Cynara’s finger pointed without hesitation. “Her. Channing.” She looked a little startled at her finger, then back at Abaddon, then back at the girl in question. “Her,” she repeated. She was more firm this time. “I —” She turned away from him, looking at Zita and Howard and Leo. Her friends.
“Thanks. I will owe you one, when we are our own people.” He couldn’t promise, but he imitated the phrasing he’d heard from people who could.
She wasn’t listening anymore, already turned to Howard, but he thought he saw Zita nod in approval at him.
Then he was moving on, hurrying, stepping up until Channing could see him.
Prickly, approved the Other. Abaddon agreed. She looked soft, cute, girl-next-door, and then you remembered that if the girl-next-door did gymnastics or cheer or, god help you, field hockey, she could hold her own weight up on one hand and could probably kick your ass.
He might be about to find out how much of his ass she could kick.
“I need a favor.”
“You, or your Keeper?”
“Me. Her. Uh. Both.”
“Well, spit it out. I’m listening.”
“I. Uh. Baby. That is, it turns out she’s my sister. Half-sister—”
“Oh, shit. Yeah, that happens…. oh.” Channing looked at his face. “And she’s freaking out? Or you are?”
“Both? Uh. But it doesn’t really matter if I am. She’s — she needs — she said I needed to find someone else to carry the baby.”
“And you picked me? Why?” Brusque didn’t begin to describe it.
He didn’t want to get Cynara in trouble. “One of the other first-years can Find — well, I guess they can find things? They said I should try you.”
“Ask me in— shit, you’ve got one of those bullshit orders, don’t you?” She shook her head. “All right. My price. I want you. I don’t need you collared but I want you to protect me for the rest of my time here. And I want you to provide the seed for my babies, too. Whether or not we’re related. I hear you’re prickly too.”
He hadn’t said that out loud, had he?
He was pretty sure he hadn’t said that – “Oh.” She’d dropped her Mask, showing off a change that looked something like a porcupine but not quite. “Blowfish?” he guessed. “That has to suck for anyone who tries to grab you. Or prank you.”
“It did.” She sounded grim but proud. He decided that was fair. “But someone managed to grab you.”
He flushed and looked away. “She, uh. Didn’t have to try hard.”
“Pretty girls don’t, usually.”
“You’re pretty!” It was out of his mouth before he thought to consult his brain, and he couldn’t even blame the Other.
“You’re not really selling your case here.” She gave him a small smile anyway. “So. Relay that deal to your Keeper, see what she says. She agrees — and you agree — then we’ll do this.”
“Just like that?” Why was he questioning it?
“Weren’t you listening? I asked for three years of your service — and I want your answer on that before you take it to your Keeper. I mean, if you can even consent, can you?”
“I don’t know. I mean.” He shook himself. “Yeah. I’ll serve you. Once – once this year is over, I want to write out what it means. But this year, I think I ought to be under a collar. I don’t have the – ha – the prickliness all the way under control yet.”
“Hey, that can be a good thing. I kind of like being randomly pointy. All right. Relay that to your owner and we’ll see what happens. Okay?”
“You seem really blase about this.” Was it really that easy? Seriously? He owed Cynara more than just a potential favor, if he was going to get out of this quite so easily.
“Well, the way I’m going to look at it, I get my ‘graduation requirements’ taken care of without having to hunt someone down or trying to hunt me down — some people here really can’t take a hint. And I get you keeping an eye on me for the rest of my time here.” She looked at him with something kind of quirky that might have been meaning to be a smile. “It’s easier for me to be blase, too, than think too hard about it. Especially with a mood signal on my forehead, just like you.” She tapped one of his bone spikes. “You’re okay with this?”
“I need — yeah. Yeah, I can handle being your bodyguard for three years. Even with a collar.” He touched his collar. “Just uh. Don’t kick me out, and don’t try to make me change my, um, mood swings, okay?”
He felt guilty. Gennie had done what she needed to. She really had.
But it had sucked, and all of him was in agreement about that.
“We have a deal. If Gennie agrees. Well?” She shooshed him away with both hands. “Go ask her! I’m sure those stupid orders are pushing at you.”