Xac laid on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. There were sixty tiles there. He had discovered by lifting the rugs and peering under the bed that the wooden planks that made up the floor ran down in twenty narrow rows, but they were much longer than they were wide. They weren’t all the same length, but by his best count there were eighty of them.
There were sixty tiles on the ceiling and eighty planks in the floorboards. There was a zero at the end of each of those numbers, and Xac wondered if that meant something, but he couldn’t figure out anything it could mean. It had to be a coincidence, but it seemed important, because Xac had to make things important to occupy his mind.
He was beginning to think things that he feared he could believe, if left to his own devices. He was beginning to wonder if a person could make another person hear them just by believing hard enough, by concentrating as hard as they could and trying to send a message to someone, for example, to their mother. Mothers were supposed to have intuition, to be able to know things about their children that they should not know.
But if it worked there was no indication. She didn’t try to send any sort of message back. Still, even with all the evidence against him, Xac was afraid he could find himself believing things which were not true.
Tick tick tick went the clock in the sitting room.
Agalon had said that he would be back in the evening, so Xac was trying his best to wait for the sun to set. If he could make it to sunset, he would be alright. He would likely be more than alright. Agalon was nice to him; he was the only person here who was nice to him. He’d probably get him drunk again. He was apparently buying new furniture because Xac was here. Xac thought that the wardrobe had belonged to his old pleasure slave, and that whoever that was had destroyed it by carving those strange marks into it. Xac was worried he was going to destroy the new furniture. He still had a couple of weeks before the moons would be full, but he needed to bring it up. He couldn’t get drunk and forget. He needed to tell Agalon that he couldn’t control himself as a beast. He had to make a point to do that.
There were six pedals on each flower, and sixty flowers on the ceiling. There were three hundred and sixty pedals.
He loves me.
He loves me not.
If he counted each flower individually, he always got the same answer.
He loves me not.
He turned his head to look out the open window, and saw the sunlight still streaming into the room.
He loves me.
He loves me not.
He looked back to the ceiling and counted, individually, every petal of every flower, starting from the upper-left corner of the room and moving to the right, then down and back again, three hundred and sixty times.
Tick Tick Tick was the rythem of his counting as he spoke aloud.
“He loves me. He loves me not. He loves me.”
Three hundred and sixty petals.
Real flowers that grew from the ground, almost always had an odd number of petals. But odd numbers were not aesthetically pleasing. It was prettier for background elements in architecture to be symmetrical, to have an equal number of petals on each side, regardless of where the decorative flower was divided.
“He loves me. He loves me not.”
Because every flower was the same, with no variation, as if they had been made from some sort of mold, every flower gave the same answer, including the very last one, tucked away in a corner on the far side of the room.
“He loves me not.”
Xac frowned. He was afraid that, if he let himself, he would start to think that decorative pictures of flowers could be used for divination. He scooted back a little, sat up against the pillows, and looked at the paintings Agalon’s late wife had made. Each flower there had five petals.
“He loves me. He loves me not. He loves me. He loves me not. He loves me.”
Xac smirked and turned to look out the window.
She sun was still shining.
He turned and looked at the empty space on the bed that had once held Agalon’s clothes. They had all been taken away, silently, by the two men who had moved the wardrobe while Xac and Agalon ate their lunch. Xac had eaten another salad, and was beginning to wonder if he was ever going to eat anything other than raw produce. But that was fine. At least it was good. Everything was fresh, pretty, and perfect.
Eighty wooden floorboards. Sixty ceiling tiles. Three hundred and seventy petals, if he counted the ones on the pictures.
One boy in a room meant to house two people.
He looked back to the window, but the sunlight still streamed in.
“Little bunny foo foo,
Hopping through the forest
Scooping up the field mice
And bopping them on the heads,” Xac sang in an attempt to entertain himself. He thought that there was more to the song, but he couldn’t remember it, so he tried a different rhyme:
“The itsy bitsy spider
Went up the water spout
Down came the rain
And washed the spider out…” That one also had more to it, but he couldn’t remember it. He couldn’t remember anything. He thought isolation was, perhaps, making him stupid. Normally if he couldn’t remember something he would ask someone, but now there was no one to ask. He only had what was already in his mind. And he knew so little. He should have been more curious, but ‘curiosity kills the cat’- no, no there was more to that, too.
