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An Interim Story: Valran – Sleep

Valran lay in bed, staring blankly at the ceiling. Even at night, it wasn’t truly dark in the Inner Circle. Light shone from other windows, from the streets, from down in the second and Third Circles, making the night a dim twilight haze.

The outer wall was dark at night, except for the few shuttered lanterns the sentries used. Nobody wanted to attract the beasts and critters that lived in the plains, and nobody who didn’t have to left their home or barracks after dark.

Valran tried not to shift. The first night, he’d been twisting and turning, trying to get comfortable, and he’d woken Keldra Dre. She’d been very sympathetic, but her sympathy had burned more than anger would have.

The bed was too comfortable. He hadn’t known such a thing was possible, but the bed was soft and giving in all the right places, firm where it needed to be, with sheets so slick Valran was surprised he didn’t slide right out of bed. His bed at home had been the best his family could get, far better than most people in their neighborhood — and it was a pile of rocks compared to this.

When he was working on the wall, he’d slept on a thin blanket on a plank of wood and been glad he was off the ground. He was pretty sure he still had splinters embedded in his hip and shoulder.

He wiggled as quietly as he could, trying to find a spot that let him sleep. She was so close to him, not touching — the bed was big enough for five; she could have been miles away — but still near enough that he could hear her breathe. And she was naked, and he was naked.

Valran stared blankly at the ceiling and thought of the Outer wall. He counted stones, laying one after another in his mind, until he could smell the dust of the plains, until, fitfully, he slept.

Chapter 20 – Valran – Duck

“Duck your head a bit. There, like that.” Keldra Dre’s hand rested lightly on the back of Valran’s head. “There.” She tousled his hair gently. “Keep your eyes on the floor, but keep–  here.”  Her hand went down to the small of his back, her other hand to his shoulder. “Keep your spine straight, feet solid on the floor. You’re not bowing, you’re not kneeling.”

“So it’s—” Valran steadied himself in, he hoped, the position that she wanted him in. “It’s making a show of ‘I submit,’ without any of the rest of your body agreeing with that.”

“Exactly. And for you, that’s anyone in the First Circle, and only them. For me, it will be First Circle people who outrank me—”

“People can outrank you within the circle?”

“Oh, yes. People who have been here longer, who live in the central tower, who hold more holdings than me. So, about seventy-five percent of the First Circle, maybe more.” He could hear the way her tunic rustled when she shrugged. “But for you – remember this. You do not bow to anyone outside of the First Circle. Not unless they are one of those rare exceptions who are just that honored.”

“Mm-hrrm.” Valran moved his feet a little further apart. “So, with the First Circle, I never look up, not if they’re talking to me, not if they’re attacking me…”

“If they are attacking you, they are doing harm to my house and you can do what you see fit. If they are talking to you, no. Not unless they specifically demand you look in their face and you think it’s appropriate. Remember, you take orders from me.”

“And only from you? Even—”

Her finger on his mouth startled him. She didn’t shush him often – almost never. “Even,” she agreed. “Someone’s coming.”

He nodded, silently, and set his shoulders the way she’d been showing him. Should he… He hoped she’d tell him something.

“If they knock.” Her voice was almost a whisper. “Answer the door, announce them, and then kneel next to me when I sit. Easy enough?”

He nodded, not much of a move at all. Easy was never actually the word when dealing with the First Circle. But he had to start somewhere.

“Good.” She removed her hand and, much to his surprise, left the room.

Valran – waited. He was already in the room closest to the door, and he had nothing to do to prepare himself. It wasn’t like combing his hair for what was probably the seventh time that morning would actually change anything.

Besides, it was good practice in being still. He tried out the “pleasant waiting” expression Keldra had been teaching him on the wall, and the “resting posture” on his feet – which seemed to appreciate it.

The knock on the door came just as he’d reached a pleasant, quiet state of rest. He made sure his body posture was correct and answered the door, indulging only in a small flourish as he opened it.

Eyes down, shoulders back, meant Valran saw first the woman’s chest. Light blue silk draped artfully over a rather impressive view, and the embroidery on her tunic matched the gold patterns that had etched themselves into her skin. The gold glowed, too, shimmering in a pulsing pattern that didn’t quite match her breathing.

“Kantillun Ranya, to see Keldra Dre.” Her voice was musical – disturbingly so. Valran nodded his head.  He didn’t know if she was First Circle, but nodding seemed safe.

“And my Servus, Fornal.”

“Yes, ma’am.” With Ranya at the end of the name, ma’am was a safe bet. -ya was a feminine ending. “One moment please.”

Valran turned until he was not quite back-to-them and not quite facing the door to the next room. “Mistress?” Mistress was another one of those safe bets. “Kantillun Ranya and her Servus, Fornal.”

“Thank you, Valran. Please see them in.” Keldra Dre’s voice preceded her into the room.

See them in? He didn’t know that part yet. He took another chance and gestured, as formally as he could, into the living room.

“He’s new, isn’t he?” Kantillun Ranya spoke over his head to Keldra Dre. “Well-trained already, though. I didn’t think you had it in you, Keldra.”

Announce them, then kneel beside me when I sit. He could do that. He glanced in Keldra’s direction. She shook both of Kantillun’s hands, nodded at Kantillun’s Servus, kissed cheeks, patted shoulders, and did a little four-step dance around the furniture.

Valran was never going to be able to pass as Inner Circle; he’d been caught out before they were done saying hello.

Finally, Keldra took her seat, and Valran could kneel next to her. From that position, he could watch Kantillun settle into her chair, settling little winglets (or fins) carefully against the cushions. He could watch the other Servus, Fornal, as he settled into a kneeling position by his Mistress. Somehow, the guy made kneeling with digitigrade legs look graceful.

“Of course he’s new, Kantil.” Keldra picked up the thread of conversation as if they hadn’t just waltzed through five minutes of greetings. “And, yes, he’s doing fairly well for being new – you don’t think that I’d hire a fool, do you?”

Fairly well. Valran studied his knees. That was pretty close to damning with faint praise.

“I didn’t think that you’d hire a Servus at all. You were always against the idea, when we were in school. What was it you said?”

“‘Any woman who thinks that a Servus is going to give her what she needs is a fool, and  worse than a fool, a self-delusional child who’ll never actually belong in the Inner Circle.’ I remember, Kantil. I was there.”

“So was I, Keldra. So good to see that you’ve come down to earth with the rest of us self-delusional fools. And does he give you what you need?”

“Oh, well, I suppose he will.”

If the first answer had stung, this one stabbed. Valran swallowed hard.

“Then why did you get him, Keldra? The Donner Servus don’t go cheap.”

“And how did you know he was a Donner?” There was a sharpness in Keldra’s voice that Valran didn’t like. He focused on his breathing, on his stillness. It wasn’t all that hard to hold perfectly still. Was it?

“You haven’t changed his clothes that much yet, Keldra. He looks like a Donner. He moves like a Donner. Face it, if you’ve not had him bent over your bed yet, you’re wasting your money.”

“Well, you know I’ve never had all that much interest in that sort of thing. But my grandmother thought I could do with something like him, and, well, here he is.”

The sting of something like him had just hit when Keldra’s eyes raked over Valran. The look was a shopkeeper seeing a broken piece of merchandise, a lover disappointed with her partner.

Valran kept his eyes down and his back straight. What else could he do?

“Do you think I should put him in something else? Silk like you have your boy in, maybe? Or that fine linen they just imported from South Detterot?” Her hand brushed over his shoulder, an intimate touch. “Or maybe… nothing?”

Nothing?

Valran caught a breath right before it became a noise. It was enough to stay within the bounds of propriety – good Servi didn’t talk unless talked to, not in public – but not enough to keep Kantillun Ranya from laughing at him.

“Oh, Keldra, he doesn’t like that at all. Do it, do it. I mean – for every day, with that complexion, you should dress him in that lovely linen and, maybe, the Flow-fabric that your uncle’s place creates. Smooth lines. Make him look businesslike and yet indulgent – it suits you. Having him so very nearly human suits you, too.”

It did? Valran glanced up, moving nothing but his eyes. His mistress was looking very thoughtful.

“You know, Kantil, you have a bit of a point.”

Please not about the nudity.

Keldra stroked Valran’s shoulder again. “He might look lovely nude – but that’s the sort of thing you would do, wouldn’t you? And as he is, exactly as he is – he looks more honest.”

“And you’ve always been about the honesty, haven’t you?” There were so many layers of sarcasm in that question, Valran thought he needed a shovel to find the bottom.

“Of course I have.” Keldra’s answer, on the other hand, was bare. Naked, like she wanted Valran. “What do you think, Valran?”

“Ma’am?” He’d been looking up again, so he caught the briefest glance of Kantillun Ranya’s face. He imagined his looked almost as shocked as hers, but he couldn’t seem to get it under control.

“Linen? Flow-fabric? Soft silk?”

Something about her tone of voice was strange. And she was looking straight at him. Valran cleared his throat. “If it pleases you, Mistress, I like linen.”

Keldra smiled, just a tiny expression, but a nice one. Because he was watching her so carefully, Valran noticed when her eyes flickered over to Kantillun Ranya, and because he was listening for her responses as well, he heard the slight intake of breath.

“He’s got a lovely voice, Keldra… and he sounds like a professor.”

“Isn’t it beautiful?” Keldra’s hand landed once again on Valran’s shoulder. “Linen would do well for you, I believe. Properly tailored, it will make you look even more exotic. And I like that about you.”

“Thank you, Mistress.” Valran bowed his head, but not before he caught another flicker of expression on Keldra’s face. “You do me honor.”

“There is a great deal of honor to go around.”

Kantillun Ranya cleared her throat. “The day is getting late, and Fornal and I have an appointment with a Fourth-Circle hairdresser to do something about this mess of his. It’s been nice seeing you, Keldra.” She didn’t really sound as if she meant it, but, then again, that could be how Inner Circle people just sounded all the time.

“It’s always nice to see you, Kantil.” Keldra sounded just as flat. “Do please stop in again. If you send your boy ahead to let me know you’re coming, I could have refreshments ready.”

And that sounded like an Eighth-circle granny telling her children to give notice before they visited.

They were playing some sort of game – but what sort? How did normal Ladder-climbers ever understand all this?

They didn’t, Valran realized. Most people from the Outer Rings never made it this far in, not climbing normally. And if they did, they would be marked for the rest of their lives as outsiders.

