The Bargain (S1, Season Finale)

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

Two days later, Brit buried his own doubts and took Mattin into Jahlene’s glamourhame for the first time.

Mattin held to the many assurances he’d been given: the lady didn’t take anyone as a toy unless they wanted her to. But this once, he wished Brit would tell him what to expect. Why did he have any reason to be in the glamourhame at all?

But Brit didn’t offer any explanations, and Mattin wasn’t willing to ask.

The scents of wood, leather, and oil permeated the windowless room. But something else in the air set him on edge—even more on edge.

The walls were paneled in the same dark wood as the rest of the manor. Oil lamps, polished to a high shine, hung near the ceiling. Shelves covered one wall. They held…implements, many of which Mattin didn’t recognize and didn’t want to. The room was large, with a wide-open center area and a half dozen pieces of…furniture along the walls. A pair of shackles were bolted to the center of the floor. A chain hung from the ceiling above them. Mattin shuddered. His imagination painted vivid images of what would happen to someone hauled up there.

Someone cleared their throat behind him. He’d stopped in the doorway without realizing it. Crait stood behind him. Mattin hurried to move out of the man’s way—which, of course, put him inside the glamourhame.

Crait gave him a nod before turning to Brit. “You wanted me, sir?”

“The boy needs a demonstration. Is your wife off duty tonight?”

The floor dropped out from under Mattin. Demonstration? Crait’s face split into a huge grin. “Yes, sir!” The big man closed the door to the glamourhame and began stripping off his clothing.

“Good,” Brit said. “On the cross with you.”

Mattin stared. Crait, now naked, walked up to a large wooden X set in one corner and stretched himself out across it.

Brit walked over to one of the shelves and picked up a many-tailed whip. He then walked over to the X, waving for Mattin to join him. Mattin forced himself to walk across the room. Brit handed him the… “This is a flogger. Crait has a liking for them.”

Mattin stared at him, eyes wide and jaw loose. “You—you want me to…”

“You will spend time assisting the mistress in the glamourhame at court. You can’t avoid it. So get used to it now.”

Mattin eyed at the flogger in his hand, then looked at Crait. The man’s back was a mass of scars. He swallowed.

“Now, boy. Prove to both of us the glamourhame won’t break you or stop wasting my time.”

Mattin took a breath. He could do this. He didn’t want to, but he could. For Marta, he could do anything. He stepped forward and raised the flogger.

He swung it gently, afraid to hurt the man. Brit snorted. Crait muttered, “I know a four-year-old who hits better.”

Mattin gritted his teeth and took a firmer grip on the flogger.

The next hit made Crait jump, but when he didn’t cry out, Mattin raised the flogger again.

He tried to divorce himself from what he was doing. To forget he was hitting—beating—a living man. A friend. It made him sick, but he had to continue.

The flogger was heavy in his hand. After a few minutes, he found a good rhythm. Crait held himself on the cross. He could get down at any time. He didn’t. Instead, he clung, knuckles turning white on the handles, as his back turned red from the flogger.

Somehow, realizing he chose to stay there gave Mattin the detachment he needed. He focused on the feel of swinging his arm. The shift in his weight. The satisfaction of action after long hours behind a desk.

He was breathing hard now—sweating—but Crait just stood there. The room was silent except for the swish and thud of the flogger. Mattin found himself gritting his teeth. What was the point of hitting a man if he didn’t feel anything? Why, by the Mare, should he put himself through this if Crait didn’t even notice?

He swung harder. Crait grunted as the blow landed. It ripped something open in Mattin. The anger he had been pushing aside swamped him—at Oeloff, at himself, at Brit and the whole world. Mattin growled. Fear, desperation, shame: he poured them all out onto Crait’s back. He emptied himself of everything—everything except exhaustion. Without the focus of emotion, he felt the soreness in his arm—the ache in his heart.

“Enough,” Brit said.

Mattin’s arm fell. He found himself staring at Crait’s back. It was a very nice shade of red…

Mattin dropped the flogger like it was a snake. He turned away from Crait—couldn’t face what he’d done. Crait was—had been—his friend. He had been burning with anger and frustration for weeks. Now they were gone. He’d taken them all out on the man in front of him.

Crait hung in on the cross, panting. Brit helped him down. As Crait turned around, Mattin forced himself to face the man he’d beaten…

And was startled—shocked—to see Crait’s face split by a huge grin and his shaft erect.

Crait held out a hand to Mattin, who took it limply. “My thanks,” he said, “You have a good arm.”

“Ah… you’re welcome?” Mattin shook his head, trying to restart his thoughts.

“You gonna need any care?” Brit asked.

“Nothing m’wife can’t provide.”

“Good.”

After a moment, Crait shook himself off, bowed to Brit, and walked out the door.

Brit chuckled. “I wish I could get a painting of your face.”

“I… White Mare’s Blood! What…?”

“A lot of us have learned to enjoy a good beating, but Crait is the one man I know who can’t raise the standard without one. His wife will be thanking you tomorrow.”

Mattin’s mouth gaped.

“Welcome to a whole new world, boy.” Brit chuckled.

“I liked my old world better.”

The image of Crait’s grinning face, the thwack of the flogger landing, the joy and disgust, all mixed in his stomach. He swallowed hard.

Brit sobered and put a hand on Mattin’s shoulder. “I’d make it easier for you if I knew how.”

Mattin closed his eyes and tried to focus on the warmth of Brit’s hand. On being in the moment. “Yes, sir. Will… that… be required of me often?”

“No. If you weren’t going to court, you wouldn’t be here now. And I would have been the one with the flogger today if I thought watching would have gotten through to you.”

Much as he wanted to deny it, Mattin understood what Brit meant. If he had watched Brit with the flogger, he would have been focused on Brit, not Crait. Wouldn’t have seen Crait’s reaction. Wouldn’t have understood how much the “toy” enjoyed the game—but how could he?

“I don’t…why would any human do this?” Mattin’s stomach twisted, “It’s horrible.”

“For you, maybe.” Brit shrugged. “Not for Crait. Not for others.”

Mattin wanted to object—but he’d seen Crait’s reaction with his own eyes. And some part of him wondered—

An image flashed in his mind’s eye—Marta on a cross being beaten by Oeloff. He wanted to yell out—to deny—but he couldn’t. And he had gotten some form of pleasure from doing the same thing.

Brit would make excuses for him, the same way the older man made excuses for the lady, his beloved mistress. But it was all the same. That Crait, for some twisted reason, enjoyed the pain didn’t change anything. Right?


I wonder if Mattin and Jahlene’s language has a saying similar to ours about a certain river in Egypt… Ah well, Mattin will work through his issues in his own time. Or not.

In the meantime, we are returning to the world of Ma’evoto/Ameohne’e and all the rest of the troperific fun:

They are a plucky band of rebels, fighting against a tyrant who overthrew the rightful government and is supported by an army of monsters. The only problem?

They think they’re the good guys.

They are family, grandmother and granddaughter. Students of Kabbalah in a world where someone could really create the Golem of Prague. They are done sitting back while injustice takes place around them. The only problem?

They’re on opposite sides.

They’re just a kid, trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in this crazy world their mother just took over. And their new mentor is trying to kill their mother. The only problem?

Everything!

