We’ve come to the end of the season. Don’t worry, as currently planned, there are two more seasons. Plenty of time for Jahlene and Mattin to get themselves out of (and in to) more trouble. Next week we’ll pick up with season 2 of Mighty Hero Force Epsilon, and see how our erstwhile sentai team…
Category: The Bargain
The Bargain (S3, E10) Early Access
Season Content notes: con noncon*, pain play, sexual contact, trauma reactions, people handling emotions badly, rape (not explicit), torture (not explicit), pony play, mind fuck (minor), privileged ally is privileged, confronting abuser/assailant Jahlene’s discussion with Collanne soon bore fruit. The next day, she left Mattin in the suite and presented herself to the Emperor and…
The Bargain (S3, E9)
Season Content notes: con noncon*, pain play, sexual contact, trauma reactions, people handling emotions badly, rape (not explicit), torture (not explicit), pony play, mind fuck (minor), privileged ally is privileged
Before Jahlene could say anything, Collanne crossed the room and seated herself with all the dignity of an empress. “Jahlene, this hasn’t been your style since your little pet took over your household. Are you over that unseemly infatuation?”
Jahlene couldn’t help laughing and carefully did not look at Mattin. He had been terrified by the bundle of energy that was Jahlene’s closest thing to a friend at court. “Why hello Collanne, how goes it with you? Your gown is delectable, by the way. And my, isn’t the gossip running fast this year. I am doing well, so good of you to ask.” Mattin closed the door and went to help Parlen with the half-unpacked drink service. With luck, he’d have a drink for Collanne before she asked.
“I am not fooled, girl. You never gave a fiddle for the niceties before—nearly cost you your county too. So you won’t be distracting me from the biggest piece of gossip yet to arrive at court with pretty words for my seamstress.” She preened. “Though she did outdo herself this year.”
“Mm.” Jahlene smiled and sat down, “Having the finest seamstress in the Empire in your duchy gives you an unfair advantage. I understand she has a liking for the new and different. The traders promised me something unique this spring. Do you think if I bribed her with a new kind of fabric she’d be willing to move to Erida?”
“Bite your tongue!” Collanne pulled a fan from nowhere and rapped Jahlene’s knee with it. “Now girl, you’ve distracted me long enough…”
Mattin’s rummaging had been successful. He knelt next to Collanne and offered her a drink with a fluttery gesture of one hand. An old fae, Collanne’s eyes were wide as she turned back to Jahlene. “Silent service? How do you even know such a thing girl? Why, it’s been out of fashion since before your mother was born.”
Jahlene allowed herself a little grin. “Did your gossip mention I took in Altani as my cook a few decades back? I’m sure you remember him—he’s the half-blooded son of Emperor Balren’s chancellor?” Collanne’s jaw dropped. “He grew up in court, rather before my mother was born. When I told him I wanted Mattin trained in something… different, he was happy to help.”
Collanne took a sip of her drink and choked. She stared at the drink, then at Mattin, who had returned to the wall to await orders. “Jahlene you are a most exasperating woman. You have done everything possible to draw my attention, including having my favorite brandy on hand and your slave prepped to serve it.” Her voice rose in a near-wail, but Jahlene could taste her amusement, matching the sparkle in her eyes. “And yet you persist in maneuvering to avoid telling me anything!”
Jahlene gave an exaggerated sigh. “I’ve never been able to fool you, Collanne. How you see through me so clearly and yet never understand will remain one of the mysteries of Dannu.”
She shook her head and glanced at Mattin. She couldn’t resist flashing him a quick grin.
“I’ll tell you what happened. Or at least, I’ll tell you the bits I don’t mind the whole court knowing. But first, answer me one question. Why this unseemly interest in a slave?”
The timing was perfect and brandy exploded from Collanne’s nose as she choked on her outraged response. Mattin hurried to offer a cloth for Collanne to dry herself with. The tension in his shoulders told Jahlene he was suppressing laughter as well… she couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard him laugh. Maybe… she pushed the thought away for a later time.
“Oh dear, are you alright, Collanne?” she asked as the older woman regained control of her breathing. “I hope your gown isn’t damaged.”
“Not nearly as much as my nose is. You are a wicked, wicked girl.” Collanne’s eyes twinkled, even as her nose continued to run. “Times like this I wonder why I even bother with you.”
Jahlene allowed herself another grin. “Because everyone else is too scared of you to put you in your place.”
“Scared of little me?” Collanne sniffed. “Why my glamour is barely strong enough to retain my title.”
“Which is why you’ve found other forms of power. Like gossip.”
“My dear Jahlene, I don’t know what you are talking about. The whole court knows of my shimmering reputation. Now.” Collanne leaned forward on her seat. “Tell Auntie everything.”
Jahlene laughed and told her… nearly everything.
Fifteen minutes later Collanne sat back in amazement. “If I couldn’t taste your sincerity, Jahlene… now what wickedness is this that you haven’t told me?”
“Mattin is from South Tarn. Oeloff’s face should be a pleasure to behold, don’t you think?” Jahlene grinned and took a sip of her own drink.
“Go poaching on Oeloff’s territory? Of course not. Mattin was brought to me by one of my people. He’d managed to piss off Oeloff enough that his father kicked him out and he was in desperate straits when he washed up at my door.”
“Ha!” the old fae laughed. “Couldn’t resist putting one over on the dirt sucker!”
“I’ll admit it. The boy Oeloff compelled with glamour so thick I could smell it two weeks later, tamed to my hand? How could I resist? I’m rather hoping he’ll recognize Mattin.”
“And after pissing Oeloff off that much, he was willing to be collared? Or have you finally broken free of those ‘principles’ of yours?”
Jahlene grinned. “Bent but not broken. He was desperate, as I said, and didn’t have anywhere else to go. And my reputation among humans is certainly better than Oeloff’s!”
“Really, Jahlene!” Collanne’s sniff was reflexive. Her focus was on Mattin. “Three months to create… this. However, did you manage it?”
“I didn’t.” Jahlene sighed. “Collanne, you are a smart female, but your blindness never fails to astound me. No force on earth, short of Dannu Herself, could force this change in three months’ time.”
“What in the world happened then?”
“Mattin. I couldn’t force him, Collanne—but he could remake himself. He is just as eager to get some of his own back at Oeloff as I am. Shaming the bastard before the court is a small thing after Oeloff destroyed his life. But I expect he will find it a taste much worth savoring.”
Collanne blinked and reached out to taste Mattin’s emotions separate from the background wash of the population of the palace. When she did, the sharp anticipation behind the slave’s bland exterior shook her. She tossed back the rest of her drink, eyes roaming the room looking for something to latch onto. “You know, Jahlene, this once, you may actually be right.”
With perfect timing, the slave stepped forward and refilled her glass. Nothing—not a flick of an eyelash—betrayed his awareness of her shock or the delight behind it. Delight at the thought of how Oeloff would react when the time came. But she tasted them nonetheless.
“Alright Jahlene. You led me right into that one, and you did it for a reason. What do you want?”
