“Re-task me?” That didn’t sound good at all. “But… to what? Aren’t I supposed to be her companion or something?”
“You can’t companion her very well when she’s not here, now, can you?” he leered. “Come on, that’s enough back-talk. They’re waiting for you.” He grabbed my arm and pulled me towards the door.
“They?” I limped along, trying to keep up. “I’m coming, I’m coming. Someone pounded my feet into ground beef yesterday, remember?”
“And then someone’s owner had him healed. If you didn’t want to get beaten, you shouldn’t have tried to run.”
“That’s what she said.” I kept up, trying to ignore the feeling like I was splitting open the wounds. “That’s why my feet aren’t healed.”
“I guess the girl has a little sense after all. Tim, go get him some socks and shoes so he doesn’t get his feet infected, then. Iseult will throw a fit if he gets an infection.”
“Yessir.” One of the brutes peeled off, heading to the sock depot or something, and I tried to look like I wasn’t worried or pissed when I was getting increasingly both.
“Lady Keva seems like a very sensible Lady to me.” Smarter than this ass, at least. And nicer. Even if she did expect me to be a lapdog.
“Well, you’ve got a little bit of a bias, I’d say. Being her favorite toy right now.”
“Hey, I didn’t ask for the job.”
“Of course you didn’t. We take the job we’re given. And what you were given is a cush job serving a spoiled brat. As long as you can avoid her tantrums, you’ll be golden.” He grinned at me, not a friendly expression. “Once she gets back. Until then, you’re all mine.”
“Yessir,” I muttered. Cush, hunh. “You really think being a slave of any sort is a comfortable position?”
“Of course.” He looked amused. “You Americans. Thinking life sucks if you don’t have your ‘freedom.’ You’ll learn.”
Limping down to what seemed like a basement level of the building, I was afraid he was right. I was going to learn something, all right.
“Here’s his shoes, sir. And socks. And some stuff.” Tim shoved the pile at Geoffrey. Geoffrey sorted out the shoes and socks and passed them to me.
“Put these on. Look, I don’t know why Keva is putting up with your mouthy bullshit, but until she gets back, there’s going to be none of that, you hear?
I sat on the floor and put on the socks – actually soft socks – and prison-style shoes, no laces. At least it was something. “Yes sir.” I could do this. It wasn’t all that different from being in the shop. Right? “Do you know when her Ladyship is getting back?” The more he talked about her like a naughty child, the more I wanted to up-formal her. What right did he have, mouthing off about her that way?
“Relax, boy-toy, it won’t be more than a week or two.”
I refused to take the bait. “Thank you.” I stood up, pretending it didn’t hurt to move. “I’m ready.”
He laughed. He had a nasty laugh, the sort that sounded like it was dripping oil. “You only think you’re ready. This way.”
What’s the worst it could be? I asked myself, as I followed at his heels like a good dog. It probably wouldn’t be as bad as the Baron would have been. Probably.
“Here’s the new boy, Elminia. No scars, nothing that won’t heal by the time Her Royalness gets back.” Geoffrey shoved me through the door with that, dropped the rest of Tim’s pile of stuff in my arms, and sneered at me. “Do what Elminia tells you. For that matter, do what everyone tells you.”
“Yes, sir.” Juggling a limp pile of clothes and what looked like a bottle of lotion, I turned around. Dungeon? Torture chamber?
Laundry room? In front of me was a short woman with arms like a weight-lifter’s, a narrow steel slave collar, and red hair streaked with grey, braided up and spiraled on top of her head like a helmet. “You’re the new boy, eh?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Behind her were three giant washing machines and matching dryers; two tiny redheaded girls that could have budded off of the large one like mushrooms (it was damp enough down there!) were folding and sorting stacks of what looked liked sheets. A place this big had to make a lot of laundry. I could handle folding sheets with pod-person redheads.
“Your bunk will be right back there.” She pointed with one of those tree-branch arms through a narrow door. “Go put your stuff on the empty bed, then come back out here for your assignment.”
