He's going to miss the warm leathers. But with Tamarak's warm weather perhaps they won't be needed.

They had landed at the back of the castle near the housing area for the dragons. Before he could even marvel at the opal castle, Raven whisked him away through the servants' doors and passages. With Ira and Luke being Keelie's Second and Third, it would be dishonorable for them to leave Keelie's side, especially in front of the matrons.

Their feet move so swiftly he couldn't take in all the directions, only knowing they went up three flights of stairs. When they emerged from a door tucked in the corner of a tall hallway, Douglas observed what he could before the two witches guided him to a set of ebony doors. The round knockers sit within the mouths of hissing serpents, the once ornate carvings worn from years of use.

Raven open the doors and Douglas steps into an enormous room supported by thick white columns. A fountain sits at a back wall, flanked by two staircases leading to the upper floor. The columns are decorated by vines of lilies, a mosaic of green and blue tiles twining along the floor.

Raven ushers Douglas on towards the stairs up to the second floor. Once at the top, the beauty and openness of the room continues. A rotunda opens the space into one large suite, stain-glass windows of the dome ceiling bathe the space in a variety of muted colors. Beneath is an array of plush couches and armchairs, a large carpet pinned beneath their legs. He can also see weapons racks along the back wall.

Over on the left sits a large four-posted bed of mahogany wood. Poised on a three-step dais, the luscious sheets spill into the steps, rippling through the pale blue swaths of the elegant canopy hanging above.

To the right is the dining room with a polished wood table set for six, a vase of roses at its center. Instead of silverware and napkins, a variety of weapons and sharpening stones sit scattered across its surface.

Raven walks past him, Douglas uncaring of her snicker as he stands in awe, mouth agape. "Not what you expected?" she asks, as she trudges over to one of the couches, plopping down with her legs dangling over an arm.

"Not at all." Douglas admits. He didn't know what to expect from the castle, believing its looks to be as deceiving as the witches. Though the elves built it, the witches could've changed anything they wanted. Keelie had said this was the elven princess's chambers before, perhaps she didn't want to change much – either out of respect or fear or guilt.

"You'll have plenty of time to wander later," Raven reminds. "right now, we need you to change."

Douglas' shoulder droop. "Right."

He follows her through the dining room and into the dressing room where Douglas changes out of the riding leathers. He hands her his clothes, as well as his weapons, changing behind an ornate three-paneled screen. Already from the gathering of crimson silk and gold jewelry can he tell that this outfit is going to be more opulent.

Once he got the basics of the outfit secured around his waist, Raven steps behind the screen with him to help with the jewelry. It felt embarrassing to say the least, but Raven seems indifferent, even bored as she helps him adorn the jewelry.

She gently drapes another swath of red silk atop his head, placing a gold circlet atop to keep it in place. Then she adds a headpiece of gold coins to accessorize. The fabric drapes over his shoulders, reaching to the middle of his back.

After everything is secured, Douglas steps out from behind the panel, feeling even more exposed than before.

Raven turns him towards the mirror and Douglas sighs, already annoyed with all the clinking jewelry.

Opulent indeed, as the crimson fabric is embellished with gold chains twined with more coins and beads. A princess cut emerald shines like a green eye in the long cuff bracelet on his left arm, another in the shape of a tear drop sits at the center of his circlet. The coins carry through the mesh chain twining his upper abdomen, wrapping with the polished swaths around his waist, covering his bum. Same as before, and all the others bound to come after it, twin shafts drape between his legs. This time they don't puddle at his feet but stop just at his ankles. Still it leaves little to the imagination.

He frowns when his eyes drift to the claw-like scars across his abdomen. The scars he received from Marionette when she was under the influence of Gregory's serum. No doubt every witch in the city could smell him.

An unofficial Witch Hunter, Keelie had said. Witch Killer. Yet another reason so stay by Keelie. The witches are going to want his head for those scars; the scars that reek of hatred, of iron and blood and pain.

He's never felt this self-conscious.

They didn't paint him this time; the gold and ornate detailing of the jewelry speak enough about what he is.

Not some heathen goddess' plaything, but a prize.

Raven had mentioned something about it while they were on their way to Keelie's chambers, but Douglas was only half paying attention, too in awe of the glittering castle and its inhabitants.

