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A Curious Carriage of Crystal and Cold

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book cover by iwakepiesandbakethedead (tumblr), originally posted here.


PROLOGUE

From a distance and, indeed, certain sectors of space, the rich rust red of the planet Eisen was notable against the common greys and and blue-greens of its neighbours, and tended to be associated (by those who believed in such things) with portents for love, war, or the start of heroic journeys.

Its sun was of medium size, settled comfortably in the middle of its middling lifespan; all the planet-satellites had established their orbits quite early on and, despite the efforts of a yearly handful of asteroids, comets, and assorted celestial bodies traveling at great velocity, did not seem inclined to budge from the schedule long dictated by physics.

The color of Eisen was, many argued, its most salient and singularly noticeable feature, as the planet had little else in the way of interest or appeal. It did not have the iridescent waterfalls of Ruska, or the razorback races of S'Hara, or even The Galaxy's Biggest Ball of Yarn, which the planet Maddox got an unerring amount of mileage out of. Its position at the very edge of Ten Sol - the name presently in fashion for the ten sun systems colonized by mankind - meant that the ships that docked on Orbital City tended to carry either refugees, disoriented tourists, or businessfolk of dubious work ethics.

This wholly unremarkable planet, in a lonely corner of space, was known mostly as the place where ships were built, and where metal was mined from the rocky, inhospitable terrain, only a small area of which was habitable. An old world, worn and rusty; the forgettable stage of small stories.


{ PART ONE }


"Consider, always, the origins of things."
- Xavia saying

 


CHAPTER ONE
THE METAL MAN MEETS THE PRINCE

Fire.

(There is always fire.)

Shouts in the distance. Someone is nearby; a presence both new and known, and all sharp edges.

Pain. It strikes deep. Loud noises (like a storm)

around him, around them, cracks and bursts and sharp splintering.

He is there, and he is not, and then he wakes-

 


A drawing of Charles opening one eye, frowning at the light on his face. He is lying on a pillow and sunlight is falling on him in stripes.
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Charles couldn't feel anything.

Not his arms or legs or any part of his body. Not the fullness of a breath or the rushing of blood under his skin. He was neither warm nor cold. He was in the dark, but that bothered him less, after a lifetime of working in the deep mines.

Panic seemed to be the only possible reaction. He let it surge through him, like lightning, hot and white and tightness, time-breaking, and to his relief there came something else, a reaction, that shone warm and smelled of space-metal, gleaming, and he realized that he must still have his other sense, because this was another person, oh hello, could they be so kind as to find out where Charles' arms and legs have gone?

Twinkle, twinkle, blinked the space-metal, amused.

Go back to sleep.

Why, that seemed a lovely idea. Charles considered asking if they'd met before, because there was something familiar about all of this, in a bones-deep way. Not that he could feel his bones. But he was quite tired, it would be embarrassing to drop off in his chair again, so he let the soft, bitter-edged dark draw him under once more.

 

Quiet. Too quiet, suddenly, both in and outside of his head.

It was strange, and wholly unfamiliar, because there was always somebody awake somewhere in the village. He had a momentary fear of loss of hearing, brain damage, but then he caught the sound of breath whistling through his nose, the soft workings of his throat.

Sleep still lurked around the edges, but his next inhale drew in the scent of clean sheets, a hint of antiseptic, and this further evidence of strangeness was incentive enough to tentatively crack open an eyelid.

He'd braced for an assault of brightness, but the light was not as harsh as he'd been expecting. It emanated from a window at the far end of the room, over which a tint had been considerately applied, damping the harsh natural sunlight and bathing the room in a golden glow.

Not the hospital, then. Or, at least, not a hospital he had ever been to. But something about the calm air of the room, details such as the carpeting and the compscreen set into the wall next to the bed, declared it a private home instead of a public institution.

The door slid open with a bare whisper of a sound, admitting a sleek mauve medbot. Charles couldn't help but stare. The medbots he'd encountered before, in the rural hospitals, tended to look like mechanical spiders stacked into a bulky tower, every functional limb brandishing two or three sensitive instruments at a time. This one had a narrower circular casing for its body, streamline; all its limbs hidden away, save one, which now held out a scanner-wand and, with it, ran a med-scan over his body.


A drawing of a cylindrical medbot holding out a scanner-wand.
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Scan finished, the medbot emitted a series of chirps, and asked, in smooth, polite tones, "What is your language of choice, sir?"

"SpaceBasic is fine," he replied quickly, before the medbot could start rattling off the same question in all the common languages and local dialects.

"Very good, sir." Another burst of chirping. "Commencing report. Your rate of healing is within acceptable parameters for a young adult male. The fractures of the clavicle, left ulna, and left tibia have fully reknit. The breaks in five ribs were more severe, but the setting-fibres have integrated well and they should only take another week to heal completely. One of the broken ribs punctured your left lung; this was patched in the first treatment, but there may be some residual shortness of breath for a few weeks."

The medbot paused and, without warning, sharply prodded him in the thigh. Charles instinctively jerked away. The movement sent a jolt of pain up his back, like a white-hot steel rod right in his spine, and he yelped in surprise.

The medbot's chirps this time sounded approving. "Excellent, sir. There had been extensive damage to the lumbar vertebrae, which presented a possibility of paraplegia. Initial testing showed little neural and motor response to stimuli. Fortunately, as a Nova-Class Medical 5XT, I am equipped with neuro-needles and experimental regrowth protocols, and my most recent data chip update included extensive new research on nerve repair. That said," the medbot added conscientiously, "the brain and nervous system are unpredictable even under controlled laboratory conditions, and the result could not be fully assessed until you regained consciousness."

