July 21, 2016 by Lyn
This story takes place immediately after Yes, Mistress.
Regine had been driving all day, with two bathroom breaks and a stop for lunch at a family restaurant where neither of them fit in and only Ambrus seemed to care. She seemed indefatigable; she also seemed entirely comfortable riding for twelve hours in silence. Ambrus drifted in and out of consciousness, and, although he tried to keep track of road signs, he had no idea where they were. All he knew was that they were heading generally West.
The sun had been gone for a while when she broke the silence, waking him from a doze. “In the glove compartment is a blindfold. Put it on, and leave it on until I remove it.”
He couldn’t see anything out the window anyway; somewhere flickering in the distance could have been house lights, or stars, or some really agitated fireflies. Still, he put the blindfold on, making sure he couldn’t see anything without being told. Obedience seemed like a very good idea.
With the blindfold on, though, he was suddenly noticing every turn and bump in the road, every soft noise the car made, and his mistress’s nearly-complete lack of sound or emotion. He couldn’t fall back asleep; instead, he found himself twitching, his leg bouncing, his fingers tapping, all of his nervous energy now uncontainable.
“It can be difficult to remain calm when a sense is taken away,” Regine said quietly, with very little inflection. “You may ask another question, if you wish, to pass the time.”
He wondered if she was going to continue to dole out information like that, one little morsel at a time, but he would take what he could get. Where are we going? What do you think I am? Why do you think that? He shuffled through the questions for a minute before settling on the most pressing one. “What are you going to do with me?”
She didn’t answer for what seemed like a horribly long time in the black silence, long enough that he began to get frightened, began to wonder how bad it might be to roll out of a car going probably ninety miles an hour in the middle of Cornfield, Nowhere. When she did speak, he jumped, stifling an embarrassing squeak.
“I intend to use your ‘tricks’ to their fullest extent, and, in doing so, train you in their use.”
He was glad it was dark. He wasn’t sure he could keep the bafflement off of his face. Had she known about his ‘tricks’ before she bought him? If so, how?
She let him hang for a few more minutes before saying, “If you will answer two questions for me – honestly and completely – I will answer another question for you.”
There was something she didn’t know about him? He nodded his agreement, though, and murmured, “Thank you, m- Regine.”
There was no delay this time; her question came right on the heels of his stuttered thanks. “What did you most like about belonging to Ian Bettary?”
What did you most like? It wasn’t an easy question. In the last months, as he’d fallen out of favor, there hadn’t been much to like about service in Ian’s house except the thought that it would end soon. He didn’t think that was what she wanted, though.
“I… when I worked for… when I belonged to Ian, mis- my lady,” he temporized, certain he was blushing horribly, “everything was taken care of. I had no reason to worry about rent, or dinner, or clothing, because absolutely everything I had was what Ian had given to me.”
She made a soft “mmm” noise that could have been understanding and could have just been acknowledgement that he had spoken. “And what did you like the least?”
Being punished. But it wasn’t true, not entirely. For one thing, it depended on the punishment, the reason for it, the mood he was in, the mood Ian was in, sometimes the weather. For another, his time with Lee had trained him to accept proper punishment as a form of attention and love.
His stomach, growling loudly, brought sharply to mind the real issue. “Being hungry,” he admitted ruefully. “It seemed like there was never enough to eat normally, and if Ian was displeased with me, then there was less. I spent most of the last year hungry.”
“An effective way to keep you docile, for a human,” she said, her voice so cool that he shivered. “But I have no need of such crude techniques.”
Good? “Thank you, my lady.”
“No need,” she said, and it seemed almost as if there was irony in her voice. “But now you have one more question to ask.”
“How did you know?” he blurted out, and then hurried to clarify, “About my ‘knack,’ I mean. You must have known, if that’s what you bought me for.”
She chuckled quietly, and he wondered how he’d finally managed to amuse her, and if that was a good thing, or a bad thing. “I’m going to answer a slightly different question, if you don’t mind.”
“As you wish, my lady,” he said quietly.
“I think it will explain more completely. So I will answer the question of ‘how did I find you.’”
She seemed to be waiting for an answer, so he said, cautiously, “Thank you, my lady.”
She made a noise that seemed to be the auditory equivalent of a nod, and then, as if he’d broken a script, said, awkwardly, “Very well. I found you from two directions. I had been tracking down some interesting bloodlines, when a path suggested a child that had seemed to simply vanish around the age of twelve.”
Thirteen, actually. But he didn’t want to argue with her when she was telling him something – even if he didn’t quite understand what it was she was telling him. Interesting bloodlines?
