Is this your first trip to Xren?
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A note from candicame

Hey guys!  I'm back with another chapter!  If you like it, let me know!  And if you don't, let me know how I can improve!

Xaxac had developed a routine, and this routine gave him hope. He had begun to believe that he wasn’t actually expected to do any cleaning, that he would be forced to lie around and stare off into space all day, but he was overjoyed when he awoke one day to find that someone had left him all the supplies that Mrs. OfAgalon had promised him the first day he arrived.

He was delighted and wiled away hours meticulously scrubbing down everything he was allowed. He thought he remembered all his instructions reasonably well, and he found, as he wiped the grime from the dressing mirror, that he was disgusted with himself. The cloth came away gray, and Xac hated that he had been forced to live in such filthy conditions.

But no longer! Now he could scour every inch of the furniture, and when he was finished with that he could take the paintings off the walls, dust them, and then scrub the walls themselves. He had to pull the chair away from the vanity and stand on it to get the corners, but even then he wasn’t able to reach the ceiling tiles with their sixty flowers and three hundred and sixty petals.

So he took a broom to them and realized that in the future he should do that part first because the dust that fell onto him got everything else dirty all over again.

Which meant that he would have to clean it all over again.

Which meant that he had something to do for the next few hours.

Xaxac was lying on his back scrubbing the bottom of the bed frame when the blessed signs of dusk appeared. The last rays of the sun filtered in through the open window and the sounds of the kitchen preparing dinner drifted up to him.

He was starving for the first time in a long time. He never ate lunch on days when Agalon had not magically appeared to warrant it, so he hadn’t eaten since he had been given his fruit spread when he woke up, and he had actually, finally, blessedly done something to work up an appetite.

He stood, took the bucket he had filled with water to dust under the bed and tossed the rag into it before he drug it into the water closet. He swished and scrubbed the rag to get it as clean as possible then hung it over the water spout to dry before dumping the water in the bucket down the toilet. He stashed the bucket under the sink, pumped some water into the sink to scrub his hands and face, then headed for the dressing mirror.

He had done his cleaning in his underwear so as not to dirty his pretty house clothes, and he felt it was the right decision because his undershirt and shorts were covered in filth, probably from lying on the floor to clean under things. He brushed the tangles out of his hair then ran a comb through it to make absolutely sure it was clear before he picked up his clothes to get dressed.

He heard Agalon enter the sitting room while he was buttoning up his shirt, and expected he would have a few minutes while he went about his evening routine. But Agalon didn’t head for the writing desk, didn’t take off his cape to drape it over the chair there, didn’t ring the dinner bell, set up any work he had to do, or anything else.

He headed straight for the door with purposeful, heavy footfalls.

Did that mean something? That may mean something.

The key clicked into place and the doorknob turned.

“Evenin, Honey Bunny,” Agalon smiled down at him and Xac ran into his open arms to cuddle into his chest.

“Welcome home, master!” he said as he squeezed.

“Hey darlin,” Agalon broke the embrace and reached down to cradle Xac’s face, “You reckon you’d be alright to come downstairs with me?”

Downstairs? Finally? He was going to get out of this room? Out of the sitting room?

He didn’t try to hide his excitement.

“Are we gonna go to the kitchen?” He asked eagerly, trying to will himself not to jump up and down in excitement and failing miserably.

“Oh, you must be starving,” Agalon said, “No, darlin, we’re gonna go take a bath. I got some folks comin up to strip the bed for the laundry and I wanna give um your clothes to take with um.”

“Oh.” Xac was a little disappointed but still- he was going to get out of this room and go… literally anywhere else! There was a chance that he would see his mother or sister from the laundry area. He probably shouldn’t call out, but he could wave to them and let them know that he was alright, that he was still alive and everything was going well.

“You’re hungry, ain’t you?” Agalon asked, “We can eat first, darlin, far as that goes.”

He was hungry, and he liked that idea so he nodded.

“Thank you,” he said and squeezed again.

Agalon released him with one arm and slid the other to the small of his back to lead him into the sitting room. Xac was used to this now and headed straight for his seat while Agalon went out to the hall to ring for their dinner.

He was tired for the first time in a long time. He hadn’t had any work to do in so long that he was afraid it had made him lazy, and laziness was a sin. Thesis liked people who were productive, and Xac had felt so unproductive for so long that he had begun to forget himself, but now he felt like himself for the first time in a long time, and he was going to get out of this room! This was shaping up to be a wonderful day!

