Part 2 - The Chariot
The next day’s flow was rather ordinary. The wardens attended to me exactly as usual, cleaning my body with rough sponges in the morning (apparently, the health cream had left no visible trace on my body — either that, or they simply weren’t paying close attention or didn’t care) and feeding me a single meal compound of bread and dried meat sometime around midday. Unexceptionally, not a word was uttered.
On the other hand, although this day’s flow was no different from yesterday’s, my experience of it definitely was. The sponges that hadn’t bothered me one bit up to now now felt incredibly irritating against my skin, and the food tasted like something I might actually ask for in a restaurant for a change.
I deliberately kept silent (except for a surprised whimper when I first noticed the sponges’ sting had increased). I suspected bringing attention on the fact that something had changed might make them more vigilant in the near future, something that I didn’t want.
When my captors left the cell, I let out a brief sigh, trying to make sense of what had transpired today. The increased irritability of my skin was easy enough to explain — assuming the girl hadn’t lied, my body had essentially gone through a rejuvenating cure during my sleep (the ease with which I was accepting the notion that something magical had happened actually surprised me a little). Rather than an increased sensitivity, I supposed I had simply recovered my up-to-now-lost healthy sensitivity, dropping some kind of accumulated pain resistance in the process. That was relatively easy to imagine.
My increased taste, though… she supposedly hadn’t done anything to my head, never mind my tongue. I couldn’t think of a realistic justification, so after a few minutes of fruitless reflexion I decided to drop the issue for now. I had more urging matters to think of.
I had an intuition I would ultimately accept the girl’s offer. Although I was fully aware that I had no idea what I would be getting into, this might be my only chance to leave this cell alive, and her respectful attitude up to now made me inclined to believe she wasn’t the kind of person who would condone abuse.
Nevertheless, I resolved to ask her about familiars before I took my decision. I figured this shouldn’t scare her away if she was serious; should my questioning turn out to be enough to drive her away, that would be a very strong indicator of some kind of double-game going on and I would probably be better off not letting her have her way in the first place.
Out of the blue, someone grabbed my right hand and forced their fingers between mine. Once my initial, shocked surprise dissipated, I looked to my right and discovered another girl was standing next to me, grinning at me.
“Hi,” she greeted me, squeezing my hand.
I tried to free myself from her grasp, but the chains that kept me standing up didn’t allow for a lot of amplitude and her grip was incredibly strong. She calmly maintained the pressure until I gave up, constantly looking straight into my eyes as she did so.
“There, there,” she said after I had given up, stroking my arm with her free hand, “good.”
I wanted to look away from her, to at least preserve my freedom of focus, but I was somehow unable to do so — I felt as though my eyes were pinned to hers. Her caress was distracting.
“I was thinking of having a little chat,” she continued. “Any objections?”
There was no way I could shake her off, and my eyes wouldn’t let me ignore her presence. I managed a nod.
“So here’s the thing,” she casually started. “Yesterday, I was reading a book on one of my wonderfully comfortable feather cushions, minding my own business, and all of a sudden little Erika pops through our door with a smile on her lips, obviously very satisfied about something. She wouldn’t tell me what she was so happy about, but I have… my ways… of loosening tongues. Anyway, eventually she confessed about your conversation, and I felt I had to react.”
So, yesterday’s girl was called Erika?
I frowned, but didn’t say anything. I didn’t know who she was or what she was trying to achieve, but I had a feeling reacting to her would just be playing right into her hand — literally. She smiled before taking a more serious expression.
“Listen, you mustn’t accept her offer,” she stated. “She may have looked like she was a gentle, docile girl, but she’ll change the moment you enter her game. I’ve seen it happen before. It wasn’t pretty.”
She let go of my gaze, and I was finally free to look away from her eyes. My hand was still stuck in hers, though.
I carefully examined her, trying and failing to read her body language — she radiated way too much self-confidence for anything else to be noticeable. She was calmly examining my arm, as though it had been some sort of archaeologic find. Blonde tresses… was she related to yesterday’s girl? She was much taller than her, though.
“Why are you telling me this?” I probed.
“Because I have an alternate offer for you,” came her immediate answer. “Let’s not waste time on formalities: I need to get out of this place too, and I need you to become my familiar for that purpose. I promise to release you the moment we’re out — if you want me to, of course.”
Well, at least she was straightforward. I stared at her, unsure what to think. It dawned on me that she might be willing to explain what being a familiar meant to me.
“I didn’t accept Erika’s offer yesterday because I lacked data about familiars — I was planning on asking her about that subject tonight,” I explained. “Whatever my decision ends up being, I need to know what I’m getting into. Care to educate me?”
She nodded slowly, smiling a warm, empathic smile at me. I was pretty sure she would have been able to lie her way through nearly anything, but something about that smile felt authentic, reassuring.
“You aren’t from this world, are you?”
I glanced at my feet.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Probably not.”
She nodded. “If you don’t know about familiars, this most likely isn’t home world. Familiars are way too important around here to escape one’s awareness.”
It was my turn to nod.
“Does the word at least ring a bell?”
“It does pop up in fiction from time to time. Most of the time a familiar is the pet of a magic user,” I recited.
She titled her head.
“A pet? Like, an animal?”
“What a bizarre idea.”
She looked genuinely puzzled.
“I don’t mean to insult you or anything, mind you, but… I mean, how would an animal be supposed to process complex magic motives?”
“Magic motives?” I asked, curious.
“Right… I assume actual magic isn’t a thing where you come from?”
“Unless you’re talking about card tricks, no, it isn’t.”
She sighed loudly. “Sounds like an awfully boring world to me.”
I actually chuckled at that. She gently squeezed my hand, reminding me that her grasp was still active with a grin.
She then spent a while giving me a crash course on the world we were in, how magic worked and, most importantly, what familiars were.
Over here, a familiar was basically a human being bound to a partner called a Meister. The Meister had absolute control over every aspect of the familiar’s existence — their appearance, their behavior, their beliefs and even their memory and life. Obviously enough, that meant anyone looking to become a familiar had to trust their potential Meister hugely, or face potentially disastrous personal consequences, for a familiar-Meister bond could only be released by the Meister. As such, familiars were considered extremely rare and precious.
Familiars were also the most powerful wielders of magic around, by far. They couldn’t use magic on their own, but their Meister could essentially use them as wands to cast nearly limitless magic.
She was still holding onto my hand. My palm was getting embarrassingly sweaty, but she didn’t seem to mind.
“Erika probably won’t be long,” she said with an awkward smile when I remarked the day had ended. “I’d rather she didn’t learn about my visit, if that’s okay with you.”
I actually heard a sigh escape my lips, and blushed upon realizing I had been enjoying that girl’s presence.
“Aren’t you going to ask me whether I want to be your familiar?” I asked, surprised at her casualness.
“I’ve already made my offer,” she shrugged. “There would be little point in pestering you over and over with it, right? You need to make your own decisions.”
I smiled back at her. She gently caressed my cheeks with her free hand, and I felt them warm up under her touch.
“Well, I’ll see you around, I guess.”
She finally let go of my hand, passed behind me and left the room. I was alone again, but I knew it wouldn’t be long until Erika came over. I wasn’t sure whether I should carry on with my original plan of asking her about familiars. Cross-interrogation might help me examine her psyche, but it might also give my conversation with her maybe-relative surely-rival and I wasn’t sure I wanted that.
I decided I’d let her take the initiative for now. Going with the flow would give me a better posture to observe her behavior without alarming her.