“Oh, I don’t need refreshments. So nice of you to see us.” Kantillun Ranya executed some sort of bow, while next to her, her Servus did something far simpler. Then again, Fornal had probably been born, like Valran, to some outer circle. “Do enjoy your day.”

And finally they were gone. Keldra closed the door, and counted, her lips moving but no sound coming out.

Valran counted along. When they had reached a hundred, she turned to him. “All right. Stand up, stand up. As I was saying – you take orders from me, and only from me. Anyone else trying to tell you what to do is, in effect, trying to tell me what to do.” She smiled, fierce as a bear guarding her cubs. “And very few people here can tell me what to do.”

Chapter 18 – Valran – Remember

“Remember.” Keldra Dre tapped Valran’s nose for emphasis. He wrinkled his nose and struggled not to pull away.

“There’s a lot to take in.” He shut his mouth, but the words had already been said. “I mean, Mistress, I will do my best.”

Her lips curled upwards. “I know you will, Valran Servus. You want to succeed. Yes?”

“Yes?” He didn’t quite meet her eyes.

“I thought so. You have ambition aplenty, don’t you?”

That was a very dangerous question, no matter how he answered it.

“That, Mistress, is a very dangerous question for me to answer.”

“I know. But I’d like you to answer it anyway.”

“Yes, Mistress, I am ambitious. Right now, I am your Servus, and my ambition is to serve you to the best of my ability.”

“And if I choose that you will serve me by learning everything I know about the world?”

“I may be serving you for a great deal longer than my contract, Mistress.” He tried a smile on her and it did not, at least, sink. “But I will do my best to remember everything you’ve told me.”

“Very good. Now.” She stroked his hair; he was kneeling again, on the floor in front of her while she sat on that giant bed. “What was the last thing I told you to remember?”

He swallowed. “‘When channeling the flow, it helps to have a picture or a feeling of your self; you can visualize the flow moving around that picture or sensation.”

“Very good.” She patted his shoulder. “Now we get into the hard things.”

“Hard things, ma’am.” He looked around the room and swallowed.

“It’s been a long day for you, hasn’t it?”

“Weird, at least…. Mistress.” Hard things. What sort of things would this woman find hard?

“Then we’ll worry about the hard stuff later.” She stood up and held both hands out to him. “Take my hands,” she prompted, and, feeling silly, he did. “Stand up.”

He was surprised to find out that he needed the support of her hands. He hadn’t knelt for that long in… ever. “Thank you. What’s… what’s the hard part?” Waiting to find out might be a hard thing in itself.

She released one of his hands and tapped his nose. “Finding the core of yourself to hold as your protective center. It’s very… exhausting.”

“Why don’t they teach this in outer circle schools?” He kept his voice polite. She was his Mistress. You did not shout revolution at your Mistress.

“It’s an advanced technique.” Her answer was breezy. “Do I need to back up further?”

He tilted his head at her. “Back up… are you…” Oh, no. He hadn’t asked for instruction in the Flow.  He didn’t want instruction in the Flow.

“Carefully, Valran, you have my word on it. With full caution for your safety and humanity.”

“Yes, Mistress.” Being a Servus had risks.

“For now, I do believe you need something to eat.”

“Yes, Mistress.” He ignored the small gnawing in his stomach. You had to feed your Servus. You had to feed the wall-workers, too.

“Come this way.” The apartment didn’t appear to end. The next room was… it was a food-preparation room, a kitchen, lined with cupboards. “I don’t have anyone to do the cooking yet. I don’t have anyone at all, except you. Sit, there,” she pointed at a straight-backed chair. “I’ll throw together a sandwich for you now, and we can worry about complicated meals later.”

“I… can cook.” Valran sat as ordered, surprised at how light-headed he was feeling. “Decently.”

“Really? Well, we may have to see if we can get you into a class, then, and let you take over the cooking.”

He wanted to be offended by the idea of needing a class, but she was Inner Ring and he was not. Yet. The food that had been good enough for his family was probably not the sort of thing an Inner Ring Oligarch would want to eat, not unless they were slumming it. “Yes, ma’am.” He swallowed, as the question just brought up more questions. “Ma’am… what do you want me to do for you?” If she wanted a domestic Servus, well, that was what he’d be. But that wasn’t what he’d signed up for. Of course, she hadn’t picked him at all. He coughed, trying to salvage the stupid question. “That is, if you have made up your mind. I know that I was a gift from your grandmother to you…”

“It’s all right, Valran. It’s a fair question.” Knives were flashing on the counter with gladiatorial finesse. “You clearly had plans for your time as Servus when you picked the House to broker you that you chose. I imagine they did not include domestic work.”

“No, ma’am.” People didn’t often bend knee to spend their time scrubbing floors. He supposed some might, just to be scrubbing a better class of floor. Valran didn’t quite suppress a smile. In some way, that was exactly what he was doing. Bending knee to scrub fancier floors.

Keldra Dre tipped her head at him. “You bent knee to be a Donnor. And then you were bought by my grandmother, which might have put a small bend in your plans, oh Handsome Valran. And then she gave you to me, which might put all sorts of interesting bends in your plans, won’t it?”

He found himself swallowing. “I knelt to serve, ma’am. I will serve in whatever way you order me, of course.”

“And what of your plans?”

“‘No plan survives past its first step.’”

“That’s not how I heard the quote.”

“You are my owner, ma’am, not my enemy.”

“Good.” The tone of her voice made Valran look up again; she was smirking, looking very satisfied indeed. “Step one. I am not the enemy. Step two. You knelt to serve. Step three… you will serve me to my satisfaction and no-one else’s.”

“Yes, Mistress.”

She set down her knives. “Step four.”

“Step four, Mistress?”

She crossed the room and took his chin in both hands. “You sold ten years of your time. You should get fair compensation for that service.”

He wanted to speak, but she was holding his jaw very firmly shut. He made a soft noise of assent. If only he understood what he was assenting to.

“You are going to be my assistant, Valran Servus. And in assisting me, you will spend a great deal of time on your back, Donnor-boy. But you will also spend a lot of time on your feet.”

She released his chin before the Donnor-boy sunk in. Valran nodded, even less certain what he was agreeing to now.

“Confused?”

“Yes, Mistress.” He looked at the floor. How had things gone so badly so quickly?

“I’m told I have that effect on people. Okay.” She touched her hand lightly to his hair. “I didn’t ask for a Servus.”

“I know, Mistress. I’m sorry.”

“Please don’t be. You asked to be one, but it is not as if you chose to be given to me.”

“No, ma’am. Not… specifically.”

“I’m sure my grandmother made it complicated.” She waved her hand idly. “Okay. You wanted to be a Donnor-boy for a reason. Not just for the pretty company and the potentially easy work, right? I’m assuming you’re not stupid.”

“No, ma’am.” He might need to clarify that. “Anyone who pays attention knows that kneeling to be a Donnor can be as hard as anything else, and it’s a lot more dangerous than some of the other ways to kneel in service. Not as bad as being a Gladiator-”

“But it actually has a death rate, whereas, say, being a driver doesn’t. Correct. Will you tell me your reason?”

Valran swallowed hard. “If my Mistress commands me, I will do anything she says.”

“Tell me…” She set her hands on his shoulders; Valran held his breath. “Tell me where you learned to talk like this. If you’d been trained, you would have been… well, different.”

“Different?” He swallowed. “Sorry, Mistress. I beg your pardon. I learned most of it from books, and the rest of it from…” He gulped. She’d given him a direct order. “From a relative who came home briefly during service.”

“Aaah.” She nodded, very slowly. “And did that relative have something to do with your choice to kneel in service at the Donnor House?”

“I… yes.” He bowed his head.

“This is very interesting. Well, it’s helpful for both of us that you can speak as nicely as you can. You could pass as someone from a much more interior circle than you were born.”

“Thank… you… Mistress?” Was that a compliment?

“When I am done with you, I will be able to pass as a Tenth-Circle rag-seller, and you will be able to pass as the favored son of a tenth-generation Inner Circle line.”

“Um? Um, Mistress… what?” He risked a look at her face to see if she was serious.

She was smiling, but it didn’t look like she was joking. Of course, this whole thing could be an elaborate joke. “I’m going to polish you like a piece of silverware, until you know exactly how to act in any situation.”

“And you want me to… what… tarnish you?” Why? He coughed. “I’m not Tenth Circle, you know.”

“You’re Servus, now. You’ve no circle at all.”

He twitched. “Ah…”

“My apologies. I should have known better – that was a horrid phrasing.” She patted both of his shoulders as if it would calm him, or as if she was calming herself. “You are skipping the Ladder for the moment, at least.”

Valran forced himself to breathe levelly. “My mistress may of course say whatever she wants of me.”

“Of course, but that’s no reason to be stupid about it.” Keldra Dre sank to a sitting position in front of him. “You’re not Tenth Circle, no.”

“And you’ve lived in all the Circles. Worked your way through.”

“You know as well as I do that people treat you differently if you’re climbing through than if you’re born there, staying there.”

“Yeah… yes.” They tended to try to find ways to attach themselves to the ones that were obvious climbers. If you’re going that way, it wouldn’t hurt you to bring me with you, would it… Never mind that it never worked. Valran looked cautiously at his mistress. “You want me to help you pass as a – what did you say? – a Tenth-Circle rag-dealer? Mistress, why?

Her smile grew strange and feline. “There are questions you don’t wish to answer, Valran Servus, and there are questions I don’t wish to answer. Do you think you can do it?”

He swallowed. It wasn’t a threat. It didn’t need to be a threat. She owned him. “Yes, ma’am.”

“And do you trust that I can do the other – that I can polish you up?”

“I’m still Outer-circle, you know. Ma’am.”

She tapped him lightly on the nose. “No. From now on you are not. You are Servus, you are my Servus. Do you understand?”

No. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. Now, stand, help me up, and we will eat.”

His world was being turned upside down. Valran stood.

Chapter Sixteen – Valran – Here

“Here.” Keldra Dre stood up and strode away from Valran. He swallowed until his throat no longer felt too dry to speak again.

“Here, ma’am?”

“Stay there.” She called it over her shoulder; if Valran hadn’t been so confused, if his legs hadn’t been falling asleep, he would have been grateful. As it was, he held still and hoped it was the right thing to do.

