It wasn’t often that Alkyone decided to put her foot down about something. It was even rarer that she interfered in Via or Jaelie’s lives. Living in such close quarters, the three of them held certain privacies very dear.
Today, Aly had grabbed Via by one arm, the Kept Rohanna by the other, and physically dragged them out back, to the small bench-and-fountain set-up Jaelie maintained between the trees. “Not work,” she insisted. “Not rules, nothing of the sort. Just… remember what it was like to be collared, Via.”
“I hated it.” She already knew Rohanna hated it; they’d collared her at knifepoint.
“Not that part. We all hated it. What about the rest?”
“The rest…?” But Aly had stalked off, leaving Via staring in confusion at Rohanna.
Who was, to be fair, staring in confusion right back at Viatrix. “So, um…” She swallowed. “What…?”
Via chewed on her lip. The rest. The orders? No. The sex? Aly was unlikely to suggest Via rape her Kept. Even if the touch…
Touch. And if she was talking about the parts that felt good, Aly had probably meant the whole set of good-Kept feelings. Via took a breath. She’d never been good at that part. “Okay.”
“Okay?” Rohanna scooted back a couple inches on the bench. “Okay… what?“
“Okay.” Viatrix took both of the girl’s hands, and tried to hold them gently. “Okay, this is me not being a monster.”
Rohanna squirmed but, notably, didn’t pull her hands out of Via’s loose grip. “Are you going to brand me again?”
Via ran her thumb over the healed mark on the girl’s wrist. “No. Have you – have you been collared before?”
“I lit the last guy on fire who tried.” She’d gone still at the touch on her wrist. Viatrix tried to remember if she’d touched Rohanna since the branding, and couldn’t. No wonder Aly was interfering.
“And yet you took my collar.”
Rohanna’s right hand twitched. Via released it, and the girl touched the thin leather collar around her neck. “I’m pretty sure I can’t survive a hawthorn beheading.”
“Practicality is a good thing. I-” Gentleness was not Viatrix’s stock in trade. She had gotten her reputation for being ruthless. She took a couple breaths while she considered her words. “If you work with me, we can make this not suck.”
“What, if I do what you say, it won’t hurt? I’ve been there, and no, thanks.”
“No, no…” Via couldn’t help smirking. “Not that. I’ve been there, too. It really does suck. No.” She chose her words carefully. “If you will tell me what you want, I can help.”
“But why would you?” Rohanna was staring at their hands. Viatrix had not moved the hand the girl had dropped; now, as if afraid that it would bite her, Rohanna set her hand back on top of Via’s. “I mean, you already have me.”
“Because there’s no reason for this to suck. And…” Her first-year Keeper hadn’t really been a monster. He’d just been an awful Keeper. “And there’s no reason for me to be a lousy Keeper when I can be a good one.”
Rohanna was quiet. Viatrix wondered if the girl was going to laugh at her; she wondered if she was going to flail out, or run away. None of those things were prohibited by her orders, after all. After a while, she shrugged. She was still looking at their hands. “I didn’t know there was such a thing as a good Keeper.”
“Hunh.” Viatrix thought about that one for a while. “Well, you’ve seen Jaelie and Wish, haven’t you?”
“Wish looks lost most of the time.” The edges of Rohanna’s mouth curled upwards.
“Well, that’s because he’s a Returned One. He really is lost.” Bad example, then, but she didn’t have that many good examples to go on. “Okay.”
“Okay?” Rohanna peeked again. “You keep saying that.”
“I’m bad at this, okay?” Via snickered the moment she realized what she’d said, and, by some miracle, Rohanna let herself chuckle, too. “Right. So, you’re miserable.”
“Not miserable. Not miserable all the time. Except that I’m here, and I didn’t want to be here.”
“So, what would make you less miserable?” Viatrix counted to three silently, then mouthed along with Rohanna.
“Not being here. But you knew I was going to say that.”
“Yeah.” Via smirked. “What could make you less miserable being here?”
“I don’t know, maybe if this parasite in my head wasn’t telling me I was horrible all the time.” The answer wasn’t so much snapped out as sidled, like Rohanna had been thinking about it for some time and was testing the waters.
Viatrix closed her eyes. “Right. The bond. Okay, this is going to be weird… but Ro, I think you and I need to be friends.”
The boy flinched at everything, and every time he flinched, he reminded Baram of other boys, younger boys (because even he, in this lifetime, was younger than the skinny boy he was Keeping now), who had flinched and winced away.
He couldn’t order the boy not to flinch. He could, but Baram and his girls with him were learning how to not be monsters, and Jaelie had been very firm on that one. Monsters tell you not to look unhappy. Good people help you learn how to be happy.
It was mostly theory, for all of them, reaching in the dark and only knowing that there were sharp edges.
Viatrix could talk to her angry Kept. Jaelie petted her would-be returned god and praised him until he calmed. Baram scared people by his very presence, and he did not talk well.
You do not have weaknesses unless you allow yourself to be weak. Professor Fridmar had said that, more than once, during his lessons. Your weakness can be strengths.
Baram looked at the boy. At Kavan. Kavan winced. Slowly, feeling as if he was swimming through snow, Baram worked through the problem.
The kid was old, nearly fifty, he’d said. He was old, and he’d known pain and ownership and renaming. It made Baram feel awkward, and young, and stupid.
But Baram was both old and young. “Do you-” the boy flinched. He kept going anyway. “Do you know the Words for Mind?”
The boy’s chin came up and his eyes opened wide. “I.. yes. Yes, mas- Baram? I can use Intinn.”
“And know?“ Baram pushed on, despite the way Kavan’s shoulders were trembling.
“…and Idu, yessir.” Kavan had gone pale, even his lips bloodless. “Sir?”
