“Choose, ma’am?” Valran blinked at the ancient, terrifying woman who owned him. The car had gone quiet for a little while, almost entirely silent, as they wended their way into the heart of New Indapala. And then… that.
“I’m sorry, I got lost in my own thoughts. There’s a choice to be had for you, you see. There’s Keldra Dre, the reason that I bought you. There’s that, anchoring her here in the Inner Circle. It won’t be easy, not in the least. It will work you in a way I don’t expect you thought you’d be worked when you knelt and took the collar – especially not that collar, with that contract, from that person.”
“Remember what I said.”
“What the fuck, ma’am?”
“Much better. Which ‘what the fuck,’ Valran?”
A very good question. He summarized as concisely as he could. “Choice?”
“Ah. Well, as I was saying working with Keldra Dre is going to be difficult. If you feel that it’s not the sort of challenge you want, well, I have other granddaughters.”
Valran cleared his throat. This was a trap. It had to be a trap. “Ma’am, when I knelt for the collar – when I applied for the right to kneel for the collar – I was giving up choice. That’s what you do. You choose to sign over choice to someone else for ten years.” He knew she knew this. How could anyone in the Circled Plains not know it? “I don’t get to choose.”
“And so I should dictate for you when to shit, when to eat, when to sleep, what to wear, what to say?”
“I knew that was a risk, ma’am.”
“But you didn’t know that being forced to actually make a decision about your life again would be a risk, is that what you’re saying?”
There was something lumpy and unpleasant in his throat. Valran swallowed again. “Ma’am. Um. Yes, ma’am.”
“And here I am, having not even gotten you home, having paid a ridiculous amount of money for you, and I’m making you make choices.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Please stop.
“One choice, Valran. You’ve made so many choices to get here. You can make one more.” She took his chin in her steely hand. “I’m ordering you to.”
Valran swallowed. “Ma’am. What’s the second choice?”
“My granddaughter Zarthennelya. She’s a bit older – she took the long route back to to the Second Ring – very successful, and very driven. She will have very clear expectations of you, very pointed demands, and making choices will not be one of your problems.”
“Zarthennelya Sestya?” Valran swallowed. “Your granddaughter is Zarthennelya Sestya?”
“If your sentence begins with ‘your grandchild is…’ and ends with the name of someone you have heard of, there is a good chance it is true. I only have… ten, I think… living grandchildren, but even some of those who didn’t live managed to become famous first.” She gestured that away as if she was talking about some point of gossip. “So, those are your choices. Keldra or Zarthen. They’re both lovely women. Neither of them will abuse you. Neither of them will be the best stepping-stones to a First Circle seat, but that would have been Kitdellesta Ashna, and you might have come out of it with gladiator’s scars.”
“I could live with scars.” He’d expected scars.
“One hopes. That being said, Valran, I need you to choose. I’m going to shut up now, and Liknirrun is going to drive us the last block home while you think about it. And when we are out of the garage, then I need you to give me an answer, and I will call one of my granddaughters.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Valran stared out the window at the Inner Circle. It should have been an awesome sight – the remains of ancient buildings, changed into something new and beautiful, the roads that were still smooth-paved, and wide enough for two cars to pass – and there were, indeed, cars on the road, more than one at a time. The waste of fuel!
There were people walking, too, of course, dressed in rich, bright colors in tunics fitted smoothly to their bodies and very nearly transparent, pants that flowed so long they touched the ground, hats and headscarves and belts. It wasn’t gaudy – he’d expected that, from a couple of the Inner Circle teens he’d seen come through – it was simply rich.
Of course, that was the definition of Inner Circle. And for ten years, he’d be living somewhere almost as rich. Keldra Dre or Zarthennelya Sestya? The newly-returned or the hardened businesswoman. Making choices will not be one of your problems. That was what he had pictured, wasn’t it? Your job will be to anchor her here, in the First Circle. Not that. Not being someone’s grounding rod, someone’s connection to a society he couldn’t even imagine.
She is having trouble adjusting. How did you have trouble adjusting to wealth? Especially if you’d grown up with it.
She is very successful, and very driven. People like that drove everyone around them. It would not be an easy ten years. But it wouldn’t be an easy ten years either way.
How did you have trouble adjusting to wealth? To warmth and safety? What made you want to go back?