She left the room, closing the door behind her. Where was she going? She came back a moment later, carrying a pile of cloth. Borrowed from another apartment? And  if so, why?

“The pants they sell you in are nice for being on the auction block, but that’s about it.” She dropped the pile of cloth next to Valran’s leg. “Can you stand without assistance?”

“I believe so, ma’am.” He hoped so.

“Good. Stand up, then, and put these on.” Something clicked, and his wrists were free.

“Yes, ma’am.” It turned out he could stand, although it took a little effort to balance on ankles that were asleep. Having hands again helped. “If you don’t mind me asking, ma’am…”

“You may ask anything, when we’re alone together.”

“Why are you having me get dressed?” He dropped the auction-block pants to his ankles and took a heartbeat to be naked in front of her. He stole a glance; her eyes were on his face. He looked hurriedly back at the floor and reached for the pants she’d given him. “I thought, well, considering where I was sold from…”

“Of course. But you were given to me as a gift; I didn’t go off buying a Servus for myself.”

A lump was forming in Valran’s throat. “Of course, ma’am. I’m sorry to presume.” The pants were opaque, comfortable, and very soft: probably not workman’s trousers, then, unless even that was different in the Inner Circle.

“You look nice in proper clothes.” She gave the leash a light tug, enough to remind Valran she still had him tethered. “Let’s show you the rest of my place, and then we can discuss plans.”

“Rest? Plans?” He followed the tug, although his ankles still felt numb and fat. What was he supposed to do with his hands? He tucked them back behind his back.

“Oh.” She turned to look at him, then looked around the sparse apartment. “I haven’t bought much furniture, but this is supposed to be the sitting room.”

Valran tried for a question and, in the end, just closed his mouth with a snap.

His… His owner, he should get used to the idea… His new Mistress glanced back at him, with a look that said she knew exactly what he was thinking.

“I just climbed the Ladder, remember?” Her voice shifted so suddenly. Now she sounded sympathetic and, more than that, she sounded like home. Like someone from the Seventh Circle. “I know what it’s like, down in the outer circles. I know this is a lot to take in.”

“You grew up here, though.” He gestured with his chin, meaning here, the Shadow Tower, here, the Inner Circle. “It’s got to be at least a little familiar to you.”

“At least a little. And if I could get used to the Tenth Circle, you can get used to the first. This way.” She tugged again on the leash, pulling him towards a door.

Valran followed, on her heels as much as his heavy feet would allow. “I will try, ma’am… what?” She had inexplicably started giggling. “What, ma’am? Mistress?”

“It’s just so absurd. The leash. The ma’am-ing and the mistress-ing. Like I know what to do with a Servus. Like I know what I’m supposed to have you do.” She leaned against the door and tugged hard on the leash, pulling Valran towards her.

He had a split second to decide what to do. He could fall into her, of course. Or he could catch himself.

He caught himself, one hand to either side of her shoulders, letting most of his weight land on his hands and his body press against hers. “If it’s any consolation, most honored Keldra Dre, I don’t have any clue what you’re supposed to do with a Servus, either.”

“It doesn’t come with a class?” Her hand was snaking up the leash towards his collar, and her other hand had landed on his hip.

“I’ve been told some houses teach their Servi. Teswarnen Eshmarn’s House does not, or, at least, they didn’t teach me.”

The hand on the leash reached his collar, and she dropped the leash entirely to grip the collar. Valran was both pleased and a bit worried to find that she was smiling. “Then I suppose we’ll have to learn the whole thing together.”

“It seems that way, ma’am. I will eagerly learn whatever you wish to teach me.” He tried a smile – enough to say “look, I’m not a servile worm,” but not enough to ever suggest he was making fun of her.

Facial expression nuances weren’t something he had the most experience with – if she’d asked him to build a wall, he’d have been on much firmer ground – but he had spent some time practicing non-harmful expressions when he’d found himself the skinniest and above all most far-too-human-looking of the workers on the outer wall.

Whatever his face was doing, it seemed to work for Keldra Dre. Her smile broadened. A squeeze of his ass came at the same time as another tug on the collar. He almost stumbled but followed the pull without resistance – directly into her, into her waiting lips and the spread of her legs.

His new pants were thicker than the old ones, but still not heavy enough to conceal his sudden interest. No matter; pushed up against her the way he was, she would have known anyway.

Her lips were sweet, and kissing, at least, was something they both knew how to do. She gave him no escape, holding him against her with both hands, until he moaned, the sound sliding muffled and unasked-for from his lips.

Then, and only then, she loosened her grip on his collar and his ass. “I like that noise.”

“I am…” He turned his head and coughed until his voice no longer sounded like a pubescent boy’s squeak. “I am pleased to have pleased my Mistress.”

“Would you like to please your Mistress… this is a bit silly… would you like to please me more?”

His breath caught. “Yes. Yes, I would. I don’t know if anyone’s told you this recently, but you’re beau…” not enough, and not what he wanted to say anyway. “Uh. Enchanting. Beautiful, and your voice, and your scent…”

“You are a poet, Valran.”

“I’d love to be.” He nuzzled her shoulder. “You don’t know how to do this? How to be an owner of a Servus?”

“No. But I imagine we’ll come up with something.” She opened the door behind her, freeing his ass to do so, and tugged as she fell backwards, pulling him with her. “I do, on the other hand, have some idea about sex.”

“Sex.” He hadn’t meant it to come out like a prayer, but it did. “Yes. Me, too, I mean… I mean, yes, I know how… fountains. Damnit.”

She was chuckling. Was that a good thing? “Sex.” Her lips found his neck, just above his collar. “With women?”

“Uh.” He peeked up at her. “Sometimes? Not many women work the outer wall…”

“Mmm, indeed. I recall. I was quite popular for a while there.”

“You…” No, those weren’t the thoughts he needed right now. Valran swallowed, and then swallowed again. He was thirsty, he realized, although this need was a far second to the topic actually at hand. “That is not sex, not really.”

“Not properly, no.” She was breathing against his neck, and then she was biting, small bites, just enough to make him twitch. “Come here, Valran.”

He couldn’t get any closer to her with clothes on, what… oh. The tug on the leash led him further into the room, and Valran finally got a look around.

“Is that…” His voice failed him. “Is that a bed? For how many people?

“At the moment, it’s for me. Although I would like to share it with you, as it’s far too big for one person.” She patted the springy surface. “It came with the apartment. It might have been built into the Tower; I think there’s spells in it.”

“Spells.” Valran swallowed. “There’s spells on the bed?” If you could call that thing a bed.

Keldra Dre tilted her head and studied his face. He tried to drop his eyes but found he couldn’t until she looked away, down his body. Her hands, so hungry a moment ago, were still on his hip and his waist. “Valran, I believe you’re going to have to explain something to me.”

Shit. “Yes, Mistress? What can this one explain to you?” When in doubt, grovel.

He tried not to think about where he’d first heard that advice. Thinking about it wasn’t helpful right now. He needed to think about groveling, and about Keldra Dre, in front of him, her eyes on his face again.

“You are afraid of magic.”

“No, ma’am. Mistress, I am not afraid of the flow.”

He said it levelly, with no quaver in his voice. Valran was a bit proud of that.

“But you are afraid.”

He hesitated.

“Do not lie to me.” She had not yet raised her voice, but that was clearly both a reprimand and an order.

Valran bowed his head. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I’m not afraid so much as I’m cautious.”

“You’re barely changed. You’re not…” She stopped as an unbidden sigh escaped his lips. “I imagine, with those ears, you get asked that a lot.”

“Yes, Mistress.”

“And?”

“I’m not a Purist. I’m really not. I just don’t want to become a Fountain, either.”

“There’s a broad swath of difference between being a Purist and turning into a Fountain, you know.”

“If you’re properly educated and cautious. Mistress.” He kept his eyes on the edge of that ridiculous bed. How soft was it? How many people could she fit in it… would she fit in it?

“Aaaah.” She brushed the back of her hand over his cheek. “I begin to understand.”

Chapter Fourteen – Valran – Agree

“-agree?”

It took Valran a moment to realize that Keldra Dre was talking to him. He blinked at her, and settled on “ma’am?” She probably wasn’t going to ask him to go around saying “what the fuck, ma’am?” He hoped.

She pursed her lips and frowned at him. Shit. This wasn’t good. “What’s wrong?”

That was a complicated question. Valran swallowed, and tried to think of an answer. “Nothing’s wrong. I was just, I…” He moved one hand to gesture, and came up against the clink of chain, which seemed to explain things to his new owner, at least in part.

“It’s a bit distracting?”

“It’s…” He stopped walking for a moment, hoping she’d stop as well. She had him on a leash, a golden leash, which would have been a lot more stressful if he’d been the only one on the street on a chain. But since they’d passed three other leashed-and-collared Servi, Valran was beginning to get the feeling that this was common. The hands chained behind the back, however, was just him.

“I’m listening.” She stopped directly in front of Valran, the leash slack between them, and watched him.

“It’s…” Valran swallowed and tried again. “It’s hard to think. It’s distracting, yes, but then it isn’t anymore, and I’m just floating.”

“Hrrm.” Keldra nodded slowly. She looked a lot like her grandmother when she did that, Valran realized, and not just because they had the same terrifying eyes. “Interesting. We’re almost there, and maybe we can explore that in depth somewhere private. For now.” She turned around and started walking again, her bare feet silent on the smooth pavement. “I said, ‘the weather is nice for this time of year, don’t you agree?’”

“Oh. Ah…” The jerk of the leash caught Valran by surprise. He picked up his pace quickly. “Yeah. It’s been very nice for the last week, I think.” Weather talk. He’d failed to miss a cue about the weather. This was going wonderfully.

“I hear we might get a bit of rain this weekend. It would be nice; the reservoirs are almost dry again.”

They were doing small talk. He could tell; she had the small-talk not-really-listening-to-herself tone of voice on. That, and they were talking about the weather.

“If we got rain before they went dry this time, it would be nice. Last year it was kind shi… unpleasant.”

“Yeah.” Her step faltered. “I remember. I was in the Third Ring when it happened, so it wasn’t so bad, but I own a business down in the Ninth.”

“You do?” He wished he could see her face. Her voice gave nothing away, nor did her ears.

“I do. I started it when I was there; it’s an embroidery place.”