He is Keelie's prisoner, but not just any prisoner destined to rot in the dungeons, left to the cruelty of any witch that chooses to visit him.

No, he is Keelie's personal prize. The outfit is meant to humiliate him, degrade him from what he once was and to convince the other witches that he won't be a threat. He feels vulnerable without his weapons, but that's the point; to keep his scent of fear real when around the witches.

"How do you feel?" Raven finally asks, her reflections showing her just peeking over his right shoulder.

Douglas folds his lips in for a moment. "Different."

Raven shrugs her shoulders. "I suppose that's a good thing."

"I suppose." Douglas repeats. His tone comes out more placid than intended.

She's fixed her hair, taming down all the strands that broke free from the plait of her braid. Seeing their reflections together, Douglas almost wants to shrivel at how brutal she appears next to him; her chipped and scarred riding leathers, the deadly weapons that are strapped to her from shoulder to waist. The hilt of her sword poking over her shoulder with her bow and her arrows.

"Are you okay?" Raven asks, stepping outside the border of the mirror.

"This is all just starting to catch up me." Douglas admits as he turns to face her. She's a few inches shorter than him, but he's never felt so small.

Another shrug of her shoulders. "Like Keelie said, there's no turning back now. And remember you're here on a mission."

She's right.

Protecting him aside, he came here on a mission to find out what the witches are planning. And from the tone in her voice, the Wind Riders are more than ready and prepared to help him. Undoubtably he won't be able to just wander this castle alone. Even if just the Scarletbloods live in the castle, the number of covens that exist in just one clan . . .

The doors to his apartment slam open, followed by an already familiar snarling and stomping about. He watches in the mirror as Luke appears in the doorway, panting. Raven salutes him.

"There you are," he begins, then stops as Douglas faces him. His brows lower as his eyes travel along Douglas' body. His head cocks, and he opens his mouth as if to say something, but only shakes his head and scowls. "Downstairs. Now."

Douglas bows, looking up at him beneath lowered lashes. "Where, pray tell, are we going?"

"Oh, don't simper at me." He grabs Douglas by the arm, guiding him out of the room.

"Luke!" Raven scolds. "He'll trip on the fabric. At least make sure the skirt doesn't flare up."

One of the shafts of fabric does catch under his left heel, and the sandals cut into his ankles and big toes terribly, but Luke won't hear none of Douglas' objections as he drags the knight into the hall.

The Third's grip tightens until it hurts. "Hurry," he says.

Douglas almost digs his heels into the plush carpet running down the length of the hall. "Where are we going?"

"We need to go to the throne room."

"What? Why? And why didn't you tell me?!" Douglas argues. He tries to yank his arm free, but the Third doesn't ease. He even snarls, reminding Douglas of who he's supposed to be.

It's hard to hear with the coins constantly clinking in his ears. As they hurry down a long staircase, he raises a hand to his head to ensure that the veil hadn't fallen out. While he can't hear Raven's steps behind them, he can see the wave of her black hair. He's surprised she didn't disappear by now.

"My mind was elsewhere; you were fortunate to be dressed, though I wish you'd worn something less . . . adorned to see the Matrons."

"The Matrons?" Douglas is thankful that he hasn't yet eaten.

"Yes, the Matrons. Did you think you wouldn't see them? You're going to be acting as Keelie's pleasure salve. She just got done briefing them in the throne room, and they had asked to see you."

His arms become heavy and he forgets all about his pointed nipples and the breeze tickling between his legs. They reach the bottom of the staircase and rush down a long hallway.

He can't breathe.

Nauseated, he looks out the windows that line the passage. He can only see the brick of the wall bordering the castle. It feels too tight – suffocating. Trapped.

Suddenly he doesn't want to be here. He wants to hide in Keelie's chambers like he expected. "Why didn't you tell me sooner?"

"Because they just decided to see you now. Keelie had originally planned to just sneak you into her room, but the Matrons demand to see you. I don't know if the other heirs will be there."

Douglas feels like fainting.

The Matrons.

He barely remembers them from his travel to Tamarak – gods, that feels already feels ages ago. He could only see them from their private box of the arena, but he could tell they ranged in age, and they all wore some form of ceremonial robe: long belled sleeves, draping skirts that trail behind them . . . and power.

