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.]]>
“All right,” Ganlenrel had said, “clean yourself up nice and put on your best tunic, then head to the Hall for dinner.”
Taslin had done as she was told — she had three tunics, one of which the other fighters had warned her not to get dirty or mucky, so that one counted as her best for today, she supposed. Now she was following the crowd into the grand vaulted Hall.
The smell of unfamiliar foods hit her nose before she made it through the door; the minute she made it into the hall, another Gladiator grabbed her arm. Sellen, a 9th-Circle girl who’d been in the Pit all of a week longer than Taslin.
“Come on,” she urged. “It’s hard, but if you show how new you are, they’ll just prey on you. We’ve got to get you some trim for your dinner tunic, remind Vinroth when you see him again. And here, we’ll hold down the end of this table with Marrhi and Corby. Don’t stare at the food.”
Sellen was steering as she spoke, so that the last order coincided with pushing Taslin in front of a stool. Taslin sat down, finding herself between Corby and Sellen, and tried not to stare at the food.
It smelled much more intensely this close up – meat and spices, tomato and something that might be wine or vinegar, fresh-baked bread and more vegetable odors than she could place. And it looked so much more overwhelming than it smelled.
“I know,” Sellen whispered, as she dropped a hunk of bread on Taslin’s plate. “There’s so much, right? And so much meat? That’s pork, comes from pigs. They call it pulled pork, and the sauce is tangy-spicy. Then there’s a baked bean dish, there, and then there’s this, it’s cabbage. Dig in. There’s no limits.”
Taslin swallowed. There were wide platters on the table, enough to feed her family for weeks if they could store the food. Her stomach rumbled. Corby punched her in the arm, lightly, more of a punctuation than an assault.
“Eat,” the other woman told her, and Sellen, her mouth already full, grunted in agreement. “You don’t win in the ring if you’re underfed. You don’t send money home to your family if you don’t win in the ring. And they don’t get to find out what pulled pork tastes like if you don’t send them money. So eat.”
Taslin, her hunger urging her to go along with that irrefutable logic, ate.]]>
I’m very sorry; the spring got ahead of me.
I am going to take a month hiatus (technically, a month and a half, starting 2 weeks ago) and write ahead. Jumping Rings will return on June 23, with a month of weekly posts and then, hopefully, weekly posts continuing after that.
In the meantime, give me a scene you would like to see in the world of Jumping Rings and I will write a short piece to it.]]>
“Prepare.” Vinroth dropped three piles on Taslin’s bed. “Lanesh and Sellen are coming by in a few minutes, but you should be in the proper mindset before then.”
“Mindset?” Taslin sorted through the pile. “These are all tunics – they’re not all from Jervennon, are they? And shoes, sandals? And then – paint? Vinroth, this is a dinner engagement, not some sort of play.”
“It’s both. It’s a dinner engagement, it’s a show in which you are both the star and the audience, and it requires every bit as much preparation as a bout in the ring. Which you are doing very well at, by the way. You’ve had two offers to buy out your Patronage this week.”
“And you’re only telling me now?”
“Neither of them could come close to what Jervennon is giving you. And it’s better for you to stay with one Patron for a bit longer. Get people used to wanting you and not being able to have you.”
“Has nothing at all to do with your position as my valet, does it?” She picked up a small jar of something red and slick. “This looks like the stuff I put on under the helmet, over my cheekbones.”
“It’s got a similar base, but it’s used to color your lips. Have you really never worn make-up?”
“Eighth Circle,” she reminded him. “I’ve worn kohl, or sometimes a bit of ash or cinder. I’ve done the Pit paints, but those aren’t usually ‘make-up.’ And I know a couple small spells for clearing up or hiding blemishes.”
“Every teenager knows those.”
“I had to learn them specially. They’re not very common, where I am – most people don’t care that much.”
“Altreka, right?” Vinroth shook his head. “Well, you cared enough to learn them?”
“My mother wants us to do something better for ourselves. You can’t get anyone’s attention to climb the Ladder or jump the rings if you look like a filthy outer-ring urchin.”
Vinroth raised his eyebrows. “A smart woman, your mother. How did she end up staying in the Eighth Circle?”
“A long story. The short version is: family.” Taslin swallowed around a lump in her throat. “You want me to show you what I know for make-up?”
“No. Well, yes, but not today.” Vinroth pointed at the chair. “Sit down, back straight, and I will work my magic. I’ll show you the tricks as we go, and we can work from that.”
“Aren’t I supposed to be in charge of you?” Taslin sat down, back straight. It felt uncomfortably like preparing for the Pit, and she had no armor.
