Chapter 26: KailaniDiscuss
I'm lookin' for me
You're lookin' for you
We're lookin' at each other
And we don't know what to do
The corridors outside the Dining Hall were still dark, and weird noises still echoed in the distance; Kai didn’t argue when Conrad took her hand. Neither did she talk to him as he guided her back to the residential floor, and then past the dorms into an area where she hadn’t yet been.
The store was clearly labeled - a large neon sign reading “The Store” hung over double-wide doors propped open with verdigris-copper fish statues. Inside, a weird combination of grocery store and department store stretched out in three directions; to add to the confusion, some areas had been converted to two-story sections with the addition of loft platforms.
To the right was a small grocery store- did the older students have kitchens in their rooms? To the left was a far more cluttered area that looked mostly to be furniture and housewares. Directly ahead of them were jewelry counters, stocked with a selection ranging from cheap-and-pretty beads to diamonds and sapphires.
Conrad led her down the center, still holding her hand, past rings and bracelets and watches and silly little gauds, to a case she’d never seen in a department store.
Collars. Mabina really hadn’t been kidding. Filling the whole case, hanging on the wall behind, dangling from a nearby coat tree. Steel and leather and gold, plain and tagged and jeweled, pet store and neo-industrial and fine jewelry.
She was staring. She swallowed hard and walked up to the case, finally glancing over at Conrad.
He looked as pale as she felt, and he was frowning down at her. She frowned back at him – it wasn’t as if this had been her idea, after all.
“Say something,” he pleaded.
“You got us into this,” she replied, not caring how snotty she sounded. “And you’re supposed to understand how this works. Why were you surprised when Mabina sent us here?”
He gulped softly, looking down at that case. “They’re symbols, right? Not the thing itself, and not necessary to it. Not every Keeper puts a collar on their Kept.”
“Then why,” she mused, “did Mabina send us here for one?” She wondered if she was brave enough – or angry enough – to confront people she was lucky to have as friends with that question.
“I’m not certain,” he said slowly, frowning, and then admitted, sounding very reluctant, “I have an idea, but I’d rather not say.”
She was surprised at the acerbic tone in her own voice when she replied “You said you wanted to start telling me things. This seems like a good place to start.” Feeling amazingly brave and still startlingly angry, she added, “spill it.” He was unlikely to stop talking to her now over a little snottiness.
She regretted the words and the thought immediately, as he flinched as if she’d slapped him. He’d told her “You physically can’t disobey an order given to you by your Keeper if you are Kept,” but she wasn’t sure she’d believed him. Not until the words were out of her mouth, and he was standing in front of her with a hurt look on his face and a jerkiness to his words as if they were being dragged out of him – which, she supposed, they were.
“I think Mabina-and-Cassidy think that I’m working an angle,” he said, and, before she could ask him what he meant, he continued, “a scam. Doing this for my own benefit.” He shrugged awkwardly, as if to avoid agreeing with that concept without actually denying it.
“Trying to get the benefits,” she almost choked on the word, “of slavery,” and that word came out oddly high-pitched, as if her body was trying to whine like a dog and, at the same time, regurgitate the horrible word; she hurried on before her voice betrayed her, “with none of the drawbacks?”
He nodded mutely, his lips closed tightly as if trying to keep more words in. As loquacious as he was, it had to be hard. She couldn’t help her next question; she needed to know.
“And are you?”
He didn’t say anything for a moment, just looked at her, fidgeting and flexing his fingers one by one.
“Yeah,” he acknowledged quietly, “I guess I was.” Before she could figure out what to say next, he continued hurriedly, “Could we finish this later, in your room? After you,” he gulped, and smiled bitterly, “collar me? It’s pretty public here.” She almost missed his discreet gesture towards the corner of the display, where a tiny hidden camera winked at her.
Feeling as if she were in a spy movie, she feigned indifference as best she could. “I suppose,” she shrugged, “we should do things in the correct order, right?”
“You make it sound like a formula,” he complained, but she thought he was relaxing a little bit.
“That’s how I manage things,” she told him, “step by step. And besides, isn’t that what Mabina-and-Cassidy were doing?” She imitated his use of one long hyphenated name, and found it strangely proper-sounding on her tongue. “Weren’t they walking us through this process one step at a time?”
“I guess they were.” He sounded surprised by the idea, and a little indignant. She was going to have to ask Mabina-and-Cassidy a lot of questions. At least the nerve to do so was increasing the more curious and more indignant she got. He shook his head. “So, what now?”
“I’ve never done this before,” she reminded him; “have you?”
“No,” he shook his head. “I dodged the bullet last year.” He smiled at her, with just a little of his customary grin, inviting her to share in the joke, and she managed a little smile back at him. Then he shook himself, and looked back at the counter. “Now,” he said, his voice sounding strange, “I think you pick out a collar for me.”
