“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.”
“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.”
“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 <.<)
If we reach $20/month in Patreon or $25 in donations in Paypal – or a combination therof – I will post a second chapter this week, on Sunday.
If we reach $40/month in Patreon or $45 in paypal donations – again, or a combination – readers will be able to choose between an outtake or meta/demifiction now or an epilogue chapter at the end.
Reviews count as $5 each; if we reach 4 (or 8) reviews, I will post a second chapter (or a chapter AND a demifiction/outtake)
Current Review total: 2