First: A story featuring a male keeper and a female Kept.
Previous: Crazy Like a Fox
The return of “Mdom not asshole”. I cannot find that I posted this first part, but if I have, I apologize.
The gate was still terrifying. Mélanie felt far too relieved by Jesper’s hand on her leg and the warmth of him pressed against her side. She needed it; she was fighting against panic with every step the horses took.
The horses didn’t seem to mind at all. She found that reassuring. They walked through the creepy, terrifying gate, waited placidly while Jasper closed the gate behind them and locked it, and headed cheerfully towards what seemed to all appearances to be a half-collapsed stone stable and carriage house.
Beyond a door hanging off its track, the carriage house seemed much sturdier, almost homey. Jasper parked the cart and got the hoses settled in their stalls. He did not ask Mélanie to help, and, as she was not entirely sure she could move off the wagon of her own volition, she did not volunteer.
“Sorry about that,” he apologized, when he returned to the cart. “They don’t really understand ‘later’, and they like being home.” He offered her a hand. “I hope that in time, you will too. Come with me?”
She let herself pretend that was an order and took his hand. He led her through another crumbling door and down what probably had, at one point, been a lovely archway of grapes and wisteria and now was a horrible tunnel of blackened, dead vines covered over by living vines and something with thorns in a fierce, tight wall and roof. “Lovely place you have here,” she managed in a wavering voice.
“All part of the ambiance, I’m afraid. Almost there.” He turned a corner in the tunnel and they were at a crumbling porch. He avoided the porch altogether and took a small side door, unlocking it with a key he pulled out of his pocket and locking it immediately afterwards.
Once the door locked, the air seemed to change. They were standing in a tidy, if not pristine, kitchen, which had likely been the height of technology the year the war had ended. It looked used – there were dishes in the dish-drainer – and, despite the size of it, clearly designed to feed a large household, it felt homey.
“Through here,” he murmured. He hadn’t released her hand, and she found she didn’t really want him to. “Through Here” turned out to be into a small dining room – thick curtains hung over the windows on one side, while the other sides lead into a cozy-looking den and some sort of solarium. A small staircase led upstairs, and it was there he was directing her.
“Until you’re familiar with the place, I’m going to ask you to only go places inside the house that I have shown you. It’s safer for you and the house that way. Every place I show you is going to be both safe and free of enchantments that can harm or distress you. The rest of the house – not so much.”
“Yes, sir,” she replied quietly. It was more than a cage. She could live with any number of restrictions to be out of a cage.
Even if she was in a haunted house now.
“So up here are the bedrooms that are usable. It’s almost always just me. Well, now for the moment, it’s you and I.” He opened a door; inside was a room with a bed, clean walls, and a dresser, with a small rug on the floor. “My room. You should probably sleep with me, but, ah..” he moved down the hall and opened another door. “Your room.” It was almost identical to the first, except that the rug was larger. “The next room is the loot room; have at if you want.” It looked, as he opened the door, like exactly that. Piles of stuff filled every corner.
“You need a loot organization system,” she muttered.
“How kind of you to volunteer. I’d suggest gloves, though. And not tonight. Tonight I offered you a bath, clean clothes, and food, yes?” He walked between the piles, picked up a suitcase, and handed it to her. “If I recall correctly, she was about your size.”
She held the handle of the suitcase gingerly. “What happened to her?”
“She lost a bet with me and had to forego half of her luggage. She had plenty of it, of course. But I got to pick the half.”
“…Oh.” She opened the suitcase, finding it full of warm, rich dresses, tunic, and pants. “This is – this stuff is expensive.”
“Or it was free. You, on the other hand, were expensive. Are expensive. So I’d suggest taking that to your room while I run a bath for you. But anything in here is yours, as it works for you.” He gestured broadly.
“I’d say that’s generous, but since I’m yours, it’s still all yours,” she allowed herself to tease. “I’ll… go put this in my room.”
“Good idea,” he teased back at her. “When you’re ready, the bathroom is this room over here. Knock and I’ll let you in.” He gestured at yet another door.
Alone, in “her” room, with a suitcase of “her” clothes, Mélanie found herself frozen. She hadn’t been alone, really truly alone since…
Well, since the owner before last. That had been a fairly long time ago. She forced herself to move. She could make decisions. She could make very basic decisions, like this tunic will look good with my skin tone and I really want to wear this silk bathrobe, who owns silk anymore?
Whoever Fox-Crazy had robbed, they had very good taste. Mélanie took the robe and a pair of delicious-looking panties that appeared brand-new (not that anything was brand-new, but she’d settle for the appearance) and went back to the door her new owner had indicated was the bathroom.
