“This is ridiculous.” Ahouva, pressed between Jovanna and Aeowyn on the lounge couch, shook her head again, staring at the upperclassmen. They had pushed all the furniture to the walls, clearing a wide space in the center of the room, and now Kendon and Jeremiah were talking, quietly and intently, in the middle of the space. To one side, Jeremiah’s creepy little girlfriend, Lolly, bounced up and down like a kid
“It seems kind of romantic to me,” Jovanna sighed.
“It has that façade, doesn’t it?” Aeowyn shook her head. “You’re right, Who, it’s creepy.”
“Kendon and I are fine,” Ahouva continued, too aggrieved to be sidetracked. “There’s nothing wrong with us, and this creep with his creepy girlfriend has to go and get medieval like I’m some sort of possession..”
“Oh, stop that, Aeowyn,” Jovanna snapped. “It’s just as creepy as the upperclassmen when you get into that.”
“I’m just saying…”
“I know, I know,” Ahouva handwaved unhappily. “But do they have to get all medieval?”
“There was that one time…” Jovanna began hesitantly. “At the dance?”
“Just a misunderstanding,” she insisted firmly, rubbing her shoulders. “He had a bit too much to drink, and I was being a bit loud…”
“Well, maybe he’ll win, then,” Aeowyn interrupted pragmatically. “He seems very strong, and the other guy seems kind of like a beanpole.”
“But he wants her enough to challenge for her.”
“For some reason…” She’d seen the look in his eyes. She shook her head. “It’s not romance, Jo. It’s… I don’t know, but it scares me.”
“After Kendon, I wouldn’t think a skinny nerd would scare you.”
She glared at Jo. “He’s not scary. He’s just enthusiastic.”
“Hush, you two, they’re starting.” Aeowyn leaned forward in her seat as the upperclassmen began formal-sounding proclamations.
“If I lose this challenge, I promise that I will immediately transfer to you my Ownership of the Ninth Cohort Ahouva sh’Ruth,” Kendon said, the words formal but his body posture suggesting he had no fear of losing.
“If I lose,” Jeremiah picked up, just as certain-seeming, “I promise that I will immediately transfer to you my Ownership of the Eight Cohort Liliandra cy’Linden, called Lolly.”
What? Only Kendon’s order kept her in her seat. She glared knives at his back, suddenly wishing his failure. That weird little doll… why would he want her? Why was he risking losing what he already had?
“The terms of the challenge,” Kendon began, to be interrupted by the arrival of another group: Thorburn, with his girlfriend Ceinwen and his cronies, Curry and Basalt.
“We’re just here to witness,” the big man said easily, when Kendon and Jeremiah looked askance at him.
“What are the terms of the challenge?” Basalt asked. As the two explained it – again – Ahouva studied him nervously. She didn’t trust him or his friends; she’d seen them on Hell Night, stomping around like monsters, and she’d seen Ceinwen crying in the girls’ room. They were thugs, straight-out. Why were they interfering.
“Interesting.” Basalt was grinning in a way she definitely didn’t like. “What if I win? Do I get both girls?”
Kendon and Jeremiah started talking at once, shouting, arguing, until little creepy Lolly murmured, “if he challenges you both…”
“Stop helping,” Jeremiah snapped.
The tiny blonde fell silent, as Basalt, pleased, declared, “then I add myself to this challenge, challenging you both for your Kept.”
“And what are you putting up, if you lose?” Kendon snapped, while Ahouva tried to become part of the couch. No, no, not him. Jeremiah would be better…
“Myself,” the big man grinned.
Silence fell. “Yourself?” Kendon asked. “You’re putting yourself up as stakes?”
“I am. I’m not as pretty as the girls, I admit, but I think it’s a fair deal.”
They were thinking of backing out, Ahouva could tell, both guys shaking their heads. Maybe she could relax. Maybe she wouldn’t end up belonging to a monster; maybe she could stay with her Kendon. Then, sweetly, over the growing silence, they could hear Ceinwin asking Thornbun a damning question.
“Didn’t you say it was a major loss of honor to turn down a challenge?”
“I did,” Thorburn agreed, “but I’m sure their pride can take the hit. They’re big boys.”
No, damnit, Ceinwen, why? Did you need someone to be miserable with you? Ahouva glared at the girl she’d thought was her friend. Kendon had a temper. Taunted like that, he wasn’t going to be able to say no.
Indeed, he’d just spat out “accepted,” followed quickly by Jeremiah. Ahouva pressed her face against Jovanna’s arm and crossed her fingers, hoping, somehow, Kendon would win. He could do it, couldn’t he? He was so strong… and he wouldn’t have accepted if he didn’t think he stood a good chance. Right?
“Oh, my,” Aeowyn murmured, and then, a moment later, “Wow. Impressive.”
“Eek,” Jovanna added for commentary, and, loudly, “oh, shit!”
“Can anyone survive that, do you think?” Aeowyn pondered out loud.
“Gods, I hope so. I heard murder gets you expelled.” Ahouva cringed, her eyes still closed tightly, wishing her friends would shut up. Were they talking about her Kendon? No, they wouldn’t be that cruel.
“Wow… oh, dear.” Aeowyn’s knees curled up to her chest.
“Ahouva…” Kendon called, and she, finally, looked up. Her master, her boyfriend, was pinned to the ground, a spear of some sort through his shoulder, reaching for her. “Ahouva,” he said again. “He-” Jeremiah’s boot to his mouth shut him up, but she was already out of her seat.
She couldn’t use magic, he’d forbidden her to use it out of class. She picked up a stick, but he’d said she couldn’t attack anyone after she’d bitten one of his friends. She could flash them, maybe… no. “The clothes I put on you stay on you until I tell you they can come off, except during PE.” She couldn’t even do that. She sat down on the floor, tears flowing. He’d ordered her to help. She wanted to help, didn’t want to see him hurt. What could she do?
“Yield,” Jeremiah croaked, falling over next to Kendon. How had she missed that his intestines were spilling out? How could he still have been standing?
“Yield,” Kendon echoed, flopping like a fish on the floor. “You useless piece of shit, Ahouva, I told you to help.”
“I’m sorry!” she sobbed. “I wanted to, but I didn’t know what to do!”
“Well, you’re someone else’s problem now.” He was coughing up blood. “I release you to Basalt. Ahouva, you Belong to Basalt now. Fuck. Someone call a doctor.”
Her world was reeling. This pitiful asshole on the floor, bleeding all over the carpet, he’d just ripped out what was left of her soul and passed it on to someone else. She felt like she was the one spilling her guts on the floor. She felt as if she was the one dying slowly. She’d failed. She’d failed and he’d given her up. She leaned over and puked, vomiting up what little she’d had to eat for lunch.
“Woah, woah.” A hand was on her back. “Here, puking in open wounds is probably a little extreme even for Kendon.” Even more gently, the deep voice added “you have to say the words, Ahouva; until you do, the promise is still eating at him.”
She looked down at Kendon, her vomit covering his chest. That meant the hand on her back was Basalt, didn’t it? And Kendon had just… “I belong to you now?”
“Yes, yes you do. Come on, let’s get you out of here.” With surprising strength and even more surprising gentleness, he picked her up like a baby. Up close, he smelled faintly of charcoal.
“Why?” she asked, leaning into his arms. What was he going to do with her now?
His shrug moved her like a wave and twisted her already unhappy stomach. “Someone had to. Uh, hold on. I have to take Lolly from Jeremiah and give her back.”
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