Season Content notes: con noncon*, pain play, sexual contact, trauma reactions, people handling emotions badly, rape (not explicit), torture (not explicit)
Dealing with the dock fire occupied the rest of the day and most of several days to follow. Assistance had to be sent for those injured and those who lost livelihoods. Records of recent shipments and trade through the dock were lost: information from other sources had to be gathered to fill the gaps. Plans for rebuilding requested, authorized and implemented.
Throughout it all, the lady remained distant and formal. Mattin missed the banter and friendship, but understood his own actions had caused the distance. He hoped, in time, the lady might come to trust him again. A week after the dock fire, Mattin tried teasing her about working too hard. She forbade him to speak to her for the rest of the day.
So he kept his distance as well. His days were long and lonely. He continued to enjoy Cook’s company in the mornings and the company of others when he got a chance. But most of his time was spent with Jahlene, locked in icy formality.
The painful distance had one benefit: there was no chance he would forget his purpose again. He thought of Marta constantly. He woke in the morning reminding himself of Marta’s freedom. He went to bed at night remembering that he endured for her. Often, it was cold comfort. His unworded prayer was that Jahlene would permit Marta to remain nearby when she was free—or even within the manor itself. Others in the manor had family in a little cottager village a short walk distant. If Marta stayed there, if he saw her from time to time…. Maybe then he would feel less alone.
The remaining weeks before court went swiftly. Mattin threw himself into training with a new fervor, and Brit soon declared himself satisfied. Jahlene said nothing to Mattin, but Brit told him she was also satisfied.
While Mattin finished his training, Jahlene and Parlen began the political dance. Letters and the occasional messenger were sent to nobles who might be interested in helping them trap Oeloff. They also fielded inquiries and requests from allies seeking Jahlene’s support at court. Part of Mattin’s job became recording these discussions and keeping track of the various negotiations. Parlen said that knowing the goings on and who the players were would help him watch his step at court. Jahlene simply grunted.
Two weeks before they left, their efforts bore fruit. One of the neutral lords, Falthro of County Oultor, came to the manor. Jahlene and Parlen believed he could be convinced to witness Oeloff’s attempts to coerce Mattin.
The manor went into a frenzy of preparations. For this meeting, they would set out a full highcourt feast for two. Mattin was kept on the periphery of the discussions, so he would know his part. It remained to be seen if he could pull it off.
The smaller dining hall glowed with lamplight, sheltered flames reflecting off bright brass and glass polished to a high shine. A pure white cotton table cloth spoke of the wealth of the hostess. Moving with the silence and grace Brit had drilled into him, Mattin set Cook’s latest course—a spiced bread sculpted shaped as a stag’s head—before Lord Falthro n’Oultor. He placed a second sculpture before the lady, and the savory dipping sauces between them.
Lord Falthro lounged in his chair and waved one pale white hand over his plate, “Why Jahlene, I am honored. Such trouble you go to for a friendly meal.”
The lady shook her head and laughed, “Not I, Falthro. My Cook despairs of my quiet life and takes every excuse to show off his talents. But please, enjoy. The red sauce is a lovely thing, made with some southern spices the traders introduced this spring.”
Falthro broke open his sculpture and tried a piece in the red sauce. Mattin had no idea how the male kept the trailing lace of his cuffs from landing in the sauce along with the bread…
The sauce met with the fae lord’s approval, and he inquired into opening a trade for the new spices. The lady had a monopoly on some of the more exotic goods the mountain traders brought. Jaffrey’s presence in her household had given her some favor with the mountain folk.
By the time the bread course was finished, the two nobles had reached a tentative agreement on trade. Mattin set himself to remembering the details to be passed on to Parlen and the lady’s factor.
In a carefully arranged dance, Mattin removed the remainder of the bread and sauces and passed them to Crait. Narris handed Mattin the next course, baked fish stuffed with cheese. Mattin presented it to the lady with a flourish.
The conversation turned to court. Mattin was soon out of his depth. Even with all of Brit’s training, he didn’t know enough of the background. He took mental notes anyway. It gave him a distraction, and he could ask Cook or Brit to help him understand later.
Finally, the talk came around to Oeloff. “The man is a nuisance, I’ll agree,” Falthro said, “I’ll even agree I’d like to see him taken down a step or two, but he has the Emperor’s ear and one of the most powerful glamours in the empire. Best let sleeping enemies lie.”
“But he isn’t sleeping, is he? Or has the tariff on salt been a mild inconvenience?”
Falthro sighed and picked an invisible crumb off his sleeve. “We are managing. No wise person depends on a single revenue source. And we have no need to ship in food. Unlike some.”
“But,” Jahlene leaned forward, “if I showed you a way he could be weakened, you might be interested?”