As Agalon strode back to the table he noticed how Xac bounced in his seat and smiled.

“You look happy,” he said.

“I am!” Xac said eagerly, “I feel really good today! I’ve got so much done!”

“Got stuff done?” Agalon asked in confusion, “What have you got to get up to, Honey Bunny?”

“I’ve been cleaning,” Xac explained, “I just… ain’t had a lot to do. I can’t get to the ceiling though…”

“Don’t put yourself out too much,” Agalon said, “Don’t get hurt. Won’t nobody know it till I come home. I hate to see y’all hurt. Hate to see any critter hurt. I felt so bad for that boy when they had to rebreak his leg. He screamed somethin awful.”

“I don’t really get hurt,” Xac said, “I mean, not like other folks. I get scraped or something it tends to heal up pretty quick. My daddy said it was because I’m so healthy.”

The door opened, and Jimmy came striding in, carrying the tray in one hand, with his little folding table and the wine strapped to his back. He was moving much more quickly now, and didn’t seem to be in pain every time he took a step. Xac suspected he had been whistling or singing because he had the sort of face that one made when they were being professional, but would break into song the second they were out of earshot. There was a bounce in his step as he went about the dinner service, serving, pouring and the like, and he winked at Xac when he was finished, when he had taken his position standing politely behind and to the left of Agalon.

“That will be all, Jimmy,” Agalon said.

“Yes master,” Jimmy smiled at Xac, collected his table and tray, and was gone.

“Master?” Xac asked after he took a sip of his wine, “When you leave all day, do you go see those fighters you were talking about?”

“Sometimes,” Agalon said with a softness in his eyes and a smile on his lips, “I go lots of places. Sometimes I feel like I’m runnin in circles. Season’s about to start there and the harvest ain’t started here so it takes up more of my time. Why? You miss me?”

“I always miss you!” Xac declared then took a huge bite of his salad. He was starving, and it was delicious, though it was beginning to get a little repetitive and he really missed cooked food. But it was a sacrifice he was willing to make for his easy, pampered lifestyle.

“I know I need to be around more when I’m trainin a pleasure slave,” Agalon said quietly, “Believe me, darlin, once we get through this first phase we’ll spend more time together. I’ll take you around with me. But I gotta know you ain’t gonna do somethin stupid, and I don’t wanna overwhelm you all at once like that.”

“I’ll be real good!” Xac swore, “I promise!”

“I believe you,” Agalon said.

“How was them fighters today?” Xac asked, “I don’t know nothin about it.”

“Makin progress,” Agalon said, “Got a real contender this year, name of Billy, and I’d hate bigger than hell to lose him. Almost entered him in the tournament at Satra, last year. He qualified. But he needed another year. He mighta died in the cage.”

“Folks die in the cage?” Xac asked.

“Not all the time, just at the championship,” Agalon explained, “It’s a ‘last one standin’ kinda thing. You ain’t gotta die, but you have to stay down. Billy won’t stay down, and I know it. So I coulda lost him.”

“I ain’t never been in a fight,” Xac said, then thrust the last of his food into his mouth.

“No, darlin, it ain’t for… there’s different kinds of humans you can tell are made for different things. Fighters are big, broad, bruisers. You’re a tiny delicate flower. You’re a fluffy little bunny. You was built to be a pleasure slave.”

“I’m still little,” Xac said with great practicality as he took a sip of his wine, “I might get all big and stuff later.”

“I think this is about as big as you’re going to get,” Agalon giggled, “Don’t you like being small and cute? It suits you.”

“I like being cute,” Xac said as he cleaned his plate, then sipped his wine, waiting on Agalon to finish, “I dunno if I like being small. I can’t reach the ceiling.”

“It’s easier to carry you around that way,” Agalon smirked, “And to keep you in my lap. You like to cuddle; that’d be a hell of lot harder if you looked like a fighter.”

“I do love to cuddle,” Xac considered, and leaned back to enjoy the familiar warmth that washed over him, to let him know that he was no longer sober and therefore no longer under the same standards that came with sobriety. “I’ve never cuddled up with you after bath day. It’s probably even better. I love baths… They make my hair poofy! My mama has to comb it out real good and then it goes right back. I like it when I get out though and it’s all fluffy. My hair is really fluffy.” He tugged out a strand to its full length and ran it between his fingers, enjoying the texture. “And soft. I like it.”

