It took Valran a moment to realize that Keldra Dre was talking to him. He blinked at her, and settled on “ma’am?” She probably wasn’t going to ask him to go around saying “what the fuck, ma’am?” He hoped.
She pursed her lips and frowned at him. Shit. This wasn’t good. “What’s wrong?”
That was a complicated question. Valran swallowed, and tried to think of an answer. “Nothing’s wrong. I was just, I…” He moved one hand to gesture, and came up against the clink of chain, which seemed to explain things to his new owner, at least in part.
“It’s a bit distracting?”
“It’s…” He stopped walking for a moment, hoping she’d stop as well. She had him on a leash, a golden leash, which would have been a lot more stressful if he’d been the only one on the street on a chain. But since they’d passed three other leashed-and-collared Servi, Valran was beginning to get the feeling that this was common. The hands chained behind the back, however, was just him.
“I’m listening.” She stopped directly in front of Valran, the leash slack between them, and watched him.
“It’s…” Valran swallowed and tried again. “It’s hard to think. It’s distracting, yes, but then it isn’t anymore, and I’m just floating.”
“Hrrm.” Keldra nodded slowly. She looked a lot like her grandmother when she did that, Valran realized, and not just because they had the same terrifying eyes. “Interesting. We’re almost there, and maybe we can explore that in depth somewhere private. For now.” She turned around and started walking again, her bare feet silent on the smooth pavement. “I said, ‘the weather is nice for this time of year, don’t you agree?’”
“Oh. Ah…” The jerk of the leash caught Valran by surprise. He picked up his pace quickly. “Yeah. It’s been very nice for the last week, I think.” Weather talk. He’d failed to miss a cue about the weather. This was going wonderfully.
“I hear we might get a bit of rain this weekend. It would be nice; the reservoirs are almost dry again.”
They were doing small talk. He could tell; she had the small-talk not-really-listening-to-herself tone of voice on. That, and they were talking about the weather.
“If we got rain before they went dry this time, it would be nice. Last year it was kind shi… unpleasant.”
“Yeah.” Her step faltered. “I remember. I was in the Third Ring when it happened, so it wasn’t so bad, but I own a business down in the Ninth.”
“You do?” He wished he could see her face. Her voice gave nothing away, nor did her ears.
“I do. I started it when I was there; it’s an embroidery place.”
“Why did you keep it all the way down there?” Should he be questioning her? She’d probably let him know if he was doing something wrong.
“It’s where the women who work for me live, and it’s easier for them than making them go through checkpoints every day. And it’s closer to where the materials are made, too.”
“Hunh?” She tilted her head, turning one ear towards him.
“It’s just so reasonable.”
“You know Inner Circlers can be reasonable, right?”
“I’ve only ever met Inner Circlers for the first time in the last day and a half. I’m still learning.”
“You’ve really neer met one before?”
“Well, I mean, once in a while I’d run into a Third or Second Circle businessman down… where I grew up… but mostly they sent agents. Nobody really wanted to get their hands dirty.”
“We all came up through the Circles or through the shortcuts. We’ve all had our hands dirty at one point or another.”
“Some people forget it easily.” He realized how bitter he sounded. “Ma’am. Sorry.”
She tugged on the leash, just enough so that he could feel it and not enough to put him off balance. “I’m going to assume you’re not talking about me.”
“No, ma’am. I don’t know you at all, ma’am.”
“That’s a good start. Since my Grandmother has determined that I’m to own you, we should probably fix that quickly.” She tilted her head in the other direction. “My apartment is here.”
The base of the building was black, shiny black marble up five feet over Valran’s head. He glanced up, following the line of the building.
“You live in the Shadow Tower?”
“I do. I grew up here, actually. I’s not as black as it looks, once you’re in it. Kengren.” She nodded at a uniformed doorman. “This is Valran Servus; he is mine.”
Valran glanced at the doorman, a tall man with purple skin and scales on his cheeks. The doorman nodded first at Keldra and then at Valran. “Yes, ma’am.”
“I’m on the seventeenth floor. It’s not the most luxurious apartment, but it’s nice.”
“You’…” Valran cut himself off. Now was not the time.
“Compared to the suite I grew up in, I mean. Compared to the places I lived when I was climbing the Ladder, it’s heaven.”