They are coming to usher humanity into a new galactic society. They have the best of intentions, amazing technology to sell us, and know exactly what will fix all our problems. The only problem?

If someone doesn’t stop them, they are going to destroy the world.

She has a prophecy foretelling her success, a dragon sidekick, and plans for the biggest battle station ever built. She’s going to save the world. The only problem?

She’s the bad guy.

See you next week!

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The Bargain (S1, E1)

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Webserial Catalog
How NOT to Save the World (S2, E1)

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.”


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The Bargain (S1, E1)
The Bargain (S1, E10)

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The Bargain (S1 Finale)

The Bargain (S1, E10)

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

Mattin was never sure how he got through his second day of training. Exhaustion weighed him down, and his body was sore from standing. Again, he spent the entire day behind Brit’s shoulder, trying not to move. It wasn’t long before he felt like a piece of furniture.

He soon lost track of how often Brit corrected him throughout the morning. But the steward didn’t get annoyed or upset. By mid-afternoon, getting screamed at would have been a relief from the unending calm and controlled corrections.

The third day passed the same as the first two. And the fourth. Mattin stood in one place for hours. Sometimes he knelt. Rarely, Brit permitted him to sit. Always while remaining still and silent.

Except for correcting his posture or sending him for lunch, Brit acted like he didn’t exist. Sometimes he followed Brit to a different part of the manor. He pretended to be invisible while Brit dealt with inventory or ate in the dining room. Once in a while, he broke away from his frustration and resentment to wonder if this “training” had any point.

He didn’t ask. He said nothing to Brit except for the occasional “Yes, sir.”

When Brit sent him to fetch food from the kitchen, Cook gave him advice. More often, he was on his own.

On the fifth day, everything changed. Or rather, he changed, and that changed everything.

***

He knelt, holding the tray while Brit ate. For the hundredth time, the thought came that Brit treated him as a piece of furniture. A living table.

The long days had worn the resentment from the thought. By habit, the next thought in the refrain followed. I don’t want to be a piece of furniture. What I want doesn’t matter. I’m just a table.

Without the resentment, the familiar thoughts took on a new meaning. I’m a table. What I want doesn’t matter. A table doesn’t want. A table isn’t bored. A table isn’t afraid. Or in pain. A table… is.

The idea was strangely freeing. Nothing mattered to a table. Nothing but holding the tray. If Mattin was just a table, he only needed to hold the tray. He could let go.

Worries about Marta, fears for his future, sore knees, tired arms… it stopped. He was a table; he held a tray. Nothing else was his concern. He would have laughed aloud, but tables don’t laugh.

He held the tray.

***

The revelation stayed with him the rest of the day. Whether he stood in the corner being a post or became a fence rail in the yard. At night, lying in bed, he worried. Worried for Marta, trapped for three months as Oeloff’s slave. It was too long. He could hurt her—even kill her—long before they had a chance to save her. It was also too short—far too short for him to learn everything he needed. He could be a table, but the lady needed much more. He didn’t have time to learn everything.

Eventually, he fell asleep. Worries and all.

In the morning, becoming furniture again was a relief. Brit didn’t say anything, but when his gaze crossed Mattin’s, he would drop an eyelid in something that wasn’t quite a wink. Or his eyes would crinkle in a hidden smile.

That afternoon, he gave Mattin other jobs—other furniture to be. He followed Brit to the stables and became a hitching post. A storm broke, and Brit placed him in the front hall with a pile of towels: he became a shelf. He was a lamp holder in a storeroom while Brit counted the stores.

Sometimes his worries tried to come back. Or his arms or back would ache. But he held to being furniture. As long as he was a piece of furniture, nothing touched him. He was free.

The next day was more of the same. At least until dinnertime.

***

Right before the dinner bell, Brit began clearing the work off his desk. He directed Mattin to some of the papers away. After so long holding still, moving around was strange, awkward. When the desk was clear Brit sent Mattin down to the kitchen. This time, he said, “Bring back food for both of us.”

Cook was surprised to see him before the bell, but he didn’t have time to quiz Mattin. Just threw some food on a tray and sent him back. Mattin was relieved—he had no idea what he would have said.

When he got back to Brit’s office, he found a chair in front of the desk. Brit took the tray from him and put it on the desk. He stood, not sure what to do. “Sit down and eat, boy. My legs get tired watching you.”

Mattin settled himself into the chair. His thoughts chased themselves around his head… he was a person again. He put his hands in his lap, then rested them on the arms of the chair, pulled at the collar. Brit handed him a hunk of bread and butter. He took it. Watched Brit as the older man sat down and started eating. Once Brit was absorbed in his food, Mattin took a bite of the bread.

“You did well. Better than I expected. If you can hold onto whatever you found a few days ago, we might have you fit for court in three months.”

Mattin warmed at the praise. He reached for the second mug of cider and took a long drink. “Is… is being furniture so important?”

Brit coughed and sputtered, beer spraying out his nose. “Furniture?”

Mattin handed him a napkin. “Is… isn’t that what I was? A table, or a post, or… or something else.” A quick sip of tea helped a mouth gone dry.

“Hah!” Brit barked, “Furniture! I’ll remember that one.”

“I don’t understand. If I wasn’t being furniture, what was this? And why?”

“Furniture.” Brit snorted. “That’s actually a good description for how humans are treated at court. As for why: Stand up.” Mattin stood. “Now, look at yourself.”

At first, Mattin didn’t understand—he was standing. His hands clasped in front of him, weight balanced, chin…

“Kneel.”

He dropped to the floor. Back straight, knees apart, hands on his thighs…

“Hold this.” Brit handed him a plate. Mattin held it up. At the perfect height for Brit to reach. “Five days, and you don’t even think about it. Your body knows.”

The room spun around him. Mattin got to his feet.

His hands clasped themselves.

“I…” His breath caught. Knees just so. Pain gripped his chest. He tried to slouch. For a moment, his body didn’t remember how. Mattin swallowed hard. “You trained me like a dog.” The words slipped out almost unnoticed.

Brit snorted and took the plate from him. “Sit down and eat. I taught you part of what you need to have a chance of saving your sister. And to keep your bargain with the mistress.”

Mattin’s throat tightened. He tried to speak. He tried to breathe.

“Bloody Mare.” Brit’s hands took his shoulders, pushing him into the chair. A mug pressed against his lips. “Drink.” Tea, lukewarm, spilled into his mouth. He swallowed. Gasped. Coughed. The physical shock snapped him back to himself. He felt wetness on his face.

He stared around the room, hands reaching for… something.

Brit was in front of him, took his hands, rubbing warmth back into them. Mattin clung to the other man as if his life depended on it. Why did he feel so lost?

“It changes you,” Brit said, “You thought it would be like the stories—beatings and torture and cages. You’re tough. You can take it.”

Mattin shook his head. He wouldn’t change. He couldn’t… It was standing. That was all. Just standing.

“But it’s not like that, is it?”

“No.” Mattin whispered, “I thought… I thought…”

“You’d bargain your freedom but keep yourself?” Brit pulled a hand free and passed him a napkin to wipe his face. “The mistress demands all of us, boy. We become what she needs for her purpose.”

Mattin felt drained. Empty. He wanted to insist he was his own person, that he wouldn’t be shaped into someone else. But it wasn’t just standing. It was part of who he was. How much had Brit changed him in five days? How much would he be changed before Brit and the lady were satisfied?

