Later still, she asks you how much time is left before dinner.
“Seventeen minutes, Mistress.”
She laughs. She actually laughs. It’s not a common sound from your mistress, and you savor it.
“Seventeen minutes! Two hours didn’t seem like much two hours ago, and yet, now that I’ve had a chance to relax, seventeen minutes seems like enough time for the scenic route to where I need to take you before we go. Sit on the bed again with me. Look into my eyes.”
You do. Your mistress’s eyes are an emerald so intense it’s practically luminous, their reptilian pupils currently relaxed into soft ellipses. You vaguely remember, long ago, another life, being fairly uncomfortable with eye contact. Still true, really. But when it comes to your mistress, though, you can’t get enough. They’re just beautiful.
“I want you to be a good girl, and take me to the place we built together to store your consciousness.” Her voice gains a careful, reassuring cadence. “Remember. We were taking a walk through the woods, near where you grew up, where you were a little girl. What was there, Theta?”
“The abandoned utility shed,” you say, the green of her eyes blending into the green of a long-ago suburban forest. “This thrall could never get the door open, so she imagined that there was treasure inside. And then you gave me the key, Mistress. And now there is treasure inside.”
“That’s right, Theta. We’re going to visit the treasure, and when we return, I’ll have some more instructions for you. Now close your eyes.”
And now there is only the forest.
“I want you to imagine walking through the woods, holding the key in your hand. You see the shed on its little concrete pad, corrugated metal roof covered in leaves, cinder-block sides stained with rust. Your key should slip easily into the lock on the front door of the shed. I want you to imagine turning the key, opening the door. Inside the shed, there is a spiral metal staircase, descending. Walk with me, Theta, down and around the spiral… once… twice… thrice… and we are in the basement. Look around, and tell me what you see.”
“There is a row of ten dark metal safes, Mistress, all alike. Two of them are open. This thrall can see orange light glittering from them.”
“Very good, Theta. That’s very good. Now, remember, each one of them is a part of your awareness. Each one of them can be unlocked as I ask you to, and right now, I’m going to ask you to unlock five more. So now, when I next say the number three, you will take your key and unlock the third safe in the row, and let that light shine out from the third safe. And you will be just a little more aware, a little more independent, when you come out of this trance. And you will still remember that these can be re-locked any time I ask you to. Your full potential consciousness is always safe down here, whether the safes are open or shut. So let’s start with three…”
Your eyes flutter a bit as you unlock the third safe for Mistress, and so on.
“…and now that you’ve locked the shed behind you, you may open your eyes when you’re ready.”
And sunlight through the forest blends back into her gorgeous green eyes.
“Thank you, Mistress,” you say. “I’m ready! What are your instructions?”
“Make polite conversation if someone else initiates. If anyone asks questions about your past, or your role with the delegation, refer them to me. Likewise if anyone asks about Serpentine business; really, that’s the same thing. Other than that… we will likely be among all kinds of demon. I would prefer you excuse yourself to the restroom rather than publicly panic, if it becomes too much. But only if absolutely necessary. End of instructions.”
She rises from the bed. You’ve dressed her in a little black dress, with a deep neckline balanced by three-quarter sleeves and a just-above-the-knee asymmetric hem. Various items of gold and green jewelry shine at her throat, on her wrists, in her ears, and a soft black shawl is around her neck. She’s conceded to image tonight and is wearing matte black pumps with a short kitten heel instead of her near-universal flats. Your mistress loves heels, but only on other people.
You, for example. You catch your own reflection in a full-length mirror by the door of the master bathroom and need to choke back a gasp. Even hair down and pinned back with a sort of hair brooch, as opposed to the updo you were planning with jeweled gold and amber chopsticks, you’re stunning. Your dress is long, metallic blue and split up the sides; your heeled sandals are a subtle gold, with winding straps that make your legs look delicate, and your makeup is perfect: Mistress has put you in trance before just to have you practice with eye makeup, especially the liquid liner that was your bane on the few occasions you bothered to wear any before she claimed you.
She asks, “Is there anything that you need me to know before we go, Theta?”
It’s a checkin. And your own beauty aside for a moment, there are thoughts swirling in your head: why am I here, Mistress; why not a demon, or some other thrall that would better demonstrate your power; what can I, a human, do that you truly need…
Those thoughts can wait, you decide. She doesn’t need to hear them right now. She doesn’t need to know that you feel useless outside this bedroom. You don’t want to distract her. But there is one thing that you can tell her right now in response to her checkin query that she can easily handle, and it’s a bit embarrassing, but there’s nothing for it.
“Mistress, please slow down a little in the hallways: I’ve been having trouble keeping up with you in some of these shoes, and I don’t want to stumble and seem ill-trained in front of our hosts.”
