The Bargain (S2, E6)

Season Content notes: con noncon*, pain play, sexual contact, trauma reactions, verbal assault, mind control, reference to suicide attempt, coming to terms with kink (badly), avoidance as coping strategy, unintentional emotional harm, NOT a HFN ending, mind fuck

Mattin slept poorly that night. His dreams included the lady’s wistful voice, Brit’s hand on his shoulder, and flashes of things he couldn’t see clearly. Things he didn’t want to remember. He woke up early and decided to visit the bathing room before heading to the kitchen.

He was surprised to find the washroom already lit and the boiler going. Cook sat on a bench next to the water heater. He had a blackened eye and a gash across his cheek—and that was just his face. At the sound of the door closing, the half-fae opened his eyes.

“Good morning, lad. Though to be honest, I’m not sure how good it is.”

Mattin blinked “Should you be in the infirmary?”

The other shrugged, then winced. “I’ll admit a poultice or two would be good, but going to the infirmary would cause other problems. Worse problems than these,” Cook gestured to his face, “will already cause.”

Mattin scratched his head. “No riddles this morning, Cook, please! How could getting help cause problems? I mean, wouldn’t the lady be annoyed if you need help and don’t get it?”

Cook snorted, “Lady Jahlene is already annoyed if I judge things a-right.” He held a hand close to the broiler and nodded. “Just warm enough.” He stood up with a groan and filled a bucket, dumping it over his head before grabbing the soap to start washing. “There has been an unspoken rule between Brit and I—however badly we fight, we don’t injure each other so others can notice. Getting hit in the face is bad enough, but if I go to the infirmary, I’ll be saying he went too far. As… volatile as tempers are right now, I’d rather like to avoid that.”

Shaking his head, Mattin stripped and filled a bucket with hot water. He had too much to try and figure out from last night already; he didn’t need to break his head anymore figuring out Brit and Cook. Unless… Mare, Brit was probably angry with Parlen for trying to mess with the lady. Like Cook had said, it wasn’t always about him.

The hot water and soap banished the last echoes of his dreams, leaving him awake and almost ready to face the day. Washing under and around the collar took extra time, but he was growing used to it.

Cook finished rinsing off and stepped out to get dressed. Mattin followed him a few minutes later.

Once dressed, they walked down to the kitchen together. The long rising dough, set out the night before, was ready to be beaten down and shaped into loaves. Mattin beat the risen dough while Cook mixed the dough for the rest of the day’s bread. After a few minutes, Cook said, “Brit was… rather less informative than usual. Care to tell me why I’m feeling like ground meat this morning?”

Mattin wiped hair out of his face with one flour-covered hand. “You know, I should have waited and taken a bath after dealing with the baking.”

“You figured that out now, lad?”

Shaking his head, Mattin went back to pounding on the risen dough. Cook said nothing, giving him time. A few minutes later, Mattin had three loaves set for their second rising and was flouring the table for another batch. “Last night, Parlen said I can’t use ‘lady’ at court. Brit and… and the lady said they had been waiting to say anything to me.” He took a breath. “It… was a strange conversation. Brit was really upset, and the lady was…” he bit his lip, not sure he should tell anyone about the strange conversation in the lady’s bath. “She mentioned asking you about other protocols.”

Cook shook his head. “Well, Jahlene will put her in her place soon enough—if she hasn’t already.” He paused but continued when Mattin didn’t say anything. “There are some other titles, some ways to avoid the issue. Easiest,” he gave Mattin a sympathetic look, “easiest would be to start calling her ‘Mistress’ if you can.”

“I could make myself say it, and I said so, but…” Mattin sighed. “Damn it, why does everything have to be so hard!”

Cook shook his head again, “Because she’s an idealistic young lass, and you’re a scared young buck. You want my suggestion, lad?”

Mattin spent a minute pounding at the dough, getting out his frustration—and fear. “Yeah, Cook.”

“Practice calling her ‘Mistress’ in private. It’ll mean a lot to her and won’t harm you to get used to the word. And trust Brit and Jahlene to tell you what you need to know for court.”

