“Have you ever been beaten?”
“What do you mean?” Moon threw her head back and let herb smoke drift into the breeze, arching her back and legs as she laid gracefully amid the tree roots.
“I mean, thrashed, whipped, spanked, whatever you want to call what Ayla does. Has that ever happened to you?”
“Oh,” Moon said. “Not in a very long time. Have you?”
“No,” Vix shook her head vehemently. “Never. I’ve never been bad.”
“You’re on the wrong side of the law now,” Moon pointed out. “You’re on the wrong side of pretty much everybody. It’s inevitable that sooner or later, something terrible will befall one or both of us. What Ayla does is nothing compared to the punishments handed out by goddesses and empresses.”
Vix bit her lower lip and curled up where she sat, making herself small, though not small enough for her liking.
“Don’t lose your nerve,” Moon said, shaking her hair out. “This is worth it, even if we take a beating or two.”
Nodding slowly, Vix agreed. When they’d embarked on their mission, she had known there would be danger. Back then it had been a remote idea of arrows and swords and other things that could be run away from. She had never considered the possibility that she might end up disrobed and vulnerable in a witch’s grasp.
For the first time, she was a little bit glad that Liz was there to take some of the heat. She could already hear Liz’s voice rising in the distance. It wasn’t initially obvious who Liz was yelling at, not until her strident words turned to panicked shrieks.
“I think she just got on Aeron’s wrong side,” Moon murmured. “She better watch herself, or she’s going to be eaten alive.”
“This was your fault!” Aeron snapped the words in Liz’s face. She had the stricken spy pinned flat on her back for the second time, Aeron’s tall athletic frame elongated in a display of athletic predation, her pelvis keeping the smaller woman in place. “Get up and get cleaning!”
“Kira!” Liz screamed for the warrior commander. She got the name out once before Aeron’s palm clamped over her mouth.
“Keep your lips shut,” Aeron growled. “Any trouble I experience, you will experience doubly.”
“Right now I have the trouble of your bony hips in my stomach,” Liz snapped. “You’re heavy for a skinny bitch.”
Aeron’s lip curled in a snarl. “Your foolish words will end in pain. I have ended many, and I will end you if you cross me.”
“You’re about to end my uterus,” Liz grunted. “Are you trying to plant your seed? Because this isn’t how that works.”
A low snarl emanated from Aeron and vibrated through Liz. “Are you going to clean this place up?”
“Liz is not accustomed to experiencing consequences for her actions.” Ayla had come from Vix and Moon and was now where Liz needed her to be, but not where Liz wanted her to be. “Let her up, dear,” she instructed Aeron. “She will only slow the clean up down.”
“I don’t care if she takes until the end of time to do it,” Aeron growled. “It is her responsibility. She called something forth and now she seeks to rid herself of the consequences. She is lazy and she is rude, she is frail in body and weak in spirit, she is…”
“Losing sensation from the waist down,” Liz grunted. “Seriously. Get off me.”
“She is not a worthy foe,” Ayla observed. “A giant does not concern herself with ants.”
The words reached Aeron through her indignant haze. “She is not worthy,” Aeron agreed. She stood up, brushed herself down and returned to her labours without a second look at Liz the unworthy.
“Thanks,” Liz said. “I thought she was going to hurt me.”
“Go and help clean up,” Ayla said firmly. “She was right. This is your doing. Undo it.”
“I only do the bidding of Ariadne,” Liz sniffed. “The petty concerns of grass and greenery are below me, don’t you see? I have the power of those who summon.”
“You have the power to take your hands and make good on your mess,” Ayla insisted.
But Liz would not listen, and she would not clean. Whilst others toiled, she sashayed away to amuse herself with her own sense of self importance.
“She’s trouble,” Kira said, coming up by Ayla’s elbow. “She needs to be contained. Gagged, preferably. Why don’t you use one of your spells and stop her mouth from babbling chaos?”
“She is surprisingly resistant to magic,” Ayla said. “And good sense, for that matter. She does not listen and she cannot hear.”
“You mean she’s deaf?”
“Her ears work well enough,” Ayla mused. “But her heart does not. She’s curiously… empty.”
Kira cocked her head to the side. “Didn’t you say something like that to me once?”
“I did,” Ayla confirmed. “But in Liz’s case, I’m afraid it might be true.”