Mindgames Ch. 29

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Double Penetration

Chapter 29: Revelations

The Bearer took seriously the threat Vaughn had made to Gabriel, although both Pomona and Landon swore that they had not asked any of their friends to seek revenge on their behalf. They just wanted everyone to forget their shame. Nevertheless, they could not control the actions of others. The Bearer nodded sympathetically. After all, they were the victims here.

He increased the guard on Gabriel again and extracted promises from him not to leave their presence except in the safety of private quarters. The Bearer also assigned protection to Animal. Knowing that he would not be able to find anyone to safeguard a slave without resentment and backlash, he ordered Mariah not to wander alone. He was satisfied with reports that she had cut down her time in the stables and was no longer riding by herself. He was puzzled, though, that instead of spending more time with Gabriel she seemed to be following the painter about. He shrugged to himself. That, at least, was not his concern.

? ? ?

The aromas of simmering fish stew and slowly roasting herbed vegetables pervaded Gabriel’s apartment. Half-dressed after his shower, he glanced in the mirror, forcing himself to look at himself with a physician’s eye. His weight had returned, as had his strength. He nodded, satisfied, and put on his shirt. He opened the window shade and glanced at the blue sky. The rainy season would be over soon.

He went to the kitchen to stir the vegetables, and then looked at the saddlebags scattered on the living room floor. He picked up a pack of tent poles, weighed it in his hand, and sighed. If he were traveling alone he could make do with a couple of tarps and replace the tent with more books. Just today the librarian had shown him a manuscript on the spread of epidemics that . . . He shook his head. He wasn’t traveling alone.

He made a mental note to have Mariah practice setting up the tent until they were both sure she could do it on her own if need be. He sighed again. No doubt she would prefer to work with Stefan on that. For a brief moment he allowed himself to wonder how he and Mariah could travel together when for she could barely bring herself to look at him. And he had no one but himself to blame.

? ? ?

Mariah, Master Animal, and Rose, burst through the door to Gabriel’s apartment, laughing. Rose tried to explain to Gabriel about the attempt of the new apprentice to draw an apple, and how it had looked like a pair of breasts instead, but she kept dissolving into giggles. Mariah surreptitiously looked Gabriel over, as she was in the habit of doing. He seemed tired but not unwell. Satisfied, she went to set the table.

At dinner Gabriel talked about the benefits of dried fruit versus beef jerky as travel food. Mariah was no more successful than Master Animal or Rose at showing interest, and less successful at looking remorseful about it. Gabriel eventually gave up, and the conversation turned to the panel of the mural that Master Animal and Rose were planning.

They had just finished eating when there was a knock on Gabriel’s door. Mariah and Rose hurriedly cleared their place settings to hide evidence of four diners instead of two.

Master Animal opened the door. Master Stefan came in, carrying a sack in each arm. He glanced at the saddlebags on the floor and said to Gabriel, “You’ll have to choose at least one more book to leave behind.” Gabriel frowned, but Master Stefan was already beckoning to Mariah. He handed her one of the sacks. “I want you to try everything on. I used my cousin for sizing, but of course I couldn’t tell anyone who they were for.”

Mystified, Mariah reached into the bag. She pulled out a pair of tan riding pants with leather at the seat and the knees. Confused, she gave them to Gabriel, even though they were far too small for him. He looked just as baffled as she was.

Master Stefan took them back from Gabriel and put them firmly in Mariah’s hands. “You don’t expect to run around naked in Harmony, do you?”

Mariah stared at Master Stefan, until Gabriel hit his forehead with his hand. “Of course she doesn’t. I should have thought of it.”

Suddenly Mariah understood. She took a step back, still holding the trousers, overwhelmed. On the night that she had begged the Bearer to allow her to accompany Gabriel to Harmony, he had asked her what would become of her there. She had answered truthfully that she did not know. Now Master Stefan had brought the answer, and Gabriel had confirmed it. She would live as a human.

She stroked the cloth. Her eyes filled with tears.

Rose picked up the two sacks by their handles, and took Mariah by the hand. “Come,” she said. “I’ll help you.” She led Mariah into her bedroom. While Mariah stood uselessly, Rose laid out the garments on the bed. Another pair of riding pants, darker than the first. Two tunics, long-sleeved but of a lightweight fabric. A jacket, raingear, underwear, socks, shoes, pajamas.

Rose reached Sahabet into the second sack and pulled out a pair of riding boots. The black leather was inlaid with intricate patterns, but the boots were sturdy enough that they might last for years.