“Only in theory and in name. The truth is, I know what I’m doing here, which makes me the expert and you the student.”
“…this is why you wanted to be my valet, isn’t it? So you could bully me around?”
“You are always so quick to ascribe ulterior motives to me. I’m a Ladder-climber, Taslin Gladiator, the same as you. I serve the Pit by serving you, and I serve you by making sure you are ready for every engagement.”
“You really do have an answer for everything.”
“That, too, is my job. Now, let me work? Here we go.” He wiped her face with a clean cloth, softer than anything Taslin had ever felt. “You have done well by your skin, whatever your reasons. And no facial scars yet. It’s good.”
“I thought they were supposed to add gravity and seriousness. Show we’re working hard.” She watched him pick up a strange-looking brush and apply some sort of powder to it.
“Ganlenrel says that because Gan got nicked in the face, early in her career. What it shows is that you took a blade to the face. And it puts off some of the Inner Circle types.” He touched her nose with the brush, and then both of her cheeks.
Taslin swallowed, more at his words than at the dust in her nose. “Because they want a pretty face to look at.”
“Over the table, even if they’re looking at your ass in bed.” The crudity sounded strange in his mouth. Taslin glanced at his face. His expression was what she thought of as his Valet Face – perfectly calm, perfectly blank. He wore it when would-be Patrons visited.
“It’s what we sign up for.” She didn’t like the hesitance in her own voice. “Gladiators, I mean. Danger in the pit and, ah, adventure in a Patron’s bed. Better adventures, less danger, at least in theory.”
“The theory is nice. And-”
“You can’t put powder on her, not with her complexion.” Sellen burst into the room. “Hi, Tas.”
“It’s not chalk powder.” Vinroth’s voice never changed from its calm professional-Valet cadence, but Taslin saw the way his hand hesitated. If he’d been a gladiator in the Pit, they’d have called it choking up.
“I don’t know anything about powder,” Taslin cued. “What is it, and why would chalk be bad?”
“Chalk powder comes in three shades – white, off-white, and light beige. They would, at best, make you look ashen.” He ran a thumb over her cheek. “This is actually something I made myself. There’s no Flow-taint in it, please don’t worry.” He touched the puff to Taslin’s cheeks. “But it does very nicely with the umber in your skin tone.” He turned to look directly at Sellen. “I do know what I’m doing. But I was hoping you could help with the hair and picking out shoes.”
“I’m all about the shoes.” Sellen plopped down on Taslin’s bed. “But you wouldn’t believe how many valets have just one kind of powder, or just one kind of kohl, and they use that on everyone. Black kohl on me looks ridiculous, but it looks lovely on Lanesh, all deep and earthy.”
“Why thank you. I stole your kohl pencil again.” Lanesh sashayed in. “Tas, I brought you a couple things. They’re loaners, not big enough that your patron will notice you’re wearing things he didn’t give you, but nice enough that you’ll make him look a bit better. Which is the point, right?”
“If you say so?” Taslin looked between the three of them. “I thought I did that in the Pit.”
“That, too. Are you going to be okay with this dinner, Taslin?”
“I’m going to have to be, aren’t I?” Taslin shrugged one shoulder. “I won’t eat with my fingers or stab any other guests or anything. We have table manners in the Eighth Circle.”
“And nobody expects you to be that sort of First-Circle hoity-toity.” Lanesh ran her fingers through Taslin’s short-cropped curls. “This is totally reasonable hair for a Gladiator. I like it. But what can we do with it for dinner?”
“Comb it and call it good?” Sellen was digging through Vinroth’s makeup box. “You’ve got a lot of nice stuff here.”
“I aim to please. I was thinking of smoky eyes and natural-looking cheeks. Make her look a bit mysterious.” Vinroth’s poise had returned as quickly as it had vanished.
“She is a bit mysterious. I like it. Lips?”
“Not too dark. Keep the focus on her eyes.” Vinroth’s hands were already moving.
Meanwhile, Lanesh was doing something to the back of Taslin’s head. “If I have twenty, thirty minutes, I can do something with braids and twists. I think it will look super elegant.”
Taslin sat still, while three people did things to her face and hair, her neck and chest. Vinroth and Sellen wielded brushes and pens like artists, painting someone different onto Taslin. Behind her, the sensations of Lanesh tugging and twisting her hair were the closest thing to home Taslin had felt since she got here.
“There.” Lanesh stepped back at the same time as Sellen.
Vinroth stayed where he was, a very small smile on his face. “You look beautiful.”