“Why did you keep it all the way down there?” Should he be questioning her? She’d probably let him know if he was doing something wrong.

“It’s where the women who work for me live, and it’s easier for them than making them go through checkpoints every day. And it’s closer to where the materials are made, too.”

“Hunh.”

“Hunh?” She tilted her head, turning one ear towards him.

“It’s just so reasonable.”

“You know Inner Circlers can be reasonable, right?”

“I’ve only ever met Inner Circlers for the first time in the last day and a half. I’m still learning.”

“You’ve really neer met one before?”

“Well, I mean, once in a while I’d run into a Third or Second Circle businessman down… where I grew up… but mostly they sent agents. Nobody really wanted to get their hands dirty.”

“We all came up through the Circles or through the shortcuts. We’ve all had our hands dirty at one point or another.”

“Some people forget it easily.” He realized how bitter he sounded. “Ma’am. Sorry.”

She tugged on the leash, just enough so that he could feel it and not enough to put him off balance. “I’m going to assume you’re not talking about me.”

“No, ma’am. I don’t know you at all, ma’am.”

“That’s a good start. Since my Grandmother has determined that I’m to own you, we should probably fix that quickly.” She tilted her head in the other direction. “My apartment is here.”

The base of the building was black, shiny black marble up five feet over Valran’s head. He glanced up, following the line of the building.

“You live in the Shadow Tower?”

“I do. I grew up here, actually. I’s not as black as it looks, once you’re in it. Kengren.” She nodded at a uniformed doorman. “This is Valran Servus; he is mine.”

Valran glanced at the doorman, a tall man with purple skin and scales on his cheeks. The doorman nodded first at Keldra and then at Valran. “Yes, ma’am.”

“I’m on the seventeenth floor. It’s not the most luxurious apartment, but it’s nice.”

“You’…” Valran cut himself off. Now was not the time.

“Compared to the suite I grew up in, I mean. Compared to the places I lived when I was climbing the Ladder, it’s heaven.”

The stairs were wide, black, and went on forever, lit from a skylight somewhere so far above it was ridiculous. Valran, who had been working on the Outer Wall for a year, found himself getting out of breath even so. Keldra took them all without breaking a sweat.

When she ordered him to kneel, Valran was grateful for the rest. He fell ungracefully down – there were no kneeling cushions in this apartment, and very little furniture at all, just one divan thick with embroidery.

He panted, trying to be quiet about it, while she paced around him in a circle. “Your name is Valran. Valran of…”

“Trestor.”

“That’s in the Seventh Ring? I was in Kestren when I was in the Seventh; that’s right next door.”

“My aunt and cousins live in Kestren.” It was small talk again, made all the more weird for having it at the backs of her knees. She seemed to realize that, and then just made it weirder by sitting down cross-legged in front of him. It made her slightly shorter than him, which made Valran try to shift himself shorter.

“It’s all right, don’t hunch yourself.” She grabbed a pillow off the couch and shoved it under herself, bringing her almost to eye level. “There. So. I know where you’re from. You know where I’m from.”

“I don’t, actually. Were you born in the Inner Circle?”

“Yeah… yes, I was. In this Tower, actually. My parents live up several stories.” She gestured upwards. “In the penthouse. They did very well for themselves.”

“I guess so.” Some things you really couldn’t ask politely, so he didn’t. Instead, he gestured with his chin at the room. “You live here?”

“I’ve only been back for a little while. I bought this apartment – the person who had owned it is in the boneyards now – and I haven’t done much with it yet.” Her shrug seemed to suggest that anything else would be more interesting. Valran couldn’t blame her, but it looked like it was going to be hard sleeping for a while. “I should hire a valet, I guess, to deal with all that stuff, but I haven’t really… bothered.”

No wonder her grandmother thought she was going to backslide! Valran cleared his throat. “I’m not going to be a very good valet. They usually come from circles further in, don’t they? And they usually have special training. I don’t have any of that.”

“No. You’re fresh out of the Outer Ring Wall, then, aren’t you? What House did my grandmother buy you from?”

He ducked his head, because he didn’t want her to know – he didn’t want himself to know – if he was blushing. “The house of Teswarnen Eshmarn, ma’am.”

“Teswar? What is rhi doing for rise… oh. Oh, that used to be Donnor Case’s House, didn’t it?”

Even he knew the name of Donnor Case. Boys and girls who sold themselves into a certain style of Servus status were often called Donnors, even now. His mother had sworn at him when he’d told her where he was planning on going: Off to be a Donnor. Didn’t I raise you better than that?

No, he supposed she hadn’t.

“Yes, ma’am. It was Donnor Case’s House for some time. Now it’s Teswarnen Eshmarn’s.”

“Ri’s doing very very well for rhiself , then.” Keldra caught his chin with her fingers and urged it gently upwards. “And are you ashamed that you sold yourself into Donnor-hood?”

“Do you wish me to be, ma’am?” The words were easy. The feelings associated with the words… were not. He looked at her eyebrows – natural, no cosmetics that he could see, and raising in question at him.

“When it comes to your emotions, I expect you to be honest with you, especially when we’re alone together. I expect you to be honest with me about everything, even if an outfit really does make me look fat. I expect you to tell me things, Valran, because I have not yet found the cantrip for reading your mind and would not use it if I had it.”

Valran twitched. The shudder accidentally pulled his chin away from her fingers, and he found himself hunched in on himself.

“Valran. Valran, I’m sorry, that -”

“You own me. You don’t need to apologize to me. You don’t need to apologize for anything. You’re in the Inner Circle.”

“This is true.” The cold tone of her voice told him he’d fucked up. “It is true, and yet I find myself wanting to apologize. And because I own you, and because I am Inner Circle, I can apologize if I want to.”

“Ma’am.” He bowed his head again. “I’m sorry, ma’am, of course you can.”

“Now, will you accept my apology for a joke in amazingly bad taste?”

“Joke… oh.” He glanced up at her face carefully. She was smiling, or at least the edges of her lips were twisted upwards. “Yes, ma’am. Yes, I will.”

“Thank you. Now, back to the original question. Are you ashamed that you sold yourself into Donnor-hood?”

“No. No, ma’am. My mother is ashamed, but I am not.”

“Good.” She patted his knee, very much like her grandmother. “That’s a good place to start.”

 


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Chapter 12 – Valran – Choose

“Choose.”

“Choose, ma’am?” Valran blinked at the ancient, terrifying woman who owned him. The car had gone quiet for a little while, almost entirely silent, as they wended their way into the heart of New Indapala. And then… that.

“I’m sorry, I got lost in my own thoughts. There’s a choice to be had for you, you see. There’s Keldra Dre, the reason that I bought you. There’s that, anchoring her here in the Inner Circle. It won’t be easy, not in the least. It will work you in a way I don’t expect you thought you’d be worked when you knelt and took the collar – especially not that collar, with that contract, from that person.”

“Ma’am?”

“Remember what I said.”

“What the fuck, ma’am?”

“Much better. Which ‘what the fuck,’ Valran?”

A very good question. He summarized as concisely as he could. “Choice?”

“Ah. Well, as I was saying working with Keldra Dre is going to be difficult. If you feel that it’s not the sort of challenge you want, well, I have other granddaughters.”

Valran cleared his throat. This was a trap. It had to be a trap. “Ma’am, when I knelt for the collar – when I applied for the right to kneel for the collar – I was giving up choice. That’s what you do. You choose to sign over choice to someone else for ten years.” He knew she knew this. How could anyone in the Circled Plains not know it? “I don’t get to choose.”

“And so I should dictate for you when to shit, when to eat, when to sleep, what to wear, what to say?”

“I knew that was a risk, ma’am.”

“But you didn’t know that being forced to actually make a decision about your life again would be a risk, is that what you’re saying?”

There was something lumpy and unpleasant in his throat. Valran swallowed again. “Ma’am. Um. Yes, ma’am.”

“And here I am, having not even gotten you home, having paid a ridiculous amount of money for you, and I’m making you make choices.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Please stop.

“One choice, Valran. You’ve made so many choices to get here. You can make one more.” She took his chin in her steely hand. “I’m ordering you to.”

Valran swallowed. “Ma’am. What’s the second choice?”

“My granddaughter Zarthennelya. She’s a bit older – she took the long route back to to the Second Ring – very successful, and very driven. She will have very clear expectations of you, very pointed demands, and making choices will not be one of your problems.”

“Zarthennelya Sestya?” Valran swallowed. “Your granddaughter is Zarthennelya Sestya?”

“If your sentence begins with ‘your grandchild is…’ and ends with the name of someone you have heard of, there is a good chance it is true. I only have… ten, I think… living grandchildren, but even some of those who didn’t live managed to become famous first.” She gestured that away as if she was talking about some point of gossip. “So, those are your choices. Keldra or Zarthen. They’re both lovely women. Neither of them will abuse you. Neither of them will be the best stepping-stones to a First Circle seat, but that would have been Kitdellesta Ashna, and you might have come out of it with gladiator’s scars.”

“I could live with scars.” He’d expected scars.

“One hopes. That being said, Valran, I need you to choose. I’m going to shut up now, and Liknirrun is going to drive us the last block home while you think about it. And when we are out of the garage, then I need you to give me an answer, and I will call one of my granddaughters.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Valran stared out the window at the Inner Circle. It should have been an awesome sight – the remains of ancient buildings, changed into something new and beautiful, the roads that were still smooth-paved, and wide enough for two cars to pass – and there were, indeed, cars on the road, more than one at a time. The waste of fuel!

There were people walking, too, of course, dressed in rich, bright colors in tunics fitted smoothly to their bodies and very nearly transparent, pants that flowed so long they touched the ground, hats and headscarves and belts. It wasn’t gaudy – he’d expected that, from a couple of the Inner Circle teens he’d seen come through – it was simply rich.

Of course, that was the definition of Inner Circle. And for ten years, he’d be living somewhere almost as rich. Keldra Dre or Zarthennelya Sestya? The newly-returned or the hardened businesswoman. Making choices will not be one of your problems. That was what he had pictured, wasn’t it? Your job will be to anchor her here, in the First Circle. Not that. Not being someone’s grounding rod, someone’s connection to a society he couldn’t even imagine.

She is having trouble adjusting. How did you have trouble adjusting to wealth? Especially if you’d grown up with it.

