The last Finish It! before NanoWrimo: Tilden, from This Story
Ce’Rilla sh’Orlaith by Accalon and Vidrou sh’Cynara by Leofric, Tilden’s parents
Cya Red Doomsday and Leofric Lightning Blade, two of Tilden’s Grandparents. All icons by Djinni.
It had been two weeks.
Tilden had repeated, calmly but insistently, “you should let me go.” Every night. Every time Laufeia ordered him to do something unpleasant – and Laufeia had a taste for rather unpleasant things. Every time she ordered him naked. “You should let me go.”
Eleri, whose own Kept had walked into the collar willingly and who had not nearly the taste for cruelty as her friend, found herself in a bit of a tight spot. She could advise Laufeia to release Tilden – but every time she did, Laufeia got a little nastier, a little angrier. She didn’t just take it out on Tilden, either, but on Eleri and on Caetano and on their third crew-mate, Manlius, who took it all in without seeming to notice or care. Then again, Manlius took in everything. Only at dawn did you get a sense for how stressed he’d been, as the “sun rose” in his room with intense heat or nothing at all.
Eleri didn’t want to get caught in the crossfire if Tilden was right. She didn’t want to watch Laufeia get nastier and nastier if Tilden was wrong. And she didn’t want to be on the end of her friend’s nastiness any longer.
On the other hand, she had a crew, and one was loyal to the crew.
Eleri went to talk to Professor Valerian.
“Tilden,” she said, when the door was closed and she and Professor Valerian had done the privacy Workings together. “He said Laufeia’s grandmother and his grandfather had a history.”
“More than that,” Professor Valerian agreed. She closed her eyes, and Eleri got the feeling she was remembering something. “Eriko. She Kept Leofric for the first part of his first year. She didn’t get a child from him, but it was… bad, from all reports. And then her daughter Tethys Kept Leofric’s crewmate’s son, Yoshi. And again, it was bad.”
“So you’re saying it runs in the family?”
Even that much was pushing things.
Professor Valerian looked at her in interest, much as a cat might study a bug. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling, but Eleri raised her chin and waited.
“I don’t think Eriko was cruel on purpose, just self-centered. Tethys is an amazingly self-absorbed woman. They both consider their own happiness far more important than anyone else’s. I’m beginning to worry the same thing might be true for Laufeia.”
“Might be?” Eleri coughed, all of her resolutions about not giving away her crew-mate out the window. “Fei wouldn’t know an altruistic motivation if it bought her dinner and a house.”
Professor Valerian snorted. “Well then, that answers that question. Laufeia is following in the footsteps of her family.”
“And, ah. What about Tilden’s family?”
Eleri was surprised at the width of the smile on Professor Valerian’s face, and at the sharpness of it. “Oh, well. Tilden’s family is certainly interesting. His mother comes from a very sharp line; his father comes from a different but equally sharp line, and his grandmothers are half-sisters who are known to be very, very irritable when their family is hurt – and they both have very interesting definitions of family.”
Eleri swallowed. “If Fai hurts Tilden -” If she hurt him more, if she kept hurting him, if she damaged him “-she’s going to be in trouble, isn’t she? They wouldn’t, wouldn’t go after students, would they? Grown adults?”
“To be entirely frank, I’m surprised that his cousins haven’t already done something. And they would wait until she graduated – <i>if</i> she hurt Tilden. If Tilden let them know. Has he warned her?”
“He tells her ‘you should let me go’ every day. It just makes her angry.”
Professor Valerian snorted. “It would, wouldn’t it? I begin to think that Laufeia is one of those people who believe that a year or two of life makes them far superior to those younger than them.”
Fei, Eleri did not say, was of the opinion that she was just superior to everyone. “So you think that she cannot picture Tilden as a threat?”
“Tilden, or, to be frank, the teachers. There have been times when we have not been as assertive as we should have been, could had have been. It may be that Laufeia has been raised to believe that the teachers will leave her alone as long as she is not particularly obvious.”
“It’s not the teachers we ought to be worried about, is it?” Eleri said we although she didn’t want to think of it that way, because she doubted Tilden’s family would make the distinction unless Eleri was actively distancing herself from Laufeia.