The Bargain (S3, E8)
Season Content notes: con noncon*, pain play, sexual contact, trauma reactions, people handling emotions badly, rape (not explicit), torture (not explicit), pony play, mind fuck (minor), privileged ally is privileged
Mattin had never thought of himself as a country cousin, but Hame forced him to rethink his concept of “city.” Buildings five stories tall were not uncommon, and in some places even taller roofs broke the skyline. Groves were scattered throughout, where the many fae who lived in the stone and dead wood of the city communed with Dannu.
And the fae were everywhere. Mattin had known not all fae were nobles—but knowing and seeing were two different things. The deeper they’d gotten to the heart of the empire, the more common fae had become, but he hadn’t gotten used to it. He did a double take as they passed a fae driving a wagon of late-season gourds. The fae carter ducked his head down and stared hard at his mule. Not seeing Jahlene’s coach the same way people in South Tarn tried not to see Lord Oeloff. As if the common fae were as scared of their betters as humans were.
The palace complex was a gleaming monstrosity: dozens of buildings connected by covered passageways stretching out in all directions. That much Mattin had expected from Brit’s lessoning. He hadn’t expected the bizarre variety of styles—as if each section had been designed to clash with its neighbor. Even knowing nothing of architecture, Mattin found it an eyesore. That level of ridiculous couldn’t be accidental, but why in the world would anyone design something like that?
He never did get an answer.
Behind the palace complex, towering over it, rose a circle of trees. The smallest reached three times taller than any tree Mattin had seen before. According to Brit the fae called the trees Dan Plis, First Grove, in their old tongue. The Empress, the high priestess of Dannu, held her own court within its shadows.
The central courtyard was the site of a complex dance. Nobles, attended by slaves and fae servants, climbed out of a half dozen carriages. Palace servants and stable hands dashed around, getting new arrivals into the palace, carriages, and horses out of the way. It should have been chaos, but the servants knew their jobs and kept everything moving.
A liveried fae met Jahlene and her party. He offered his arm to the lady while a pair of stable hands took over the carriage. A small horde of human slaves descended on the carriage, unloading it even as the stablehands guided it out of the courtyard.
The fae servant escorted the lady to the door, with Mattin, Parlen, and Berta trailing behind, carrying the baggage they would need right away. Another slave gathered up Jahlene’s guards and coachman and led them off, towards the servant’s barracks.
Mattin, distracted by all the activity, didn’t notice the palace door until he passed through it. The doors stood over twenty feet high, each crafted from a single piece of reddish wood. There were no carvings or decorations. Instead, the high polish brought out the grain of the wood. The darker stripes in the wood shimmered and shifted before his eyes, hinting at dreams and nightmares.
Once inside, the servant passed them off to a page, who consulted a sheaf of papers before leading them into the maze. They passed through endless corridors, out into covered walkways, and in and out of a half dozen buildings, all decorated with elaborate paintings, sculptures, and hangings. Even having memorized the maps of the palace, Mattin was quickly lost. He’d need to learn his way around.
The page finally stopped before a door in one of the larger and more elaborate buildings. He handed Mattin a key and disappeared.
Behind the door was a small suite. A bedroom for Jahlene, a sitting room, and a smaller room that doubled as storage and bedroom for the slaves. Seeing the space, all of them breathed a sigh of relief. Late arrivals and nobles out of the Emperor’s favor would be sharing their rooms, with slaves sleeping 12 to a tiny cupboard. As small as the suite was, even Mattin knew that it could have been much worse. Parlen traced one of the trees which formed the suite’s decoration. “The Empress has taken an interest in you, Mistress.”
Even as he began unpacking the first of Jahlene’s court dresses, Mattin caught the lady’s grimace. “Dannu’s Voice doesn’t involve herself in court.”
“So I have always heard, Mistress.”
Taking another look, Mattin recognized the trees from Brit’s endless notes on the fae court—the symbol of the First Grove and the Empress. Barely even arrived, and they had attracted attention… Mattin shuddered.
Jahlene stared at the Empress’ sigil decorating her chambers, then shook herself off. “Enough. Dannu’s Voice will make her wishes known in her own time. We have politics to deal with.”
She began stripping out of her travel clothes. By the time she tossed the last of her clothing aside, Berta had found the nearest bathing room and brought a deep bowl of hot water. Jahlene hurried to scrub off the worst of the travel grime.
By the time she finished, Mattin had laid out the simplest of her court wear. The gown was wrinkled, but not horribly, and there was no time to hang it. Word of her arrival would spread, and court waited for no one. Jahlene grabbed the undershift and started dressing.
Mattin assisted smoothly, finagling buttons, lacing up seams, and such. “How did you become familiar with court gowns?”
Mattin opened his mouth, then froze. Jahlene sighed. “I forgot.”
She shook her head, trying to get her hair settled on her shoulders. There was no time to put it up as she prefered. Like all formal fae garments, her dress left a great deal of skin exposed below the neck. She’d occasionally thought that it was so no one could make any mistake at court about who was—or wasn’t—wearing a collar.
“You may speak to answer my question.” She managed to keep a groan behind her teeth. Cook’s willingness to teach Mattin the old forms was a blessing, but three months of needing to give him permission any time he needed to speak…. It would drive her up the wall, and she had no idea how he was going to handle it.
But Mattin’s mouth quirked in a tiny smile, and he only said, “Brit had me dressing and undressing Parlen every spare moment for the past several weeks, Lady.”
Her eyebrows rose towards her hairline, and she glanced at her secretary, who was unpacking what looked like the drink service.
A knock at the door interrupted further discussion. Jahlene sighed. They’d had over an hour to prepare — it would have to be enough. By Dannu, let Mattin be ready for this!
At Jahlene’s nod, Mattin hurried to open the door. He moved even faster, bowing himself out of the way. A walking avalanche of sartorial splendor blasted into the room. “Now, Jahlene, I’ve never quite approved of your habits,” Duchess Collanne of Port Remtry announced by way of greeting, “but at least you’ve been consistent in them. So what is this about you bringing an attendant with you?” She scanned the room, then walked right up to Mattin and began examining him.
Collanne was tiny for a fae, small even compared to most humans. The top of her head barely reached his nose, but she was a force of nature. Jahlene was amused to see that Mattin reacted to her the way everyone did on first meeting — he looked for a chair to hide behind. “Well, he’s pleasant on the eyes and quite properly terrified. Maybe you’re finally growing up!”
The Bargain (S3, E7)
Season Content notes: con noncon*, pain play, sexual contact (implied), trauma reactions, people handling emotions badly, rape (not explicit), torture (not explicit), pony play, mind fuck (minor), privileged ally is privileged
When Mattin woke the next morning, Elose was still with him, squishing him into the wall. She stirred as he sat up and ran a hand over his chest.
He grinned and took her hand, kissing it. “That it is.” And it had been a good night. Even after he fell asleep—the first night without dreams since Oeloff took Marta.
He stood and inched over to the door. Cracking it open let in a small amount of light. Enough he could see Elose as a dark shadow against the bed. She sat up and stretched. “I’d like to come back tonight if you’ll have me.”
