First Came Trust (E4)

Story Content Notes: Story Content Notes: suicidal character, dubious consent (nonsexual situation)

Lilah swallowed and made emself meet the soldier’s eyes. “Ey… She said that her people would understand.”

” ‘She’!” Dalma erupted.

Lilah and the soldier both ignored em, ignored Sherzod’s attempt to step forward and push the soldier back.

Dalma grabbed Lilah’s hand, shaking eir. “Lilah! Who could you know here well enough to use personal pronouns? What is going on?”

Still, neither Lilah nor the soldier looked away from each other.

Finally, the soldier nodded, deeply enough it might have been another bow. “I do understand. Though I wonder if you do.”

Lilah, in truth, didn’t understand. But ey remembered what Lady Bethania had said about it not being done ‘properly,’ and something in the edge the soldier’s voice had taken made them wonder if that lack of ‘proper’ might be more than just not having the right necklace.

Sherzod grabbed Dalma’s arm and pulled eir back, not knowing or liking what this was, but recognizing they would learn more by listening than demanding.

Taking a deep breath, Lilah said carefully, “I understand that she took what I offered.” Eir hands clenched together in eir lap. “That she has told me the truth and given me hope when I saw none. The rest I am willing to wait to understand. When she gave me this,” ey loosed eir hands momentarily to tap the collar, “she said that we did not have time for her to explain, and I agree. What might have happened if she waited… scares me.”

Lilah was saying too much, especially with eir siblings there, Sherzod with eir too-sharp mind and Dalma with eir unending questions. But ey was too tired to truly control eir tongue, too full of relief and hope and lingering fear to be cautious.

And perhaps that was well, for if ey had said less, perhaps, the soldier would not have understood, accepted.

For another long moment, ey stared deep into Lilah’s eyes then stepped back with another nod.

Dalma and Sherzod immediately crowded close. “What are you talking about?”

The soldier murmured, “I can explain at least part if you wish.” Lilah swallowed, then nodded. “Please.”

The soldier, whose name was Abdal and had served the Noble Bethania for over a decade, stuck eir head out the pavilion and waved over another guard. Someone needed to actually be guarding.

Once one of Abdal’s squad was in place, Abdal seated emself on the floor, leaning against one of the pavilion supports. To eir relief, the two humans seated themselves as well. For a moment, ey wasn’t sure how to begin. Then decided that there was no point in anything but bluntness.

“Your sibling pledged their life to Noble Bethania of Aelland in the Royal Domain of Balule. The nobility accepted this pledge. Unfortunately, ey did not have a proper pledge necklace here, which I assume is why ey used the collar. I will not speak of personal matters, but I know that collar has… meaning for the nobility, separate from the purpose it was made for.”

“Pledged? Why does that sound like being married?”

Abdal nearly laughed. Lilah blushed. While ey hadn’t paid attention at the time, ey did remember the way Noble Bethania looked at them. And truth be told, Lilah did not find eir recollection of Bethania at all distasteful.

“No, though there are those who say that a pledge is closer than marriage. And not without reason. A pledge is a two-edged sword. The pledged one is the voice and arm of eir sovereign. In council, or the royal court, or ordering the household, your sibling’s voice will be that of the Noble Bethania, and ey will be obeyed as such.”

All three siblings stared at em — shock, surprise, confusion, excitement, concern mirrored in different ways in each face. Abdal drove on, knowing ey was overwhelming them but needing them to hear all.

“But your voice belongs to you, yes? You control your voice, your arms, your legs. In the same way, the pledge’s life belongs to their sovereign. The sovereign may command that the pledged sleep in the kennels or serve in the sovereign’s bed or work as a drudge, and none may gainsay them.

“That’s not how it’s supposed to be. And I can’t see Noble Bethania doing such. But it’s happened and will again.”

No one said anything for a long moment, the siblings struggling with this… drastic change of circumstances Lilah had created.

