Season content notes: fictional slavery, con noncon (nonsexual), pain play, sex
It takes a rare and desperate human to deliberately seek out a fae noble. But rumor says that not all nobles are the same, and Mattin Brenson is desperate. Desperate enough to bargain with Countess Jahlene n’Erida for the highest of stakes.
Bargains with the fae are dangerous, but sometimes what starts as a bargain, can become something more.
The Corlaen Empire had been created by fae exiles on the bones of an ancient human civilization. Rather, the bones were the leftovers after the fae tore down the old order and devoured it. Nearly a millennia after the fae had first set foot on this continent, the humans under fae rule remembered little of their ancient history except myth and legend.
For three centuries, the Empire expanded. Eventually, the other human realms brought it to a halt. The mountains to the west and north were impenetrable, the passes held by human clans who held an unknown immunity to fae glamour. To the south was a human kingdom that united once they understood the fae menace. Even through multiple civil wars and a revolution or two, they never forgot to guard their borders. So in the Empire’s fourth century, the fae turned their attention inward.
There were never enough fae to drive out or destroy the humans within the Empire, nor did they want to. Many fae commoners lived alongside the humans, but still, most of the work of the Empire was done by the conquered humans. And a human within the Empire could live well — if they avoided the notice of fae nobles.
If a human attracted noble attention… The faes’ magic did not come from nothing. It needed to be fed. A powerful fae — and power was how a fae became noble — could be driven insane or die if they failed to feed their glamour. And as many humans learned to their cost, glamour fed on pain.
It took a rare and desperate human to seek the attention of a fae noble. But rumor said that not all nobles were the same, and Mattin Brenson was desperate.
Near the western border of the Empire, where the foothills began to turn into mountains, Mattin watched the light filtering through the trees dim. He was footsore and heartsick, trying not to remember the last sight of his sister.
She had walked meekly behind Lord Oeloff, the fae who ruled their home city of Oakhaven. He had tried to interfere — not to attack or protest, but just to plead — and Lord Oeloff’s glamour had driven him to his knees. He could only watch in mute agony as Marta had climbed into the lord’s carriage and was gone. Never to be seen again.
His father had tried to comfort him in shared grief, but Mattin refused to be comforted. For over a week he had followed rumor and desperation west into the mountains, to this well-worn road through the woods.
Finally, the road turned, and the trees thinned, and Mattin faced the future he had chosen: a manor house, three stories tall and made of a black stone, glittered blue in the fading sunlight. A guard stood by the door, looking first at Mattin then scanning the road and woods behind him.
Mattin stopped a moment, tried to wipe the worst travel stains from his clothes, and approached the door.
The manor wasn’t alone but surrounded by outbuildings, pastures, even a few hay fields squeezed into what flat space was available. Several other people were moving about the yards, but none looked toward the road, and Mattin ignored them in turn.
The guard was tall, with blond hair hanging raggedly over a light-skinned face, and pulled into a rough queue in the back. He wore a blue and white uniform and a sword belt (with sword). His leather boots were much sturdier than the shoes Mattin wore. (Mattin thought there might be a new hole in the left sole).
Most importantly, the guard had round ears and wore a collar. The collar was leather with a yellow device stamped into the front. Mattin had seen them often enough to know that the collar had no buckle, no tie. It would be an unbroken circle of leather surrounding the man’s neck for the rest of his life.
By now, Marta would be wearing one like it. But she wouldn’t be here. She would be to the east, in Lord Oeloff’s manor. And Oeloff would never trust a human to guard his doors.
Mattin had been told Jahlene n’Erida was different. He stared now at the first proof he’d been told true, and swallowed against a dry throat.
He stopped in easy speaking distance of the guard, swallowed again, and said, “My name is Mattin Brenson. I’ve come to bargain with Countess n’Erida.”
The guard sent for a page, who disappeared into the manor. The page was shortly replaced by an older man. He carried himself with the pride and certainty of a guild master but, like the guard and page, wore the collar of a slave. The man’s white face was deeply marked by an old scar that barely missed his left eye. His left hand was twisted into a claw from another old injury.
Mattin flexed his own hand, wondering how many humans in this manor carried similar scars. And how long it would be before he did as well.
