You wake up slowly, then with a start. Your first instinct tells you to panic, but you know better. With the hood over your head, your hyperventilated breathing could suffocate you in minutes. So you wait- you’re a very patient person!
Situation check- your wrists have been bound to a wooden chair by duct tape. Are you a part of some sicko’s horror movie or something? It’s such a ridiculous stereotype that, in your hysteria, you can feel the beginnings of laughter bubbling in your chest. Your torso is bound likewise to the chair, this time with the smooth slide that suggests a silken rope, and the hood over your head is a soft cotton- these people have expensive tastes. Your ankles are free, which startles you as you test out a kick and nearly fling off your shoe. Unfortunately, the chair is bolted to the floor. There go your plans for kicking in the door and walking out of here, chair, hood, and all. Looks like you got caught.
You listen- you hear no soft susurrus of fabric against someone’s skin as they breathe. No thumping of footsteps above, below or around you. You listen a little harder, for softer sounds of life. There is a faint rustling that you quickly recognize as the autumn wind through the leaves of the trees above you. You’re on the first floor.
You remove your shoes and scrape your bare feet against the floor. The slide of dirt gives way to the catch of rough, untreated wood. You knock your heel down and listen to the echo- you’re in a cramped room, and, judging by the hollow sound of the echo, you’re the only thing inside. You’re outside of the main house, in a shed.
Well, you knew the risk when you took the job. If you’re going to be waiting a while, you may as well relax.
With this, the adrenaline leaves you in a flood. The back of your head is pounding so hard, you fear your eyes may very well leave your skull. Your shoulders are sore and stiff like they’re filled with small stones, and your ass is so sore that you have to put weight on your feet to relieve the pressure. You wonder how long you’ve been here.
It’s not like you can leave. You make yourself as comfortable as you can, letting your thoughts wander. And you sit. And you wait.
The silence of your captivity is finally broken with heavy footsteps, around 35 minutes later. As anxious as you are, relief floods through you- it’s about time someone checked up on you.
The hood is removed from your head with a surprisingly gentle touch. As your eyes adjust to the sudden light, you find yourself seated before a woman with a face like a peach, in both shape and complexion. She’s got a motherly softness to her- in any other context, your primal hindbrain would have been screaming 'safety at last!' But as you meet her gaze, a cold, slick thrill of fear runs itself down your spine and to your gut, curling itself neatly in the deepest depths of your belly. This woman is bad news- from her cold, dead eyes to her beauty pageant perm. As she speaks, the slow lilt of her southern drawl lulls your eyes shut. She’s a study in contradictions, and you want simultaneously to have her hold you in her arms and to run screaming in the other direction.
“Looks like you mis-stepped, little one,” she finishes off her sentence with a lazy smile, folding the hood in her hands neatly and crossing her arms beneath it. You watch her gaze draw down to your bare feet. “Getting comfy?” she gives you the same lazy smile, although this one reaches her eyes. You couldn’t get your shoes and socks back on with just your feet, and why would you want to besides? Who knew how long it was going to take before someone came to deal with you.
You slow your breathing- you hadn’t realized you were starting to panic again. Now’s the time to be polite, figure out what’s going on and whose ass to kiss.
“Nice perm, asshole,” you say instead. Who doesn’t love a force of habit? Fuck, that’s definitely not going to get you on her good side. She doesn’t react, but you can tell that she heard you. Amusement sparkles in her eyes, and it’s such a contrast to the cold, deep dark that was there previously that the anxiety spikes in you tenfold. What is up with this woman?
“Not many people can do what you did,” she digs around in her pockets, fishing out a pocket knife. She unfolds the blade and pokes it languidly into your chest, angling between two ribs and pointing at your heart. “I’m impressed. Someone like you could be a big help around here. If you had a trustworthy bone in your little body.”
“If you want your bone in my body so bad, you could try asking nicely,” you splutter out, backing further into your chair to escape her knife. You joke, but your mind is racing- you have an out, as long as you don’t fuck this up tremendously. You clench your eyes shut with a hiss of pain as she leans some weight onto you. She pointedly doesn’t laugh at your joke. Oh well- not every joke is a winner. The knife cuts into your shirt and carves a line into your skin. The sweet pleasure-pain of it all helps to clear your thoughts. You think of your options- refusing is sure to get your throat slit and your body thrown in the bay. You could figure out a way to double-cross her, say yes and bide your time… No, that would never work, she’s clearly a professional. But so are you, and you know that sometimes the right answer is the simplest.