The stairs were wide, black, and went on forever, lit from a skylight somewhere so far above it was ridiculous. Valran, who had been working on the Outer Wall for a year, found himself getting out of breath even so. Keldra took them all without breaking a sweat.
When she ordered him to kneel, Valran was grateful for the rest. He fell ungracefully down – there were no kneeling cushions in this apartment, and very little furniture at all, just one divan thick with embroidery.
He panted, trying to be quiet about it, while she paced around him in a circle. “Your name is Valran. Valran of…”
“That’s in the Seventh Ring? I was in Kestren when I was in the Seventh; that’s right next door.”
“My aunt and cousins live in Kestren.” It was small talk again, made all the more weird for having it at the backs of her knees. She seemed to realize that, and then just made it weirder by sitting down cross-legged in front of him. It made her slightly shorter than him, which made Valran try to shift himself shorter.
“It’s all right, don’t hunch yourself.” She grabbed a pillow off the couch and shoved it under herself, bringing her almost to eye level. “There. So. I know where you’re from. You know where I’m from.”
“I don’t, actually. Were you born in the Inner Circle?”
“Yeah… yes, I was. In this Tower, actually. My parents live up several stories.” She gestured upwards. “In the penthouse. They did very well for themselves.”
“I guess so.” Some things you really couldn’t ask politely, so he didn’t. Instead, he gestured with his chin at the room. “You live here?”
“I’ve only been back for a little while. I bought this apartment – the person who had owned it is in the boneyards now – and I haven’t done much with it yet.” Her shrug seemed to suggest that anything else would be more interesting. Valran couldn’t blame her, but it looked like it was going to be hard sleeping for a while. “I should hire a valet, I guess, to deal with all that stuff, but I haven’t really… bothered.”
No wonder her grandmother thought she was going to backslide! Valran cleared his throat. “I’m not going to be a very good valet. They usually come from circles further in, don’t they? And they usually have special training. I don’t have any of that.”
“No. You’re fresh out of the Outer Ring Wall, then, aren’t you? What House did my grandmother buy you from?”
He ducked his head, because he didn’t want her to know – he didn’t want himself to know – if he was blushing. “The house of Teswarnen Eshmarn, ma’am.”
“Teswar? What is rhi doing for rise… oh. Oh, that used to be Donnor Case’s House, didn’t it?”
Even he knew the name of Donnor Case. Boys and girls who sold themselves into a certain style of Servus status were often called Donnors, even now. His mother had sworn at him when he’d told her where he was planning on going: Off to be a Donnor. Didn’t I raise you better than that?
No, he supposed she hadn’t.
“Yes, ma’am. It was Donnor Case’s House for some time. Now it’s Teswarnen Eshmarn’s.”
“Ri’s doing very very well for rhiself , then.” Keldra caught his chin with her fingers and urged it gently upwards. “And are you ashamed that you sold yourself into Donnor-hood?”
“Do you wish me to be, ma’am?” The words were easy. The feelings associated with the words… were not. He looked at her eyebrows – natural, no cosmetics that he could see, and raising in question at him.
“When it comes to your emotions, I expect you to be honest with you, especially when we’re alone together. I expect you to be honest with me about everything, even if an outfit really does make me look fat. I expect you to tell me things, Valran, because I have not yet found the cantrip for reading your mind and would not use it if I had it.”
Valran twitched. The shudder accidentally pulled his chin away from her fingers, and he found himself hunched in on himself.
“Valran. Valran, I’m sorry, that -”
“You own me. You don’t need to apologize to me. You don’t need to apologize for anything. You’re in the Inner Circle.”
“This is true.” The cold tone of her voice told him he’d fucked up. “It is true, and yet I find myself wanting to apologize. And because I own you, and because I am Inner Circle, I can apologize if I want to.”
“Ma’am.” He bowed his head again. “I’m sorry, ma’am, of course you can.”
“Now, will you accept my apology for a joke in amazingly bad taste?”
“Joke… oh.” He glanced up at her face carefully. She was smiling, or at least the edges of her lips were twisted upwards. “Yes, ma’am. Yes, I will.”
“Thank you. Now, back to the original question. Are you ashamed that you sold yourself into Donnor-hood?”
“No. No, ma’am. My mother is ashamed, but I am not.”
“Good.” She patted his knee, very much like her grandmother. “That’s a good place to start.”
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.
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