::They’re supposed to leave the decision up to us::, the collar was complaining. ::You heard them. “Until your compatriot tells you that you have reached the appropriate level.” That’s me, your compatriot. Your co-resident. Your co-::
“-llar,” Desmond interrupted. “You’re my collar.” He pushed the white door open, surprised at how smoothly it swung.
The collar, it seemed, was sulking, and said nothing. Des moved carefully, not trusting the floor, especially not when the stairs behind him were vanishing.
He stepped onto a smooth black marble floor, in a room much like the reception center he’d begun this adventure in. Broad sweeping stairways led up in both directions; two perfect people sat at the reception desk, looking as much a part of the decorations as the gold trim on the stairs or the broad silk carpets on the floors. They were collared, this time, in gold.
He touched his own collar, and then bowed, the sort of bow that his mother had been trying to get him to do for years, low and courtly and very polite. “I —”
::I come as a supplicant, having done as I was commanded. I come collared, to seek power. I come having struggled, to seek ease.:: The collar sounded strange now, almost mechanical, after the more lively dialogue of the stairway.
Des repeated the words. The collared person on the left, Des thought, looked impressed; the one on the right still looked bored.
The bored one was the one who spoke, in an affected alto. “Come, supplicant, to the stairs of knowledge. Come to learn the forbidden arts. Come — and know that these are allowed to you because you are now sealed beyond those the laws apply to.”
Des felt a chill. Beyond those the laws apply to? “Am I dead?” he muttered quietly. “… or dying?”
The reception-person raised thin-plucked and gold-painted eyebrows at him. The collar didn’t answer, at first. When it did, its words were very slow, as if it were struggling through molasses to reply.
::No. And yes. Legally… you are dead. By the charters of the nation and the city, you’re not a citizen anymore. You weren’t the moment the collar appeared around your neck. But your heart still beats, your blood still pumps, your mind still works.::
Desmond looked at the receptionists. “Not dead,” he translated carefully. “But dead. I’ve sailed beyond the horizon.”
At this, the bored receptionist smiled. “It was a very long climb. And yours was higher than many’s.”
“I ran out of stairs!” He hadn’t expected to be indignant. He’d been ready to be finished, after all; it was just the collar that had different plans. But here he was, glaring at these nice people in collars.
“Indeed. That is when you are done.”
Des frowned. “They said, when ‘my compatriot’ said we were there, that’s when we stopped.”
“That is one way of putting it. And for some people, their collar – their ‘compatriot’ – will tell them when the appropriate time is to get off the stairway. But that is not a bond all – or even most – collared people have.” The collared person on the right, the one who had been impressed at first, stood up. Their robes, so different from Desmond’s tight and structured layers, were loose, with wide, stiff shoulders that stood out from their body and a circular neckline that showed off both the collar and the collarbones while obstructing almost the entirety of the rest of their body. They reminded Desmond of Judges’ and Potentate’s robes, save for the neckline that was clearly designed to show off the collar. “I am Halthinia, and I will be one of your teachers. What you need to know is that your level – the door you can reach – is determined primarily but not entirely by your skill and determination. At a certain point, your collar’s desires and yours are no longer in sync, and at that point, you are done climbing for now.”
“But that’s not fair!” The words were out before Des could stop them. He glared at Halthinia anyway, since he’d already said it.
“It is not so much fair as it is necessary. You and your collar working together is required, and we need to know at what level you two can collaborate.”
“So… what. I’m done?”
Halthinia smiled very broadly. “Oh, no. No, now you are beginning. Come now, you know where the door is already. Let us move on to the next stage.” Halthinia gestured Des to lead.
You know where the door is. So it was probably under the broad stairway, like it had been last time. Des paused for a moment, looking at the wide sweeping stairways upwards.
“You could climb one of those,” Halthinia allowed, “but it wouldn’t get you where you’re hoping to go. You are in a very exalted class, you know.”
Desmond didn’t know why he was feeling so depressed about the situation. After all, he’d climbed as far as he’d planned on going. And the collar wasn’t muttering in his ear – at least, it wasn’t muttering audibly.
“Thank you,” he said, as politely as he could. He bowed to Halthinia, who chuckled.
“You will be fun. It’s not so often that the collars are given to someone with such fine manners. Generally, they seek out the poor or the destitute.”
Des swallowed. “I’m not that fine,” he protested. “I’m just from Lesser Hunstsworth and Red Aisle, not from anyplace fancy.” And, although he’d tried hard not to think about it, his family could probably do with one less mouth to feed. “I’m just a younger son.”
“With very fine manners,” Halthinia repeated. “That is needed. It may be why you made it as far as you did. Now. Onward.”
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