Charles' breath caught. For a second, he was trapped between the desire to check that he still had the use of his legs, and the fear that the sharp jab of the medbot's metallic finger had been a lie that further movement would uncover. The decision was taken out of his hands when the 'bot's finger-like extensions descended on his leg again. He let out a sigh of relief, while grimacing in pain, when he could feel each poke and pinch all the way down his leg, and again on the other leg, and dutifully reported the strength of the sensations to the 'bot.

"Walking would be inadvisable for at least another week," the 'bot stated. "No strenuous activity for two months. Try not to sit up on your own for two to three more days. The bed is adjustable. This is a critical period, and there is a high possibility of injuring yourself worse if you are not careful."

Charles sighed, tempted to tell the medbot that all its efforts were likely in vain, since there was no way he could afford to just lie about for a month.

"Thanks," he said instead. "Can I ask where I am?"

"You are in Lehnsherr Estate, sir," answered the medbot promptly. "In one of the convalescence rooms of the Lehnsherr private residence."

Oh. Did that mean... "Master Lehnsherr - is he all right?"

"Yes," the medbot affirmed. "He sustained only minor injuries, thanks to sir's assistance."

"That's good," Charles said, feeling genuinely relieved. "At least I didn't severely damage my back for no reason."

He closed his eyes, tried not to think about things like consequences and the future. Especially the possibility that the latter was going to be fairly short, now, barring a miracle or a heretofore unknown healing ability.

Behind his eyelids loomed the long trip home, forcing himself to go back to work, working until his back gave way for good.

What the fuck have I done?

He tried not to think about Raven, oh God, Raven, who'd always said that his tendencies towards heroism and helping complete strangers would get him into trouble one day.

She would shout at him for risking his life like he had, to help the man who practically owned the planet and, probably, could afford to repair whatever damage short of death a minor hovercar crash would have inflicted.

And she'd take care of him when their hard life took its inevitable toll. She'd go into the 'combs in his place, get herself mired in the hardships he'd worked hard to spare her from. She'd point out that he'd taken her in when he'd barely had enough food for himself.

Tiredness crashed through him. A mechanical voice asked, sounding a long way away, "Master Lehnsherr requested to be informed when you awoke. May I have your designation?"

Thinking was difficult, the inside of his mind feeling slippery and indistinct. But most children learned their designation right after the names of their parents; that string of letters and numbers encompassed one's entire existence on the planet. He mumbled, "CF-4256-CSTR40," right before sleep pulled him under again.

 

When Charles next awoke, there was a man sitting next to his bed, reading a book.

An actual book, a thing of paper and ink and creased covers that Charles had never seen outside of a museum. If Charles had truly been suffering doubts about the wisdom of his heroics (for he recognized the reader as the hapless driver of the runaway hovercar), the reverent way in which the man was holding the antique was a strong argument in favor of Charles having made a good decision.

It also did not hurt that Erik Lehnsherr was even more handsome in person than he was on photographs and video. Not that Charles' morals were easily swayed by aesthetics, of course.

"Ah, you are awake," said Lehnsherr. Charles forced himself to look away from the book - Lehnsherr was actually touching it, the paper - and met his eyes.


A drawing of Erik holding a book, wearing a dark long-sleeved shirt with a high collar and a coat on top of it. The words 'Ah, you are awake' are written in the air in front of him.
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"Um," Charles said, intelligently. No one had ever told him how one was supposed to address the Master of the Estate of Eisen. "Master Lehnsherr."

Lehnsherr didn't explode into an indignant rage or fine him for social impropriety, so Charles assumed that he hadn't made a grave misstep. He was about to push himself up, when his back twinged sharply and he remembered the medbot's advice against sitting up on his own. But he couldn't see a control panel for the bed.

"It's voice activated," said Lehnsherr, apparently divining his intention. "Bed, assist our patient in sitting up, please."

An affirmative beep came from somewhere under Charles' back. The soft mattress began to move, slowly, the upper half curling up gently to follow the natural line of his spine. Even his feet were repositioned, angled down slightly. Even such gradual movement sent little spikes of pain up Charles' back, and his hands tightened around the sheets. The bed stopped before it got high enough to put his weight on the damaged area. It might be his imagination, but he thought he could feel the very surface of the mattress adjusting further to cradle his back.

"Do you need anything?" asked Lehnsherr, once the bed settled. His eyes kept shifting from Charles' face, down to the book, then to the bed, as if he wasn't sure where he was supposed to be looking.

"Maybe some water, if it's not too much trouble?" said Charles. The words were barely out of his mouth when a beep came from the wall next to the bed, on which a panel slid back to reveal an empty box-like hollow. There was very faint whirring of machinery from inside the walls, then a glass of water appeared in the box. Lehnsherr passed it to Charles. "Thank you."

Lehnsherr watched him drain the glass. The man wasn't quite fidgeting, but he looked as if he dearly wanted to. If he had been Sean or Alex, and sat a little less rigidly, Charles would have thought the man was uncomfortable. But Charles had no idea what on Eisen the man could be uncomfortable about, when Lehnsherr was in his own home, dealing with a penniless country boy. It did help to calm Charles' own nerves.

"What do you prefer to be called?" asked Lehnsherr. The angles of his face, particularly the sharp cut of his cheekbones, looked especially fine in the dim lighting. And faintly flushed. "I'm afraid I'm not familiar with planetside customs."

As the only people who addressed Charles regularly were his sister and neighbors who'd known him for years, if not his whole life, he wasn't entirely sure, either. The mines and the factories never cared. "At work, people usually go by their designations. Which - mine is CF."

Frown lines appeared on Lehnsherr's not insubstantial forehead. "Is that what you prefer?"

Charles blinked his surprise at being given a choice in the matter. "Not really?"

"What about your family name?"

"Francis?" Charles shrugged. It wasn't, strictly, his family name, but he was fairly sure Lehnsherr wouldn't care for the long explanation. "I can answer to that."

