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Tender

part 9 of Threshold


In the worst moments she wonders if the eggs and worms will hatch, transforming her into a cloud of butterflies.

'Scarce seen sun much less dirt,' Vossler mutters. 'Your skin is not suited to this life.'

Ashelia's neck bends blissfully and she does not have to meet his eyes. She looks instead at the clusters of bites and eggs blooming at her wrists and the soft inner skin leading to her elbow, the knots and swellings more painful when she looks. She and he and their rebel few run and fight and wade through filth, her stomach riots, she weathers sword and hunt and starvation, and it is these small things, bites, niggles, insects, which threaten to undo her.

Her silence allows the larvae to move beneath her skin.

She hides it from him every time for reasons she does not like to consider, as she hides the fissures between her toes, the itch at her crotch, the sore throats and stabbing pains in her feet she thinks are chipped or fractured bones. Her hair thins, her gums bleed, her palms are ragged. He only learned about the eggs because she took off a ring, a thin and unimportant one, twisting the soft metal into a loop, dragging and pressing at the stuccoed lumps to evict the spawn. 'Where is your ring,' he asked, 'where,' as though in failing to preserve her father and nation he would preserve as much of her regal inconsequentials as he could? Too late; her preciousness gone, maidenhead lapsed, crown beyond reach. She is mother to maggots and flies.

Vossler removes his gauntlets, brisk motions, with their scanty soap washes his arms to the elbow. Pats his arms dry, does not rub. The dark hairs lift from his skin, but the grimy halfmoons beneath his nails stay: a close enough approximation of cleanliness. A sheet across his lap, a candle to the side, her arm handled with care. The paraphernalia comforts her, pseudo-surgery in the sewers. He heats a thin wire, puts her arms across his lap too, and sears the bites dry. Singed skin and heat-cracked eggs, there is no smell like it in her memory but for in his arms.

My children, she thinks mockingly, oh ser, you're killing my children.

His thick, near distorted fingers, so calloused, the cracked skin hardly softened by his washing, turned suddenly deft in her service. He has the control but she has the need, and he serves, doctor or destroyer. His tending lulls her, the expression on his face, the abstract focus as he needles into her and wipes the odd rising pinprick of blood or pain or pus away with his thumb which has the black and split nail.

'Do you have fever this time?'

Because last time, the bugs and bites had brought her to her knees, wrestling away hysteria as he tore her second twisted bloodied ring away and brushed the gouges on her arms with a palmful of pity. Soon she would have no rings left.

'Will you believe me if I tell you no?'

His eyes are dark, not steady but direct. The rough palm to her forehead can surely have no maternal or medical instinct. There are no thermometers here.

'Open your mouth.'

His smallest fingertip hooks beneath her tongue, an alien intrusion tasting of soap and feeling too large. She tries to close her lips around him but he pulls away. He thumbs at her lower lid, and she looks at her spit shining wet on his finger. What is her suffering, but another form of hunger?

'Where else are they? Are you hiding more of them?'

'No, I—'

'There is no one else to tend you. Please. I do not want to beg you each time, for the sake of your wellbeing.'

Her armour and weapons since set aside, Ashe finds the clasps at the side of her skirt, unbuttons, undrapes. Her tunic. The twisting awkwardness of removing her smalls without bending herself and the subsequent full exposure, through which he looks at her still, steadily, unmoving; Vossler and his soldiers would bathe naked in sweatbath or river, but in the palace even Ashelia's maidservants gazed at her only through a sheet, even the girlfriend/lover she took from her servants rubbing her to completion through clean white linen.

The clean sheet moves from his lap to cover his bed instead. She lies firstly on her belly, face pressed into bare softness, and cants her hips upwards.

'At the back.'

'Where at the back?'

'At the, at the back, there,' flaming from worse than fever, she has to touch her thighs, her cheeks, as though he cannot see the bites nesting in her softest parts.

The heated wire hurts more on her buttocks than on her arms, that sensitive crease where thigh becomes cheek. He is relentless in his pursuit, and so precise, lightning heat in needle thin penetrations. She bites her lip against the burn, adrenaline peaking, sweat bursting from her pores. His hands are uncompromising, the heel of his palm pushing up the flesh of her right cheek, parting her to the air.

She muffles her gasp.

The heat goes through her like a rush becoming a river, brine coiled between her legs. Surely he would see it shining on her lips, he would see her flesh warm and open from his touch. His knuckles brush the inside of her thigh, and she closes her eyes in desperation. Every small touch and motion greater than it is, each tiny burn is enough to overwhelm.

There is a pause as he heats his thread in the candle again, one hand heavy on her leg.

Ashe moves her arm to the edge of the bunk. He kneels on the dirt floor, his thighs pressed firmly to the same edge of the bunk around which she wraps her hand. The fabric of his trousers is rough. The bulk of his groin presses firm against her wrist.

Does he swell, too? When he leans forward, palm now opening her cheeks by pressing on the left, does he push his crotch against her wrist, the back of her hand, deliberately?

With slight tension of muscle she pushes her knees wide.

His hands do not stop.

The pain of the small burns is accumulative and she reaches her level, and stifles the noises she makes now in shame. Still he does not stop. The heat against the back of her hand is as intense as each pinch to her cheeks. His knuckles touch her inner thigh frequently now, her muscles twitch her knees wider, until it feels like she is spreadeaged upon his bed and exposed to his eyes.

Both his hands are on her now, pulling her cheeks apart without hesitation or subterfuge. His thumb brushes her hole as he does so, a burst of sensation all the way from spine to crown.

She is so rigid only her toes can curl.

He hums, a deep, brief sound. Throaty when he speaks. 'It's done. You should not let it get so bad each time.'

If she rises from his bed, he will see her face, the wet she leaked, the tightness she can feel in her nipples bare against the rough sheet, and he will know.

His hands are no longer on her buttocks, but his crotch is still pressed against the back of her hand. Her eyes are still closed, so tightly the darkness swirls with stars. If she opens them, this delirium of sensation will leave her and reality assert. What feels like spreadeagled thighs will establish as barely parted legs. The torrent of desire slicking her lips will be no more than the sweat of a day caught in a crack. The brush of his thumb against her arsehole will just be a carelessness in his dedication to duty. He will not even know he touched her there.

But his fingers, thick though they are, are never careless in tending her wounds; his precision with the heated thread reminds her of this.

Slowly, eyes still closed tight, she turns her hand and cups him. Hard. Heavy.

'Vossler.' Her voice cracks.

He releases a breath which shudders through his lips.

Ashe opens her eyes, and as Vossler presses into her palm he closes his own.


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