made Wasp sick and she could feel her face twisting into a grimace at the notion of it.

The Catchkeep-priest only rolled his eyes at her reaction. “Don’t be stupid. I won’t tell her it’s for you , Wasp. Give me more credit than that.”

“But then what---”

“It doesn’t matter ,” he interrupted her sharply. “I’ll tell her a parishioner thinks she might be in the family way and is too nervous to be seen going to the midwife herself. She’ll try to guess who it’s for, certainly, but there are dozens of women she’ll assume needs it before your name ever crosses her mind, Wasp. Now –“ he sighed heavily and his eyes bored into her, “is that all?”

Was that all ?  

Her own well-being be damned, Wasp could kill the man. Ire burned hot in the pit of her belly for a long moment, but her nerves proved stronger than her annoyance. They doused it, cooling her anger, and left her standing there once again feeling anxious and unsure. Wasp hated how weak that unsurety made her feel, how small. 

She hated how she found herself nodding seconds later even more. One jerky, stiff motion of her head, but an agreement nonetheless. 

“Good,” said the Catchkeep-priest. He leaned further back into his chair, relaxed like, with his legs spread and his fingers steepled in front of him. His eyes burned into her, staring, his gaze branding her down to the bone. “Get on with it, then. You’ve tried my patience quite enough this evening already, Wasp. The longer it takes you to get undressed, the less inclined I’m going to be to be kind to you when you’re done.”

Wasp bit her tongue. As if kindness was anything he knew a damned thing about. 

Still, her hands jerked up and went to the hem of her shirt anyway. They fluttered there for a moment, uncertain, awkward, her fingers just grazing at the material like it was some barbed vine that might cut her if she touched it the wrong way. Wasp was looking down off to the side, at the wall behind the Catchkeep-priest’s head, having no desire to meet his eyes but she could still feel him looking at her, the sensation as real as something crawling up her skin.

Wasp forced down her discomfort and tried to pretend he wasn’t there. She tried to pretend she was alone in her house, that this was just a normal night where she was getting undressed for a bath before she got in bed. There was no one there but her. Not the Catchkeep-priest, not any ghosts, not even Catchkeep. No one at all, but Wasp herself. 

She repeated this to herself in her mind like a mantra as she grasped the hem of her shirt more tightly and pulled it over her head, letting it drop to the floor when it was off and leaving her chest bare, her nipples hardening at being exposed to the warm air of the room. 

She kept thinking it and kept not looking at the Catchkeep-priest as she bent awkwardly down to remove her shoes, the left one and then the right, hopping a little at having to do it while standing. She continued to ignore his presence as she pulled off her socks and threw them to the side. 

She kept on telling herself he wasn’t there even as she straightened back up and her hands went to the waistband of her pants and pushed them down along with her underthings, as she shuffled them down to her ankles and let them pool around her feet, and as she stepped out of them. 

Wasp stood there, as naked as she was when she was born and as frozen and tense as a startled rabbit,  and kept trying to pretend she was alone. That the Catchkeep-priest wasn’t just a few feet away from her. That she wasn’t nude because of him, for him and for what it was he wanted to do to her. Even as she could feel herself flushing with embarrassment even hotter than the burning of his eyes which she refused to look at, even as she could feel her heartbeat pounding in her chest, Wasp kept trying to pretend.

She was able to, mostly, until the Catchkeep-priest let out an audible breath and Wasp could hear the creaking of the chair as he stood, could see him from out of the corner of her eye as his tall body unfolded itself and rose and he started walking towards her.

Wasp’s heart beat even harder, pounding with dread.  She could feel the sweat on her palms and the back of her neck, the heat of shame and anxiety both engulfing her fully. She tensed further until her whole body felt like it was made of stone and every step the Catchkeep-priest took towards her only made her tense more, her body tight like a string pulled taut.

It took the Catchkeep-priest no time at all to cross the distance to her, to come so close that Wasp could feel the heat of his own body radiating from him, could feel the brush of his clothes against her skin as he came right up to her and then slowly moved around to stand behind her back. 

