Chapter Fourteen – Valran – Agree

“-agree?”

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.”

“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…”

“Trestor.”

“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.”

 


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Chapter Thirteen – Taslin – Agree

“Agree. Or don’t. You have to be agreeing to it, Taslin, you know that. They can’t force you to take a Patronage.”

“But they can make my life very difficult if I do not. They can make everything unpleasant. They can lean on the owners of the pit. They can Patronize someone else and encourage them to hurt me, or just hire people to attack me.”

“That’s illegal.”

“Lots of things are illegal. That doesn’t always stop them from happening.”

“I don’t want you to take on my Patronage because I’m the lesser of three evils, Taslin. I want you to be happy with your choice.”

“Jervennon, you’ve been nothing but kind to me. You’ve given me beautiful things. You’ve sent me nice food. You have been very patient with me.”

“I don’t want to pressure you. I don’t want there to be any pressure at all.” He held up both hands, palms forward. “No pressure, Taslin Gladiator.”

“I know.” She held up her own hands as well. “I know that’s what you want.” It was crazy, but she knew it. “I understand. The problem is just… nobody else is going to be that good of a person, or as patient as you, or as understanding as you.”

“I still don’t want to be the only good choice. I want to be the best choice when you’ve had time to think about it.”

He sounded, Taslin thought, like her little brother when he’d been too long without a nap. Like he was trying to be good but just didn’t have it in him anymore.

She sighed. Big, rich, strong man that wanted to be a good boy. By some strange definition of good boy. Taslin coughed. She could handle this.

“Jervennon, I know that. I promise you, I know that. But I don’t have quite the luxury of choices that you do. I have to accept someone’s offer soon, or it’s going to end up hurting me. You have the power-”

“I don’t have any power.”

“You have the borrowed power of your mother, at least for the next year. I’m a Gladiator. I don’t have that at all. If I accept your Patronage, the others will back off and leave me alone.”

“For a year.”

“A year is enough. They’ll have moved on to someone else in that time. And besides…” She smiled at him, and hoped that it would go over well. “I like you. And I doubt any of the others would be willing to negotiate with me.” Here was where it got tricky.

“Negotiate?” He sat down and stared at her. Today, his pants and shirt were red.

She pulled up everything Vinroth had made her recite and tried to make it sound natural. “A Patronage is a contract, so it can have terms. It has to have terms, actually, but most people use the standard pit contract as written.”

“I didn’t know that. I mean, I knew it was a contract.” Jervennon put his face in his hands. “I may be ill-equipped to deal with this.”

“We can learn together, and that’s just fine, as long as you’re willing to learn with me.”

“You’re willing to put up with me?”

“Jervennon. Did you see the tunic you bought me?”

“Salny the Clothier said it was appropriate…!”

“I imagine it is. But it’s – do you have any idea how people live in the outer circles?”

“No?” Jervennon cringed. “Not really. Just that it’s more cramped, and there’s less money. I mean, I do the charity things every year with my parents. But that’s all in controlled situations and you don’t really know what’s going on.”

Taslin nodded slowly. It was hard to get her brain around that, but she could work with it. “This is the fanciest tunic I have ever seen. Don’t get me wrong, I love it. It’s lovely. But it’s so far beyond anything I’ve ever seen or owned, it’s amazing.”

“…oh…” Jervennon blinked. “Should I not have?”

“Well, if you want me to accept your Patronage, I’ll have to have something to wear, won’t I?”

Taslin held her breath while that sunk in. That could go well, that could go really poorly, that could miss him altogether…

Slowly, he smiled. “Yes, yes you are.” Once again, it looked like he was talking to someone other than her. Taslin would take it. “Do you want to negotiate things like gifts, then?”

Oh. Oh, no. “No.” She shook her head. “Gifts are just that, gifts. As you said. There’s a couple things that are in the standard contract – it says you provide my clothing, my armor, and my lodging, but those can be pretty much anything, down to and including a bedroll, a standard-issue tunic and a leather cuirass.”

“Though that wouldn’t make me look that good.”

“True.” She plucked at the silk of her tunic. “This, this makes you look plenty good.”

“It makes you look very good, too.”

“Thank you.” She ducked her head and tried to hide a grin. He liked it. That was good. She didn’t want him to be disappointed. “Ahem. Negotiations are more often things like, like… the amount of time you want to see me away from the pit, the damage you will or won’t do to me, the medical care you’ll pay for if I’m injured.”

Taslin held her breath while that sunk in. That could go well, that could go really poorly, that could miss him altogether…

Slowly, he smiled. “Yes, yes you are.” Once again, it looked like he was talking to someone other than her. Taslin would take it. “Do you want to negotiate things like gifts, then?”

“Oh… oh.” He closed his mouth and looked thoughtful. It was an interesting look on him; Taslin thought, uncharitably, that it might be rare. “All right. That’s very practical. What about, hrrm, things like safe words?”

“Safe words?” Lansesh had used that word a couple times; Taslin had an idea what it meant, but she wanted to be sure. In this sort of thing, you had to be sure.

“If you’re getting into bondage or pain play, it’s something you use to end a scene if it’s getting in a bad place.” The words tripped off his tongue easily.

“Are you planning on doing…” Taslin swallowed. She could be a grown-up about this. She had to be a big girl about it; she had a feeling she was going to have to be a big girl about everything when it came to him. “Doing bondage and pain play with me?”

She’d seen pictures, of course, the pocket pornographic pamphlets that got passed around until they were worn ragged, and some of those had featured bondage, and blood-play, and other things of the sort. And there had been the romance novels at the Library, in which tied-up Gladiators (and sometimes tied-up Oligarchs and their hapless children) featured prominently in those publications.

But that was different than getting to the point where she was thinking about herself, herself tied up, herself gagged, helpless…

“Safe words sound lovely, if they’re not a deal-breaker for you.” She wanted to fan herself. The room was getting rather warm.

“No! No, not at all. I find limitations to be a pleasant challenge.”

He would until he found himself at the Tenth Ring Gate, at least. “Okay. So that’s all stuff you’re willing to negotiate?”

“Where I’m going to hurt you? If I’m going to hurt you? Yeah. It’s kind of like a scene, isn’t it? Just… bigger.”

“Something like that?” She thought. “And… are you willing to let me stop waiting and accept your Patronage now, before everything else gets complicated?”

“If you really think you’re ready, and you really want me as your Patron.”

“I am. And I do.” Firm voice, she could do firm voice. The one she used with her little brother and sister. “I like you, Jervennon of Cecby.”

“I like you, too, Taslin Gladiator.” His cheeks darkened and he looked her straight in the eyes. His voice got a little husky. “I think I could like you a lot.”

This was a bit uncomfortable. Taslin coughed. “Well, let’s sit down with a contract, then, and formalize the whole thing? Then, if you want,” she added a smile to gentle the way she’d yanked them back into a business transaction, “we could go out to dinner. Your treat, of course.”

“Of course.” His smile was a bit forced-seeming, but she couldn’t really blame him for that. “I know just the place. But paperwork first?”

“Please. If you don’t mind… I really would like something I could call you without losing my hair.”

“What’s wrong with Jervennon?”

“Sometimes I want to be formal. And, ah.” She felt her own cheeks heating up now. “If you’re taking my contract… it seems like I ought to.”

“Aaah. Well, we can write that into the contract, too. I suppose ‘master’ wouldn’t be appropriate, would it; you’re not really wearing my collar.”