They radiated power. Not the way Keelie does, or any other witch for that matter, but through fear and cruelty. It was enough to make him cower, to wish for any excuse that would take him far from them – even a quick bathroom break.

"When you enter," Luke says over his shoulder, "stop where I stop. Bow — low. When you raise your head, keep it high and stand straight. Don't look the Matrons in the eye, don't answer anything, and do not, under any circumstances, talk back. Keelie may be an heir, but they'll have you hanged if you piss them off. They enjoy breaking strong men. You have to remember to play the game."

He has a terrible headache around his left temple. Everything is sickly and frail. They're so close now, so dangerously close to the throne room . . . Raven stops them before rounding a corner. "You're pale."

He has difficulty focusing on her face as he breathes in and out, in and out.

He hated this attire. He hates the Matrons. He hates Tamarak.

"Douglas." he blinks, his cheeks burning. Raven's features soften. "They may be witches, but they still bleed. We will protect you." They began walking with him again, slower. "This meeting is only to show you and the other heirs of why you're here, and what you're to do. You're not going to get eaten. You will not die today." They enter a long hallway, and he spies four guards posted before large obsidian doors at the other end.

"Just play your part, and we'll be out of there before you know it." Luke whispers in Douglas' ear. "It will be unpleasant at some points, but we beg you to please accept it."

As the Third speaks, he flinches as he feels a wisp of air tickle his right ear. Only then does he suddenly feel the cold bite of shackles being clamped around his wrists. Raven, making quick work of adding the finishing touches.

Swallowing tight, Douglas lowers his chin and rolls his shoulders forward. The sounds of chatter rise ahead of them, and Douglas' face burns as he silently bemoans the too-sheer fabric of his costume. Beneath it, his loins are visible to everyone, the tight fit hardly leaving anything to the imagination, and the cold air raises goose bumps on his skin. With his legs, sides, and stomach exposed save for the slender shafts of fabric, he has to clench his teeth to keep them from chattering.

They reach the double doors, two of the witch guards already having them opening. Through the crevice, he can see a floor of white marble and sunlight pours in from an open wall to the left, and the smell of spring blossoms hits his nose.

The throne room has high vaulted ceilings supported by countless vine-decorated pillars. Multicolored mosaic tiles wind and curl towards an open wall – a curtain of wisteria arcing across – where is drops three steps down into a glittering lake surface. On the horizon sits lush green forests of pine and snow-capped mountains beyond. Birds and butterflies flutter in and out of the open wall.

Gorgeous. Stunning.

Three steps lead up onto a platform where the Matrons are now seated. The Matron of the Scarletbloods sits upon a white opal throne of antlers; the surface winking with a rainbow of colors. Seated under a weeping willow, a blanket of purple blooms stretches from the behind throne and down the steps.

Tucked in a shallow alcove behind the throne sits a webbing of green vines that stretch across some ornate carving. The rose blossoms sprinkled across their expanse lace the room with their perfumery scent.

Witches and servants gawk as they pass through the entrance. Some bow to Luke, while others gape. Douglas spies several of the Ebonywings and Thornhearts covens gathered just inside the doors. The smiles they give him are nothing short of vulpine.

Neither Luke or Raven touch Douglas, but they walk close enough for it to be obvious that he is with them — that he belongs to the coven. He wouldn't be surprised if Keelie attaches a collar and leash around his neck. He fights back a grin at the memory of her promise. Maybe she would at some point, now that he is bound to her.

Whispers snake under the rippling conversations, all slowly quieting as the crowd parts and makes a path for them to the dais. There he sees the rest of the heirs gathered, each standing in front of their successor, spines steeled, each dressed in a variation of riding leathers suitable for each clan. After picking out Keelie and Dahlia, he can only assume that the witch with eyes and hair of topaz gold belongs to the Thornhearts. The detailed plait of her braid just passes her shoulders.

Douglas lifts his chin, the weight of the headband digging into his skull. He is a savage before their cultivated beauty.

The Matrons of the Thornhearts and Ebonywings are seated beside the Scarletblood on that same dais, varying in attire, no weapons sheathed anywhere on them. But Douglas knows they still have their teeth and their claws. They appear different than when they were at The Cage. Up this close, he can see that each seems to be stalled at a certain point in age.

