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The town of Jefferson had survived the Disaster and the subsequent fall of most of civilization more intact than it had any right to expect.
It wasn’t the only place to survive, of course – people who thought ahead generally did fine, places that were far from cities did better. But Jefferson was a whole town where the power still ran, the water and sewers still worked, and people lived relatively normal lives, if in a tighter scope than before.
And all they had had to do is swear allegiance to the man on the hill.
For nearly fifty years, the man on the hill had kept Jefferson safe from everything from dysentery to rampaging dinosaurs. He’d imported doctors, and then people so inclined to learn how to be the next generation of doctors. He’d made sure there were farmers enough to farm the land, and fuel enough to make the tractors run. He made sure the power ran, and the water flowed.
He was a fae, of course, one of the monsters who had ruled the world. And, deep inside their hearts, the people of Jefferson hated him a little bit.
The man on the hill didn’t mind. He didn’t need them to love him. He needed them to stay there, to grow and prosper, and, when they needed him, to obey him. It wasn’t a bad arrangement.
It worked fine, for the most part, until someone else found out about it.
The problem with fae overlords, you see, is that they can be challenged. And sometimes, if they have grown lazy and complacent in four and a half decades of ruling over humans… they can lose those challenges.
In a day, the lives of the humans in Jefferson changed.
They had a new overlord. This one did not pretend to be human; he tromped about the city with his clawed feet and his overhanging tusks. He booked no argument nor disagreement. After the first two to offer him such died quickly and painfully, the village chose to give him neither.
When he demanded tribute, they gave it to him. He still kept the water coming, and the power. He still made the food grow, and the animals healthy. He still killed the rampaging monsters.
It was better than dying, they told themselves.
When he demanded they serve in his castle an hour a week, every one of them old enough to walk, they did as he demanded. He still brought in qualified people from out in the world. He still staffed the school. It was, they told themselves, better than the alternative.
When he demanded fresh boys and girls for his bed, they were too far in, too far gone, to put up more than a token resistance. Memories of their old champion were far and few between. This new master had taught them too well not to fight. He probably wouldn’t be too bad to them, they told themselves. It was probably better than death.
Even if some of them were never seen again.
When the girl Aniza was sent to the overlord’s bed, she was too young to remember life under their previous lord, life before they had given everything up. Still, she fought. Her brother had gone to the monster on the hill, and never come home. Her best friend had gone, and come home pregnant and un-speaking.
The monster on the hill laughed at her, fighting her father, her uncle, the men and women down the street. “The time for that was before you were born, little sheepling.”
She spat in his face. He laughed even more, and bound her with chains. “It’s not your fault your family are sheep. But you are a sheep nonetheless.”
“Goat.” Her retort was short and snappish; the monster kept laughing.
“You’ll be fun, while you last.” He carried her over his shoulder, into his lair.
“I’ll outlast you.”
“You know, most people in your village have the sense not to talk back to me.”
“You kill everyone who tries.”
“Not everyone. Just enough to make the point.”
He took her into her lair, deep within what had been the man on the hill’s house, and chained her between the pile of blankets and furs he used as a bed and the still-functioning bathroom.
He brought her food. She threw it at him. He slapped her, hard enough to leave a mark, and left her with the remains of her meal.
He brought her food again the next day, and she threw it at him again. Again, he slapped her, and again, he left her with the remains of the meal.
By the third day, he was bringing her food that did not leave a mess when thrown. And he noticed, when he took away the last day’s food, that she was eating some small amount.
Still, when he repeated the ritual with her on the fifth day, he lingered to speak. “You need to eat.”
“You’re going to kill me anyway. Why does it matter if I starve?”
He sat down, at that, and looked at her. Her face was puffy with healing bruises, but she was still glaring at him. Although she could reach the shower, she had not cleaned herself up. She looked as if she was already on her way to dying.
“And if I was not going to kill you?”
“Then worse than death. I saw what Bev looked like when you were done with her.”
“Bev.” He did not often remember names. He remembered that one.
“Blonde girl. Blue eyes. Pregnant.”
“I remember her.” He had not known she was pregnant. “I never hit her.” He hadn’t needed to.
She didn’t believe him. He could tell. So he left her alone for the day. He had enough to do, running his village. Making sure they did not come to harm.