She is very successful, and very driven. People like that drove everyone around them. It would not be an easy ten years. But it wouldn’t be an easy ten years either way.

How did you have trouble adjusting to wealth? To warmth and safety? What made you want to go back?

Scars? Or an erratic and insane owner? Driven and successful? Or someone who had made the climb up the Ladder in record time?

How did you have trouble adjusting? Was it simply because there was nowhere left to climb?

“We are here, Valran.” The light had dimmed, the car had pulled into the garage. Valran had closed his eyes at some point, but now he opened them again.

“Ma’am.”

“This is my home. Well, this is the garage for my home; my home is above it. Have you decided?”

It was going to have to be Zarthennelya Sestya. His ambition, his need to climb, needed someone stable. The scars weren’t going to be a problem. Being given orders wouldn’t be a problem.

“Keldra Dre, ma’am.”

What?

“Very good.” Gracnellanya Pace was smiling at him. That was both relieving and terrifying. “Very good indeed, Valran. This way.”

An order. An easy order to follow. Valran followed the woman out of the garage, into a… a foyer, right? Some sort of antechamber, at least… and then into a sitting room, or what he assumed had to be a sitting room. There were chairs in it, at least, and a place to sit.

Also places to kneel, which he supposed made sense. “Kneel here.” She gestured at a cushion, one that was heavily embroidered and nearly thick enough to be a footstool. “I’ll be back in a bit.”

Valran knelt. He spent a moment shifting into what he thought was the most perfect position, hands behind his back, back straight, looking at the floor, and then he closed his eyes.

He did not realize he’d drifted off until there was a hand on his shoulder. “Valran. Boy, it’s time to wake. It’s been a long day for you, hasn’t it?”

That wasn’t Gracnellanya Pace. He peeled one eye open cautiously. From those ear-points and that curly hair, it was probably the driver. “Liknirrun?”

“That’s me, son. Now, Dame Pace and her granddaughter are almost here. Sit up straight, son, and look like you know what you’re doing.”

Valran straightened hastily and smoothed the thin material of his pants. “Is it that obvious?”

“Considering where you’ve come from, it didn’t really need a sign on it. You’re not the first Ladder-jumper to come through here, and you likely won’t be the last. Our Lady isn’t dead yet, at least. Don’t give me that look, boy. There are places that train Servi for things like this, but they’re not the rule and those aren’t the sort of Servi that the Lady likes, either. Now, her granddaughters might have other ideas about it, but that’s yours to figure out, isn’t it?”

The man talked faster than the wind blew. “Yes, sir.”

“Good. Now, hands behind your back, like that. Chin up. You’re proud of what you’re doing, aren’t you?”

“Yes, sir.” No, sir.

“And here they come.” Liknirrun stepped backwards until he was standing against the wall. Some trick of vepó or the light blended him right into the shadows there until it was as if he’d never been in the room at all.

Footsteps sounded on the wooden floors. Valran sat up a little straighter, put his chin out a little more. Gracnellanya Pace walked into the room, followed by a woman two inches taller and a century younger.

If this was Keldra Dre, than in some ways, at least, Valran had lucked out. The woman was beautiful, from the upturned tip of her nose, to the long straight tips of her black-and-blood hair, to the upswept tips of her ears (which bore a startling resemblance to those of Liknirrun, almost-curly at the top and cresting over the top of her head) to the bare painted-nails tips of her toes and fingers.

She was wearing a rather simple tunic – it wasn’t shiny like silk, so probably linen or cotton – embroidered in the same blood red as the fabric, over a skirt that didn’t touch her knees, done in the same style but in black. Valran didn’t know anything about fashion, but he’d seem women dressed similarly in the Seventh Ring. On her, it looked beautiful, and it gave her skin an iridescent reddish cast.

“Is this him?” She squatted down in front of Valran until she was looking him in the eyes – no, he realized, not really looking him in the eyes but looking at his eyes. “You know, Grandmama, you don’t have to do this. I’m going to be a good girl and not embarrass the family any more. I promised my father.”

“I’m not worried about you embarrassing anyone. I’m too old for that nonsense.” With a wave of her hand, the old lady dismissed reputation and social standing. “What I’m worried about, Kel, is your happiness.”

“Do you think he’ll make me happy?” Something in her gaze shifted, and she was no longer looking through Valran, but to him.

“Well, dear, I think that’s up to the two of you. But I think it’s possible you could make each other quite happy. If, in the process, you happen to irritates some of my would-be rivals, let’s just say your grandmamma wouldn’t mind that at all.”

 


Sorry for the delay! Um. Post-Nanowrimo haze?

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Chapter 11 – Taslin – Choose

“Choose.”

The barracks for the new and un-Patronized Gladiators were, by nature, not at all private. Thus, while Vinroth held up tunics for Taslin, most of the rest of the women were watching with interest.

“I like the violet one. I think it brings out your eyes.” Marrhi leaned over her bunk and fingered the soft fabric.

“But it’s going to make her skin look yellow.” Sellen wandered over. “The blue is nice, though. Where did you get these lovelies?”

Vinroth helpfully held up the three options – violet, blue, and a soft green color – for the other Gladiators to examine, and left answering that question to Taslin.

“The not-a-Patron. The first one, still.” Taslin took the green tunic from the valet and held it up to herself. “His gifts are getting more generous and less practical.”

“Why haven’t you picked him yet?” Lansesh plopped down on the bed next to Taslin. “Because, you know, there are others of us who are interested, too, and if you’re not going to take him, I’m sure he’ll start sending presents to the rest of us.”

“If Taslin is his type, Lan, do you really think you’ll be?” Corby shook her head. “Or me, for that matter. He’s clearly looking for a Tower sort and you, my dear, are a gate.”

“Hey! Take that back!”

“Nothing wrong with being a gate. You’re really good at what you do. The green’s good, Tas. I like the shape on it, if it works with the shape on you.”

The green one did have a nice shape. Taslin pressed it against her body, studying it. “This has to have cost him a fortune.”

“As I understand it, he enjoys spending his mother’s fortune quite a bit. And she indulges him, because he’s her only living child. His brother died climbing the Ladder a few years ago.” Vinroth had practice pitching his voice very low; Lansesh could probably hear him, but the rest of the barracks definitely couldn’t, not without magic. And while using the vepó in the barracks was not exactly forbidden, it was discouraged very strongly.

“So he has the money to spend. And he’s spending it on me.” The tunic was made out of thin silk, cut to skim along Taslin’s figure and end somewhere almost at her knees. It came with an under layer in a much darker green, and soft indoor boots the color of the walls. “I think I won’t really argue, although where am I going to wear something like this?”

“Well, today, to meet him. And you’re going to sit down and let me do something with your hair, too. Did you hack it with a knife?”

“Urm. Yes?” Her hand went to her hair. “All right. I’m meeting with him today, I take it?”

“Meeting? In that?” Lanesh reached over and touched the tunic. “You know this is embroidered in monk’s-tears, right? Nothing else makes that color.”

“How do you get thread out of monk’s-tears?” The multi-hued metal was generally found near Wellsprings of vepó; Taslin had never seen any before and now she was holding something embroidered in it.

“I think you liquify it?” Lanesh shrugged. “I’ve never seen it done, but my mother had a pair of slippers that were embroidered all over in that and silver.”

Taslin gulped a little at the excess that represented. “That’s… something.”

“They were very tough shoes, at least.” Lansesh stood up. “I like the green. Go with it.”

“She can go with whatever she likes, Lan. This is her engagement.” Corby swiped the air near Lansesh, not quite reaching her.

“Well, fine. If you’re not going to use the blue, I’ll buy it from you.” Lansesh grabbed the blue tunic and stood up.

“How do you have money if you don’t have a Patron either?” Sellen jumped off her bunk to look at the blue tunic.

“Well, my parents send me a little bit now and then. They’re not really happy about the whole Gladiator thing.”

“If your mom has slippers full of monk’s-tears, I can imagine they’re not. Wow.” Sellen shook her head. “You can afford this?”

“Maybe ten, twenty omeh? They can go as high as thirty, which would be pushing it. I can go up to seventeen with what I can get my hands on now.”

Taslin glanced at Vinroth. He nodded, a tiny movement. “Fifteen omeh, then.” She’d never had her hands on a tunic this nice before, so she didn’t know if it was a fair amount. But her mother could feed the family for at least two weeks on that, maybe as many as five if she stretched it. Or it would pay for a month of advanced classes for her brother and sister. Hel and Thet had promise, if they could just get a leg up.

“Fifteen it is! Hold on.” She fiddled around in her bodice and came up with a small packet of the spell-laced bills. “Seven, eight, nine… that’s a five, fourteen, and fifteen. Here. Oh, I know just where I’m going to wear this…”

“Should you be selling gifts your Patron gave you?” Sellen’s frown was purse-lipped and old-lady-ish.

“He’s not my Patron. Yet. And he said to me that I didn’t have to use them, that I could let my cat sleep in them. That I could give them to destitute Tenth Circle children.”

“People say things like that.” Sellen’s frown hadn’t unbent yet.

“Well, if he’s lying, then I’ll know he’s lying. If he’s telling the truth, then he won’t be in any place to mind. And if he minds anyway, then he can change what he says the next time he gives me tunics.” She stripped down to her britches and wrapping, then, giving it a moment’s thought, stripped all the way down to her skin. “Was there…”

“Of course there was.” Vinroth, his eyes on her face, passed Taslin the tiny silk breeches and the top-like thing that must be in place of her normal wrappings. “Here, let me show you how this one goes on.”

“You get a lot of practice with women’s underwear, Vin?” Corby’s tone was crude and the laugh she appended was even cruder. Vinroth, of course, ignored the tone.

“I am a valet to a stable of Gladiators. I have had more than enough opportunity to put such things onto to women, injured, indisposed, or simply wishing someone to do up the back fastenings. Here, Taslin, like this.” The vest wrapped around, holding each breast separately and buttoning in the back. It was nice, she mused, although a very different feeling from wrapped bindings. Probably not the best idea for the pit…

…but tonight was an entirely different sort of combat. She slipped the fifteen omeh into the vest and let Vinroth dress her.

Laces were laced, buttons were buttoned. The tunic was deceptive in its simplicity; if it weren’t embroidered in monk’s-tears, she could wear it under armor in the ring. But, like the vest, it fastened in the back, as if Jervennon wanted her to need help getting dressed.