He knew he was rambling, but he didn’t particularly care.

“It’s cute,” Agalon said, “I’m glad to see it’s getting a little length. I’d like to be able to tie it back at the nape of your neck. You don’t need to keep it chopped all short like that. You ain’t got nothin it can get in the way of.”

“I guess I don’t,” Xac agreed, “I ain’t seen no other humans with long hair, I mean, on menfolk.”

“How odd,” Agalon said as if the subject didn’t particularly interest him. “Well, it’ll look good on you. You got the softest hair I ever seen on a human.”

“It’s cause I’m a bunny, I think,” Xac said, without realizing that he did not have to make this connection for Agalon. He felt particularly intelligent for even the most basic observations when he was drinking, and though he would not call himself full-blown drunk, he was certainly tipsy enough to be interesting. “Am I gonna have new clothes if you’re givin these to laundry folk?”

“I’ll getcha some new clothes once I can take ya ta town,” Agalon promised, though it wasn’t exactly an answer. He finished his dinner, stood, picked up both bottles of wine and handed them to Xac. “Here, come on, darlin, follow me.”

He walked to the door, which led out to the hallway and held it open.

Xac hesitated.

What if this was a test? What if he was supposed to stay in the sitting room? His indecision must have shown on his face because Agalon spoke softly.

“It’s alright, Honey Bunny,” he promised, “Ain’t nothin gonna get you. I’ll be right here with you.”

Xac slowly, step by step, made his way to the hall.

It was exactly as he remembered, with its plush carpets, beautiful walls, multiple plants and paintings, but those paintings made more sense this time around. The style reminded him very much of the flowers in the bedroom, and he wondered if they had all been painted by the late Mrs. Agalon.

“This way, darlin,” Agalon said, and directed Xac with one hand on the small of his back down the hall until it opened into the biggest room Xac had ever seen.

Most of the room was taken up by a huge staircase covered in the same green rug, but it held other wonders. On the wall above them was the largest painting Xac had ever seen, depicting Agalon in his full military regalia, which Xac had seen in the closet, holding a long golden staff Xac had seen in the curio cabinet. He looked absolutely beautiful in the painting, but he wasn’t alone. There was another man, shorter and significantly younger, standing behind Agalon’s seated form, who looked very much like him. He had the same long blond hair, pulled back in a tight braid, the same sharp features to his face, the same beautiful green eyes, the same slim form. Xac remembered that Agalon had a son, and wondered if that was perhaps him. He had never seen a son around the mansion.

The staircase stretched down three floors, and directly in front of Xac, where he stood at the top, was a giant crystal chandelier, which reflected the light through the huge windows on the opposite wall in sparkling rainbows, even in the dim light of dusk. Those windows were a story and a half tall, and he could see beyond them the night sky, mostly void, dotted with shining stars.

The landing below them was decorated much like the hall had been, with a table laid out with plants that smelled lovely, and Xac glanced off to the side to see halls stretching out in either direction. He wondered what was in those rooms. It seemed to go on for longer than the halls on the third floor. This house was a maze, Xac thought, and he would love to be allowed to explore it one day.

They continued on to the ground floor, laid out very much like the landing on the second floor, except that the carpet moved forward and terminated in a large, ornate door. Xac stared at it and knew from what he had seen out the windows that it led outside, not just outside, but onto a carriage road, which could lead away from the plantation. It could lead to town. It could lead anywhere.

He turned with Agalon and continued down an ornately decorated hall, moving in the direction of what Xac thought was the kitchen. It was possible he would see someone after all!

Though it was probably unlikely. He hadn’t seen anyone since he had left the sitting room. It was all very still and quiet as if they were the only two people in the manor, but he knew that couldn’t be true. There was no way the kitchen staff was finished cleaning up; there were people moving to their bedroom right now, to clean it, to strip the bedding and prepare it for laundering.

They had to be going up the other staircase, Xac reasoned, the one he had taken when Mrs. OfAgalon had led him to the bedroom, his first day here. That staircase was almost a secret. He wondered what other secrets the big house held.

As they made their way down the hall, he began to hear the first faint sounds of life; movement and clacking, the sounds of cleaning in the kitchen! They were getting close. But it was faint, far away and behind a wall, and Agalon opened a door to lead him in a different direction.