“With all the paint you put on me…”
“We just made you look more like you. Come on, Tas, you’ve got to get into the carriage.” Lanesh and Sellen grabbed one elbow each, steering Taslin out of her room before she had a chance to find a mirror.
“Wait. Wait. What are you… SELLEN!” Taslin squirmed, but she couldn’t break their grasp. “I want a mirror. What did you two do to me? What did you do!?”
“Relax, new fish.” Sellen’s laugh did nothing to reassure Taslin. “We didn’t do anything bad. But you’re not used to being dressed up, and trust me – I speak from experience – if you’re not used to it, you’ll spend an hour freaking out about this girl in the mirror who looks nothing at all like you.”
“And the thing is,” Lanesh put in, “she does look like you – that is, you do look like yourself. But you look like a you refined, that spent your whole life in the Inner Circle in a spa. You don’t look so much like…”
“Like an Outer Circle urchin?” Taslin tried not to taste the bitterness in her mouth.
“Like a Gladiator who spends her whole life in the Pit or in training, same as the rest of us. Don’t think you’re the only one with dirt under their nails, Tas.”
“I don’t. I don’t, it’s just.”
“No justs. Tonight, you look like a lovely flower. And if they recognize you – and they will, the three of us took pains to make sure of that – then what they’ll recognize is that you’re a lovely flower who succeeds like nobody else in the Pit.”
“Taslin, if you’re about to tell me that you’d not that good in the pit, I’m going to break your nose and then I’m going to throw things at you until you’re forced to fight back and show me exactly how good you are in the Pit. Understand?”
“Understand. Ma’am yes ma’am. But I can walk, you know.” Taslin squirmed in their grip. “I’m not helpless, even if I look like a flower or something.”
“Indulge us. You’re the first one in our group to get a Patron, so you’re the first one in our group to go on ‘dates’ like this. She might be used to fancy stuff.” Sellen pointed her free thumb at Lanesh. “But I’m not, and it’s a lot of fun, even if only by proxy.”
“All right, all right. But I don’t know how I’m going to be able to do the same, when your turn comes – either of you.”
“You’ll manage. If nothing else, I bet that valet of yours will give lessons.” Lanesh didn’t quite make it sound like a leer.
Sellen, on the other hand, did. “I bet he’ll give lessons in all sorts of… here’s your carriage.” They abruptly set Taslin down. “Off with you, and remember the rules.”
“There’s rules?” Taslin found herself propelled ahead by their shoves. “Wait, there’s rules?”
“The same rules as anywhere.” Lanesh waved cheerfully. “Don’t get stabbed, don’t trip, and don’t hit yourself in the face.”
I am so sorry, guys. I fell into a (metaphorical) hole for a couple weeks and I’m just now digging out.
I do have to ask, considering my current workload: Are you still enjoying Jumping Rings? Should I keep posting? If there’s not much interest right now, I can always put it on hiatus and return to it later.]]>
“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?”
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.”]]>
Taslin and Lansesh were serving as backup for the six-year Gladiator Rantoness Kallesh-Red in a five-on-three match against another Pit’s lead team. It wasn’t a fair fight. It wasn’t even in the same league as a fair fight. But Taslin was having more fun than she’d had in any match so far.
She ducked at Lanesh’s call, and took the prompt to swing out with her mace. Her attacker’s sword swung over her head, clipping off a few curls of hair and nicking her ear. Taslin’s mace slammed into the shorter woman’s knee.
“Swarm!” The woman’s curse was short, and she swung at Taslin again even as she went down. Taslin took that one on her shield, fell backwards, and squirmed to the side just in time to catch a hammer-blow meant for Ranton.
She caught it the way Ganlenrel had taught her, on her shield and rolling with it, using the spike just so on the edge of the hammer so she disarmed the man. “Up,” she called to Ranton, and nearly missed the damn woman with the longsword coming at the back of her knees.
It didn’t matter. Ranton got the man Taslin had disarmed, and that freed up Lanesh to shield-bash the second man of the team in the face. The woman’s sword caught Taslin, not a major wound but a heavy enough nick to make her swear. That was going to bleed like a butchered deer.
Use it, Ganlenral was fond of saying. Bleeding? Use it. Limping? Using it. Screaming? Use it. So all right, she could use it. She finished her roll to her feet in front of the opposing team’s heavy hitter. Skuskrin Takrin: she knew rhi from the posters, yet another reason this wasn’t a fair fight. Rhi wore a goatee in two long, long beaded braids, and rhis hair the same way. It was said there was a bead on there for every opponent Skuskrin had beaten in the pit.