When he finally touched her, brushing her hair away from her shoulder, his hand only grazing the skin there, Wasp nearly bit her lip in half forcing herself not to flinch. 

She remained still as his hand actually pressed down on her, his palm flush against the side of her bare neck before it slid down her shoulder and then further still. That hand cupped her breast, the fingers brushing against her the hard point of her nipple and making Wasp give an involuntary shiver as the touch made something tingle low in her body, and then it caressed a path down to her belly leaving a trail of raised flesh behind before finally coming to rest on her hip, the fingers curling inwards, grasping, holding.

“You’ve gained weight,” the Catchkeep-priest commented, and Wasp had only a moment to feel the heavy blanket of self-consciousness those three words threw over her before he continued, “I’m glad. A few weeks ago you were looking like little more than skin and bones, Wasp. Aren’t you happy I’ve been feeding you so well?”

Wasp clenched her jaw. 

“I’m thrilled,” she said. Her tone was flat, but not enough for the Catchkeep-priest to mistake the words as anything but sarcastic. 

His hand gripped harder at her hip and he stepped closer to her, his whole front flush against her back. Wasp’s breath caught in her throat at feeling him so close to her, at the texture of fine clothing against her bare skin and the obvious hardness she could now feel pressing against her ass and knowing what it was.

“You should be,” he told her, his own words coming out low like a threat. “You would be dead now if it weren’t for me, Wasp, and we both know it. From the cold or starvation or cutting your pretty wrists open before they could take you, I can only guess at, but you’d be dead nonetheless. You should be falling over yourself in gratitude to me, jumping at the opportunity to repay me instead of letting your attitude continue, but even now you still have your pride. I wonder if you’ll still have it after I have you tonight, after I split you open and come inside. Will your tongue still be as sharp then, Wasp? What do you think?”

Wasp’s mouth felt too dry for a response to grow in it. Her mind kept replaying the words split you open like a scream that would never end, something inside of her deeper than the flesh of her body balking at them with horror and disgust.

When Wasp finally regained the ability to form speech, she ignored what the Catchkeep-priest had said. She wasn’t capable of addressing it, of thinking ahead to what would happen after when the thing happening was enough of a mountain to climb over already, a journey she didn’t know if she would be able to make.

“Where do you want to do this?” she asked instead, and was proud of herself for sounding like she was ready and unflinching rather than the terrified and uncertain she knew she was.

The Catchkeep-priest laughed, a soft brush of air against her ear. “The bed, surely?”

No ,” Wasp refused before she could even think about it. A part of her instantly rebelled at the thought of having the Catchkeep-priest in her bed, of doing... that in the place she slept every night. 

Bad enough her whole house had been invaded by him, but to have her bed so tainted by his presence was a step too far. If she let him him, Wasp knew she’d never be able to sleep there again without thinking about what he’d done to her in it and she was sleeping poorly enough as it was. 

“No,” she said again, firm. “Not the bed.”

The Catchkeep-priest was quiet for such a long moment that if Wasp couldn’t feel his body pressed against her, she would have thought he wasn’t there. She was worried he would insist, push to have her there anyway, and she would have to decide whether she was willing to argue over it when finally he spoke.

“Fine,” he said, his voice tight like he was offended. “If you want to be fucked on the floor like an animal, Wasp, then I’m certainly not going to deny you. Over by the fire, then, on the rug. I wouldn’t want you to be cold during it.”

He gave her a push then, the hand on her hip shoving her almost roughly forward before leaving her body. 

Wasp stumbled and bit her tongue on a curse, but righted herself. She walked slowly over to the fire until she was standing on the rug and could feel its scratchy fibers between her bare toes. She faltered once she was still, her unsurety once again rearing its head.

“What do I---I don’t know---”

“Turn around,” the Catchkeep-priest interrupted, answering her question with a command. 

