In Which Mackenzie Says No, Which Steff Takes For Yes
“Well, well,” he said. “Awfully strong reaction to my profession, especially from a professed… ‘toy’.”
Amaranth stepped forward, putting herself a little in front of both me and Two.
“Now, Master Hrothvar, I have no doubt in my mind that you really do mean well,” she said, in a cheery, respectful tone. “But we also have Two’s interests at heart, and respectfully, we know her a little bit better than you do.”
“Is that a fact?” the slaver asked. “Well, my pretty, petty sex goddess, I can see by the label on your dark-haired friend’s forehead that you see nothing inherently detrimental to the concept of personal ownership… and I dare say, I’ve seen that elfblooded thing paraded around these very grounds in a chained collar. Given the nature of your kind, I think I might even go so far as to ask who owns you.”
“Well, legally, I am a free being,” Amaranth said, and that really should have been the end of it… but Amaranth, being more or less relentlessly open-minded, was always determined to give every question a fair hearing. “Or else I would not be able to attend university… but, the real estate which the better part of my physical being occupies is owned by the Paradise Valley Farming Cooperative, so I guess you could say that they own me. Though, in another sense, I consider myself to be public property.”
“So, there you go,” Hrothvar said. “None of you are completely free… and who among us is, really? We all have our obligations and duties to fulfill. No man is an island, the ties that bind, et cetera, et cetera… and in a world in which people are free to be married, adopted, inducted, enlisted, partnered, invested, entitled, enrolled, incorporated, or employed as they see fit, my associates and I merely offer one more way for one sentient being to formally relate to another. It’s an escape from poverty, from debt, from responsibility… and for somebody in the unique position of your friend, from the crushing weight of unasked-for personal choice.”
“Nobody asks for what they’re given,” Steff said. “But we’re not giving up on Two.”
“Perhaps the lady should speak for herself,” Hrothvar said.
“Don’t answer any of his questions,” I told Two. “Don’t talk to him.”
“Well, perhaps the young lady would deign to take my card… and give us a ‘flect if she would like to hear more,” Hrothvar said, extending one hand with his business card in it. Addressing Two for the first time, he said, “You may ask for one of my colleagues if your ‘friends’ prevent you from speaking to me. We’ll all be happy to help you.”
“Don’t take it,” I said.
Amaranth began to reach for the card, apparently feeling it would be entirely too rude to just leave Master Hrothvar hanging.
“I’ll hold on to that,” I said, darting forward and snatching the card away. In doing so, I released my grip on Two’s hand, and she let out a wail that cut through me like a knife.
I felt terribly guilty, and grabbed her hand as quickly as I could… but I had really needed that card. Aside from keeping it away from Two, the sad fact was that I would probably need to cut my own deal with somebody like Hrothvar before I got too much more hungry. The thought wasn’t exactly palatable in any sense of the word, but I’d known it ever since I started saving up my money.
“Well, I hope you will consent to give it to her if she asks for it,” Hrothvar said. “And you, young lady,” he said to Two. “I hope you will ask for it, should you decide that a life of happy slavery suits you better than the myriad horrors of freedom.”
He touched the brim of his hat, and then ambled away.
We all watched him go, willing daggers into his back. Two clung to my arm, shaking like a leaf in the wind. When I was sure that Master Hrothvar was truly gone and not just biding his time somewhere within earshot, I turned to her and asked, “You think you might like being a slave, don’t you?”
Very slowly, and looking as afraid of reprisal as ever, Two nodded.
“But it’s like… keeping booze away from an alcoholic friend, isn’t it?” Amaranth said, her voice gone a little unnaturally high. “Or… or… weapons away from somebody who’s prone to violent rages. We’re really not doing anything wrong by keeping her from… by keeping her… we’re not doing anything wrong, are we?”
“No! Of course we aren’t,” Steff said, a little too fast and a little too forcefully. “You know, free will is more than just doing what you want, or doing what you would like… you’re not really free unless you can choose not to. I mean, wants and desires and things don’t just move in a single dimension, anyway.”
“What do you mean?” I asked Steff, if only to give us another topic. The other two seemed to feel the need to convince themselves that we weren’t being horrible friends by keeping Two from selling herself. I might not have been able to put my conviction into words, but I needed no such convincing.
“Well, Elvish is a lot better at describing this kind of thing than Pax is,” Steff said. “But, it’s entirely possible for somebody to want to be a total slave at the same time that they want to be free. They just want them in a different way, or with different parts of their… well, soul.”
“Like a split personality?” I asked, I was pretty sure that wasn’t what she meant, but didn’t know what else it could be. “Or possession?” I shuddered. Possession creeped me out.
“No, I’m talking about normal people… or at least, as normal as people can be,” Steff said. “For instance… well, um, just for example, if you were going to describe your feelings about being naked in public, how would you do it?”
“I’d say I don’t like it,” I said.
