Part 3 - The Chain
As expected, Erika came over a dozen minutes after her blonde rival’s leave. This time, she wasted no time hiding behind me and immediately stood before me, bowing briefly to salute me. She was wearing the same outfit as yesterday, her eyes still hidden under her hood.
She was carrying a gold chain in her hands, not unlike the ones my wrists were bound to. I decided not to mention it for now.
“Have you given my offer some thought?” she asked, her voice soft but determined.
I needed to play this right. She wanted me to become her familiar, in order for us both to escape this place. According to her rival’s description of the job, that would essentially make me her superpowered magical slave. I had no real reason not to believe she had been lying about that part — the blonde girl wanted me to become her familiar too, after all.
Her more dubious, vaguer warning was still fresh in my mind — supposedly, Erika would change the moment I entered her game. She had announced it in a rather matter-of-fact tone, but her obvious self-confidence meant it was impossible to distinguish lies from truth when she was the one speaking.
Although my means were very limited, I needed to evaluate Erika’s trustworthiness.
“I have,” came my calm, controlled answer. When I saw her straighten her back, visibly having a hard time containing her excitement, I quickly continued talking. “I may or may not be interested in accepting it.”
I heard a sigh escape her lips.
“Well, I suppose that was to be expected,” she admitted. “I have another proposal for you tonight,” she added, suddenly dropping the whole familiar deal.
I raised an eyebrow, intrigued. I had little doubt the chain she was carrying had something to do with this “other proposal,” but I had a hard time figuring out how exactly she intended to sell anything to me that involved chains considering the time I had spent in full restraints.
“I omitted some details yesterday,” she started. “I am actually the youngest of this castle’s princesses.”
I was genuinely surprised. Not really by her statement’s face value (at this point, I might have believed her if she’d told me she was actually a green-furred platypus in disguise), but by its non-sequitur value. This seemed to come out of absolutely nowhere.
I must have had some weird expression painted on my face, for she chose this moment to remove her hood, revealing a silver tiara resting on the top of her head.
“My name is Erika, third princess of Rapture.”
Her bright blue eyes, framed by black bangs and tresses, had an eerie air about them. Where the blonde girl’s gaze had felt forceful but reassuring, Erika’s gaze made me feel uneasy, uncomfortable. Although she was clearly trying to appear self-confident, I had a feeling she was actually very nervous, and her nervousness was contagious.
Rapture, eh? I knew this name to designate a fictive underwater city in a popular video game, but I was pretty sure this place didn’t have anything to do with it — I could see the sky clearly from my cell.
When I didn’t say anything, she continued talking. “I desire freedom, something Rapture cannot offer even to me, one of her princesses. I want you to give it to me by becoming my familiar, in exchange for getting you out of this place.”
I nodded. So far, this was nothing new.
“Nevertheless, I am one of Rapture’s princesses. I actually do have some level of authority within its walls. Which brings us to my offer.”
She raised the golden chain in her hands, presenting it to me. At one of its ends, hanged what looked like a heavy gold collar. The other end was attached to a handcuff. The chain was about two meters long. Slowly, I guessed her intent. This was a leash.
“I can take you out of this cell, if I attach this chain to you. You will still be considered a prisoner, but you will be able to walk around Rapture by my side. This should increase your comfort level considerably, and it will allow us to discuss more freely about the future.”
This sounded fishy. I hated to look at a gift horse in the mouth, but I kinda had to in my position. “Wouldn’t that imply security risks, though? What if I used the opportunity to take you as my hostage to get out of here?”
She tilted her head, visibly intrigued.
“You are hardly a threat in your current state,” she calmly answered.
I raised an eyebrow. Was she underestimating me, or was I the one underestimating her? Her face looked as serious as ever. Eventually, she just lifted the chain up again.
“Are you interested?”
She obviously expected me to accept her answer on the spot. I couldn’t think of a reason to refuse being able to move around for a change — I had a feeling I’d meet her rival again later whether I stayed chained up here or not. So I nodded.
She smiled a small smile and bowed in appreciation, starting to fiddle with the collar at the end of her chain. “Should I proceed, then?”
She lifted the collar to my neck and calmly fitted it around it, ensuring it was tight but not too much before locking it in place. It didn’t feel nearly as heavy as I had feared. I definitely wouldn’t be able to clear it from my mind anytime soon, but its presence didn’t crush my shoulders or anything like that.
She then attached the handcuff at the chain’s other end to her right hand, without any hesitation. We were now locked to each other. She produced a key from a pocket on her dress.
“I am going to detach your arms,” she explained, raising her right hand to my right handcuff. When I didn’t say anything, she simply unlocked it.
The sudden loss of traction made me collapse in the water, my left hand becoming the only thing keeping me from completely laying down. She didn’t react to my fall; she simply gave me a few minutes to recompose myself instead.