Wasp hesitated, not wanting to look at him. She slowly turned to face the Catchkeep-priest who she saw was still staring at her with just as probing of a gaze as he was before. It was more probing, if anything. Sharp and hot and hungry. His mouth was a tight line on his face, turned up just barely at one end like he was torn between being annoyed and amused. 

“Good, Wasp. Now just sit down right where you are.” 

Wasp swallowed hard, discomfort radiating through every part of her, but she obeyed. She lowered herself gingerly down to the rug, the heat of the fire burning in her hearth that was just an arm’s length away brushing gently against her side as she did. Her legs were pulled close to her body as she sat, hiding most of her nudity, and her hands were fisted nervously in the fibers of the rug. She looked up at the Catchkeep-priest and had to hold back a shudder at how much taller he looked standing above her while she was sitting, like he was a hungry vulture looming over his dinner from up above.

The tight line of his lips lightened somewhat as he watched her watching him, turning into more of a real smile. It wasn’t a smile Wasp liked seeing. It only served to increase her discomfort, the expression too predatory to be the least bit reassuring. Not that Wasp thought the Catchkeep-priest meant to reassure her anyway.

She held her breath when he started to walk towards her, his unhurried movement at odds with the clear anticipation on his face. Wasp felt that she could have held her breath until it killed her in the seconds it took for him to reach her, to lower himself down until he was kneeling in front of her on the rug, but when he reached out to touch her, his palm caressing her face almost tenderly, she let out her breath in a slow, shaky exhale against her will. 

The Catchkeep-priest’s smile widened at that, like he liked it, and Wasp hated that she had done something – anything – to please him. 

His hand moved from her face down to her neck again, cupping it like he did before, pressing close and letting his thumb brush across the front of her throat. Wasp had to resist the urge to swallow reflexively at the feeling of it. The Catchkeep-priest’s hand wasn’t there for long. It moved along down her arm next, then to her leg, sliding from the outside of her thigh up to her knee where it stopped and squeezed. 

It was the same way the Catchkeep-priest had touched her that first night he came, Wasp realized, when he made his proposal, but only in reverse. She wondered if he’d done it one purpose, if he wanted to make her remember that night and remember their agreement, or if it was just coincidence. 

Her curiosity left her in an instant when the Catchkeep-priest’s hand slid inward until it was pressed between both of her knees and she could feel the barest hint of pressure being exuded on the one he had touched. Wasp knew the pressure to be more than just a physical sensation – it was a command, a direction. 

She knew it even before the Catchkeep-priest said, “The longer you dally, the longer this will take, Wasp. Keep being good and it’ll all be over before you know it.”

It will never be over , was Wasp’s thought to that. She knew it in her bones to be true. Even if this was the only time he did this to her, Wasp would have the memories of it for the rest of her life, however long that was, and she knew she would not be so lucky as to have this be the only time.

She also knew better than to say any of that aloud and she knew that the Catchkeep-priest was right in a way – the sooner this was done, the sooner he would leave, and the sooner Wasp could finally, finally be alone again.

She didn’t resist the pressure of the hand between her knees. She looked away from the Catchkeep-priest down to the floor and let her legs fall open, spreading, exposing herself to him. She could feel her face burning in humiliation and her heartbeat going rabbit quick in her chest. She could feel the nausea in her belly and a lightness in her head that made her have to take deep breaths so she wouldn’t succumb to it. 

And when she heard the Catchkeep-priest make a pleased noise at what he saw, Wasp could feel her eyes shutting tight and embraced the blackness behind her eyelids. After a moment, she slowly lowered her back down to the rug, laying down fully, and took in a deep breath as the back of her head rested on the floor. 

She tried to go away in her head, to think of something else, anything else, to pretend she was somewhere else as the Catchkeep-priest’s hand caressed the inside of her thigh, as his other hand came to rest on her other thigh, as both of those hands slid up together – up her belly and up her chest until his palms were cupping her breasts and squeezing them. 