The man nodded and carried on. "The medbot says that you should be fully healed within a month's time."

"Yes, that's what it told me," said Charles, instead of what immediately came to mind - something along the lines of 'yes, if I lay around and don't move much, which is highly unlikely since, in that case, my sister and I will just starve to death'. "Thank you very much for the medical attention. Sir."

Lehnsherr was staring outright, as if he couldn't figure out what Charles was saying, or perhaps what someone like Charles was doing in his fine house. It made Charles worry that he'd lapsed into 'combs brogue, or something, but he mentally replayed his words and, no, still in SpaceBasic.

"I should be the one thanking you for- for saving my life," said Lehnsherr after a short silence. "It was- I greatly appreciate it. Obviously." A look of annoyance crossed Lehnsherr's face, but Charles could tell, with growing amusement, that it wasn't directed at him. "The use of my medbot was the least I could do."

"To which I owe the continued use of my legs, I'm sure." Charles assayed a small smile, testing, and resisted the urge to laugh when Lehnsherr appeared even more flummoxed. He wondered if everyone from spaceside was this odd, or if Lehnsherr just came that way.

"Yes," Lehnsherr finally said, clearly unable to come up with anything better. "You, ah, are to remain here until you are fully healed. If this room is not to your liking, you may choose from the other guestrooms in the main house."

Charles blinked at him. His first instinct was to point out that this room was the size of his home, but there were far more pressing matters. "Thank you, Master Lehnsherr, but I'm afraid I can't. I need to return to my village."

Again, Charles was treated to the are-we-speaking-the-same-language expression. A detached part of his brain pointed out that this was a ridiculous amount of conversational fumbling for two grown men; he told it to shush, because Master Lehnsherr was probably distracted by far more important business, and like as not, Charles had to be under heavy medication.

Master Lehnsherr appeared to consider several responses before settling on, "Did the medbot not stress the serious nature of your injuries?"

"It did." As if to remind him that all was not well, an attempt to shift position sent spasms of hot pain down his back, and there was a deep echo of hurt in his legs. "But. I have a sister. If I don't work, I don't get wages." He paused, and added, in case it wasn't clear, "We need my wages for food. And other necessities."

Lehnsherr's frown deepened. It made his face look more forbidding - though not, Charles despairingly thought, any less appealing. "But. Your injuries."

"A week without food and we starve," Charles pointed out blithely. "If I get back tonight, I'll be able to rest until tomorrow."

The other man glared, as if he thought Charles was being difficult and spine-damaged on purpose. "Ask your sister to come here."

Charles gave Lehnsherr an incredulous look. "She has school, she can't miss any days, there are only a few months left 'til graduation." There were other reasons, too, for why he refused to inflict his sister on an unsuspecting and well-meaning human. Emphasis on the human. "I appreciate your kindness, Master Lehnsherr, but if you can please return my clothes, I shan't trouble you any longer."

Lehnsherr crossed his arms, most of the initial awkwardness abandoned in favor of imitating a (gorgeously chiseled) statue. "At least stay the night."

Startled –because the words fitted the sort of thoughts he’d been entertaining, except likely not in the way Lehnsherr meant them – a spot of saliva went down the wrong pipe. Charles coughed hard, and winced at the ensuing pain. He managed to force out, "I can't."

"For fuck's sake, you can't even walk yet," Master Lehnsherr snapped. (Charles, instead of being alarmed, had to remind his libido that it was supposed to be under medication.) "You are staying in that bed. I will damn well pay you to stay the night, and tie you down for good measure."

Charles thought, faintly, it just gets worse. It was some comfort to see that Master Lehnsherr had caught the unintended innuendo and was manfully ignoring it by simultaneously blushing and radiating an impression of an immovable rock.

Charles gave up. But mainly because of the not-being-able-to-walk thing. "All right."

"Good!" Master Lehnsherr huffed. He stared at Charles for another minute, nodded, and marched out of the room.

"Rich people are very strange," Charles said to the closed door. Under his arse, the bed chirped in agreement.

 

Charles was halfway through "The Once And Future King" when Lehnsherr reappeared again that night. The Master of Estate paused diffidently in the middle of his own guestroom, seemed about to ask Charles something, then stopped when he spotted the paperback cradled carefully in Charles' hands.

Worry rose up in Charles, I should have made sure it was okay to touch these, then Master Lehnsherr barked, "did you leave the bed?"

"Um. No?" Charles hesitated, and put the book down on his lap. "One of your maids came in to find out what I'd like for dinner, and she saw me looking at the shelves. I asked her to hand me this one - I'm sorry, I should have asked if I can read them." Actually, young Alyse ("Oh, Master Lehnsherr doesn't like the designation thing, you'd best call me by name too") had assured him he could, but he didn't want to land her in trouble in case she was mistaken.

But Lehnsherr was already waving his hand dismissively, like it was no matter to him if Charles wanted to paw at his priceless antiques. "It's fine. You can. Read whatever you like."

"Thank you." Charles smiled and looked down at the paperback, not quite believing that he was actually holding a genuine book. "I've always wanted to read a real book."

Lehnsherr cleared his throat, his eyes doing the shifty-dance again. "I came to ask - how much are your wages?"

Charles blinked, taken off-guard. He'd heard that some City-dwellers could be sensitive about being asked such a question. But everyone in Chester worked at the same places he did, so it'd never mattered to him. "Um. Depends on where I go to work? Most of the time I go to the mine, and that's ten half-credits an hour. But if they have openings at the processing plants, it's a full credit per hour."

Lehnsherr stared at him outright. Charles felt a pressing awareness of being in an opulent home - wealth evident in even the one small room that was all he'd seen of it - surrounded by items that likely cost more than he would make in two lifetimes, and braced for pity, condescension, or misplaced embarrassment.

But the other man eventually nodded, taking the information in, and asked his next question, "How many hours a day do you work?"

