Tag Archive | Gracnellanya Pace

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 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.”

 


Sorry for the delay! (Nano <.<)

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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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