“I wouldn’t mind when we’re alone.” She was surprised to find it was true. “But in public, that’s different.”

“Indeed. I’m not worth a ‘Lord’ yet. Hrrm. How about ‘Dar?’ It’s a term they use on Side Toenya. It means something like sir but it’s not so overused.”

“Dar Jervennon?”

“Dar Jervennon. And I’ll call you Sar Taslin.”

She bowed, because it seemed appropriate. “Thank you, Dar Jervennon.”

 


Sorry for the delay! Um. I  have no excuse? How can I make it up to you?

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Chapter 12 – Valran – Choose

“Choose.”

“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.”

“Ma’am?”

“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.

“Ma’am.”

“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.”

What?

“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?

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Chapter 11 – Taslin – Choose

“Choose.”

The barracks for the new and un-Patronized Gladiators were, by nature, not at all private. Thus, while Vinroth held up tunics for Taslin, most of the rest of the women were watching with interest.

“I like the violet one. I think it brings out your eyes.” Marrhi leaned over her bunk and fingered the soft fabric.

“But it’s going to make her skin look yellow.” Sellen wandered over. “The blue is nice, though. Where did you get these lovelies?”

Vinroth helpfully held up the three options – violet, blue, and a soft green color – for the other Gladiators to examine, and left answering that question to Taslin.

“The not-a-Patron. The first one, still.” Taslin took the green tunic from the valet and held it up to herself. “His gifts are getting more generous and less practical.”

“Why haven’t you picked him yet?” Lansesh plopped down on the bed next to Taslin. “Because, you know, there are others of us who are interested, too, and if you’re not going to take him, I’m sure he’ll start sending presents to the rest of us.”

“If Taslin is his type, Lan, do you really think you’ll be?” Corby shook her head. “Or me, for that matter. He’s clearly looking for a Tower sort and you, my dear, are a gate.”

“Hey! Take that back!”

“Nothing wrong with being a gate. You’re really good at what you do. The green’s good, Tas. I like the shape on it, if it works with the shape on you.”

The green one did have a nice shape. Taslin pressed it against her body, studying it. “This has to have cost him a fortune.”

“As I understand it, he enjoys spending his mother’s fortune quite a bit. And she indulges him, because he’s her only living child. His brother died climbing the Ladder a few years ago.” Vinroth had practice pitching his voice very low; Lansesh could probably hear him, but the rest of the barracks definitely couldn’t, not without magic. And while using the vepó in the barracks was not exactly forbidden, it was discouraged very strongly.

“So he has the money to spend. And he’s spending it on me.” The tunic was made out of thin silk, cut to skim along Taslin’s figure and end somewhere almost at her knees. It came with an under layer in a much darker green, and soft indoor boots the color of the walls. “I think I won’t really argue, although where am I going to wear something like this?”

“Well, today, to meet him. And you’re going to sit down and let me do something with your hair, too. Did you hack it with a knife?”

“Urm. Yes?” Her hand went to her hair. “All right. I’m meeting with him today, I take it?”

“Meeting? In that?” Lanesh reached over and touched the tunic. “You know this is embroidered in monk’s-tears, right? Nothing else makes that color.”

“How do you get thread out of monk’s-tears?” The multi-hued metal was generally found near Wellsprings of vepó; Taslin had never seen any before and now she was holding something embroidered in it.

“I think you liquify it?” Lanesh shrugged. “I’ve never seen it done, but my mother had a pair of slippers that were embroidered all over in that and silver.”

Taslin gulped a little at the excess that represented. “That’s… something.”

“They were very tough shoes, at least.” Lansesh stood up. “I like the green. Go with it.”

“She can go with whatever she likes, Lan. This is her engagement.” Corby swiped the air near Lansesh, not quite reaching her.

“Well, fine. If you’re not going to use the blue, I’ll buy it from you.” Lansesh grabbed the blue tunic and stood up.

“How do you have money if you don’t have a Patron either?” Sellen jumped off her bunk to look at the blue tunic.

“Well, my parents send me a little bit now and then. They’re not really happy about the whole Gladiator thing.”

“If your mom has slippers full of monk’s-tears, I can imagine they’re not. Wow.” Sellen shook her head. “You can afford this?”

“Maybe ten, twenty omeh? They can go as high as thirty, which would be pushing it. I can go up to seventeen with what I can get my hands on now.”

Taslin glanced at Vinroth. He nodded, a tiny movement. “Fifteen omeh, then.” She’d never had her hands on a tunic this nice before, so she didn’t know if it was a fair amount. But her mother could feed the family for at least two weeks on that, maybe as many as five if she stretched it. Or it would pay for a month of advanced classes for her brother and sister. Hel and Thet had promise, if they could just get a leg up.

“Fifteen it is! Hold on.” She fiddled around in her bodice and came up with a small packet of the spell-laced bills. “Seven, eight, nine… that’s a five, fourteen, and fifteen. Here. Oh, I know just where I’m going to wear this…”

“Should you be selling gifts your Patron gave you?” Sellen’s frown was purse-lipped and old-lady-ish.

“He’s not my Patron. Yet. And he said to me that I didn’t have to use them, that I could let my cat sleep in them. That I could give them to destitute Tenth Circle children.”

“People say things like that.” Sellen’s frown hadn’t unbent yet.

“Well, if he’s lying, then I’ll know he’s lying. If he’s telling the truth, then he won’t be in any place to mind. And if he minds anyway, then he can change what he says the next time he gives me tunics.” She stripped down to her britches and wrapping, then, giving it a moment’s thought, stripped all the way down to her skin. “Was there…”

“Of course there was.” Vinroth, his eyes on her face, passed Taslin the tiny silk breeches and the top-like thing that must be in place of her normal wrappings. “Here, let me show you how this one goes on.”

“You get a lot of practice with women’s underwear, Vin?” Corby’s tone was crude and the laugh she appended was even cruder. Vinroth, of course, ignored the tone.

“I am a valet to a stable of Gladiators. I have had more than enough opportunity to put such things onto to women, injured, indisposed, or simply wishing someone to do up the back fastenings. Here, Taslin, like this.” The vest wrapped around, holding each breast separately and buttoning in the back. It was nice, she mused, although a very different feeling from wrapped bindings. Probably not the best idea for the pit…

…but tonight was an entirely different sort of combat. She slipped the fifteen omeh into the vest and let Vinroth dress her.

Laces were laced, buttons were buttoned. The tunic was deceptive in its simplicity; if it weren’t embroidered in monk’s-tears, she could wear it under armor in the ring. But, like the vest, it fastened in the back, as if Jervennon wanted her to need help getting dressed.

“There.” Vinroth smoothed the tunic down and smoothed the boots up. “You look… very handsome. Here.” He steered her towards the barracks’ single mirror. “Don’t you think so?”

Taslin might have protested handsome; she had enough vanity and the thinnest urges of femininity. But looking in the mirror… “I do. I look sharp.” Something about the cut of the tunic made her look slender and minimized her already-small chest. “I don’t look sexy…”

“I think you’re hot.”

“You like boys, Sellen.”

“So? Maybe he does too.” Sellen threw a sock at Taslin.

Taslin dodged the sock and ignored Sellen. “What if he hates it on me?”

