“Remember.” Keldra Dre tapped Valran’s nose for emphasis. He wrinkled his nose and struggled not to pull away.
“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.