They hated him, of course, far more honestly than they had hated his predecessor . It made it easier to keep them safe.
He brought her, the next day, one of his favorite meals. This time, he grabbed her wrists before she could throw it. “Don’t.”
“I don’t want your food.”
“Then I’ll put it down.” He did so, just out of the reach of her chain. “You hate me.”
“You took everything from us.”
“I’m just more honest about it than he was.” He took her wrists again; she was too weak to struggle much, but she still tried. “He snuck in in the night and sired babies.”
“You rape what you want from us.”
“I’m a monster.” He said it mildly, simply. He had been a monster for a very long time.
“And you’re okay with being a monster?” She jerked against his grip. Her breathing was getting heavy and irregular.
“I accept it.” He stood, bringing her up with him, and lifted her into his arms. She froze, bird-panicked, and then began squirming, trying to get away. He stopped her easily. “You need to take care of yourself. You need to bathe.”
“My clothes stink. What’s the point in washing if I have to put on filthy clothes.”
“I’ll bring you clean clothes.”
“You could let me go.” For the first time, her voice sounded small. He looked down at her, and shook his head.
“No.” The price had to be paid.
“You could kill me.”
“Put me down!” She had little fire left, and she was burning it all up. “Put me down, I’ll wash myself.”
“Too late.” He drew a bath, holding her pinned to the floor with no effort at all, ignoring her bites and slaps and kicks. He slid her into the tub, ignoring her swearing and her spitting. And he washed her.
When she was clean, she lay there listlessly, staring at him. “So I’m clean. Now what?”
“Now, you eat. And you wash yourself from now on.”
He brought her robes, things he demanded from the villagers. She wore them, rather than be naked. She bathed herself, rather than, he assumed, allowing him to touch her again. But still, she was barely eating. She grew thinner and thinner.
“If you do not eat,” he said, on her thirty-seventh day here, “I will feed you like I bathed you.”
“I’ll puke it up.”
“I’ll seal your mouth so you can’t.”
“Kill me or let me die already.”
“I won’t do that.”
“You killed others! You killed my uncle! You killed my brother!”
“Your uncle. Yes. He attacked me. Your brother…” He shook his head. “That’s a story for another day.”
She flew at him, hitting him with surprising ferocity. He had to struggle to contain her and, when he succeeded, both of them bruised and bleeding, she was sitting on his lap, her arms held crossed against her chest.
“You killed my brother.” She was sobbing. She hadn’t shown him her tears before that.
“Eat, and I will tell you the story.” He released her. The fight had gone out of her.
She reached for her rice, and began picking at it. And he told her the story of her brother, who had flowered under the stress of his captivity. Who had Changed into a monster, like him.
“I don’t believe you.”
“Who fathered your brother?”
She didn’t answer. Everyone in the village knew the truth. The man on the hill had taken his due.
“Tomorrow, I will tell you more, when you eat.”
“You should kill me instead.”
But when he brought her food the next day, she listened.
“You’re still a monster,” she informed him, when he told her how he’d sworn her brother to service and sent him out into the world.
“Of course I am. I’m always a monster.”
“If not my brother, then what about the others?”
“There have been a lot of others. I’ve been here for quite a few years.”
“Tell me about one of them. And I’ll eat.”
“If I tell you about one, I want you to brush your hair, too.”
“… all right.”
He told her stories, and she ate. He embellished the stories to make her smile, and she brushed her hair.
He brought her a dress from a town far away, and she wore it. In return, he told her a story of the first woman he’d taken.
When he returned from business to find her waiting, hair brushed, clothed, her area tidy, he did not know what to think. “Tell me a story.” Her fire was back. “Tell me a story of something good you’ve done.”
“I cannot. I’m a monster.”
“But you care for our village. Why?”
So he told her the story of his brother, who had taken over a village out of guilt. His brother, the good man, the fae who had always protected humans. He told her how he’d watched his brother become a monster under the skin. How the village hated him, and how it ate at him.
When he was done with that story, he found that she was crying. “You’re still a monster.” She didn’t sound as certain as she had before.
“I’m still a monster.” To prove it to her, he grabbed her, and held her in her arms, while she sobbed on his shoulder. He didn’t know why she was crying. He assumed it was because he was a monster.
He had not the magic to read her mind, or he would have known that, in a sense, he was right.
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