“I must say, this is a bit disturbing.”
That wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear from Elin when she was in the middle of giving me a magical examination. Especially since Cerise was nodding along.
“Yeah, I didn’t think she had it in her. I knew she was powerful, but this is pretty damned subtle. When did she get so sneaky?”
“Cerise, we’re discussing a woman who was able to infiltrate both the Red Conclave and our own group without arousing the slightest suspicion, at a time when we were all looking for a spy. Should I point out that she also has her father’s hair and eyes, but somehow no one thought anything of it? She may pretend to be a blunt instrument, but she is far more devious than she seems.”
“You two are making me nervous here,” I said. “What are you seeing?”
“Oh, you guessed right,” Cerise said. “It looks like Mara broke the restriction on what women you can have sex with. We’re just amazed at how clean it is. I didn’t think it was possible to break one aspect of a coven bond without affecting anything else.”
“I, too, would have been skeptical regarding the possibility,” Elin agreed. “Yet here we are. The remainder of the bond is perfectly intact and unaltered, so far as I can determine. It’s as if that one restriction had never been there at all. You say you didn’t even see her do it?”
“I was a little distracted at the time. But no, I didn’t see a thing. With everything else that was going on I didn’t even think to wonder about it until we were halfway back to Kozalin.”
Mara was a beautiful woman, not to mention demanding and completely uninhibited. At the time it had seemed perfectly reasonable that I’d found myself responding to her. It wasn’t until later that I realized it shouldn’t have been possible, given the way Cerise had written our coven binding. My girls weren’t interested in other men, and I wasn’t supposed to be interested in other women. Cerise had insisted on keeping the loophole that made our female followers fair game, but Mara certainly didn’t fall into that category. After worrying about it for half the trip home, I hadn’t wasted any time dragging Cerise and Elin off to the ritual chamber to figure out what happened.
Cerise chuckled. “Lucky bastard. Next time I want to be the one who gets the hot demigoddess so worked up she works a miracle just so she can bang me.”
Elin pushed a lock of dark green hair out of her face, and frowned. “Cerise, can you please be serious for once? If she could do that, what else might she have done? With that level of wizardry-”
“No,” Cerise interrupted. “Not wizardry, divine power. And you’re right, that’s a good thing, because I’d be fucking terrified of someone who could do this with wizardry. But I think I get it now. We know what Mara’s primary aspect is, right Daniel?”
“Her mother said she’s fire and freedom,” I said. “Mind you, I’m not entirely sure what that means.”
“It’s how divine power works. Gods are more like living ideas than creatures of flesh and blood, and they can work a special kind of magic with the principles they embody. Sort of like sorcery, only it’s all about being something instead of controlling it. Mara can break any binding because she’s the embodiment of freedom.”
Elin frowned thoughtfully. “Why haven’t I read this anywhere?”
“The gods don’t exactly advertise it,” Cerise pointed out. “Most of the older ones have some sorcery too, and they take on more aspects as they age. They like to keep mortals guessing about what their limits are, and they’re pretty good at it. But some of my cult’s secrets revolve around invoking Hecate’s aspects, so she’s told us a little about how it works.”
“I see,” Elin replied. “So, Mara probably has no idea exactly how she did it, then? She just invoked her power to remove any obstacles in her path?”
“Wait, if it’s like sorcery, does that mean she can take away freedoms too?” I asked.
“No, she doesn’t control freedom, she embodies it. She probably couldn’t work a binding to save her life. I doubt she knows all that much about wizardry, either. Her mother hates that shit. At most she’s had a few months of training with whatever instructors her dad could find for her.”
Elin gave the coven magic one last, long look, and sighed. “Very well. I suppose we’re safe, then. But I’m still a bit cross with you, Daniel. Sharing you with outsiders was not part of the deal.”
“Yeah, sorry about that,” I said. “It’s not exactly something I planned. Mind you, I don’t know that we would have gotten out of Skogheim alive if I hadn’t given her what she wanted.”
“I think it’s an opportunity,” Cerise said. “She’d be a great ally if you can reel her in. I still wish she could have joined us when we first formed the coven. Although, come to think of it, I guess trying to include her in a coven binding wouldn’t have worked.”
“I should think not,” Elin said dryly. “I don’t see much hope of an alliance with someone who desires our destruction, either.”
“That’s something I wanted to talk to you two about,” I said. “And Avilla, too. If we’re done here?”
“You get a clean bill of health from me, big guy,” Cerise said.
“From me as well,” Elin agreed. “I can find no sign of hostile magic on you, or of any other changes to our coven bonds.
That was reassuring. The circumstances that had brought my coven together may have been less than ideal, but we were happy together. I couldn’t let anything threaten that.
