Fifty years in the future, Pennsylvania:
In the sunlit warmth of her office, Kai studied the reports for the month. They’d admitted two new students, one of whom, the son of a maple farmer from the Green Mountains, had come with a crate of maple syrup to pay his tuition. The other would be working her way through school, which was good; they’d had three work-tuition students graduate and their labor force was a little slim.
It was nearly time for Mayoral elections down in town again, and, as always, they’d unofficially sent her the list of candidates for approval. She’d have to go into town and meet them this Sunday; the Methodist church was holding their annual potluck dinner. She still wasn’t very fond of big social events like that, but a certain amount of mingling was required by her position.
She couldn’t just leave all of it to Petra or one of her grandchildren, either; she’d tried that for a couple years, but people had grown uncomfortable. The Dean of the School was important because the School was important; it was, in a very real sense, the reason the town still existed, after the War, after the bleak times that had come on the heels of the war. If the townspeople couldn’t see what the School was doing, couldn’t see and talk to the Dean, they got nervous.
They’d get more nervous, she imagined, as it came time when she’d have to “retire” and pass things on to her “successor.” And that time would be coming soon; she’d been living here in this town since before the War. No amount of henna could explain away immortality.
She’d retire next year. She’d been telling herself “next year” for several years now. Any one of her oldest four grandchildren could take over, at least for a few years, long enough for her to retire, pass on, and come back as someone new. But she didn’t like change, and she didn’t like giving up control. The school was hers, damnit, and she’d put decades of work into it.
And all that will come crumbling down on your head if you make people deal face-on with the fact that you’re inhuman. Like an old friend, the dry voice in the back of her head was always there to keep her honest.
She could step down at Christmas. Pass it on to… well, that was the question, wasn’t it? Probably Ellory, who seemed to have gotten the best mix of the gene pool, or Tempest, who seemed to be the inheritor of the “Storm” mantle. She could talk to them over dinner next week… This week. Or it will be January again and you’ll still be stalling. Tonight.
She heard the boots on the floor before the knock came at the door, and shook herself out of her funk. “Come in,” she called, old habit setting one hand on the gun under her desk even though the School was as safe as anyplace in the world these days.
The student that popped her head in was blissfully unaware of the gun, or of Kai’s gloomy thoughts of retirement. “Dean Storm?” she asked, smoothing her academic robes (they kept one warmer in the autumn and winter) nervously. “The delivery is here, and the man insisted he needed to talk to you personally.”
“The western or the southern route?” She was already standing; her curiosity wouldn’t let her not go.
“Western, I think. The horses are shaggier.”
“Very good. Thank you…” Kai dug in her memory for the name, “Rachel.” A package directly from Addergoole West could be anything, especially if she was expected to handle it personally. “Please try to find Petra, and send her down to the courtyard as well.”
“Yes, ma’am.” She darted back into the hallway, heading, Kai assumed, for one of the Associate Dean’s customary hangouts. She was a quick girl, and Faded, with a tiny bit of talent; it wouldn’t take her too long. Kai took the long and stately route down to the courtyard to give them time.
She didn’t move any slower than she had at fifteen; joint pain and old age would be a long time in coming for her, if they ever did arrive. But she had an image to maintain and so never, outside of her personal rooms, moved like a young girl. One more reason to retire; her mind provided; wait long enough to not be suspicious, and you can “die” and come back as a young girl again. Swim again. Run again. Dance…
She shook her head as if to dislodge that thought, and finished her slow descent down the stone staircase. This riser was chipping; she’d have to have Petra Work it fixed when she had a moment.
She unlatched the lock and pulled the heavy door open. If she had timed this correctly… yes, on the opposite side of the courtyard, Petra had pulled open the other door. The carter would notice her first, lush and exotically lovely and still looking twenty-five.
The twinge of jealousy at the thought surprised her. Mmm, and yet another reason, her mind chuckled. Come back at seventeen or twenty and the boys will be looking at you again. And this time, you might have the presence of mind to be able to enjoy it, hrmm? Whatever the ghost of Moonchild would have had to say on the matter, Kai had found, over the decades, that men, fathers, lovers, boyfriends, and sons, were far from superfluous.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that they were no longer living in a modern age. That strength and aggression that twentieth-century feminists had seen as barbaric holdovers, things to be discouraged and bred out, were handy to have around when monsters roamed freely and technology could no longer solve everything.
Matter at hand. Not the corded muscles of the carter, showing under his short-sleeved shirt, but what he had in his wagon. And while he was distracted by Petra’s charming smile and charming everything else, Kai could prepare herself for whatever it was she had been sent.
The wagon held mostly the usual crates: books, trade goods, foodstuffs hard to get now on the east coast, some durable manufactured goods. And one large crate, just under three feet in all dimensions. Not all that unusual a size, but the woods was hardwood, tightly constructed, and it was padlocked shut. This was very likely the reason she’d been called down to deal with personally.
“Ah, Dean Storm,” the carter called, just as Kai was about to murmur a questioning Working. “I see you found the special delivery. I have paperwork here for you to sign, direct from Herself back in the Western School.”