He didn’t have long to wonder. The older man looked him over, then said, “Come, our mistress has agreed to speak with you.” He turned and disappeared back into the manor.
Mattin caught his breath, then followed.
He was both relieved and disturbed to see, just inside the doorway, another slave with a basin of cold water and a towel. At the older man’s direction, Mattin washed his face and hands. This time he managed to remove the worst of the road dust. He wet down his hair, turning the dark auburn brown, in hopes of getting it to lie straight.
Then the man was off again, Mattin hurrying to follow.
The manor couldn’t have been more difficult to navigate than the streets of Oak Haven, but Mattin was lost almost immediately. One room followed another, all paneled in dark wood with polished wooden floors. All perfumed with the faint scent of flowers, though there were no flowers in sight.
Finally, the man stopped before a set of double doors and knocked.
“Enter,” a voice called.
The man opened the door and stepped aside. Mattin hesitated a moment, his legs not wanting to work. Then he stepped through the door.
Across the room, a woman sat behind a desk, her long black hair pulled back to expose delicately pointed ears. Her deep green eyes stood out against dark amber skin. The Countess Jahlene n’Erida.
Her throat, of course, was free of the collar that every human in the manor would wear.
Behind her was a human woman at a small standing desk, her brown hair tied intricate looping braids that stood out darkly against her pale skin. Mattin barely glanced at her: fear and hope both kept his eyes on the fae woman. He didn’t know what to say now that he was here.
So he bowed and waited.
A warm voice told him to stand, and he looked up to see the countess smiling at him. It surprised him enough that he smiled back. Remembering himself, he straightened his face and looked down at the carpet.
“You wish to bargain? I don’t remember the last time a human came to me to bargain.”
Bargains were art, game, and hobby to the fae. No human came out ahead in a bargain with the fae. Not because they used their glamour — that would be cheating — but because they had human lifetimes to perfect their skill.
But Mattin had nothing left to lose. “Yes, lady.”
There was a moment of silence, and Mattin bent his knees slightly, preparing to once again be forced to the floor by fae magic. But she surprised him again. “What is your name?”
“Mattin, lady.” He looked up, and she was still smiling, relaxed, and friendly. There was something else behind the smile, though. Hunger. He swallowed and looked away. “Mattin Brenson.”
She chuckled. “For a proper bargain, I should invite you to sit down with me and share food, but I think that would make you even more uncomfortable.
“What is it you wish of me?”
“My sister…” Mattin stopped himself; started again. “My family is from Oakhaven, lady. Recently Lord Oeloff claimed my sister as his slave.
“I want you to free her.”
The human woman started, and the older man hissed. But the countess only leaned back in her chair. When she said nothing after a moment, Mattin continued. “Lord Oeloff is your enemy,” or so he had been told, “if you can force him to free one of his slaves, that will hurt him.”
“Oeloff would barely notice the loss of one slave.” Now Mattin started. The voice was rough and oddly accented and came from behind him. It belonged to the older man, the slave who escorted Mattin to meet the countess.
The human woman was tapping her fingers then, staring into the distance. When she spoke, her voice was deep — even deeper than the man’s. “Winter court is not far away. If it was a public matter, he would lose face. Lady Collanne would love you for giving her such gossip.”
The countess’ small smile became an outright grin. “She would, wouldn’t she? But can it be done without breaking the emperor’s law?”
The tapping intensified. “Maybe? He’s so focused on the council, he may be vulnerable in other ways.”
“Think about it.”
The human woman immediately stepped away from her desk and began pacing, quick steps taking her back and forth across the carpet. The man stepped away from Mattin and moved behind the countess’ desk to stand at her back.
The countess tossed her hair and looked back to Mattin. “So… I might be able to help your sister, and yes, it might benefit me. But I need more than that.” She examined Mattin, taking in the weariness in his face, his untended hair, and his worn clothing. “I would ask a large price for this bargain of yours, and I don’t see how you can afford it.”
“I can’t pay, lady, but I can offer a trade.” He met her eyes then, saw the hunger flare in them as he lowered himself to his knees. “My sister’s freedom, for… for mine.”
Well, that’s a hell of an offer.