“What is her purpose?” he rasped.

“Survival.”


Hey! It’s my birthday!

That means the ebook version of Bound by His Oath is now publicly available on Smashwords, Amazon, and a few other places! (I give the best birthday gifts.)

Check it out now!

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The Bargain (S1, E1)
The Bargain (S1, E9)

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The Bargain (S1, E11)

The Bargain (S1, E9)

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

Brit released Mattin when the bell rang for dinner. After working in the kitchen the past week, it was odd to sit in the dining hall while Crait and the others served. But he enjoyed the chance to catch up with Jaffrey.

“She what!”

Mattin scrunched down as heads turned towards them. “Yeah, I know. According to Cook, she hasn’t taken a personal servant in decades.”

“Not since Brit took over for the old steward, Litra says.” Jaffrey shook his head, “I’m not sure if you landed in the ale or the fire-pit.”

“Fire-pit. Definitely fire-pit.”

Jaffrey laughed, “Trust me, her bark is worse than her bite, as you lowlanders say—I ought to know!”

“Yeah, right.” Mattin took a bite of bread. It melted in his mouth. Cook could teach his father a few things– His mind sheered away from thoughts of home. “Jaffrey, what’s the deal with the lady and Brit?”

Jaffrey quirked an eyebrow.

Mattin popped another bite of bread in his mouth. “I’d have to be blind not to see they’re… close. But… I don’t want to say something stupid by mistake, and I can’t ask them.”

Jaffrey used his own bread to sop up the gravy puddled on his plate. He ate the bread, taking his time. “I only know rumors, but it can’t hurt to tell you.

“Brit was a bit younger than you are, when Mistress Jahlene was born. Lady Trilla, the Mistress’ mother, made Brit’s mother the Mistress’ wet nurse. I guess she didn’t want to be a mother because Brit’s mother basically raised the Mistress. When she died, Brit took over.”

Mattin took a long drink as he tried to wrap his mind around that…

“From what some of the old ones say, Trilla was bad even for the fae. Maybe even worse than Oeloff.” Mattin snorted in disbelief. Jaffrey shook his head. “Do you know about fae and children?”

Mattin blinked. “No?”

Jaffrey sighed. “One of their few virtues. Most fae have a soft spot for children, even human children. I guess because they don’t have many. And they never use children for glamourhai—for feeding their magic. It’s unthinkable. But Trilla… she did.” He stopped and looked hard at Mattin.

It took Mattin a minute to catch up. He’d never thought that fae would have a ‘soft spot’ for any humans. But thinking, back he couldn’t remember a single time — or even a story of a time — that Oeloff had claimed a child to serve him.

So maybe Trilla really was worse than Oeloff. But Jaffrey had been talking about when the lady was a child… “No…”

Jaffrey nodded. “She did. And sometimes she dragged Brit in as well.”

He stabbed at his plate. “No one really knows what happened. As far as I know, neither of them ever said anything. But one day, they say the two of them came out of the glamourhame — Mistress Jahlene and Brit — and Trilla was dead.”

***

Late that night, terror jerked Jahlene out of slumber. Standing up, she threw on a dressing gown and set out through the halls. Her own fear muddled her glamour, giving her no taste of the others in the manor. She ran.

Moments later, she sat in Brit’s room, watching him sleep. Seeing with her eyes that he was safe.

Fae didn’t dream. Dannu might whisper in the night of things to come, but dreams as humans knew them, no. Yet sometimes, Jahlene dreamed. Or perhaps, remembered.

The last time, Brit slept in a small room in her suite. His hair had still been dark, and only a few small wrinkles had touched his skin.

Now, the color was gone from his hair, and his face was deeply lined. He slept in the steward’s chamber, available if anyone needed to find him during the night.

As Jahlene calmed, her glamour cleared. The gingery taste of Brit’s dreams came to her first. Even in sleep, he was irritable. Faintly she tasted the sleepy or drowsy minds filling the manor. Most of them, various shades of calm and contentment. Then sharp-sour horror washed over her. She wasn’t the only one dreaming tonight.

How did humans do it, she wondered. Endure these torments night after night. She thanked Dannu for protecting Her children from such horrors. Once a decade was all she wished to know of them.

With a sigh, she turned towards the door.

“How long has it been since you snuck into my room of a night?” Brit asked.

She chuckled. “This once, I thought I’d get out without waking you. Foolish of me.”

“Trilla is dead. She can’t hurt either of us anymore,” he said. Like the last time, and the time before that.

“Then why do I still dream?”

He sighed and continued their familiar script, “Because you still fear her.”

Shaking her head, Jahlene returned to the bed and rested a hand on his cheek. “Good night Brit. I’m sorry I woke you.”

***

Mattin stood in a dark room full of horrors. Marta lay before him, tied and gagged. He raised the knife and walked toward her. Behind him was an unseen presence forcing his body forward. He fought to stop, to turn the knife on the one who controlled him. He couldn’t. He wasn’t strong enough. When he reached his sister’s side, his body knelt down beside her. He slammed the knife down into her chest.

He woke screaming.

Boltin upright, Mattin staggered out into the hallway. Dimmed lamps cast faint reflections on the wood walls, their oil spreading the scent of violets into the night. He reached out and brushed his fingers across the chimney of the nearest lamp. The heat burned, and he knew he was awake. Holding back sobs of relief, he reached up and touched the collar about his neck. Countess Jahlene’s collar. Oeloff couldn’t touch him again. Could never force him as…

As the lady’s mother had forced her? Or forced Brit?

He laughed at himself. Jaffrey’s story must have disturbed him more than he realized. Not that it hadn’t been disturbing enough!

But maybe he understood a little better why the lady would be different from other fae, why she took his bargain when he’d had so little to offer.

He went back to his cubby and tried to relax. It was hard. however false it was, the image of Marta stretched out before him wouldn’t leave. Mattin was safe from Oeloff, but she wasn’t. Three months. Most of Oeloff’s slaves survived several years. Surely three months would be fast enough…

But when he finally drifted off, his last through wasn’t of Marta or Countess Jahlene. It was of himself. Of the moment in the hallway when he had checked to be sure his collar was still there. He had been glad, he realized, he wore the collar.

Glad to be a slave.

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The Bargain (S1, E1)
The Bargain (S1, E8)

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The Bargain (S1, E10)

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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The Bargain (S1, E6)

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

Even from her office, Jahlene could taste Mattin, not just taste him, but taste him strongly enough to know where he was. The kitchen.

She didn’t know else was with him — Cook presumably, and his assistants. But all them blended together, the energy of thei emotions mixing with with everyone else in the manor and surrounding area. There were many, like Brit or Joth, that should pick out if she looked for them. People she was tied to in some way. But usually anyone not in the room with her was part of the blend. It was was a complex blend, made of contentment, pleasure, worry, stress, joy, and a spark of pleasure — Crait and his wife perhaps, taking advantage of the beating she’d given him yesterday.

But Mattin stood out from that, had throughout the night. It was a curious thing, and made her wish (again) that she could have had a proper fae upbringing and actually learned how her glamour worked.