“I’d certainly listen. Convince me it’s viable, and I might—might…even help.”
Jahlene nodded. “Oeloff has been trying to bribe or threaten members of my household for several years now. He wants to turn one of my own into a spy for him.”
Falthro pursed his lips. “Which is against the Emperor’s law but nearly impossible to prove. Your slaves have no voice in court, and your witness is suspect, at best.”
“True. But what if we arranged matters so you witness his next attempt…”
Falthro raised one eyebrow, “And how do you intend to pull this off?”
Jahlene gestured towards Mattin, “This is the newest addition to my household. He came to me after Oeloff claimed his sister. In fact, he drew Oeloff’s attention rather strongly when he tried to protect her.”
“So you expect Oeloff to remember your new toy and see a chance for some blackmail. But I know you, Jahlene. What did you promise your toy when he showed up at your door?”
“If possible, I will get his sister free of Oeloff.”
Falthro rolled his eyes. “Really, Jahlene, you’ve been soft on your slaves for years, but isn’t this going a bit far? Making an enemy of Oeloff for the sake of a pretty toy.” The lord waved a languid hand in Mattin’s direction.
Mattin ignored him. He had to be furniture. God and Mare knew what else he’d hear before the night ended.
The lady laughed. The bright sound ran through Mattin, letting him relax.
“Oh come, Falthro, you know, I know, and the dogs in the kennel know Oeloff has been trying to destroy me for years. And not just me, either.”
After a long moment, the hand–no longer languid–twitched an acknowledgment of the lady’s point. She continued, “If I can use Mattin to hurt Oeloff, don’t pretend you aren’t interested, no matter how ‘soft’ I may be. And any bargains I made are my own look out, are they not?”
Falthro nodded. Grudgingly.
“So, enough with the word games and dagger points of courtly manners. Will you bargain with me, Falthro?”
At the word “bargain” the lord’s ears twitched. The fae love of a good bargain reeling him in, if Mattin was any judge. “What kind of… bargain?”
That was Mattin’s cue. Bracing himself, he approached the lord and bowed.
“Test my ‘toy,’ Falthro. See if you can break his training. If you can, I’ll admit my plan is flawed. If you can’t, you help me humiliate Oeloff before the High Court.”
Falthro’s eyebrows nearly merged with his hair. “And if your toy does break?”
“Althsuar owes me a council vote this year. If you can break Mattin’s training, I will give the vote to you.”
Mattin fought to keep his jaw from dropping. He didn’t know much of fae politics, but he did understand how much Jahlene was offering. Sweat started dripping down his back.
Falthro leaned in, and the bargaining began in earnest.
Two hours later, the bargain was struck. Mattin’s head reeled. He had lost track of the details and insane objections, requirements and restrictions long ago. All he knew was that he had to serve Falthro until Jahlene told him to stop. (At one point, Falthro held out for a week, but Jahlene reminded Falthro he was leaving in the morning. Apparently the fae lord didn’t see any issue with taking Mattin home with him. Thankfully, Jahlene did.) If he served the lord without losing his composure, refusing an order, or doing anything the male could object to, Falthro would help them trap Oeloff. If he failed, the lady would be in Falthro’s debt, and they wouldn’t have the witness they needed.
He wished he could discretely wipe his hands on his pants. He had to trust the lady, trust that she hadn’t bargained him into an impossible position. He hoped he’d prove worthy of the trust she placed in him.
Jahlene summoned him with a look. He stepped to her side. “Do you understand your task?”
Mattin bowed silently. Cook’s suggestion on issues at court had been elegantly simple—he trained Mattin in the protocol known as ‘silent service.’ Unless ordered to speak, he would respond to anything Jahlene said with a variety of bows and gestures. Practicing often felt like dancing.
“Really, Jahlene. He doesn’t even respond to questions, and you think he is trained for court? Why waste our time with this ‘test’ of yours?”
Jahlene laughed, and her right eye flickered at Mattin in a secret wink. It was the first hint of familiarity or playfulness she’d shared with him in weeks. He had to bite his lip to keep from smiling.
“Oh, Falthro,” she drawled, “So quick to judgment? Mattin is forbidden to speak unless I direct him to. His response was entirely proper.”
Falthro’s eyebrows climbed towards his forehead. “How… unusual for you.”
Jahlene grinned, “Variety, Falthro. It’s a wonderful thing.”
“Little toy, once our test begins, I expect you to answer me when I speak to you.”
Mattin glanced at Jahlene as he bowed, extending his right hand in a sweeping acknowledgment. The lord glared at him.
“You may speak to answer Lord Falthro.” Mattin wondered if Falthro heard the bubble of laughter under her words.
“As you wish, Lord.”