“No. No, the teachers are not going to get involved unless Tilden is being abused. If Tilden is hurt in a way the teachers are informed of, then the teachers will take him away from Laufeia. However, if Tilden is <i>unhappy</i>, his family may get involved.”
Eleri sighed. “She’s my crew.” She sounded pitiful and she knew it.
“Then I suggest you get her to do something less stupid than she is currently doing. Or, perhaps, if she makes you that miserable, you should consider a different crew.”
Eleri knew she was blanching. She tried to cover her reaction with a smile, but she didn’t think that Professor Valerian was fooled one bit. “Of… of course. Thank you, Professor.”
What was she going to do?
Eleri was not particularly brave nor particularly skilled in subterfuge, but she knew Fei and she knew how Addergoole worked about Kept.
Thus, what she did, in the short term, was start talking to Tilden and encourage – but not order – Caetano to do the same.
At first, she just spoke to him in passing, hellos and goodbyes and that sort of thing. She asked his opinion on outfits and dinner and anything else that crossed her mind – her dress, the carpets in the halls, Caetano’s shoes.
At first, Tilden didn’t answer, or he replied in short monosyllables – presumably when he was allowed to talk, as Laufeia wasn’t consistent with that. She wasn’t consistent with <i>anything</i>, if Eleri was being honest, except a certain meanness of spirit, and a willingness to defend her crew against anything that wasn’t herself.
But as Eleri continued, and Caetano and then Manlius got into it, Tilden started answering. He liked Caetano’s shoes, but he didn’t understand why people bothered at all, down here. He didn’t like lasagna – too messy – but liked baked ziti and was a little apologetic about the inconsistency. And, yes, he thought Fei ought to let him go, and he didn’t feel guilty or apologetic about that, at all.
Eleri tried talking to Fei again. “You know, he comes from a powerful family.”
“Who? Manlius? Never heard that about it.”
“No, Tilden. Boom. They’re not people you mess with.”
“And what are they going to do to me here, mmm? Eleri, you’ve been listening to the boy too much. His mother isn’t going to murder me. Neither is his grandmother. The school doesn’t allow murder.”
“The school expels people for murder, Fei. That means they had to come up with a rule for it. Do you really want to be the reason one of Tilden’s cousins gets expelled?”
“Eleri, you are seriously overreacting. Nobody is going to kill me because I’m Keeping their cousin. Maybe, maybe, their brother, and only if I was really abusing him obviously. But I’m not a moron.” She rolled her eyes eloquently. “He has orders against complaining about anything I do to anyone, including you, so I know he’s not telling you anything about how his brother or sister is going to murder me.”
“No,” Eleri allowed. “He’s been a perfect dear for me, of course. Speaking of, do you think I could borrow him while you’re in magic class? He’s a lot better at history homework than either Caetano or I am.”
She was going against her crew. She was going to die for this.
Better that than dying for letting Fei torment the poor boy.
Fei raised her eyebrows. “Are we done fretting about me being murdered?”
“We’re done fretting about you being murdered.” Eleri hung her head submissively. Fei was so much easier to get along with when she got her own way – or, at least, when she thought she was getting it. “But please? I’m going to fail Valerian’s class if I don’t get some help.”
“I suppose he might as well be useful. Yes. Go ahead. Just don’t do anything foolish.”
“Of course not, Fei. I won’t be foolish.”
There was foolish, Eleri considered, and there was foolish.
This particular version of foolish involved talking to one of Tilden’s cousins and then taking Tilden to the library with her, sitting down at one table and suggesting he sit at another one, out of her view.
If she didn’t see it, she didn’t need to tell Fei. If she cooperated, maybe she could get her crew out of this without anyone getting seriously hurt.
The first half of her plan was shot when a girl who managed to look far taller than she was strode over to her table and looked her up and down with a gaze that said she had measured Eleri and found her wanting. “He is ours,” she said, without preamble.
“He’s a Boom kid. I know. He doesn’t Belong to me.”
“But you brought him here. Why?”
