The chains jingled every time Sefton moved. When he took a step, they swished between his ankles, jangling on the stone floors. He noticed that Jaco walked to make the noise louder, and that, even though Onter and Callum weren’t wearing the chains anymore, they’d developed a bit of a sway to their step. He tried imitating the sway and found that it made the chain noise quieter.
The chains on his wrists were worse, if a bit quieter. Hooked to his waist, they meant he could pull his hands up to mid-chest or, if he let one hand get yanked down to his waist, he could get the other up to his shoulder. He couldn’t imagine doing any work that way, or holding a weapon.
That’s the whole point, he reminded himself. He was bonded to Lady Taisiya, to her house, and to her children. That’s why they put the chains on him. He supposed, on some level, it was supposed to be a reminder that it could have been worse.
He cleared his throat anyway. It was a stupid question, a question he should have asked before, but… “what happens when raiders come?” Out here, by the coast, they were too far from the capital for proper help.
Jaco snorted. Onter gave him an unreadable look. “If the raiders come, you and Jaco go to the nursery. Callum and I go with the Lady.”
“Yes, I mean…” He ducked his head. “That’s what always happened. We went to the nursery with the junior husbands.”
“That’s what happens to you,” Onter answered. His tone brooked no argument. Sefton swallowed his retorts and studied the floor.
“There will come a time when you can help the Lady defend the home,” Callum added quietly. “The Treaty says that we can’t take up arms or throw magic. You will… you will be taught how that works with defending the home. Until then, you and Jaco are the last line of defense for the nursery, and if that is ever breeched, well, you do everything you can to keep yourself and the egglings alive. Understand?”
No. Sefton nodded slowly. “I can… Yes, sir.”
“It’s Callum down here.” The correction had a bit of a sting behind it.
Sefton lifted his chin and looked at the older man. “When you’re giving me orders, sir, you’re sir.”
Dumb, dumb, mouthing off to his senior husbands when he’d been here less than an hour. Sefton tensed. He knew better, damnit.
Callum smirked slowly. “All right. I’ll give you that. So. Same as back home, you come in the nursery, you protect the egglings and yourself. Okay?”
No! “Yes, sir.”
“Good boy. Now, speaking of the nursery… brace yourself.” He said it with a smile, but Sefton still rolled his shoulders back and made sure his feet were set. You heard stories, about other nurseries…
This was not that sort of place, Sefton reminded himself firmly. His mother would not have sold him to those sorts of people, even if she had wanted the deal. And even Jaco didn’t look worried or upset. No. This was fine. It was — he was just braced. For…
Onter opened the door. “Hey, kiddos, it’s… oof!” Five children had tackled him the moment the door swung open, knocking him into Sefton. Sefton, braced, managed to catch Onter on a shoulder, his chains jerking his hands down as he tried to bring them up.
The kids were all talking at once. None of them were older than seven or eight, but Sefton was pretty sure it was three boys and a girl, a normal distribution. Then a taller child, nearly an adult, stepped around then. He had the same blackish-brown hair as Onter and wide eyes like Lady Taisiya, and he was wearing a scowl. “You’re the new one.”
“Hothyan,” Onter scolded.
“What? He’s the reason we lost Isham!”
“Other way around,” Sefton answered quietly. “Isham’s the reason I’m here. Lady Lithinie wanted him, and my mother, ah, had an interest in Lady Lithinie’s oldest son. So. I’m S… Feltian.” He clasped his hands together at the length of his chains and bowed.
“And he outranks you.” Onter tapped the top of Hothyan’s head not-ungently. “Something you ought to get used to pretty soon.”
The boy glowered at Sefton, but he clasped his hands to his chest and bowed as well. “Hothyan. I’m the oldest, now that Isham’s gone.”
“It is an honor to meet you, Hothyan.” Sefton nodded his head again. He might outrank the boy by protocol, but if the children were anything like Sefton’s family, they’d be far more likely to listen to Hothyan than to a stranger.
“These are my brothers and sisters.” He started with the next-tallest one and went through the other teenaged boys, then the small children who’d greeted Onter, and then the toddlers. Lady Taisiya’s family had eleven children still in the nursery, almost twice what Sefton’s family did. Sefton swallowed around a lump in his throat and greeted every one of them politely.
“…And here are the egglings.” Hothyan’s voice went soft and reverent. Three eggs sat nestled in their padded incubators, each next to a soft, reclining chair. The set-up was similar to what Sefton’s fathers had used, everything arranged to be as gentle as possible to the egglings. A fourth chair and incubator sat empty nearby.
Sefton was still. He felt as if his world had slowed down to nothing. The egglings. It was one thing to know what was coming, to have read stories and watched his fathers with their eggs. It was another to see the chair where he’d sit, nurturing the egg, telling it stories, keeping it warm and introducing it to human touch.
He cleared his throat. “They’re beautiful,” he whispered. They were, of course: speckled and marbled, as hard as granite and as fragile as glass. One was swirled with pink patterns over a mauve base; one was green with darker speckles, and the third was one of the rarest combinations, black over the blue of the sea. He could picture how one would fit nestled against his chest as he lay in that chair, his whole world reduced to just the little eggling. “They’re…”
“They are,” Onter agreed. He rested his hand atop the incubator holding the pink egg. “This one is mine.”
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