Interlude: Ambrus

Graduation Day, Year 5 of the Addergoole School

Ambrus watched his daughter graduation dispassionately, watched her walk across the stage with the others, monster and not. He watched his Mistress watch them, and wondered if she'd ever understood what she was making here.

He doubted it. She was brilliant, of course, brilliant in ways he couldn't begin to understand, but when it came to people, she wasn't nearly as bright. She had blind spots, he thought, and seemed to think, as a rule, that people (teenagers!) were good.

Looking at the graduating Second Cohort, it was hard not to surmise that his Mistress was a little bit blind.

He was tense, watching them go by. Not because of the students; the world would take care of them one way or the other now. With his memories restored, Ambrus knew what might be coming next.

(Might be? Part of his brain scoffed at that; Regine was more predictable than clockwork. It was going to happen.)

Did she realize he remembered? He had done everything he could to keep his behavior the same - except where his children were involved, of course. She might not have noticed his tension; she might not have realized that, when Reid had restored his memory, he had restored it to better-than-new condition, everything bright and new and clear.

He watched Ty walk across the stage and receive its Name - Red Sun at Night - from its Mentor to a sniggering audience. Only Ty, VanderLinden, and Ty's former Kept seemed unfazed and proud.

"Go into the world." They were the same words Regine had used last year, of course. "Take with you everything you have learned here, and everything you have gained. Take with you our well-wishes, and the knowledge that, wherever you go, Addergoole will always be here for you."

For a moment, it felt like she was talking directly to him. Then Ambrus shook himself mentally - she'd said the same thing last year, and she didn't know, couldn't know.

She'd know soon enough.

The last student left, and Regine and Ambrus made their stately way back to her apartment. She had to know, had to be able to feel the tension in his shoulders, the hitch in his breath.

She didn't know. She sat down in her chair, and gestured to the other chair, the one nobody but company ever sat in. In his mind, Ambrus replayed the times this had happened before. The same chair, the same body language, the same words.

"You have been serving me very well, Ambrus."

"Thank you, Regine." It was like reading a script. He would miss that.

"I never intended, when I purchased you, to keep you forever."

I always meant to help you grow up.

"I always meant to help you grow up." He was surprised to find there was a catch in her voice. Regine's voice did not catch.

And you will grow up more honestly if you are not my Kept.

"And you will grow up more honestly if you are not my Kept. So I am offering you your freedom. When I first bought you, I started a bank account for you. It has quite a tidy amount, by now…" She was repeating the words by rote, he realized. He'd turned her down enough times that she didn't really expect him to do any differently this time.

He interrupted her. He was fairly certain he'd never done that before. "You're right, Regine."

"…It should be enough to get you… I'm sorry?"

"You're right. I can't grow up while I'm Kept by you. And it may be time for me to grow up. I'm a grandfather, after all." Not to mention a father of more than twenty children. One thing at a time.

She didn't sputter; she'd never do anything that inelegant. But she did stare. "You are… taking me up on the offer to free you?"

He flinched. He was, he knew, a disrespectful, horrible slave for agreeing to this. "I don't want to upset you, and I don't want you to feel like I'm abandoning you. But I think I need some time away from the collar."

"Some time." She pursed her lips and frowned at him, not helping his emotional state. "You mean to return?"

"I'd like to keep the option open, if you don't mind." He cleared his throat and tried not to squirm. She hated it when he squirmed; it made her feel as if she was some sort of monster. "I've been thinking about this for a while, and…"

"You have?" Her frown went through iterations of unhappiness: lack of understanding, memory, the "ah" moment, and then a deeper unhappiness. "Ah. And what did you conclude?"

He managed to make eye contact, but only barely. "I'd like to attend Addergoole for four years, and then college for another four. I don't really know anything except being Kept. After that… Then we can negotiate?"

She was, he could tell, startled. She had an expression, even if nobody but him would notice it.

"Four years." She nodded, already planning. "It shouldn't be hard to make it seem as if you're just an ordinary student. You appear that age, certainly. And you would…"

"Take care of all the graduation requirements, yes."

"Then, with that understanding, Ambrus, I release you."

He wondered if she knew she was crying. He wondered if the beginning of the rest of his life was supposed to feel so much like dying. Then he wondered, in the shrinking part of his mind left coherent, if this was really what it had taken to get her to hug him, to hold him.


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