Taslin didn’t stop to count. She swung her shield in a feint – they were known for shield-bashes, people Ganlenrel taught – and caught Skuskrin’s beard-braids with the tip of her sword.
The fighter would have been on guard against a throat-cut or a proper thrust, but that caught rhi by surprise. Not as much surprise as Taslin was hoping for, but it was something. Skuskrin hollered as the braid went flying and flailed with one blade.
It was enough. Taslin got a backhanded swing in against the fighter’s face and a second one, quick and dirty, against Skuskrin’s throat. The big fighter went down, and Taslin rode rhi down to the ground.
She could see Lanesh and Ranton to her left, both of them taking down the lead from the other team. She rested the flat of her blade against Skuskrin’s throat with all her weight, moving quickly before the bigger fighter regained control of rhiself.
Skuskrin grabbed her wrist; she stepped on his wrist and ground her boot into the sand. He flailed and she pushed down harder, until rhi could feel the edge of the blade on his throat.
Skuskrin dropped both hands to the ground, flat-palmed, in surrender, just as rhis lead Gladiator fell to the ground with a thunk.
The Master of Ceremonies shouted, and shouted again. Taslin’s eyes went to the high box, where a First Circle woman sat, watching. She watched Skuskrin’s eyes roll back in rhis head, trying to see the woman. She let up on the fighter; rhi had surrendered, after all, and nobody who’d made it this far in the pit would ignore a proper surrender.
The First Circle woman held her hand out. Even from here, you could see she enjoyed it, the way her sleeve draped dramatically, the way she listened to the crowd roar.
This was the loudest crowd Taslin had heard yet, the biggest crowd she’d had at a fight. Of course, it wasn’t her crowd; they were here to see Rantoness Kallesh-Red. Taslin and Lanesh were, like the ribbons on her sleeves and the bright patterns on her armor, just part of the show.
The First Circle woman, too, was part of the show, and loving it. She waited for the crowd’s roar to reach its peak. They rarely called for death when the fight had been good – even if the fight had been mediocre – but if they paid for that box, they could make that choice.
“Come on…” She didn’t think she was supposed to hear Skuskrin’s mutter, but, given the circumstance, she also couldn’t blame rhi. “Come on.“
The roar kept rising. The crowd was on its feet. It was an animal, a beast. Had it ever overrun the fighters? Had the mob ever carried out the judgment itself? They could take maybe twenty of them, thirty if they could work together as a team. There were hundreds there, maybe thousands. Even Ranton couldn’t handle that.
Suddenly, there was silence. The First Circle woman had held up both hands. A whisper grew from the far end of the amphitheater and moved like water across the crowd. Death? Or life? From here, it was just more noise.
The First Circle woman’s hands parted and dropped. Life. The crowd erupted. Taslin stood, finding her place by Raslin; she watched the opposing team – those that were conscious – find their feet. As a group, they faced the stands. And the stands faced them.
The applause was insane, starting from a roar and rising, louder, louder, until it seemed to shake the foundations. Taslin had been too close to a Flow Storm once, when a thunderstorm and Flow spurt had mixed. That sound, loud enough to pop her eardrums, had been nothing compared to this.
She’d heard cheers before. She’d won battles before. There was always a rush, always the warm feeling of success and the even-warmer feeling of all those people cheering, cheering for her.
This was a good match times a thousand. Her back straightened. She knew they were supposed to be solemn as they saluted the crowd – and especially when they saluted that First Circle woman, who might want to be a patron of one of them at some point – but a sidelong glance told her Ranton and Lanesh were grinning already. So she grinned, her fist over her chest in salute, all of her aches and bloody cuts fading under the rush and the noise.
It must have been a good match to watch, because the Master of Ceremonies had to quiet the cheering. Usually, it trailed off on its own. “Good gentles of New Indapala,” the M.C. bellowed, voice made to carry by a small application of magic. “I give you the Gladiators: Rantoness Kallesh-Red, Lanesh, and Taslin!”
One by one they bowed, and each time the crowd cheered. Even when the M.C. introduced the opposing fighters, the crowd cheered.
“We thank you for your cheers and your attendance. Please save your gifts and put them in the boxes as you exit; throwing them onto the Pit floor is not encouraged.” The M.C. was being pelted with flowers and gifts even as he encouraged people to do exactly the opposite; but that happened, in a smaller scale, even in the tiniest, least-attended matches. “Thank you, thank you.”
“Thank you, thank all of your for your attendance.” The M.C. continued to lavish praise on the crowd, and Taslin and the other fighters continued to bow and salute, to smile and wave, bow and salute again.