Inside, she could hear water splashing. She knocked.
“Come in.” The door swung open to reveal Fox-Crazy and a tub full of steaming water. “There’s soap here. When you’re done and ready to, come back down to the kitchen and I’ll feed you.”
This was the strangest haunted house she’d ever been in – not that she’d been in many.
It was also the strangest Keeping she’d ever been in. She was being treated like a person – like a person, by someone who thought that making his property into a slightly-soul-sucking haunted-house complete with areas unsafe to travel was a reasonable thing to do.
Then again, if she was a thief-slash-cheat who had a loot room like that, she might, too.
The bath was warm, the water smelled like water and soap and nothing else, and the tub was white under the water. Mélanie couldn’t remember – no, that was a lie. The last time she’d had a bath like this, it had been the day the world fell down around her.
She took not nearly as long as she wanted but slightly longer than she thought she really dared. She didn’t know when she’d get to do this again.
She wasn’t entirely sure that her Keeper wasn’t going to eat her soul before the morning — or that his house wasn’t — either.
She wandered downstairs with a robe wrapped around her and her hair feeling luxuriously clean. She could not remember the last time she had felt nearly this good about herself, although the bath had revealed several unhealed blisters and a generally unhealthy state of her body.
“Ah, hello. You could have taken longer, but I understand. There is soup. It is made from genuine animal, mostly rabbit, and genuine vegetables – mostly onions and carrots, and it will, as my friend’s Italian grandmother would have said, put meat on your bones. And should be easy enough for you to digest.”
The bowls were pretty, something you might have found in a fancy store back when such things existed, and the silverware looked like actual silver. Mélanie glanced at the table, glanced back at her new owner, and glanced at the table again.
It was set for two people, sitting next to each other, one at the head and one at the right hand of the head – or foot, she assumed, but since they were the only two people there, it probably didn’t really matter.
“Si- you can sit down. This seat,” he gestured at the one on the side, and then took the one at the head of the table himself. “I’m not one of those people who wants my Kept sitting on the floor. For one thing, the whole goal is to not irritate you as much as possible. For another, half the reason I want a Kept is to have someone to talk to, which means that I need a person. So. Hello, Mélanie. I’m Jasper. Can I tell you something about me?”
“Why are you-” She sat down, settled herself in her seat, and tried to phrase that so that it didn’t get her beaten. “Sorry, ah. Sir, what made you decide to be a thief?”
“Well, I’m a lousy farmer, I’m not great at fighting monsters, I refuse to be a slaver, and I find scrounging to be really kind of tedious and involve far too much running into those second two things. And then there were these people who were just being, well, frankly assholes, pardon my language – you can eat, Mélanie. I eat slowly because I keep talking until someone shuts me up, which you may also do without fear of repercussions – but you’re not a healthy weight and as long as we have the resources to put meat on your bones, I’d like to get you up to healthy. All right?”
“Yes, sir.” She wasn’t bemused, she was at least three stages beyond that Lost was probably an accurate word. Still, she’d been told to eat. She tasted the soup. It was warm, tasted thickly of meat and carrots, and had thick chunks of carrots and onions, some root starch, and small chunks of meat. She took a bigger taste, and then a serious gulp of it.
He picked up his spoon and ate a few bites before he spoke again, giving lie to what he’d said. “So. That’s why I’m a thief. And you went up against a dragon and lost…?”
“And the dragon sold me to a slaver, who sold me to an owner, who sold me, and so on.” She tried not to sound bitter. “This soup is delicious.”
“Thank you. I’m glad you find it palatable. Since my last partner decided I was unbearable, I’ve been having to take care of myself, and I’m not great at it.”
“You seem to have trouble with people finding you irritating, sir.” What was she thinking?
“I do, indeed. Although I suppose I could point out that there was a bit of an ‘and so on’ with your little description there, too.”
He was still smiling. Still, she felt her heart plummet. “I do very well up to a certain point,” she answered carefully, “but I have a bad habit of liking to understand what I’m supposed to be doing and, ah, a habit of complaining when things are done that I don’t like.”
“Good!” He smiled brightly at her.
She blinked and thought about leaning away from this sudden sign of insanity. “I’m sorry, sir…?”
“Good. If you are willing to set boundaries and speak up when you’re irritated, maybe you won’t find yourself two years in suggesting that I find someone who could better use your services.”
“I… see.” There was soup in front of her. The soup, at least, she understood. She took another bite of it, and then another. The soup made sense.