He couldn’t cobble together many thoughts from half-remembered nonsense.
So he stared up at the ceiling and began to count again.
But he knew the answer.
It was sixty.
When the sun disappeared below the horizon and was replaced with the shadows of twilight Xac jumped from the bed and headed to the mirror. He smoothed out his clothes until they looked, to his mind, perfect, then picked up one of the combs from Agalon’s vanity. He moved it to his hair but paused. Something was shimmering.
Xac picked out the golden hairs that clung to it and stared at them.
They didn’t feel the way he expected they would. They were significantly more coarse, and he frowned in puzzlement. Xac knew that his hair was softer than most people’s- Agalon was not the only person to comment on it- but the elf’s hair had looked almost like fabric when he had seen it splayed out on the pillow. It wasn’t abrasive by any means but… Xac’s was softer. Maybe it was because he had so little of it. Maybe it felt better in a lock.
There was no wastebasket in the room, so he walked to the water closet and threw it into the toilet. He didn’t know what else to do with things one was supposed to throw away.
Then he set about the task of combing out his own hair- and found that it wasn’t tangled at all. It fell into place instantly. Of course it did. He hadn’t actually done anything. He hadn’t moved very much at all, hadn’t tousled it over the course of a workday, hadn’t taken a hat on and off, hadn’t sweated into it or run his hands through it to get that sweat out, hadn’t felt the need to scratch his scalp or pull his hair away from his head to relieve the heat.
He hadn’t done anything.
There was no hair to pick from the comb, so he put it back in the container with the rest of the objects and went to look out the window.
People were moving from the fields, presumably toward their homes, and the kitchen was lit in the dim evening, presumably from that huge fire he had seen burning his first day in the house.
No one noticed him.
It was almost dark. Where was Agalon?
He turned his gaze skyward, watching the stars blink into existence, but he wasn’t concerned with them. He was concerned with the moons.
They hung in the sky, very close together and almost the same size. One was brighter than the other, a stark white, while the other, a little dimmer, was the color of silver. Many people thought the moons were beautiful, but Xac knew what they were. Xac knew what the moons could portend.
Tick Tick Tick said the clock.
Click went the door to the sitting room.
Agalon was home!
Xac darted from the window and stood beside the bed with his hands tucked into the groove of his lower back and listened to the sounds coming from the sitting room. Seconds ticked by and he began to wonder what was happening, why he hadn’t opened the door yet, hadn’t let him out yet. He couldn’t remember what he had done the night before, but Agalon hadn’t acted as if he was angry during their lunch together.
He was moving around in the sitting room; Xac heard his footsteps, much heavier than any of the slaves, even Mrs OfAgalon. He thought he could identify people by sound alone, but what if he was wrong? What if it wasn’t Agalon, but some slave who had come to clean, or to bring up their dinner? His shoulders fell.
Slowly he took a step forward, then another, until he was standing before the door. He leaned forward and pressed his ear to the wood.
Tick tick tick went the clock.
Swish went something that sounded like fabric.
Scrape went the sound of wood against carpet.
Click went something that Xac was unfamiliar with, then a swishing sound, then a tapping, and he could not understand what Agalon was doing.
He steeled his courage, and spoke in the cutest, most needy voice he could manage.
“Master?” He asked.
“In a minute, Honey Bunny,” Agalon said like a person pretending to be pleasant. Xac imagined that he thought he hid the strain in his voice.
“Sorry,” Xac said, but he did not move.
There was more tapping, then a different sort of tapping, as if someone were impatiently tapping their fingers against a wooden surface. Then a scraping, as if someone had moved a chair over a carpet. Then, the sound of Agalon’s footfalls.
Xac’s eyes shot open and he hopped backwards, hoping that he hadn’t just made a huge mistake as he watched the doorknob move, heard the clink of a key sliding into place, and watched the door slide open.