As long as they let me, was the correct answer, but not especially helpful. "Twelve, on a good day. But openings in the factories are usually only for a few shifts, and the mine 'combs close once there's no daylight."

Another nod, and a pause. Lehnsherr adopted a look of determination not unlike a sports-runner faced with a particularly challenging uphill route. "If I paid you a day's wages for every day that you are here, will you stay until the medbot clears you?"

Charles stared at him. It was becoming a familiar habit. "Can I have time to think about it?"

 


A drawing of a screen showing Raven's face. Her expression is angry and she is pointing accusingly at Charles. In the foreground are Charles' hands holding a compad. The LENSHERR logo is floating next to the screen.
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"There you are!" Raven's voice was perfectly audible over Lehnsherr's state-of-the-art compcall system, which was quite unfortunate in this case: Charles' eardrums winced in protest from being subjected to pitches unknown. "I thought you said you were only going to be gone for a few days. Let me guess - you met someone tall, dark, and handsome?"

"Yes," Charles answered, with no trace of humor whatsoever. "I seem to have been kidnapped by Erik Lehnsherr."

There was huffing sound from somewhere beyond the screen that had been positioned in front of Charles; indicating that Lehnsherr, who'd left the room after logging into the compcall network for Charles, had at some point returned.

Charles manfully resisted the urge to bash his head against the shiny console, then resisted wincing from the burgeoning ache of sitting up with his back straight for even this brief length of time. He waited for Raven's disbelieving squeaks to die down, then dutifully gave her the bare details of their arrangement: he was going to be at Lehnsherr Estate for at least two months, working on a project, and Raven was to contact him if she needed him home for any reason, and his daily wage would be added to their household account as per usual.

(Charles was fairly sure that no one else in the history of Eisen had ever had to exclaim, "not a single credit above my regular wages or I'm leaving if I have to crawl out of here!")

"How did you even meet Lehnsherr?" Raven asked, after her fifth are you serious?

"I ran into him at the New Market," Charles answered as casually as he could. He was very thankful for the medbot's miracle work on his face; most of the cuts and abrasions had been gone by the time he'd woken up, and it was only when he'd asked for the pre-treatment images that he'd realized just how banged up he'd been.

"And you can't tell me what he's got you working on."

"No, sorry. You know how it is." She should. A few of their former neighbors had been able to move better homes, even to one of the four Cities, after landing jobs in the fineries or shipyards; types of work that sometimes involved information they couldn't share with people outside. It was painfully clear that Raven was hoping for a similar windfall.

"I bet it's something boring. Like archiving. I bet you used your horrible pick-up lines on him, and he's plonked you in a dusty database locker somewhere to keep the general population safe from you."

"Raven." Now Charles could feel the amusement rolling off Lehnsherr like the heat on his own face.

"You know, I totally wouldn't believe you if I didn't have the Estate insignia flashing here on my end. Sean's already run off to tell everybody you're calling from the Estate."

"I wouldn't expect any less." He leaned forward. "Are you sure you're all right there? It's been a while since you've been on your own."

"I'll be fine, Charles," grumbled Raven. "I'm legally an adult now, you know."

"You can be a wrinkly grandmother and you'll still be my baby sister. I'm sending you my temporary contact ID here, put it on your compad. Call me if there's any problem, all right? I'll try to check in every few days."

Charles managed to end the call after a few more reassurances of wellbeing on both sides. He tried to push the compscreen back into its frame on the wall, and Lehnsherr, who'd been leaning casually against one of the bookcases, came forward to help him. His expression was as neutral as ever.


A drawing of the scene from a different angle. To the right of the image, a blushing Charles is looking sheepishly at the screen in front of him, only a corner of which is visible. On the left side of the image, Lensherr is wearing a red robe and leaning against a bookcase, next to a globe on a stand.
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"She seems a charming young woman," Lehnsherr said, once Charles had settled back into bed in a more comfortable position. An innocuous statement from an innocuous face. Charles raised an eyebrow. One end of Lehnsherr's lips twitched. In a quieter voice, he added, "You didn't tell her about the accident."

"I don't want to worry her with things she can't do anything about," Charles admitted. "On that note, I appreciate my name being kept out of the Networks." He'd reluctantly gone on the 'Nets and done a search on the incident earlier, and was relieved to find that there were only a few vague mentions of it; and these simply stated that one of Lehnsherr's vehicles malfunctioned and crashed into another vehicle at New Market. No deaths had been reported, and Lehnsherr had made a public appearance soon after, clearly unscathed, so it didn't seem to have gotten much attention. Some of the articles were even worded in a way that made it sound as if Lehnsherr hadn't been anywhere near the accident at all.

"We try to keep as much as possible out of the 'Nets, if you can believe it." Lehnsherr said wryly. "I'm a very private person. Unfortunately, privacy is a... vintage concept, spaceside."

"Is that why you've come home?" Charles asked, and immediately realized that this could be a bit of a personal question. "Oh, sorry, I'm naturally inquisitive? But you don't have to answer if you don't want to. Obviously."

"It's a fair guess, and not particularly inaccurate." Lehnsherr wet his lips in a thoroughly distracting way. "I mean, that is, it was part of the reason."

"Well, you'll certainly get a lot of privacy here," Charles carried on, hoping to smooth the small wrinkle of awkwardness over. "The Manor's grounds are over five hundred square feet, I believe, and guarded to the west and south by the West Canyon Range. Three hundred and forty rooms, if I remember correctly, including five wings and four ballrooms. Historical societies agree that this is the oldest existing structure in this system, built for the Eisenhardts when the planet was first colonized. Back then, of course, the Manor was only what is now known as the North Wing, though the East Wing was constructed within a hundred y-"

Lehnsherr looked taken aback. "You seem to know more about my home than I do, Mr. Francis."