The gifts piled up around the M.C. and at their feet, the cheering shifted and flowed, first chanting Ranton’s name, then Skuskrin’s, and then, much to her surprise, Lanesh and Taslin’s names.
She was giddy by the time the crowd began to trickle away – giddy, and weary, beginning to sway on her feet and her wounds beginning to ache. Still, she smiled and waved, bowed and saluted, caught gifts and passed them to Ranton.
A normal match – a match that Taslin was used to – the crowd cleared right out, and the gladiators were free to go the medics, to go back to their dorms, or, as she had done a time or two, flop down on the hard dirt of the pit for a while.
When the last of this crowd faded away, Taslin wasn’t sure if she could move. But when Skuskrin, beside her, shifted his weight, she found her hand on her blade and a hand-width bared.
“Easy.” Rhi held out both hands, palms flat up, bare of weapons. In rhis left, the forlorn beard-braid was draped. “I am not one of those amateurs you have fought before.”
“You… you know who I’ve fought?”
“There are always amateurs.”
“Of course.” Taslin ducked her head. Why would Skuskrin Takrin know who she was?
“And I have watched your fights.”
Taslin kept her head down but didn’t even bother trying to hide the smile. “Ix.”
“I’m not an ix, I’m Suskrin. Especially to you, Taslin Gladiator.” Rhi held a hand. “You are a pleasure to fight against.”
She took the hand and shook it, as firmly as she could. “I am honored.”
“Then I will pile on the honors. You took this – you should keep this.” Suskrin put the beard-braid in Taslin’s hand and closed her hand around it. “Consider it your first Pit trophy – if indeed, it’s your first.”
“It’s my first.” She held the braid tight. “Thank you.” She turned her head-duck into a bow. “I hope you won’t take any offense if I say I hope I never see you in the Pit again.”
“And likewise. Good hunting, young fighter.”
Suskrin bowed to her, and Taslin bowed one more time.
“Good hunting, Gladiator Skuskrin Takrin, ix.”]]>
“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.”
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.
“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.]]>
“Remember.” She smiled back at him, showing all her teeth. “Oh, my Master, you remember. The night after tomorrow.” She stepped up to him for a farewell kiss, her hands resting on his waist. There were people watching – she was a Gladiator; there were almost always people watching – but if they saw the slight stiffening in his shoulders, they still did not know that she’d left her own bruises on him, right where her fingers rested now. “I will be there.”
“I know.” He pressed his lips against the blossoming bruise from one of the love-bites. “I’ll bring you gifts.”
“You’ll bring me yourself, my Master. And possibly some trinkets.” There was a purr in Taslin’s voice that almost surprised her; there was a strength in the way she was holding her Patron that belied the pounding of her heart. “I’ll see you then.” Her knees wanted to bend. Her head wanted to drop. She took three steps back instead, and bowed, deep and polite and dramatic, the way you bowed to a crowd in the ring.
“Yes.” His voice nearly caught on the word. He nodded his head to her and stood, waiting for her to take her leave.
Taslin fled, her steps as even as if she was marching, her chin up. Twenty-seven steps to the Gladiators’ wing. Seventeen steps to her barracks. Seventeen back, and then another twenty, to the room that was hers now.
Vinroth was there. Not waiting, not from his posture, simply… there. Sitting on a one-armed couch-like thing, staring out at the courtyard. Trees grew there – that one was a fig, she thought, and possibly a lemon tree – and ornamental pots of plants Taslin had never seen.
He did not move when she entered. It was as if he was a statue, frozen in place, forever staring out at… at what? At the trees?
She sat down next to him on the couch-thing, wondering if even that would make him move.
The answer turned out to be “no, not right away.” Only a few minutes later did he turn to look at her; his gaze seemed a thousand miles away.
Far enough away… “You haven’t been pulling on the power, have you?” Taslin had meant to sound mild, but it came out harsh, panicked, scolding. “Here in my room?” She swallowed and touched the stone of the wall around the window.
“I have not.” He touched her knee, as lightly as she’d touched the wall. “It is your room, Taslin Gladiator. I will not endanger you.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” She touched his shoulder cautiously. “I apologize, Vinroth-tet Esh.”
His face lit up with a smile. “There’s no need for the formality. No, I wasn’t pulling the power. I don’t often, of course, and almost never inside the facility. If the lines become too well-worn here…”
She shuddered. “With everyone here, with the random power the ring-mercs sometimes pull, it would make this place a disaster zone in no time at all. I trust you, Vinroth. You were just… looking as if you weren’t here anymore.”
“Ah. Well, in a sense, I suppose I was.” He tilted his head towards the courtyard.