“There.” Vinroth smoothed the tunic down and smoothed the boots up. “You look… very handsome. Here.” He steered her towards the barracks’ single mirror. “Don’t you think so?”

Taslin might have protested handsome; she had enough vanity and the thinnest urges of femininity. But looking in the mirror… “I do. I look sharp.” Something about the cut of the tunic made her look slender and minimized her already-small chest. “I don’t look sexy…”

“I think you’re hot.”

“You like boys, Sellen.”

“So? Maybe he does too.” Sellen threw a sock at Taslin.

Taslin dodged the sock and ignored Sellen. “What if he hates it on me?”

“Well, then you’ll wear something else the next time. There you go, you’re fine.” Vinroth did something to her hair with a bit of oil, and then something to her face with a bit of his pot of cosmetics. “You don’t look like a woman going on a date, but you look like a Gladiator on an engagement. And since that is what you are… it seems to be a good look. There.” He did something else to one lock of her hair, making it frame her face and somehow softening the sharp edges there. “Now, off to the meeting room with you, and good luck with your beau.”

“He is most definitely not my beau.”

“Oh, but he’d like to be. Remember what we talked about.”

“Are you her valet or her father?” Corby pinched Vinroth’s tush for punctuation. He barely twitched. “Neither. At the moment I’m the valet to the barracks. But not, I might point out, the barracks whore.”

“Soorrrr-eeee.” Corby held up both her hands and backed away slowly.

Vinroth smoothed Taslin’s hair. “You’re going to have a lovely conversation with him, and, with any luck, he’ll be as understanding as I think he is. Remember, he’s in a difficult position, and he’s going to have trouble thinking about anything else.”

“Difficult position.” Sellen’s scoff was soft enough that they could ignore it, so they did.

“And remember that you need to explain your position to him as carefully as you can. He doesn’t want to put you in a bad spot, or he’d be doing this far differently.”

“Can’t you explain it?”

“You know I can’t. Out with you.”

She fled, trying to make it look like a strategic exit and not an escape. Her boots sounded strange on the tile-and-rock floors: they were too soft to slap like sandals or thump like normal boots, but they weren’t bare-footed, so they made a shush-shush noise as she walked. She distracted herself by trying to make the movement silent. Shush, shush… nothing. She walked that way to the visitation room.

Oh. Oh, yes. She couldn’t ignore what she was here to do any longer. She took a measured breath, and then several more. The sword thrust is level. The opponent is clear. We step in, and we move the sword just so.

He was not the sort of opponent you could stab. Or, rather, she probably could, but her life would then be measured in hours and not years. Breathe. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, and center.

She had knelt for the collar. She could kneel again for Jervennon of Cecby.

His door opened. “Taslin Gladiator. Please, enter. You look wonderful in that tunic; is it the one I picked out for you?”

“Yes, s- Yes, Jervennon.”

“You remembered!” He clapped his hands together. “Lovely. I knew you were a good choice. I knew were brilliant.”

“I don’t know about brilliant, but I have a good sense of self-preservation.” Except when her mouth opened and words came out without running through her brain first; what had that been? Some suicidal bratty class-war remnant of her childhood?

Jervennon laughed. “I’ll take it. Come on in, please. Your valet sent word?”

Taslin dropped to one knee. “Jervennon. I am being pressured to choose.”

 

 


Sorry for the delay! (Nano <.<)

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Chapter 10 – Valran – Hold

“Hold this.” The terrifying ancient woman passed Valran her satchel.

He held it, realized he was using it as a shield, and shifted it so he was in more of a valet pose. He could do valet. It wasn’t what he’d signed up for, but he could do valet.

She seemed to approve. “Good. Good boy. Scoot over a bit.”

Valran scooted over. Gracnellanya Pace sat down next to him and tapped the back of the driver’s seat. “Home, Liknirrun.”

“Yes ma’am.” The car started moving. Valran glanced at the driver briefly – he had curly brown hair and the tallest ear-points Valran had ever laid eyes on.

But he wasn’t important. He wasn’t the one who’d just bought Valran. So back to Gracnellanya Pace it was.

She was smiling, the sort of expression a cat made when it was looking at a cornered mouse. Valran found it relaxed him. That, that he could understand. He knew all about being a cornered mouse.

He tilted his head downward, so he could look up at her through long lashes, lashes that Bicla had made-up just for this. He made sure she was looking and he put on a smile, the mouse’s smile to match hers.

“You are better at this game than I expected.” She patted his knee. “But I’d save the pretty eyes.”

Valran’s chest did a strange twisting thump, but he didn’t change his pose. His smile had slipped a little bit, but he put it back on and added a slow lick of his lips. “You bought me, ma’am. My contract belongs to you for the next ten years; you’d seem like the perfect person to practice my sweet eyes on.”

“Mmm. I bought you, yes, but son, you’re younger than my great-grandchildren. You may even be younger than my oldest great-great-granddaughter.”

“But, as you said, you’re not ready for the bone fields yet, ma’am, and anyone might enjoy what I can offer.”

“Mmm? You’re not a trained masseuse or pleasure-giver, are you? You don’t usually find those working the walls in the outer circle, and you almost never find them selling themselves directly to a client.”

“No training, no, but certainly an eagerness to learn, ma’am.” This was not going according to script. But Valran knew what he’d been bought for, and he was sticking to his lines.

“Surely I’m not the mistress you were hoping for?”

“Ma’am, I wanted to shortcut the Ladder. This was the most effective way to do that.”

What happened to sticking to his lines? When had he gotten so honest? He wasn’t in the habit of being this straightforward with people.

“But surely you pictured some sort of master or mistress?”

She was showing her teeth. She still had all of her teeth. Many of them were sharp. “Ma’am. Yes, ma’am, I suppose I did.” He closed his eyes, because it was the only way he was going to survive this conversation. “I had fantasies. I don’t think I’d be human if I didn’t.”

“And you are so very human.”

“People say that a lot.” They’d said it in a lot of ways, too. Valran tried not to let it bother him. Not as much as…

“But not a Purist?”
As that. “People ask that a lot, too.”

“Considering your answers to some of our questions, I think it was a fair assumption.”

“You don’t often get many Purists in the middle of watershed cities, and you don’t usually get any of them bending knee to shortcut the Ladder. I mean…” He opened his eyes and hunched forward, realizing a little too late that he’d been lecturing his owner. “My apologies, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean… I mean, that’s what I’ve heard, time and again, that the Purists don’t really come here. They don’t like the watersheds, right, for obvious reasons. And some of them are really, really purists and get rather upset about the Ladder and all of that…” He trailed off as he realized the tenor of her smile had started to change. “Sorry, sorry ma’am.” Valran dropped his head and waited for the punishment, the scolding, or the laughing.

“You’re quite sensitive about this, aren’t you? Tell me, young man, do you have the ability to channel vepó at all?”

“Of course! I mean… Yes.” He coughed. “Yes, I do. I’ve had the same basic training all kids get in school, and I can put up wards or light a fire.”

“And you have no interest in pursuing it further? Why not?”

“I’d rather not talk about it.”

“That’s a pity. Why not, Valran Servus?”

He swallowed, feeling the dryness taking over his throat. “Ma’am…” there was no point in pleading, was there? “Ma’am, I was five when I saw someone turn into a Fountain. Two people, actually. They were fighting, the way that they do, sometimes – I don’t know if they do it in the inner circles, but they sure do in the outer Rings – and they both kept pulling on the power pulling and pulling.”

He took a breath. Being naked in front of her would have been easier. Being naked and servicing her would have been easier. Hells, walking through hot coals naked would have been easier than this.

“I have seen those fights.” Her voice had changed yet again. She sounded like someone’s grandmother, all concern and kindness. “They had already begun to change, I’m sure? You don’t just jump from human to a Fountain in one fight.”

Valran caught his breath. “Yeah.” The images were seared into his memory. “The one, he had horns, and hooves, and his hands were shaped oddly. His ears were bull’s ears and his skin was furry. The other one was all red, even his eyes, and he had way too many fingers. And tails.”

He knew he sounded young. He couldn’t help it. He couldn’t think about that time without thinking about the child Val he had been.

“So they had been pulling on the vepó for quite some time already, to be that significantly changed.”

That was what they taught in school. Right alongside warding and fire-starting and other basic uses of the vepó, they taught what happened when you used it too much and for too long. But they also told you it had to be too much and too long; that lighting your hearth fire would never turn you into a Fountain.

Valran gulped again. “Yes, ma’am.”

“I know that you’re taught these things, of course. But it’s one thing to be taught it and another to remember it when someone it turning into a Fountain in front of you.” She patted his knee. “I apologize.”

“I’m sorry… what, ma’am?” He looked straight at her face. He must have misheard her. “Ma’am?”

“I said I’m sorry, Valran Servus. I knew, I could tell it was a tense memory, and I pushed you anyway. I had to know, you see. There are Purists even here, and they sometimes bend knee in order to wreak havoc in our cities.”

“You thought I was…” Valran shook his head. “All right, it’s not the first time that’s happened. Ma’am.” He nodded his head. “Ma’am, I hope I didn’t offend.”

“Not at all, dear, not at all. But we were speaking of your service.”

“We were? We were.” He nodded, carefully. Service. He could handle that. That was why he was here. “Ma’am.”

“Good boy.” She patted his knee again. “Now, I have a number of grandchildren. When you’re my age, that tends to happen. When you’re Inner Circle, they tend to survive long enough to be counted.”

“Ma’am.” He bit back any number of retorts that would just wave his Outer Circle roots in her face.

“And one particular granddaughter of mine just made it back to the First Circle.”

“Made it back…” He blinked. “To the First Circle, ma’am? She did the whole Ladder?”

“She did. It took her seven years, but she’s a resourceful girl. The year she spent in the wastelands helped a lot, of course.”

“Of… course…” Valran swallowed. “You have a granddaughter, then, ma’am. Who made it up the whole Ladder in six years.” Every Citizen of the Circled plain who wanted to be considered an adult had to start from the Outermost ring and work in – or shortcut it, the way Valran did. Most people took decades to get anywhere. Very few made it back to the circle of their birth, unless the circle of their birth was one of the outer rings. “Is she…” Not the right question, Valran. Try again. “That’s very impressive.”

“It sounds more as if you think it’s terrifying.”