“Because you’re his family. Because Fei is being stupid and I can’t budge her. Because she’s my crew and I don’t want her to get hurt, but, ah-”
“She’s being stupid?”
Eleri knew the girl, two years older than her, but not enough to call her by name or know much more than “stay out of her way.” “Yes. She’s being stupid.” She wrinkled her nose. “She’s – well. She’s pretending that any student here is just like any other student, and that can be a problem.”
“Because Boom students aren’t like anyone else. We stick together.”
“You aren’t the only ones,” Eleri felt the need to point out. “There’s a couple families like that. You’re just the ones with the reputation for being the most, ah-”
“Explosive?” The girl smiled at Eleri. It was a sharp smile and not particularly friendly, and Eleri thought she’d probably practiced it in front of a mirror quite a bit. “That’s us, all right.”
“Explosive, sure. Yeah.”
“So are you trying to cover your ass, or-?”
The question was dismissive. The whole conversation was sort of dismissive. But Eleri had been friends with Fei for a while now; she was used to that.
“I’m trying to balance two different right things and neither of them are really right. He Belongs to Fei. Until someone challenges her for it, or until the teachers decide to get involved, he’s hers. But he’s got a family, and they care about him, and she’s-”
“Is she hurting him?”
“Fei hurts everyone.” It was truth. It was not really throwing her friend to the wolves.
The smile was pretty damn wolfish, though. “If you know she’s doing something wrong, then why don’t you stop her?”
“Me?” Eleri’s squeak was mortifying and far too loud. She dropped her voice to a whisper. “Me? Me? I’m not-”
“I’ve seen you in gym. One of my cousins saw you in Tlacatl classes. You can do this. You just have to be clever.”
“But… but…” She was sputtering. She was staring. She was –
The girl was walking away.
Eleri sighed. Clever, hunh? If she was going to have to be clever, she was going to have to enlist help.
“Tilden, if I was going to challenge Fei, how would I set it up so that I could win?”
The boy was silent. For a moment, she thought he’d been ordered to silence again, or that she’d run into some order Fei had been far too far-thinking in putting in. But then he shook his head. “You wouldn’t. The trick is, how do you get her to challenge you?”
“I don’t have anything she wants.”
“Well, then, that’s a problem.” He shot her a smile – an actual smile, the sort of expression she’d never seen from him. “You’re going to have to believe you have something she wants for her to believe it. So I’d suggest you think about that for a while. Because if you challenge her, you’ll lose.”
Something she wants.
Eleri started paying more attention. Fei liked – well, attention. She liked being pampered. She liked anything of that sort, people making her feel like she was the only important thing in the room.
So Eleri asked Caetano to start pampering her. “I thought you’d never ask,” he teased her – possibly it was teasing, possibly it wasn’t – and all of a sudden Eleri was being waited on hand and foot, massaged hand and foot, catered to and pampered and petted.
“Do that for me,” Fei ordered Tilden, and he did – but he did it mechanically, exactly to the letter of the order, with no flair and an obvious lack of enjoyment.
“Do it nicely,” Fei ordered, and the mechanical movements were still there, but he was wearing something that someone might think was a smile.
Eleri upped the ante and Caetano started willingly sitting at her feet, leaning into petting he normally didn’t enjoy, telling her she was beautiful at the drop of a hat.
Tilden would tell Fei she was beautiful when she ordered him to. He would kneel when told to. He would let Fei pet him while being as stiff as possible.
Eleri wondered if Tilden knew what she was doing. He had stopped telling Fei that she should let him go – she had forbidden him all variations on that phrase and he had yet to come up with a new one, it seemed, or he had decided this was more effective.
It took three weeks of Caetano being the absolute pinnacle of adoring slave, three weeks while Fei kept getting more and more frustrated and Tilden became more and more mechanical, three weeks while Eleri became more and more certain that Tilden’s family was going to kill her and destroy both the body and the evidence so well that nobody ever found anything at all.