Tina greeted us all with hugs and kisses when we entered the dining room. The phenomenally buxom redhead was as cheerful as ever. Maybe more so. Being pregnant seemed to agree with her, and she loved being a catgirl.
“No one looks worried,” she observed. “Does that mean everything’s alright?”
“Yeah, we’re good,” Cerise assured her, detouring by the kitchen to give Avilla a kiss on the cheek.
“I’m glad to hear it,” Avilla said. “Daniel? I know you just got back, but I’d like to have a coven meeting after we all eat. There’s been a lot happening while you were gone, and I think we need to discuss things.”
“Sure. What did I miss?”
“After we eat,” she insisted. “There’s no emergency, so take a seat and relax. Dinner is almost ready.”
That was probably good advice. I’d spent the last couple of weeks working night and day, culminating in the secret mission to Skogheim that I’d just returned from. A mission that was going to lead to the deaths of several million ape men. Granted, they were trying to exterminate humanity, and my own stronghold seemed to be right up at the top of their target list. But that still wasn’t something I wanted to dwell on. It would be nice to just spend some time with my girls, and remind myself what I was protecting.
Only a month since we’d come together to form the coven, but already things were changing. For the better, I think, but everything had moved so fast it was hard to keep track sometimes.
Elin was far more relaxed now. The frightened girl who thought no one could ever want her was gone, replaced by a confident young lady who chatted amiably with Cerise about everything from magical theory to philosophy. She wore the slender, elegant faerie shape we’d crafted together more comfortably, and if her teeth sometimes turned into a mass of sharp points when she got caught up in an argument no one in our group would bat an eye. The gown she wore looked like something a noble lady would choose for an evening of lounging about at home, and her waist-length hair had been woven into a complicated arrangement decorated with little gold bangles.
Tina looked more pregnant every time I saw her, which shouldn’t have been surprising since Bast had told us she’d come to term in just a couple of months. The extra weight didn’t seem to bother her, though. With the enhanced strength of her catgirl form she still carried herself as lightly as ever, and her smile was radiant. She favored less elaborate dresses, probably due to her peasant upbringing, but a least she didn’t try to hide herself from head to toe anymore. The dress she wore to dinner was only knee length, with a scooped neckline that bared the upper slopes of her breasts and the gold power tap amulet nestled between them.
Cerise was wearing new clothes too, although in her case it was a suit of armor that showed a distinct elvish influence. It fitted her lithe curves like a second skin, and while the boots and vest were leather the rest seemed to be woven from living shadows. The amount of magic invested in the garment was pretty impressive, but so were the changes in the murder witch’s personal aura. Her magic seemed noticeably better balanced than it had just a week ago, with the demonic influence much less obvious. Her horns had shrunk a bit, and was it just me or had she gotten taller somehow?
Yeah, she had. She was just a little taller than Elin now, and her hair had grown into a cascade of silky black waves that almost reached her waist. An incidental effect of tinkering with her magic, or was she being competitive?
I was distracted from wondering about it when Avilla came in with a serving platter in her hands, and a string of maids behind her. My golden-haired domestic goddess was definitely looking a lot happier, now that we’d turned her seneschal duties over to Tavrin. She was wearing a new dress of her own, a pretty green number with a knee-length skirt and a neckline that showed off even more than Tina’s. That was scandalous by Varmland’s standards, but she wore it with confidence.
Her maids laid out the rest of the meal with practiced precision, and then poured the wine and withdrew to the kitchen. As they made their retreat I noted that they had new uniforms too. Lacy black dresses with a skirt that only fell to mid-thigh, and a neckline as daring as Avilla’s. Their sleeves came all the way to the wrist, their shoes were more like low-cut boots, and each of them had a red lightning bolt embroidered at the shoulder.
“Do you like the new dresses?” Avilla asked. “I’m still playing with ideas, but I think I like this version. Sefwin is helping me come up with a design that will work for her people too.”
“Really? That doesn’t seem very practical for a bodyguard.”
Sefwin was the heir to the Nethwillin clan of dark elves, but since she was hardly likely to inherit anytime soon I’d offered her a position running my secret service. I wanted someone capable making sure my family wasn’t going to get assassinated while I was busy dealing with some crisis, and she seemed like a good fit for that.
Avilla smiled, and called one of the maids over.
“Anyone who sees them will assume they’re just decorative, but watch. Julia, show Daniel your hidden tricks.”
“Yes, Miss Avilla,” the girl, a cute brunette with rather nice legs, said eagerly. “Watch close, milord. Fast knife.”
She flicked her wrist, and a pretty little knife appeared in her hand. There was just a whisper of magic involved, of the subtle sort that the elves seemed to prefer. A hidden wrist sheath, then?
She put it away just as easily, and then made three shuriken appear in her other hand. “Throwing stars.”