On the other hand, she thought, somewhat tartly, if she had a ‘proper’ fae upbringing, she probably would have learned to enjoy the taste of fear and hate, to see her family as tools and not people she cared for.

Perhaps it was for the best, then, that she didn’t know, even if it left her confused and curious.

Pulling herself away from her thoughts, she set aside the piece of scrap paper she’d been doodling on and turned to Parlen, the only other person in the room with her. “Would you mind repeating that?”

“Of course, Mistress. The simplest option — and most likely to succeed — would be blackmail.”

There were two problems with that. First, blackmail really was simple. Parlen enjoyed politics, which was one of the reasons Jahlen relied on her. She never had simple suggestions. The other problem was that it wasn’t likely to succeed, at all.

“Unpack that Parlen.”

“Count Orloeff still wants to prove you unfit so he can claim Erida. That’s why he’s been sending spies into the county.”

Jahlene nodded and made an encouraging sound. Conversations with Parlen were like this — she’d skip ahead three stpes, then go back ten and repeat everything you already knew.

“I know we could never prove it, but I still think that Oeloss sent that Mare cursed horseshit a few years ago.”

The horseshit in question was another man who had shown up asking for Jahlene’s collar. Though he was human, he’d had a fae-like darkness in him, and harmed another of Jahlene’s people before she and Brit caught him and got rid of him. She hissed at the memory.

“Mattin is nothing like Ston was,” Jahlene said. “I would recognize that again.”

“Exactly. But Oeloff isn’t going to give up. he wants someone sending him information, possibly sabotaguing you for him.”

“Right.”

“Well,” Parlen patted her intricately braided hair and smiled. “Count Oeloff already met Mattin, and knows that Mattin’s sister is his slave. If you give him the chance, he’ll probably try to blackmail Mattin into giving him information in return for his sister’s safety.”

Jahlene laughed and shook her head. “Simple.”

“Exactly. All we need is to have a witness, someone who isn’t allied with either of you.

“You can either take the case before his Imperial Highness — that would be best politically, but it’s possible the Emperor would order the girl killed rather than let her go free. Or you can then blackmail Oeloff — make him give you political or trade concessions, andgive you the girl so you can be sure he can’t use her against you again.”

Only Parlen would describe this type of political maneuver as simple. “Blackmail the blackmailer. And if he doesn’t go for it?”

“That’s why we have a back up plan. I don’t any of them as much — too complicated and a bit risky.”

“We wouldn’t want to try anything complicated, would we?” Jahlene smiled. “Alright, so we need a witness and a chance for Oeloff to blackmail Mattin.”

“It would be best if Mattin comes with you to Winter Court.” Parlen said. “You could take him as your personal attendant and–”

“No.”

“It’s the best option, Mistress, and you know Brit wouldn’t–”

“I said no!”

“–mind. It’s been nearly a decade–”

“NO!”

***

After they left the kitchen, Jaffrey to Mattin took meet the Housekeeper, Lona. Where Cook had put Mattin straight to work, Housekeeper asked him questions. Lots of questions.

Questions about how best to remove stains, about how to clean wood, about how many sheets would be needed for so many rooms, and had he ever polished silver.

When she finally let him go, Mattin was completely wrung out, and he hadn’t done anything but stand straight and talk.

Their next stop was the stables, where the Stablemistress was happy enough with Mattin’s work, and the kennels where the dogs took an instant dislike to them.

They had just finished at the kennels when the dinner bell rang. They washed quickly at the pump behind the stables. While they washed, Jaffrey said, “If Cook doesn’t grab you, I think Brit and Anral would put you in stables.”

Mattin smiled. “I’d like that.”

Jaffrey rubbed his head and chuckled. “Me too, kid.”

“I’m not a kid!” Mattin splashed water at Jaffrey who laughed and splashed him back.

“Hey I just call it like I see it. Kid.”

Whatever Mattin would have said was interrupted by the Stablemistress clearing her throat. “Both of you kids better stop playing and get up to dinner before I kick your asses back to stable to clean out a few more stalls.”

That threat was good to get them moving and they ran back to the manor laughing.

“You really think I could work in the stables?” Mattin asked once the laughter died down, trying not to sound wistful.

“Yeah. Old Litra’s going to be retiring in a few years and then we’ll be short handed.”

“Retiring?” Mattin stopped and grabbed Jaffrey’s arm, the collar on his neck suddenly tight. “He’s a slave, right? how old could he be?”

“Litra? He’s older than Brit, I know that. He was here under the old countess, Mare’s Blessing, he’s got to be at least 60. He doesn’t want to admit he’s getting old but he limps bad in the morning.”

“Sixty.” Mattin’s knees went week and he swayed. “There’s a slave here who’s sixty years old?”

“Whoa, are you okay? Look sit down a minute.” Jaffrey pushed him down to sit in a corner with his back against the wall. “I’m going to run and get Brit.”


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The Bargain (S1, E5)

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

After breakfast, Jaffrey led Mattin to Brit’s office. The steward had a large space, and he needed every bit of it. Shelves stuffed with papers and files, a desk, several chairs, and some chests filled the room. The morning sun peeked through the south-facing windows, which gave Brit plenty of light to see by. The bright light also made the man a shadowy figure to anyone standing in front of him. It was intimidating, until he spoke.

“Sit down, boy. I don’t need a crick in my neck looking up at you.”

Mattin sat. Jaffrey remained standing by the door. “Anything I assign you to is temporary. When Parlen and the mistress finish their plotting, we may need to change things. For now, that’s not your problem. You do what I tell you, you stay out of trouble, and you try to get comfortable.”

He paused expectantly so Mattin nodded and said, “Yes, sir.”

“Now. I’m the steward, that means I run everything in the manor. Marshal Anral runs everything outside the manor. If we do our jobs right, Jahlene doesn’t even notice us except for regular reports, and can focus on running the county.

“Same will go for you. You’ll have a task or tasks and if you do them well, Anral and I won’t notice anything except that everything is going well. And if we don’t notice you, our mistress… well, she won’t forget you exist, but you will never need to see her except to pass in the hall sometimes.”

“Yes, sir!” Relief coursed through Mattin. He had planned to avoid the lady as much as possible. To be told that it was, essentially, his job to make sure she didn’t notice him, well… Everything about this day kept getting better.

“Cooking, cleaning, and horses…” Brit mused, then turned to Jaffrey. “Take him to the Stablemistress and Housekeeper. Tell them to put him through his paces and let me know if they can make use of him.”

“Yes, Brit. Should I take him to the kitchen too?”

The Steward grumbled. “Yes, see what that bastard thinks of him.”

***

The kitchen was Jaffrey’s first stop, to see ‘that bastard.’

Mattin had thought he knew what to expect — a kitchen was a kitchen, even if this one was three times the size of the kitchen at his father’s inn. He was mostly right, but he hadn’t expected the man bending down into the oven. He was as wide as any two men Mattin had ever met. Mattin had a vision of his getting stuck in the oven and the whole household gathering ‘round to pull him out.

Then the man stood up and all thoughts—foolish and otherwise—vanished from Mattin’s head.

He had pointed ears. Fae ears.

“Well, Jaffrey?” the male asked as he turned around, carrying a tray of rolls. The hot bread filled the kitchen with the scent of rosemary. “Escaped the stables for once?” The male’s eyes were not the slit pupil of the fae, but round and human.