Scars? Or an erratic and insane owner? Driven and successful? Or someone who had made the climb up the Ladder in record time?
How did you have trouble adjusting? Was it simply because there was nowhere left to climb?
“We are here, Valran.” The light had dimmed, the car had pulled into the garage. Valran had closed his eyes at some point, but now he opened them again.
“This is my home. Well, this is the garage for my home; my home is above it. Have you decided?”
It was going to have to be Zarthennelya Sestya. His ambition, his need to climb, needed someone stable. The scars weren’t going to be a problem. Being given orders wouldn’t be a problem.
“Keldra Dre, ma’am.”
“Very good.” Gracnellanya Pace was smiling at him. That was both relieving and terrifying. “Very good indeed, Valran. This way.”
An order. An easy order to follow. Valran followed the woman out of the garage, into a… a foyer, right? Some sort of antechamber, at least… and then into a sitting room, or what he assumed had to be a sitting room. There were chairs in it, at least, and a place to sit.
Also places to kneel, which he supposed made sense. “Kneel here.” She gestured at a cushion, one that was heavily embroidered and nearly thick enough to be a footstool. “I’ll be back in a bit.”
Valran knelt. He spent a moment shifting into what he thought was the most perfect position, hands behind his back, back straight, looking at the floor, and then he closed his eyes.
He did not realize he’d drifted off until there was a hand on his shoulder. “Valran. Boy, it’s time to wake. It’s been a long day for you, hasn’t it?”
That wasn’t Gracnellanya Pace. He peeled one eye open cautiously. From those ear-points and that curly hair, it was probably the driver. “Liknirrun?”
“That’s me, son. Now, Dame Pace and her granddaughter are almost here. Sit up straight, son, and look like you know what you’re doing.”
Valran straightened hastily and smoothed the thin material of his pants. “Is it that obvious?”
“Considering where you’ve come from, it didn’t really need a sign on it. You’re not the first Ladder-jumper to come through here, and you likely won’t be the last. Our Lady isn’t dead yet, at least. Don’t give me that look, boy. There are places that train Servi for things like this, but they’re not the rule and those aren’t the sort of Servi that the Lady likes, either. Now, her granddaughters might have other ideas about it, but that’s yours to figure out, isn’t it?”
The man talked faster than the wind blew. “Yes, sir.”
“Good. Now, hands behind your back, like that. Chin up. You’re proud of what you’re doing, aren’t you?”
“Yes, sir.” No, sir.
“And here they come.” Liknirrun stepped backwards until he was standing against the wall. Some trick of vepó or the light blended him right into the shadows there until it was as if he’d never been in the room at all.
Footsteps sounded on the wooden floors. Valran sat up a little straighter, put his chin out a little more. Gracnellanya Pace walked into the room, followed by a woman two inches taller and a century younger.
If this was Keldra Dre, than in some ways, at least, Valran had lucked out. The woman was beautiful, from the upturned tip of her nose, to the long straight tips of her black-and-blood hair, to the upswept tips of her ears (which bore a startling resemblance to those of Liknirrun, almost-curly at the top and cresting over the top of her head) to the bare painted-nails tips of her toes and fingers.
She was wearing a rather simple tunic – it wasn’t shiny like silk, so probably linen or cotton – embroidered in the same blood red as the fabric, over a skirt that didn’t touch her knees, done in the same style but in black. Valran didn’t know anything about fashion, but he’d seem women dressed similarly in the Seventh Ring. On her, it looked beautiful, and it gave her skin an iridescent reddish cast.
“Is this him?” She squatted down in front of Valran until she was looking him in the eyes – no, he realized, not really looking him in the eyes but looking at his eyes. “You know, Grandmama, you don’t have to do this. I’m going to be a good girl and not embarrass the family any more. I promised my father.”
“I’m not worried about you embarrassing anyone. I’m too old for that nonsense.” With a wave of her hand, the old lady dismissed reputation and social standing. “What I’m worried about, Kel, is your happiness.”
“Do you think he’ll make me happy?” Something in her gaze shifted, and she was no longer looking through Valran, but to him.
“Well, dear, I think that’s up to the two of you. But I think it’s possible you could make each other quite happy. If, in the process, you happen to irritates some of my would-be rivals, let’s just say your grandmamma wouldn’t mind that at all.”
Sorry for the delay! Um. Post-Nanowrimo haze?
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)
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