She began gathering up her clothing, “No pressure Mattin. But I like a man who doesn’t hog the blanket.” She looked up at him, grinning. “And you’re not bad with your cock, either.”
A flush crept up his cheeks, and he was grateful she wouldn’t see it in the dark.
“You’re cute when you blush, you know.” She laughed when he jumped. “No, I can’t see you. I know you that well. I’ve had my eye on you a while.”
He shook his head, “Then maybe you know what I want; Mare knows I don’t.” He sighed and began getting dressed. “I like you, Elose, but I’m not ready to…”
“Be serious?” She laughed again. “Mattin, you know I don’t do serious. Work hard, play hard. This is play.”
Neither said anything while shifts were pulled on and pants laced up.
“But you don’t play with just one person, do you?” Mattin finally asked.
“Of course not. Are you going to tell me that if the mistress asked you to join her bed, you’d say no?”
Mattin’s shaft sprang to attention. “Mare take it, Elose!”
She giggled, then came up behind him to put a hand on his shoulder. “I didn’t think so.” She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed. “Anyone with eyes around here knows you love her, Mattin. And if you can’t share your love with me, that’s okay. But I like you, I like to fuck, and I like the way you fuck. So let me know if you decide you want to play again.”
She planted a kiss on his cheek and walked out into the hallway, leaving him to sort through his confused thoughts alone.
But not so confused that he didn’t call down the hallway after her, “I like you, too!” She looked back and grinned before turning out of sight.
When Jahlene woke up, she had to deal with seeing off Falthro. She watched him ride away with mixed feelings. There were worse possible allies and the temptation of a real friend among her own people…
But he was still a noble. A very old noble, maybe even as old as the Empire. One of the powerful fae who did nothing to protect the humans they ruled over and were a threat to their own people…
After Falthro left, Jahlene went to the stables. Normally, she left the horses in Gwende and Anral’s hands, but if she needed to get extra mounts before going to court, better to know now. While there, she stopped by a tall roan Jaffrey was currying. “Falthro was asking about the Mountain Folk.”
He nodded without looking away from his work. “The traders don’t come for months, Mistress.”
“Yes. I like him, Jaffrey, but I don’t trust him.”
Jaffrey nodded again, and Jahlene finished her inspection. Her alliance with the Mountain Folk was a careful dance. Only Brit knew Jaffrey wasn’t just her slave: he was a spy for his people. She had done her part; the rest was in his hands.
Before shoving Falthro out of her mind, she allowed herself a moment of regret.
Now that they had Falthro’s agreement, everything became about preparing for Jahlene’s journey to court. Jahlene was out of the manor almost every day. She held several court days in the city and each of the large towns. After each court day, she met with local notables to address as many ’not big yet’ problems as possible.
At home, she and Anral went through all the outbuildings. They made sure that any supplies needed before winter were ordered in, making notes of any repairs that would be needed, and doing everything they could to prepare the manor for winter.
Mattin occasionally accompanied her, but more often stayed behind. He hadn’t had time to learn the outside tasks Jahlene handled in running the manor and county, but he knew the manor as well as people who had been with Jahlene for years.
So while Jahlene focused on the out-manor tasks, she set Mattin to assisting Housekeeper with the same tasks inside and helping Parlen with packing.
Jahlene was amused to note that Elose continued to keep Mattin company. Since the man’s nightmares got worse as their departure approached, Jahlene approved. Jahlene approved of Elose generally. The young woman wanted to take over for Housekeeper when she retired. She didn’t know that she was on the shortlist (with Crait) for becoming Brit’s apprentice.
So Jahlene was just as happy to see Elose and Mattin growing closer and the distraction that provided Mattin. She just hoped that Mattin understood what he was getting into. Elose was loyal in her way, but one reason she’d sought Jahlene’s service was to avoid marriage and being restricted to life with a single partner.
But that was a future problem, and Jahlene had problems enough. Some days it seemed like they would never get everything done in time. But finally, the frantic preparations were over.
Two weeks after Falthro left, they set out for Court.
The travel was blessedly easy — they caught a clear spot between the fall thunderstorms and the first of the winter snow. Once they got out of the mountains they moved quickly, reaching the capital in five days.
The journey itself was… awkward and uncomfortable. Carriages were never comfortable, being stuck in one for days with Mattin and all his emotions…
Well, for once she wouldn’t arrive in the capital desperate for glamourhai, but that didn’t mean she enjoyed knowing how little he liked being trapped with her.
She reminded herself constantly that most of Mattin’s fear was for court and confronting Oeloff. But the way he would look at her, then turn away anytime she saw him looking, the closed-down expressions he wore… in spite of how well they had been working together, and their shared amusement at trapping Falthro… well, she hadn’t been under any illusions. He may have been starting to like her at one time, but his fear and her mishandling had trampled that into dust.
The Bargain (S3, E6)
Season Content notes: con noncon*, pain play, sexual contact, trauma reactions, people handling emotions badly, rape (not explicit), torture (not explicit), pony play, mind fuck (minor), privileged ally is privileged(? — I don’t know how to tag what’s going on with Jahlene in this episode, but it’s definitely all about being privileged)
A few minutes later, Mattin knocked on the door to the glamourhame. Jahlene opened the door after a moment. She didn’t say a word, but her eyebrows drew together in annoyance. Mattin bowed low and offered her the note he had stopped to pen on the way to the glamourhame. She accepted and read it. Mattin, unable to see into the room, strained his ears to hear something. Falthro’s voice came to him faintly — as if the fae were whispering. Even fainter were the quiet moans that had to be from Elose.
Jahlene turned to the room. “My cook is wondering how long he should expect to hold supper for us. What shall I tell him?”
“I believe I am finished.” Falthro sauntered into the doorway, nearly as immaculate as when he’d left his suite that morning. “I’m sure your toy can attend to things here while we clean up.”
The lady’s eyes flickered into the room, and Mattin knew she didn’t like the idea of leaving Elose. Whatever she saw must have reassured her because she nodded and offered Falthro her arm.
Mattin bowed again as they walked past him, dreading what he would find when he entered the glamourhame.
Elose hung on the cross, naked and limp. Her chest heaved with each breath, and her body glistened with sweat. Mattin was surprised—and relieved—to see no sign of injuries. She lifted her head. A cloth gag had muffled her cries, turning them into the low moans he had strained to hear. Her eyes were wide and bright, and tears streamed down her face. She pulled against her bonds, writhing on the cross.
Mattin hurried over to her and began to unstrap her. She shook her head, stopping him. Uncertain, Mattin reached towards the gag and removed it.
“Please.” She moaned. “Finish it.”
What did she mean? He couldn’t ask — even if his test with Falthro was over, the lady had ordered him never to speak in the glamourhame.
She writhed against the cross again, hips thrusting towards him. “Please, Mattin, that bastard kept me on the edge for hours. I’m going crazy—please finish me.”
A blush swept over Mattin as he realized what she meant. Hesitantly, he stepped forward and placed a hand between her legs, ready to pull away if she objected.
She didn’t. She moaned deep in her throat. Her cleft was warm and wet against his palm. “Please,” she whispered again.