“Well, then you’ll wear something else the next time. There you go, you’re fine.” Vinroth did something to her hair with a bit of oil, and then something to her face with a bit of his pot of cosmetics. “You don’t look like a woman going on a date, but you look like a Gladiator on an engagement. And since that is what you are… it seems to be a good look. There.” He did something else to one lock of her hair, making it frame her face and somehow softening the sharp edges there. “Now, off to the meeting room with you, and good luck with your beau.”

“He is most definitely not my beau.”

“Oh, but he’d like to be. Remember what we talked about.”

“Are you her valet or her father?” Corby pinched Vinroth’s tush for punctuation. He barely twitched. “Neither. At the moment I’m the valet to the barracks. But not, I might point out, the barracks whore.”

“Soorrrr-eeee.” Corby held up both her hands and backed away slowly.

Vinroth smoothed Taslin’s hair. “You’re going to have a lovely conversation with him, and, with any luck, he’ll be as understanding as I think he is. Remember, he’s in a difficult position, and he’s going to have trouble thinking about anything else.”

“Difficult position.” Sellen’s scoff was soft enough that they could ignore it, so they did.

“And remember that you need to explain your position to him as carefully as you can. He doesn’t want to put you in a bad spot, or he’d be doing this far differently.”

“Can’t you explain it?”

“You know I can’t. Out with you.”

She fled, trying to make it look like a strategic exit and not an escape. Her boots sounded strange on the tile-and-rock floors: they were too soft to slap like sandals or thump like normal boots, but they weren’t bare-footed, so they made a shush-shush noise as she walked. She distracted herself by trying to make the movement silent. Shush, shush… nothing. She walked that way to the visitation room.

Oh. Oh, yes. She couldn’t ignore what she was here to do any longer. She took a measured breath, and then several more. The sword thrust is level. The opponent is clear. We step in, and we move the sword just so.

He was not the sort of opponent you could stab. Or, rather, she probably could, but her life would then be measured in hours and not years. Breathe. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, and center.

She had knelt for the collar. She could kneel again for Jervennon of Cecby.

His door opened. “Taslin Gladiator. Please, enter. You look wonderful in that tunic; is it the one I picked out for you?”

“Yes, s- Yes, Jervennon.”

“You remembered!” He clapped his hands together. “Lovely. I knew you were a good choice. I knew were brilliant.”

“I don’t know about brilliant, but I have a good sense of self-preservation.” Except when her mouth opened and words came out without running through her brain first; what had that been? Some suicidal bratty class-war remnant of her childhood?

Jervennon laughed. “I’ll take it. Come on in, please. Your valet sent word?”

Taslin dropped to one knee. “Jervennon. I am being pressured to choose.”

 

 


Sorry for the delay! (Nano <.<)

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Chapter 10 – Valran – Hold

“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.”

“Ah?”

“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.”

“Ma’am?”

“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.”

 


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Chapter 9 – Taslin – Hold

“Hold!”

Her opponent fell down on his knees. “I yield. Shit, what have you been doing?”

“Practicing?” Taslin sheathed her sword and offered the man a hand up. “You’re doing well, Sethen. But you’ve got to watch that guard.”

“You’ve been here two days longer than I have.” He took her hand and stumbled to his feet. “And you’ve already got a patron.”

“He’s not my patron, not yet.” She smoothed her hands over her tunic uncomfortably. “He’s just giving me gifts.”

“You’re not that naive, are you?” He tugged on the hem of his own top – standard-issue, where Taslin’s now fit her perfectly.

“Of course not. He’s giving me gifts to buy his way into being my Patron, but he’s very insistent on the gifts being no-obligation. Besides, they’re nice gifts. You ought to consider it.”

“If you’re his type, I doubt that I am.” Sethen and Taslin, between them, exemplified two of the three sorts of Gladiator, as common wisdom had it: he was tall, broad, and built like a Ring wall; she was lean, tall, and built like a Tower.

“I haven’t figured that out yet. He didn’t even try for services for payment rendered.” She unbuckled her sword-belt and hung it on the gear rack. “I have an hour before my stage class; do you want to take a walk together?”

Sethen, in the middle of taking of his own practice-gear and armour, froze. “Taslin…”

She hissed. “A walk, Sethen, a walk. That is all.” He would have to let go of his devotion to his True Love in the Ninth Circle eventually. But Taslin would not be the one he did so for.

“Why?” He had unfrozen, at least; he was going to have to work on his surprise reactions, or he was going to get beaten to a pulp in the pit really quickly.

“Because we’re of a time coming in, we’re getting along decently, and in a place like this, we could both use every ally we can get.”

“Are you always thinking about strategy?”

And this was why she was a stronger fighter in the pit than he was, despite his unassailable front.

“Usually. Sometimes I sleep. So, walk?”

“We’re allowed to?”

“We’re allowed to do quite a bit, as long as it doesn’t interfere with our matches, our instruction, our our Patrons, which neither of us have.”

“I never imagined wearing a collar would be so free.” He grabbed two towels off of the rack and tossed one to Taslin. “Shower first?”

“Sounds lovely. Maybe I can get through it without a valet offering to wash my back.”

“I’m not the only one? I feel left out.” Too late, she remembered that Sethen had trouble with sarcasm. “Joking. I’ve been turning Vinroth down for two weeks.”

“Much to Vinroth’s dismay.” The valet walked into the sandbox, smirking. “Here, I brought you both a clean tunic for after the showers you won’t let me in for.”

“You’re so good to us, however mean we are to you.”

“I work so hard for you, and all I ask is to serve you a little more.”

“It’s entirely selfless, sure.” She glanced at Sethen, wondering if he was understanding the joking; from the look on his face, no, no he wasn’t. She toned it down a bit. “Thank you, however, for the clean tunics.”

Sethen’s expression cleared; he understood that. “We worked up quite a sweat.”

Oh, Sethen. Taslin sighed. “We did. Thank you, Vinroth.”

“It was my pleasure. Go, you two. If I can’t join you, at least enjoy yourselves.”

There was no point even given that one a response. Taslin headed off to the showers, leaving Sethen to find his own way.

She should not have been surprised – but for once, was – when Vinroth followed her. “I need to speak to you.”

“I know Sethen’s a naif. I’m not going to break his heart, jump his bones, or both.” She draped her clean tunic over the shower stall and quickly added her dirty one.

“That’s good, but that’s not what we need to talk about.” He leaned against the cedar of the stall wall, not looking at her. Pointedly not looking at her.

“I’m listening. Pass me a back brush?” This time of the day, the water would be cold. Bracing. She lathered herself up from the hand-tap first.

The back brush came over the stall wall. “If you’d just let me in…”

“What do we need to speak of, Vinroth?”

“Your would-be Patrons. Taslin, please…”

Something in his voice was not normal – and the plural on Patrons was interesting. “All right. Come in, Vinroth.” She opened the door for him, and was not as surprised as she might have been to find him already stripped down. “Now, what is it?”

He slipped behind her. “Brush.”

“If this is just an excuse…”

“Just give me the brush, Taslin Gladiator.”

“Yes, sir.” She responded to the tone in his voice and handed over the brush.

He started scrubbing her back before he spoke. When he does, it was quieter than he could have gotten away with in anything but this intimate situation. “I have been looking into your Jervennon of Cecby, and when I was looking around, I encountered two more who are interested in you. They are, mmm, less patient than he might be.”

“Who are they?”

“One of them is a Third Ring businessman who’s climbing. He’s older than you, of course-”

“Of course.”

“-but he’s handsome, clean, and relatively well-spoken. He’s got the class-conscious thing you often get with Ladder-climbers – he started out Sixth Ring – and he has already dropped Patronage of two other Gladiators.”