Mariah picked them up and inhaled the smell of the leather. They were beautiful. They were hers.

“There’s more in this bag,” Rose said. She pulled out gauzy forest green fabric. When she shook it out it took the shape of a dress. The underlayer was a smooth, stretchy material. The overlayer was fine lace. Rose held the dress against herself and turned to look in the mirror. She twirled a little, and the skirt flared.

Mariah saw the longing in her eyes. “Oh, Rose,” she said, “You take this. Come with us.”

“You know I can’t,” Rose said. “I belong here.”

“We’ll make Master Animal come too,” Mariah said fiercely. “If he loves you . . .”

“No,” Rose said. “We’ve been over this.” She put the dress on the bed. “It’s not my time to go.”

She reached back into the bag and pulled out soft leather slippers dyed green to match the dress, a lacy white bra, and flimsy panties. “Try them on,” she said, putting them next to the dress.

Mariah had no trouble with the bra and panties, but she had no idea how to put the dress on. She had never had an owner who required help with dressing, and she had certainly never put any clothes on herself. The layers swirled and she ended up with her arm in the headhole.

Rose pulled the dress off of Mariah and guided her head and arms into the correct openings. When Mariah shook out the dress the fabric dropped to just above her knees in front and tapered a few inches lower in the back. The feel of it made her skin tingle.

“Now the shoes,” Rose ordered. Mariah slipped her feet in. She had no idea what shoes were supposed to feel like, but these seemed to be a reasonable fit. She had a vague recollection of Master Stefan telling her to step in heavy mud at the stables, giving some reason Mariah had thought strange at the time. Now she understood he had been measuring her feet.

Mariah looked at herself in the mirror. The green of the dress matched her eyes. Its cut was modest, with a sweetheart neckline just below her collarbone and sleeves that covered her shoulders. Clever, Mariah thought, hiding the worst of her scars. But the stretchy fabric of the bodice was skintight and smooth.

The lace skirt swirled when she moved, startling her. “What was Master Stefan thinking?” she asked. “I can’t wear this on the trail.”

Master Stefan himself appeared in the doorway. “No,” he said. “It’s for when you arrive at Harmony.” As he came into the room he looked at Mariah and stopped short. He swallowed and cleared his throat. “You will be representing Riviera, after all.” He cleared his throat again, then held the door open and gestured for Mariah to go into the living room.

“Oh my stars,” Master Animal said when he saw Mariah. He immediately reached for his sketch pad and began to draw. Master Gabriel merely stared at her, his mouth half open. Rose put a hand on Mariah’s shoulder and gently urged her to turn in a slow circle. Master Animal’s hands flew over his sketch pad. Master Gabriel didn’t move an inch.

“I think you’ll do,” Master Stefan said drily. “Try on the rest of the clothes.”

The trousers and tunics were reasonable fits, if a bit loose. Master Stefan instructed Mariah to start wearing the boots in the apartment as much as she could to avoid blisters later. He turned to Master Gabriel, “I didn’t plan to give her spurs, but if you think she’ll need them on the journey . . .”

Master Gabriel didn’t answer. He simply continued to stare at Mariah.

? ? ?

“It’s not true, you know, what they say.”

“What?”

“That all your friends have abandoned you.” Yana, the Bearer’s wife, gave Gabriel an imperious look. “There you go again. Ever since you reappeared you’ve been looking like the nightwatchers got your favorite housegirl.” Gabriel shuddered. “Of course, from what Delarus tells me, the nightwatchers did nothing of the sort. In fact, your favorite housegirl rescued you from the nightwatchers, or some such.”

Gabriel managed a weak smile, wondering why Yana had summoned him. The Bearer had told him that while Gabriel was gone she had stopped taking her herbs, and had locked herself into a bedroom suite, allowing neither human nor slave to enter. After twenty-four hours, just as the Bearer was ready to break down the door, Yana emerged, pale and smelling of vomit. She had touched no drugs, medicinal or otherwise, since.

As if she were reading his thoughts, Yana said, “Yesterday evening, Delarus was holding court and the children were fighting, and I had a headache that I thought would make my brains explode. I sent my housegirl to get me some blue lotus. Do you know who talked me out of it?”

Gabriel shook his head.

