“Duck your head a bit. There, like that.” Keldra Dre’s hand rested lightly on the back of Valran’s head. “There.” She tousled his hair gently. “Keep your eyes on the floor, but keep– here.” Her hand went down to the small of his back, her other hand to his shoulder. “Keep your spine straight, feet solid on the floor. You’re not bowing, you’re not kneeling.”
“So it’s—” Valran steadied himself in, he hoped, the position that she wanted him in. “It’s making a show of ‘I submit,’ without any of the rest of your body agreeing with that.”
“Exactly. And for you, that’s anyone in the First Circle, and only them. For me, it will be First Circle people who outrank me—”
“People can outrank you within the circle?”
“Oh, yes. People who have been here longer, who live in the central tower, who hold more holdings than me. So, about seventy-five percent of the First Circle, maybe more.” He could hear the way her tunic rustled when she shrugged. “But for you – remember this. You do not bow to anyone outside of the First Circle. Not unless they are one of those rare exceptions who are just that honored.”
“Mm-hrrm.” Valran moved his feet a little further apart. “So, with the First Circle, I never look up, not if they’re talking to me, not if they’re attacking me…”
“If they are attacking you, they are doing harm to my house and you can do what you see fit. If they are talking to you, no. Not unless they specifically demand you look in their face and you think it’s appropriate. Remember, you take orders from me.”
“And only from you? Even—”
Her finger on his mouth startled him. She didn’t shush him often – almost never. “Even,” she agreed. “Someone’s coming.”
He nodded, silently, and set his shoulders the way she’d been showing him. Should he… He hoped she’d tell him something.
“If they knock.” Her voice was almost a whisper. “Answer the door, announce them, and then kneel next to me when I sit. Easy enough?”
He nodded, not much of a move at all. Easy was never actually the word when dealing with the First Circle. But he had to start somewhere.
“Good.” She removed her hand and, much to his surprise, left the room.
Valran – waited. He was already in the room closest to the door, and he had nothing to do to prepare himself. It wasn’t like combing his hair for what was probably the seventh time that morning would actually change anything.
Besides, it was good practice in being still. He tried out the “pleasant waiting” expression Keldra had been teaching him on the wall, and the “resting posture” on his feet – which seemed to appreciate it.
The knock on the door came just as he’d reached a pleasant, quiet state of rest. He made sure his body posture was correct and answered the door, indulging only in a small flourish as he opened it.
Eyes down, shoulders back, meant Valran saw first the woman’s chest. Light blue silk draped artfully over a rather impressive view, and the embroidery on her tunic matched the gold patterns that had etched themselves into her skin. The gold glowed, too, shimmering in a pulsing pattern that didn’t quite match her breathing.
“Kantillun Ranya, to see Keldra Dre.” Her voice was musical – disturbingly so. Valran nodded his head. He didn’t know if she was First Circle, but nodding seemed safe.
“And my Servus, Fornal.”
“Yes, ma’am.” With Ranya at the end of the name, ma’am was a safe bet. -ya was a feminine ending. “One moment please.”
Valran turned until he was not quite back-to-them and not quite facing the door to the next room. “Mistress?” Mistress was another one of those safe bets. “Kantillun Ranya and her Servus, Fornal.”
“Thank you, Valran. Please see them in.” Keldra Dre’s voice preceded her into the room.
See them in? He didn’t know that part yet. He took another chance and gestured, as formally as he could, into the living room.
“He’s new, isn’t he?” Kantillun Ranya spoke over his head to Keldra Dre. “Well-trained already, though. I didn’t think you had it in you, Keldra.”
Announce them, then kneel beside me when I sit. He could do that. He glanced in Keldra’s direction. She shook both of Kantillun’s hands, nodded at Kantillun’s Servus, kissed cheeks, patted shoulders, and did a little four-step dance around the furniture.
Valran was never going to be able to pass as Inner Circle; he’d been caught out before they were done saying hello.
Finally, Keldra took her seat, and Valran could kneel next to her. From that position, he could watch Kantillun settle into her chair, settling little winglets (or fins) carefully against the cushions. He could watch the other Servus, Fornal, as he settled into a kneeling position by his Mistress. Somehow, the guy made kneeling with digitigrade legs look graceful.
“Of course he’s new, Kantil.” Keldra picked up the thread of conversation as if they hadn’t just waltzed through five minutes of greetings. “And, yes, he’s doing fairly well for being new – you don’t think that I’d hire a fool, do you?”
Fairly well. Valran studied his knees. That was pretty close to damning with faint praise.
“I didn’t think that you’d hire a Servus at all. You were always against the idea, when we were in school. What was it you said?”
“‘Any woman who thinks that a Servus is going to give her what she needs is a fool, and worse than a fool, a self-delusional child who’ll never actually belong in the Inner Circle.’ I remember, Kantil. I was there.”