“Sounds charming.”

“There are worse. Like your third candidate.” He really was quite good at washing backs. “This one is a Second Ring sort who was born into it. He’s not much older than your Jervennon of Cecby – just enough to have clawed his way back up – but he has a reputation for being ruthless. Turning him down or accepting his offer is likely to be disastrous.”

“It sounds like I’m between two rocks and a soft place.”

“That’s the thing, yes. Your first one, your Jervennon, has sent you five more gifts, and he keeps insisting you take your time. Your second one will wait, but not for long at all. He wouldn’t be a horrible choice – but he wouldn’t last long, in all likelihood.”

“And that would wash out Creep Number three but also Nice Boy Number One. Of course Nice Boy is only going to last a year.”

“But Nice Boy is showering you in very nice gifts. Which may or may not last once he’s gotten the title of Patron for you; I don’t have any history to look into for him, since he’s so shiny new.”

“Why are you telling me all this?”

“Would you believe it’s because it’s my job?”

“No. Because I have not seen you do this for anyone else in the weeks I’ve been here. Also, you’re being sneaky and whispering.”

“Of course, if I was sneaking and whispered with everyone else, you wouldn’t have seen me do it, would you have?”

“Touché. But you still haven’t answered my question.”

“I’m fond of you. And I have ambition, as well.”

“Ambition?” She twisted around to look at the valet. “Do tell.”

He reached over head. “Close your eyes.” Before she could do anything except exactly that, he had pulled the cord, loosing a flood of cold water onto them both.

His hands worked quickly enough that Taslin had only reached for a washrag before Vinroth had already sponged her off, getting the soap off her body and scrubbing carefully at a few raw places where she’d gotten sand embedded in cuts.

“There.” His lips were very close to her ear. She hadn’t realized he was that close. “I have ambition, Taslin Gladiator, and when you get your own room and your own valet, I don’t wish to be serving as a jack-to-any-hands for the rest of my life.”

“Aaaah.” She turned, until her nose was nearly touching his. “So you want me to find a good Patron…”

“One that will let you chose your own Valet and not assign one designed to be a glorified chaperon, yes. I want you to find a Patron that will make you happy, because I like you-” He was washing her shoulders, his face almost against her neck.

“-and because you want me to like you enough to bring you with me. You’re quite a Ladder-climber.”

“Not normally something you find in valets serving Gladiators, or Valets as a whole, I know. But it’s how this particular valet feels.”

“And not just because you want to give me more showers?” She leaned back enough that she could smile at him, because she didn’t really think he was trying to worm his way into her bed. Gladiators did not usually end up free to choose their own partners all that often, for one. And the sort of person that became a valet was generally not all that interested in the carnal.

“Well…” He smiled back at her, showing his teeth. She’d never noticed how white or how sharp they were before this. “That’s a nice side effect, if it should come about.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, too. So, how do I deal with my suitors, plural, without ending up with patrons, zero?”

“Make no mistake, if it’s not Jervennon of Cecby or another of this batch, you will get a Patron. You’re good, you’re lean, and you have drive.”

“I… yes, I have drive.” She took the washrag from him and began washing his back. It only seemed proper, and she needed something to do with her hands. “Is it that obvious?”

“Mmm… oh. Oh, you don’t have to…!” He blinked at her rapidly.

“I want to. Is it that obvious?”

“Obvious? Oh, that you have drive.” His expression settled on a slow smile, although he was very squirmy still. “If you’re looking, yes. I suppose if you were blind, oblivious, or uncaring, it might not be. But I look for Gladiators with drive.” His smile had resolved itself into something normal-for-him. “They make this job worth it.”


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Chapter 8 – Valran – Come

“Come.”

The female voice, again. Valran didn’t move.

“Come, Valran Servus. I am buying you.”

He risked looking up, now. It didn’t seem like the wisest idea, but there was something about her voice that demanded attention. So up Valran looked, into eyes like amber.

“Ma’am.” It seemed a safe bet, the way she was dressed. All those skirts – very rarely did someone who had chosen Ix dress in petal-layered skirts and pastel colors.

“You are not coming.”

“He does not belong to you yet.” The rescue, as it was, came from his right. Husky, deep. The one, probably, who had asked if he could suck (which of course he could). Valran’s glance darted that way; the man’s appearance matched his voice, thick, rich, like chocolate.

“He will. It’s only a formality. But he does not obey.” She sounded amused. Valran was suddenly very worried.

“It is presumed that he obeys the one who brought him to this place to be bid on. Isn’t that right, Valran Servus?” The alto purr from the left belonged to a woman who appeared old enough to be his grandmother. She looked amused.

“Ma’am, yes. I was told to kneel here and to answer questions.”

“To be purchased. You are answering questions to be purchased.”

“To be bid on, Kitdellesta Ashna. To be bid on, and the bidding has not begun yet.” Great-grandma had steel in her voice. Well, after all, she was an inner-circler. You didn’t get to the point where you could bid on people like Valran without having a great deal of clout and steel.

“And I am bidding. And I will win.”

“That’s a matter to be seen at the auction, not to be won before it’s even begun.” The deep voice answered this time. It seemed to be down to the two of them and the woman with the amber eyes – Kitdellesta Ashna. Valran’s heart was pounding. He’d heard of the Lady Ashna. Who in New Indapala hadn’t? This, this wasn’t good.

“Well, then, let’s get to the auction. I’ve not got all day, you know.”

“And if we have more questions?” The smooth neutral voice belonged to someone who looked as smooth as they sounded, and as neutral. No hair, anywhere. Not even eyebrows. And a simple tunic, if something that rich-looking could be called simple.

“Then put your money on the table, Debbesthando, or ask your questions of someone else. The adults are talking now.”

Where was the Deputy Oligarch?

“Has it come to the bidding, then? So soon? You are all certain that this is a piece of meat you would consider owning?” Ah, there rhi was. Calling him a piece of meat. Valran dropped his head, suitably reminded of his status, and waited.

“We’re certain. Can we get on with it already?” That had to be Lady Ashna, who seemed very certain she would win. She generally did, from what Valran had heard.

“Let us begin. We set the price, of course, at the basic nine thousand skone.-”

“Nineteen thousand skone.”

Well, Lady Ashna definitely wanted him. If only he could say the same of her – not that that would matter in the long run.

“I hear nineteen thousand, do I hear twenty-two thousand?”

“Twenty-nine thousand skone.” That sounded like Great-Grandma. Valran dropped his head lower. This was going to be bad.

“Thirty-seven thousand skone.” And that was neutral voice. Thirty-seven thousand skone. If that money was going to Valran directly, the house he could buy. The gates he could open. The food he could put on a table.

“Forty-five thousand skone.” And if that was the price that he went for, to Deep Voice, his mouth was going to get stretched and broken and, likely, so were other parts of him. Forty-five thousand?

“Sixty.” Lady Ashna snapped out her bid, biting off the syllables. “Why are you prolonging the inevitable?”

For sixty thousand skone, she could have bought a car.

“Sixty-three thousand.”

“Oh, come, Ablenfeshlin Rhon, what sort of bid is that? Three more thousand?” Great-grandma was unimpressed by Likes His Cock Sucked. “Seventy-three thousand.”

Seventy three… Valran swallowed a gasp. That was… that was higher than he’d dare hope or even dream.