The Matron of the Thornhearts appears to be in her thirties, wearing a long blue robe embroidered with whorls of gold at the hem of the sleeves and skirt; cinched at the waist by a belt of limpid stones, a band of silver on top of her hood. On her forehead, above her brows, dangles a rose-gold head chain, its jade crystal resting between her brows; long silver hair spilling forth from beneath her hood. Like Marionette's.

Rage suddenly coils at Douglas' heart upon the realization that this is Marionette's mother.

This is the woman who cast her out. Who turned Marionette's coven against her; who made her watch as the Matron and her private coven slaughtered the witch's mount – the only thing that had ever fought for her . . . that loved her. Then threw her broken body and spirit into the snow to die.

The only other semblance he can see are her eyes: purple like Marionette's but lacking the gleam that made them sparkle like an amethyst. Instead, it's a cold gleam of rough tanzanite.

Douglas wants nothing more than to pluck those eyes out with his bare hands. This wretched bitch doesn't deserve to look like Marionette.

Suddenly as he peers closer, he sees that a sleeve of the robe has been folded and pinned to her shoulder . . .

He even managed to chomp off an arm of the Matron, Marionette had once said. When her mount, Tyrath, was trying to fight for her.

Fine. He can find some gratification in that. If he manages to escape, perhaps he'll hunt down the Thornheart Matron and return the, warmth, she bestowed upon Marionette.

The Ebonywings Matrons appears to be the youngest – and the most beautiful, her iron nails permanently on display as she taps the edge of her chair's arm. Her beauty lies within contrast; with the sharp angles of her cheekbones and jaw, but softness in her snow-white skin, and sea-green eyes.

It makes her all the more petrifying.

Her red-gold hair is neatly braided and woven through her golden crown of shark teeth. Poking through the sides, her ears are decorated with gold earrings and cuffs. Her lips a delicate rose-pink. She wears a fitted dress of emeralds, the skirt translucent and draping, hugging every curve and hollow until there's nothing left to the imagination. Gold whorls twines across and around her shoulders, over her full breasts and stopping at her collarbone.

There is . . . something that hardens their beauty, some kind of permanent sneer to their features that makes their allure seem contrived and cold.

The Third stops in the open space before the throne, and Douglas halted with him. He didn't seem to care about their ominous surroundings, or if he did, he's hiding it far better. He pulls his gaze forward, taking in the crowd. Stiffly, knowing that many eyes are upon him, Douglas steels his spine, his coins clinking.

An expression of surprise crossed Keelie's features when she beholds him in his finery, but it quickly melts into a wry grin as she looks toward her grandmother. He might have returned it, had he not been focusing so much on keeping his hands from shaking.

"What have you done with my captive?" Keelie says, but her smile doesn't reach her eyes.

Raven's face was like stone — like stone save for a twinkle of mischief on her eyes that Douglas is convinced is not just an act. She and Luke fall in line with the rest of the Wind Riders.

"We wanted to make sure he was ready for you," Ira says. He flinches as she brushes a stray lock of his hair from his face. She ran her fingers down his cheek — a gentle caress.

The throne room is all too quiet.

"Granddaughter, what is the meaning of this?" asks the Scarletblood Matron.

Her voice is one he's never heard before, raspy yet ethereal. One infused with control; less like an angel's and more like that of a ghost, heartrending and full of mystery. It makes his bones crack and splinter, makes him feel the astonishing cold of a winter long since passed.

His eyes only dared to venture as far as her chest. Common sized for a woman of her forties, contained in a dress of light siam. Surprisingly modest with its high-buttoned neck and fitted sleeves. She crosses her legs, her skirts a rippling wave of red.

"With my attack on the city a success, and the people petrified, I decided to bring home a souvenir." Keelie purrs, grinning like a fiend. Douglas stares at her profile, at the elegant nose and sensuous lips. Games—Keelie has to play games, and he is now to be a key player in this one.

He can see the skirts of the Matron's dress shift again. "May I ask, why?" he can hear her tapping the arm of the throne with an iron nail.

A casual shrug of Keelie's shoulders. "Do I not deserve a stunning and pleasurable prize after my hard work?"

