The Bargain (S2, E7)

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

Nothing further was said about how Mattin addressed the lady, though he still thought about that night—and all its revelations. He had an established routine now—early in the morning, he snuck into the kitchen to help Cook with the baking. Then he spent a brief hour with Brit, learning more of the high protocol needed for Court. The rest of the day was devoted to the lady.

In theory, his every thought throughout the day should be focused on making her day easier. In reality, he might spend a day doing nothing while the lady worked on the household budget or tax records—or he might run all over the manor: checking supplies, dealing with problems, or carrying messages. When she left the manor he accompanied her. And at night, he helped her get ready for bed.

~~~

Halfway through his second month at the manor, they went out to inspect a new coal mine. Usually, Jahlene took her carriage, but this time they rode. It was Mattin’s first time on a horse, and he did not enjoy the experience. By the time they reached the mine, he couldn’t feel his legs—or anything between them.

The trail wound through the mountains, and it was clear why they rode—a carriage would never manage the rough mountain track. The mine was little more than a hole in the ground, a few hundred yards away from a deep stream. The mine manager and workers stayed in tents clustered around the mine, as did the dozen donkeys that played a crucial part in the mining.

Mattin had nothing to do but follow Jahlene around. Partly out of boredom, he kept his eyes and ears open. A great deal went on at the mine, even above ground. But what he noticed instead was how the miners reacted to him. Glancing at him out of the corner of their eyes. Muttered comments cut off as Jahlene approached with him in tow. He tried to convince himself they were reacting to the presence of the fae but… for the first time in days, his collar chafed at his throat.

It was pity he saw in their eyes, Mattin realized. He lived in a manor, never went hungry, had people he liked and cared for around him… And these men—who lived in tents, ate whatever could be barged up from town, and spent their lives digging rock from the ground—these men pitied him. Because they had something he never would again.

They had their freedom.

The ride home—yes, he realized, he did think of the manor as home—was long. The pity of those men ate at him, angered him. And he had far too much time to think—even with the damned saddle sores developing on his arse.

“Mattin, is everything alright?”

“You mean aside from the chafing, Lady? Bouncing around on top of the carriage is not nearly as bad as bouncing around on top of this horse!”

She laughed. “What did you think of Goodman Wrotty?”

Mattin called up his recollections of the mine manager. “He’s a hard man, Lady. He’ll drive his people, but I think he’ll push himself just as hard.”

“And the miners?”

He answered as best he could—and she asked several more questions—until he felt like she had wrung from him every observation about the day. Finally, she nodded, “Please write down your thoughts when we get back. I’d like to have them to refer to in the future.”

Startled, he lost time with the horse’s movements and almost fell from the saddle. “Yes, Lady,” he said, as he regained his balance, “I’m glad you find my thoughts helpful.”

She flashed a grin at him, “You are, aren’t you? Good. But you aren’t telling me something.”

“Lady?”

“I try not to push Mattin and to leave you some privacy, but something upset you. I need to know what.”

“Ah.” He grimaced, “Is that a command, Lady?” Damn it, couldn’t she at least leave him his thoughts? Must he give her everything? And this… already his resentment and fear hurt her. He didn’t want to hurt her more. Why couldn’t she leave well enough alone?

“I was going for subtle request, but if I have to make it a command, I will.”

“I didn’t want to… disturb you, Lady.”

“It’s hardly disturbing me when I’m asking.”

The phrasing tickled his humor. “But you haven’t asked,” he said with a grin.

She raised a fist in mock threat. Then her eyes narrowed. “Mattin, as much as I enjoy your teasing, you’re stalling. Tell me, now.”

He looked down, rubbing at his collar. The lady rarely commanded outright—that she did now meant he had pushed her far as he could. So, thinking about the words as little as possible, he told her. “Some of the miners… seemed as if they pitied me.”

“I see,” the humor was gone from her voice. When Mattin glanced over at her, she sat stiffly, her face a mask.

“Lady, I—”

“Spare me.”

Mattin bit his tongue, and they rode in silence again, but words pressed against his teeth. Finally, he burst out, “No. You wanted to know what was bothering me, you wanted to I know my feelings, and by the Mare, I’ll tell you!”

She pulled up her horse and opened her mouth. Mattin rushed to speak, rolling right over her.

“I’m angry, Lady. I’m angry at them. Why, by the Mare, should they pity me? This may not be the life I want, but it’s a good life with good people. And it’s the life I chose. They had no right to look at me that way, and… and I wouldn’t trade places with them if someone paid me to! And Mare’s Bridle, Lady, I care about you. I didn’t want to, but I do. Will you please stop thinking that every time I’m upset, it’s about you!” He stopped and took a deep, shuddering breath. She stared at him, the mask fading from her features. “I don’t think I can ever be what you want, Lady. But I’m starting to wish I could. And I hate knowing that I’m hurting you.” He hadn’t realized, hadn’t even admitted to himself, how strongly he felt. But it fit. It was right. And by the Mare’s Blood, it was good to say it.

The lady edged her horse next to his, then reached out and rested a hand on his cheek. She was so solemn, he didn’t know what to think. But it was the first time she had touched him… just… touched him. As nervous as if he approached a scared and cornered animal, he reached up and put his hand against hers.

“Maybe you are right, Mattin. But you’ve still given me more than I expected.”

Neither of them said anything for a long moment. Before Mattin could feel uncomfortable or awkward, she pulled her hand away with a laugh and kicked her horse into a run. Over her shoulder, she called, “Race you to the next hill.”

Cursing, he grabbed on tight as his horse ran after her. The forgotten guards clattered along behind.

~~~

Jahlene reined in her horse a half mile out from the manor. A tension Mattin hadn’t noticed flowed out of her shoulders and she sat for a moment.

“Lady?”

“It’s always good when I can taste home again.” She smiled at him and nudged her mare into a walk. “If I try, I can pick up the flavor of home from farther out. When I come back from court each year, I can sometimes taste Brit as far away as the bridge we passed. But usually, it’s right about here.”

“I didn’t realize you could… taste… from such a distance.” Mattin shifted in the saddle. He’d known his feelings were open to her—and how often they hurt her. But… he’d assumed she “tasted” people physically close to her. How did she live like that? Constantly aware of the emotions of everyone for miles around?

How much had she felt from him when he wasn’t around her? Couldn’t he go anywhere he wouldn’t hurt her? Where he could feel without feeling guilty?

Her smile faded, and he cursed himself for his lack of self-control.

“I thought you knew about glamour.”

He nodded, “Yes, Lady. I wasn’t aware it reached so far.”

“For most fae, it doesn’t. But if I didn’t have strong glamour I wouldn’t be a countess.” She spoke so calmly, so matter-of-factly, that Mattin almost missed the real meaning behind her words.

“Do you mean…you become a noble because of glamour?”

“Something like that, though politics and family are mixed in as well. The Emperor is supposed to be the fae with the strongest glamour, but it doesn’t always work that way.”

By mutual agreement, they spent the rest of the ride discussing how a fae achieved nobility. Mattin welcomed the distraction from his worsening saddle sores.

However, as they reached the stables and dismounted, Jahlene said, “Brit keeps a cabin in the woods, far enough out I can’t taste him, even if I try. Speak with him if you wish to use it.”

“Yes, Lady.” The whole thing got pushed out of his mind as he minced his way back to the manor, his thighs and buttocks protesting with every step.

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