“At about the same time, I went to speak to Lee. While Lee himself did not have the temperament or skills I was looking for, I felt certain that he’d be able to recommend someone for me, and he did. Several candidates, as a matter of fact, but you were at the top of his list.”
“So you… you were looking for a certain kind of people, and you found me?” He tried not to sound incredulous.
“Yes,” she agreed.
Why are going around the country looking for whores? he didn’t ask. He wasn’t sure he could get away with another question at all, but he was going to try.
“Are you just going around the country buying people, then?” It sounded worse than he’d meant it to, once it was out, but it was too late to take it back.
“That’s another question,” she scolded him. “But I’ll give you this one and take my recompense later.”
That sounded ominous, but he simply murmured, “Thank you, my lady.”
“As always,” she answered, nearly flippant-sounding. “You are the only one, so far, that I have needed to actually purchase. But yes, I am travelling the world collecting people.”
“…oh.” Why? “Thank you.”
“Mm.” It seemed as if the car was slowing down, and, as it did, the air seemed to get thinner, and thinner. He struggled to breathe, gasping, forcing lungs to move air that seemed as if it was scorching him. He had to get out of the car. He had to get out –
“Ambrus.” Regine’s voice was a sudden gust of winter wind. “You will sit still. Fold your hands in your lap and concentrate on your breathing.”
He had to get out of here. He had – he sat still, not moving anymore than he needed to fold his hands in his lap. His breathing was ragged, shaky, and harsh, raspy, but as he concentrated, it leveled out, slowing. She was going to kill him. Why couldn’t he get away? Even the habit of obedience had never pinned him this motionless. He was going to die.
As quickly as it had come over him, the feeling was gone, and, just a moment later, the car was rolling to a stop. “Good boy,” Regine said softly. “You may move now, and remove the blindfold, if you wish.”
He pulled the blindfold off, blinking into the dim illumination of streetlights. They were, it seemed, on a small residential street, both sides of the road lined with cottages, cabins, and bungalows, all with the lights out; past this street and one intersecting it three houses down, he could see nothing but stars and black sky. It was as if someone had picked a corner of a small-town neighborhood up, and set it down in the middle of nowhere.
Regine had parked in the driveway of a tiny gingerbreaded cottage, the light burning on the front porch. “We’ll set you up in your own place tomorrow,” she told him crisply, “but for tonight, you can stay with me.” She gathered her bag from the trunk and stood by his door, obviously waiting for him to follow. Bemused, he did so.
His own place? A little cottage like hers, or a room somewhere, another closet, or something more sinister? And what would he do with his own place? He knew how to cook, and clean, and grocery shop – Lana, who’d owned him before Ian, had seen to that – but, that was different.
Maybe in the morning he could explain to Regine that he didn’t need his own place. Maybe he could find some way to convince her to keep him with her.
He should have known that she wouldn’t give him a chance. The next morning, he’d no sooner dressed than she had him out the door and down the sidewalk, past bright, cheerfully-colored cottages on tidily-mowed lawns, some of which actually had white picket fences.
He’d been right; the road intersected another one, but the crossroad trailed off into meadow and construction after just a block. Ahead of the intersection, “Main Street” (there was even a sign, just, he supposed, for the sheer absurdity) had three buildings standing, a grocery store and a library right up against each other, and a restaurant/bar across the street. Despite the modern conveniences, and the construction clearly going on further down the road, Ambrus felt as if he’d walked into a Western.
Regine, her hand on his arm, steered him into the bar, and he corrected that impression to “space flick.” He stumbled to a halt, the doorknob still in his hand, and stared, all manners and training forgotten. Was that – no, that couldn’t be a prosthetic, it was moving. And there was no way to fasten those to that bare back!
“What do you see?” Regine asked him, her voice calm and disturbingly level.
“I, uh.” He blinked, and rubbed his eyes with his free hand, before trying to respond. “A beautiful… person,” woman, his eyes said, but his gut wasn’t certain, “with ram’s horns curling out between… um, her hair, and a devil tail. A man with giant indigo bat wings. A girl with green dragon wings and a tail. And a woman with, I think, fox ears.” He turned to Regine. “Mistress?” The word contained all of his confusion in one tidy package that would hopefully not offend.
“I told you we weren’t human,” she reminded him gently. And yet, in looking at her, she seemed human, just – more so, as if the beautiful woman who had bought him yesterday had been refined into the essence of herself.