“Yeah, I’ll work off my debt to you. Then I’m out. No games, no obligations.” You open your eyes again and get lost, captivated by the sight of your blood rolling down the blade, flowing down her thumb and dripping off her knuckle.
She leans more weight onto you, grabbing you by the chin and forcing you to look her in the eye. “That was succinct, if distant. You’re savvy,” she says as her face draws ever near. Her expression is so serene and kind that you wonder if maybe she might kiss you. This is all very confusing. Oh fuck oh fuck you can feel the blade sinking deeper into your skin and what, is she trying to pry your chest open with her knife or something, because ow, and-
The silken rope around your torso breaks with a loud “Snap!” She must have seen something she liked in your eyes because soon she’s cutting away the duct tape that binds your wrists to the chair (and ripping the duct tape from your skin with quick, rough tugs, taking some of the hair of your arms with it, ouch). The shakiness of your legs must incite pity in her because she grabs you by the forearm and helps you to stand.
“There’s no reason we can’t be friends,” she says, digging her nails into the flesh of your arm after you find your feet firm beneath you.
So you take her arm firmly in your hand, smiling as genuinely as you can up at her. You look forward to a very strange partnership.
You’re able to negotiate your debt down to a year of service, but that’s only after you promise Chahut (as she introduces herself) that you’ll pass on some of your secrets. For instance: How did you break into her family’s mansion? What did you know about her family? What were you after? Who’s in this with you? Easy questions, but difficult answers- you’re thankful for the time she’s granted you. She brings you inside for tea and you find an ease with her- now that she isn’t trying to terrify you, she’s pretty sweet. You notice the way she twists her wedding ring around her finger when she’s annoyed with you (but trying to be patient). You notice the way her hands gesture in time with her speaking- ASL, if your guess is correct. Old habits never die, you think with a smirk. You enjoy putting together the little pieces of her puzzle. Maybe her spouse is deaf. Maybe Chahut is, and she’s a prodigious lip reader.
You find comfort in the small, octagonal cubby the two of you have stowed away in, right next to a flight of stairs yet somehow away from the hustle and bustle of her maids. And you find comfort in the silence between the two of you as your negotiations draw to a close. She was right- there’s no reason that you can’t be friends. If you’re going to work for her for a while, you may as well make good use of your time. You look out of the four french windows in your space, letting your hands warm around your cup of tea. It’s one of those autumn days that everyone dreams about but rarely sees- the wind is soft, caressing the browning leaves of the trees like a mother soothing a child. The sun is close to setting, and the word is alight in the residual golds and coppers of its light. On the lawn, you notice three children running and playing, jumping in piles of leaves and throwing armfuls of leaves at each other. A petite woman chases after them, laughing as they pelt her with leaves and she falls dramatically to the ground.
“My son, Karako” Chahut points to the smallest of the children, a little boy of around 8, his hair a wild halo around his head.
“And my wife, Chixie” Chahut doesn’t need to point to the small woman out on the lawn- it’s pretty obviously her- but she does anyway, with such a proud smile that you feel it in your heart. Chixie stands, graciously accepting the help of the twins, wiping the leaves off of her sweater dress. She turns and meets Chahut’s loving gaze with a smile brighter than the setting sun. She gets Karako’s attention and points up to the two of you. Karako waves with his entire body like an excited puppy- he’s got the same kind of sunny smile that Chixie has. Chahut waves back and makes a sign. First, she points at him, then, with two fingers, touches the tip of her nose before bringing them down across her chest to make an ‘x’ shape over her index and middle fingers from her other hand, parallel to the table. Karako nods before he runs off in search of the other two children. Chixie signs back- she points to herself, then taps her chin with her index finger, and points to Chahut. Chahut blushes, then turns back to you.
As sweet as this scene is, it brings you more questions than answers. You realize you’re at a disadvantage here and make a note to yourself to pay attention to the gestures Chahut makes as she speaks.