Charles flushed. From anyone else, Lehnsherr's words would be a reprimand, a blunt reminder that he was a guest, regardless of how little he wanted to be one. But he could tell that Lehnsherr didn't mean it that way at all, nor seemed the least bit insulted or reproachful.

Perhaps the man wasn't aware of how he came across to other people. Charles had no idea how, but then he could not imagine going through life without sensing the mind-presence of others around him, without being able to read people's surface thoughts and emotions. Though he did try not to do the latter too much. Not that he could help it, it wasn't something he could turn off completely, and oh dear, "it's the drugs. The grogginess is wearing off."

Lehnsherr arched a well-groomed eyebrow. "Hm," he said, in a tone that suggested he wasn't entirely convinced by the excuse. Charles was just deciding that he didn't have to take this from someone he'd just met when Lehnsherr added, magnanimously, "Well, you did just come out of extensive surgery."

Charles smiled. "About the - knowing about the house thing. I did a report on it, once, for school. My sister calls me an information junkie, or sometimes a sponge, depending on the situation, because I like learning about things, and I have excellent memory. I can probably give you a blow-by-blow account of the Migration -" Focus. He was sure it wasn't this difficult to, normally. Why was Lehnsherr staring at his mouth? "Anyway, she calls me that, as if it's a bad thing to be curious and interested in a wide variety of different subjects-"

A sound came out of Lehnsherr, interrupting, and Charles wasn't sure if he lip-read or mind-read the unspoken oh good fates save me. Lehnsherr's mind was all amusement, though. "I'm sorry," said the other man, chuckling, "you... remind me of someone I know."

"Right." Charles looks away, and grabs onto the book on the bedside table like it was a lifeline. "I think I'll go back to reading now, before this gets worse."

 

Alyse had been bringing Charles' meals since he woke up, despite his appetite being dampened by the medication. That night, Alyse was followed in by Lehnsherr - who was, unexpectedly, carrying his own tray of food.

Lehnsherr pulled up the sole chair in the room to where he could sit right next to Charles' bed. The trays had flexible but strong locking attachments that could be used as short legs on the bed, in Charles' case, or clipped onto the arms or backs of chairs, like in Lehnsherr's.

Dinner was nice, their small exchanges comfortable and unforced, and Charles ended up eating more than he'd expected to. Once he was done, however, he noticed that Lehnsherr seemed a touch tenser than normal.

"Hard day?" he couldn't help asking.

"Somewhat," replied Lehnsherr. "I'm being pressured by Sepor to increase our exports of shipmetal and up the production of all L-class ships. The Prime is also requesting a greater presence of Sepor in this system."

"Oh?" said Charles, shoving a potato in his mouth to prevent himself from gaping at the casual references to Ten Sol's government. In the next second, he realized the disadvantage of this. "Whaf did you fell vem?" he managed, and tried to act as if bits of potato flying out of his mouth was a perfectly acceptable thing in polite company.

On the plus side, Lehnsherr's stern mien broke, and he blinked repeatedly at Charles, likely wondering anew why he'd allowed someone so uncivilized under his roof. "I told him that we are already exporting more shipmetal than anybody else in Ten Sol, and there are already too many of his cronies around as is. He claims that he's worried for our safety, being an outer planetary system, but we're not subjected to banditry any more than Maddox or S'Hara, and I know for a fact that they aren't getting this kind of special attention, so he must have another reason to be sniffing around our homespace. And then I hung up on him."

"Ah." Charles swallowed. He carefully avoided thinking about the fact that he was eating dinner with a man who could hang up on the elected leader of the galactic government. He was also taken aback: this was the largest number of words he'd heard Lehnsherr speak in one go. "For what it's worth, I'm glad you did. I can't speak for the 'Yards, but the mines and factories are already producing as much as they can. But, obviously," he waved a fork, "I am biased on the subject."

He fully expected Lehnsherr to tell him that it was none of his business, or to politely nod and change the subject, but the man tilted his handsome head to one side and asked, "The mines and factories you're referring to, Mr. Francis - do you mean the ones in your region, that you work in? Or for the whole of Eisen?"

"The whole," answered Charles. "All the workers are told the numbers, every quarter, and most of us keep track of them. A supervisor told me it's an old law on Eisen, though no one knows why. All thirteen mines are operating at full capacity, or close enough to get the same effects on the labor force. In some regions, there are more miners than space in the mines for them, and the factories never want for workers."

"And the Vines," said Lehnsherr. "There is no way to produce them faster?"

"Nope." That was another mystery of Eisen - the thirteen mines were the same thirteen established when the colony was first founded. There could never be a new one, until someone figured out how to create a new batch of Vines. "And if there's any other way to get the metal out of the ground, at the depths we work in, I haven't heard of it."

"Hmm." Lehnsherr appeared occupied by some thought. "What do you think, then, about the yield percentages over the past two years?"

Charles frowned, and put his spoon down. "I can't remember the exact figures off the top of my head. Iron, copper, platinum, and silver have been the most consistent in terms of harvest. The far northern mines saw an increase in aluminium last year. Vines extract the metals at different rates, you know-"

Lehnsherr looked surprised. "No, I didn't know that."

"Well, there are a number of factors involved. Last year, for example, was a pretty bad one for strummers - mines eight and eleven saw a record number of casualties. I'm pretty sure strummers affect the Vines too, because if you compare the - hang on, have you got your compad on you? Thanks. Oh look, you've got some of the numbers here. Now, if you compare the yield percentages from the first ten weeks and the yield from the following weeks, during which we got a load of strummers all at once..."

 

Charles confirmed that he'd been right about the high quality of his medication when the medbot began to wean him off them. He didn't feel any withdrawal symptoms or bad side-effects. He just ached, all over, and found that sitting up even with the support of the bed was uncomfortable after an hour or so. But the rest of his body, used to constant and often grueling activity, was already protesting being confined to a bed for so long.