She put them away, and reached both hands into the bow at the small of her back. They came out holding a pair of ten-inch combat knives. “Fighting blades, too. Not that any of us know how to use them properly, but Lady Sefwin’s people have started showing us a few tricks.”
She made the daggers vanish just as easily as she had the smaller blades. Then she took my hand, and put it on the front of her dress. “Feel that, milord? The elves can weave cloth out of mithril somehow. The whole dress is like mail, even the skirts. There’s another version where the front comes up to the neck for protection, but I think Miss Avilla likes this one better. I’ve seen a couple of elves practice fighting in it, and the way they bounce would distract any man. Oh, and we’ve a few other surprises hidden under our skirts, but those aren’t fit for public.”
I chuckled. “I can imagine. Lacy underthings, or does Avilla have you girls going around with no panties?”
“That’s the least of it, milord,” she giggled. “Miss Avilla has the most wicked ideas. There’s no telling what you might find, should you go about lifting skirts.”
“That’s enough of that, Julia,” Avilla said. “Off you go.”
The girl gave a curtsey that exposed quite a bit of bare thigh, and scurried back to her place.
“Alright, I see you’ve got the hidden weapons angle covered” I said. “But how would elven guards blend in with a group of humans?”
Contrary to the myths from my world, dark elves weren’t skinny little waifs with pointed ears. Most of them were so stacked I would have assumed they had implants back home, and their ears were too long and mobile to hide easily. Not to mention that their skin tones were a lot darker than any of the humans who lived in Northern Europe.
Avilla turned to the breakfast bar, where half a dozen maids were lined up waiting in case we needed anything. “Girls? Raise your hand if you’d like to have a bust like an elf.”
Five hands went up. A couple of the girls raised both hands, and hopped up and down waving them around. Elin snorted at that.
“I hope you’re prepared for back pains, and not being able to lie down on them.”
“It’s worth it,” Tina interjected. “There’s nothing like the power of big boobies. You can make a man forget what he was saying just by taking a deep breath. But I call dibs on having the biggest pair in the palace. Okay, Daniel?”
I laughed. “Sure thing, Tina.”
She’d been buxom before we’d met, and then she’d taken several opportunities to talk me into giving her upgrades with my flesh magic. She finally seemed content with her assets after the last session, which was a good thing because if she were any bigger it would definitely be too much.
Avila smiled tolerantly at her. “That’s your thing, sweetie, and no one wants to take it away from you. But that wasn’t my point. Girls, who’d be willing to get turned into an elf completely?”
Most of the hands went down at that, but a couple of the maids still had one raised. Well, that was a lot more adventurous than I’d expected.
“How about being a catgirl, like Tina?”
That got half their hands up.
“A wolfen, like Gudrun and Daria?”
Four volunteers this time. Avilla smiled at me.
“You see? Just make some time to work on it, and my girls will be happy to look so exotic anyone could blend in with them. Sefwin wants to recruit some wolfen as agents, too, if you and Cerise can figure out how to make more.”
“That sounds like a fun little project,” I admitted. “I’ve also got some patterns for magically enhancing humans that I’ve never had a chance to use, just because it would take too much time. We should set up regular self-defense training for all the maids, too. If they’re going to be carrying weapons they should know how to use them.”
Avilla liked that idea. She seemed to be pretty involved in her little maid training project, which made for entertaining dinner conversation. When she’d first started recruiting I think she was really just collecting a group of cute girls she could play out some of her fantasies with, but the project had taken on a life of its own. With tens of thousands of refugees crowding the city she’d had no trouble finding talented help, and they all seemed fiercely grateful for the chance to work as servants in my stronghold.
Being a hearth witch, Avilla’s standards of performance for domestic staff were pretty insane. She’d started an aggressive training program for the staff now that she had time, and I’d been a little worried that she’d go too far with it. But to my surprise most of the girls had seen that as an opportunity, and thrown themselves eagerly into the work. Apparently having the chance to learn from the best appealed to them, especially since being Avilla’s little minions meant they were soaking up a little domestic magic of their own.
I’m pretty sure her methods of maintaining discipline could have been lifted from softcore bondage porn, considering the way Cerise teased her about it. But no one had ever come to me with a complaint, and they seemed to be enjoying themselves. I made a mental note that I should probably look into that a little more if I ever had a spare moment, but it wasn’t exactly a high priority.
The idea of teaching them all to fight seemed to intrigue Avilla. Not that they were going to turn into heroic warriors overnight or anything, but with the amount of magic we had available they didn’t have to. A willingness to fight, some basic training and a collection of magic weapons would be more than enough to handle a lot of threats. We could easily prepare them to deal with goblins or muggers on their own, and if they ever encountered something more serious they’d at least have a better chance at escaping while Sefwin’s agents handled it.