Her will is tireless and unshakable, but the body Thage wears now is still weak. She walks whenever she can -- both to train herself and to prove to Raki that she is not helpless -- and when she needs respite she sits on his back, her hands buried in the thick silver fur of his shoulders. Once, she tried to hold on to one of his horns for balance, but he snarled, low and irritable enough that it must have been instinct -- no kin to the measured, deliberate deference he shows her in speech. Thage has been careful to keep track of the times his control slips, and the reasons.
And now, with the air cooling around them as evening approaches, Valdian autumn still mild but foretelling the death of the year, Thage balances on Raki's back and remembers:
Princess Thage, riding through the capital's streets toward the cathedral, sitting elegantly sidesaddle on a cream-white mare; the horses were bred for the royal family's use, bred and trained from a young age to be dependable and not panic at the scent of strange blood. How the young knights used to laugh, complaining that their destriers had nowhere near the nerve of the princess's palfrey.
"Thage," Raki says, low and sharp. He has stopped walking.
She brushes the memory away like so much cobweb; it belongs to a life she cannot have back. "Trouble?" she asks.
Raki hums; a human would nod. "Majin," he says. "They smell weak, but if they have claimed this territory, they will fight us."
"We must be near Besek, if there are Majin bold enough to claim territory here," Thage says as she slides off his back and prepares her Librum. She will not ask him directly and encourage him to lie; better to draw her own conclusions.
"We should reach the gates tomorrow," Raki admits, lowering his stance, baring his teeth at the dark wood beside the road.
The Majin come charging out of the trees before Thage can press him further: Caprus, goat-headed and twice a man's height, long-limbed and long-clawed. "Effractora," one of them declares, and the other bleats, "Mori," as it swipes at Raki. He dodges its claws, light-footed, and his teeth tear a gash along its thigh.
"Malus," Thage says, extending her hand; the darkness comes easily to her call, boiling around the Majin and dissolving it.
The second Caprus bellows. "Quae potentia," it says. "Illud Librum--?"
"I don't know what you're saying," Thage lies, for Raki's benefit, "but you were fools to mistake us for prey."
The Caprus lashes out at her in response, and she is not so quick as Raki; her arm burns as she staggers back, but she refuses to fall.
"Fire, Thage," Raki tells her, harrying the Caprus to keep it from making another attack.
She is stronger in darkness, but Raki is her guide for a reason. She gathers power a second time and directs it: "Ignis," she says, feeling the rush of heat as flames catch at her command. The Caprus thrashes, its cry a sound more of anger than of pain, and then the Librum in Thage's arms pulses once: the air crackles with its power, and a spear of light splits the clouds above to pin the Caprus to the ground.
Raki growls in satisfaction; his power surrounds him in a nimbus, tipping his fur with light and making him the Silver Wolf in truth. "Capture it," he says. "Feed the Librum."
"I don't need to be taught such simple things," Thage says. She steps up to the bound Majin; its eyes roll in animal fury and it trembles, held fast. The Librum thrums in Thage's hands as she opens it, calling both the spear and the Caprus into its depths -- inscribed within the Librum's pages, the Caprus is hers to command.
She trembles, by the time she closes the Librum again. It would be best if she could disguise that completely, let Raki think this is effortless for her, but she does not yet have the strength. She does the next best thing, sinking to the soft earth, showing more weakness than she feels: let him underestimate her.
"Thage," he says sharply; his concern could almost be real.
"You sound so worried, Raki," she says. "Am I failing to fulfill your plans?"
Raki growls, padding over to her. "My purpose is to guide you," he says. "I am concerned for your well-being."
He is not convincing, but he is consistent. Thage smiles at him, the fragile smile of the young princess she barely remembers being. "I'm sure I would be lost without your loyalty," she says. She reaches out to him, hoping to steady herself against his flank so she can rise, but he lies down beside her to let her retake her seat. "I am lucky to have found you, am I not?"
"As I am lucky that you chose to free me," Raki says, rising smoothly beneath her. "Let us hope that when we reach Besek, our luck holds."
"Indeed," Thage agrees. She holds onto him and lets her body relax into the sway of his gait. The knights used to say that the wolves of Valdia were tireless, able to keep up their long, loping stride for hours, until they drove any prey to exhaustion. Raki, Thage thinks, is the sort of creature to give rise to such tales; he moves as though it's effortless, following the narrow travelers' road through the wood. There was a children's story like this, Thage remembers -- the girl trusting the wolf to see her through the dark wood, eaten alive when she confided in him. There is a grain of truth in the heart of all the old tales, and Thage knows better than to confide in anyone ever again.
When the light is failing beneath the trees, Raki says, "You will want to stop for the night soon, and rest."
"Perhaps," Thage says. "Do you know so well what I want?"
"I can recognize exhaustion when I smell it," Raki says. "And right now I can also smell a Falsin settlement nearby. We are not likely to find better shelter."
"If they're willing to give you shelter at all," Thage says.
Raki laughs. "I doubt there's any need to worry about that."
Thage bites her tongue and does not ask him to explain.
His meaning is clear soon enough. The settlement he found is a woodcutter's cottage, the door ajar and the hearth long cold. Thage slips off Raki's back and lets herself inside. A tiny spark from her fingertips lights the one lantern on the table.
"Majin killed them?" she says as she looks around.
"There is no blood," Raki says. "More likely they fled. We are very near to Besek's walls by now."
"I look forward to it," Thage says.
