The Bargain (S1, E11)

Season content notes: fictional slavery, con noncon*, pain play, pain play implied, sex, reference to/discussion of child abuse, violence

Brit forced a bit more food into Mattin, then sent him off to sleep. He cleaned up the tray and blamed the way his own eyes watered on the westering sun. Work. Work would distract him. There was always work to do.

When he looked up it was dark out, and his lamps had burned low. The dinner tray was still sitting on the corner of his desk.

Brit shook his head, cleared his desk, and carried the tray down to the kitchen. It didn’t make sense, he rationalized, to disturb one of the maids that late at night. By the time he realized what he was doing, it was too late.

As he stepped through the door, the half-fae cook pushed back from the sink and wiped his thick hands on his apron. “This is unexpected,” he said as he stalked toward Brit.

Brit strode past the fae to one of the big kitchen tables.

“I haven’t seen the lad since he picked up that tray.”

“He’s sleeping,” Brit growled. He put the tray down next to an old knife scar in the table. As usual, the wood was spotless. No matter how hard he searched, Brit never found any cause for complaint. He turned to the door and found the exit blocked by the fae. Brit’s temper, already strained to the breaking point, flared. His pulse throbbed in his old scars.

“Is he now? Straight to bed then, without stopping to say goodnight to his friends.” The fae bastard crooned.

Brit’s hands fisted. They both knew what was coming, but spur him if he would make it easy for the half-breed. “It’s been a long day. He was worn out.” He tried to edge past the cook, but the bigger man didn’t budge.

“Worn out, nothing. You’re pushing him too hard.”

The thread holding his temper snapped. The bastard fae always knew just where to push. Always turned Brit’s own doubts and fears against him.

Brit grabbed the male. A moment later Cook was flat against the wall with Brit’s arm at his throat. “I push him as hard as need be, and it is not for you to comment.”

Cook caught Brit’s free arm in a nerve pinch and twisted. Brit landed hard on the floor. He rolled to his feet and charged.

Cook fought silently. He responded to Brit’s brawling attacks with simple-seeming throws and pin-point nerve strikes. Brit didn’t worry about precision. No matter how well or how often the fae threw him about the room, anger and grief carried him forward. His intensity was rewarded with the stinging smack of punches landing.

As much as he wanted to wipe the smirk off the half-breed’s face, Brit stuck to body blows. Fighting was one thing, but displaying wounds before the household was unacceptable. And if he ever went for the face, the fae would do the same.

The fight ended when Brit came in low with a tackling lunge and took out the fae’s knees. Brit kept his footing—barely—and pressed one knee across Cook’s throat. He bent down and growled in the half-fae’s face. “Never criticize my training again.” Then he stood and strode out of the kitchen. Not allowing his wrenched knee to limp until he turned the corner.

Brit’s mind was clear, and he knew he’d be better able to sleep for the fight. Still, he cursed himself for letting the half-fae get under his skin.

~~~

For Mattin, the next day started a new phase of training. Crait spent a morning drilling him in the intricacies of formal table service. When they finished, Mattin reported to Brit in a small, elegant dining chamber. He placed the proper setting for a formal lunch and managed to serve the fancy court food Cook conjured up without major mishap. When Brit finished each course, Mattin cleared it away, and served the next. At the end of the meal Brit said, “You’ll practice with Crait one hour each morning.”

After lunch, Brit set him down with a stack of notes on the nobles of court. Names, titles of address, their appearance, their habits and foibles. Mattin did his best to study while Brit threw out random questions such as, “What drinks do you need on hand if the Mistress has a conference with Duke n’Trail?” or “Whose sigil is an oak tree formed into a circle?” And he’d spend several minutes flipping through the notes to find the answer. The first time he answered from memory (Lady Erebeth ruled County Reltra, long blond hair, usually worn loose)

Brit told him, “Take a break for a turn of the glass,” and Mattin had a chance to get a drink and shake out limbs gone stiff. When the sand ran out, he went back to studying—eager to get another answer right.

That was how the days went. Each morning, a new skill to be mastered; each afternoon, new information to be learned.

Mattin was exhausted at the end of each day. He had never realized that a day spent learning could be as difficult as a day of hard work at the inn. But he didn’t complain — being exhausted meant he fell asleep quickly and slept without dreams.

The only difficulty was that Crait insisted on talking about glamourhai sometimes. No specifics of the way the lady hurt him. Not usually. But schedules, or how Joth had taken a couple days off after an intense session. Little things that constantly reminded Mattin that his friends were being tortured to feed Jahlene. Little things that, bit by bit, stopped horrifying him and started making him curious. And that terrified him more than anything.

So he pushed his curiosity aside, pretended to not care about anything Crait said, and focused on his lessons.

The lessons, at least, went well. At the end of the second week, Mattin had learned the basic skills of court service. All that remained, Brit said, was polishing—a great deal of polishing. Brit was cautiously pleased. Mattin was ecstatic at the mild praise from his gruff teacher. And even happier when Brit gave him an afternoon off.