He became hard. He had never imagined anything like this. Elose was spread before him, every inch warm and wet and exposed. “Please…” He leaned over and took her breast in his mouth while his fingers slipped inside her wetness. She cried out and pushed her hips against his hand. He pulled his hand back. She strained to follow him but couldn’t. She moaned, and the sound ripped through him. He relented and let his fingers return to her cleft. His tongue teased her nipples and she cried out again as shudders ripped through her body.
After a time, she hung limp on the cross, and Mattin stepped back. He watched her chest heave and kept himself from reaching for her again. He was not fae; he would not take what wasn’t offered. No matter how much he might want to.
When he had control of himself, he undid the cuffs around her ankles and wrists. She collapsed against him, her feet unwilling to support her weight. A quick look located her clothing, folded on the shelves by the lady’s tools. Very few of them had been used, and those that had were all implements for pleasure. Then he understood what the lord had done to Elose. The lady makes pain a pleasure, the thought flickered through his mind, but this lord managed to make pleasure a torture.
Pushing the strange idea aside, he helped Elose to the rack, ironically the only thing in the room that she could rest on, and got her clothing. She took the clothes with a quiet thank you and dressed.
When she finished, she slid off the rack and took his face in her hands. She stared into his eyes a long moment before surprising him with a kiss that left his head spinning and his shaft throbbing fit to burst.
When she pulled away, she smiled but wouldn’t meet his gaze. Shy and modest were not words he associated with Elose, but now she looked like a flustered maiden. Not sure what else to do, he took her hand and led her from the glamourhame to the hallway.
As the door closed behind them, he turned to her and kissed her again. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to skip dinner and come to my room?” His mouth was dry, but he managed to put a hint of humor into the question.
She didn’t answer but squeezed his hand, and this time it was she who led him through the hallway and to his bed. Where a pleasurable time was had by all.
Dinner with Falthro was also unexpected. Cook had managed, without instruction or prompting, to create a picnic-style dinner that had Falthro in raptures. Somehow Jahlene managed to suppress her surprise when she saw the xocalt-glazed chicken. Falthro didn’t notice—it was his first exposure to the southern treat, and he was a gourmet. He was oblivious to anything except the strange new taste. She was delighted to talk about food again rather than what passed for entertaining discourse in the court.
Just as well, perhaps. It took a few minutes for Jahlene to regain her focus and not be distracted by the things she was tasting from Mattin and Elose. Jahlene had never cared how her people spent time together as long as everyone was willing. She refused to be bothered now. Mattin would never be hers, so what he did in private was no business of hers.
So she focused on Falthro and his rhapsodizing about the food.
When he finally wound down, she asked about his technique in the glamourhame. It had been decades since she learned anything of worth from another fae, but she had to admit Falthro’s methods intrigued her. The feast he provided them had been as satisfying as anything she had ever managed—and without any harm to Elose.
“I thought you might like that,” Falthro said, “I admit, I’ve been watching your technique for some time.”
Jahlene stared at him a moment. Then laughed at herself. No point now in pretending he hadn’t surprised her. “Alright, I’ll bite.” Suiting action to words, she took a small bite of an apple slice glazed with honey. “Why?”
“Because,” Falthro took a sip of fruit juice, “You have managed to draw more emotion, without causing permanent harm to your toys, than anyone else. I might, as a master of exotic triaglamour take it as a challenge to my skill. But in truth, I have long found it… more comfortable to maintain the same staff for as long as possible. Crippling or traumatizing my humans means needing replacements sooner.
“So I find your skill something to be admired.”
Jahlene gripped the table to keep from reacting to that matter-of-fact statement. She tried to remember if anyone, even her few friends among the fae, had ever shown the faintest hint of approval for her way of handling her people and home. She couldn’t remember a single one. She took a long drink, using the action to cover her unsteady hands.
“So, I did some experimenting of my own,” he blithely continued, though he couldn’t be oblivious to her reaction. “The key, I’ve found, is to keep them right on the edge of completion without allowing them their satisfaction. It’s particularly effective to alternate my approach—the appetizer, if you will, of fear and anticipation when they do not know what to expect, pleasure or pain, is a flavor worth taking the time to savor.”
During the conversation which followed, Jahlene never tasted anything from Falthro but the amused detachment which was his trademark at court. Her own emotions ran wild, telling him far too much. Making it far too easy for him to manipulate her. And yet… and yet… in the end, Jahlene threw her worries aside and let herself bask in, for once, receiving approval from one of her peers. It was the most enjoyable conversation she’d had with another fae since… she didn’t know when.
By mutual consent, Jahlene and Falthro avoided politics, court, and the usual gossip. From glamourhai, the conversation moved to fashions, an area Jahlene didn’t care for but which Falthro managed to make interesting anyway. He was fascinated by what she knew of fashion and food among the Mountain Folk.
“Did you know,” he asked, his emotions flickering for a moment, too quickly for her to tease out their meaning, “no one—no one—has collared one of the Mountain Folk before? However, did you manage it?”
Jahlene nearly choked on her wine. “Nonsense. When we warred with them five hundred years ago, Emperor Kalid took several prisoners as slaves.”
“I know.” Falthro grimaced. “I was there. As soon as our backs were turned, they ripped off the collars and set about sabotaging our war camp. The Emperor was not pleased and… hm… quieted that part in the chronicles. To this day, no one knows how they escaped. Unless you do.”
Focusing hard on her disbelief, Jahlene shook her head. “Falthro, whatever I may be, my glamour is not strong enough to do what an Emperor could not! If Jaffrey wanted to leave, I expect he would manage as easily as his ancestors. Like all my people, Jaffrey wanted my collar.” She sighed and called up her exasperation with the other nobility to flavor her thoughts. “If there is any secret, it is one I have been trying to get someone to listen to for decades.”
To her hidden relief, Falthro chuckled and said, “Well, my Lady n’Erida, allow me to reassure you that one person has been listening.”
The Bargain (S3, E5)
Season Content notes: con noncon*, pain play, sexual contact, trauma reactions, people handling emotions badly, rape (not explicit), torture (not explicit), pony play, mind fuck (minor)
When he got to the kitchen Mattin found Cook had anticipated him. In the middle of all his fancy work to impress Falthro’s gourmet palate, Cook had found time to create a small spun-sugar sculpture, which he presented to Mattin with a flourish. “By the Mare, you did it! Good for you, lad. Was the popinjay well pleased?”
Mattin shook himself and grinned, “Is it that obvious?”
“Only to the Mare tossed. Sit! Eat! Tell!”
So Mattin sat and savored, and told.
When he finished, Toerff paused in stirring the night’s stew to flick him a quick salute and Cook clapped him on the back with a hearty “Well done, lad!”
Mattin stayed in the kitchen the rest of the afternoon, helping cook and Toerff prepare dinner. Through the mysterious alchemy by which news passed through the manor, word of Falthro’s agreement spread. As a result, the kitchen saw an unusual number of visitors, dropping in to grab a drink and offer Mattin their congratulations. It warmed Mattin, and surprised him. He hadn’t realized how much support he had from the others in Jahlene’s service.