The wheelchair that Lehnsherr brought in on the eve of Charles being released from bedrest was a thing of sleek curves and shiny metal. Lehnsherr parked it at the foot of Charles' bed, and left very stern instructions that Charles was to ring for the staff to assist him when he wanted to get into it in the morning.

"Nonsense, I'm sure I can manage," Charles said.

"And put your back out again in the process?" Lehnsherr retorted. "Just as well that I programmed a lock into the chair. The staff will know the code."

Charles glared at him. "You are insufferable." A detached part of his mind reminded him, this is the man who owns the land you live on, and that of everyone you know, and possibly the air you breathe as well. It was getting harder and harder to remember that, though.

Especially when, like now, Lehnsherr reacted to insults by looking positively cheerful. "I would say the same of you. Are you done with that book? Which one would you like next?"

"You are a brute of a jailer. I'm surprised you can even read. "Alice's Adventures In Wonderland", please." Charles handed over the finished novel, and tried not to look too eager when Lehnsherr passed him the requested paperback. Its faded cover, distinctly worn around the edges, made him reluctant to open it, to touch it more than the absolute minimum. "Are you sure it's all right for me to be handling these?"

Lehnsherr, unexpectedly, smiled. It softened the planes of his face, lit up his eyes; Charles hadn't noticed before how beguiling their shade of blue-green-grey was.

"Books are meant to be handled," Lehnsherr said quietly, "My mother used to tell me, 'books need to be touched, breathed in, cried into; the pages folded and stained, the ink smudged, because this was what made them books. Otherwise, they are only sheets of organic pulp stuck together'."

Charles could only stare. His heartbeat sounded strangely loud in his ears, and his chest felt tight. He blamed it on withdrawal from the meds. Lehnsherr gave no indication that he noticed Charles' attention, or minded - he was gazing at the bookshelf, obviously fond, his eyes caressing the spines of the books in a way that he did not allow his hands to.

Lehnsherr's expression rarely strayed from its polite, polished smoothness. Of course, Charles had other advantages, but for some reason he'd been unusually reluctant to use them on Lehnsherr.

Not because it would be wrong, when the other person didn't even know about his tricks, though this was usually the reason he gave Raven; nor because he feared discovery or rejection, because he wasn't exactly helpless. No, his reason was terribly, terribly indulgent - in a myriad of different ways, Lehnsherr was something new, something different. Charles had brushed his mind a few times, the lightest touch he could manage, and there was something intriguingly complex about Lehnsherr's mind - a texture, almost, that Charles had never encountered before. And Charles wanted to savor it, to keep Lehnsherr a mystery for as long as he could.

It was, also, possible that, deep down, Charles had gotten extremely bored. He'd never say it, because he knew how lucky he was to have the sort of community he had back home, but he suspected Raven knew why he'd been taking more and more trips out of the village lately.

So he was learning to read Lehnsherr's little tells and tics; the difficulty therein, as the man hardly had any, compared to the habitual expressiveness of people back home, only made it more interesting. (For all that Charles had resolved not to cheat, with Lehnsherr - to a reasonable extent, of course, it wasn't as if he could completely turn his ability off - the man was surprisingly controlled on that front, hardly ever radiating his emotions the way other humans did.)

This was, obviously, the only reason why he'd acquired a habit of staring at Lehnsherr at the slightest opportunity.

Now, an unfamiliar sense of recklessness itched under his skin. To the abyss with you, he thought.

"Mmm, I'm afraid I've grown quite a headache," Charles groaned dramatically. He flopped back, hid a wince, and asked the bed to lower him down.

A worried frown appeared on Lehnsherr's face. "Should I get the medbot? Perhaps its program of withdrawal for the painkillers is too steep for your body mass."

"I'm fine, just need to rest my eyes for a bit," mumbled Charles. He fixed the other man with the look Raven liked to call I-am-a-kitten-please-give-me-cuddles. "Read to me?"

Lehnsherr's expression smoothed out. There was a pregnant pause, during which Charles wondered if the Master of Estate was going to march off in a huff and let the staff take care of Charles from thereon. But Lehnsherr just pulled the chair towards the bed and sat down, taking the book from Charles.

"Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do..."

 


A drawing of Charles' wheelchair. The design is very sleek and minimal, with a backrest that looks like flattened ribs and large wheels.
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The following morning, it became evident that Lehnsherr had cottoned on to Charles' stubborn streak and put further measures in place. Charles had barely begun to make his bid for freedom, using his arms to carefully scoot himself to the end of the bed and ignoring how sensation in his legs was still a transient thing, when the door slid open and Alyse, uniform still fresh and crisp, swooped in with tsk, tsk.

She unlocked the wheelchair and helped him into it with smooth competence, though. From her easy chatter, Charles learned that the Manor had ten permanent on-site staff, mainly maid-technicians and valet-programmers who kept everything running smoothly.

"The ‘Keeper asked Master Lehnsherr if he wanted us to hire more, now that he's in residence," Alyse said, adjusting the chair until Charles was leaning back a little, the soft interior molding perfectly to his spine and supporting it like the bed had done. "But the Master said he likely wouldn't need it. And it doesn't seem like he does. He's a neat one, keeps to himself."

"Have you ever met him before?" asked Charles, curiosity piqued.

"A dozen times or so, he used visit for a few days if there was urgent business with the Yards or the mines. I've only been here for about five years, mind. Kit, the cook, has been here almost fifty - she started out as an errand-runner - and she remembers his parents, when they lived here."

"Does she know why they left?" Charles tried not to look too eager to know. He didn't get to watch the channels much back at home, the lone compscreen in the compound being communal property. Even so, he was aware of the months-long speculation on the 'Nets over the reasons for Erik Lehnsherr's return to his ancestral home, which involved dredging up the old theories on why the family had left in the first place.