“So was I, Keldra. So good to see that you’ve come down to earth with the rest of us self-delusional fools. And does he give you what you need?”
“Oh, well, I suppose he will.”
If the first answer had stung, this one stabbed. Valran swallowed hard.
“Then why did you get him, Keldra? The Donner Servus don’t go cheap.”
“And how did you know he was a Donner?” There was a sharpness in Keldra’s voice that Valran didn’t like. He focused on his breathing, on his stillness. It wasn’t all that hard to hold perfectly still. Was it?
“You haven’t changed his clothes that much yet, Keldra. He looks like a Donner. He moves like a Donner. Face it, if you’ve not had him bent over your bed yet, you’re wasting your money.”
“Well, you know I’ve never had all that much interest in that sort of thing. But my grandmother thought I could do with something like him, and, well, here he is.”
The sting of something like him had just hit when Keldra’s eyes raked over Valran. The look was a shopkeeper seeing a broken piece of merchandise, a lover disappointed with her partner.
Valran kept his eyes down and his back straight. What else could he do?
“Do you think I should put him in something else? Silk like you have your boy in, maybe? Or that fine linen they just imported from South Detterot?” Her hand brushed over his shoulder, an intimate touch. “Or maybe… nothing?”
Valran caught a breath right before it became a noise. It was enough to stay within the bounds of propriety – good Servi didn’t talk unless talked to, not in public – but not enough to keep Kantillun Ranya from laughing at him.
“Oh, Keldra, he doesn’t like that at all. Do it, do it. I mean – for every day, with that complexion, you should dress him in that lovely linen and, maybe, the Flow-fabric that your uncle’s place creates. Smooth lines. Make him look businesslike and yet indulgent – it suits you. Having him so very nearly human suits you, too.”
It did? Valran glanced up, moving nothing but his eyes. His mistress was looking very thoughtful.
“You know, Kantil, you have a bit of a point.”
Please not about the nudity.
Keldra stroked Valran’s shoulder again. “He might look lovely nude – but that’s the sort of thing you would do, wouldn’t you? And as he is, exactly as he is – he looks more honest.”
“And you’ve always been about the honesty, haven’t you?” There were so many layers of sarcasm in that question, Valran thought he needed a shovel to find the bottom.
“Of course I have.” Keldra’s answer, on the other hand, was bare. Naked, like she wanted Valran. “What do you think, Valran?”
“Ma’am?” He’d been looking up again, so he caught the briefest glance of Kantillun Ranya’s face. He imagined his looked almost as shocked as hers, but he couldn’t seem to get it under control.
“Linen? Flow-fabric? Soft silk?”
Something about her tone of voice was strange. And she was looking straight at him. Valran cleared his throat. “If it pleases you, Mistress, I like linen.”
Keldra smiled, just a tiny expression, but a nice one. Because he was watching her so carefully, Valran noticed when her eyes flickered over to Kantillun Ranya, and because he was listening for her responses as well, he heard the slight intake of breath.
“He’s got a lovely voice, Keldra… and he sounds like a professor.”
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Keldra’s hand landed once again on Valran’s shoulder. “Linen would do well for you, I believe. Properly tailored, it will make you look even more exotic. And I like that about you.”
“Thank you, Mistress.” Valran bowed his head, but not before he caught another flicker of expression on Keldra’s face. “You do me honor.”
“There is a great deal of honor to go around.”
Kantillun Ranya cleared her throat. “The day is getting late, and Fornal and I have an appointment with a Fourth-Circle hairdresser to do something about this mess of his. It’s been nice seeing you, Keldra.” She didn’t really sound as if she meant it, but, then again, that could be how Inner Circle people just sounded all the time.
“It’s always nice to see you, Kantil.” Keldra sounded just as flat. “Do please stop in again. If you send your boy ahead to let me know you’re coming, I could have refreshments ready.”
And that sounded like an Eighth-circle granny telling her children to give notice before they visited.
They were playing some sort of game – but what sort? How did normal Ladder-climbers ever understand all this?
They didn’t, Valran realized. Most people from the Outer Rings never made it this far in, not climbing normally. And if they did, they would be marked for the rest of their lives as outsiders.
“Oh, I don’t need refreshments. So nice of you to see us.” Kantillun Ranya executed some sort of bow, while next to her, her Servus did something far simpler. Then again, Fornal had probably been born, like Valran, to some outer circle. “Do enjoy your day.”
And finally they were gone. Keldra closed the door, and counted, her lips moving but no sound coming out.
Valran counted along. When they had reached a hundred, she turned to him. “All right. Stand up, stand up. As I was saying – you take orders from me, and only from me. Anyone else trying to tell you what to do is, in effect, trying to tell me what to do.” She smiled, fierce as a bear guarding her cubs. “And very few people here can tell me what to do.”