Baram realized his hand was clenching into a fist. It wasn’t Kavan’s fault. It wasn’t even really about Kavan. “R-” Please. Jaelie had pointed that one out, too.
Baram had grumbled; it didn’t make it less of an order.
“It makes it feel more like there’s a choice. And sometimes that’s what matters.”
Baram cleared his throat. “Please read my mind.”
Kavan’s eyes opened wide. “Sir… sir, are you sure?“
“Words… words are hard.” He felt a frustrated rumble in the back of his throat and stifled it. Not quickly enough: the boy flinched again. “It’s hard to talk, easy to see it in my mind.”
“Sir.” Kavan ducked his head. “I… I can.”
“Please.” The word was a hard one. But Baram forced it out yet again. “It’s important.”
Kavan nodded. He did not look, Baram thought, any more comfortable; he kept peeking at Baram rather than looking directly, and his skin was still pale. But his voice didn’t tremble as he did the Working.
Baram focused on the boy. He tried not to think of other terrified Kept he’d known, but he knew they would show up. He tried to remember – tried, and almost succeeded – the cold and wet field he’d woken up in, the moment he’d found himself in this life.
The boy had his eyes closed. Baram could feel his presence in his mind, a gentle touch, simply enough to let Baram know where he was.
“You worry.” Baram kept his voice quiet. “You don’t know me. And I don’t…”
“Show anything,” Kavan offered. There was a bit of wonder in his voice. “You… sorry, sir.”
“S’okay.” Baram closed his eyes. “You can look.”
Kavan’s touch was different than other times Baram’s mind had been read – gentler, more tentative. But even so, Baram could feel old memories coming up, whispering to him in the way that they did.
The boy murmured while he worked. “And then you… And then… oh. Oh dear.” Baram did not blush, was not the sort to do such things, but the oh dear was so prim, and the memory so vulgar, that he dropped his head and looked away, even with his eyes closed.
And then there was a brushing against places that Baram never touched. “This…” He could hear the way the boy swallowed. “May I?”
It was an effort of will to say yes. That spot, those places, they didn’t want to be remembered, even more so than most of Baram’s scrambled history. But the boy had actively asked for something, so… “Yes.”
These memories didn’t really flood. They poked up their heads cautiously, diffidently, much like Kavan. Look at this, do you want to remember it?
No, no, of course he didn’t. But he would.
The field. He was in a field, sprawled out on the dirt, his lungs hurting like he’d fallen. That was where the memories stopped. That was where…
He was falling, tumbling. His chute hadn’t deployed and he was tumbling down, down, every downwards. He was going to land. This was going to hurt. This was going to…
He was in the field, he was laying there staring at the sky. He was panting, whining like an animal, and Kavan was holding him tightly.
“Easy, easy. Easy, si- Boss. I’ve got you.” The boy stroked Baram’s back, and the world righted itself. “I’ve got you, boss.”
Jaelie was having a bit of trouble with their “guests.”
Ardell and Delaney had figured out quickly that they couldn’t get out of the trap-basement unless Jaelie – or someone else – let them out. They’d figured out soon after that they couldn’t easily Work out of it, either, and they’d figured out soon after that that Baram wasn’t going to talk to them.
Jaelie didn’t tell them why. She wasn’t entirely certain why herself.
She had told them the conditions of their release. It wasn’t the first time someone had ended up in their “guest house,” and the terms were almost always the same. Ardell had been willing to swear the oaths. The problem was Delaney.
“Fuck you! We’re talking to Baram or nobody, and if you don’t let us out of here soon, you’re going to regret it. I’m going to peel the pretty skin right off of you, you miserable little…”
Jaelie let the door slam shut again. “They can wait another couple hours for the food,” she told Aloysius.
He hesitated. “Do you want me to watch them?”
Jaelie started to shake her head, and then paused herself. “Do you have some reason to think you ought to?”
He was getting more and more hesitant, she noticed. He didn’t deal all that well with the collar. “Something feels wrong, Mistress. They are planning something.”
“I trust your judgement on this one.” Jaelie watched the way his shoulders twitched, and leaned over to kiss both his cheeks. “Good job. Please, do watch the guest house, then.”
He bowed to her. He liked to do that, sometimes. Jaelie found she liked it. “I will do so.” He settled into a tree, the thorns making way for him, seeming content to watch all day if he needed to.
Jaelie reminded herself to check on him before bed time, and went back to those things that could not be neglected forever.
She didn’t have to wait until bedtime. It was just as the sun set that she heard the rumble, the rumble followed by a scream, the scream followed by a startled set of grunts.
They dove into action like they had too many times before. Aly grabbed the kids. Via grabbed her sword. Jaelie was already calling on the trees, who were telling her fire, fire.
And standing in a hole in their yard that had not been there before, the bitch of a visitor was throwing fireballs. At Aloysious. At Jaelie’s Kept, and at her trees.
She was shouting off Workings as she ran, spitting off insults in between the Workings, and, as she doused the entire yard in sudden rainfall, doing her best to get between the “guests” and her Kept. She could stop them. She could stop them, if her trees could just reach them, if – they were backing towards the gate, still throwing off projectiles and force, things rain could stop. There were broken tree limbs everywhere, and they were still throwing off force bolts.
“Let them go.” The boss’s voice came from the doorway. “They’re not worth it.” He followed with a series of Workings, throwing up a shield around Jaelie, and, she noticed gratefully, her trees and her Kept as well. “They’re just strangers we will know not to let in again.”
For the boss, that was a speech. Jaelie leaned against Aloysious and panted as their former guests got away. “Are you okay?”
He wrapped an arm around her ribcage, for once too exhausted to be tentative. “You protected me.”
“Well, yeah.” She craned her neck back to look at him. “And the Boss protected us. That’s… that’s just how it works.”
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