“All right, thank you, John.” She took the paperwork for him – handwritten on vellum, more like a contract than a bill of lading, with two copies that appeared identical – and read both copies carefully.
In signing this contract, the grantor, Dr. Regine Avonmorea, passes over all rights and responsibilities of the contents of the crate marked R-M-F-DK-7191979 to the grantee, Dr. Kailani Storm, such rights and responsibilities to remain in the possession of grantee in perpetuity, or until the contents of the crate R-M-F-DK-7191979 (henceforth referred to as “Gift”) are granted in turn to another responsible party.
In signing this contract, the grantee, Dr. Kailani Storm, accepts all rights and responsibilities to the Gift, in perpetuity or until she signs over custody of the Gift to another responsible party.
Both contracts were identical, both signed on the line marked “grantor” in Regine’s tidy and perfect script. Kai frowned at the crate. The size of the crate, the phrasing in the letter, made it rather clear what this “Gift” was, but provided no explanation for why Regine would be sending her such a present.
“No backsies,” the carter told her firmly. “This one’s a deliver-or-destroy. I can’t afford the extra grain to carry it all the way back to the West; that sucker’s heavy.”
Deliver or destroy. She stared at the package for a moment, and then signed her name on both contracts and passed one back to the carter, ignoring the shimmer and pop of air around her as her pen lifted off the paper. “I’m sure Petra can help you get that into the elevator,” she said, hoping she sounded casual. “Petra?”
“Yes, ma’am,” her assistant and bodyguard grinned. “Into your office, then?”
“Into my suite, I think,” she corrected. She wanted the thin protection of Sanctity against prying eyes, as well as the thicker protection of stout walls and heavy curtains and a courtyard-facing window, when she opened this crate.
She made her stately, elderly way back up the stairs, deep into the school complex to her suite. She closed the shutters and the curtains, flipped on the living room lights, and left the front door open for Petra. Their town wasn’t the only one on the east coast with electricity, but, thanks to a well-planned and very well-built small hydroelectric plant, they were one of few. The lightbulbs were harder, though; at the time of the War, there hadn’t been a single factory in the US still making them. This was worth the waste, though.
She’d just gotten all that settled when Petra stepped in, hauling the crate with her arms wrapped around the sides of it. “Geez, what did that woman send you, anyway? Lead bricks?”
“More toxic and probably less useful. Close the door, please, and throw the lock”
“Top secret lead bricks. Great. Sure you don’t want Ellory here instead of me?”
“I’m sure.” Ellory was brilliant, of course, but with none of Petra’s wild strength.
“Your funeral.” She shrugged, threw the lock, and leaned against the door. Whatever was in the box would have to go through her to escape – but escape wasn’t really what Kai was concerned about.
The padlock was a two-key affair that Akatil had created; Regine and Kai held the only keys to four identical locks that, while not “unpickable” (there was no such thing) were difficult to pick without magic. They’d shipped things back and forth locked thus any number of times over the years; this time should have been no different, but Kai found her hands were shaking as she opened the lock.
Age, her mind taunted her, inaccurately. She’d known from the moment she’d seen the shipping box what had to be in it. She just didn’t know why her former Mentor would send such a thing to her.
“Give me a hand with this?” she called to Petra. The crate lid was heavier than reason suggested it should be; she could barely budge it on her own. Of course, her assistant lifted it open with no effort. That’s not age. That’s sheer genetics. Age is how she looks good doing it.
“A statue? All this work for a statue?” Petra peered into the crate curiously. “And why a statue of someone folded all up on themselves with their knees to their chin? It looks damn uncomfortable. Though I guess it explains the padding.”
Indeed, the inside of the crate was thickly padded, making the inner space even more claustrophobic. But… “That’s not a statue.” For one, no-one would wrap hawthorn around a statute. For another, she recognized the face. Her heart pounding faster than it had in years – all these decades later, she still remembered his arm wrapped around her throat – she leaned into the crate and plucked out the small brass disk. “There’s an illusion covering him, to make him look like a statue. And, I think, another spell to force him into a semi-comatose state.”
“Him? Who? Woah. Who the hell ships people cross-country in crates?” The person in the crate was now much more visibly a person, an Ellehemaei, his breathing slow but steady, his skin black as midnight.
“My former Mentor. I need gloves.” She headed into her bedroom for her leather winter gloves. With those, she could handle the hawthorn without poisoning herself.
“Kai! Kai, he’s moving! Should I hit him?”
“Not unless he gets out of the box,” she called, hurrying to slip the gloves on. “You might break something.” Either her hand or his skull, and she didn’t want to wager either way.
“Hey…” Petra’s voice had changed tone. “I know who this is.”
“It’s possible,” Kai admitted. The man had stood, and was blinking at them groggily. He was thinner than she’d ever seen him, his ribs showing as lines of shadow against his black skin. Portions of his skin – and he was naked, so it was all visible – where the hawthorn had clearly been rubbing, were a pussy mess of startlingly pink sores.
“What the hell did he do to her, to get treated like this?”
“I’m hoping he’ll tell us. Go get Tempest, please. Make sure to close the door all the way behind you.”