“Well… ah, no offence meant, but yes, a little bit. How is that possible?”

“You’ll have to ask her. You see… you’re my gift to her, for her return.”

“Aah. I see.” He wasn’t entirely sure he did. People really did that? Someone was really doing that to him? With him?

“I don’t think you do. But I think you will.” Once again, she patted his leg. “You’re a bright boy, and intriguing. I started bidding on you to tweak Kitdellesta Ashna and Ablenfeshlin Rhon. They’ve gotten too full of themselves lately. But once I started bidding, once I started watching you, I decided I wanted to bring you home.”

“Ah?”

“And then,” she kept talking right over him, “I thought about being nineteen, twenty again, and I thought about bending knee to someone who was five times my age or more. And I decided that Kel could probably use a companion of some sort.”

“Ma’am?”

“I think I’m just going to tell you to say ‘what the fuck?’ because it will sound less absurd than continuing to say ‘ma’am’ when what you clearly mean is the other.”

Valran coughed and took a wild gamble. “Whaddefuc, ma’am?”

“Tut, tut, you’re in the Second Circle now and… there… now the First.” The car had just passed un-stopped through a gate. “Enunciate.”

“What. The. Fuck. Ma’am?” He was going to die.

“Much better.” She beamed at him, and Valran felt a weird tightening in his chest. He glanced away, letting his gaze linger on the leather upholstery. “So. Kel has only been back for a week, which is obviously not time to readjust, but, still, she’s having trouble adjusting.”

Valran closed his mouth and nodded. Adjusting?

“I imagine it’s hard to believe, but sometimes when we send our children out to the outer circle – or, as in Kel’s case, out into the flood plain – sometimes they don’t come back.” She held up her hand. “Not, as happens to everyone’s children, because they get stuck and unable to climb the Ladder further, or because they die. Not even the way once in a long while someone will decide another city’s Ladder is easier and safer to climb than New Indapala’s.”

Then what? Valran kept listening.

“No, sometimes they just… chose to stay. Or they get back and leave.” She patted Valran’s leg once again. “Your job will be to anchor her here, in the First Circle.”

 


Sorry for the delay! (Nano <.<)

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Chapter 8 – Valran – Come

“Come.”

The female voice, again. Valran didn’t move.

“Come, Valran Servus. I am buying you.”

He risked looking up, now. It didn’t seem like the wisest idea, but there was something about her voice that demanded attention. So up Valran looked, into eyes like amber.

“Ma’am.” It seemed a safe bet, the way she was dressed. All those skirts – very rarely did someone who had chosen Ix dress in petal-layered skirts and pastel colors.

“You are not coming.”

“He does not belong to you yet.” The rescue, as it was, came from his right. Husky, deep. The one, probably, who had asked if he could suck (which of course he could). Valran’s glance darted that way; the man’s appearance matched his voice, thick, rich, like chocolate.

“He will. It’s only a formality. But he does not obey.” She sounded amused. Valran was suddenly very worried.

“It is presumed that he obeys the one who brought him to this place to be bid on. Isn’t that right, Valran Servus?” The alto purr from the left belonged to a woman who appeared old enough to be his grandmother. She looked amused.

“Ma’am, yes. I was told to kneel here and to answer questions.”

“To be purchased. You are answering questions to be purchased.”

“To be bid on, Kitdellesta Ashna. To be bid on, and the bidding has not begun yet.” Great-grandma had steel in her voice. Well, after all, she was an inner-circler. You didn’t get to the point where you could bid on people like Valran without having a great deal of clout and steel.

“And I am bidding. And I will win.”

“That’s a matter to be seen at the auction, not to be won before it’s even begun.” The deep voice answered this time. It seemed to be down to the two of them and the woman with the amber eyes – Kitdellesta Ashna. Valran’s heart was pounding. He’d heard of the Lady Ashna. Who in New Indapala hadn’t? This, this wasn’t good.

“Well, then, let’s get to the auction. I’ve not got all day, you know.”

“And if we have more questions?” The smooth neutral voice belonged to someone who looked as smooth as they sounded, and as neutral. No hair, anywhere. Not even eyebrows. And a simple tunic, if something that rich-looking could be called simple.

“Then put your money on the table, Debbesthando, or ask your questions of someone else. The adults are talking now.”

Where was the Deputy Oligarch?

“Has it come to the bidding, then? So soon? You are all certain that this is a piece of meat you would consider owning?” Ah, there rhi was. Calling him a piece of meat. Valran dropped his head, suitably reminded of his status, and waited.

“We’re certain. Can we get on with it already?” That had to be Lady Ashna, who seemed very certain she would win. She generally did, from what Valran had heard.

“Let us begin. We set the price, of course, at the basic nine thousand skone.-”

“Nineteen thousand skone.”

Well, Lady Ashna definitely wanted him. If only he could say the same of her – not that that would matter in the long run.

“I hear nineteen thousand, do I hear twenty-two thousand?”

“Twenty-nine thousand skone.” That sounded like Great-Grandma. Valran dropped his head lower. This was going to be bad.

“Thirty-seven thousand skone.” And that was neutral voice. Thirty-seven thousand skone. If that money was going to Valran directly, the house he could buy. The gates he could open. The food he could put on a table.

“Forty-five thousand skone.” And if that was the price that he went for, to Deep Voice, his mouth was going to get stretched and broken and, likely, so were other parts of him. Forty-five thousand?

“Sixty.” Lady Ashna snapped out her bid, biting off the syllables. “Why are you prolonging the inevitable?”

For sixty thousand skone, she could have bought a car.

“Sixty-three thousand.”

“Oh, come, Ablenfeshlin Rhon, what sort of bid is that? Three more thousand?” Great-grandma was unimpressed by Likes His Cock Sucked. “Seventy-three thousand.”

Seventy three… Valran swallowed a gasp. That was… that was higher than he’d dare hope or even dream.

And they were still going. Seventy nine, eighty two, ninety two, ninety three, ninety four, ninety five…

“Kitdellesta Ashna, I own your accountant. I know for a matter of fact that you cannot afford to pay ninety-five thousand skone for anything. Now, are you going to give up gracefully or am I going to have to force you to show your cards?”

A pause. Another pause.

“You let her build it up that high?” Debbesthando sounded shocked. Valran didn’t blame rhi; he was shocked himself.

“I wasn’t bidding alone, good gentles. Not at all. Face it, he’s attractive, strong-looking, well-spoken, the Purist look is attractive, and the way he quivers when you ask him about sex is delectable. All of us want him.”

“But you’re going to end up with him, Gracnellanya Pace, aren’t you?” Smooth and Neutral sounded resigned to it. Valran…

Realized he was making fish faces and shut his mouth. Gracnellanya Pace? Gracnellanya Pace? It couldn’t be. She had to have died by now. She had to have died before Valran was born.

“Yes. Yes, I am going to end up with him, Debbesthando. And the next time you walk into an auction, you will remember this, won’t you?”

“Is everything you do a lesson?” Likes His Cock Sucked was growling. It was a rather attractive growl.

“Ablenfeshlin Rhon, you know it is. Everything I have always done was a lesson. That is how I have lasted this long. Now. My bid stands at ninety-five thousand skone. Is anyone going to debate it, top it, or call my bluff?”

“I do believe you’re not supposed to tell anyone that it’s a bluff.” Having given in, Smooth and Neutral – Debbesthando – seemed to be enjoying rhiself.

Valran envied rhi; he certainly wasn’t enjoying anything at all right now.

“Does it matter?” Likes His Cock Sucked wasn’t having much fun either. Ablenfeshlin Rhon. Valran should remember the name.

“You are all fools.” Kitdellesta Ashna huffing out a complaint was something to be heard. Valran struggled against a shiver. “You’re going to let her…”

“Oh, be real.” This from one of those who hadn’t spoken at all during the bidding. “You’re letting her, too. Really, when she wants something, who has the nerve to get in her way?”

“She can’t live forever.”

“You’d be surprised how long someone can live.” Debbesthando stood up and, much to Valran’s surprise, bowed. To him. To the Servus kneeling on the floor. “Good luck, Valran Servus. I imagine you will need it.” Then, and only then, rhi bowed to Kitdellesta Ashna. “To you, ma’am, I wish you luck in finding exactly the proper servus to lick your feet.”

“I could ruin you.”

“But you won’t.”

Rhi bowed one more time, to Gracnellanya Pace. “And to you, Gracnellanya Pace Attrishish Latnerran, I wish you the best of luck in every endeavor. ‘May you live as long as you wish and love as long as you live.’”

“I didn’t know you for a poet, Debbesthando.”

“Many things are still unknown about me. But I would offer you this advice – he is young, and he has spark. He could be your ally in ten years, or he could become the one that topples you.”

“This ancient carcass is still fairly intelligent. But I thank you for thinking of me, Debbesthando. Good luck in all that you do. High walls and a warm hearth.”

“Safety for your sleep and moderation in your vepó.”

Did all Inner Circlers say goodbye for hours like this? Valran had thought he was smooth with his speech, but this was excessive.

No, they were done. Smooth and Neutral bowed one more time and left. Likes His Cock Sucked stood, bowed, muttered a few words of good-bye, and left.

That left Great-Grandma, Terrifying, and the few who had not bid at all.

“Will you bid higher?” Great-Grandmother sounded like a Gladiator in the ring, urging her competitor on.

“You know I will not. What will you do with him, Gracnellanya Pace? Surely you’re past the use of him.”

“I wouldn’t prepare my place in the bone fields yet.” She stood. “If my bid is uncontested, I will take him.”

“He is yours upon receipt of payment.” The Deputy Oligarch stepped forward. “Stand, Valran Servus, and prepare yourself to enter service with Dame Gracnellanya Pace Attrishish Latnerra.

“Ma’am.” He rose, bowed, and rose again, keeping his head down and his gaze firmly on the floor. This was, he had to admit, not exactly what he’d pictured when he’d thought about a life kneeling in service.

“Come, Valran Servus.” Great-Grandma – his owner – held a hand in front of him. “My valet will pay. You and I, we need to have a conversation.”

“Ma’am.” He took her hand, hoping it was what he was supposed to do. She could kill him with a thought. She probably wouldn’t, but very few people would be upset if she did.

“If I may…?” She tilted her head to the Deputy Oligarch.

“Of course. Enjoy him, ma’am.”

“I entirely intend to.”

