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The Houses of Heaven

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Archaya arrives an hour before the Libertine is due to open its doors to guests, the black lacquer box tucked under one tattooed arm. "It's wearing off," she says with no preamble. "Isn't it."

"Yes," Iryth agrees. There is no point in lying to her. "I can feel the lethargy coming back."

"You still want another treatment?" Archaya asks. She sets the box down on the bar.

Iryth nods.

Archaya comes around the bar to meet her, reaches up and touches Iryth's cheek with cool fingertips. "You can pay me when you close up tonight," she says. She opens the case and lifts out the tiny silver locks in its first tier.

There are two eye bolts sunk into the underside of the bar, spread far enough apart that Iryth can just reach them both while standing. Archaya threads each lock through the back of one of Iryth's gloves, where the lacing pulls tight at her wrists. She locks Iryth to the bar -- such a simple method, so mundane compared with the spells she uses on her captive Majin -- and smiles in a way that makes light spark in the garnet depths of her eyes.

"You consent freely," she says.

"I do," Iryth says. It's a simple choice, between this and mortality. Perhaps there are other methods than Archaya's to cheat death, but this is the one she knows she can count on.

Archaya slips Iryth's satin robe off her shoulders and strokes the bared skin of Iryth's back. The seal of power she wrote there years ago still responds to the magic in her touch. Not for the first time, Iryth wonders why Archaya offers her talent so cheaply -- respect for the skill game where Iryth first won its secret? Some arcane experiment she's running, some secret benefit she gleans along with Iryth's services? Sheer perversity, to take such pleasure in commanding another? In Besek, any of these could be true.

The second tier of the lacquer case holds the needles, dark metal shafts capped with gems the deep bloody pink of stolen Majin power. Goosebumps shiver across Iryth's skin as Archaya selects the first one and splays one cool hand across her back.

"Breathe," she murmurs. Iryth inhales, and as she exhales next she feels the bite of the needle breaching her skin. She lets loose the soft noise of pain that rises in her throat; she can either hold still or keep quiet, but rarely both. Besides, Archaya purrs at the sound, stroking Iryth's back almost fondly before she reaches for the second needle.

There will be thirteen of them in total, one for each house of the heavens. The place where the first one is buried in Iryth's skin feels hot already, and tender. She waits, trembles at the touch of the second one, moans when Archaya sets it -- the needle dipping below the surface and then forcing its way back out to lie flush beneath her shoulder blade.

The third needle brings the first wash of dizzy warmth. When they began this ritual, Iryth thought that had to be another enchantment, but by now she doubts it -- travelers like Ares and friends like the Count have taught her that it doesn't take a spell to find intoxication in pain. Archaya eases the fourth needle into her back and Iryth's breathing settles slowly, so she can feel each instant separately: the first sharp sting of metal entering flesh, the slide of it beneath her skin, the stretch as her body resists and then gives way to allow the sharp point its exit. The pain from each needle diffuses into heat, a blossom of sensation spreading to meet the others until her whole back pulses with fire.

By the time the final needle slides home, that heat has become a thrumming pulse that gathers between her legs and makes her pull against the locks holding her bound to her bar. "Please," she says. She looks back over her shoulder to meet Archaya's cool, hungry gaze.

"You'll owe me for this, too," Archaya says. Her smile is slow and reptilian.

"You know I'm good for it," Iryth says, taking half a step back, toward Archaya. She has to bend over to do it, her wrists kept still.

"We'll see about that," Archaya says, and the hint of threat in her voice makes Iryth's need sharper. If experience is any guide, she won't sleep tonight -- she'll spend hours on her knees in the Traviata House back room, demonstrating the endurance that Archaya's magic grants her.

Archaya takes hold of her skirt and pulls it up, reaching beneath as Iryth spreads her legs in invitation. "Living up to your pub's reputation, I see," Archaya says, when her hand finds no tangle of petticoats to slow her down.

Iryth shrugs. "It's not a complication I find terribly exciting," she says, trying to match Archaya's casual tone, but she betrays herself with the hitch in her breathing as Archaya's cool fingers part the swollen folds of her cunt. "Not when I want -- this --"

"Yes," Archaya says. "And you do want this, don't you." Her touch is firm and precise, tracing circles over the sensitive nub of Iryth's clit. Little shivers dance along Iryth's nerves.

"Please," Iryth says, squirming. She can feel how empty she is, how much she aches to be taken; climax always feels more powerful when she's filled. "Please -- inside me."

"So greedy," Archaya says. "Not yet. Not now." She leans against Iryth's back, pressing against the needles, making Iryth tremble with the new rush of pain. "Tonight," she promises, her breath chill against the back of Iryth's neck. "After you've satisfied me. For now, you'll take this and be grateful."

Iryth nods, letting her eyes fall closed. "Yes," she whispers. The bar takes her weight as Archaya keeps her pinned, as that teasing, careful touch makes her blood sing. Pleasure rises within her, spiraling, pulling tight -- and at the instant she starts to climax, Archaya pulls away. Iryth keens, trying to follow her, pulling fruitlessly against the locks at her wrists. "Please," she says, looking back.

"That's enough," Archaya says. She lifts her hand to her lips, licks Iryth's fluids from her pale fingers. "We'll continue this tonight." She smiles. "By then, those needles should have had time to do their work. You'll have plenty of energy."

She reaches for the first of the locks, as Iryth tries to steady herself and calm her breathing. Between now and then is a long evening of tending the bar, with the smell of blood and sex and magic thick in the air around her. Should the Count come in to visit -- "Tonight," she says, as Archaya frees her other hand. "I should be able to close up here by half past midnight."

Archaya tucks the little silver locks away and closes the box with a nod. "I'll be waiting."