“Are you sure? My mother said he could be kind of scary.” She eyed the man thoughtfully. “That’s not all she said, but you’re probably not that interested in the rest.”
Since you’re old, and all. Easy to guess what Mea would have to say about him, isn’t it? “Maybe later. Tempest will be able to help him heal, at least somewhat. And I’m in no danger.” She wasn’t absolutely certain that was true, but it at least was somewhat likely to be accurate.
“All right.” She glared at the slowly-awakening Ellehemaei. “If you hurt her, I’m telling my mother.” It was an absurd threat on the surface, but Petra’s mother could be a truly terrifying woman when she bent her mind to it.
“Her mother?” he croaked, when the door had slammed shut behind her. He looked, Kai decided, a bit amused, although that could just be memory overlain on the dehydration he had to be suffering.
“Mea. Stay there. I’m going to get you some water.”
“Mea, hunh? Been a long time.” She had her back to him, but she heard the surprised grunt as he discovered he couldn’t move. “What the hell?”
“I was hoping you could tell me that.” She returned with a mug full of water and handed it to him, standing just close enough that their hands could reach each other. “Regine mailed you to me in a shipping carton.”
“The last thing I remember is…” He paused and shook his head, looking down at the hawthorn still encircling him. “That bitch.”
“Hold still and I’ll get that off of you.” It had been a long time since she’d Owned anyone. Not many who were suited to it had survived the War, and she herself had no need or fondness for holding someone else’s will in her hands. But she remembered the look of indignant frustration as he, quite unwillingly, held still.
“You’ve never been Owned, have you?”
“I haven’t,” he admitted. “Nor owned anyone, since Mea.”
“It’s been quite a while for me, too.” She focused her attention on the thorny vines encircling his wrists , waist, and throat, ignoring his face for a moment. “It’s around your ankles, too,” she added, a little uncomfortably. She didn’t want to bend down into the crate, to bare her neck to him like that, much as it embarrassed her to admit it.
“I can get those, if you’ll let me move.”
“My gloves won’t fit you.” It was a thin excuse to avoid the inevitable; she couldn’t keep him standing in the crate forever.
Well, she could, but she wasn’t that sort of person.
“I’ve got so much of the crap in my system, a little more isn’t going to hurt.”
“You can move, then.” She stepped back out of reach as he bent down to free his ankles. “What did you do to her, to get yourself in this situation?”
“Pissed her off.” He held out the broken vines, and she gathered them all up for disposal.
“Clearly.” She looked him up and down. “You’re in pretty bad shape. Can you Mask?”
“Probably?” He shut his eyes for a moment, and his Mask flickered up.
“You look the same as you did when I met you.”
“We’re immortal.” He looked her up and down much as she had him. “You, on the other hand, look old.”
“We’re really not immortal. We just have a very long lifespan. Some of us.” Accuracy required her clarify, but she wasn’t surprised to see his expression get grim. People did that when she got pedantic, even after all these years.
“Are you dying?”
“I don’t look that bad,” she snapped, although she knew that to be untrue. Her earlier thoughts came back to pester her. “Yes. Probably around February.”
His expression got strange and constipated-looking, a look readily identified as running into the bond, and she realized what he must think she meant. “You don’t get off the hook that easily.”
“So who are you going to will me to?” He eyed the shipping crate sourly. “Someone local, I hope.”
Disingenuity had never become something she was comfortable with. She checked the door to be sure it was still closed and dropped her mask. “I was thinking of leaving you to myself. I’m retiring at the end of the year, and leaving the school to my grand…” -son? -daughter? Decide later. “-child.”
“Ah, nepotism. The Addergoole way.” He shifted, as if to move towards her, and stopped again. “Can I get out of this thing?” He sounded angry that he was asking, and she didn’t really blame him. He was, she decided, no less frightening with his mask up.
Okay, being scared of the man you now Own is not only foolish, it’s going to cause both you and him pain. Get over it, woman. You signed the papers. He Belongs to you.
“You Belong to me,” she repeated.
“Yes, I know,” he grumped. “Can I get out of the crate… mistress?”
“No need for that. It sounds silly and will just attract attention.” And he sounded angry saying it. She didn’t want him angry. Cut that out. “Yes, you may. Are you sure you can?”
“It’s a box, Kai. I can-” He swayed unsteadily and set both feet back down. “Damnit.”
“It’s a long trip between Addergoole West and here.” She stepped close to him, draping his arm around her shoulders and wrapping her arm around his back. “You’ve been comatose, starving, and hawthorn-poisoned for at least a month. Let me help you.”
“I don’t have a lot of choice in the matter, do I?” He leaned more of his weight on her than he probably wanted to admit, and stepped carefully out of the crate.
“None,” she agreed. Once his feet were on the floor, she turned to look at him, their arms still around each other and her nose just inches from his. He smelled pretty badly – no surprise there – but at the moment, she didn’t mind. “Now.” She was surprised to find she was smiling.
“Now?” He, too, was smiling, and looked just as surprised about it.
“Now, I think you'd better tell me what you did to Regine.”
Copyright © 2009-2010 Lyn Thorne-Alder & Elasmo. All rights reserved.
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