Her grandmother told her that had happened once, back in the first days of the school, that they’d hidden the bodies in the basement and nobody had found them until the Basement People had broken out. The Basement People sounded awful, like some sort of monster, but Eleri had been down into the basement below the Store and there was nothing there but some dorm rooms and a couple empty classrooms, the place where they taught remedial school to the ones who didn’t have any school beforehand and some storerooms. No monsters, no place to hide bodies, nothing of the sort. She’d concluded that Grandma was probably making things up, the way she did.
Three weeks passed and Eleri still wasn’t dead, which was a pleasant surprise, and finally, Fei huffed at her after dinner. “My Kept’s broken! El, lend me yours.”
“No, Fei. I like what he’s doing.” She had to force herself to remain calm. She didn’t do this. She never said no to Fei. Nobody did.
“Oh, come on, you can give up having your feet rubbed for ten minutes. Tilden darn near broke a toe when he tried. Useless.”
“No, Fei, you’re mean to Kept. I don’t want you to be mean to Caetano when he’s being nice.”
“I am not mean. I just like having things the way they’re supposed to be. It’s not my fault Tilden doesn’t know anything. Come on, give me Caetano for a bit.”
“Actually, it is your fault.” Eleri wasn’t sure she could believe how brave she was being. She swallowed surreptitiously and kept on. “If you gave Tilden reasonable instructions, he’d know what to do. If you weren’t mean to him, he might not mind being Kept so much-”
“Oh, come on. Real Kept like it. That’s what everyone says. If they’re good, like your Caetano, they like the collar.” Fei leaned forward to pet Caetano, sulking even more when he leaned back away from her.
“Caetano volunteered. Tilden didn’t.” That one was easy.
“Well then, if I’m so awful to Tilden because he didn’t volunteer, then give me Caetano. I’ll be good to him, by your theory.”
It was tempting, but she wasn’t going to do that to Caetano. “No. He didn’t volunteer to be yours, Fei, and he’s seen you be awful to Tilden all year. I don’t think he’d ever volunteer to be yours.”
“No, ma’am,” Caetano agreed.
“You little shit! You’re a Kept, what does your opinion have to do with anything?”
“Exactly as much as my mistress wants it to. And if she’s asked my opinion, I’m going to give it.”
“I didn’t hear her ask anything!” Normally, this was where Eleri would back down and flee, preferably while apologizing.
Fei wasn’t so scary when you compared her to the entire brood that was the grandchildren of Boom. They were terrifying.
“I don’t have to say it every time I want him to speak. He’s pretty good at understanding what I want.”
Fei’s eyes narrowed. “Give him to me.”
Eleri sat up straighter. “No.”
“As a good friend and crewmate, give him to me. I’ll show him how to be a real Kept.”
“As a good friend and crewmate, stop asking for my Kept. He is mine by Law and tradition and I treat him exactly how I want him treated.”
“Why, you arrogant little shit!” Fei leaned forward and snarled. “I’ll take him from you if you won’t give him.”
“Is that -” They’d worked this out. Caetano was a better actor than Eleri. “Is that a challenge? I mean, you don’t have to, I could, Eleri-?”
“Yes,” Fei snarled. “It’s a challenge. Give me Caetano.”
“And what are you putting on the table? I’m not just going to agree to a challenge, Fei, you’re going to kick my ass.” They’d actually rehearsed this part. Eleri hadn’t wanted to say that. Caetano had insisted it was important. She’d had to agree.
The look on Fei’s face cemented that. “Yeah, I will. But just to make this formal, I’ll put Tilden up. When I win, I get both. If the fates spit on us and you manage to win, you’ll get them both.”
“It’s a deal. I accept your challenge.” Eleri stood up, attempting to ignore the way her heart was pounding. “I choose sticks, blindfolded, in a circle in the gym. All the Workings we want. Whover is knocked out of the circle first loses.”
“You choose – what?” Fei glared. “I’m the one challenging you. And I say no magic!”
“Oh, if you don’t want to use Workings, we don’t have to.” Eleri let her worry show. “I mean, I do get to set the terms – because I’m the challenged party, you know – but we can skip the magic, I guess, Fei.”
“You are such a weakling. I should have demanded you put yourself up as stakes, too. Oh, well. I’m sure I can beat some sense into you. When do we do this, since you’re the challenged party?”
“Now’s good. I don’t need much time to prepare.”