And they were still going. Seventy nine, eighty two, ninety two, ninety three, ninety four, ninety five…

“Kitdellesta Ashna, I own your accountant. I know for a matter of fact that you cannot afford to pay ninety-five thousand skone for anything. Now, are you going to give up gracefully or am I going to have to force you to show your cards?”

A pause. Another pause.

“You let her build it up that high?” Debbesthando sounded shocked. Valran didn’t blame rhi; he was shocked himself.

“I wasn’t bidding alone, good gentles. Not at all. Face it, he’s attractive, strong-looking, well-spoken, the Purist look is attractive, and the way he quivers when you ask him about sex is delectable. All of us want him.”

“But you’re going to end up with him, Gracnellanya Pace, aren’t you?” Smooth and Neutral sounded resigned to it. Valran…

Realized he was making fish faces and shut his mouth. Gracnellanya Pace? Gracnellanya Pace? It couldn’t be. She had to have died by now. She had to have died before Valran was born.

“Yes. Yes, I am going to end up with him, Debbesthando. And the next time you walk into an auction, you will remember this, won’t you?”

“Is everything you do a lesson?” Likes His Cock Sucked was growling. It was a rather attractive growl.

“Ablenfeshlin Rhon, you know it is. Everything I have always done was a lesson. That is how I have lasted this long. Now. My bid stands at ninety-five thousand skone. Is anyone going to debate it, top it, or call my bluff?”

“I do believe you’re not supposed to tell anyone that it’s a bluff.” Having given in, Smooth and Neutral – Debbesthando – seemed to be enjoying rhiself.

Valran envied rhi; he certainly wasn’t enjoying anything at all right now.

“Does it matter?” Likes His Cock Sucked wasn’t having much fun either. Ablenfeshlin Rhon. Valran should remember the name.

“You are all fools.” Kitdellesta Ashna huffing out a complaint was something to be heard. Valran struggled against a shiver. “You’re going to let her…”

“Oh, be real.” This from one of those who hadn’t spoken at all during the bidding. “You’re letting her, too. Really, when she wants something, who has the nerve to get in her way?”

“She can’t live forever.”

“You’d be surprised how long someone can live.” Debbesthando stood up and, much to Valran’s surprise, bowed. To him. To the Servus kneeling on the floor. “Good luck, Valran Servus. I imagine you will need it.” Then, and only then, rhi bowed to Kitdellesta Ashna. “To you, ma’am, I wish you luck in finding exactly the proper servus to lick your feet.”

“I could ruin you.”

“But you won’t.”

Rhi bowed one more time, to Gracnellanya Pace. “And to you, Gracnellanya Pace Attrishish Latnerran, I wish you the best of luck in every endeavor. ‘May you live as long as you wish and love as long as you live.’”

“I didn’t know you for a poet, Debbesthando.”

“Many things are still unknown about me. But I would offer you this advice – he is young, and he has spark. He could be your ally in ten years, or he could become the one that topples you.”

“This ancient carcass is still fairly intelligent. But I thank you for thinking of me, Debbesthando. Good luck in all that you do. High walls and a warm hearth.”

“Safety for your sleep and moderation in your vepó.”

Did all Inner Circlers say goodbye for hours like this? Valran had thought he was smooth with his speech, but this was excessive.

No, they were done. Smooth and Neutral bowed one more time and left. Likes His Cock Sucked stood, bowed, muttered a few words of good-bye, and left.

That left Great-Grandma, Terrifying, and the few who had not bid at all.

“Will you bid higher?” Great-Grandmother sounded like a Gladiator in the ring, urging her competitor on.

“You know I will not. What will you do with him, Gracnellanya Pace? Surely you’re past the use of him.”

“I wouldn’t prepare my place in the bone fields yet.” She stood. “If my bid is uncontested, I will take him.”

“He is yours upon receipt of payment.” The Deputy Oligarch stepped forward. “Stand, Valran Servus, and prepare yourself to enter service with Dame Gracnellanya Pace Attrishish Latnerra.

“Ma’am.” He rose, bowed, and rose again, keeping his head down and his gaze firmly on the floor. This was, he had to admit, not exactly what he’d pictured when he’d thought about a life kneeling in service.

“Come, Valran Servus.” Great-Grandma – his owner – held a hand in front of him. “My valet will pay. You and I, we need to have a conversation.”

“Ma’am.” He took her hand, hoping it was what he was supposed to do. She could kill him with a thought. She probably wouldn’t, but very few people would be upset if she did.

“If I may…?” She tilted her head to the Deputy Oligarch.

“Of course. Enjoy him, ma’am.”

“I entirely intend to.”

Oh, good.

She was holding his hand with a grip that was, perhaps unsurprisingly, very strong. He couldn’t have backed away if he wanted to.

He’d known there was no backing out when he sent in the application. He’d known it when he bent knee. He’d known it when he rode past all the gates of the city save the last. It was one thing to have known it, however, and another to feel her grip on his hand like the cage closing behind him.

“Relax.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, I don’t think that’s possible.” Had he just said that? She was chuckling, oh, good. Probably good.

“I take it you’ve heard of me?”

“I don’t think there’s anyone on the Circled Plain who hasn’t, ma’am.”

“I would say ‘I’m not all that scary,’ but I’m going to try not to lie to you.” She kept walking as she spoke, so Valran did as well. This was a hall of the Deputy Oligarch’s complex that he hadn’t seen, but, then again, he hadn’t seen much of it yet.

“Thank you?”

“I like you.” The sun looked unbearably bright as they stepped outside. Another car awaited – although this time it was less of a surprise. She’d just spent ninety-five thousand skone on him, after all.

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“Now, in.” She gestured at the back of the car, and, of course, he slipped in. “And we’ll talk about the service you will be doing for me, Valran Servus.”


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Chapter 7 – Taslin – Come

“Come, Taslin Gladiator.” Vinroth touched Taslin gently on the elbow. “You have fought well, and now you must deal with another sort of battle.”

She blinked at him. The guards had taken away her opponent, and a medic had bound her wounds and fed her something that was supposed to make the pain go away. It had mostly made her muzzy-headed and a little bit silly.

“No more battles today. I’m not that good, yet.”

“No, not quite, although you were quite impressive out there on the field today.”

“You watched?” It must be the medicine that made her feel warm and silly.

“I always watch. But now you must stop fishing for praise and come with me.”

“I wasn’t…” She caught the look on Vinroth’s face. “I’m coming. What’s wrong?”

“There is nothing… wrong, not exactly. But you should hurry.”

“Hurry. Right.” She grabbed a tunic off of a hook and accepted the hip-wrap the valet handed her. “Where am I hurrying?”

“With me. This way.” He passed her a thin gold cord to wrap over the hip-wrap. “You still smell a little, but in this case I think that will work for you, not against you.”

“Well, I didn’t have time to get in an argument about showering with you right now, I was busy being drugged to the gills.”

“After the fight you’ve had, you’re allowed it, I’d say. Through here.”

The route finally worked its way through her drugged mind. “Vinroth, this is…”

“Yes. Now.” He brushed his hands through her hair and smoothed her tunic, her wrap, the cord, and everything else about her. “Be polite.”

“Vinroth, I’m always polite.”

“Be more polite than always.”

“I’m… all right.” They were upstairs. There was no reason to go upstairs unless an oligarch needed them for something – or an oligarch’s servant. This couldn’t be good. But she had been primped and smoothed, she was drugged and confused, and it would have to do.

“And remember to kneel.”