"No, no, people have been asking her since it happened, but no one here had any clue," Alyse replied, smiling like she was not fooled by Charles' casual act. "They just upped and left. I think they just wanted to live shipside, doesn't have to be a big conspiracy theory. Master Lehnsherr - the current one - was only three or four years old at the time." She shook her head. "Anyway, it's a bit of a change, to have him around all the time, but it's not bad. My sister works for the Krane family, over at North City, and she'd rather they move shipside already, since they act like their feet don't touch the ground. Master Lehnsherr might have lived out there all his life, but I always tell people, he was born down here on the ground, to natural gravity and a true sky, like a normal person."

Charles just nodded and smiled, not really wanting to be drawn into a discussion about the prejudices that people spaceside and planetside had about each other.

She showed him how to use the controls on the armrest, and pulled up a map on the compscreen to give him a general outline of the Manor. Charles thanked her profusely for her help. She beamed at him, her short hair bouncing. "It's not a problem, 's nice to have a new face in the 'ole house."

"I'm just a miner, you know," he said, unable to stand the possibility that the staff thought him some important visitor. "I'm not entirely sure what I'm doing here."

"I'm from Ginia," Alyse said, shrugging. Charles nodded. Ginia was a large factory town, right next to Yard Three. "Don't worry, there's a protocol. The Master has said that you're here as his personal guest, so we're going to treat you as such. Personally," she added with a conspiratorial wink, "I'd take advantage of it. Seeing as you're here anyway."

Daylight lit up the tall, narrow hallway outside, when Charles finally ventured out of the convalescence room. He made his way through it with great care, the chair rolling soundlessly over the soft carpeting. He stayed well away from any of the paintings or objects on display, and even the elegant windows along one wall, out of an irrational fear that he would, somehow, accidentally damage them. The chair responded to his slightest touch; he spent a few minutes getting used to the controls, figuring out how to change direction and alter his speed.

He reached the end of the hallway and executed a smooth turn around the corner. A whoop of success was quickly swallowed down; he could sense someone ahead. He looked up, and promptly forgot how to breathe.

This hallway was wider, and Lehnsherr was standing in the middle of it, gazing somberly out one of the windows. It looked like a scene straight out of a film. Unfiltered sunlight brought out the sharpness of his features, flattering his profile; with his height and in his white knee-length formal coat, he cut a rather dashing figure, like a war-prince or a general out of legend, caught in deep thought.

Now that is a well-made man, said a voice in Charles' head. It sounded distressingly like his mother.


A drawing of Erik in profile, from the shoulders upwards. He is wearing a dark high-collared shirt under a white coat, and light illuminates the front half of his face.
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Before Charles' gaping could be discovered, Lehnsherr took what looked like a slim palm-sized compad out of one of the coat's pockets, looked through it briefly, and hurried away. In the opposite direction, thankfully. Charles waited for him to disappear into a door before moving on.

 

Lehnsherr Manor, Charles quickly found, was surprisingly wheelchair-friendly. Even the narrowest hallways and rooms had space enough for the sleek model that was toting Charles around. The convalescence room was on the ground floor, and there was an old-fashioned elevator to take him up to the other levels. He pointed this out to Lehnsherr over their next shared meal.

"I never really noticed before," the man admitted, frowning. "You are right, though, it seems as if it had been built with this need for access in mind. Perhaps someone involved in the design of the house was a paraplegic? I don't know much about the family history, but the Manor has been more of an ancestral property than a place of residence for the last few generations. My parents only came to live here when my mother was pregnant, and evidently they changed their mind after I was born. It is very possible that the foundation of the house, and the grounds, has remained exactly the same since it was first built, and all the additions since had to follow the original scheme."

That evening, after Alyse had come and taken the dinner trays away, Lehnsherr wordlessly picked up "Alice's Adventures In Wonderland" from the sidetable, and sat by the bed just as he had on the previous night. Charles, feeling strangely warm and short of breath and a little like his very excellent dinner had taken up acrobatics in his stomach, got the bed to lower him, and laid back. Lehnsherr's warm voice started up, steady and warm, and he picked up exactly at the point Charles last remembered hearing, as if Lehnsherr had known, to the word, when Charles had dropped to sleep the night before.

 

Staying in the Manor was very much like living in a half-forgotten museum. The depictions of the rich in movies tended to emphasize their predilections for luxury and state-of-the-art equipment. But the Manor didn't look like it had anything more sophisticated than electrical lighting, at least on the surface. The compscreen terminals were set right into the walls, the automated cleaners looked like tasteful sculptures that happened to be wandering the elegant hallways. Everything was refined, classical, straight out of the pre-space era.

Charles was admiring a painting that was probably worth more than his entire village when he felt an unfamiliar mind approaching him. It wasn't exactly hostile, but there was an edge to it that set it apart from the peaceful, quietly purposeful minds of the staff.


A drawing of an irate Wolverine pointing directly at the reader. The words 'I hear you're responsible for that fucking idiot still walking around and breathing' are written above his shoulder.
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"I hear you're responsible for that fucking idiot still walking around and breathing," growled the newcomer.

Several minutes later, Lehnsherr's familiar mind hurried down the corridor, steaming anxiety. "Wolverine, please do not traumatize my guest- oh," Lehnsherr stopped, and looked between Charles and the man looming over his wheelchair. "I see you two have met?"

"Wolverine was just telling me that he's your bodyguard," said Charles cheerfully.

"Is that all?" asked Lehnsherr. But he was staring at Wolverine, now, his expression unreadable, and his bodyguard's face was similarly hard to read. The two were clearly engaged in some kind of complicated, silent communication - more likely an argument, judging by the excitable vein in Lehnsherr's neck - and it was the height of temptation for Charles to listen in. Even their emotions were walled off, at least to the surface scanning that Charles could never completely stop.