“Right,” she said. “Because on one level, it’s the last thing you’d want to do. But on another level, doesn’t the thought kind of excite you?”
“No!” I said, feeling the color rising in my cheeks.
“‘No’ here having the fairly unusual meaning of ‘yes’, to judge by your blush,” Steff said. “And when Amy ordered you to march your cute boy butt naked down the hall, you were all too happy to do it… because you wanted to obey her, right?”
“Well, yeah,” I said, ducking my head. Apparently, Amaranth really did tell Steff everything.
“If you were going to try explaining that in Pax, the easiest way would be to say that you wanted to obey her more than you wanted to not be naked in public,” Steff said. “Or that normally, you wouldn’t have wanted to be naked in public, but that changed because she ordered you. Right?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said, remembering how at one point, I’d actually thought to myself that it seemed like our feelings became smaller and simpler when we were forced to put them into words.
“Okay, but if you’re honest with yourself,” Steff said, “wouldn’t you say that you still didn’t want to do it… but that the fact that you didn’t want to made it more enjoyable? That you wanted to all the more simply because you didn’t want to?”
“That’s… that’s…” I said, looking for a word that simultaneously conveyed the meaning of “ridiculous” or “crazy” without conveying such a meaning.
“Stupid? It does sound stupid… if you’re trying to fit everything that you want onto a single plane,” Steff said. “Human languages are really not set up to deal with this kind of thing. The closest we can get still makes it sound like some kind of Crazy-Opposite-Land thing, which it really isn’t. I mean, we couldn’t just pick something at random that you really hate and say, ‘Because you hate it, that means you actually love it.'”
“That’s what it sounds like you were saying, though,” I said. “Sometimes, that’s what the whole idea behind this masochism thing seems like… it hurts, so it feels good… I don’t like humiliation, so it’s supposed to turn me on. It’s never made any sense to me.”
“Honey, the reason some humiliation turns you on is because you like it,” Steff said.
“I hate it,” I said.
“That, too,” Steff said.
“It can’t be both!” I said. I heard a tiny noise of warning from Amaranth, and I struggled to control my tone. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to snap. I just don’t understand this.”
“Well, forget how it applies to you if you can’t wrap your head around it,” Steff said. “Just take it as a general idea that people can be more complicated than ‘I want this.’ or ‘I want that.’ In the case of Two, I think we have to accept that on some level she might enjoy a career in abject slavery… but that’s only one facet of her, and she’s certainly got other, healthier impulses that we can help her towards.”
“I agree,” Amaranth said, sounding pleased to have the matter resolved.
“I need clarification,” Two said quietly.
“Yes, honey?” Amaranth asked.
“I… I want to do what I’m told,” she said. “I want it so badly that sometimes there isn’t room inside my head for anything else.”
“But there is,” Steff said. “You can want more than one thing, hon… you can even want things that sound like they should be total opposites. Everybody does it, even if they don’t have the words to acknowledge it, even to themselves.”
“Oh, okay,” Two said. “That’s… that’s what I didn’t understand.”
“Two,” I said, thinking carefully. “Would you like me to order you not to sell yourself to slavers, or give up your status as a free being in any other way?”
Two trembled more violently, her eyes squeezed shut.
I was reminded unaccountably of… of myself.
As the seconds trickled away and she did not answer, I almost withdrew the question, fearing I’d distressed her.
“Yes, please,” she said finally, tears trickling down from the corners of her eyelids.
“I so order you,” I said.
“Thank you,” she said. “I mean… okay.” She opened her eyes and blinked a few times. “I think I would have made a good slave, though.”
“Well, we think you make a better person,” Amaranth said, giving her a hug.
“You are nice,” Two said. Looking at me, she said, “And you are smart.”
“So am I,” Amaranth said, a little defensively.
“What about me?” Steff asked with a grin. “What am I?”
Two looked at her for a moment, and then said, “You are a girl,” which seemed to stun Steff for a second, and then she burst out laughing and threw herself forward into what once again became an all-group hug when I joined in.
“And if that Hrothvar hassles you again, me and Mack can take him down,” Steff told Two when we broke apart.
“No! No violence,” Amaranth said firmly. “Especially not from Mack.” She turned to me and said, “I do want you to defend yourself if attacked, but you never make the first move, even against Hrothvar. Even if I could allow a possession of mine to harm another intelligent being, and even if the law wouldn’t likely take the side of a legally sanctioned tradesman against a perceived ‘monster’… the simple fact is that you would feel just awful if you hurt him.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said obediently, acknowledging both the order and the truth of what she said.
“Let’s move on to the Walled Market,” she said. “I think we’ve had enough of the bazaar for one day.”
With that, we moved on… Amaranth and Steff picking up their never-ending stream of chatter like they’d never stopped, Two and I following behind.
I was no longer holding her hand, though.
I couldn’t tell you exactly what the difference was, but now, we were holding each other’s.