The Price

Chapter Seven: Witch's End

The full moon appeared to be frosted in the winter sky. It hung low over the rippled waves of freshly fallen snow, giving the night an ethereal glow.

Their coronation took place in the lofty throne room, blue and white tapestries depicting the history of Spades hung from every pillar and buttress. Down the center of the room was an unrolled carpet of short white fur, made from hundreds of captured snow rabbits, the sides embellished with gold lace.

It was down this carpet that Alfred and Arthur walked to their respective thrones. Nobles of Spades and the foreign dignitaries with their parities stood on each side of the carpet, waiting respectfully for the white gold crowns to be placed on the new royals' heads and their vows to be eloquently spoken. They waited for the moment when, with arms linked, the newly crowned couple swore their lives to Spades and the festivities began.

Arthur sat rigidly in his white granite and quartz cut throne. He looked over the groups of foreign dignitaries as the white carpet was rolled up by two servant boys and a group of half-naked men and women came jaunting into the room, followed by a small band.

The troupe was given room, those of importance were provided with chairs while others were forced to stand in the back and enjoy what they could manage to see.

The King of Diamonds had arrived the night before with a loud entourage of drunken gentlemen. Arthur had heard rumors that this king had taken a child wife to keep his influence and power absolute. The girl was never to leave Diamonds soil and although most others would see this as cruel, many people of Diamonds considered it to be a courtesy of their gentleman king.

He watched the dancers with a feigned interest, pressing his knuckles of his hand to his chin to keep them from visibly trembling. He could still feel the echoes of his words, pledging himself to Spades, resound in his chest and ears. He was officially the Queen of Spades and his King, a demon.

Nimble servant boys wove throughout the crowds with trays of winter ale and red wine. The dancers' faces were orange from the glow of torches and candle chandeliers, but their clothes sparkled with a ghostly light from the frosted moonshine that trickled through the windows.

"What an enchanting performance," King Ivan bellowed when the dancers and band exited the room, bowing and smiling with pleasure at their own work as they left. "Friend Francis, you have always had taste for the arts."

King Francis held his nose up, his blue eyes narrowed as if to say, "We are not friends," but refused to cause the diplomatic mess that those words would stir. Instead the Diamond king swirled a glass of wine and nodded.

"I am bringing the newly crowned royals a present from my motherland." Ivan looked around the room, catching eyes with the King of Hearts, a robust and stern man. "Friend Ludwig also has stake in this present, as it fled into his borders."

"We understand how reviled this creatures are in Spades, much as they are in Hearts and Clubs as well," the King of Hearts continued, waving off a slender servant woman, who scrambled out of the door. "We offer this to remind Spades of our shared interests."

The great doors to the throne room eased open, the hinges squeaking in a foreboding manner. A wooden cage was wheeled into the room, the splintered bars confining a half-naked woman.

King Ludwig was about to speak, but Ivan stepped in front of him and opened his arms wide, the charms on his furred coat clinking together with the swift motion. "A witch! For you to do as you wish."

"I am not a witch!" the woman sobbed. She ran up to the edge of her cage, grasping the splintered bars between her bruised hands. "Please, you must believe me!" The woman looked to be no older than thirty. Her brown skin was broken, bruised, and swollen in places where she had been tortured during her trip to the capital. Her brown eyes looked as if they were swimming in her unshed tears. "Please."

Arthur rose from his chair, his mouth set in a firm line as a brutish pair of men opened the cage and clasped a metal collar with a chain around the woman's neck. They forced her to her knees, and she frantically held her ripped clothing to her body for modesty.

"Is this really a witch?" Alfred asked, standing next to Arthur. "I've never seen one before." He discreetly pinched Arthur's arm.

"I'm not -!"

One of the brutes kicked and she splayed out on the ground. Weakly she climbed to her hands and knees.

There was a frightened hush over the crowd of nobles. King Ivan stepped towards the thrones. "Do not be fooled by her. Witches are the best of liars. See this mark she left on Gorem?"

One of the brutes lifted his shirt to reveal a puckered pink scar in the shape of a dainty hand.

"She is not strong, no, but a witch is a witch. Such evil should not be existing in this world." Ivan looked from the woman to Arthur and Alfred. "Do you not agree?"

Arthur watched the woman closely. She hung her head, her lips barely moving in unheard words. She looked up at him and he felt a chill – as if a winter wind had caressed his spine and sapped the warmth of magic from his skin.

Her eyes narrowed and darted over to Alfred.

Arthur's heart jumped into his throat. She knew what he was – was going to find out what Alfred was. Arthur leaped in front of Alfred in a desperate attempt to stop her probing. "She's whispering something!"