“Showing the new one around, Cook. Steward says to try his paces and see if you like him.”

The male snorted and looked Mattin up and down. “I’m sure the Steward said just that. He set the tray on a wooden table and closed the oven. “Go get yourself a pastry then, and scat. I’ll see you after dinner to help with the dishes.”

Jaffrey grinned and grabbed a pastry out of a cupboard. Mattin, still staring at the cook, didn’t noticed when Jaffrey left the kitchen.

“Sit down, lad.” The cook gestured towards a bench by the table. Mattin sidled over and sat, never taking his eyes off of the male. A few other people moved about the kitchen — finishing that last of the breakfast cleaning and preparing for lunch. Mattin barely noticed them. The countess was supposed to be the only fae here, and —

“Never seen a halfling before, have you?” the male asked, “Well calm down, I don’t mince up little boys to make pies.”

The tone—amused and exasperated—startled Mattin into a laugh.

“That’s better. Now, I know Brit wasn’t happy about sending you down here. The steward and I have our issues, and we keep us apart as much as possible. So he probably didn’t think to warn you. But the kitchen is my realm and I decide who goes or stays.

“I also,” he said more softly, “have barely a touch of the glamour. I don’t need to feed it and even if I did would prefer to keep my stomach in any case. That’s how I became a cook.” He smiled and Mattin was surprised to find himself charmed.

This male — man? — half fae would have made a good innkeeper, able to charm the customers into another round or out the door as needed.

“Yes, sir.”

“Hmph. No sir, lad. Just Cook. Now, if you’re like every other new lad through here, you had no stomach for breakfast this morning.” Cook tossed him one of the fresh rolls. He caught it and nearly burnt his hand. “Eat and tell me what you know about kitchen work and pantlery.”

The bread was good, tangy and sweet. Mattin was still full from breakfast, but managed to find some extra room for the roll. The kitchen reminded him of home even more than the bathing room. Cook turned out to be friendly and understanding. Mattin found himself relaxing with the half-fae, and telling him far more than he intended to, from the ways he helped his father, Bren, in the kitchen to what brought him to seek out the Lady Jahlene. Thinking of Bren, he realized how much he must have hurt his father. How would he react? Would he—Mattin pushed the thoughts aside. He couldn’t think of it. He wouldn’t…

“Bad business, that.” Cook said, as Mattin slowly chewed last of the roll in his mouth. “You’re in for a rough time, lad. You have any trouble, you come to me. Or tell the steward. Don’t keep your mouth shut on it.”

Taken by surprise, Mattin choked on the bread. Cook walloped his back, dislodging the bread and nearly knocking Mattin over. “And no dying.”

Coughing and struggling to catch his breath, Mattin nodded weakly. Why was he supposed to come to the half-fae with his problems? Or the stewards? What did a slave’s problems matter and didn’t Brit sayd his job was to not be noticed?

Before he put words to his confusion—or worked up the boldness to say anything—Cook grabbed his hands, examining them front and back. He frowned at the scabs on Mattin’s palms. “You wash those before you work in this kitchen. And then we’ll bandage those cuts, as should have been done already.”

Once Mattin’s hands were clean and bandaged to the half-fae’s satisfaction, Cook sent Mattin into the root cellar to fetch vegetables for a stew. He guessed at which vegetables and how much—Cook refused to be specific. Two trips later, he had a large stack of turnips, carrots, radish and sweet onions on the table. Enough, he thought, for a stew that would feed the household. Or at least everyone he saw at breakfast.

Most of an hour, and many chopped vegetables later, Cook sent him on his way. “You did good lad. You’ll find Jaffrey lolling about with my Toerff, out the main door and go left.

“You know your way around a kitchen. Do you want to come back?”

“What?” Mattin blinked.

“Do you want to come back? I’ve work for you, but if you aren’t comfortable best you be elsewhere.”

Mattin stared a moment, hand again reachin up to touch the collar. Another expectation turned on it’s head — not even his father had asked what work he wanted to do!

But he had been comfortable in the kitchen, and had been charmed by the charming half fae.

“I think I would like that.”


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The Bargain (S1, E1)
The Bargain (S1, E4)

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The Bargain (S1, E6)

The Bargain (S1, E4)

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

As promised, the shelf had a stack of livery with a note saying it was for Mattin. It included a tunic, a pair of pants, and socks, all a dark blue and white, trimmed in yellow. Much like Jaffrey’s clothing, but fancier – Jaffrey didn’t have any trim. Mattin grimaced at it, and Jaffrey grinned. “Stablehands don’t need the fancy, we’d just make a mess of it. If the suit fits too badly, you can take it to Gerth, and he’ll fit you.”

Mattin climbed into the pants, which gave him an excuse to keep looking down. In the bath, it had been easy to let Elose and Anral, and the need to wash, distract him. To not see the bruises that covered Jaffrey’s body. With just the two of them in the small antechamber, it was… harder.

The pants were loose but wearable. Mattin kept his eyes on the floor and reached blindly for the tunic. “What if I end up in the stable?”

“Then Gerth’ll take the fancy off for you. This is probably what he has on hand.” Jaffrey hissed as he bent to pull his own pants on and rubbed at the bruises on his back.

With his eyes still on the floor, Mattin asked, “Are… are you alright?”

“Eh? Oh, I’m fine. Mistress played a bit rougher than usual last week, which is one reason I’m showing you around today. I get light work for a couple more days.” Mattin swallowed, “Rougher than usual?”

“Yeah. I’m not Joth – that man isn’t happy unless he’s stuck in bed for a day or two after she’s done with him. But she usually knows how to make the pain sing without laying me out, hey? Sometimes,” he sighed contentedly, “sometimes we both need something more.”

Shock had Mattin’s head snapping up. “Y-you like that…” Jaffrey blinked at him, then shook his head. “Right, I’m not used to dealing with lowlanders anymore.” He paused. “Well, not lowlanders who don’t serve the Mistress anyway.” Another pause. “Joth, Crait, and I are the Mistress’ toys. We’re the ones she plays with. It’s part of why I came here, hey?

“It’s usually the warriors who get the Mare’s Blessing. My clan didn’t know what to do with me.” As Jaffrey spoke, Mattin was examining his body with a frankness that was flat-out rude. But he needed to know, to see.

Jaffrey had no scars like Brit. Certainly, he carried none of the despair and horror of Marta’s once-fiance. Mattin had seen Losel once after Oeloff claimed him, but he would never forget… If not for the bruises…

Oblivious to his thoughts, Jaffrey continued, “Fae pleasures, I think you’d call it, though the fae call it… Are you alright?” Jaffrey put a hand out to steady Mattin as he swayed.

“I… you…” Mattin shook his head, trying to stop the room swimming around him. “How can you…?” “Eh?” Jaffrey smiled a bit, but there was sympathy in his eyes. “Sorry, it’s a bit to take in at first. I grew up in the trader clans, so I know a bit of what that’s like. Only the warriors are supposed to be touched by the Mare.

“Just… try not to worry about it too much. You’ve probably got enough to deal with, hey?” Mattin took a deep breath. Another. “I don’t understand. Fae kill people for their magic; she could kill you. Do you not care?” Jaffrey’s eye’s widened. He huffed, catching a laugh before it could escape. “No. Mattin, no. I’ve been here 10 years. I’ve been the Mistress’ toy that whole time, and the only scars I have are from the horses.