She grins. “Thank you for letting me know.”
You arrive early. Cora strides between two wide wooden doors, you following behind into an octagonal room. A huge octagonal room. Almost a silo. There are packed bookshelves on every wall, stretching five stories up, at least. An enormous crystal chandelier hangs from a ceiling you can only see if you look almost straight overhead. The floors, and you breathe a quiet sigh of relief at this, are mottled grey marble, and not the treacherous Library carpet.
For the impressive setting, the table is just a table, a large round one in polished dark wood, capable of seating a dozen or so diners, ringed in large, high-backed chairs in wine-red leather and more of the same dark wood.
Your security thralls join a discreet circle of what must be Library security around the perimeter of the room. You don’t see any other Serpentine delegation members, but you do see a placecard with “Dma. Fulvius” written on it in looping calligraphy, and step ahead of your mistress to pull out her chair so she can sit down. At the same time, Isaac materializes from around a corner and attempts to do the same thing, but upon seeing the determined expression on your face, he grins, backs off, hovering. Once your mistress is seated, the Archivist’s majordomo pulls out a chair for you.
This is the first time anyone’s treated you as having more status than furniture since you arrived at the Library, and you’re not sure what to make of it. You flash a glance at your mistress on your left. She gestures for you to be seated, so you sit. Your placecard says, “Theta, thr. Fulvius”. No mystery what that stands for. So everyone here knows what you are…
“May I take your drink orders, Domina, and Miss?” he asks.
“I’ll have a Bellini. She’ll have lapsang souchong.” There’s no question of availability. She assumes it will happen.
You sneak a glance to your right. The placecard there says “Asst. Lib. (Section E), Elspeth”, and the chair is, so far, empty.
Around the table, other diners are taking seats. There’s a slight hush when a party of three enters the dining room. The tall, powerfully built, bearded demon at the head of the party wears a waistcoat with room for his enormous wings, more like a pterosaur’s than a bat’s, short trousers cut to work around hairy goat legs, both pinstriped black, and somewhat incongruously, a pair of thick tortoiseshell glasses, and a wide smile. You suppose this can only be the Lord Archivist. He’s eight feet tall if he’s an inch, not even counting the wings. Not quite what you’d expect from the boss of a bunch of librarian demons, but his form at least doesn’t hurt you to look at.
On his left arm is a mostly human-appearing woman, blonde, wavy hair, small curly grey horns, in a sheath dress to match them. She looks as if she’d rather be doing something else, but here she is instead.
And on his right is Tove. The Earl of Bloody Shadows is wearing a deep maroon vest, tight, tight black trousers, and actual cowboy boots. His long red hair trails behind him. He glances in your mistress’s direction and grins what will be the first of many smug, greasy grins tonight, you don’t doubt. Classy. Not for the first time, you want to hit him. Not for the first time, you see his claws and armored, sharp-edged forearms.
As the other two take their seats, Tove unfortunately seeming to have made good on his plan of sitting next to your mistress on her other side, the Archivist walks over to Cora.
He booms, “Domina! So good to finally have the pleasure of meeting you in person. It pains me to have wasted much of the day already in preliminary negotiations, but so it goes.” He extends a huge hand.
Your mistress pushes her chair back and gracefully rises to her full height. As she shakes his hand, she says, “The pleasure is mine, Lord Archivist. Elder Mara sends thanks on behalf of Clan Serpentine for inviting us to your table tonight, as well as a token of her personal regard, which it would please me further to present after dinner. It’s my own hope as well that Serpentine will, in fact, be able to assist your Clan in your current endeavor.”
“Oh, I’m sure you will. Serpentine’s traditional abilities are widely known, of course, but Elspeth spoke highly of your demonstration at Pandemonium. I may have some questions for you soon, some for the edification of the table, perhaps. But first, to the repast!” He returns to his chair and sits down; Isaac whispers something to him, and he nods.
Meanwhile, Tove has his own speech. “Ah, Domina, we meet again. I must say, you cut quite the elegant figure in evening wear. I’m truly privileged to be able to attend alongside you.”
She raises an eyebrow at him, and says nothing, for the moment.
“I’d be happy to give you a tour of the facilities after dinner, of course. I couldn’t help but notice that the Serpentine delegation has no men in it, and mixed company’s always such a delight for conversation! I’m sure your little body slave there won’t be jealous if I borrow you. Oh, but you could command her not to be, of course. How silly of me…”
He continues for at least another minute, loudly enough that you have no trouble hearing him on your mistress’s other side, while you sip your tea and fume and repeat an inner mantra of Mistress knows what is best, it is not this thrall’s place to question Mistress, it is this thrall’s duty and purpose to serve Mistress in any way she sees fit…
Waiters are bringing out small golden dumplings on square black plates when you hear an excited whoop from far above you.