Agalon smiled sweetly at him, and Xac tried his best to match the emotion presented on his face, to smile back.
“I’m sorry, darlin, I got some stuff I gotta take care of before dinner.” He spoke as he approached Xac and gently cupped his face, “Can you be good for a little bit longer?”
“I’m sorry I bothered you,” Xac said earnestly, leaning into the only touch he had felt since Agalon had left him hours ago, “I just… wanted to see you.”
“That’s sweet, Honey Bunny,” Agalon chuckled, but he seemed distracted, “Actually… why don’t you come on in here? It might help me to have somebody to talk to.” He stared down at Xaxac and tilted his head, “Or, you could be a big distraction.”
“I’ll be quiet!” Xac promised, “I won’t do anything.”
“You don’t have to do anything to be distracting, darlin,” Agalon laughed again, but Xac felt as if he wasn’t supposed to.
Instead, he pouted. He tried to look as pathetic as possible; he was trying to channel a neglected pet, but he wasn’t sure he had pulled it off. He had never had a pet and had little more than his instincts to guide him.
“Alright, come on,” Agalon smiled, “I can’t say no to you.”
He ran his thumb under Xaxac’s eye, moving in gentle tiny circles, before he turned and walked back into the sitting room. He had thrown his cape over the chair at his writing desk, and that is where he sat. Some papers had been laid out on it, with lines going in both horizontal and vertical directions to create little rectangles. A lot of the rectangles had little squiggles in them, going from the upper left outward, but those near the bottom right were left empty.
“Come and sit next to me,” Agalon said as he sat down, and because Xac saw no chair he took a seat on the carpet facing the desk and laid his head against Agalon’s thigh.
At least the desk was something new to look at, something he hadn’t seen before. He listened to the same sounds he had heard before as Agalon stuck a quill into an inkwell, tapped it against the side to remove the excess ink, and began to write.
The desk had three drawers directly in front of Xaxac, each with a little metal pull knob that was so shiny he could see himself in them. He hadn’t sat on the floor very often since he had moved to the big house, and the action reminded him of the way he and his sister used to sit in front of the fire while their father would tell them stories. He wondered if Agalon knew any stories, but he knew he had to be quiet.
Tick Tick Tick went the clock.
Scrape Scrape Scrape went Agalon’s quill.
“Do you wanna know what I’m doing?” Agalon asked.
“I don’t want to bother you,” Xac whispered. The room was so still that it felt like a quiet time, like he wasn’t supposed to speak.
“You’re not bothering me, darlin,” Agalon reached down, ran a hand through his hair, and scratched at his scalp. “The season is starting up here soon. I gotta get these books done before the first match.”
Xac understood about every third word he had said, and it must have showed on his face because Agalon clarified, “For the cage fighters. I’ve got a side business. I run a team of cage fighters.”
Xac nodded as if he understood, but he very clearly didn’t.
“If you can prove to me that I can trust you,” Agalon smiled down at him, “I’ll show you. Maybe I can take you with me when I travel.”
“Take me with you?” Xac asked excitedly, “Travelin? Like, to town?”
“First match is in Basilglen,” Agalon said, but Xac didn’t know what that was. He thought, from the inflection and context clues, that maybe that was another word for town.
“I’d love to go!” he said, “I promise I’ll be really good! I ain’t never done no travelin before!”
Agalon laughed, then stared down at him with a soft, comforting smile.
“Everything is so exciting for you,” he said, “You’re so young and cute. You ain’t got a care in the world.” He scratched at his scalp again, then scooted his chair out. “Come here, sit in my lap.”
Xac hopped up and into his lap in one motion, then squirmed, turned, and kicked his legs over the arm of the chair to lean against the other arm. He wrapped his arms around Agalon and cuddled into his chest.
“You said we were gonna have fun when you got home,” Xac said quietly, “But I… I gotta tell you somethin.”
“What you got to tell me, Honey Bunny?” Agalon asked and moved his left arm to support Xac’s back while he took up the quill again with his right and began to write.
“Here in a couple weeks,” Xac said, “I’m… I’m gonna shift. It just happens. I can’t control it.”