“Yes, of course.” She waited until Vinroth opened the door, taking the moment to take a few breaths. That ought to have steadied her; instead, it made her more nervous.

She took three, four, five measured steps into the audience chamber, dropped to one knee, and dropped her face to look at the floor. The single glance gave her a rough impression of the man standing there: he had black hair, copper skin, and nipples that were almost black through his white top.

“I live to serve.”

“You serve the Pit. I would like you to consider serving me.” She could hear his sandals slapping on the tile floor, moving closer to her. “I have been watching you.”

“Sir.” She kept her head down. The world was swimming, a bit. She hoped it was just the medicine.

“You fight very smoothly, despite being new.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I am very impressed. You’re still young, of course, still new and growing. But you could be famous with ease.”

“Sir.”

“You can call me by my name, you know.”

“Sir?” Oh, dear. Was he one of the famous ones? She risked peeking up at him.

In addition to the black hair, which was curly, the copper skin, which glistened, and the black nipples – which were actually black, she thought – he had astonishingly green eyes, lips the same black as the nipples – paint or nature? – and a body which was nearly as toned as a Gladiator’s, although in a much more sleek style. He was wearing the thinnest white shirt she had ever seen, and pants, also white, that were barely any heavier, as well as four earrings in his left ear and three in his right. His ears swept upwards into high points, the tips of which were also black.

“I’m sorry, sir.” She bowed her head. “I do not know your name.”

He laughed. This could be bad. “Ah. I see.” This could be very bad. “Of course you don’t. I am so used to the people who serve in the Inner Circle; I forget people outside of the Towers don’t know the families of the Oligarchs.”

The families of the Oligarchs. She snuck another look at him. He had to be at least as old as she was.

He chuckled again. “Oh, yes. In a year or two, no matter how hard she tries to fight it, my mother is going to have to send me down to the Tenth Circle, and I’ll have to live like the rest of the world. But until then, I might as well enjoy myself, no?”

“Sir.” She nodded her head lower. It seemed the safest option.

“You’re a cautious one, aren’t you?”

“I’ve been in the pit for less than a month, sir.”

“And you’ve been warned about patrons, haven’t you, or you’ve heard stories, either about the worst of the patrons or the children of Oligarchs.” His sandals slapped on the floor as he crossed the room. She held still, despite fighter’s training telling her to stand up, to get in a defensible position, to find a weapon.

He tapped her left shoulder, then her right, and then rested both hands on her head. “I understand. I’ve heard all the stories, too. You’re right to be cautious.”

“Sir.” Again.

“However.” His voice took on a little bit of laughter again. “If you call me sir again, I’m going to order all your hair shaved off.”

“Si… I’m sorry?”

“It would get your attention, it would remind you what not to do, and it would be visible to everyone without actually impairing your fighting ability.”

“You’ve thought this out, s…” Taslin coughed. “What should I call you, then? I have to be able to call you something.”

“My name is Jervennon of Cecby.” His hands moved back to her shoulders. “It’s lovely hair, please remember the name.”

“As you wish, Jervennon.” Taslin nodded her head. “What can I do for you?”

“For now? Accept my gifts. I don’t want you to accept my patronage yet, but you can take gifts from anyone you wish until you do accept a patron, I think.”

“You think?” She found her voice squeaking.

“I’ve never been a Patron before.”

“I’ve never been a Gladiator before.” Taslin glanced up at her possibly-would-be-Patron and risked a smile. “If you want to give me gifts, si – Jervennon – and the rules say I can, I will not turn them down.” There, that sounded sufficiently formal without sounding as if she was accepting a Patronage. She hoped.

“Who would know?”

“Vinroth will know. The valet who led me up here.”

“Within any reason, and if I know valets – I’ve known a few, let me tell you – this Vinroth will be waiting just outside the door.” His hands were gone from her shoulders, and his boots thudded on the floor. The door swung open. “Ah. Are you Valet Vinroth?”

“That is I, sir.” She could hear the swish of fabric as Vinroth, presumably, bowed.

“Tell me, as I have never been a Patron before and Gladiator Taslin never a Gladiator before, what protocol is in place for giving gifts outside of a patronage?”

“You wish to give gifts to someone… without a Patronage?” It sounded as if his eyebrows raised. Vinroth had very expressive eyebrows.

“I wish to court her into considering a Patronage.”

“Your lordship is very clever. Well, if that is what you wish, there is no reason you cannot give gifts to anyone you please, and there is no reason that an unassigned, unattached Gladiator cannot take gifts from whoever she pleases.”

“Very good. Then there are some gifts I would like you to take to her room for her, if you would.”

“You don’t wish to hand them to her?”

“No.” The change in tone was sudden. “No. The gifts do not need to pass from my hands into Gladiator Taslin’s. That can wait until the Patronage is accepted, if it is.”

“As you wish, sir. The packages?”

“Here.”

There was the sound of shifting material – something clanked – and then the softest of oof-sounds. “I will take this as required, sir.” Vinroth’s voice bore the slightest sound of strain.

“Very good. See that everything is proper. And you.” The boots again. Taslin’s shoulders twitched with the need to move, to watch. She did not. She held still, as if her life depended on it. “You.” His hands landed hard on her shoulders. “Look at me, Taslin Gladiator.”

She looked up at him. There wasn’t a lot of choice, when it was put that way. “Jerevnnon.” She tried to make it sound like sir.

“Understand. These are gifts. These are not payment for services. They are a token of my appreciation for your skill, and a sign of what could come, should you accept my Patronage. They’re gifts.” He squeezed her shoulders. “With no obligation, save that you look at them, and understand that I gave them to you because of the way you move in the pit.”

This was getting stranger and stranger. She nodded, carefully. “I understand.”

“That means, should they not suit you, you don’t have to use them. You don’t have to use them. They’re gifts. If you want to give them to destitute Tenth Circle children, I won’t argue. If you let you cat sleep in them, I won’t argue. If you wear them proudly, I will not argue.”

“S… Jervennon…”

“No, I’m serious. I need you to understand that, or these aren’t gifts, they’re very fancy shackles.”

She understood, finally, that he wasn’t really talking to her. She nodded, because that was what it seemed like he needed. “I understand. I appreciate that you like my performances enough to give me gifts. If they suit, I will wear them proudly.” She risked meeting his eyes again. “I really do appreciate that you liked it that much. I didn’t think today went all that well.”

“Today was a travesty. But that was not your doing.” His hands lifted off of her shoulders. “Go. And I hope you enjoy the gifts.”

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Chapter 6 – Valran – Thrust

This chapter contains material that some may find NSFW

“Thrust out your hips more.”

“Now you’re just making fun of me.”

“No, I’m telling you what to do.” Bicla put her hands on Valran’s hips and pushed them forward. “Like that. Now you look…”

“Like a ten-piece whore on a street corner.”

“No, no, at least a fifty-piece whore, this is serious Fifth Ring stuff. You’re not a seventh-circle whore. At least, not anymore.”

“You’re so nice.” Her hands on his hips were actually a bit distracting. “Bicla…”

“It helps if you’re erect. People like that sort of thing.” Those hands weren’t exactly on his hips anymore. Close, but moving further away as she spoke. “And if you’re already had one orgasm, you get this lovely flush to your cheeks…”

“And this wet spot on these nice pants that were provided for me. That’s not going to look very good.”

“Then you’re going to have to settle for looking like you really, really want someone to satisfy you.” She cupped his balls through the thin fabric of his pants. “I think I can manage that.”

