Slavery, 72

The Things that Happen in Small Towns Are a Nice Change from All the Chaos of Cities

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Techen’s Stand was a quiet little town with sixty-six houses, a cluttered general store, a lopsided grocer, a mostly empty trading post, a blacksmith and farrier that were too loud for Greg to go near, and an inn with six rooms and a big stable with at least twenty horses in it.

He wasn’t sure why Gavin had decided to stop here before going right to the capital, but he had changed his mind after one of his servants had suggested they stay for a few days. Greg didn’t mind; it was a nice town even if it was a bit cold. But it wasn’t what Gavin had said they were going to do when they’d left Pelican Bay. Gavin often didn’t do quite what he said he was going to do, but Greg didn’t think that it was because he was a liar. He just changed his mind a lot.

Sylvester didn’t agree. “I think he gets off on dicking people around,” he said. They were sitting with Roderick at an oak table in the inn, eating a thin turnip soup for lunch. “He’s a good guy, for nobility. But he can’t stop himself reminding us that he’s in charge.”

“Well, he is in charge,” Roderick said, fiddling with his cup. “We aren’t going to forget that.”

“That’s not the point,” Sylvester said, waving a piece of bread. “He knows we’re not going to forget. It’s just about appearances. It’s not because he’s a bad guy.”

“I don’t think that’s it,” Greg said, knowing his voice was too quiet for the loud common room. There were a lot of people in here.

Sylvester looked at him, waiting for him to finish. So Greg swallowed. “I think he just doesn’t worry very much.”

“About what?” Roderick asked.

Greg didn’t know. “Anything. No matter what he said before, or what changes, he thinks everything is going to be okay no matter what. So he doesn’t worry that much.” Owen was like that too. So was Darby. They were all like that. They just felt safe, all the time.

Sylvester nodded as Greg spoke. “Well, you know him better than I do.”

Greg shrugged, wishing it felt like a natural action. “Not really. I’m just guessing.” He shifted in his unbalanced chair, wishing he had a bit more room at the table.

His heart skipped as someone dropped into the seat beside him, but it was only Darby. He’d been so focused on Sylvester and Roderick that he hadn’t noticed him. Hi, he said to Greg.

Greg smiled. Hi. Darby was having a lot of fun going around Techen’s Stand meeting everyone there.

I’m… Greg didn’t catch that next word. Can we go for a walk?

Greg made that sign he hadn’t known back at Darby. What’s this?

“Bored,” Sylvester said. “He’s bored.”

Greg didn’t think Darby was ever bored. He was very good at entertaining himself. Greg nodded. Okay. “I’m going to go with him,” he told Sylvester and Roderick.

“Sure,” Sylvester said. “We’ll be here when you get back if you want.”

“Have fun,” Roderick said.

Greg nodded, and got up to leave with Darby, who happily led him out of the inn. Are you okay?

Darby nodded. You looked like you wanted to run away.

Oh. Greg thought about that. He had been starting to feel crowded and uncomfortable, closed in. Thank you. Darby was so thoughtful.

Darby smiled, pointed east down the road. I found a cool cliff earlier! Come see!

Okay, Greg said. He held out his hand and Darby took it, and they walked down the town’s main road. There were a few people around, natives of the town, talking to each other quietly. None of them paid Greg or Darby any attention. They hadn’t paid any of them any attention, which Greg thought was a bit strange, to be honest. Darby was the only werewolf in the country as far as Greg knew, and they hadn’t reacted to the dragons or anyone else either. They must be very open-minded here.

At the boundary of the town was a tall stone, painted white long ago. Greg wondered why it was there. Its purpose must be to mark the entrance, since there was no gate and no walls, but why not just have a sign? The stone was small enough that anyone who couldn’t see the town wouldn’t see the rock either, so it didn’t do anything. Behind the rock were some wood planks from what had been a house that had burned down a while ago, according to a nice boy Greg had met yesterday afternoon named Matt. Matt had shown Greg around while he was exploring Techen’s Stand, answering all of his questions in detail. He’d told Greg that a house had caught fire when someone hadn’t been watching their fireplace, but nobody had been hurt.

Instead of down the path, Darby took Greg through some prickly bushes that Greg didn’t know the names of, north into the mountains. Greg felt like he’d learned a little bit about the Amaran Mountains at one point in his life, and he knew that there were giant spiders in parts of them. Hopefully they weren’t in one of the parts that had giant spiders, because he had absolutely no doubt that Darby would think giant spiders were the coolest thing ever even if they were trying to eat him.

But there were no giant spiders, fortunately. There was a cliff with a big view of the mountains, and it was really pretty. Isn’t it awesome? Darby asked, after they’d just looked at it for a bit. It’s so big!

Greg nodded, not really sure what to say. It was really…something. It was scary, how big it was. But not in the bad way that other things were scary. It was weirdly comforting. Something that big couldn’t possibly care about him, and if he was too small for it to notice, it wouldn’t try to hurt him either.

Greg didn’t think he could stay out here for long, because even after just a few minutes he started to feel like he was falling, and then wonder what it would be like to fall, and he had to hold Darby’s hand tighter to assure himself that he was still standing.