Then Sherzod, gently, “You wanted this?”

“Yes,” Lilah said, not daring to say more. Afraid to even hint at how little ey had truly understood of what ey had done. Of what ey had committed emself too.

“Why?” Dalma demanded, but Abdal cut em off.

“We do not question the pledged,” ey said, and Lilah shuddered with relief. Ey had dreaded Dalma’s questions, needed time to answer eir own before ey could answer any others.

“Their reasons for offering are their own,” Abdal continued, “and they have done a hard enough thing without being hounded by those who doubt. Questions, if you have them, you may ask of the nobility who accepted the pledge.” Something in eir tone said that Abdal also had questions ey would be asking of the nobility.

While the siblings had been speaking with Abdal, others had been preparing to get back on the road. Two came in to carry out the nobility’s special chest. Others began deconstructing the pavilion to pack away in the wagons. Then the two who took the chest returned and waited, somewhat patiently, to be able to pack up the blankets and cot.

Abdal looked to Lilah. “I do not know how you prefer to travel, but injured as you are, I believe a place in the wagons has been prepared.”

One of those waiting bowed. “Yes, Lieutenant. There is a canvas over the bed of the first wagon so the Pledged can stay out of the sun.”

Lilah looked to Dalma and Sherzod. “I need to do this. I know you don’t understand.”

Dalma looked away and sighed. “Fine. It’s not like you to rush into things, so if you are, there is a reason. And don’t think I’ve forgotten that you apologized for the guard trying to kill us.”

“But that can be discussed another day,” Sherzod put in. “I don’t think it would be safe for us to go home, and” ey grimaced, “my courtship of Phillipos was going nowhere.”

“Took you long enough to admit it,” Dalma muttered.

“So it’s not like anyone is waiting up for us,” Sherzod continued ignoring Dalma. Ey looked to the waiting servants, “Since the nobility had invited us to come, I assume there is room for Dalm and I somewhere as well?”

“Yes,” ey was assured, “it will be crowded, but there should be enough space in the wagon.”

First Came Trust (E3)

Story Content Notes: Story Content Notes: suicidal character, dubious consent (nonsexual situation)

While Lilah slept, pledged emself to Noble Bethania, and slept again, eir siblings rested in the shade of another pavilion. More of a tarp than a pavilion, in truth. An internal wall from Bethania’s pavilion, held up by four stout poles with blankets piled underneath.

Unlike Lilah, Dalma and Sherzod never truly fell unconscious and didn’t need to be carried off of the beach. They had not been fighting an internal battle for those long hours, and had mental, if not physical, reserves left to them.

At first, they accepted their separation from Lilah. They had seen Lilah carried from the beach and if the Balulian strangers were giving Lilah the extra care ey needed, they could only be grateful. For a time.

While Lilah battled the beast within em, eir siblings had time — far too much time — to think. Long before the Balulian’s arrived they had separately concluded that Lilah must know what they didn’t: why the guard had seized them and left them to die. There were many parts to that question, of course. The one that most concerned Sherzod was why the guard had left them to die.

That isn’t to say ey wasn’t bothered by the whole ‘seize them without reason’ or ‘execute them’ parts. Those flew in the face of everything about how their land was supposed to work. It was (in theory) a land committed to the rule of law. Harsh law, but harsh as much to its upholders as its subjects.

Still, while a violation of everything ey believed in, Sherzod knew a bit of history — not much, but a bit — and so knew that there had been times and places where such things did happen. It had taken hours, lying in the hot sun, for em to work past shock, and horror, and disbelief, to acceptance. But eventually, ey had.

What ey couldn’t work past was the foolishness, the incompetence. Why not just kill them? Why not at least leave a guard?

The Balulians, of course, brought with them other questions. Why had they rescued the siblings? Why did they ask no questions, seem to treat it as normal to find a family left to die for no reason.

Dalma was less inclined to quiet thought than Sherzod. A bare handful of minutes after they had been guided to the pavilion, ey began demanding answers.