“It was Diana’s boy, Turbo.” She grimaced at the memory. Sahabet Giriş “He was wily. I never once reached for my whip, and before I knew it I thought that sending for rosemary tea instead of the lotus was my own idea.” She leaned towards Gabriel and took both of his hands in hers. Fixing him with a look as powerful as he had ever seen the Bearer give anyone, she said, “You did that, Gabriel. Just in this one household, all the lives you’ve changed. Whether you’re a pervert, as some say, or just a fool, as others say, you will always have my gratitude, and my friendship.” She leaned back, and her smile softened her insult.

Gabriel inclined his head. “I thank you.”

Yana snapped her fingers, and a houseboy brought a tray of fruit and a pitcher of water. Yana picked up a grape, examined it, and put it back down. “Diana was overjoyed when you came to see her yesterday,” she said.

“She didn’t let on,” Gabriel said drily, remembering the almost catatonically cold reception he had received from her, the same reception she had given him every time he had sought her out over the last few weeks.

“She’s young. She doesn’t understand yet that the world doesn’t revolve around her.” Yana picked up the grape again and this time ate it. “Will her brother come home, do you think?” She asked the question casually, as if the answer meant little to her. Before Gabriel could respond, she shrugged. “Not if he has any sense, of course. Why would he come back to parents that would let their daughter remain a cripple?”

Gabriel frowned. “She’ll soon be walking without crutches.”

“I know that!” Yana snapped. “Because of you. Because Tobby knew that we could never turn down the grand gesture he made by going all the way to Harmony, that he manipulated you into making by coming all the way here.” When she saw Gabriel’s face she laughed bitterly. “Really, Gabriel, do you think we have no healers here with your skill? Oh, I grant you, you have a rare way with people, of getting us to do what you want. But, as you’ve said, Diana had no spinal damage. It wasn’t a miracle that made her able to walk. It was simply the will to do so.”

Yana was right, Gabriel knew. Riviera was not devoid of competent healers. It was hubris to think that he was the only one who could have helped Diana. But the truth was, he was the only one who had helped her. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Delarus is the Bearer. He could have commanded the best healers to work with her.”

“He did,” Yana said. “At first. But when the word came that Diana would be paralyzed, he believed it. He never looked deeper.”

“Why not?”

“Surely you know the answer,” Yana said. Gabriel shook his head. “He was ashamed. Ashamed that his son had goaded his daughter into taking a stupid risk. Ashamed that his daughter had taken it, and failed. Ashamed that she had been injured. Ashamed that she didn’t get up and walk it off. Ashamed that if the healers came here every day they would see how he lived, the chaos of his household.” Her voice became hoarse. “Ashamed of me.” She poured herself some water and took a sip. “He let that shame rule his judgment.”

Gabriel took in what she was saying. The Bearer was a complicated man, focused, brilliant, deeply knowledgeable, sometimes wise. Certainly proud to a fault. He remembered that when he had scolded the Bearer for not asking him to treat Yana’s addiction, the Bearer had responded that she would not want Gabriel to see her in that state, to carry tales back to his people. But Yana had never exhibited any embarrassment. It was the Bearer himself who had been embarrassed.

“That’s why he’s been encouraging me to leave soon,” Gabriel said. “So that people will stop claiming he invested his trust in a pervert.”

Yana nodded. “He is genuinely concerned for your safety here,” she said. “But yes, out of sight, out of mind.” She blinked. “You do want to leave, don’t you?” She put her hand on his. “I’m sure your father misses you as much as I miss my own son. But if you want to stay . . .”

“No!” Gabriel said. He laughed ruefully. “Your husband and I are agreed. It’s time for me to go, whatever the reason.”

“He is a good man, you know,” Yana said. “No one would think the worse of him if he left me, but he stays. Despite what I have become.” Her voice was hoarse.

“He stays with you because he loves you,” Gabriel said.

Yana shook her head. “I’m not the woman he joined with years ago. I’ve let care and pain and wrong turns wear me down.”

Gabriel could see that history in her, but he also knew her as a woman who had been defeated and was laboriously fighting her way back, step by step, day by day. “The reverse is true as well,” he said. “Delarus is not the man you joined with either. The years change us.”

“The years made him powerful,” Yana said. “When we started out together, we were both feeling our way, learning about the world. Delarus kept growing, in skills, in knowledge, in savvy. And I fell by Sahabet Güncel Giriş the wayside. It’s not possible for the man he has become to love the woman I have become.”