They worked in silence until Toerff appeared to start preparing breakfast. Mattin went to report to Brit for the day’s training. And he thought about Cook’s suggestion.

~~~

That morning, Jahlene’s attempt to organize her day was interrupted by a knock on the door. “Come in,” she called, expecting (and dreading) Parlen with the day’s messages. Instead, Brit walked in with Mattin in tow.

Jahlene braced herself for more trouble, but Brit only said, “I need to ride down to the pensioner’s cottages. They’ve a few problems that need sorting out. The boy’s never been on a horse and won’t learn anything useful down there.”

If Jahlene needed to worry about anything, Brit would have said so. “I don’t need him this morning. If you have studying for him to do, he can work in the corner and be on hand if anything comes up.” In a way, she was relieved. Mattin’s usual stew of resentment and fear were muted today, behind a general wash of concern. The idea of not being alone when Parlen came in settled her nerves. “I planned on riding down to the Home Farms after lunch.”

Brit grunted at the unspoken question, “He’ll need to learn to ride eventually. If you want him along, tell Gwende to give him an easy mount.”

“I’ll think about it.”

A few minutes later, Mattin had a map of the Emperor’s palace to memorize and was doing a good job of disappearing into the corner. Jahlene was pleased to see his emotions muted further when he focused on his studies. She was able to start work on the budget without distractions.

When Parlen finally entered, she was preceded by a wave of fear that ripped at Jahlene’s heart. Cringing inwardly, Jahlene kept her eyes on the figures in front of her. Parlen would settle at her desk, and they would continue with the day as if nothing had happened. As if Jahlene could not taste the fear underlying everything Parlen would say or do.

But Parlen didn’t go to her desk. She crossed the room and knelt beside Jahlene’s chair. “Mistress.”

Jahlene looked up, bracing herself to deal with whatever protestation Parlen would offer. Her jaw dropped. Around Parlen’s neck twisted a golden rope. She had, Jahlene realized, made a rope with her own hair. Without thinking, Jahlene grabbed the end, pulling the noose tight around Parlen’s neck. “This… is unexpected.” The scene the night before and her vicious words played through her mind. What did this mean?

“Mistress,” Parlen took a deep breath, “You are right, I am a manipulative woman, but I’m also not entirely crazy. I promise you, I have learned my lesson. And if you ever do feel the need to hang me by my own hair, I am sure I will have earned it.”

Jahlene couldn’t speak. Parlen’s fear grew every moment. Fear, Jahlene realized, not of her, but of…rejection? She touched Parlen’s cheek and felt the woman’s jaw trembled under her hand.

Finally, Jahlene found her voice. “It would appear I didn’t scare you quite as thoroughly as I thought.”

Parlen laughed. It had a strained sound. The fear broke, and Jahlene tasted cool relief flooding through her. “Oh, you scared me, Mistress. But later, I thought about why you scared me. If being scared out of my wits for a few minutes is the worst to come from my foolishness, then I am lucky beyond words. As Brit might say, you are /my/ mistress, and I won’t forget again.”

Her hand came up to rest against Jahlene’s. They remained that way for a long moment.

~~~

Mattin stood quietly in the corner, trying to think. He was supposed to be studying the latest assignment from Brit, learning the layout of the Emperor’s palace. Instead, he couldn’t take his eyes away from the… scene between the lady and Parlen.

He had grown used to Parlen. He still didn’t understand her insistence that she was a woman, despite being born a boy. But ultimately, if she wanted to call herself a dancing toad, it was her business—hers and Jahlene’s. So he didn’t take any more notice her dress than he did with any woman he knew—if he could name the color of her outfit, it was a good day. But the hair noose definitely caught his eye. At first, he thought it was just some new strangeness, but Parlen had gone to kneel beside Jahlene…

They spoke so quietly Mattin barely heard the murmur of their voices. What he saw was enough. The rope was a symbol–or maybe an offering. Something to try and put right Parlen’s mistake.

Watching them, Mattin ached with envy. Whatever the lady had feared the night before, Parlen’s feelings were clear. She loved her mistress.

Mattin tugged at his collar. How could he want that so badly? How could he love a female who claimed him as a possession? And yet… Jahlene clearly loved Parlen as much as Parlen loved her. Could she ever love Mattin? Did he want her to? Did he want to have her as his mistress?

He didn’t find any answers that day, but he did manage to memorize the public areas of the palace.


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