Those demands were generally ignored, of course. No one knew if the siblings knew about Lilah’s other nature. And given local prejudices, no one wanted to tell them if they didn’t. If Lilah hadn’t trusted their siblings, it wasn’t for the Balulians to reveal eir secret.

So it was a tense time for the siblings and the Balulians who tended them. Most of the tension fell on the lieutenant tasked with guarding the siblings. It was the lieutenant who had to block their attempts to seek out Lilah, redirect or rebuff their questions, and keep alert for any warning from eir men watching the road for approaching trouble.

It was a great relief to em to be able to tell the siblings that Lilah was awake and able to speak with them. It was less of a relief to tell them that the caravan would be heading out within the hour. “Your sibling will be coming with us. You’ll need to decide for yourselves if you’ll come as well or stay.”

To say the siblings were displeased is a great understatement, but even Dalma put off arguing or asking questions in eir eagerness to see Lilah and be sure ey was safe.

Lilah was relieved to see eir siblings enter the pavilion, but also scared. Ey wasn’t ready to tell their siblings about the beast within em, that ey wasn’t human any longer.

“Dalma, Sherzod,” ey greeted, reaching out to pull eir siblings into a hug. It hurt, the pressure on the sunburn across eir chest and arms. But it was worth it. Dalma and Sherzod thought so too, crowding closer. “I’m so glad you are safe.”

And Lilah meant it in more ways than the siblings realized. In spite of eir fears, the beast remained quiet within em. Food and rest had restored eir energy and ey had expected the beast to begin fighting to escape again. Instead, it lay within em, radiating a mix of anger and resignation. Lilah got the sense that the beast knew the collar trapped it. How ey couldn’t begin to guess but at that moment did not care. Noble… Lady Bethania had been telling the truth of that, and the relief of it had brought tears to Lilah’s eyes.

“Same, brother,” Sherzod said, oblivious to Lilah’s thoughts. Ey squeezed Lilah tighter. “I think we all feared… Lilah, what happened? Why did the guard–”

The three released each other as ey spoke and Sherzod was cut off by Dalma’s sudden growl. “What is that?” ey demanded, pointing at the collar.

In their first joy at each other’s safety, Lilah had pushed eirself up from the cot without thought, and Dalma and Sherzod had rushed to eir without truly seeing.

But as the embrace ended, Dalma had examined Lilah, worried and needing to know eir sibling was well. And seen the collar.

Belatedly, Lilah pulled up a sheet from the cot, trying to cover it. “It’s nothing… just…”

Sherzod pulled the sheet from Lilah’s hands and put it aside. “This… this is not nothing, Lilah.” The Balulians must know, ey thought. Whatever turned the guard against us, they know it too, whatever secret it is Lilah keeps.

Dalma turned on the soldier who still accompanied them. “Is this why you have kept us away from Lilah? Because you have no–”

Lilah reached out and took eir siblings’ hands. “It’s not what you think, Dalma, Sher.”

“It better not be,” Dalma growled again.

Exhausted still, filled with fear of what ey had become, what ey must admit, Lilah had no patience for Dalma’s own fears and anger. “And if it was?” Lilah snapped out. “My life is not, has never been, yours to decide sister. And if slavery was the price of your lives I would pay it, and gladly.”

Any reply from Dalma or Sherzod was cut off by the lieutenant’s sharp whistle. “While I’m sure the nobility meant the local authorities when ey said I was to keep you safe, overexerting yourselves right now would also be dangerous.” Ey stepped forward, pushing back Dalma and Sherzod with their presence. Ey stopped in front of Lilah and examined the collar a moment, then ducked eir head in a brief bow that further confused the siblings.

“If I am correct, cub, while your life may not ever have been your siblings to decide, it is now no longer yours to decide either.”

Lilah swallowed and made emself meet the soldier’s eyes. “Ey… She said that her people would understand.”