“I’m lookin forward to it,” Agalon smiled, and Xac realized that he was squiggling inside the boxes, filling them out in a specific order moving from the left and top to the right and down.
“I… I really can’t control it, though,” Xac emphasized, “I… you gonna have to tie me down- actually, you can’t even tie me down no more; I can get outta them. You gonna have to chain me up.”
“You want chains?” Agalon’s grip tightened, his eyebrows shot up, and his pen stopped moving. He seemed to have stiffened as if he was angry, but he didn’t look angry, he looked interested.
“So I don’t tear nothin up,” Xac explained, “I’m a monster. You gotta chain me up so I don’t tear nothin up. If you buy new furniture and whatnot and I tear it up I won’t never forgive myself. And you’ll hate me.”
“I ain’t never gonna hate you, Honey Bunny,” Agalon squeezed him, pulling him closer to his chest, in a hug, then relaxed his grip, “But you want chains I’ll get ya some chains.”
“Thank you!” Xac hugged him back, but when he leaned back to sit on his lap as he had before, he found he had difficulty getting comfortable. Agalon had something in his pocket that was at exactly the wrong angle.
“Stop squirming,” Agalon told him, not exactly sternly, but despite the playful manner in which the command was delivered, Xac suspected that he meant it.
“Sorry,” Xac leaned his head against his shoulder.
“Chains…” Agalon repeated and dipped his quil into the ink again, tapped it, then seemed to change his mind. He let go of Xac’s back and reached for a cloth, cleaned the quill, and set it into the groove of the desk.
“I can do this in the morning,” he said, “You hop up, darling. I’ll go ring for our dinner.”
Xac stood to let him up and watched him walk out of the sitting room, then he heard a bell chiming from the hallway. He looked down at the thing Agalon had been writing, and noticed that many of the squiggles repeated. They were written a little differently from the others, and he thought that if, perhaps, he had had more time, he could have worked out what the pattern meant.
But then Agalon was back, and he wrapped his arms around Xac from behind. Xac leaned into the affection and giggled.
“I know that new people make you skittish,” Agalon said as he cuddled Xac to his chest, “So I think I should warn you that a pageboy will be bringing out our food, rather than Nancy.”
“Who’s Nancy?” Xac asked.
“The housekeeper, darlin, you know her. You told me she hit you.”
“Oh,” Xac said and wiggled until he was facing Agalon and could play with the fabric of his tunic, “She makes us all call her ‘Mrs OfAgalon’.”
“Don’t that get confusing for you humans?” Agalon asked, “Ain’t a lot of you gonna be Mrs OfAgalon?”
“That’s what I said!” Xac laughed, then he absorbed the information Agalon had just given him and asked, “Why ain’t she comin if she was supposed to?”
“Cause she ain’t here, Honey Bunny,” Agalon said, “I sent her off to be reprimanded.”
“Reprimanded?” Xac asked.
There was a knock at the door and Agalon leaned back to yell, “Come in!” but did not stop cuddling until he saw that it was a slave boy holding a tray who had turned to pick up something that looked, to Xac, like a folding table. He also had two bottles of wine strapped to his back with a sort of belt. The sheer amount he was carrying seemed impressive to Xac, especially given how small he was.
“Just set it down on the table,” Agalon said, “I’ll serve myself.” He slid a hand to the small of Xac’s back and began to lead him towards the table.
The pageboy was around Xac’s age; Xac watched him with interest as Agalon pulled out his chair and he took a seat. Xac knew that he often complained about people moving slowly, but this boy moved at a pace the overrode ‘annoying’ and went straight into ‘infuriating’. Xac tried not to get aggravated with him, though, because he seemed to be doing his best. He grimaced when he put weight on his left leg, and he seemed to move slowly because moving at all caused him pain.
“You’re Jimmy, ain’t you?” Agalon asked as he took his seat. “I told the cook to send Jimmy up. I wanted to talk to you.”