~~~

While Mattin went off to catch up with Cook, Jaffrey, and Elose, Brit reported to Jahlene.

“I think we’ll manage,” he said. “The boy learns faster than I expected.”

Jahlene nodded, glad to have one worry out of the way. Brit’s “probably” was as good as most people’s “certainly.”

“Good. Any problems so far?”

Brit grimaced. “He’s twitchy on glamourhai. Not surprising given what Oeloff is likely doing to his sister right now, but as he is, he can’t serve you in the glamourhame at court.”

“You want to push him.” The words were just short of an accusation.

“Want to, no—” Brit rubbed at the scar on his face. “But we don’t have time to let him adjust on his own.”

Jahlene took a section of her hair and began twisting it into a coil. “I don’t want him broken, Brit.”

He walked over to the window. “This isn’t something any of us have done. He’s becoming friends with Jaffrey, and I stuck him with Crait early on. I hoped he’d learn enough from them. He hasn’t. He needs to get in his gut that helping you in the glamourhame isn’t hurting them. If he doesn’t, you will break him.”

Jahlene uncoiled her hair. She spent a few minutes twining the ends through her fingers and making tiny braids. “Do it, whatever you’re thinking of. But be careful.”

The Bargain (S1, E7)

Season content notes: fictional slavery, con noncon*, pain play, pain play implied, sex

“Whoa, are you okay? Look, sit down a minute.” Jaffrey pushed him into a corner and made him sit. “I’m going to run and get Brit.”

“Wait.” Somehow Mattin grabbed Jaffrey’s hand. Clung to it, even. “No. I’m…” Jaffrey let him cling; his callused hands somehow helped Mattin anchor himself now.

He took a deep breath. Another.

“Alright,” Jaffrey said. “I’m not going anywhere. Can you tell me what’s going on?”

“I just…” he shook his head and managed to stand up, his legs holding him steady this time.

“I thought I knew,” he let go of Jaffrey’s hand with a smile, “How different things are here, I mean. It’s not that I didn’t believe you; I just… I spent the whole trip here thinking I’d be lucky to survive ten years. And you tell me there are slaves here who are retiring?

“It shocked me.”

Jaffrey stared at him like he’d grown a second head. “Why by the Mare would you think you were going to die?”

Mattin grimaced. “Because that’s what happens to slaves of the fae.”

“The mistress isn’t–”

“Like most fae. Yeah. I’m… I guess I’m still being surprised by how different.” Mattin stepped away from the wall. “I can’t be the first new… slave here to have trouble wrapping my head around it.” After a cautious couple of steps to test his balance, Mattin continued towards dinner. Food would settle him.

Jaffrey shadowed him and kept a wary eye on his progress. “Not really. Most of the mistress’ people are from Erida and know what to expect. I think you’re the–” Jaffrey smacked himself on the forehead. “Of course. You are the first person since me who came here from outside the county.

“Sorry, Mattin, I didn’t even think of it. Heh. And me? I probably saw more fae by the time I was talking than you have in your whole life.”

“Really?” Mattin paused at a doorway, not sure which direction. Jaffrey led him to the left, then a quick right and they were into the hall. They sat at the same table section they’d used that morning. It wasn’t empty this time. Elose was there, and a few others. “What was that like? Traveling like that?”

“Fun, interesting, tedious, scary.” Elose waved at them, and Jaffrey waved back.

“Hey, Mattin. I’ll scat if you want, but I usually meet Jaffrey at dinner.”

“Um… no. I don’t mind.”

After the talk in the bath, he had a pretty good idea why Elose would be meeting Jaffrey, but it still wasn’t any of his business.

Except he was completely wrong. Instead of flirting — well, along with flirting — Elose pulled an old note and started quizzing Jaffrey on the letters in each word. “You can read?” Mattin blurted, then blushed to the roots of his hair. “Sorry, that was rude…”

Luckily, Elose laughed. “Not what you expected? I never am. I’m hoping to get promoted to Housekeeper when Lola retires. But I need to be able to read and do maths.”

“We trade,” Jaffrey said, studying the scrap. “The Mountain Folk use a different alphabet, and I never was good at reading, but I learned numbers and accounts on my father’s knee.”