“Eh, Joth’s got a bit of a collection, but that’s because he likes it that way.

“That’s why I’m here, Mattin. Because Lady Jahlene isn’t like most of the nobles.” Jaffrey paused. “I don’t think most of the fae are like the nobles. But I haven’t met many.”

“There aren’t many fae in White Oak,” Mattin muttered. “Just Lord Oeloff and his people.” “White Oak! Mare and Stone, that’s where you’re from?” Jaffrey looked like he wanted to spit. “Even for fae nobles, Oeloff is bad. We – the Mountain traders – won’t go there anymore. Even before my clan bargained with Jahlene, White Oak was barred.” A bell rang out, and Jaffrey shook himself. “Black stone! We’re going to miss breakfast if we don’t hurry.” Mattin’s stomach gurgled at that. He made himself take another breath. “The lady isn’t like Oeloff. I know that.”

“Good.” Jaffrey hurried to throw on his clothes, wincing a few more times as he did so. “Let’s get breakfast and how you the place. We can talk more later if you want.”

Mattin laughed. “I think I’m good for now. As long as… you’re sure you’re safe.”

“Safer here than I was riding the roads, I’m sure of that!” Jaffrey clapped Mattin on the shoulder and guided him towards the dining hall. “Come on.”

***

Mattin’s appetite surprised him. Of course, the food helped. The lady’s cook was better than Mattin’s father had ever been, and there was a great deal of it. After the surprises so far, Mattin was happy to lose himself in fresh baked bread and jam, three bowls of porridge, two sausages, and a handful of sliced fruit and honey. Jaffrey said little but kept adding food to Mattin’s plate with an amused smile.

Jaffrey himself was satisfied with a bowl of syrup and a bit of porridge. When Mattin finally pushed his plate away and sat back with a sigh, Jaffrey grinned at him. “You eat like this often?”

Mattin shook his head. “Haven’t been eating well lately. And don’t think I’ve ever had this much food at once. Is this… every day?”

“That’d be nice! No, porridge and bread we always get as much as we want, but the rest… Cook usually puts out a nice spread when someone joins the manor. His way of saying ‘welcome, hey? Most days it’s just one – fruit or honey or jam. Syrup comes with the traders, which is why I’ve made a pig of myself.”

“Oh.” Mattin looked around the room. Over two dozen people half-filled the large hall. Most of them sat, as he and Jaffrey did, at a long table that ran the length of the room. A much shorter table at the head of the room, with chairs rather than benches. Jaffrey pointed out a few of the people higher up the table. — “That’s Lona there — she’s Housekeeper. You’ll want to stay on her good side.”

The woman Jaffrey indicated gave him a scathing look that he responded to with an impudent grin. But when she looked at Mattin, her gaze softened, and she nodded a greeting. Mattin nodded back, hoping that was the right thing to do. “You probably met Parlen; she’s never far from the Mistress. I don’t see Dolf; he’s captain of the guard. Only about half the guard is here most days. The rest are on patrol or…” he waved a hand back and forth, “… you know, elsewhere. Doing something.”

Now that Mattin was looking, he saw a few others along the table nod or wave. But other than that, he and Jaffrey were left alone. In fact, they sat at an empty section of table. The hall continued to fill, but no one took a space near them. Even when it meant crowding in another bench further along the table. “Are they avoiding me?”

“Sort of,” Jaffrey shrugged, “Lots of us have been new here, one time or another. We’ve got years to get to know each other, so you get some space while you settle in. Most folks don’t like meeting tens of strangers all at once.”

Put that way, Mattin didn’t mind being ‘avoided.’

The room reminded him of the inn on a good morning. The scent of fresh bread and sausages. People waking up, talking, joking. Everyone was in good spirits, and no one had the kind of scarring he’d seen on Brit last night. When Jaffrey scraped the last syrup from his bowl and stood up, Mattin found himself hopeful about the day.


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The Bargain (S1, E3)

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

Mattin hadn’t expected to sleep, but he was roused the next morning by a knock on the door. He opened his eyes and saw only darkness. For a moment he didn’t remember where he was. Then memory returned, and he reached for the collar, both hoping and fearing that the prior night had been a dream.

It hadn’t.

The knock came again.

“Come in?”

The door swung out, letting light into a small cubby of a room. It was barely large enough for the small pallet it held.

Mattin blinked against the light and saw a person silhouetted in the doorway. Too tall and thin to be anyone Mattin had met the night before.

“Fair-morn.” The voice was a light tenor and sounded too happy for first thing in the morning. “Bathwater should be heated, and Cook will have breakfast on by the time we’re done.”

Mattin shoved his feet in his boots and scrambled up. He’d slept in his clothes — by the time he’d reached the pallet he’d been too tired to keep his eyes open. That had added another layer of wrinkles on top of the wear of several days’ travel. The stranger noticed his dismay and said, “They’ll be livery for you at the bathroom. The Steward stays on top of things like that.”

“Oh.” Mattin tugged at the collar. It was bad enough to have the collar telling the whole world he belonged to one of the fae. He wasn’t ready for livery too.

But he wouldn’t have a choice in the matter, and clean clothes… well, were clean clothes. “Thank you.”

He stepped out of the cubby and finally got a good look at the man waiting for him. Tall, yes, and thin, but well-muscled, like a runner. His skin was dark, darker than almost any human Mattin had seen, and his hair black and tightly curled. He was, Mattin realized after a moment, one of the Mountain Folk. The strange humans who had held their high passes against the fae for nearly a millennium. When Mattin had been a child, one of the trade caravans of the Mountain Folk had traveled as far as White Oak and spent a month at the summer trade fair, selling odd goods from far places. The full story of how a child of the Mountains had come to serve the Countess was one Mattin would be years in learning.

“Come on,” the man said. “The front door’s there,” he pointed behind them, and Mattin recognized the hall he’d entered the night before. “That’s the door cubby you had last night. Usually, there’s one of us the pages there in case someone comes knocking in the middle of the night. Was supposed to be Toby last night, but she took sick, so you got a quiet spot to sleep. Even if the pallet hasn’t been restuffed in a mule’s age.”

As he spoke he led Mattin deeper into the building. “There’s a couple of barracks rooms most of us sleep in, you’ll get a spot there tonight. But I expect Brit didn’t want to throw a bunch of strangers at you right out the pass, hey?”

Mattin didn’t know what to say in response to this flow of words, but the man didn’t give Mattin a chance to say anything. He just kept talking. Since a great deal of what he said was useful, Mattin set himself to remember as much as he could.

He turned right into another room, the first place (other than the cubby) that wasn’t decorated in the blue-and-dark-wood-paneling. Instead, a simple rush mat covered the floor, and the walls were whitewashed. “These are the private quarters, our area. The Mistress keeps the public rooms in her colors, and these back areas are kept simple. We get to decorate our barracks how we like, though, and some folks have gotten pretty creative.”

It wasn’t until they reached a small room with a stone floor that he stopped and said, “Sorry, my name’s Jaffrey. The Steward told me you’re Mattin?”

The sudden change startled Mattin, but he managed to nod.