“Here we are, Honey Bunny,” he said, and at his guidance, Xac stepped past him into a room unlike any he had ever seen.

Everything was made of tile- the walls, the floor, the ceiling, and all the tiles had more pictures of little flowers on them. Xac wondered how many there were, but he didn’t have time to count, because Agalon was moving him in the direction of the largest body of water Xac had ever seen. It was set into the floor, in the direct center of the room, and looked big enough to hold four or five people. Xac wondered who pumped the water in, because he didn’t see any device near the tub that looked capable of doing that, and how they drained it out again.

A large fireplace occupied the wall to his right, and the left was covered in windows looking out on the laundry area, but it was difficult to make out, because the curtains were drawn, leaving only silhouettes for the objects outside. There were various benches, along with cabinets and shelves dotting the room as well, and it was to one of these that Agalon had gone. Xac turned, while Agalon rifled through the cabinet, to look at the closed door behind him.

He was pretty sure the kitchen was on the other side of the hall. His mother or Allie could be only a few feet away. It felt like an eternity since he had last seen them.

“Darlin,” Agalon called as he sat on one of the benches and began to undress, “Take your clothes off and leave um sittin for the laundry.”

Xac moved away from the door to sit next to him, to obey him.

A note from candicame

Every chapter in this book is way longer than I mean for it to be, but a lot of that is just because Xaxac is so observant and notices every goddamn thing, so I have to be like, "There's plants on the stairway" because he really would notice the plants on the stairway.  He really would look up at a painting and try to memorize it.

I hope I've established why.  He's had so little stimulation for so long that he latches on to any little piece of information around him.  He wants to be able to remember that hallway, that foyer, that painting, that bathroom, because when he's all alone in his room for hours at a time, he wants something to think about.  He needs something to think about.  These long, flowery descriptions are the only thing keeping him from losing his goddamn mind.  And getting out of that room and being able to look at those things is a major, major reward.

Actually, let's talk about "reward" because I realize I've not defined it.  When I say 'reward' I'm talking about the word as used in a psychological sense, in relation to conditioning, primarily operant conditioning in a "get the behavior I want from the subject" kind of way.  Weird things that you don't usually think of as rewards can be rewards under this system because it has two different meanings.  A positive reward is where you get something you want, and a negative reward is where you remove something you don't want.  Annoying chores like cleaning can, in this sense be a reward.  It's not necessarily that 'ability to clean' is a positive reward, what's actually being given here is 'freedom from boredom'.  This is the first time in days Xaxac has been given anything to do except sit in that room and stare at the ceiling.  He's genuinely thankful to be able to work.

There's more gaslighting in this chapter, which I defined in my notes already so I won't again.  But notice that this entire conversation was pretty much all gaslighting, and Xaxac is genuinely starting to trust Agalon over his own brain.  When Xaxac says he's going to grow and Agalon says he isn't, Xaxac believes he isn't, and lets Agalon change his mind about how he should feel about his own body.  He comes out of that conversation legitimately thinking, "I'm always going to be short, and that's a good thing!"  Which is completely different from his initial thought of "I wish I was taller".  Agalon praises him when he talks about having the body Agalon wants him to have, the cute little bunny, and redirects him if he gets away from that idea.  Fun times.

I already posted a picture of an Angora rabbit, but that is the kind of hair Xaxac is supposed to have, so when he's talking about his hair here, remember that rabbit.

Agalon just kinda glosses over the fact that he broke Jimmy's leg.  Y'all reckon he gave him any kind of painkillers?  After the way he acted last time he talked to him as if he was a piece of livestock that warranted a cost-benefit analysis?  Because I'd say he probably didn't.

Finally, we see more of that learned helplessness in the last few lines.  Xaxac knows his mother and sister are across the hall from him, that he could see them if he turned on his heel and booked it in the other direction.  But he doesn't.  He does exactly what Agalon tells him.  He's internalizing a certain set of behaviors.  Smile.  Tell him "of course", tell him "okay" and do everything he says.  That's what's going to keep him alive.

Spoiler: Spoiler

Where's the boy in the painting?  If Agalon's got a kid where the hell is he?  And who's leaving Xaxac food?  And where the hell is everybody?  A house that size would need a dozen slaves at least to keep it going.

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