She looked at the selection. “How?” she asked, knowing it for a silly question as she asked it, but asking it anyway.
“I…” he shook his head. “I can’t tell you, Kai.” He spread his hands wide, palms-up. “My preferences aren’t Mabina-and-Cassidy’s preferences,” he grinned, finally, “and they’re certainly not yours. And, uh, well… I’m yours now.”
“You’re mine.” She tasted the words on her tongue, and found them bitter and a little sweet. “This is absurd.”
“It is,” he agreed, “but it’s what we’ve got.” He set his hand on the glass case, and she looked through his fingers at the collars beneath it.
Some of them were obviously feminine, too small and too delicate for his neck. Some looked made to humiliate, or to restrain, thick, heavy metal bands and leather things hung all over with rings. She tapped the counter over a slim steel band, something that could almost - almost, but not quite – be a necklace.
Conrad glanced down at the collar she'd chosen, and grimaced slightly. “Kai?” he asked, “You do realize that this is a locking collar?”
“I realize,” she assured him; it was only when the words were out that she recognized the complaint in his offer of information. She tried to find something to say, some way to explain why she thought that was appropriate, but she wasn’t sure herself if it was just spite, and…
“Can I help you?” The cheerful voice came around the corner before its owner did, and Kailani jumped, dismayed that she’d failed to see the corner, hidden as it was behind a coat-rack of collars.
The owner of the voice was a slender, boyish girl who reminded Kailani, fancifully, of an animated twig-doll; her limbs were long and thin, almost starved-seeming; her hair was long and black and glossy, and even her smile on her thin face was long and narrow. Aside from a certain gaunt lankiness, she had no apparent Changes; Kai didn’t recognize her from any classes.
Conrad, apparently, did. “Hi, Lydia,” he greeted her, with such sudden warm brightness that Kai turned to look at him. His grin was back, cocky and self-assured as if he hadn’t been staring anxiously at the collars a moment ago.
“Hey, Conrad. Collar shopping?” Her smirk took in Kailani in a way that made her shiver, the kind of meat-market look she had been raised to expect from boys, but not from other girls.
“Yep,” he agreed easily, “and I think we’ve settled on one. Kai?”
Not sure what game he was playing, or even if he was playing a game, she nodded at the girl and tapped the case again. “This one.”
She looked startled. “That one?” She unlocked and opened the case, and pulled it out – a slim pinkie’s-width of stainless steel, bare, unadorned except for the key sticking out of the lock. “It seems a little masculine for you.”
It was cold to the touch as she took it from her, but warmed quickly. “I’ll take it.” She reached for her purse with her free hand, and the girl shook her head.
“It’s all on account here. Just tell me your name, and I’ll enter the price of it into the system.”
She frowned. “But how much does it cost?”
She shrugged “Who cares? Your parents are paying for it all.”
She cared a lot, but resolved to deal with it later (so many things stacking up in the “later” pile!), and told the girl her name. The collar “paid for,” she turned back to Conrad, whose smile had a brittle quality to it.
He didn’t say anything. The silence was so strange for him that she worried for a brief moment, stupidly, if it was really him.
Lydia cleared her throat impatiently, and both of them jumped, and chuckled, embarrassed. Kai looked back to the collar, to Lydia looking pointedly at her. She blinked, and looked up at Conrad. “Wait,” she said, a frown growing, “did she think…?”
He nodded, and she scowled, angry again. “Now I know why Mabina wanted me to put a collar on you,” she muttered, as much to herself as to him.
“To be fair,” he said smoothly, “it’s a natural assumption. And every man in three cohorts and a third of the women would Own you if they could, Kai.” He touched her arm lightly; his fingers were chilly. “You're brilliant, Kai, and beautiful to boot.”
She exhaled loudly in his direction. “I-” She needed to do this. “I need to do this now.”
He nodded, with a tiny smile, and bowed his head. Behind the counter, Lydia made a soft, unclear noise, but Kailani had no room to pay attention to her.
Her chest felt as if she were under an immense weight, and she struggled to keep her breathing even. “This is the strangest, most disturbing thing I have ever done,” she said, more to herself than to the man in front of her. The lock opened easily, and she wasted a moment looking for the hinge mechanism and failing to find it.
She was stalling. She had to do this. She looked into his lying blue eyes, lifted his curly ponytail off of his neck with her left hand, and slid the collar around his neck with her right hand.
The collar locked closed with a tiny sound, almost inaudible, and she pulled the key out and dropped it, carefully, in an inner pocket of her purse. “You promised me answers,” she said, her voice harder than she’d heard it before, foreign to her ears and strange. “Let’s get on that.”
Copyright © 2009-2010 Lyn Thorne-Alder & Elasmo. All rights reserved.
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