Archive | February 2015

Chapter Seventeen – Taslin – Remember

“Remember.” Dar Jervennon brushed his fingers over the marks his love-bites had left on Taslin’s neck. “The night after tomorrow.”

“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.

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.”