“Bicla…” He had been oiled, brushed, smoothed, made up, and dressed, such as it was – the pants were so thin you could see exactly how little body hair Bicla had left him.

“Valran…” She had to stand on her toes, but it let her breathe into his ear, warm, tickling breath. “Don’t you want me to play with you?”

“Bicla, do you really want to send me out there squirming, twitching, and blushing?”

“Blushing? Mm, is the big bad Servus a virgin?”

“Do you have any idea how ridiculous that sounds?”

“Do you have any idea how ridiculous you sound? It’s a little petting. You’ve had my hands all over you already.” She squeezed his balls – lightly – by way of punctuation. “I’ve had my hands all over these already.”

“Unf.” There was very little argument to be had against that, but he tried anyway. “That was different.”

“No. That was preparing you for the sale. This is preparing you for the sale. The only difference is the specific preparation. That was grooming; this is stage dressing.”

“Stage dressing!”

“You’re going on stage and I’m dressing you.” She squeezed again. “There, you’re starting to look nice. Oh, very nice.”

He could feel his cheeks heating up. “Bicla…”

“Relax, boy. Someone out there is going to like your purist almost-pre-Flood-human sort of look. It’s rather rugged.”

“I’m wearing lipstick.”

“Lip gloss. You didn’t strike me as a Manly Above All Else sort.”

“I’m not. You’re the one that called me rugged.”

“Mmm.” She pinched his nipple, quick and sudden, and then the other one while he was still drawing breath to complain about the first. “You are, a bit. Your skin is this reasonable brown color, your ears barely have any point to them at all…”

“Your skin is creamy and your hair is blonde.”

“We’re not talking about me.” The playful tone in Bicla’s voice had been replaced, instantly and with no traces left, with a sharp-edged knife of a sound. “We’re talking about your salability.”

“You know, until you started talking about it, I really wasn’t worried. I didn’t think the department would have accepted my application if they didn’t think they could get some money for me. That’s what they do, isn’t it?”

“Never can tell, especially with the outer rings, until they clean you up and put you out there. Some look pretty and can’t talk the game to save their lives. Some can’t bring themselves to really kneel. Some just clean up ugly.” While her voice was still harsh, it no longer had daggers in it aimed at Valran’s throat.

“And me?” Giving her a chance to insult him might calm her down from… whatever had made her angry.

“You clean up pretty nice. You make up nicer. And not everyone who comes here wants a pretty fay-looking boy.” She pinched his nipple again, harder this time, and smiled when he gasped. “So tell me, why did you send in your application to this particular place? Some other people sell for, you know, more manly occupations. Bodyguard. Driver.”

“You’re a driver.”

“We’re still not talking about me.” This time, she smirked at him. “We’re talking about why you chose this particular house to set you on your route skipping the Ladder rungs.”

“You’re talking about it.” He straightened his pants. “I had a lot of reasons.”

“Give me one?” She tugged his pants down a couple inches. “This looks better, anyway.”

“It has a higher success rate. People who kneel here, they come out at the other end skipping more rungs, and happier.”

“Than being a bodyguard?” She stepped up behind him and wrapped her arms around his waist, letting her hands drop just above his junk.

“Oh, come on, what do you think? It also has a much higher survival rate.”

“You didn’t want to go Gladiator, then?” She stroked him through the thin cloth.

“Not in a million years. Not in a trillion years.”

“You know, if you had a trillion years, being a Gladiator would probably be the least of your worries.”

“Very likely.” He gave up on resisting and leaned into her. “You’re quite good at this.”

“I have practice. But, mmm, you make it rather easy.” She stroked him with feathery, teasing touches, barely brushing and then pulling away.

“You’re not so good at the sweet talking.” Which was more of a relief than it probably should have been. He was not having a romance with Bicla. With any luck, he was about to be sold. Romance with someone else’s Servus was not really on the menu. Things that even hinted at romance shouldn’t be on the menu.

“Ha. I don’t have much practice with that at all.” She kissed the back of his neck, just above the collar. “You smell very nice.”

“I ought to. You doused me in scented stuff.” Valran tried not to sniff himself.

“With any luck, you’ll need to get used to that sort of thing. Lots of people who come here looking for a boy want someone who smells nice and is nice and slippery and ready all the time.”

“Trying not to think about that, thanks.” But now, of course, he was. Nice and slippery and ready…

“And yet you sent your application here.” Bicla raised her eyebrows at him. It was enough to let him pull himself back under control.

“As I said, it has the highest success rate.”

“And you said you had your reasons.” He could feel her teeth, now, against his skin. “You’ll tell me in ten years?”

“You have my word on it. Ten years from now, we can sit over coffee and share war stories.”

“I never promised you mine.” Her stroking grew rough again.

“I know… Unh! But you can’t blame a man for being curious, can you?”

“Not if he keeps his mouth shut. You should learn to be meeker and quieter, Valran Servus.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He tilted his head downward, which, he knew, bared more of his neck to her.

“Bicla, is he ready?” The Deputy Oligarch’s voice was like a splash of cold water.

“I doubt he’ll ever be ready, Boss.” She didn’t jump away from him, but Bicla’s hands dropped away and Valran felt her step backwards from him. “But he’s shiny, he smells nice, and he has a raging boner.”

“You’re so eloquent.”

“You know you like it, Boss.” Bicla shoved Valran forward. “Go get ’em, pretty boy.”

“Thanks so much.” He stumbled, caught himself, and kept walking. Head down. Hands folded behind his back. Steps slow and measured. He had practiced this. “Ix?”

“Keep walking forward. When you see the black x on the floor, stop, and kneel. There, answer what questions are given to you. Keep your head down, keep your answers polite.”

“Yes’ix. Thank you.”

“And keep your mind on whatever’s got you stretching your pants so nicely. It will help quite a bit in your price.”

“Yes’ix.” Commanded to think of Bicla touching him. This could get interesting. He nodded lower, almost a bow, and continued his walk forward.

The doorway felt more ominous than the gates deeper and deeper into the city had. Those were about the whole city; this was about his life. The mark was obvious, the tape a little worn at the edges.

His vision narrowed to that X. He fell to his knees, not even trying to soften the fall. He gripped one wrist with the other, to keep his hands from jerking forward, and stared resolutely at the floor.

“Good people.” The Deputy’s voice was too close to Valran’s ear; he nearly jumped. But the position he had himself in didn’t allow that, so he held his wrist a little tighter and stared at the tile floor. “This is Valran Servus. Will you take him home?”

“Can you serve, Valran Servus?” The alto purr came from his left. He nodded his head.

“Yes’ix, yes.” Of course.

“Can you suck?” That from his right, husky and deep.

Well, that was direct. “Yes, sir.”

“Can you speak in public?” He thought that was the first voice again, but it seemed to have moved a bit.

“I don’t have extensive public speaking training. But I can say ‘yes, ma’am,’ ‘yes, ix,’ and ‘yes, sir’ and generally not sound too stupid.” He hoped.

“Can you drive?”

What sort of question was that? And this one from a smooth neutral voice he hadn’t heard before. “No, Ix.”

“Pity.”

“What sexual acts will you cringe at?”

They were back to the deep male voice. Valran allowed himself to look as if he was giving that a moment of consideration, while he thought instead of all the sexual acts that he wouldn’t cringe at, all the lovely things he could imagine doing to Bicla, having Bicla do to him, doing with her.