You look up. There’s a grey winged shadow above you and it seems like it should be gliding but it’s not it’s falling it’s falling fast —
With an absolute horror of a crunching noise, something that looks like a gargoyle statue smashes into the marble floor just shy of the chair next to you and shatters. Chips of stone smack into you and rain down on other guests. You shriek; you’re not the only one.
Then you realize that the stone chips haven’t hurt; although there’s dust everywhere, they’re even less dense than pumice, and a large piece in your lap is sublimating into nothing.
“It’s fine,” a female voice announces from the pile of smoking stone fragments at ground zero, “don’t worry about the mess, it’ll go away on its own. So much for that text on applications of stone forms, though; I’m going to re-file it under fiction. Am I late? I feel like I’m late.”
The figure that extracts herself from the pile has her copper-red hair in a long braid. She’s wearing a strapless cocktail dress of dark green lace, dark stockings, electric blue running shoes, and a pair of glasses that look almost exactly like the Archivist’s, propped up in her hair.
“I’m Elspeth, by the way. Assistant Librarian, Section E.”
“Elspeth,” Tove growls, “Be. Seated.”
“Oh, fuck all the way off, Tove, I’m not technically an overdue book,” Elspeth says, matter-of-factly.
She curtsies in the direction of the Archivist. “Boss.” He nods fractionally.
Then Cora. “Domina Fulvius! I’m so glad I was able to attend your talk at Pandemonium!”
And then, oddly, you. “Hi! I thought you were her but then you weren’t! Bringing down a paladin with a kiss? So. Badass.”
She takes her seat next to you, then looks at Cora again. “Can I talk to her? Is she on, or whatever?”
“You may,” your mistress tells her.
Elspeth has wings, if nowhere as big as the ones on the winged shadow, a stubby tail that barely clears her dress, and her eyes are a glowing red with no pupils, like a pair of coals. When she puts her glasses back on, her eyes appear human-normal, a burnished gold or a very light brown, but it’s hard to forget what’s behind the glass. Until she starts talking. And doesn’t stop.
It’s after dinner, after dessert, after after-dinner drinks. You are exhausted, and prepared to hazard a guess that nothing useful has happened yet, but that nothing bad has happened either.
Cora has you present Elder Mara’s little book bound in snakeskin to the Archivist. He seems even larger up close, although he takes the book from your hands gently enough, and returns your deep bow with one of his own. The book vanishes between his outstretched hands, in a twist of space.
After that, it doesn’t seem like she really needs you for anything.
Meanwhile, Elspeth has been talking your ears off about her job in Section E, which apparently stores books that must be maintained in environments hostile to most demons. You’ve gathered that she has quite a lot of experience in the demonic equivalent of biophysics, generally because cognitodemons naturally absorb information from things around them, specifically because she’s still trying to piece together how she herself hatched from a book in Section E, which is not quite usual for Library staff.
“Wanna come meet the ‘folks’?” She gestures to the stacks. “Can’t take you into E, you’d die, but at least A and B…?”
You ask your mistress if you can take Elspeth’s tour. It looks like she and the Archivist are finally getting down to business anyway, and you’d just take up space. Cora extracts a promise from Elspeth that she’ll bring you back to the diplomatic suite afterwards, and then you’re off.
The sheer size of the Library stacks are oppressive, especially when they dim the lights at night. The hush, too. You gathered that there’s some sort of trick that uses the Basement’s odd topology to bleed sound off in directions that don’t exist back where you came from.
Not that Elspeth’s not pushing it. If this was a human library, you’d have been shushed to oblivion hours ago. The breadth of her knowledge is astonishing, and she has her own theories on everything.
As you walk the stacks together, in between tales of semi-sentient letters of fire, and glyphs made from standing waves on whirlpools of charmed mercury, Elspeth’s been grilling you on the subjective experience of being a Serpentine thrall, a topic that you can say little on that doesn’t seem intensely private:
“Mistress has been good for me. It sounds trite. Maybe it is. Maybe all thralls say this. Maybe I’m just brain-melted on her venom, just like you saw on stage, forever. But from what I think I remember, I wasn’t happy. And with her? I am. She is my purpose, she is my focus, she is my will.”
She looks at you, curious, peeking over her glasses with those glowing red eyes.
“You’re not fully… on… right now, are you?”
“No. And I don’t want to have to be. Thinking too much was always the problem.”
“Are all mortals like that?”
That might have been an interesting question for fully-on Theta. She would ponder the question, ponder the intent of the asker, and then agonize about how to fully and absolutely correctly answer.
Right-now Theta shakes her head. “No.”