As the flush of victory faded, Mattin couldn’t help thinking and worrying about Elose, and what Falthro might be doing. Which reminded him of a question that had been teasing his thoughts for a while. “Cook? Is there a reason the fae have glamourhai? Besides liking it, I mean?”
Cook’s eyes widened as he stared at Mattin. “Will wonders never cease? The lad is starting to think!” With a laugh, Cook opened one of the high cupboards and took out a small bag Mattin hadn’t seen before. “Now this calls for a celebration!”
Toerff, when she saw what Cook had, dropped her ladle and danced around the kitchen. Mattin stared in confusion. “Cook?”
“A glaze, this time I think. Mixed with milk and honey over the sweet biscuits?”
Toerff ran out of the room and Cook plopped the bag on the table. It was filled with a dark brown powder. Cook slapped Mattin’s hand away when he tried to get a closer look. “Xocalt, Jaffrey’s people bring a small amount each year, and it’s worth more than its weight in gold.”
Mattin’s eyes bugged out. For a moment he stopped breathing. “Cook!”
Toerff came back—still dancing—with a jug of milk and a large honeycomb.
The half-fae grinned at Mattin and twitched his ears. “It’s a fine day, lad. Now, what was it you were asking?”
Mattin groaned and buried his head in his hands.
“Just teasing lad.” Cook sat down at the table and began carefully measuring some of the xocalt into a small cup. “Yes, some fae—powerful fae—need glamourhai. They—we—don’t just taste emotions, we eat them. They feed our glamour. A halfling like me, or the weaker fae, can get enough from daily life. It takes an effort not to taste and feed on the emotions around us. But the stronger the glamour, the more… hungry… it is.”
Jahlene, Mattin remembered, often had a look of hunger about her when she was in the glamourhame. And other times as well. He shivered.
“If a fae’s glamour doesn’t get enough to feed on in daily life, the fae starts to starve. So powerful fae, like Jahlene and, damn him, Oeloff, use the glamourhame. They create emotion to feed on.”
Cook stood and carried the measured cup of xocalt to the stove, and mixed it into a pot of milk Toerff had heating. “Now, keep stirring. I can handle the rest of dinner. Do not let this burn!”
“Yes, Cook!” Toerff hummed to herself as she stirred, occasionally leaning over the pot to inhale the steam. Cook put the bag with its remaining xocalt away and turned to check the birds he had baking. No one else spoke as Mattin absorbed what Cook had told him.
When Crait and Harth arrived to start serving dinner a short time later, both seemed strained. Crait’s whispered congratulations were sincere, but his thoughts were elsewhere. Mattin nodded his thanks and wished he could ask the big man what was wrong.
He didn’t need to wait long to find out. When they returned to collect the next round of food, Harth asked Mattin, “Did the mistress say where she would be dining tonight?”
Mattin started, he hadn’t even thought of dinner for Jahlene and Falthro. “No… no she didn’t, and she hasn’t sent word either.”
“She wanted to be flexible. She was to send a message when she knew what would be needed,” Cook said. “I admit, I expected to hear from her before now.”
Crait grunted. “We were right then. They’re still in the glamourhame.”
Several uncomfortable looks were exchanged. “Is that… normal?” Mattin directed his question to Cook, but Crait answered.
“For the Mistress, rare, but sometimes we get lucky. For a visiting fae…”
“Never in my memory,” Cook said.
“Jahlene won’t let her be harmed.” Cook’s voice was firm and his eyes steady. The others—even Mattin—nodded in agreement. But they were still worried.
Mattin made a quick decision. “We need to have a meal ready for whenever they come out. Cr-Cook,” he caught himself, “what about using the balcony? A picnic-style dinner?”
Crait grinned, but he let Cook reply, “Aye, lad. I’ve some delicacies on hand and the birds can be broken for picnic fare.” He glanced at the pot Toerff stirred and sighed. “I’ll use the xocalt to fancy it up.” A collective moan, but Cook ignored it. “Crait, have Housekeeper set it up. Toerff: take the pot off and get Nonnet out of the buttery to help Harth serve the next course. Mattin, make sure Jahlene knows what we do. If she doesn’t need you, come back and help me with the food.”
They scattered. And if no one mentioned that this would give Mattin an opportunity to check up on Elose… well, no one saw a need to.
The seasons finale went up tonight for site members. If you don’t want to wait to read it, sign up now!
The Bargain (S3, E4)
I’ll be honest: this chapter is almost pure self indulgence.
Season Content notes: con noncon*, pain play, sexual contact, trauma reactions, people handling emotions badly, rape (not explicit), torture (not explicit), pony play, mind fuck (minor)
By the time they got to the courtyard, the two women were waiting for them. Jaffrey stood beside them with a light carriage and a mound of very odd-looking tack. Mattin knew Berta—she was the one who showed him how Jahlene liked her things laid out in the evening, and he’d spoken with her a few times over meals. Sare, he had seen at meals from time to time—Jaffrey had pointed her out once as having ‘an interest’ in Joth, but he’d never spoken with her.
Both stood, perfectly proper, doing their own version of being posts. But their eyes were bright and they stood with an eager tension—like racers waiting for the starting whistle.
Falthro examined the women, then turned to Jahlene.
The lady nodded to Jaffrey who bent down to the pile of tack and came up with something resembling a bridle. He approached Sare, clucking his tongue like he was soothing a restive horse. She stood, not responding until he slipped the bit in her mouth and fitted the bridle over her head.
“By Dannu!” Falthro whispered.
Sare transformed, though Mattin was never, then or later, fully able to describe or explain it. No longer a post, her weight shifted restlessly from foot to foot. She quivered and shook her head, for all the world like a nervous mare. From the way Falthro stared, Mattin guessed the change went deeper than Sare’s behavior.
Jaffrey rubbed her legs and arms and offered her a sugar cube. She nickered and lipped it from his hand, then stood while Jaffrey fitted the rest of her tack. He backed her between the shafts of the carriage and fitted her into a harness before shifting his attention to Berta.
In Berta, the transition was gradual. She opened her mouth for the bit, and Mattin caught her winking at Jaffrey. Her foot stomped, once. Then she was still, a post. But with each piece of tack her body language shifted a bit more. By the time Jaffrey was fitting her into the harness, she was blowing—pulling a trick as old as horses to keep Jaffrey from tightening the girth properly. When he’d dealt with her blowing and had her strapped in, she was all mare—and a restless one.
Jahlene climbed into the carriage and accepted the reins from Jaffrey. “Join me for a drive, my lord?”
After a moment Falthro climbed up beside her. Mattin stood beside the carriage and awaited any orders the lord would give. In the end, he gave no orders. Mattin watched as Jahlene sent the women—the mares—into a fast walk, and they drove down the road.
When they pulled up in the courtyard fifteen minutes later, Falthro was still staring at the mares. Mattin helped Jaffrey to unharness them, and then Jaffrey led them back to the stables.
When they were out of sight, Falthro turned to Jahlene and gave her a flourishing bow. “Countess n’Erida, I salute you. However did you manage that?”