“Delicious, Regine.” The blonde with the ram horns was approaching them, regarding Ambrus with a predatory hunger he recognized well. “Where did you find it?”
“Leave the kid alone, Mike.” The fighter – his bare chest bore a couple scars, as did his wings, and he looked as if he’d been chiseled rather than grown – was approaching as well. His gaze raked over Ambrus and dismissed him in one look. “You can’t be planning on keeping him, Regine. He’s still a kid.”
“I’m sure we can rectify that soon enough,” his mistress said calmly, before slapping away the blonde’s hand from Ambrus’ cheek. “He’s not for you, Linden.”
“Regine,” the warrior said, his tone – and his mood-getting more agitated, “do you know what this kid is? You can’t expect to just use him…”
“Come on, sweetie.” The woman with fox ears – and auburn hair to match, and a lovely outfit that fit the Wild-West Saloon feel, laced over a lovely body – took his arm very firmly and led him to the far end of the bar.
“They’ll be at it for a while,” she told him. “Don’t let it bother you.” She sized him up with one efficient toes-to-nose glance, and served him a soda from the fountain. “Have you eaten?”
“No, ma’am,” he squeaked. When she’d turned to the fountain, two – two fox tails had wagged at him, sticking out from a tidy hole in the back of her dress.
“It’s Lady Maureen, love, or,” she smirked playfully at him, “Foxglove if you’re feeling friendly. And what should I call you?”
She peered at him, as if waiting for more, but he had none to give her; Lee had allowed him to choose a new name, a fresh start, and the old name was gone with his childhood.
“You are young,” she murmured. “But better young than old, I think.” She patted him on the shoulder. “Go sit down with k over there, and I’ll bring you breakfast while they kargue.
In the front of the bar, the warrior and the beautiful blonde lifted their voice to shout above each other, neither of them making any sense. Ignoring them, or trying to, Ambrus went where he’d been directed.
The round table could seat four. Right now it held two women, sitting across the table from each other and cracking jokes. The girl on the left had fire engine red hair plaited in cornrows and skin a delicate, pale shade of green. The tight hairdo and the short sleeves of her sweater made the gills on her neck, her lack of ears, and the webbing between her clawed fingers very obvious, but he tried hard not to stare.
Looking the other way as he sat down didn’t help much. Perched comfortably on a bar stool that accommodated the bright-green wings and sinuous tail, the tall, slender woman was otherwise human-looking; short, dark brown hair framed an animated, smiling face with almond eyes, generous lips, and a strong jaw. Her olive complexion looked browner against the green of her wings and the royal blue of her tank top, and he found his eyes travelling along her body curiously.
“Hi.” He brought his eyes back to her face in hurry – and her violet eyes, the same color as the tattoo on her far cheek.
“Hi,” he said softly. She was holding out a hand for him, so, feeling slow, he shook it, carefully.
“I’m Keaira; this is Liv. We just got in yesterday.”
“Me, too,” he admitted. “Where…” No, bad idea. His mistress would tell him what she wanted to know. He made an eloquent gesture of self-abasement. “I’m sorry. I’m Ambrus.”
“Well, Ambrus, welcome to…” she looked around, “Mo’s bar.”
He chuckled softly in appreciation of her smile and the playfulness that she wore like a second skin. “Thanks,” he replied, trying to match her tone. “It’s the best bar I’ve been in since… well, ever.”
She grinned at him, clearly thinking he was joking. “Been in a lot of bars, then? Aren’t you a little young for that?”
“No younger than you are,” he retorted, but the blush was coming to his cheeks.
“Well, that’s possible,” she admitted, “although improbable.”
He was still chewing over that when two big, strong hands landed hard on his shoulders. He choked back a yelp, but couldn’t stop his shoulders from going back stiffly, his spine from straightening, his heart from pounding. He wanted to turn around, to scoot away, to say something sharp and confrontational, but he sat there, waiting for the worst.
“I still don’t think you belong here.” The voice matched the scars on his bare chest, and the frown he’d been wearing earlier: deep, firm, and a little unhappy. “But it’s no fault of your own.” The hand on his right shoulder shifted, and reached over his shoulder. After blinking at it for a moment, Ambrus realized that he was supposed to shake the hand.
Ignoring the stifled laugh clear on Keaira’s face – and the equally amused expression Liv was wearing – he forced his body to move, twisting to shake the hand. He didn’t even try for a bone-crushing contest, but he aimed for firm, wanting this big warrior to like him, even if he wouldn’t respect him.
It seemed to be enough. The warrior grinned widely. “Welcome to Addergoole West, kid”.