“I will not cringe at anything my owner asks of me, of course, ix.” His voice was husky; he was picturing Bicla, naked, riding him, her nails digging into his shoulders.

“But there are things you would want to cringe at, aren’t there?”

“If I were a free man and not a Servus, then there are things I wouldn’t do willingly.” He coughed. “Generally anything involving bodily waste.”

“What about sex involving vepó?”

He thought that was the one that had asked if he could drive.

“It is not my favorite thing in the world.”

“What about…”

The questions went on. From the sounds of things, there were at least seven bidders in the room, and they all had far too many questions for Valran. He answered them all. He answered them all honestly, because “detect lies” was far too easy to draw and the last thing anyone wanted was a dishonest Servus. He answered questions until his throat was raw.

And then… “I’ll take him.”

The voice was female. The voice was female, and he had not heard it before. And everyone else in the room fell silent.

Chapter 5- Taslin – Thrust

Thrust. That was step one. Step two was definitely don’t get thrust into. Taslin danced out of the way of her larger opponent’s blade and, because she could, made a twist out of it so that she could then go for another thrust, this one a move that looked far more complicated than it was.

The audience – such as it was – cheered. Her opponent – such as he was – barely managed to dodge in time. Her teammates – such as they were – shouted encouragement and his – such as they really, really weren’t – hissed and yelled.

Taslin loved it. She slapped him in the face with the flat of her blade – not grandstanding, she told herself, she could tell Gan she’d done it because she wanted to get him angry.

If she’d been trying for that, it worked. He bellowed in rage and came running at her, head down and sword out.

It was too easy. It had to be a trick. If it was a trick, if he was actually planning this out, his off hand would come up like thus.

She dove out of the way – to his sword-hand side, not to his off-hand side – rolled up behind him while he was still trying to stop his forward momentum, and slipped her blade through the thin gap in his armor.

The crowd took in a collective breath.

It wasn’t a killing blow, but, then again, it wasn’t supposed to be. Instead, it was a humiliating blow, a distraction from what her off-hand was doing and, most importantly, leverage to get herself tall enough to get that off-hand and its weapon to his throat.

The crowd screamed its pleasure.

All of this had to be more than a bit painful for her opponent, but Taslin was going to have bruises over two-thirds of her body, so he could cope.

“Yield.”

It wasn’t for him, it was for the audience, so her voice was pitched loud, aiming for the back of the amphitheater.

“Fountainspawn.” He lifted his left hand, palm-up. No, no, he was not going to start pulling power here, not in the middle of the sandbox, what did he think he was doing?

YIELD!“ She made it a bellow because she didn’t want to make it a panicked shout. He didn’t care about his throat. He didn’t care about his throat. Didn’t care about…

She dropped her hold on her sword and wrapped both her arms around his left. From that angle, she could put the blade to his wrist the same as she’d had it to his throat.

The crowd rose to their feet.

“Yield.” This time, she kept it at almost a whisper. “Drop the weapon and yield or I drop your hand in the sand and you’re a one-handed bond-slave.”

Her opponent’s blade fell to the ground, and he fell to his knees. “I yield, damn you, fountain-spawn.”

She sheathed her off-hand blade and scooped up her sword, never taking her eyes off him. She’d learned that lesson the hard way in her second match.

He stayed on his knees. The audience cheered. Taslin, making certain she was well out of her opponent’s reach, bowed, turned, and bowed again.

This match – like all of her matches so far – was a warm-up before the main event, a crowd-appetite-whetter. Taslin didn’t mind. She needed the practice, for one thing, and for another, sometimes those who would be patrons showed up early.

The man on the ground twitched. Taslin ducked out of the way and struck out with a foot to his face as he dove towards her.

“Fucking fountain-spawn!” He fell back onto his face. “I’ll fucking kill you.”

She danced back again and shifted her blade into guard position. “No. No, you won’t.” Would the guards interfere?

“You miserable waste-lander, I need this win!” He dove at her again, and she danced backwards again. She was going to have to kill him if he kept this up. She didn’t want to kill him.

“You’re free with the insults for someone who can’t win a basic match of sword-fighting.” She stepped around behind him. “You’re pretty free with the insults altogether, actually. What do you think that says about you?”

“What do you mean, you useless waste of flesh?” He’d gotten to his feet again, oh, good. That was the last thing she wanted. Well, the second to last thing.

“Well, seriously. You’re relying on insults. You’re throwing around curse words.” She took a moment to unsheathe her off-hand blade and watched her opponent. “You’ve stepped outside the realm of honor, of course. You yielded.”

“Are you…. are you playing to the crowd?” He blinked at her. “Are you making a game out of my life? Some sort of show?

It almost threw her off her game. “We’re gladiators.“ She took three steps backwards and pitched her voice to the crowds. “We’re gladiators. We fight for them!”

The audience cheered and jeered back at her. Her opponent, however, had clearly had enough. “Not me!” He rushed her, head down, a blade he hadn’t been showing before in his right hand. “Not me, you miserable fountain-spawn, not me!”

She’d been trying to get him angry, but there was angry and then there was raging. He was pulling power again, too, no, no, they would not be impressed with her if they had to seal off the ring, they hadn’t had to do that in at least twenty years.

Ten? Lots of years, at least, and that was in no way the point. The point was coming at her, followed by a bellow. She dodged out of the way, rolled – a different roll this time, in case he was actually paying attention – and came up under his legs with her offhand pricking where his balls ought to be if he had any.

Which remained to be seen.

Her sword, from here, nicked his wrist and rested just so on that delicate place where everything could go really, really badly. “Stay yielded this time, or die.”

She made sure everyone in the audience could hear her. She, of course, could hear them, too, as they chanted.

“Die, die, die, die, die.”

He’d frozen again. “Fountain-spaaawn…”

“Yield. Or die. It’s that simple.” She pricked a little deeper with both weapons.

“You cannot be this good!”

Frankly, she didn’t think she was, but she was also pretty sure that agreeing with him wouldn’t help the situation. “Yield. Do. You. Yield?”

“Blast and damn it, I yield.” He once again dropped his weapon.

“Don’t move.” She rose to her feet, slowly, keeping the points of her weapons in place. “Shall he be pricked or shall he be slit?”

“You’re not…”

“You forfeited everything when you ignored your yield. You knew that.”

“I had to win! They told me to win!”

“Honorably.” She gave a little twist to both blades. “Pricked or split, good people?”

The crowd – made noise. It was unclear, at first, what the running trend was going to be; there was just shouting and then a little more shouting. And then one man stood from the oligarch’s boxes.

The crowd fell silent. They were all looking at him. Taslin was looking at him. Her opponent was looking at him.

“Pricked or Split, good oligarch?”

Which one was it? From here, it would be almost impossible to tell, even if she knew all of them by sight. Male, she was pretty sure – he wasn’t wearing so much clothing as to obscure that, for one. But beyond that? He had black hair, copper skin, and nipples that were almost black through his white top.

“Pricked. And scarred. Let his treachery be remembered. Let it be burned into his Name.”

Taslin hissed. Even her opponent groaned, and she’d thought he was beyond that.

But then she lifted her voice up properly. “As I am commanded.” Her knives dug in until he groaned in pain, and then again, until she could watch the blood well up red and sweet from both target. “Remember this.”

“I’ll remember you. I’ll remember you, Fountain-spawn.”

Taslin pulled back her blades and wiped them on his clothing. “Good. I’ll certainly remember you.”