“Well, so you know, no one will know anything else. No one here will go telling tales about how you came here, hey? Or what brought you. We all have our own stories, and you choose who you share it with.

“But hey, if you do want to talk, most folks here will listen. We might understand more than you think.”

Mattin couldn’t help laughing at that. “Somehow I doubt it. But… thanks.”

Jaffrey shrugged. “You’ll do.” He gestured around the room. One wall was lined with hooks, each holding a rough towel. A few stacks of clothing sat on a small shelf at one end of the room. “Dirty stuff in the corner, laundry will do their thing and get it back to you. One of those on the shelf will be yours. Bath twice a week if you work the manor, daily if you work outside like I do. I’m in the stables. Mistress has decent horses here. Nothing I’d take into the mountains, but good for you lowlanders.” As he spoke, Jaffery stripped off his clothing, folded it neatly, and stacked it on the shelf.

“You’ll get two sets of livery a year, wear one/wash one hey?”

“Right,” Mattin said, trying not to stare at the green and blue fading bruises that covered Jaffrey’s back and legs. He wanted to ask but was afraid of the answers.

***

The bathing room was similar to the bathhouses Mattin was used to, just smaller. The wooden floor slanted towards a central drain, and benches lined the walls. High shelves held buckets, ladles, soap, and bundles of fresh herbs. In one corner, a copper boiler heated water for washing. The familiarity, as much as the herb-scented steam, had Mattin relaxing.

The bath wasn’t empty. Next to the boiler, a tanned older man scrubbed soap over his long arms and chest. In the corner, a young, blond-haired woman covered in soap suds was tipping a bucket over her head. She groaned as the warm water poured over her.

Mattin snatched his eyes away, ears growing warm. The bathhouses in White Oak had separate rooms for men and women…

The older man chuckled. “What’s your name, lad?” he asked. “Mattin… sir.”

“No ‘sirs’ in the bath, Mattin.” The man winked. “I’m Anral; the tease is Elose.”

The young woman—Elose—put her bucket down and stuck her tongue out at Anral. Elose took her pleasure — in all its forms– freely. Some, like Anral, made assumptions because of that.

Elose shook herself off and tossed her head so her hair fell down her back, making several areas of her body bounce. “It’s my body, you old lech. If it turns your brain to mush, that’s not my problem.”

Her words didn’t register with Mattin. Nor did her body any longer. With her hair away from her neck, he saw she wasn’t quite naked: she wore a collar. So did Anral. Without thinking, his hand tugged on the collar around his own neck. He had forgotten for a moment. How had he forgotten?

He didn’t notice the glance that passed between the other three. “Just how new are you Mattin?” Anral asked, “I don’t keep up with things in the manor as well as I should.”

Mattin flushed again under the man’s scrutiny. “I… I got here last night.”

“Well–

Jaffrey stepped past Mattin with a theatrical sigh. “Anral, since when did you stop counting heads at the dinner table? Did you think you missed a face?”

Anral snorted, “I don’t miss anything. Not like someone who missed a stall last Godsday! You–”

Jaffrey gave Mattin a slight shove and Mattin took the hint. He grabbed a bucket off the wall and went to fill it at the boiler.

The warm water eased tension in his muscles — enough that he nearly took a second bucket. But that was greedy when others had to fill the boiler, so he turned to look for the soap.

A few minutes later, when he rinsed the soap from his hair (and eyes), he saw Elose standing nearby holding a small jar.

“The collar chafes some in the beginning,” she said. “Housekeeper makes this to help.” She held out the jar and (careful to keep his eyes on her face) he accepted it.

“Thanks.”

“Friends can help too if you let us.” She smiled. Her smile was radiant. She smiled with her whole body as if happiness filled her entire self.

Mattin found himself smiling—really smiling—in response. He also became aware of a growing hardness in his groin. He started counting off the towns he passed through on his journey. “I… Thanks?”

She laughed. “I need to get to work, but I’ll be around.” She walked out of the room, and Mattin hurried to finish rinsing. He prayed the other men wouldn’t notice his—

“She caught another one!” Anral grinned at him.

Embarrassed, Mattin turned away, hiding both his shaft and his flush.

He heard barely heard Jaffrey’s whispered “Sorry” over the other man’s laugh.

“Don’t worry Mattin, no man in this house—and precious few women—can keep their eyes off Elose.” Anral chuckled and stood up. “Well, back to work for me. I’ll see you around, Mattin.”

Thankfully he didn’t wait for Mattin to reply before leaving the room. Mattin dearly did not want to see that man again.

“Anral’s a decent overseer,” Jaffrey said after the door closed, “but has no sense of decency off the job. If you have any sense of embarrassment, pray you get assigned to the main house.”

“Overseer?” Mattin blanched.

“He’s the Marshal, in charge of everything outside the manor. I’m told most nobles have other fae as overseers, but the Mistress doesn’t allow any other fae here. Doesn’t trust them.”

“Bloody Mare!” Mattin started praying.


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The Bargain (S1, E1)
The Bargain (S1, E2)

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The Bargain (S1, E4)

The Bargain (S1, E2)

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

Countess Jahlene n’Erida had been barely more than a child the day she’d killed her mother to save the one person in all the world she had loved.

Decades later, she could still taste Brit’s unwavering trust and love as he stood at her back evaluating this stranger.

Mattin Brenson was as unimpressive as any human she’d ever met — and Jahlene had met many humans. At least to look at. But to taste… to taste he offered her a bounty she had rarely known the equal of. Fear, desperation, hope, need, her glamour feasted on all of them and sought hungrily for more. Even the lingering slimey feel of Oeloff’s glamour wasn’t enough to put her off.

He stared at her with wide eyes and the acrid taste of fear grew until it seemed to coat her tongue. Jahlene forced her hunger back, out of her awareness and forced her face to smoothness.

He offered a feast — but a feast that would come at a high cost. So she shook her head slightly saying, “My household is full and needs no additions. Did I need further service, many in the county would be eager to serve me. Unless you have a useful skill, your offer is of little worth.”

The fear receded, replaced by a mix of relief, despair, and confusion. She leaned back in her chair and her hands began picking apart her braid, as they often did when she was focused on her own thoughts. If she confused him, he was just as confusing to her.

She half expected him to take the escape she offered, to excuse himself and begin the long walk to the nearest town. But a long moment passed, then another, and she realized she had missed something in him. Hidden behind the overwhelmding fear had been something else. Barely noticed at first, a hint of fire that grew moment by moment until it overwhelmed everything else.

As his determination swept through her, she wondered if anything would make him leave. Her mouth quirked at the image of the slim, grubby man being forcibly removed from her study, only to camp out on her steps, refusing to leave until she accepted his bargain or killed him.

“I’m an innkeeper’s son, lady. There’s little I haven’t done. Horse care, cleaning, some cooking, and whatever else was needed.”

Jahlene glanced over her shoulder at Brit, saw Parlen had stopped pacing and was scribbling notes are her desk. Brit was calm, no longer annoyed at this late night interruption but didn’t feel strongly about this bargain either way. Parlen… Parlen was excited. The woman lived for politics. Jahlene turned back to Mattin with a hidden smile.

Confusion, fear, hope, all warred in the man, still overlain with that fiery determination.

“Why, Mattin Brenson?”

He shook his head as his confusion spiked.