Taslin peered out at the courtyard. “You were… in the courtyard?” She tried to make it sound like a joke, and tried to make it sound like she understood at the same time.
He graced her with a soft expression that suggested she wasn’t fooling anyone: a small lip-curl and a raised-eyebrow. “That is entirely what I was doing, Taslin, being in the courtyard.” He gestured out that way, the bracelets he affected when off-duty clinking against each other. “I was in a grove of lemon trees, if you must know.”
“But not these lemon trees.” She sank down onto the window seat near him. “Other trees. Another courtyard?”
“In a manner of speaking. Does it strike you that we spend our entire lives within walls, Taslin Gladiator? Even when we are travelling, we are locked in mobile walls. And then when we’re here, in a city, more walls.” He gestured at the courtyard with a jangle. “And then walls within the walls.”
Taslin spoke slowly, because she didn’t think she understood him yet. “Everything we do… everything I do – is to put ourselves – myself – further inside the walls. Inside more walls, inside as many walls as possible. Inner circle, with a walled garden? Sounds good to me.”
“To protect us from the marauders, from the wild flow, from everything that’s out there. I know. I’ve seen a lot of it, Taslin Gladiator, and it’s worth hiding from.”
He kept using her full name.
“Or I wouldn’t be a Gladiator.”
“If you didn’t have something to hide from?”
“If I didn’t have something to hide my brother and sister from.”
“Family.” Vinroth sighed. “Yes. Your family.” He brushed his knuckles over Taslin’s forearm, where a cut from last week was still healing into her first real ring-scar. “You’ve sold yourself into a profession few survive – to send them money.”
“Of course.” She twitched her shoulders. “If you asked Sellen, I’m sure she’d say the same. Or many of the others.”
“Sellen is saving her money to start a business if she survives. Corby just wants a nest full of shiny things. Hilton wants to make it back up to the Third Circle, because rhi’s lover made it that far.”
Taslin shook her head. “And?”
“And they all want walls around them, as many walls as possible. Ask any one of them if they’d live in a tower if it was in the Outer Circle…”
“Poor people live in the Outer Circle. The poorest, the most desperate, and those who don’t care.” She stared at Vinroth. “Where are you from? Living in the Outer Circle gets you killed.”
“Oh, I know.” He twitched his shoulders in his own shrug, the sort that hunched him in on himself. It was an odd way to see him, and Taslin was glad that it passed quickly. “I came from New Cinnato. And I know… yes.” Taslin had, despite herself, gasped, both hands going to cover her mouth. “Yes. I came from the outer circle of New Cinnato. I know more than most what it means to live with only the protection of one wall, Taslin Gladiator.”
“The monsters…” She swallowed. Of course he knew.
“The monsters and the flow-ridden, yes. They destroyed the outermost four circles before they were stopped, and severely damaged the next two in. Only the Inner Circle and the Second were untouched.”
“And you made it out.” Taslin spoke slowly. There was nothing in Vinroth’s voice, nothing at all. “You were in the Outer Ring?”
“I grew up there. I was my mother’s youngest child, the youngest of seven. My older siblings, most of them had run away by that point. Even if they only made it in one or two circles, it was enough, I suppose. When you’re that poor, having a roof that doesn’t leak is a luxury.” He rubbed one hand over the other. “My oldest brother knelt for the Gladiators. Tomnor Gladiator. He sent money home, like you do. The only one that did anything of the sort.”
Taslin tried to swallow the lump in her throat. “Yeah?” It came out sounding choked. She tried again. “So you understand…?”
“I’ve always understood. Both your way and Sellen’s, or Corby’s. I’m youngest, as far as I know. There’s no home left to send money to, either way.”
Taslin patted his leg. It seemed insufficient. Everything seemed insufficient.
“How-” How did you survive?
“My mother put me in a chest. It was a box my brother Tommonney had sent us. She threw the blankets and the dishes and everything else in there, packed up nicely like that’s where it all went.”
“Monsters don’t pillage.”
“But bandits do. The monsters didn’t kill anything more than they needed to get through the walls. The bandits…” His voice dropped off.
Taslin hugged him, carefully, unsurprised to find he was stiff in her arms.
He swallowed and spoke again. “They found me, of course. I was too young to be of any use to them – they had pressed older kids into service, but I was too small for even that.” He shook his head. “They sold me, but not before I saw what they were doing to the captives. I don’t know if my mother was there. I always told myself she escaped. She had family further in. Maybe someone let her in the gates.” He swallowed. “She’s living there, as far as I’m concerned, in what’s left of New Cinnato.”
Who was Taslin to argue with that? She focused instead on something else he’d said. “They sold you?”