I missed Keva’s bedroom already.
The room on the other side of the door was a barracks, army-tidy, with tiny bits of personalization here and there, a quilt, a drawing pinned up, a stuffed animal. The beds were thin and hard, the pillows and blankets thin and floppy. At least it was a bed. I set my stuff down, and headed back out, only to have a coverall thrust at me. A teal green coverall. At least it wasn’t pink.
“Put this on, and then go with Cass.” She gestured at a surprisingly-not-redheaded girl who was wearing a slave collar and a teal coverall. Her not-red hair (dishwater blonde) was knotted up under a cute little cap, and, all in all, she looked a lot better in the coverall than I would. She was wasted on this place. “Do what she tells you and don’t give anyone any lip.”
I put the coverall on. “Yes, ma’am.” I could handle a couple hours with Cass-of-the- not-red-hair.
Cass smirked, as if reading my mind, and thrust a bucket of soapy water and a rag at me. “Come this way. Don’t spill any water.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I was beginning to sound like a broken record, but, at the moment, I didn’t want to piss anyone off.
“Call me Cass. Save the ma’am shit for the people who care.”
O-kay, so maybe it was impossible for me to avoid pissing people off. “Sorry… Cass?”
She barked out a laugh and opened another mostly-hidden door. “Relax. We’re both in the shithouse together.”
“Yeah?” I followed her into the secret hallway. “What did you do?”
“Generally, we don’t ask that question around here. But I know you’re new, and need to learn. I was serving coffee to her Grace and I spilled it on her.”
“On purpose?” Having met the Grace in question, I could see that.
“Goddess and Consort, no!” She looked horrified. “Do I look like I want to spend the rest of my life shoveling horse shit?”
“Um… no? No’s the right answer, right?”
“Right. Damn. Don’t you Americans know anything?”
“Not about being a slave, clearly.”
“All right, that’s fair. So what did you do? Since we’re being rude and all.”
“Hunh.” That was a good question. “I’m not all that sure. I mean, I tried to run away, but Ke… Lady Keva seemed more angry at me for getting beaten up than for running. And then we had a fight, an argument I mean, but I dunno. She stomped out and never came back.” I shrugged, surprised that that bothered me as much as it did. “Geoffrey says she got called away.”
“You really don’t know anything, do you?”
“I said that already.”
“Here.” She opened another door a crack, peeked out, and then pushed the door open. “We’ll start washing the floor here and go that way until we get to the other end. If a royal passes, put your forehead to the floor and stay that way until they’re gone.”
I looked down the hall. It went on for a very long time. “Shit. All right. I’ve never washed a floor before, either.”
“It’s easy. Mindless, stupid work. Even an American ought to be able to handle it.”
It was, just like she said, mindless, stupid work. She hadn’t mentioned back-breaking, exhausting, and astonishingly detail-oriented. She had me wash the same piece of floor four times until she was satisfied it was clean enough… and then we did that again with the next piece.
At least there weren’t many people walking by. Maybe three people passed the whole time, all three of them cuing Cass into groveling, and thus make me do the same thing. Grovelling. Seriously. I couldn’t fault her, though; if mopping floors was punishment, I didn’t want to know what was below that.
By the time we got to the end of the hall, I was starving, exhausted, and I hurt everywhere. Every-fucking-where. My hair hurt. My teeth hurt. I don’t want to talk about my feet and back.
“Shower off,” Cass suggested. “There’ll be a change of clothes on your bed. If we hurry, we can grab something good to eat from the kitchen.”
The shower water was ice-cold, so I didn’t need any encouragement to hurry. I would have complained about the prison-like clothes, but they were clothes, covering all of my essential bits – including more socks, I guess they actually were worried about my feet – so I didn’t say a damn thing.
Dinner was surprisingly good for being snuck from the back of the kitchen (slightly larger and hotter than hell, and busier than Grand Central Station). Between the day of work and the heavy meal, I was nearly asleep before I got back to my bunk.
“Just think,” Cass teased, “tomorrow we get to do the same thing again.”
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