“Let’s move on,” she says.
It turns out that your first job is… cleaning, and you’re less than thrilled. Chahut brings you to the kitchen to meet her second in command- a long, lean woman named Marsti. Her short, dark hair is slicked back above her cool, impassive eyes and you notice the tan lines on her skin, suggesting a habit of wearing long gloves and long sleeves, rolled up.
The first month spent with Marsti is long and grueling, but you’re thankful for the work. Marsti is difficult to get along with even on her best days- every sentence you say to her ends up being the wrong thing to say. Every action you make can be improved- do it faster, make it neater, can you please be quiet with that. Every song you hum is a song that she hates. You would hate her, and maybe you should, but you don’t, if only because you’ve learned more from her than you have from your entire career in being sneaky. You notice the signs of your improvement day by day. When you cook dinner now, people eat it. When you’re asked to clean up, it doesn’t take you all day. You can dice a carrot in 15 seconds and sear a steak so beautifully that it brings a tear to your eye. No dust escapes your scrutiny and you actually know how to fold fitted sheets.
But most of all, she’s taught you how to be quiet. How to keep your head down and listen, and perhaps it’s this that Chahut wanted to teach you all along. You ghost your way into rooms, unnoticed and unimportant, and people talk.
You learn, listening to two of the maids in the laundry room, that the head of the family is on vacation, and Chahut is planning to take his place. And you do notice how, while Chahut never takes charge or makes demands, people defer to her anyway.
You learn that Karako is adopted, and that Chahut and Chixie are good friends with the woman that runs social services. Bronya stops by for dinner nearly every night, not only to eat but to say hello to Karako. She helps you learn sign language- how are you, thank you (this one proves hard to perfect), and don’t touch that (which turns out to be your go-to phrase with Karako). She’s infinitely patient with you, even after her long days at work, and you do your best to make sure you always have her favorite snacks- soft baked pretzels with the fancy, whole grain mustard she likes; the fancy chocolate cookies with sambuca and powdered sugar (which turn out to be Karako’s favorite as well); Korean style barbeque chips. It’s the little things you can do for her, and every kindness you show to her brings a sweet, slow smile to her face, like a flower unfolding in the midday sun.
You learn, helping Karako prepare a sandwich while Chahut and Chixie take stock of the kitchen, that Marsti is paying off a debt that her parents forced her into, borrowing money from the family in order to send her to a good med school. She’s nearly finished paying off her debt, and a little thrill of anxiety sparks in your gut. You hope you weren’t brought in to take her place.
And Marsti warms up to you, slowly. As you learn to keep your mouth shut, you learn that she likes to be heard. She loves her job here (and you send a prayer of thanks to whatever God or messiah is listening), and she loves to cook. She spends a lot of time in the garden (you learn that she grows most of the vegetables here), and while she is interested in medicine, she sees it more as a sort of hobby. When she smiles, it’s sad, and when she laughs- rare as it is- it’s silent, the laughter shaking her body and her breath leaving her in huffs. You end your nights watching shows about medical anomalies and surgeries (gone wrong!) and she trash-talks the narrator the entire time.
She lets you in on some of her secret, experimental recipes- eel stuffed with figs in an orange glaze, with lentils and dark, grainy bread (not well received, she makes notes on a little notepad that are completely inscrutable, and she tries again). Spicy Thai style sausage sandwiches with tomato pesto, caramelized onions, muenster cheese, and rye bread (very well received by almost everyone but Chahut, and you learn that Chahut can’t handle spicy foods). You retaliate by showing her new ways to organize the silverware drawers (lots of little boxes, everything now has its proper place), how to fold the napkins to save the most space. She scoffs at you, but you notice that she quietly takes your best ideas into her regime.
The second month brings Marvus into your life.
It’s a rainy day and you’re struggling to bring in all of the clothes in from off of the line. Marsti is busy drying off the floors and doing her best to convey to Karako that he needs to wipe the mud off of his feet before he comes inside. Her ASL is limited, but she’s having a better time of it than you were.
You bring the sodden wad of clothing, sheets, and under-things inside and then into the basement to hang up. Marsti taught you where the warm drafts from the dryer were, and you do your best to hang everything up so they would dry without catching mold or mildew, ringing out the rainwater over the sink.