"A simple observation of time would say, no. Your mission was to find a way to infiltrate the city of mortals so we may carry on with our plans."

"And the witches have infiltrated the city, grandmother."

"Don't pester me, child!" The Matron's voice booms, echoing around the throne room. Douglas is unable to hide his flinch. "I'd suggest you watch your tongue before I have you tied to the posts."

Keelie straightens a bit. "The witches have already infiltrated the city. And my coven attacking has not only seeded fear into its citizens, but soon we could be bale to root out the mortals from the ground up."

"By panicking the citizens, you have now set a witch hunt in motion. Who knows how many men and woman they could be being dragged to their dungeon?"

"You almost sound concerned, grandmother." Keelie sneers, folding her arms. "Have you not faith in the clans to remain five steps ahead? Do you really think that the humans are more capable than us? What better way to test their mettle?"

Her grandmother's hands curl until they're white-knuckled, her iron nails poking out. the throne room is soon crawling with whispers, the other matrons eyeing the Scarletblood.

So this is how the game is played. Keelie always seeming to undermine her grandmother with little jabs here and there, embarrassing her in front of the other clans; making her appear recalcitrant, emotional.

Each little verbal jab Keelie takes at her grandmother makes him want to smile, and to laugh, but not with eyes all on him. And especially when he can imagine the horrid punishment that awaits Keelie once they're in private.

"And besides," Keelie continues. "I've been stringing him along for quite some time; the game we've played has been such fun –" She casually walks over behind him, getting close enough that he can still smell the wind and iron. "– it would be a shame to let such intimate talents go to waste."

Keelie circles him as she speaks, her one finger delicately tracing along his shoulder. Then suddenly her hand grasps his bum, giving it a firm caress and pinch. Caught off guard by the abrupt gesture, Douglas couldn't stop his yelp of surprise, causing him to stumble a step. The witches all giggle and purr, Douglas unable to stop the red that flushes to his cheeks.

"It's such a rare treasure for a man to have cock this good, I simply had to have him." Keelie continues, her voice laced with a lover's purr that sends shivers through him, caressing every bone and muscle and nerve.

The Scarletblood Matron tips her head back and laughs – a raven's caw.

The Matron of the Ebonywings looks to him, those eyes enrapturing. "Hello, little pet."

Douglas doesn't bother hiding his sneer of disgust. He fists his fingers around the chains of his shackles, imagining crushing the Matron's windpipe.

By accident, his gaze slips onto the Scarletblood's face, and he finds her dark eyes staring into his.

The Matron smirks. His heart throws itself backwards and clings to the bars of his ribcage.

Her hair is grey like graphite, but her skin solidifies she is in her early forties. Unaffected by crow's feet or liver spots, he can see only a few wrinkles formed by a lifetime of scowling. She wears no ornamentation save for that silver coronet he remembers her wearing at Widow's Peak. Anything else would look eccentric, like putting jewelry on a lion.

Murderer.

She should be burned and crucified. She has killed much more than Keelie's mother — she destroyed a chance for a better future, for both humans and witches alike. She has destroyed so much of what had once been bright and good.

These witches should revolt. Tamarak should revolt—the way Keelie and her coven dare to do. Douglas struggles to maintain her gaze. He can't retreat.

"I do remember him from your reports, child," says the Scarletblood Matron continues, leaning her cheek against her knuckles. She lifts a delicate grey brow. "You were being modest when describing him. But why should we bother with him?" Her voice lilting despite the adder's smile she gives him.

"They won't, but I will." Keelie emphasizes with a deep growl, placing a hand on her sword. The sentinels of the other clan heirs reach for theirs as well. Indeed, Dahlia has been staring at him with bulging eyes since he walked into the throne room. "He is mine, and my coven's. No one else is allowed to touch him."

"Oh?" The Thornheart Matron says, leaning forward.

"You know I'm not one to share things, grandmother."

He hates not being able to say anything. He hates feeling this powerless. Luke had said not to talk back, but if they enjoyed breaking strong men . . .

Douglas attempts to dig within himself, attempting to find some semblance of that man who was once arrogant and witty. He digs deep, summoning his courage and readying himself for an attack. "I suppose I should be flattered." He croons, the shackles digging into his wrists.