“Yes, master,” Jimmy said, and Xac connected the name to the boy his sister had spoken of. This was the boy he had made fun of, the one who had dropped a tray of glasses and been beaten so badly for it that he had been permanently disfigured. When Xac had said that a person should have ‘been able to hold a glass’ he hadn’t thought of a tray the size Jimmy was currently carrying. When he had seen that tray, loaded down as it was, he had been impressed that he could hold it, along with the table, and walk up three flights of stairs without spilling anything. That was a skill. A skill that would have had to have been learned. It was absolutely within the realm of possibility that any normal person would drop it before they learned what they were doing, especially a child. Mrs OfAgalon was crazy.
“I did some interviews earlier today,” Agalon said conversationally as Jimmy unfolded the little table he had brought with one hand, then gently, carefully, slowly lowered the tray onto it. His movements told Xac that he would never drop another tray. That was a lesson he only needed to be taught once. He began to take things off of it and arrange them on the table, moving around it as he did so to stand behind and to the left of the person he was closest too. It bothered Xac that he was letting someone do something for him when it was obviously hurting him, but he thought that if he got up to help it would insult everyone. Jimmy would be angry that Xac thought he needed help, and Agalon would be angry that he had done something he hadn’t been told to do. So he sat there with his hands folded in his lap, hating the thing that was happening around him as much as a person could hate a thing and still allow it to happen.
“I was told,” Agalon went on, “that when you was younger you broke a whole collection of wine glasses during a ball I was havin for the mask festival. Full glasses. Cost a fortune.”
Jimmy paused with a covered dish still in his hand that he was about to set in front of Xaxac, and for that brief moment they locked eyes, and Xac knew that they were thinking the same thing.
But there was nothing either of them could do about it.
“Is that right?” Agalon asked. “You ain’t in trouble; I’m tryin to run some numbers. I mean, don’t do that, it ain’t great, that shit is expensive. They ain’t givin glass away. What are we, the Fire Colony?”
“Yes, master,” Jimmy admitted, “I did.”
“Your leg hurt?” Agalon asked, glancing down, “Looks like it hurts. You know what you look like? When I was on active duty, I saw fellers on the field with broke bones who still had to run for their lives. You look like what they looked like before they got to healers.”
He seemed to want some response to this, so Jimmy sat the dish before Xac and considered his words carefully.
“I can manage,” he said, “I know I… folks say I move slow, but I promise I’ll speed it up. I ain’t… I get everything done I’m supposed to.”
“Uh-huh,” Agalon said, “So that happened a few years back. I’d say you only get about half the work done you could.” He tapped his fingers against the table and said, as if Xac and Jimmy would know what he meant, “Bitch has cost me a fortune in property damage. You ain’t the only one. Alright.” He spoke as if he had made a decision, “I’m having a vet brought in and you’re all getting checkups. All of you. Nip this in the bud right now. I didn’t spend money on humans for her to smash them up. Do y’all fight in captivity? I mean, I know you do, I’ve read about it, but I didn’t think my humans did that. No more fightin. I catch anybody else fightin I’m sendin them off for reprimandin. Not here, not among yourselves for no reason. Y’all can kill each other like that. I want it to end. Now.”
“I ain’t never been in a fight!” Xac promised, “I ain’t never started nothin! I’m a good boy! You can ask anybody who knows me!”
“I know you ain’t, Honey Bunny,” Agalon smiled at him, then, to Jimmy he said, “That broke, you healed it wrong, and then walked around it it. You grew with it healed wrong and now one of your legs is too short. We’ll have to go and break it again, set it, stretch it, and give you a bunch of potions or somethin, but a week or two and we’ll put an end to this and you can pull your weight.” He turned back to Xac and said, “I was a medic, during the war when we took the Water Colony.”
“You’re… going to fix me?” Jimmy asked as he set the dish before Agalon, then came in with his glass.
“And anybody else,” Agalon said, “Tell me this kinda thing from now on. I need to know what goes on in my own goddamn house. This is ridiculous.”
“Yes master,” Jimmy said, and Xac could see how hard he was trying to contain his joy, “Thank you master!”
He set the two bottles of wine on the table with a huge smile.
“That will be all,” Agalon said, so Jimmy gathered up his tray and his folding table, and moved slowly out of the room.