My body felt impossibly heavy. It hadn’t moved in weeks so this wasn’t really a surprise, but it still was a weird sensation. I tried to at least sit up, and after some effort I managed to do just that. My cold, wet shirt was clinging to my skin, making me shiver.
She unlocked my left hand, letting my arm fall in the water with a splash. “This key won’t work on our chain,” she casually explicited before discarding the gold tool in the water. “How do you feel?”
I looked up to her, panting. I was actually barely managing to catch my breath and I was just sitting up. My body really was in a pitiable state.
“I feel really weak right now.”
She nodded calmly.
“I will apply health cream to your body again once we are in my apartments,” she decided. That was actually something I would look forward to. “Can you stand? I would rather not spend the night here.”
I tried to, but my legs simply couldn’t develop enough strength for the task. She offered me her hand, and when I took it she forcefully pulled me up, surprising me with her strength. She awkwardly placed my right arm around her shoulder, doing her best to keep the chain out of the way.
“Do you think you can walk?”
I managed to lift a foot and take a single step forward. This simple effort made me feel like I had just walked a dozen kilometers, and drove home the point that I was, indeed, hardly a threat right now.
We slowly turned around, toward the heavy wooden door I had so often imagined since awakening here. There barely was any light to see, but I was impressed by the door’s blackness nevertheless.
We started making our way to it in the water, Erika calmly keeping us from staggering as I did my best to follow her rhythm. She opened the door and we took our first step on dry rock in the candlelit hallway.
Walking was pretty tough on me. By the time we got out of my cell’s hallway, I was managing to reliably lift the right foot at the right time, but using all these muscles was painful. She waved at the huge warden standing between us and the rest of Rapture, and he let silently let us through. I then discovered I had been detained in the castle’s first floor, and Erika’s apartments were situated two floors above. That meant stairs — spiraling stairs, to be accurate. The architecture was very reminiscent of classic middle ages fantasy.
We quickly established the climb to be way too tough for us at the current time, and she suggested asking a guard for help. The tall man didn’t have any difficulty lifting me over his shoulder with one arm; he wordlessly followed Erika’s lead until we got to Erika’s apartments, depositing me in front of the threshold before returning to his duty.
She briefly inspected me before pushing the ornate door open.
Unexpectedly, Erika’s apartments were bathed in a luminescent warmth reminiscent of halogen lamps despite the conspicuous absence of any kind of electric installation. A couple of bright spheres embedded in the ceiling were providing all this light, probably through magic of some sort.
Erika helped me walk in — the floor was made out of light polished wood —, and let me sit next to her in one of the four black leather sofas disposed in square formation around a glass table at the center of the room.
And then I saw her.
She was sitting the sofa facing ours, her legs crossed, a large grin on her face, her right hand toying with one of her blonde tresses. I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t noticed her presence before, but she had already pulled this trick on me once. I saw and heard Erika clutch on my chain, as if to ascertain her hold on me.
“Good evening, Erika,” the girl said, her voice alarmingly assured. “And good evening to you, prisoner,” she added with emphasis. “I see you two are getting along just fine.”
I didn’t have the strength to complain, so I just stared blankly at her. Erika was visibly annoyed by this girl; her lips were trembling, probably from a mixture of anger, stress and, impressively enough, fear.
“Would you mind leaving us alone, Viola?” she finally managed to blurt out. I actually heard a weak “please” escape her mouth soon after.
The blonde girl feigned hesitation for a dozen seconds, before grinning and shaking her head. “I don’t think so,” she answered, laying on her side, her head resting on her left hand. “And you are going to stay here for now,” she added, her eyes fixated on Erika’s now trembling form, making her whimper.
I took a look at Erika, trying and failing to understand the relationship between these two. She was very obviously submissive toward Viola, but I had no idea why.
“It’s extremely hard for her to disobey me,” Viola casually explained, as though she’d been reading my mind. “Mostly because I have placed a bunch of enchants on her.”
I raised an eyebrow, intrigued. Erika just squirmed in her seat, struggling with what I now gathered to be the tacit order she had received.
“You actually can’t force someone to become your familiar,” came the answer to my unasked question. “Well, I guess you could, to an extent, but it’d be a really bad idea. The amount of free will the soon-to-be familiar experiences during the pact’s formation influences their limitations as a familiar. A completely forced pact would produce a mostly useless familiar, mana-wise.”
Erika nodded, apparently relaxed by the change of subject. “Separations are also definitive,” she added. “She could not force a pact on me to make me trust her for a second pact.”
It was Viola’s turn to nod.
“Should we have a chat?” she asked, looking intently at me.
Erika looked at me, pleading. I just nodded.