"Kill her!" Alfred demanded from behind him.

"I'm not!" the woman screeched. She yanked on the chain about her neck, a ghastly black fire flickering between her fingers. "Don't touch me, demon! I saw!" The east-Spadean rug beneath her feet caught fire, quickly enveloping her in a black ring of magical fire. She raised a hand towards Alfred. "I sa-!"

Her jaw clicked shut as Ivan bludgeoned her in the back of the head with the cane that he normally carried with him. The witch fell limply to the ground. A few of the women in the crowd of nobles fainted.

King Ivan wiped blood from the jeweled cross that decorated his cane with the torn fabric of the witch's clothes. "They are always thinking that they are invulnerable until the very end." He leaned onto his cane, waving at the brutes to take the woman's corpse away. "I see that you are not familiar with witch hunting ways, but I forgive you for this. There have not been many witches in Spades for generations. They fled to Diamonds."

Again Ivan and Francis shared a lightning laced stare.

Alfred turned to Arthur. His eyes seemed to flash with anger, but he grasped Arthur's hands tenderly. "Let the festivities continue! More dancing, more wine! My Queen trembles. Let him go upstairs and rest while we continue. King Ivan, perhaps you can tell me more about witch hunting."

"Alfred," Arthur tried to warn, but Jack Yao had ascended the stairs and took him by the arm, rasping in short breaths.

"Go," Alfred said coolly. "I'll join you later tonight."

He was unable to disagree with so many foreign and noble interests around, so Arthur gave a short bow and helped Yao out into the main hall and towards the royal rooms. "Are you unwell?" he asked the Jack, resting his hand on the man's back as he gave a deep, rattling cough.

"I'll be fine," was Yao's gruff reply. "The cold is seeping into the castle walls. I shall have to sleep with a kettle of water over the fire tonight."

Arthur nodded, although worried, when it came to his illness, Yao was independent and stubborn. He escorted the Jack to his room and then wandered towards his own. He could hear the soft thrum of a band, the high notes of a woodwind instrument carried itself defiantly through the empty halls of stone and quartz.

He was sure that when the party was over, he would have to answer to the demon. They had almost been exposed, could have been killed – at least he would have been in a room nearly brimming with witch hunters, Alfred likely would have escaped.

When he was finally in his own room, he flung himself onto his bed, disregarding his ceremonial dress and his boots on his silk sheets. He vaguely noticed Catherine in the corner, her oppressive eye turned onto him.

A broken mask shows only fear, her voice echoed in his mind.

"I don't care for your bloody opinion," Arthur bit out. He breathed in through his nose and released it slowly to calm himself. He'd promised that he wouldn't address her – as if he were a madman, or attempting to validate her ghostly existence.

He closed his eyes, attempting to imagine himself in a void space where the only sensations he felt were the slight shift of satin blanket on the back of his neck, the chilled draft that ran across his nose, and the high-pitched buzzing of silence that one only hears when they concentrate on the sound of nothing.

Arthur brought the warm, potent feeling of magic to his skin, trying to recreate the probing feeling of the witch. He thought of the fire she conjured, how easily she managed to do it, and with the skill of several years. In comparison, he was an amateur – a lucky, idiotic amateur that successfully summoned a demon the first time he used black magic, but an amateur nonetheless. He was hardly a threat – without King Catherine's grimoire, he was nothing. Nothing but calculating and cunning, but against a demon…?

During his meditation of how he might find a manner to practice his art unseen, Arthur fell asleep.

His dreams were a vivid torrent of color raining into a scrying bowl. The demon's human form was leaning against a pigment of swaying golden stalks, his innocent face turned upwards towards the sky. Arthur could see himself walking towards the human Alfred, his hands in his pockets, fiddling with a smooth ring between his fingers.

I'm here. Real. Real. Real.

He slipped the ring around his finger. The queen to his king, the truth to its justice. If only he could remove the black mask, to strip the demon to its core and find the small nugget of love, goodness – of Alfred.

All around him the colors began to distort, the humble picture of Alfred in relief of the wheat field morphing into the bloody corpse of the female witch.

I'm real. I'm here. Real. Help me.

Arthur started awake.

The demon was staring down at him, his the gold fillings of his horns glittering in the starlight. "You invited him."

He bit his lip, unwilling to comment or play dumb. The demon knew and there was no changing it. "I was advised to do so," he said after a breathless pause.

"And you always do as you're advised? No; you don't." He bent closer, a clawed hand coming up to clasp Arthur's throat. "If this was your pathetic attempt to get me killed. . . . It never would've worked." He scratched the soft swell of skin under Arthur's chin, drawing a drop of darkening blood.