Oh, good.

She was holding his hand with a grip that was, perhaps unsurprisingly, very strong. He couldn’t have backed away if he wanted to.

He’d known there was no backing out when he sent in the application. He’d known it when he bent knee. He’d known it when he rode past all the gates of the city save the last. It was one thing to have known it, however, and another to feel her grip on his hand like the cage closing behind him.

“Relax.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, I don’t think that’s possible.” Had he just said that? She was chuckling, oh, good. Probably good.

“I take it you’ve heard of me?”

“I don’t think there’s anyone on the Circled Plain who hasn’t, ma’am.”

“I would say ‘I’m not all that scary,’ but I’m going to try not to lie to you.” She kept walking as she spoke, so Valran did as well. This was a hall of the Deputy Oligarch’s complex that he hadn’t seen, but, then again, he hadn’t seen much of it yet.

“Thank you?”

“I like you.” The sun looked unbearably bright as they stepped outside. Another car awaited – although this time it was less of a surprise. She’d just spent ninety-five thousand skone on him, after all.

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“Now, in.” She gestured at the back of the car, and, of course, he slipped in. “And we’ll talk about the service you will be doing for me, Valran Servus.”


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Chapter 6 – Valran – Thrust

This chapter contains material that some may find NSFW

“Thrust out your hips more.”

“Now you’re just making fun of me.”

“No, I’m telling you what to do.” Bicla put her hands on Valran’s hips and pushed them forward. “Like that. Now you look…”

“Like a ten-piece whore on a street corner.”

“No, no, at least a fifty-piece whore, this is serious Fifth Ring stuff. You’re not a seventh-circle whore. At least, not anymore.”

“You’re so nice.” Her hands on his hips were actually a bit distracting. “Bicla…”

“It helps if you’re erect. People like that sort of thing.” Those hands weren’t exactly on his hips anymore. Close, but moving further away as she spoke. “And if you’re already had one orgasm, you get this lovely flush to your cheeks…”

“And this wet spot on these nice pants that were provided for me. That’s not going to look very good.”

“Then you’re going to have to settle for looking like you really, really want someone to satisfy you.” She cupped his balls through the thin fabric of his pants. “I think I can manage that.”

“Bicla…” He had been oiled, brushed, smoothed, made up, and dressed, such as it was – the pants were so thin you could see exactly how little body hair Bicla had left him.

“Valran…” She had to stand on her toes, but it let her breathe into his ear, warm, tickling breath. “Don’t you want me to play with you?”

“Bicla, do you really want to send me out there squirming, twitching, and blushing?”

“Blushing? Mm, is the big bad Servus a virgin?”

“Do you have any idea how ridiculous that sounds?”

“Do you have any idea how ridiculous you sound? It’s a little petting. You’ve had my hands all over you already.” She squeezed his balls – lightly – by way of punctuation. “I’ve had my hands all over these already.”

“Unf.” There was very little argument to be had against that, but he tried anyway. “That was different.”

“No. That was preparing you for the sale. This is preparing you for the sale. The only difference is the specific preparation. That was grooming; this is stage dressing.”

“Stage dressing!”

“You’re going on stage and I’m dressing you.” She squeezed again. “There, you’re starting to look nice. Oh, very nice.”

He could feel his cheeks heating up. “Bicla…”

“Relax, boy. Someone out there is going to like your purist almost-pre-Flood-human sort of look. It’s rather rugged.”

“I’m wearing lipstick.”

“Lip gloss. You didn’t strike me as a Manly Above All Else sort.”

“I’m not. You’re the one that called me rugged.”

“Mmm.” She pinched his nipple, quick and sudden, and then the other one while he was still drawing breath to complain about the first. “You are, a bit. Your skin is this reasonable brown color, your ears barely have any point to them at all…”

“Your skin is creamy and your hair is blonde.”

“We’re not talking about me.” The playful tone in Bicla’s voice had been replaced, instantly and with no traces left, with a sharp-edged knife of a sound. “We’re talking about your salability.”

“You know, until you started talking about it, I really wasn’t worried. I didn’t think the department would have accepted my application if they didn’t think they could get some money for me. That’s what they do, isn’t it?”

“Never can tell, especially with the outer rings, until they clean you up and put you out there. Some look pretty and can’t talk the game to save their lives. Some can’t bring themselves to really kneel. Some just clean up ugly.” While her voice was still harsh, it no longer had daggers in it aimed at Valran’s throat.

“And me?” Giving her a chance to insult him might calm her down from… whatever had made her angry.

“You clean up pretty nice. You make up nicer. And not everyone who comes here wants a pretty fay-looking boy.” She pinched his nipple again, harder this time, and smiled when he gasped. “So tell me, why did you send in your application to this particular place? Some other people sell for, you know, more manly occupations. Bodyguard. Driver.”

“You’re a driver.”

“We’re still not talking about me.” This time, she smirked at him. “We’re talking about why you chose this particular house to set you on your route skipping the Ladder rungs.”

“You’re talking about it.” He straightened his pants. “I had a lot of reasons.”

“Give me one?” She tugged his pants down a couple inches. “This looks better, anyway.”

“It has a higher success rate. People who kneel here, they come out at the other end skipping more rungs, and happier.”

“Than being a bodyguard?” She stepped up behind him and wrapped her arms around his waist, letting her hands drop just above his junk.

“Oh, come on, what do you think? It also has a much higher survival rate.”

“You didn’t want to go Gladiator, then?” She stroked him through the thin cloth.

“Not in a million years. Not in a trillion years.”

“You know, if you had a trillion years, being a Gladiator would probably be the least of your worries.”

“Very likely.” He gave up on resisting and leaned into her. “You’re quite good at this.”

“I have practice. But, mmm, you make it rather easy.” She stroked him with feathery, teasing touches, barely brushing and then pulling away.

“You’re not so good at the sweet talking.” Which was more of a relief than it probably should have been. He was not having a romance with Bicla. With any luck, he was about to be sold. Romance with someone else’s Servus was not really on the menu. Things that even hinted at romance shouldn’t be on the menu.

“Ha. I don’t have much practice with that at all.” She kissed the back of his neck, just above the collar. “You smell very nice.”

“I ought to. You doused me in scented stuff.” Valran tried not to sniff himself.

“With any luck, you’ll need to get used to that sort of thing. Lots of people who come here looking for a boy want someone who smells nice and is nice and slippery and ready all the time.”

“Trying not to think about that, thanks.” But now, of course, he was. Nice and slippery and ready…

“And yet you sent your application here.” Bicla raised her eyebrows at him. It was enough to let him pull himself back under control.

“As I said, it has the highest success rate.”

“And you said you had your reasons.” He could feel her teeth, now, against his skin. “You’ll tell me in ten years?”

“You have my word on it. Ten years from now, we can sit over coffee and share war stories.”

“I never promised you mine.” Her stroking grew rough again.

“I know… Unh! But you can’t blame a man for being curious, can you?”

“Not if he keeps his mouth shut. You should learn to be meeker and quieter, Valran Servus.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He tilted his head downward, which, he knew, bared more of his neck to her.

“Bicla, is he ready?” The Deputy Oligarch’s voice was like a splash of cold water.

“I doubt he’ll ever be ready, Boss.” She didn’t jump away from him, but Bicla’s hands dropped away and Valran felt her step backwards from him. “But he’s shiny, he smells nice, and he has a raging boner.”

“You’re so eloquent.”

“You know you like it, Boss.” Bicla shoved Valran forward. “Go get ’em, pretty boy.”

“Thanks so much.” He stumbled, caught himself, and kept walking. Head down. Hands folded behind his back. Steps slow and measured. He had practiced this. “Ix?”

“Keep walking forward. When you see the black x on the floor, stop, and kneel. There, answer what questions are given to you. Keep your head down, keep your answers polite.”

“Yes’ix. Thank you.”

“And keep your mind on whatever’s got you stretching your pants so nicely. It will help quite a bit in your price.”

“Yes’ix.” Commanded to think of Bicla touching him. This could get interesting. He nodded lower, almost a bow, and continued his walk forward.

The doorway felt more ominous than the gates deeper and deeper into the city had. Those were about the whole city; this was about his life. The mark was obvious, the tape a little worn at the edges.

His vision narrowed to that X. He fell to his knees, not even trying to soften the fall. He gripped one wrist with the other, to keep his hands from jerking forward, and stared resolutely at the floor.

“Good people.” The Deputy’s voice was too close to Valran’s ear; he nearly jumped. But the position he had himself in didn’t allow that, so he held his wrist a little tighter and stared at the tile floor. “This is Valran Servus. Will you take him home?”

“Can you serve, Valran Servus?” The alto purr came from his left. He nodded his head.

“Yes’ix, yes.” Of course.

“Can you suck?” That from his right, husky and deep.

Well, that was direct. “Yes, sir.”

“Can you speak in public?” He thought that was the first voice again, but it seemed to have moved a bit.

“I don’t have extensive public speaking training. But I can say ‘yes, ma’am,’ ‘yes, ix,’ and ‘yes, sir’ and generally not sound too stupid.” He hoped.

“Can you drive?”

What sort of question was that? And this one from a smooth neutral voice he hadn’t heard before. “No, Ix.”

“Pity.”

“What sexual acts will you cringe at?”

They were back to the deep male voice. Valran allowed himself to look as if he was giving that a moment of consideration, while he thought instead of all the sexual acts that he wouldn’t cringe at, all the lovely things he could imagine doing to Bicla, having Bicla do to him, doing with her.

“I will not cringe at anything my owner asks of me, of course, ix.” His voice was husky; he was picturing Bicla, naked, riding him, her nails digging into his shoulders.

“But there are things you would want to cringe at, aren’t there?”

“If I were a free man and not a Servus, then there are things I wouldn’t do willingly.” He coughed. “Generally anything involving bodily waste.”

“What about sex involving vepó?”

He thought that was the one that had asked if he could drive.

“It is not my favorite thing in the world.”

“What about…”

The questions went on. From the sounds of things, there were at least seven bidders in the room, and they all had far too many questions for Valran. He answered them all. He answered them all honestly, because “detect lies” was far too easy to draw and the last thing anyone wanted was a dishonest Servus. He answered questions until his throat was raw.

And then… “I’ll take him.”

The voice was female. The voice was female, and he had not heard it before. And everyone else in the room fell silent.