Jahlene grinned. “Now Falthro, why should I tell you my secrets for free? My mares are a special pair. Even if I tell you what makes them so special, you wouldn’t be able to duplicate it.”
“Now that I cannot believe.” Falthro gestured widely. His eyes sparkled as brightly as the stones of the manor. “In all my years there has never been a traiglamour I have not been able to recreate. You challenge me, lady. Do you think I can let such a challenge stand?”
Jahlene laughed and offered Falthro her arm. They walked back towards the manor, Mattin trailing behind. “Falthro, your artistry is undeniable, but this… unless I am much mistaken, to recreate this taste, you would need to recreate my household.”
Falthro looked at her a long moment and sighed, some of the brightness flowing out of him. “You believe this. But that will not stop me from trying.”
“Then I will tell you this much: you cannot force it. A human either has the horse nature within them or they do not.”
Falthro said nothing further until they reached the formal dining room, and Jahlene sent for lunch.
After a meal spent dissecting the kitchen’s artistry (and Cook had outdone himself), Falthro turned to Jahlene with a grin. “You were correct, by the by. Your mares truly are a unique flavor, but not at all filling. Dare I hope you can offer more traditional fare?”
“Of course, Falthro.” She sent, again, for Elose and Jaffrey.
Mattin looked away. Falthro was examining them as if they were pieces of meat in a butcher’s shop. Mattin knew fae hospitality required Jahlene to offer the use of her glamourhame, but he’d hoped Berta and Sare would be enough to divert the lord.
Falthro chose Jaffrey and dismissed Elose. As Elose turned to go, the fae lord grabbed her about the throat and forced her to the floor. Mattin nearly jumped to help her but froze before it was too late. Jaffrey lunged for the fae lord, but Jahlene stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. Falthro released Elose almost as soon as he had grabbed her—the whole thing took seconds.
The fae lord walked up to Mattin and put a hand under his chin, forcing Mattin to meet his eyes. “That was close, little toy. I almost caught you. And may I say your anger and hatred are a delicious sauce. I haven’t tasted its like in a long time.”
Mattin wanted to tell the fae exactly what he thought, but instead managed to choke out, “It is my pleasure to serve you, Lord.”
Falthro grinned. “Preferably roasted with a side of greens, I’m sure.” He cocked his head to the side and winked, “Oh go ahead and give me an honest response, toy. I promise not to hold it against you.”
“I prefer my meat broiled… Lord.” Mattin cursed himself even as he spoke. But Falthro threw back his head and laughed.
“Oh, little toy, you are a delight. Very well Jahlene, I concede. You’ll have my help. And I don’t know which I will look forward to more, Trapping Oeloff or watching your bait squirm on its self-made hook.”
The fae lord turned his attention back to Jaffrey and Elose… probably enjoying the way he’d managed to turn the taste of victory sour in Mattin’s mouth.
Mattin forced himself to focus on the moment. Falthro was bending over Elose and whispering in her ear. Mattin couldn’t hear what he said or Elose’s reply. But a moment later, Jahlene dismissed him and Jaffrey, and escorted Falthro, with Elose, to the glamourhame.
Once they were gone, Mattin took a deep breath and strove to forget Lord Falthro’s games. The lord could play with Mattin all he wanted, Mattin had won this round.
He had won. He was on a long stride closer to saving Marta.
“Congratulations,” Jaffrey said, clapping him on the shoulder. “I knew you could do it.”
Mattin wanted to respond, to share his joy with his friend. But he would not risk everything now, of all times. So he only smiled in gratitude and left the room.
He thought of going to his cubby and being alone but decided to go to the kitchen instead. Cook was always glad of an extra pair of hands, and it would give him a chance to share the good news.
The Bargain (S3, E3)
Season Content notes: con noncon*, pain play, sexual contact, trauma reactions, people handling emotions badly, rape (not explicit), torture (not explicit)
The rest of the evening went without incident. Barely. Mattin had observed Falthro’s habits during the meal. Little things, like knowing when to refill his drink, were easy. He found himself falling back on Brit’s earliest training: he stood at the lord’s shoulder and became a piece of furniture.
Falthro began trying to break him almost immediately. “Oh yes, I heard the tale from Althsuar. Oeloff had him and Lothren over some weeks ago. A pretty piece, and untouched.” The lord savored the words, almost as much as he savored Cook’s meats. “They had a delightful time helping him break her in. Said she fought like a wild thing. At least to start. By the time they finished she learned to beg very prettily. And Lothren took the chance to teach them all a fascinating trick with pins. I’ll have to try it sometime.”
The training he had hated and feared saved Mattin then. He became furniture, a post. A simple piece of wood that had been shaped into usefulness. A post doesn’t fear or rage. A post doesn’t have a sister in the hands of monsters. A post is. He was a post.
Once, a lifetime ago, Brit had told Mattin that Lady Jahlene would demand all of him. That he would change and be changed so he, like that post, could be he needed to be to survive. He hadn’t understood it then, not really. But now, as he played his role in a social dance that was key to saving Marta — now as they lady gambled the political power she needed on his ability to satisfy this strange fae — now, he understood. Not just his face and form, but the ‘taste’ of his emotions would determine the success of this venture.
He would feel later. He would fear and rage and weep. Cook would offer him tea which something extra added and listen while he broke. Brit would take him somewhere private so he could scream. Elose would offer a hand or a hug or a shoulder to lean on when he needed it. And he would do all of it. Cry, and scream, and need, and fear… later.
But he felt none of it now. Now, he felt nothing. He was only a post.
When the dinner was finished and cleared away, Falthro gave up trying to provoke Mattin. Instead, he suggested a game of chess. Mattin wasn’t sure if Falthro enjoyed the game or wanted to see if prolonged boredom would make him twitch. But posts don’t get bored.
The game took several hours; Mattin had plenty of time to figure out the rules of play. Maybe he could ask Cook or Brit if they played later. When he was done being a post.
After the game, Lord Falthro was finally ready to retire for the night. Mattin escorted the lord to the guest rooms he had been assigned.
The lord instructed Mattin to sleep in the sitting room of the guest suite, “In case I need anything overnight.” Mattin decided to play it safe and sleep on the floor, so the lord couldn’t take issue with his using a couch or chair without permission. He seemed like the type to do that.
As it turned out, where he slept wasn’t the issue. In fact, after the fourth time Falthro called him out of bed, he gave up on sleeping at all. The lord needed a hot drink. There was a lump in the bed. He wished Mattin to find him a book. The fire needed to be built up. The fire needed to be damped down.
Halfway through the night, Mattin was disgusted, annoyed and exhausted. It was more and more difficult to keep a courteous expression when responding to the lord’s summons. Finally, as the first light of dawn crept through the windows, Lord Falthro started to snore.
When Mattin realized he wasn’t going to be permitted any sleep, he had worked out a plan. He waited what felt like hours to be sure the Mare damned toothpick was truly asleep. When the fae remained quiet, he put his plan into action.
Walking as quietly as possible, he crossed the room and pulled on the bell to summon a servant. Then he opened the door, and waited in the doorway. A few minutes later, Elose, bleary eyed, hair mussed, and annoyed, came down the hall. She stopped when she saw him.