“You know what Oeloff is. You have no reason to think I am any different. Yet you would trade your freedom and life for your sister’s. Do you expect her to thank you for it?”

A touch on her shoulder surprised her. She reached a hand up and glasped Brit’s fingers. He wasn’t calm any longer. Pride, regret, a memory of fear.

Forty years before he had told her in no uncertain terms that he would not thank her for making such a trade, that he would infact spank her like a child if she ever did such a thing again.

She squeezed her odd-brother’s hand and knew she couldn’t turn Mattin away.

But that didn’t mean she needed to make it easy for him.

“Well, Mattin?”

“Lady, I… do not know what you may be. But you are not like Lord Oeloff.” He nodded at the linked hands—human and fae.

Parlen giggled. “He has you there, Mistress.”

Jahlene couldn’t keep her smile hidden any longer. “And your sister?”

Mattin took a deep breath. “I have always protected my sister, Lady. I can’t abandon her.” His eyes flickered to Brit’s ruined hand. Probably thinking Jahlene had ruined it. Most humans did when they first met him. “And I am strong, Lady. I can endure what… what she cannot.”

That was not what Jahlene had expected him to say. The smile slipped from her face. “You don’t think much of her, do you?”

He almost sputtered and Parlen laughed again. “Older brother, right?” she asked.

Mattin nodded and Jahlene tasted what she would have sworn was insult.

“It’s human custom, Mistress,” Parlen said. “He’s a boy, he’s physically stronger and older than his sister, so it’s his job to protect her. Even if she’s perfectly capable of protecting herself.”

Jahlene had lived with humans all her life, loved many of them, and would never understand them.

But whatever his odd reasoning, she couldn’t say Mattin was wrong to make this sacrifice.

“As you say, Parlen.” Jahlene shook her head. “We’ll talk details later, but you are sure we can hurt Oeloff?”

“Yes, Mistress.”

“So…” There was one problem remaining, one danger, even. “I’d like to accept your bargain. A chance to hurt Oeloff at court…

“But my people serve me willingly, Mattin Brenson. Each one came to me because they wished to enter my service. I did not seek them out nor do I use coercion or glamour on my family.”

Mattin clearly didn’t believe her, but she didn’t care.

“You do not share my people’s need to serve, nor do you have any love or loyalty to me. How then do I trust you to keep your end of our bargain, in spirit as well as word?

“A bitter and resentful slave who hates all around him would be a cancer in my home.”

Jahlene nearly spat as the odd-flavour-not flavour of someone dissociating flooded the room. Mattin spoke perfectly calmly, not noticing the blood dripping down his fisted hands.

“Lady.” Even his voice sounded distant. “You are right. I don’t want to be a slave. I can’t believe anyone would.

“Love? Loyalty? I am an honest man, and I would keep my word to you. If that is not enough then…. Then I am wasting both our time.” The firey taste of determination faded a moment, then flared. Beyond that…

Lies had no taste. But the emotions behind them did. Detecting them was an art and one Jahlene was still learning. But she tasted nothing to make her doubt.

“Brit?”

“Honest, capable of loyalty, and if he grew up in an inn, he knows how to work. We’ve dealt with worse.”

Jahlene and Brit had many ways to speak without speaking. Brit would never disrespect her openly in front of a stranger, but he squeezed her shoulder now in a pattern and she nodded. She had pushed Mattin enough.

Too far, it turned out. Before she could say anything he jumped to his feet crying, “Bloody Mare! Stop playing with me. Yes or no?”

“Yes, Mattin,” she stood up and walked to a cabinet in the corner of the room. Most of the cabinet held files and writing tools, but one small box was kept there for just this purpose. “You have your bargain.”

Jahlene brought the box back to her desk and pulled out the simple strap of leather that waited with in.

Most of the great magic was lost to the fae when they fled their old home a thousand years earlier, but this one piece was left to them. Placing her hands on the leather, Jahlene gathered her glamour as she would to bind a weaker person to her will. She gathered in as well the taste, the essence, of Mattin as he stood before her. Determination, fear, relief, need, yes. But also the subtler emotions that made him, him. Those which she could barely sense now but which would come to the fore when he was not being pushed and pulled by the needs of others.

Her fingers stroked the leather in a pattern she knew without knowing, as deep as her bones. Over and over she repeated the pattern, with each repeat the power she held lessened, sinking into the leather, until it was gone, bound. As it would bind she and Mattin together as long as he wore it.

When she again had the energy to look outside herself, she saw Mattin staring at her, looking almost like one blinded by the sun. “What… what was that, Lady?”

Her lips quirked. “Glamour. A powerful glamour placed within the collar. While my sigil is upon you, no other fae can control you.”

Even as she spoke, the taste of Oeloff’s touch on him was dissipating.

“But you can.” Despair rolled off him in waves. Sour was not a flavor she had ever enjoyed, and she only hoped that as he adjusted to her home his emotions would settle into something more… palatable.

“I have never used glamour so, but I could. Your ancestors struck a bargain—they gave control to one they trusted in return for protection from the many they did not.”

Behind her Brit scoffed. “And that worked out well.”

Jahlene glared at him a moment, but couldn’t disagree. She was tired.

“The collar is for you to put on — or not.

“Seal our bargain, Mattin Brenson, so we can all get some sleep.”

As if it were a snake that might bite him, Mattin picked up the leather. When it did nothing but hang limply in his hands, he wrapped it around his neck. Jahlene tasted the burst of power as the two ends sealed together, bound tighter than any clasp or lock.

Jahlene had never learned to read faces, but even if she had been glamour-lost she could have read the anger and bitterness in his eyes as he stared at her.

Brit stepped around the desk and offer Mattin a hand. “Come on, boy. Let’s find a meal to wrap you around and a bed for the night. With your permission, mistress.”

He didn’t wait for her to respond, just bowed and turned, smacking Mattin lightly when the young man went to follow him without stopping to bow. Jahlene was pleased to see Mattin corrected himself immediately, though exhaustion had his feet dragging on the carpet as he followed Brit from the room.

Jahlene wasn’t much better. Parlen joined her and began undoing Jahlene’s braids, brushing her hair out and fixing the damage Jahlene had done. “Are you sure of this Mistress?”

“Yes.” With Mattin no longer right in front of her, Jahlene could again taste the manor as a whole. The dominant flavor was mellow contentment, dotted here and there with other notes. But nearly as strong was the bittersweet that flowed from the newest member of her household. Barely — just barely — more sweet than bitter. If he hadn’t been conflicted, she’d have been worried. But it seemed that out of her presence, hope was winning out.

“I couldn’t have turned him away, Parlen. And I would have been a fool to do so. I could feast on him alone and be sated for a week or more. He may be a key to cutting Oeloff back. And…”

And she had been dreaming for a week or more. A fae dreamt rarely, and when they did the dreams always meant something.

Jahlene bade Parlen goodnight and headed for her rooms, wondering if Mattin’s coming would end the dreams. And if it did, what would that mean?


After arguing with myself, I’m tagging Mattin’s relationship with Jahlene as con noncon rather than fictional slavery, because he asked for her collar. Same applies for the rest of her people. It really could be argued both ways. What decided me is I think having different terms for Jahlene’s relationship with her people, and what Oeloff and other fae do, will make it easier for readers to know what to expect.

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