“It still happens, in the outerlands. Anywhere outside the walls. They sold me, yes. To a family that wanted a playmate for their child, since they couldn’t have more. The Flow had changed her too far to bear children, and he wouldn’t take another mate.” Vinroth’s shoulders moved; it could have been a shrug, though it looked like he was trying to wrap a blanket around himself. “I was there for… a while. Maybe five years, maybe seven.”
“Out in the outerlands?”
“In one of the farming communities. It wasn’t un-safe, as far as living outside of the walls goes.”
“What happened?” What had brought this caravan of thought crashing into his mind?
“The Flow took him, eventually, my foster-father. Monsters had attacked and he channeled the power through himself to fend them off. It was enough – the monsters left – but it left him just this side of being a Fountain.”
Vinroth took a breath that sounded ragged and uncertain. “And he’d been the one that had wanted me. My foster-mother was already half-inhuman; there wasn’t anything left of her to care about a small person. And my foster-sib didn’t want any problems in dividing up the farm. So they sold me.”
His hands were rubbing over his wrists, over bare skin that his sleeves almost always covered. There were no scars there that Taslin could see, but the skin had shifted and discolored in patterns like wheat growing, long swirls of verdigris-copper on his pale flesh. “They sold me.”
There was nothing Taslin could do but hug him, so she did that with all her soul.]]>
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”]]>
He left the room, leave Taslin and Jervennon sitting across a table from each other.
“That valet, really?” Jervennon barely waited for the door to be closed, but he waited that long. “I could send you one of my mother’s.”
“And when the year of my patronage ended, he’d leave me. Vinroth is part of the business here and he will work for me as well in private as he has in public.” She’d practiced that line. “Well, Dar Jervennon, I’m yours.” She fell to her knees in front of him. “What would you have of me?”
Taslin’s hands were behind her back, one hand holding the other’s wrist; her back was straight and her ass on her heels. She did break protocol enough, however, to look her new Patron in the face. And he was coloring hotly and not quite looking at her. “I have some ideas.”
A glance lower down gave a good impression of what those ideas were. “If you’re impatient, the pit keeps several rooms for just that purpose. We could requisition one, you know. Nobody would naysay you that.”
“Is that what you want?”
“Dar Jervennon, I wish to please you. You have just signed this expensive contact for my services, and I want to give you your money’s worth.”
“Don’t talk about it like that! I mean… I mean…” Jervennon’s hands flailed for a moment. Taslin watched, unsure what response would calm him, but in a moment, he seemed to calm himself. “Sar Taslin, it would please me if you would not talk about this like a transaction. I’m your Patron now; we are in a contract for mutual benefit, yes?”
She could work with that. “Yes, Dar Jervennon.”
Whatever Dar really meant, it seemed to soothe him so much more than anything else. His hands stilled in his lap.
“Then I’m asking you, do you want to go to bed with me?”
Taslin wondered, for a moment, if he knew there was only one right answer to his question. She was pretty sure that he didn’t. Well, that actually made giving the right answer easier.
“Of course, my… my Patron. I’ve been wondering when you’d ask that for a while now.”
“And these rooms they have reserved…?”
“I’ve never been in one, but I hear they’re laid out to make a man of your station happy so they should be good enough for this, wouldn’t you think?”
“You’re really quite striking when you smile, you know.”
“Thank you, Dar Jervennon. As are you.”
“Why… thank you. So, where are these rooms?”
“This way, I think.” She rose, and tilted her head in the right direction, hoping he’d take the cue. He hadn’t Patronized someone, before, but surely he’d grown up with some sort of staff?
It seemed that he knew a cue when it bit him in the ass. “Forward?” He stood up and headed in the proper direction.
“Out this door and to the left.” Taslin fell in behind him, just to his left, in the position of a bodyguard. In the annals of history, that was why rich oligarchs and their families had patronized Gladiators. To some degree, it was still true today. “And then the first door without a ribbon on it.”
“That’s very clever.” The third door was un-be-ribboned, and Jervennon opened it. “This is nice. Nicer than I expected in a place like this.”
She didn’t respond to the implied slight, because she was pretty sure he wasn’t aware of it. “It looks very nice,” she agreed instead. The bed was wide, the bedstead sturdy and made out of wood and twisted metal, the sheets fine linen, the lights covered gas lamps and not candles. It was luxurious to her eyes, although she didn’t know what it was to his. “It looks comfortable enough for…”
“Yes. Yes, it does.” Through his thin pants, it was once again clear that he was eager for this. “Taslin, come here and stand with your back to me, that I might undress you properly.”