"Besek will try your strength," Raki says, that cautionary tone again, as though he believes her to be as young as she appears. "You should rest."
"I would prefer to rest in comfort," Thage answers. She fetches the pillows and the quilt from the woodcutter's bed, and makes herself a sort of nest in front of the hearth. Raki watches her, his ears expressing his disapproval as she makes herself comfortable and sets the Librum across her lap.
When she opens it, he sighs in annoyance. "Thage, what are you doing?"
"I want a fire," Thage says. She flips pages, finds where the Caprus from their battle has been inscribed. "So someone will have to bring in the wood, and I can't very well make you do it."
"You should not waste your energy on trivial things," Raki says, but when Thage holds his gaze he looks down.
She reads the incantation from the Librum's page and the Caprus appears at her side, kneeling in the same position it held when her spells bound it. In the cramped quarters of the cottage, its size seems even more overwhelming, but it's a different creature now than it was before; with the Librum's spells twining through its flesh, it feels like nothing so much as a puppet. Thage sends it out into the dark with a thought, pleased at how easily she can command it.
When she looks over, Raki is sitting on his haunches, staring at her. His eyes shine bright green.
"Is something troubling you?" Thage asks.
"Nothing," Raki says, but he looks down a second time. "I was fortunate to meet you. You are a powerful mistress."
Thage smiles. "Besek will say the same," she says.
Raki growls, a pleased sound this time. "I have no doubt," he says.
The Caprus returns with an armload of firewood; Thage banishes it back to the Librum's depths, its usefulness temporarily at an end. She starts the fire, warms herself in front of it as she eats from their meager remaining supplies. Raki sits a polite two paces away; much as she will not let him see her tremble, he will not let her see him eat. For all of their differences, they are similar sorts of predators.
With fire and blankets, the cottage is nearly comfortable: a far cry from the princess's bedroom, perhaps, but yet farther from the black pit where Thage was --
She will not think of that. Those demons are laid to rest, and dwelling on her hurts will gain her nothing, particularly with Raki sitting in the corner breathing in her every thought. She will enjoy the fire, and that is all.
Eventually Raki comes to sit beside her; his thick fur soaks up the flame's heat, so when she leans against him he's luxuriously warm and soft. Thage sighs, and lets her guard down as much as she ever cares to.
And perhaps he can smell her moods, but he for his own part is predictable. When he drops his head, wet nose pushing at the bare skin above the tops of her stockings, Thage laughs. "You're shameless as a dog," she says, though she knows he's far more -- but let him think she really does underestimate him that much.
"Majin have no use for shame," Raki says. "No more than you do." His lips peel back from his teeth and he nips at her thigh. "I've been faithful as a dog, too. Doesn't that deserve a reward?"
"Perhaps it does," Thage agrees. "Though a good dog wouldn't dare to mount his mistress.
Raki snarls, more hunger than threat, and a quick cold breeze dances through the room -- a tiny echo of the north wind that comes at his call. Thage shivers, and blames the chill. She needs his power. If he's willing to give it to her like this....
"On my terms," she says.
"This entire journey is on your terms," Raki says mildly.
"Only because I insist," Thage says. She smiles sweetly. "You will give me time to prepare."
Raki sits back, licking his lips. "Of course," he says.
Thage finds the jar of ointment in their traveling bag and uncaps it. It's possible that this body isn't even fertile, but she has no desire to find out by chancing it. Carrying a heretic child, or even finding the means to rid herself of a pregnancy, would slow her down, and she can't afford that. The treasures waiting in Besek will draw other souls eager to claim them.
So this is her compromise: going to her hands and knees, lifting her skirt, and offering Raki her anus, if he's so eager to mount her. He noses at her hand, licking her as she prepares herself, and Thage laughs at his impatience. "Here," she says, lowering herself and spreading her knees further. "Come take your reward." She catches hold of his cock as he covers her, guiding him where she wants him.
Raki growls as he sinks into her ass, the sound raw enough that it might be honest. "Thage," he says, his breath hot against her nape.
He swells inside her, and Thage forces herself to stay silent; it's nearly too much, but only nearly. And already she can feel the sweetness of his need, the energy he spends for her, inside her. He's powerful enough, and she has practiced this technique enough, that this will sustain her as much as the mortal food she ate earlier -- she presses her hand down between her thighs to raise her own energy as Raki pushes inside her, steady and deep.
His teeth close carefully around her neck, and fear spikes in her belly, across her skin, before Thage can master it. Raki groans, obviously delighted, but presses his advantage no further. Still, Thage lets her senses open to the dark, keeps its presence close at hand, in case she needs it.
Where a Falsin -- a human -- would peak once and be done, Raki has no such limitations; he climaxes repeatedly, riding her from one to the next. Despite the strength she bleeds from him each time, she's hard-pressed to keep up. By the time he stills inside her, Thage is trembling with the effort of supporting her own weight.
Raki noses at her hair, growling softly, the sound oddly affectionate.
"You sound so pleased," Thage says.
"Of course," Raki says. He shifts his weight slightly, settling in to wait; he's still swollen, knotted inside her, not yet ready to pull out. "I would hope you are, as well."
Does he know, then? Is he perceptive enough to have realized what she's done? His power is strong, and he is more clever than most. "You always please me," Thage says, letting her amusement color her voice. "I hope you will continue to do so when we enter Besek tomorrow."
"Have no fear," Raki murmurs. "I am entirely yours."
Thage smiles, and doesn't tell him the lengths she'll go to make that true. He pays attention; it's just possible he knows.