Heads turn to him, and all three of the matrons grin wickedly. But it's the Ebonywings that speaks. "So, the worm finally decides to speak. Thank goodness, I was worried Keelie had already broken you before we could have a chance."

"Oh, I was just waiting to see how many more compliments would follow. I had no idea you witches were so skilled in charming as you are in deception and cruelty." He gives a devilish grin, adjusting his shackles like leather gloves.

The matron's eyes shine with amusement at his brashness but linger a bit too long on his body. He could have raked his nails down their faces for staring at him like that.

The Scaletblood Matron turns to her granddaughter. "He has somewhat of a tongue, doesn't he?"

"It works better when it's between my legs." Keelie purrs, licking the corner of her mouth for good measure.

From somewhere in the crowd, a hiss sounds, quickly follows by a shout that hits Douglas like a rock to the face: "Witch-Killer!"

His scars.

The white claw marks that rake across his abdomen as the wind shifts. The scent is one that every Tamarak witch knew. What lingered on those scars; one of iron and stone and pure hatred.

"You're carrion!" a male witch with demon red eyes shots from the front of the crowd.

"Kill the bastard!"

"Cut out his tongue!" someone else calls.

"End him." Another hisses.

The crowd is starting to roil with hunger and anticipation, churning like a sea during a storm. Save for the Wind Riders – who stay cool and quiet. They do not need to shout, for they are immortal and infinite and gloriously, wonderfully deadly.

All of the Matrons stare at him, waiting for him to bow. He almost wants to laugh – them believing that fear and intimidation is enough to make him cower. When he remains upright, the heir of the Thornhearts shifts on her feet, and the Matrons glance at Keelie before lifting their chins a bit higher.

Bow to them indeed! Now that he has Keelie and her Wind Riders at his back, he's not afraid to tickle the devil's ass. Douglas takes a step forward – just one step – and spits at the matrons' feet.

Some witches gasp, some snarl, some snicker. Thundering steps issue from behind him, and someone grabs him by the neck. Douglas only glimpses oil black hair and full, snarling lips before being thrown to the icy marble floor. Pain slams through his face, light splintering his vision. His arms ache as his bound hands keep his joints from properly aligning. Though he tries to stop them, tears of pain well.

"That is the proper way to greet our Ancients, whore," a brown-skinned woman snaps at Douglas.

The knight hisses, baring his teeth as he twists his head to look at the kneeling thot. She's almost as tall as he is, clothed in all black that indicates she's from the Ebonywings. Her citrine eyes glitter as her grip tightens on his neck. If he could move his right arm just a few inches, he could throw her off balance and grab her sword . . . The shackles dig into his stomach, and fizzing, boiling rage turns his face scarlet.

The Scarletblood Matron laughs. "As strong willed as you claimed, my granddaughter."

After a too-long moment, Dahlia speaks. "Silver-tongued he may be, but he looks delicious when sprawled." Her words are coated with glorious domination.

Douglas tries to pivot a free eye to Keelie, but only sees a pair of black leather boots against the white floor. By some miracle of the Goddesses, the shaft of fabric still falls between his legs. However, it doesn't make it any less humiliating.

With his ass in the air, the fabric gets pinched between his cheeks, the front half now completely forward, exposing his groin. He grits his teeth as the witches whisper and hum with aroused hunger.

There's a choking sound, and the sounds of leather slapping leather. The hand on his neck disappears and Douglas takes a deep breath, his heart pounding in his temples. He peels his cheek from the marble but lays on the floor until his head stops pounding.

As he rises, he frowns at the hard point in his nipples from the cold floor, and at the clank of his shackles echoing through the silent room. But he's been trained to be a knight since the age of eight, since the day his father got him his first wooden sword and armor and had him training in the courtyards. He won't be humiliated by anything, least of all being lewd. Gathering his pride, he rolls his shoulders and lifts his head.

He looks slowly to find Keelie with her hand around the woman's neck, the witch's feet dangling a few inches off the ground, her hands clawing at Keelie's wrist. Keelie is snarling teeth close to the witch's ear, the iron teeth snapping down, her iron nails digging into the soft skin beneath her ears.