“Mattin? What’n hell?”
“Elose, I need help. I need to wake myself up and get presentable, and I can’t leave the lord alone. He’s asleep now but might wake up and start making demands any moment.”
“Oh!” She grinned at him, “So you’re the reason I’ve gotten some sleep with the bloody prick in the place. Sure I can help you out. For a price…” She winked at him.
Mattin’s brain shut down. “Ah… sure. Anything you want.”
“Good. You can start teaching me to read tomorrow.”
Mattin froze. “What?”
Elose giggled. “I’m teasing, Housekeeper’s already teaching me. But Mare’s sake, Mattin, never agree to a bargain without asking the terms.
“Now go on, I’ll look you up sometime when things are quiet and we’ll see what bargain we can really strike.” She stepped into the suite, twitching her rear at him as she passed.
Mattin closed the door—being careful to not make a sound. First stop, a bath.
An hour later, Mattin was alert, thanks to a brisk bath and some over-steeped tea. He was also neatly dressed with his hair straightened and not a thread out of place (he didn’t want to think about what Parlen would ask for in return for her help.) He had a tray of Lord Falthro’s usual breakfast (bless Cook for keeping notes on visitors) and an arrangement for a fresh tray to be brought up every half hour. No matter when the fae woke up, he’d have a hot meal waiting. Mattin also managed to grab a meat roll for himself and was as ready to face the day as he could manage.
Luckily, Falthro had slept—or at least been quiet. Elose hadn’t heard anything, and he was still snoring away. Mattin thanked her as she left and set the breakfast tray on a convenient table. He laid out three outfits for the lord, ranging from overdone to obscene. Mattin was taken by a strong urge to burn the stuff—and replace it with clothing that wasn’t drenched in lace, velvet, gems and frills. The male should look like a walking cake the way he dressed. But Mattin had to admit he managed to pull it off. Somehow.
Then it was waiting, and staying alert. An hour and a half after Elose left, the snoring stopped, and the lump under the covers began to stir. Mattin entered the bedroom and built up the fire for the day, then went to the bedside and bowed to the bleary-eyed fae. “Good morning, lord. Would you wish your breakfast in bed, or at table?”
Falthro glared at him “You are disgustingly awake, toy.” Mattin blinked, not knowing what to say. “It’s just the two of us now, and I know your mistress isn’t into all this starch and nonsense. So why not cut the act?”
“Lord,” Mattin fumbled, desperate for a “safe” response, “I am sorry if my conduct is not pleasing. I—if you will tell me your wish, I will comply.”
The fae scowled, but only said, “Breakfast.”
“Yes, lord.” Mattin replied. A quick bow hid his face long enough to hide his relief. Then he went to fetch the latest tray.
After Falthro finished eating and dressed, Mattin escorted him to a meeting with Lady Jahlene. They spent some time discussing matters before the council and the prospective trade agreement between their counties. Falthro instructed Mattin to take notes for him, while Parlen did the same for Jahlene. Shortly before lunch Falthro announced, “That’s all for business. I get enough at home. What entertainment can you offer a guest Jahlene? Hopefully something better than last time?”
Jahlene waved to Parlen. “Send a page for Jaffrey and Elose.”
Parlen bowed and left. Jahlene turned to Falthro with a smile Mattin knew was forced. “You can have your choice of entertainment, Falthro.” The smile changed, became more real. “Unless… no, probably not…” She sighed and shook her head.
Falthro jumped on the bait. “Unless what?”
“Unless you might be interested in an unusual traiglamour I’ve been experimenting with. It is not as satisfying a meal, I’ll admit. But a truly unique taste.”
Falthro fluffed the lace as his wrists, “Alright, my lady, you’ve caught my attention… again. What do you have up your charming sleeve?”
“Yes or no, Falthro.”
“Oh, very well.” The lord sniffed and looked down his nose at her. “Show me this ‘unique taste’ of yours.”
Jaffrey and Elose entered the room as he finished speaking. Jahlene turned to them with a smile. “Jaffrey, inform the stablemistress I require the light carriage and the special tack. Elose, please have Sare and Berta report to the courtyard.”
Both bowed and left the room at a run. Falthro stared at Jahlene with a mix of curiosity and skepticism. Mattin tried hard to remain invisible and not let his surprise show. Whatever Jahlene had planned, it was as new to him as it was to Falthro.
“I should warn you,” Jahlene said, “they’ll be a bit skittish. I haven’t had a chance to work with them in several months, and Berta especially gets restive.”
Falthro scowled. “You are baiting me.” He strode through the door and Mattin hurried to take his place on the male’s heels. “You would not be making a point of your slave’s misbehavior unless you were laying a trap. I decline to walk into it.”
Jahlene laughed. “Well, I had to try.”
Mattin suspected she had succeeded.
The Bargain (S3, E2)
Season Content notes: con noncon*, pain play, sexual contact, trauma reactions, people handling emotions badly, rape (not explicit), torture (not explicit)
Dealing with the dock fire occupied the rest of the day and most of several days to follow. Assistance had to be sent for those injured and those who lost livelihoods. Records of recent shipments and trade through the dock were lost: information from other sources had to be gathered to fill the gaps. Plans for rebuilding requested, authorized and implemented.
Throughout it all, the lady remained distant and formal. Mattin missed the banter and friendship, but understood his own actions had caused the distance. He hoped, in time, the lady might come to trust him again. A week after the dock fire, Mattin tried teasing her about working too hard. She forbade him to speak to her for the rest of the day.
So he kept his distance as well. His days were long and lonely. He continued to enjoy Cook’s company in the mornings and the company of others when he got a chance. But most of his time was spent with Jahlene, locked in icy formality.
The painful distance had one benefit: there was no chance he would forget his purpose again. He thought of Marta constantly. He woke in the morning reminding himself of Marta’s freedom. He went to bed at night remembering that he endured for her. Often, it was cold comfort. His unworded prayer was that Jahlene would permit Marta to remain nearby when she was free—or even within the manor itself. Others in the manor had family in a little cottager village a short walk distant. If Marta stayed there, if he saw her from time to time…. Maybe then he would feel less alone.
The remaining weeks before court went swiftly. Mattin threw himself into training with a new fervor, and Brit soon declared himself satisfied. Jahlene said nothing to Mattin, but Brit told him she was also satisfied.
While Mattin finished his training, Jahlene and Parlen began the political dance. Letters and the occasional messenger were sent to nobles who might be interested in helping them trap Oeloff. They also fielded inquiries and requests from allies seeking Jahlene’s support at court. Part of Mattin’s job became recording these discussions and keeping track of the various negotiations. Parlen said that knowing the goings on and who the players were would help him watch his step at court. Jahlene simply grunted.
Two weeks before they left, their efforts bore fruit. One of the neutral lords, Falthro of County Oultor, came to the manor. Jahlene and Parlen believed he could be convinced to witness Oeloff’s attempts to coerce Mattin.
The manor went into a frenzy of preparations. For this meeting, they would set out a full highcourt feast for two. Mattin was kept on the periphery of the discussions, so he would know his part. It remained to be seen if he could pull it off.