“Huh.” Mattin thought a minute while Jaffrey painstakingly read the scrap out loud. “If you’re that good with numbers, why are you in the stables? Wouldn’t you be able to… like help keep the accounts here or something?”

Jaffrey froze.

“I hadn’t thought of that,” Elose said. “He’s right, isn’t he. I bet you could help Brit a lot with all those numbers he hates.”

“The mistress needs me in the stables,” Jaffrey said. He sounded almost harsh.

“Yeah, but…”

Jaffrey was scowling now and rubbing his wrist. “I need to be in the stables.”

Mattin glanced at Elose. She was worried.

Though neither of them could know it, Mattin’s question had plunged the conversation into deep waters, things only a very few should know.

They did understand that the question upset Jaffrey. “Sorry I asked,” Mattin said. “It really isn’t our business.”

“Right,” Elose said. She forced a chuckle. “I’m the last one to be digging up other folks’ secrets, right?”

Jaffrey chuckled as well and took a deep breath. “Well, one thing that’s no secret is that Brit doesn’t trusted me. So office work is out, right?”

It wasn’t really an answer, and both his friends knew it wasn’t. But they also knew better than to push.

***

The next morning before breakfast, Cook came out and told Mattin he’d be working in the kitchen for the time being. As Cook finished speaking, Brit came over. The two glared at each other before Cook returned to the kitchen.

“This may be temporary,” Brit said, “Depending on how the mistress decides to deal with Oeloff. In the meantime, you’ll be meeting with me one afternoon a week. If you have any problems, tell me.”

Mattin reported to the kitchen after breakfast. Cook introduced him to Toerff, the under-cook he’d seen the day before, and set him to cleaning the dishes from breakfast. He finished just in time for luncheon.

He and Toerff helped two of the pages, Crait and Harth, carry out the food. Mattin recalled Jaffrey saying, Crait was another one of the lady’s “toys.” He was big enough to be a blacksmith. When he first entered the kitchen, he’d grinned at Mattin, saying “Welcome, new man. I’ve seen you around, but we haven’t been introduced. I’m Crait.”

“Uh… hi, my name is Mattin.”

“Yup. Heard a bit about you from Jaffrey. Someone should warn you: that man is the worst gossip.”

“…thanks. I think.”

Harth came into the kitchen, grunted a hello, but didn’t say another word to anyone.

Halfway through the meal, Elose came to get a tray for Jahlene. Mattin was surprised to hear Cook grumbling as he put the tray together.

Crait saw Mattin’s confusion. He winked and said, “The mistress never takes her meals regular. Sometimes she comes down to the hall, sometimes sends for a tray. And Cook never knows ahead of time which it will be.” Then he grabbed up a platter of meat pastries to carry out to the hall.

Mattin followed him with a basket of fruit. “That sounds… frustrating.”

“Very, but everyone except Cook is used to it. He remembers what it was like before the old steward died.”

Mattin blinked. Brit seemed on top of the household. “I don’t—”

“Cook can tell you more—but she hasn’t taken anyone to serve her personally since she made Brit steward. It leaves the rest of us filling in for what he used to do.”

***

Over the next few days, Mattin learned his way around the kitchen of the great house. Kitchen work started before dawn, but Cook told him to report after breakfast. Cook and Toerff started the day’s bread and prepared breakfast without him. In the evening, Cook sent Toerff off after dinner and left the cleaning to Mattin. Then, up to his elbows in soapy water and dishes, the homesickness hit.

He remembered nights at the inn, scrubbing pots while Bren told stories. Singing songs to speed the work. Or sitting around the fireplace on a storming night, relaxing in the quiet inn.

To his relief, Cook kept himself busy with other matters. If the old half-fae noticed the saltwater dripping into the sink over the course of an evening, he said nothing.

During the day, the kitchen was busy, not just with work but also with visitors. Everyone who worked inside and had a few minutes to spare dropped in to grab a roll and trade news.

By the fourth day, Mattin was becoming comfortable with the routine. Or—at least, the routine was becoming familiar. He didn’t see much of Jaffrey as he’d have liked, only at breakfast once. But he enjoyed Cook’s chatter, started to develop friendships with Crait and the other pages, and tried to get to know the quiet and elusive Toerff. Jahlene was a distant figure, seen once or twice when she came down to the hall for meals. Brit stopped him at breakfast each day to ask how he was getting on.

On his fifth morning as a slave, he woke to a surprising realization. In spite of the homesickness, the collar, everything, he was looking forward to the day.

That afternoon, Jahlene summoned him.


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