As you make your way back up the stairs, sweaty and wet and just generally uncomfortable, you hear footsteps. Lots of them, heavy and urgent across the floor. You stop, your hand on the rail and a basket of laundry perched on your hip, and watch them all cross your field of view in the doorway. Instinctively, you keep quiet. The first people who cross your vision are obviously bodyguards- aggressively postured, ridiculously muscled. These people don’t interest you- it’s well known the Makara family had connections to politicians, celebrities, and police. Only one man catches your interest.
While all of his bodyguards carry luggage and suitcases, he carries nothing but his posture. His steps are slow and measured, suggesting stage training, and, even though the sun isn’t out, the limited light from the overhead lamps and chandelier seems to draw towards him, working hard to shine off of the deep brown of his skin, glinting gold in the drops of rain that never left him. His locs, which reach impressively to his mid-back, are twisted around themselves and tied back in order to keep off his face, and while he’s dressed simply in a pair of gray sweatpants and a purple tank top, he looks expensive, untouchable, like his skin would fall away like gold leaf at the slightest touch.
As soon as you take note of him, he’s gone. His absence leaves you like a sunset leaves the earth- everything gets just a little darker, just a little colder. You hate that. You decide not to dwell on it, and make your slow way back upstairs. It’s a new month, and Chahut has an assignment for you. You place one foot in front of the other and make your slow way up the stairs.
You have to go back outside to meet with Chahut- luckily, the rain has died down to a slow drizzle.
She’s standing, quiet and serene, in front of a pond, throwing scraps of carrots out to the ducks. You’re surprised there are still ducks this far north- surely by now, they would have started migrating south?
“As I’m sure you’ve noticed, my brother is home,” she scowls as she says this, twisting all of her words as they leave her mouth. “Along with all of the trouble that accompanies him.”
You nod, deciding to let her continue instead of blundering your way through this conversation. You know that family matters can be tense, and you aren’t technically family.
She turns to you with a sigh, letting the tension drain from her neck and shoulders as she wipes the rain from her forehead.
“Why did you break into my house?” she asks. You notice the possessive ‘my’ with a smile, and file that away for later. While her words aren’t accusative or angry, you wonder just how much you should let slip. If you tell her too much truth, she might not believe you, but if you lie, she definitely won’t.
You chew on her question for a moment- it’s a complicated answer, in truth. You decide that it might be easier to let her chip away at you until she’s satisfied, instead of releasing the floodgates all at once.
“Information,” you say, meeting her gaze, crossing your arms in front of your chest. You hope you look as frank as you feel.
“What kind of information?”
“All kinds. Who’s the head of the family, what do you have in your house, what kind of soap you use,” you list off from your fingers. “No ill intent, just curiosity. Imagine a library- I work in the reference section.” This metaphor always makes you laugh- your best friend came up with it, and, with a rush of shame, you realize that you got so caught up in your work that you’ve completely forgotten to contact him.
“Who sent you?” she asks. Her face is a perfect mask, but you’ve spent enough time with her to read her. As she brings her thumb to her chin to sign ‘who,’ the flutter of her index finger is quick and anxious. When she brings her hand down to point at you, it’s with fury.
“I sent myself,” you say. “I have many friends who work alongside me, but I do my best work alone.”
She nods, turning away from you to observe the ducks again.
“We have a meeting with a rival family in two months time,” she says, unprompted. “Marsti goes back to school this month, so you’re going to be there in her place.”
You know she doesn’t mean as her second in command, but the pride and excitement flood you anyway. You nod your understanding, and she continues.
“You need to take notes- who is there, I need names and descriptions. What was said- I need these statements verbatim,” Her face has gone firm, her posture tall and regal. Even her signing is blunt. She’s very scary when she’s in charge. You feel an instinctive sort of fear- you could never forgive yourself if you failed her.
Still, she couldn’t have chosen a better person for the job. The word ‘serendipity’ floats around in your head- this whole thing is falling into place almost too perfectly. You vow to fit the pieces of this particular puzzle together at a later time. For now, you listen attentively.
“And you’re going to need to learn how to protect yourself in a fight.”