The smaller dining hall glowed with lamplight, sheltered flames reflecting off bright brass and glass polished to a high shine. A pure white cotton table cloth spoke of the wealth of the hostess. Moving with the silence and grace Brit had drilled into him, Mattin set Cook’s latest course—a spiced bread sculpted shaped as a stag’s head—before Lord Falthro n’Oultor. He placed a second sculpture before the lady, and the savory dipping sauces between them.
Lord Falthro lounged in his chair and waved one pale white hand over his plate, “Why Jahlene, I am honored. Such trouble you go to for a friendly meal.”
The lady shook her head and laughed, “Not I, Falthro. My Cook despairs of my quiet life and takes every excuse to show off his talents. But please, enjoy. The red sauce is a lovely thing, made with some southern spices the traders introduced this spring.”
Falthro broke open his sculpture and tried a piece in the red sauce. Mattin had no idea how the male kept the trailing lace of his cuffs from landing in the sauce along with the bread…
The sauce met with the fae lord’s approval, and he inquired into opening a trade for the new spices. The lady had a monopoly on some of the more exotic goods the mountain traders brought. Jaffrey’s presence in her household had given her some favor with the mountain folk.
By the time the bread course was finished, the two nobles had reached a tentative agreement on trade. Mattin set himself to remembering the details to be passed on to Parlen and the lady’s factor.
In a carefully arranged dance, Mattin removed the remainder of the bread and sauces and passed them to Crait. Narris handed Mattin the next course, baked fish stuffed with cheese. Mattin presented it to the lady with a flourish.
The conversation turned to court. Mattin was soon out of his depth. Even with all of Brit’s training, he didn’t know enough of the background. He took mental notes anyway. It gave him a distraction, and he could ask Cook or Brit to help him understand later.
Finally, the talk came around to Oeloff. “The man is a nuisance, I’ll agree,” Falthro said, “I’ll even agree I’d like to see him taken down a step or two, but he has the Emperor’s ear and one of the most powerful glamours in the empire. Best let sleeping enemies lie.”
“But he isn’t sleeping, is he? Or has the tariff on salt been a mild inconvenience?”
Falthro sighed and picked an invisible crumb off his sleeve. “We are managing. No wise person depends on a single revenue source. And we have no need to ship in food. Unlike some.”
“But,” Jahlene leaned forward, “if I showed you a way he could be weakened, you might be interested?”
“I’d certainly listen. Convince me it’s viable, and I might—might…even help.”
Jahlene nodded. “Oeloff has been trying to bribe or threaten members of my household for several years now. He wants to turn one of my own into a spy for him.”
Falthro pursed his lips. “Which is against the Emperor’s law but nearly impossible to prove. Your slaves have no voice in court, and your witness is suspect, at best.”
“True. But what if we arranged matters so you witness his next attempt…”
Falthro raised one eyebrow, “And how do you intend to pull this off?”
Jahlene gestured towards Mattin, “This is the newest addition to my household. He came to me after Oeloff claimed his sister. In fact, he drew Oeloff’s attention rather strongly when he tried to protect her.”
“So you expect Oeloff to remember your new toy and see a chance for some blackmail. But I know you, Jahlene. What did you promise your toy when he showed up at your door?”
“If possible, I will get his sister free of Oeloff.”
Falthro rolled his eyes. “Really, Jahlene, you’ve been soft on your slaves for years, but isn’t this going a bit far? Making an enemy of Oeloff for the sake of a pretty toy.” The lord waved a languid hand in Mattin’s direction.
Mattin ignored him. He had to be furniture. God and Mare knew what else he’d hear before the night ended.
The lady laughed. The bright sound ran through Mattin, letting him relax.
“Oh come, Falthro, you know, I know, and the dogs in the kennel know Oeloff has been trying to destroy me for years. And not just me, either.”
After a long moment, the hand–no longer languid–twitched an acknowledgment of the lady’s point. She continued, “If I can use Mattin to hurt Oeloff, don’t pretend you aren’t interested, no matter how ‘soft’ I may be. And any bargains I made are my own look out, are they not?”
Falthro nodded. Grudgingly.
“So, enough with the word games and dagger points of courtly manners. Will you bargain with me, Falthro?”
At the word “bargain” the lord’s ears twitched. The fae love of a good bargain reeling him in, if Mattin was any judge. “What kind of… bargain?”
That was Mattin’s cue. Bracing himself, he approached the lord and bowed.
“Test my ‘toy,’ Falthro. See if you can break his training. If you can, I’ll admit my plan is flawed. If you can’t, you help me humiliate Oeloff before the High Court.”
Falthro’s eyebrows nearly merged with his hair. “And if your toy does break?”
“Althsuar owes me a council vote this year. If you can break Mattin’s training, I will give the vote to you.”
Mattin fought to keep his jaw from dropping. He didn’t know much of fae politics, but he did understand how much Jahlene was offering. Sweat started dripping down his back.
Falthro leaned in, and the bargaining began in earnest.
Two hours later, the bargain was struck. Mattin’s head reeled. He had lost track of the details and insane objections, requirements and restrictions long ago. All he knew was that he had to serve Falthro until Jahlene told him to stop. (At one point, Falthro held out for a week, but Jahlene reminded Falthro he was leaving in the morning. Apparently the fae lord didn’t see any issue with taking Mattin home with him. Thankfully, Jahlene did.) If he served the lord without losing his composure, refusing an order, or doing anything the male could object to, Falthro would help them trap Oeloff. If he failed, the lady would be in Falthro’s debt, and they wouldn’t have the witness they needed.
He wished he could discretely wipe his hands on his pants. He had to trust the lady, trust that she hadn’t bargained him into an impossible position. He hoped he’d prove worthy of the trust she placed in him.
Jahlene summoned him with a look. He stepped to her side. “Do you understand your task?”
Mattin bowed silently. Cook’s suggestion on issues at court had been elegantly simple—he trained Mattin in the protocol known as ‘silent service.’ Unless ordered to speak, he would respond to anything Jahlene said with a variety of bows and gestures. Practicing often felt like dancing.
“Really, Jahlene. He doesn’t even respond to questions, and you think he is trained for court? Why waste our time with this ‘test’ of yours?”
Jahlene laughed, and her right eye flickered at Mattin in a secret wink. It was the first hint of familiarity or playfulness she’d shared with him in weeks. He had to bite his lip to keep from smiling.
“Oh, Falthro,” she drawled, “So quick to judgment? Mattin is forbidden to speak unless I direct him to. His response was entirely proper.”
Falthro’s eyebrows climbed towards his forehead. “How… unusual for you.”
Jahlene grinned, “Variety, Falthro. It’s a wonderful thing.”
“Little toy, once our test begins, I expect you to answer me when I speak to you.”
Mattin glanced at Jahlene as he bowed, extending his right hand in a sweeping acknowledgment. The lord glared at him.
“You may speak to answer Lord Falthro.” Mattin wondered if Falthro heard the bubble of laughter under her words.
“As you wish, Lord.”