Wasp couldn’t stop the sound that came out of her at that or the way her entire body flinched, but she kept her eyes shut and didn’t open them. The Catchkeep-priest laughed softly at her reaction and continued to play with her chest, groping at it, pinching her nipples, his touch going rough every time Wasp made a noise or her body jerked or she reacted in any other way, reactions that were torn from her no matter how she tried to keep quiet and still and uninvolved. 

When Wasp felt something wet swiping at one breast that she knew instantly to be the Catchkeep-priest’s mouth, she made her loudest sound yet, torn between a cry and a whimper, and felt her nails cutting into her palms as she fisted her hands as hard as she could to try to stop her whole body from arching. 

The Catchkeep-priest continued to lick at her, suck at her, nipping at her with his teeth. His hands squeezed her hips as he mouthed at her skin, running up her sides and down her thighs, gripping her ass, his fingers digging in. He seemed to touch Wasp everywhere but the center of her, that place that was now throbbing and aching and hot, filthy feeling from how he was touching her, the pulsing of it too much for her to pretend wasn’t happening no matter how Wasp tried to. 

Wasp felt like her body was on fire, like the flames in the hearth next to her had spread out and engulfed her. There was a buzzing sound in her ears, muffling her hearing. She felt too small for her skin, her very being vibrating inside of it until she was sick and dizzy with it. Her limbs felt heavy and weak, like they wanted to shake but couldn’t, and Wasp knew that if she stood any time soon, her legs wouldn’t be capable of holding her up.

When the Catchkeep-priest pressed the lower half of his body into hers, his clothed hardness thrusting right against her center, Wasp felt like a bolt of lightening had been shot through her and she couldn’t stop herself from crying out, louder than ever, her body jumping like it didn’t know whether to press closer to the man on top of it or to try to squirm away.

The Catchkeep-priest laughed at her again, the grip of his hands going so tight on her spread thighs that it hurt

“You play the reluctant virgin so well, Wasp,” he said, his voice breathy from exertion and amusement both, “but you’re always a slut when I get my hands on you, aren’t you?”

Wasp didn’t answer him. She was barely aware of his words, barely aware of him , too lost in the sensations of her body and not knowing what to do with them to focus on who was causing those sensations in her. Wasp felt like she did that first time she got on her knees for the Catchkeep-priest, outside of her body and above it. She felt less than present in herself, like she’d gotten swept away by what was happening to her and taken elsewhere.

She didn’t hear it when the Catchkeep-priest began undoing his belt or when he pulled it off and tossed it to the side. She didn’t hear the fumbling of his pants as he pulled out his cock and jerked it a few times.

She only felt it when the head of the cock she’d had in her mouth every day for what felt like an eternity’s worth of days now was pressed against her center, nudging at her, trying to push in. 

Wasp cried out again and instinctively tried to close her thighs, but she could barely move them against the Catchkeep-priest’s grip. She squirmed as she felt the head of his cock rubbing against her, whining as panic stabbed through her and made her pulse quicken so much that she felt like her heart might burst through her throat and be spat from her mouth. 

“No,” Wasp whined, shuddering beneath the Catchkeep-priest when she felt his cock stop just rubbing and start slowly pushing in . Her eyes were shut tightly and she could feel tears leaking from them, slipping down her cheeks and landing on the rug beneath her. Her fingers were digging into the fibers of it at her sides, grasping and clawing. She inhaled a harsh, shuddery breath like she was preparing to scream, but her voice was quiet even to her when she let it out and said again, repeating it, “No, no, no...”

The Catchkeep-priest let out a sound that might have been a laugh or just an exhale, but either way he didn’t heed what Wasp was saying. His cock kept pushing forward, slowly penetrating her, while he held her legs spread open in an iron grip, keeping Wasp in place for him to feed his cock into her even as she squirmed and writhed beneath him.

It was the worst thing Wasp had ever felt in her life.

It was worse than being injured fighting the last Archivist. It was worse than being hungry. It was worse than any whipping or slap or beating the Catchkeep-priest had ever done to her before. 

It was worse, but it wasn’t painful – not in the way that a whipping or caning was. 