“You might want to take ten minutes to say good-bye to Caetano. I’m not going to let him sneak in and cuddle you when he’s mine, you know. I don’t tolerate that sort of split loyalty.”
“If you insist, Fei. We’ll meet you at the gym in 12 minutes.” Eleri didn’t have to work to sound meek. The trick was going to be not being meek in the circle.
She spent ten minutes cuddling Caetano and kissing him and making sure he was all right with their plan. She spent one minute walking very quickly most of the way to the gym and then the last minute ambling in.
Fei was already there. She was already talking to Luke. Luke was glowering. Luke was almost always glowering.
Eleri cleared her throat. “Sticks, blindfolded, no Workings. Whoever’s knocked out of the circle first, loses.”
“Harumph.” He muttered at the floor and the circle appeared, muttered again and handed them each a blindfold and a stick.
Eleri took her place in the circle and then tied on the blindfold. It was, she realized quickly, enchanted: She couldn’t see anything, no matter how much she tried.
She hadn’t been counting on Fei cheating, but she’d planned for it. Well, there were other ways to cheat.
“Win?” Luke barked.
“When I win,” Fei answered, “she gives me her Kept. If I disgrace myself and lose, I suppose I give her my Kept.”
“Harrumph. All right. Sticks. When I call start, you start. When I call hold, everything stops. Understand?”
“Yes, sir.” Eleri could hear Fei’s bored response over her own. Let her be bored.
“Kept, you understand the terms?”
What? Well, that was Luke. He always treated Kept like people. It had endeared Eleri to him, last year.
Two quiet Yes,sirs followed his question.
The stick wasn’t long enough to reach from one far side of the ring to the other, barely longer than Eleri’s arm. Good. She took a moment to flick out her tongue and taste the air, taste the time current, find the place where Fei would be.
She shifted to the side and forward and swung as Fei stepped up. She hit the back of her friend’s knees and Fei stumbled. She stepped out of the way of where Fei’s stick would be next and tasted time again, her tongue flickering out to sense the forks.
There. There was where Fei either stepped over the line or she did. But – ouch. She let Fei’s stick hit her, once, twice, and then shifted out of the way quickly as Fei moved in for a blow that would have been crippling.
Fei stumbled. Eleri held still.
“Done! Stop! Laufeia, you’ve broken the circle.”
“No! no, there’s no way! This test was stupid!”
Eleri removed her blindfold to the entirely unsurprising sight of Fei yelling at Luke. “This was a ridiculous challenge! Blindfolded! It was just luck!”
“You agreed to it.” Luke shrugged. “She agreed to it. Nobody died. Not my concern.”
“But I – no. No, I’m better than she is!”
“Gee, thanks, Fei.” Eleri couldn’t help but feel a little stung. “How long have we been friends?”
“If we were friends, you would’ve just given me Caetano, and not gone through this stupid farce. Now, come on, give him to me.”
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Caetano sounded way too amused. Eleri decided she couldn’t blame him. “You didn’t win the challenge.”
“The challenge was bullshit! She just got lucky!”
“So she set a challenge she could get lucky in. You still lost. You don’t get me, Laufeia. Nobody but my mistress does.”
“Laufeia.” Luke’s voice was a rumble and a warning. “The terms of the challenge must be abided by.”
“But she cheated!”
Eleri had been expecting this, and yet it still made her sad. “Fei,” she started, and then trailed off. It didn’t mean anything. This was just how Fei was.
“She did not cheat.” Luke’s voice rose up now. “I would have seen cheating and stopped it. No. You lost. Hand over your Kept to Eleri now, Laufeia.”
“Fine. If everyone’s against me.” She shook her head dramatically. “Tilden, you belong to Eleri now. May she have better luck with you than I did.”
“You’re mine,” Eleri agreed, looking straight at Tilden. “Come here.”
She gave him a careful hug and put her finger over his lips before he could tell her that she should release him. “Come on,” she murmured. “Let’s give you back to your family before they murder me.”
Things were never going to be the same with Fei again. As her friend ranted somewhere behind her, Eleri couldn’t quite bring herself to mind.