"I know you Ebonywings have such thick skulls with so little intellect, so I'll say this slow, and only once." The Scarletblood Matron smirks gravely while the Ebonywings Matron growls low. "No one, other than my coven, under any circumstances, is allowed to touch him."

Murmur being to rise throughout the crowd in protest.

The Ebonywings Matron snarls, licking her lips as if she could already taste his blood. The Thornheart Matron, on the other end, does nothing. But the Scarletblood Matron smiles faintly.

A snake's smile.

Keelie turns to Dahlia, who has unleashed her iron teeth and has drawn her sword. She snarls widely, a guttural growl vibrating throughout the throne room, but Keelie only raises a single brow to her, as if staring at a tiny kitten.

"Release Asha." Dahlia commands.

"You have no authority over me, wretch." Keelie's nails dig in deeper as green blood begins sliding down Asha's deep-brown neck. "You're better off using what little semblance of it to better teach your coven about discipline. You're lucky I don't strike you down where you stand."

"I'd like to see you try." Dahlia says, taking a step closer.

No one is talking now.

In a blink, Ira is right behind Keelie, her iron nails ready; Luke prowling around Keelie's left in shadow leopard form letting out a warning growl, but Keelie jerks her chin, a silent order to stand down.

The Scarletblood Matron chuckles again. Its coldness sends shivers down Douglas' spine. She lifts her iron-tipped hand. "That's enough, granddaughter. There's no need to dirty the floors, tonight."

Keelie leans in, murmuring something into Asha's ear that makes her blanch, then shoves her a bit harder into the ranks of the Ebonywings coven before stalking for Douglas, flicking Asha's blood off her nails. But not before she looks back to Dahlia and says, "The next time one of your sentinels steps out of line," – Keelie raises her still bloodied nails, clicking them with a wiggle of her fingers – "I will feed their heads to my mount."

Dahlia gives another growl before leading her sentinel back into the ranks of her coven. Douglas looks back to the matrons, finding them slightly slouched in their seats, the Scarletblood Matron leaning a cheek on her hand, her face a mask of glorious boredom.

After a moment of staring, their eyes raking over him like he's their next meal, the Scarletblood Matron finally hums with a grin. She extends that iron-tipped nail towards Douglas. "A gift. Worthy of my granddaughter."

From the way Keelie's shoulders slouch ever so slightly, that seems to be the end of that discussion. He can stay, and he is hers.

"For what other gift can we give you, what crown can we bestow, to honor what you do for us?" the matron muses. "You have a fine blade, a fearsome coven" – The Wind Riders don't even smile – "what else can we give you that you do not possess?"

Keelie bows her head. "I am a woman of simple taste, grandmother. Give me some good wine and a fine whore, and I'm happy as any soldier."

Keelie's grandmother spares another deadly grin before turning to the crowd. "This should make things interesting."

Douglas tries not to flinch as she turns her attention upon his face.

"The Matrons and I are to depart next week for our own purposes. We will not return until Yuletide. But don't think we won't be able to give the command to execute any of you, should we hear word of any trouble or, accidents." Each of the clans nod. Douglas looks to Keelie and can see the stiffness in her face. She doesn't know where her grandmother is going but seems intent to find out. "If there are no questions," the Scarletblood Matron says in a tone that suggests asking questions will only earn a trip to the gallows. "Then you may leave. Never forget to bring honor to the clans. Be gone, all of you."

Douglas doesn't move until Ira approaches him and the Wind Riders have swarmed him. Set in the middle, he keeps pace with the coven, looking at all sides despite the Scarletblood Clan being the first to leave. Swarmed by a throng of red cloaks, Ira presses a hand at the small of his back, guiding him with the coven, turning down a long hallway. He recognizes this already; they're backtracking to Keelie's chambers.

It isn't until they round a corner that he lets out a deep breath and wipes the sweat from the back of his neck. Now his hands are shaking, thoroughly. He doesn't know what possessed him to speak when Luke had clearly instructed him not to.

Ira seems to be the only one to chuckle, the rest of the coven constantly alert. Luke is still in shadow leopard form, his snake eyes flicking this way and that. Raven is out of sight, but Douglas doesn't doubt that she's hiding in the thinnest crack of shadow.

They turn another corner and Ira happily sighs, resting her hands behind her head. She looks to Douglas and grins. "I think that went surprisingly well."