He was just about to say they should take a few steps back when Darby went tense, and then some birds flew away, and Greg heard a crunch in the snow and turned around. Sully was there with his hands up. He was one of the people who worked for Gavin. He was also a demon, but everyone else didn’t seem to mind that, so Greg didn’t either. And he didn’t seem armed, but he could do magic, which was way more dangerous. “Hey,” he said, signing as he talked.

Darby was behind Greg, so Greg didn’t see what he signed. But Sully signed back, talking as he did, which was good, because Greg was watching his eyes. Sully wasn’t moving much, which made Greg think he was about to jump on them. “I’m not going to take you anywhere. I want to take some of your blood, that’s all.”

Darby growled, and Greg reached for one of his knives. The demons were interested in Darby because he had some kind of power to kill other, worse demons that Gavin had told him even normal demons were afraid of. Even if people said they weren’t the worst kind, Darby was afraid of Sully and the normal demons because they’d kidnapped him before he’d known Owen and Gavin. “Leave him alone,” Greg warned Sully.

“I’m not going to hurt anyone,” Sully insisted. “It’s important.”

Greg was reluctant to take his eyes off Sully, but he half turned, facing Darby. Go get Red Wolf, he said. Red Wolf was what Darby called Owen. I’ll make sure he doesn’t chase you. He didn’t know how to say ‘follow’ in sign, but he had a feeling Darby would understand.

He’s right, Sully said, from over there. Go get him. I should talk to him too.

Darby shook his head. What about you?

I’ll be okay. As long as Darby was okay, it didn’t matter what happened to Greg. But if Sully wanted to hurt them, he would have by now.

Darby hesitated for a moment longer, but then he signed something at Sully where Greg couldn’t see, and ran back towards the town. Greg glared at Sully for a minute, and Sully just stood there uncomfortably. “I’m really not going to hurt him,” he said.

“Whatever you did to him before, he still has nightmares about it,” Greg told Sully, keeping his voice even. “I don’t care if you’re not going to hurt him now. You already did.” It should have been hard. Talking like this to someone should have been hard. But it wasn’t. Not this time. “You took him from his home and you tortured him. He was just a boy.”

Sully looked away. “Yeah. Wasn’t me. But you’re right.”

“It doesn’t matter if it wasn’t you,” Greg said, gut roiling. “You’re all the same. You don’t care about…him. Just what he can do for you.” Greg looked away, keeping Sully in his line of vision. “What are you going to do with his blood?” Greg didn’t know anything about magic or blood, but he didn’t think that demons having someone’s blood was good.

“We’re just going to study it, find out what makes him different from other people.”

“You’re not going to use it to make more of him?” That was what Greg would do if Greg were a demon.

“No. They might try. But I won’t let them.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Look,” Sully said. He wasn’t raising his voice. He didn’t sound angry. “You can hate me if you want. Lots of people do. We’ve—I’ve done horrible things. I didn’t have a choice. I was given orders by people I thought I had to listen to. That’s not an excuse; I still did them. But this wasn’t one of those things. You can hate me if you want, but I promise I’m doing everything I can not to hurt anyone else.”

Greg’s hand was shaking and he clenched it into a fist, trying to make it stop. The rest of him was shaking too, but that was just the cold. “You’re still dangerous,” he said, voice hoarse. “You could hurt people without meaning to.”

“Of course I could. But I’m still going to try not to.” Sully closed his eyes for a second. “Listen, he’s important to you, right? Darby?”

Greg nodded.

“Good. I know you’ll keep him safe, then,” Sully said.

Greg didn’t answer that, but he did put his knife away, rubbing his arms for warmth. A few minutes later, Darby returned with Owen. “Hey, what’s going on?” Owen asked. He didn’t sound worried. He never sounded worried, though.

“He wants to take some of Darby’s blood,” Greg told him.

Sully nodded. “Tabitha hopes that if we get a sample of the kid’s blood, we can learn what’s going on with him without having to poke him too much in person.”

“Who’s Tabitha?” Owen was signing as he talked. He did that so easily, and so did Sully. Greg couldn’t do that. Maybe someday.

“She’s the one who was in charge of the experiments in the Citadel,” Sully said. “I told them I’d come instead of her. I figure he won’t like seeing her.”

Owen nodded, then asked the question Greg was worrying about. “And what else is Tabitha going to try and do with Darby’s blood?”

Sully smiled. “That’s what Greg wanted to know. Nothing. She’s just going to study it to see what she did when she was experimenting on him. Look.” He held up his hands, but only for a second, because he was signing while he talked. “I’m just the messenger here, okay? I didn’t know about the experiments when they were happening, and they were fucked. Tabitha sucks. But she’s also the only one who knows what’s going on. Or can learn what’s going on.”

Greg didn’t like him. But he also wasn’t sure he thought Sully was lying. He wasn’t sure what to think.

Darby’s ears were flat, and he signed something really fast—he talked slower when he was talking to Greg. Greg only saw the word ‘blood.’

She won’t, Sully said back, more slowly. She’s just going to look at it.