"This is what happens when you sneak off without me, you arrogant fuckhead," Wolverine finally growled, fists clenching. "I knew there was a reason you sent me to deliver that package to Stark personally."

"To be fair, it was a very important and sensitive delivery," said Lehnsherr. His tone was not quite apologetic, but his stance relaxed into something mildly diffident.

"You could have waited for me to get back. Like you were supposed to." Wolverine turned to Charles and said, as if it were a threat, "for what it's worth, bub, I owe you one."

Charles stared after Wolverine as the man stalked off, the coiled lines of his body resembling that of a pissed-off wild animal. "He seems... nice."

Lehnsherr looked at him incredulously. "Of all the descriptions I've heard for Wolverine, nice has never been one of them. Are you sure he didn't do anything... untoward?"

"He shook my hand?"

"I was going to warn you about him, but I suppose it's too late now," Lehnsherr muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose.

"Really, Master Lehnsherr, he was perfectly civil. I'm sure he means well. He's supposed to be concerned about your wellbeing."

"Some days, I suspect he hates the idea of someone murdering me only because he's planning to do it himself, eventually."

 

The thing had the appearance of a chair, except that the surface of the seat was covered with what looked like a very squashy purple cushion, which turned out to be damp when Charles tentatively poked at it. He would have thought the room was a small closet or drawing room, except for the sink and mirror near the door, the soap and towels, and for good measure he'd even checked the map on the compscreen.

Besides, Charles really, really needed to piss.

He reminded himself that he had an adventurous spirit, and grabbed the sidebar. He bodily hauled himself out of the wheelchair, gritting his teeth against the expected pain. At least the facilities in the Manor didn't require him to attempt turning around; the toilet seats were shaped so that the user could sit facing away or towards the wall, and even had adjustable compscreens on said wall in case he was inclined towards a spot of toilet reading.

The toilet in his room, though, was perfectly familiar, like the ones at home but much cleaner. This one, the moment Charles awkwardly sat down on it, suddenly sprang to life by enveloping his- groin regions, the squashy damp purple cushion-like material spreading and growing and climbing nearly down his thighs and up to his hips.

The purple material, once Charles unwillingly got a closer look at it, was squashy because it was made up of a million soft wriggly tubes, all ending in gaping suckers.

Charles swallowed an instinctive scream. He told himself to think of one of those sea plants, he remembered seeing videos of them at the library (anemones, his brain supplied, or was that the tiny orange fish?).


A hilarious drawing of Charles fleeing oversized purple tentacles. The word 'Chaaaarles' floats over the suckers.
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He flailed and got hold of the sidebar, his legs suddenly finding themselves able to support his weight after all. The purple toilet sucker-tubes let him go quite easily, thank goodness, and he struggled back onto the wheelchair. The chair banged against the darkly polished walls a few times before he convinced it to turn around, and he squeezed it back through the narrow doorway. He remembered the fragile vase parked right across the door just in time to avoid it by swiveling sharply to the left.

There was a startled shout, a confused flurry of movement. Charles released the controls entirely, which stopped the forward movement of the chair; a mere second after Lehnsherr, with obviously faster reflexes, had scrambled out of the way before Charles could crash into his shins.

"I think your toilet just tried to eat me," Charles declared into the stunned silence.

It turned out - once Lehnsherr stopped the mysterious wheezing that he refused to admit was laughter - that the toilet Charles had wandered into was modeled after shipside toilets, for guests who were unfamiliar with planetside facilities.

"The dispensers," said Lehnsherr, meaning the purple tubes with suckers, "absorb the organic material you produce and break it down into base chemicals that the ship can use. You can see how this saves on water - it actually helps to synthesize more water, which may be the only reason living shipside is possible."

"Lovely," said Charles. "'s not every day one gets groped by space toilets. Now, could you please direct me to the nearest toilet that uses liquid and a regular flushing mechanism?"

 

A few days into his explorations, Charles found a sun-lit atrium on the top floor. It had beautiful floor-to-ceiling windows with delicate, metallic ornamentation around the edges. The view looked out onto the grounds. But unlike the views from other areas of the Manor, this one also included Yard One, and beyond that, the distant country hills. Something inside Charles relaxed at the familiar palette of reds and browns and ochres, and he realized that a part of him had been unsettled by the picturesque but alien greenery of the garden that surrounded the Manor.

The best part of the room, though, was a beautiful antique chess set.

He asked Lehnsherr about it over dinner.

These shared meals were now officially a kind of routine. They often ran into one another a few times during the day, but the breakfasts and lunches and dinners were when they could talk for longer than a couple of sentences. So far Lehnsherr had missed only two meals, for work or social obligations, and Charles was strangely unsettled after both of them; the next time he'd sat down and eaten with Lehnsherr, it'd felt as if he hadn't seen the man in weeks.

"Oh, it's a family heirloom. Another one," said Lehnsherr, about the board. There was something exaggeratedly casual about the set of Lehnsherr's shoulders, which told Charles that this was anything but. "My father taught me how to play. He wasn't very good at it, though; mother always trounced him."

"You know," said Charles, smiling, "it was my father who taught me how to play, too."

They adjourned to the atrium, where the view was just as lovely at night, the stars glinting like mine-gems overhead. Charles soundly defeated Lehnsherr on their first three games. He punched the air in a way he thought of as virtuously triumphant but Raven called ridiculous, please stop doing that, I refuse to be seen in public with you.

Lehnsherr, a full smile teasing his features into a different, beautiful thing, drily said, "I think you should start calling me Erik."

To which the only possible response was: "hello, Erik, my name is Charles."


A drawing of Charles smiling, with the words 'hello, Erik, my name is Charles' written beside him.
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