The Catchkeep-priest’s cock entering her felt like a muscle being stretched for the first time. It was uncomfortable, but Wasp had had worse physically. That should have made it easier, better to deal with, but it didn’t. Wasp still felt like she was being harmed irreparably. She felt like every inch of him that pushed inside of her was a violation. She could feel herself squeezing his cock, could feel it as it filled some empty place inside of her, could feel her body moving beneath it, her body moving beneath his and aching from it.

Wasp could feel everything and it felt like more than she had ever felt in her life. It felt like too much, like more than anyone could possibly handle. She wanted the thing inside of her out of her at the same time as her body wanted it to stay. She felt nauseous and too warm. She felt like was going to die beneath him.

The Catchkeep-priest was sheathed fully inside of Wasp soon enough and she could feel her center stretched around him, embracing him. His body was still fully clothed over hers, the fabric of his clothing too soft over her sensitive skin just as his hands were too rough as they squeezed her legs and moved them so that they were wrapped around him, bringing her body as flush to his as it was humanly possibly for two people to be.

He only stayed still like that above her for a few moments before his cock began to pull back out, retreating nearly all the way before he thrust it back into her again, hard and fast enough to make Wasp let out a startled noise. The Catchkeep-priest moaned like he enjoyed it and wasted no time in doing it again, pulling out before pushing back in, grunting at every thrust of his cock into Wasp while all she could do was lay there with her eyes shut as tight as she could get them, her legs wrapped around him the way he had arranged them and his cock pistoning in and out of her as her body took it like it was made for it, the wet, slapping sounds of it loud even past the buzzing in her ears and the sound of of her own breathy cries and his louder groans.

The throbbing between Wasp’s legs was worse than ever now, an ache deep inside of her that every thrust of the Catchkeep-priest’s cock only made stronger like it came close to filling the emptiness there over and over again but only continued to fall short. Wasp squeezed her legs tighter around him automatically in some instinctive drive to satisfy that ache and then she she squeezed her insides around his cock, but it barely relieved the feeling. 

Her actions only served to make the Catchkeep-priest groan loudly and thrust into her harder, faster, his cock pounding into her with such force that Wasp’s body would be moving up the rug were it not for the grip he had on her legs keeping her close to him. He was moving her enough that she could feel the fibers of the rug scratching her back uncomfortably with every thrust, almost burning against her skin. It was still nothing compared to the feeling of his cock stabbing into the wet center of her or the bruising hold he had on her thighs. 

The Catchkeep-priest pounded into Wasp for so long that she thought it wouldn’t end, her body and her mind both going numb from what he was doing to her. Time seemed as thick as syrup, everything slowed down to a single dripping point. Wasp hardly noticed when the Catchkeep-priest’s thrusts got longer, slower, when he would thrust his cock into her and then pause for a moment before pulling out and thrusting back in, the movements heavy and making sounds like fists punching into bare skin, while his groans became louder and more guttural, almost like he was in pain.

When the Catchkeep-priest finally thrust into Wasp for a final time before going still, Wasp only made a small whimpering sound as she felt the hot spill of his come inside of her and then groaned with displeasure when his body collapsed, sweaty and spent, on top of hers. Wasp’s legs were full of pins and needles, still wrapped around him. Her eyes were still shut and her fists still clenched at her sides. 

She still ached in the center of her, a burning, numb feeling. Her whole body felt used. Her mind felt empty of all feeling except for a bare sense of awareness of how warm she was and how wet and sloppy the place between her legs where the Catchkeep-priest’s cock was still buried inside of her felt.

When the Catchkeep-priest pressed an open mouthed kiss to Wasp’s neck, licking there and sucking at the skin, his teeth dragging at her pulse point, all Wasp did was turn her head weakly away.

“Good girl, Wasp,” the Catchkeep-priest panted into her ear, moving his mouth to nip at the lobe of it. “Good, good , girl.” 

Wasp shuddered beneath him, but otherwise didn’t react. She felt empty of all capacity to even try to. She felt empty of everything at all.