"That wasn't – augh!"

The demon jabbed a talon-like finger into Arthur's mouth. "Liars should be punished." A devious smiled played over his features before he bent down to nip at the queen's Adam's apple. Suddenly he breathed in sharply and he pulled away from Arthur, his finger leaving Arthur's mouth to softly caress his face instead. "But I won't."

Arthur whimpered in relief. He reached up to cup Alfred's face as the shadow of the demon left the boy's features. "I had no intent." He stopped. He had every intent to have Ivan discover and kill Alfred – not so soon, not now, not until he wasn't cast in such a shadow of suspicion as he was now. "Has Ivan been taken care of?" he asked instead.

"He is sleeping in the honored guest rooms." Alfred frowned, climbing on top of Arthur and unbuttoning Arthur's clothes. "There was no scandal – a woman wants us to pay for her dress. She spilled red wine on the white silk when she fainted. She'll have nightmares tonight. I made sure she'll want to leave bright and early in the morning."

Arthur sighed, trying not to arch his back as the king's hands feathered over his pale skin. "Why not just pay her?"

"The dress was ugly." He kissed and nipped at Arthur's chest, pushing the fabric from his shoulders. "It's an insult," he said.

"Oh." His breath caught in his throat and he frantically began to undress Alfred, unable to keep calm under the sweet caresses and kisses. He didn't care that they weren't real, that the demon was only playing with his mind. Arthur had decided that if the demon was going to try and trick him, he was going to take advantage of the empty love and pretend it was real – a hollow mask to wear when he looked into the scrying bowl at the true Alfred sitting among the golden wheat.

If he could only make the demon believe it was real.

Arthur sighed and moaned into Alfred's sweat slicked skin, enjoying every thrust and grunt from the other. He would imagine what it would be like if it was the true Alfred above him, looking down on his shivering body with such love and admiration that he knew he deserved, and immediately wonder what it would be like to have enough power to kill the demon while he was in the threshold of climax, when he was at his most vulnerable.

"Tomorrow we begin implementing my plans for the kingdom," Arthur said with a sniff. There would be a greater standing army come summer; the roads repaired, trade expanded with Clubs – they would be a country to be feared across the world. He would make it so.

Alfred settled into the bed next to him, his wet cock limp between his legs. "I shall do as I please, mortal." Alfred wrapped his arms around Arthur and squeezed until he coughed in pain. "You are the one that squirms under my thumb, my tainted Queen."

Arthur watched the malicious grin warp the king's face. Was he tainted? He stared at the dip of Alfred's collarbone and then closed his eyes. It was certain that he was crumbling – an ancient wall falling into disrepair, wheedled away by one oaf with a hammer. But the demon hadn't won, he was just letting him think that he had. His mind would never belong to Alfred.

He made sure to keep space between them that night.

In the morning Arthur woke up alone, patterns of swirled frost creeping up the glass of his window. He ignored the ache of his body, the sorrow in his breath, and the muddle in his head. Erecting his withering mask, he dressed himself, looking from the sides of his eyes at Catherine in the corner of his room.

Trust no one, her voice echoed in his chaotic thoughts, love no one. They all die.

"Or kill you," he added to himself. He yanked Catherine's grimoire from its spot on the shelf and thumbed through the pages he had marked as easily practiced. He would not let some witch from a mountain hovel best him again.

He wrapped the grimoire in a piece of silk and tucked it under his arm. It was still early in the morning and he knew he wouldn't be expected at breakfast for at least another hour or two more. His footsteps were silent on the stone and quartz floors as he tiptoed his way to the king's chambers. There was only one place in the castle where he could practice in total secrecy and there was no way to avoid it any more.

Arthur cleared his throat as he approached the great doors that led to the king's chambers and knocked. When there was no answer he tried again, louder, but again received no answer. Instead of leaving like he knew he should, he pushed open the door.

It was still the dark of predawn and he went to the other side of the room to light the lamp on the nightstand. When he turned to look for Alfred, the bed was empty and the fear that had been knotting in his chest gave way.

He turned to find the bookshelf that contained Catherine's secret room but stopped. On the walls glimmered strange symbols in the lamplight. Illegible letters that reflected the runes he had been studying in Catherine's grimoire, but they looked more demonic; ruinous, like the ones he watched the demon carve into the walls of the old Kirkland estate. A shudder ran down his spine and he tried to turn away until a familiar word caught his name:

Arthur.

- End Chapter Seven -


Unimportant Notes: Hello. I updated. I'll try to do that again. (Sorry it's been so long. Happy almost October!)