An order, good. He needed to remember he was supposed to give those. And an order that she was becoming increasingly eager to obey. Taslin crossed the room and stood, her back to him, her arms loose at her side. “As you order, my Patron, so I do obey.”
“You make the words sound so dirty.” He purred it in her ear, making even that sound dirty. “So scandalous and sexual and lovely.”
“I always assumed they were meant to be sexual.” She took a risk, again, because his hands on her hips were making her twitch in interesting and entertaining ways, and leaned her head back until she could look up at his face. “The whole ritual, if you take it apart and listen to it, is all sex. ‘I kneel before you to service you…’”
“It doesn’t really say service, does it?”
“It says serve, but we always joked about it when we were reading the silly porns people made about it.”
“We read those, too.” His hands slid down to the hem of her tunic, and then back up to the buttons at the back. He was deft in unbuttoning her, even while his lips wandered over her ear and her cheek and her forehead. “I have a collection of them under my bed. I don’t know why I kept them. It was a little silly, I guess, but they were fun.”
“They are fun. I never kept any of them. We used them for fire fuel, a lot of the time, after we read them. When I was older, I actually bought a couple. I had to hide them from my mother, then, because that was a waste of mon…” She trailed off. “I’m sorry, m… master. You don’t want to hear that.”
“I want to hear everything about you, but now might not be the moment for everything.” He nibbled on her ear tip.
“Mmm. Yes, master.” Master felt warm and pleasant on her lips. Of course, his lips felt warm and pleasant on her ear, too. “What do you want to know about me right now?”
“I want to know what makes you moan with pleasure. I want to know what you’re like with your tongue and what you can do with your hands. I want to know what you feel like under me.”
“You’re a bit of a poet, aren’t you?” She arched a little further backwards, trying to get her lips onto his neck. Almost, almost…
“I have been, from time to time.” He leaned backwards, moving his neck just out of her reach. “And you?”
“I’m not the poetic sort. They don’t really teach it in the schools I went to.” She had one trick left up her sleeve – the sleeve that was on the floor over there. She tilt her head to the side and hooked her foot around his ankle.
“Not at all?” He seemed oblivious to her maneuver, or, rather, to its possible consequences. He used it to grind up against her, and moved from her ear-tip down to the side of her neck. “Not even the classics?”
“Well, that hardly counts, does it?” She did not want to throw her new Patron onto the floor. She wanted to move him, yes, but not throw him. She shifted her hip just so, and there was his neck tumbling into her mouth perfectly. “Classics are… mmm… classics.”
“Unh.” He caught a handful of her hair and held on. Taslin froze for a moment, but he didn’t seem intent on pulling her away from him. “You’re rather aggressive.”
She set her teeth into his neck, very gently, careful not to leave a mark. “Is that a bad thing, Master?” She moved from his neck to his earlobe in a series of small bites.
He cupped her breast, squeezed, and then squeezed again with every nibble. “No. No, at least, not yet. I like it.”
“Then I am glad to have pleased you.”
“So formal.” Somehow, a hand found its way between her thighs. “Are you always this formal with your lovers?”
“You’re my Master and my Patron, Dar Jervennon.” His ear tips curved differently than any she’d encountered before. She traced the lines with her tongue. “I believe you deserve a certain level of formality.”
“You make it sound like a punishment.” He took a step backwards, both hands still on her; she shifted with him and found her lips on his throat. “Are you punishing me, Taslin?” His voice vibrated against her lips; she kissed the vibrations and then bit them. “Unf. Careful.”
“Always careful. And no. I am not punishing you, my Master. That is not my place.”
“And is it my place to punish you?” His voice was still playful; she glanced at his face and saw he was smiling. The smile turned solemn when he saw her looking, however. “My apologies, Taslin. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean you were doing anything to be punished, just…” He pinched the curve of her breast. “That it might be fun to leave a few marks on your perfect skin.”
She set her teeth into his throat again, waiting until he moaned before she released the bite. “We negotiated that.” It wasn’t so much a reminder as an agreement.
“We did. You surprised me with that.” He dragged painted nails down her stomach, leaving thin red lines.
“I surprise you quite a bit, Master.” She writhed away from his hands and danced away from his grasping reach. “Would you like me to surprise you again?”
“I do think I’d like that, yes.” His grin was very anticipatory. Good. She wanted him to be sure he’d gotten his money’s worth out of his Gladiator.
“Good.” She moved before he could even make a guess at what she was going to do, sweeping one leg out from under him and pushing him onto his back on the bed. “Because I’m full of surprises, Master.”]]>