Story Content Notes: suicidal character, dubious consent (nonsexual situation)
Bethania left the siblings for eir people to deal with. Once the pair recovered enough to travel, they would be no concern of Bethania’s. Though Bethania did plan to offer the siblings a place if they wished it. It wasn’t, ey thought, very likely that the siblings would want to stay here, after all.
But the noble left orders to be informed as soon as the cub was lucid. That was a problem ey had to address, and soon.
Eir people put together a rough trail meal for an early dinner, and just as Bethania finished eating, eir healer reported that the cub had awakened.
As Bethania walked up, the cub was sitting on a cot, shivering in the slight breeze. Eir eyes locked on Bethania with a familiar sharpness that warned something more than human lurked behind that gaze.
Bethania met the cub’s eyes until ey looked down, probably not even realizing why. Then ey took up a light blanket that had fallen off the cub and wrapped it around eir shoulders. The irony of sun poisoning was how easily one could take chill once cooled a bit.
“What is your name, stranger?” Bethania asked as the cub grabbed the corners of the blanket and pulled it tighter.
“Lilah. I am Bethânia of Aelland. I have been acting as the ambassador for Royal Jennie of Balule and was returning home when one of my people found you and your siblings. Your siblings are safe. They are free to do as they wish, including enter my service and return home with me.
“You are a more difficult matter.”
Now, Lilah was still confused and disoriented but thinking much more clearly. And this time ey caught the implication.
Ey closed eir eyes and whispered, “You know what I am…”
The quick wits, especially after such an ordeal, pleased Bethania. “Yes.” Bethania paused a moment to order eir thoughts, but before ey could Lilah slid off the cot and crouched down at the nobility’s feet.
“Kill me, nobility,” ey pleaded. “Before I hurt anyone else.”
Bethania was stunned, of course. Ey knew how much hate the Pack folk faced in this land, but it had never occurred to em that Lilah would rather die. Or… did the cub know anything about the Pack folk at all? Did ey believe the madness was inevitable?
Bethania should have refused the plea, should have explained. Ey knew that. But ey felt the pressure of time, the need to return home and to the full pack. Ey feared ey wouldn’t be able to convince Lilah that the cub would do emself harm. If Bethania refused the plea, would the cub even kill emself, believing ey had no other choice?
And, truth be told, Bethania was no mensch. Ey tried to be a good noble, a good person. But ey could be selfish, and ey could be manipulative. And Lilah was zaftig, with short feathery hair, and the line of eir bowed neck made Bethania want to lick eir way up. Then ey would nibble on the jawline until ey felt the tips of that hair tickling eir lips…
So instead of refusing and teaching, Bethania twisted the cub’s words to eir own purposes.
“Are you saying you give your life to me?”
“Yes, nobility. I should have killed myself, but I went to the guard, hoping they would be able to hunt down the monster that attacked me so it wouldn’t turn anyone else. But they left us…” ey waved eir hand out towards the beach. “I came so close to losing to the beast, to ripping free and then turning on my siblings. I beg you, take my life, nobility, so no one else is at risk.”
It was enough — not the traditional pledge but it satisfied the forms.
That the cub had already thought of taking eir own life silenced the last of Bethania’s doubts — or was it eir conscious that was silenced? Regardless, all hesitation ended.
Most of Bethania’s belongings had not been unpacked, of course. But a small chest had been set in the corner of the pavilion, one that was always to be available whenever ey might need it. Tucked into a corner of the chest was a leather slave collar like was used in that land. A momento, for such things were never used in Balule, of one Bethania couldn’t save. And perhaps that memory was one more spur to eir decision.
Lilah had kept eir head down and did not look up as Bethania approached em again. In truth, Lilah was battling the beast again. The beast had been quiet since ey woke in the pavilion and got quieter still when Bethania faced em down. But it did not want to die and knew Lilah meant to see them both dead.
“I accept your life and promise you will never be a danger to your siblings.” As ey spoke, Bethania wrapped the collar around Lilah’s neck, tightly enough there was barely room to slip a finger between leather and skin, and locked it in place.
Lilah looked up at Bethania, shock and fear written on eir face. Whether ey feared more that Bethania would not kill em or the slave collar, perhaps not even Lilah could say. “What–”
Bethania cut them off, tipping up Lilah’s chin so the cub looked them in the face again. “By your pledge, your life is mine to do with as I will. The collar will stand as temporary pledge necklace until we return home, and I present you a proper necklace. My people will understand the intent, and yours will assume you are my property and not interfere until we are out of this benighted land.
“As one pledged to me, you have the right to address me informally, by name and gender. I am referred to as ‘she’.”
Lilah was stunned. But in only a few moments, anger began to replace shock. “You–”
“I have done as you asked, cub. I have taken your life and ensured the safety of your siblings. It was not well done of me, but we do not have time to do things properly.” Bethania tapped a finger on the collar. “While you wear this, you cannot transform. That buys us time. Time to do all the things we cannot do now.
“I know you do not understand. And I know you have no reason to trust me. But I believe you do not want to die. And I know you do not need to die.”
Lilah stared into Bethania’s eyes. For the first time since ey felt the beast stirring within em, ey felt a spark of hope. That spark terrified em, as hope often does. Nothing is more frightening than hope when one has given in to despair. But with the nobility holding eir eyes again, the beast within Lilah quieted, and Lilah dared to hope, dared to trust. Ey tried to swallow, then rasped, “I will try, nobility.”
“Bethania, Lilah,” the noble said with a relieved grin. “Or if you must use a title, ‘lady’.”
Lilah would have shaken eir head in confusion, but a wave of exhaustion swept over em. Ey swayed for a moment, and Bethania reached out to help em back onto the cot.
“Now drink, eat something, and sleep. We will not stay here much longer, but we can wait long enough for that.”
“Yes… lady,” Lilah managed to say before a huge yawn overtook them.
Bethania sent one of eir people for food and water and stepped out of the pavilion. An hour, two at most. Then the siblings would need to decide, and the small caravan get back on the road.