“Don’t you think you should let him decide that?” Gabriel said. He gave her a gentle smile. Then, suddenly, he startled and blinked as if he had just made a surprising discovery. “Let him decide,” he repeated. He stood up. “I need to go.” But he stopped himself. “Tobby didn’t manipulate me,” he said. “I jumped at the chance to come. I wanted to be a hero, and I wanted adventure. And I wanted to leave myself behind, to start over.”

“There are all kinds of ways of starting over,” Yana said, “no matter where you happen to be.”

“Yes,” Gabriel said. “And I think it’s time for me to do that now.” He practically ran out of the Bearer’s chambers.

? ? ?

Master Animal was manhandling Mariah as Rose watched. Finally he put Mariah’s hand on her hip and lifted her chin a fraction of an inch higher. “There,” he said. “Keep that annoyed expression on your face for a while, will you?”

Mariah broke into a grin. “You’re useless as a model,” Master Animal grumbled. Nevertheless, he sketched her, looking from her to his easel and from the easel to the section of the mural where eventually her image would appear. Rose, working on the easel next to his, did the same.

After a quarter of an hour or so Master Animal glanced past Mariah. “Her fidgeting is about to get even worse,” he said to Rose. “I think we’re done for today.”

Turning, Mariah saw Gabriel on the other side of the room, half-walking, half-running towards her. His guards trailed him.

“Is something wrong, Master?” Rose asked as he neared them.

Gabriel ignored her. “I really need to talk to you,” he said to Mariah, still panting from his exertion. Barely waiting for her nod, he took her by the elbow and led her to the exit leading outside. As he opened the door he said to one of the guards, “Can you leave us, Philip? I want some privacy.”

“You know we can’t do that,” Philip said, expressionless.

Master Gabriel sighed and looked around. “Will you come back with me to the apartment?” he asked Mariah. She nodded, curious and a little worried. She could feel the tension in his hand on her arm.

As they skirted the mansion Gabriel didn’t exactly ignore the people they passed, but he nodded absentmindedly at both their greetings and their sneers.

“It’s a nice day,” Mariah ventured, still trying to gauge his mood.

“Mmm hmm,” Gabriel said. “I wonder what color Animal would call the sky.”

“Cerulean. And Rose would say it’s azure.” When Gabriel didn’t respond, Mariah added, “But personally I think it’s green.”

“That sounds right,” Gabriel said. Mariah made no more attempts at conversation.

They took a back corridor to Gabriel’s apartment, and then waited until Master Philip gave the all clear. Gabriel closed the door almost on Master Philip’s face.

He turned to Mariah, then turned abruptly away. He walked over to the couch and sat down. He put his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands. Mariah, unsure what to do, stood awkwardly.

“There’s something I have to tell you.” Gabriel didn’t look at Mariah. There was only one thing Mariah could think of that he would be hesitant about saying to her — that he had decided not to take her with him to Harmony. She understood that that made no sense, but she grew increasingly nervous as he remained silent.

Finally, he put his hands in his lap and sat up straight. Staring at the floor, he said, “When I was a slave, I whipped the housegirl. Kevra was her name.” Mariah waited for him to continue, but he was quiet. Finally he looked at her. “Do you understand?” Mariah shook her head. He stood up. “I whipped her! I did it to avoid my own punishment!”

It took Mariah a moment to understand that this was what it had been so important for him to say to her. She almost laughed, but he seemed so distraught that she bit it down. By instinct she reached for his hand. It was hot and clammy. “Slaves whip slaves all the time when they are ordered to, Master,” she said, as soothingly as she could. “It’s a common mindgame.”

Master Gabriel jerked his hand away. “You don’t,” he practically hissed. “You’d take a beating yourself before you’d hurt another slave.”

Now Mariah pulled back. “You’re wrong,” she said evenly.

“I saw you!” Master Gabriel said. He spoke slowly, enunciating each word. “That morning, after the revel when I was drugged. The man you gave a blowjob to told you to whip his housegirl, and you refused. You said you don’t whip slaves.” He drew a deep, shaky breath. “And he started whipping you instead. If Animal hadn’t come along . . .”

Mariah interrupted. “I knew Master Animal was there,” she said. Her face was suddenly hot. “I had seen him. I was showing off, pretending to be tough. But I knew he would rescue me.”

She watched Master Gabriel take this in. “It doesn’t matter,” he said after a moment. “Even if he hadn’t been there, you would have taken the punishment instead of beating that housegirl.” He looked away. “You’re so much stronger than me.”

“That’s what you think?” Mariah said. Master Gabriel nodded.

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