Owen sighed. He sounded annoyed. “It’s your responsibility to make sure she doesn’t do anything with the blood except for these tests,” he said. “If I find out she used it to replicate what she did to Darby on someone else, or that she tried to do some magic on him with it, I’m going to kill her.”

Darby smiled at that. Greg didn’t, but it made him feel better. Whoever this Tabitha was, Greg would help Owen kill her if she used Darby’s blood to do something terrible. Especially if she was the person who’d hurt Darby in the first place.

Greg wanted to stop killing people. He didn’t want to hurt people anymore. But this was one exception he was willing to make.

“Yeah,” Sully said. He didn’t seem worried about the threat. “I figured. I’ll stay with her the whole time she’s doing whatever, and I won’t let her do anything else. Promise.”

Owen took a minute, but he turned to Darby, face unreadable. What do you want to do?.

Darby was mostly looking at Sully. Do I have to give him my blood?

No. But if you do… Greg didn’t get the rest.

Darby stood there a minute. He looked lost. He looked scared. He looked like he felt like he was falling off the cliff forever and ever, just waiting to hit a bottom that hadn’t yet come. He’d rescued Greg earlier when Greg had started to feel overwhelmed. Greg wished he knew how to do that for him. All he could do was go over and touch his shoulder. Darby looked at him and smiled, like Greg had done something special. Okay, he said.

Sully came over with a big needle that hurt Greg’s stomach to look at. Greg held Darby’s hand, and Owen held Darby steady. Darby squeezed Greg’s hand hard, clearly trying to stand still as Sully poked him with the needle, using it to fill up a glass vial with blood.

And then it was done. Sully touched Darby’s arm and the poke disappeared. Thank you, he said to Darby. Go eat a cookie before you get… Something. Darby had lost blood, so probably weak, Greg thought.

Darby nodded. Tell your evil friend that if I see her I’m going to bite her. Greg couldn’t help but smile at that. Darby was trying to make Sully—and Owen, probably—think he wasn’t afraid.

I will. Sully stepped back, and then he disappeared.

Greg really didn’t like that there were people who could just disappear or appear whenever they wanted.

Owen moved around in front of Darby. You want to go see if they have any cookies in the inn?

“They sell sweets at the general store in town,” Greg said quietly. He’d seen some when he was in there yesterday with Matt. “Let’s go there.” That way Darby could have something but the poor boy who ran the inn all on his own wouldn’t have to bake a batch of cookies.

“Sure,” Owen said, and they headed back into town together.

The general store was small and there were things on all the shelves, which Greg knew was the point of a store, but he still found it a bit much. Fortunately, there was nobody in there right now except for a young boy with curly hair who beamed at them when they came in. “Welcome!”

Darby perked up as if he’d already had his sweet, going right up to the boy to say hello. Greg went with him, to interpret. Hi! I’m Darby! He didn’t actually say that, he called himself something that Greg hadn’t yet been able to translate.

“He says hi,” Greg told the boy. “This is Darby. I’m Greg. We’re looking for some candy for him.” Yesterday Greg had had to leave the store when the girl who’d been here had asked him if he needed anything. But this was different.

“Sure!” The boy smiled at them, and led them over to a shelf. Things were stacked haphazardly, but they were all similar things. “These candies are made right here in Techen’s Stand, and they’re delicious. Here, you can have the first one for free.” He picked two small yellow candies up, holding them out. He popped one right into Darby’s mouth, and tried to do the same for Greg, but stopped when Greg held out his hand, putting it in his palm, fingers brushing Greg’s.

Greg ate the candy. It was really sweet. It’s great! Darby said, tail wagging. Thank you! Can I have some more?

“He…” Greg moved the candy to the side of his mouth, because not all of them could easily talk with their mouths full. “He likes it. Can we buy some?”

“Of course you can.” The boy kept smiling. He smiled a lot. Matt had smiled a lot too. Everyone in Techen’s Stand did. They were all really friendly. “That’s what a store’s for. You can have free samples of the other kinds too if you want.”

“Won’t you get in trouble for giving us so many?”

The boy shook his head, his curls bouncing. “My parents run the shop. I’m Robby, by the way.”

“Hello, Robby,” Greg said. “It’s nice to meet you.” And Greg was surprised to realize he actually meant it. Maybe it was the candy, but Robby’s smile was infectious. Darby was watching Robby’s hair like he wanted to touch it. Which he probably did. And probably would. Greg kind of wanted to touch it too, but he probably wouldn’t. But maybe he could watch Darby do it. If he was brave enough to ask. He knew Darby would let him if he asked.

Robby nodded. “You guys seem really cool. You want to hang out later? My mom’s coming to take over the shop soon, so I can leave.”

That would be great! Darby said, once Greg translated. We’ll all have fun together!

Maybe they even would. Maybe they could have fun together and forget about what had just happened. Greg would like that. He’d like it if they could just be together for a while.

He liked Techen’s Stand, actually. It was a nice little town. It was too bad they couldn’t stay here longer.

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2 thoughts on “Slavery, 72

  1. Nice job jinxing it, Greg. Before, it was merely probable that your group’s stay would be extended due to trouble with the local mind-raping cult. Now it’s practically guaranteed.


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