We were three days out from Baetnal and the caravan had decided to take a small detour. Everyone was tired and hot. Well, everyone except Aretan and his mercenaries. I wasn’t either, at least not physically. Mentally, however, I was beyond tire. Nelys tried to act chipper, but I could tell they were flagging too.
Our detour took us a few hours toward the banks of the River Nav. We found a nice green spot by a bend in the river to cool off. We circled the wagons and the mercs pulled out some food and drink they’d stashed somewhere. Even Florian took a moment to stop by and partake.
The food went quickly, but the drink tapered off into a long, lazy evening. The sun had almost finished setting in the west, hazy and orange.
Someone had made a fire and me, Seyari, Nelys, Aretan and a few mercs were seated around it. Other groups sat and talked around the circled wagons further in from the river.
Buzzing insects were out tonight in force. After some time spent trying to swat at them, I realized they couldn’t get through my skin and sat in smug satisfaction as they all went for Seyari. She eventually had to resort to using wind magic to make a mini-tornado and blow them all away. I could see the cloud watching, waiting for their chance. It was like they knew she couldn’t keep that up forever. I suppressed a shiver.
Eventually, conversation drifted to our pasts. Seyari talked about life on the Lady of Liseu, Nelys did the same but with many of the details ‘enhanced’, and Aretan and his friends spoke of their misadventures as a band of mercenaries.
At the height of the conversation, the questions fell on me.
“So, Zarenna was it?” Someone I barely knew asked. She was one of Aretan’s mercs. “What’s it like being a demon?”
“Hey, what if she doesn’t have a frame of reference for being human?” Another piped up.
“Oh! Is all the being nice stuff just an act? You can tell us, we’re cool!” Someone else spoke.
“She’s definitely really nice for real!” Nelys piped up, looking offended on my behalf.
“How about you let her answer?” Aretan intervened, but looked to me with curiosity sparkling in his eyes.
I looked across at everyone. After a moment to decide, I chose to ham up my demonic side. I put a finger to my lips. “Weeeell, being a demon’s pretty great honestly. I don’t really know about being human, but I know you folks are fragile, so I have to play nice. Speaking of the nice stuff, that’s because I have a great binder and don’t have to be stuck in hell!”
“What about being a demon is great?” Aretan asked. So much for being the voice of reason.
I gave a dramatic four-armed shrug. “What’s not to like? I’m strong, fast, have awesome fire magic—” I tossed a ball of fire up into the sky that detonated in a massive, bright silent flash. Other groups looked our way, so I smiled sheepishly. —and a killer body.” I finished with a flourish down my body with my lower arms.
Once I realized what I’d done, I blushed deeply. Thankfully, I don’t think anyone but Seyari noticed my blush.
The girl who’d asked me about being a demon spoke up again. “You said Seyari’s a good binder. Why’s that?”
I turned to Seyari. I tried to think of something that wouldn’t break our cover story of my summoning. I brushed a finger by my fancy collar and had an idea. I really did like the collar. The electrum ring felt more like a choker or a piece of jewelry than an instrument of servitude. Especially given that it was just ornamental.
“Well, Zarenna?” Seyari asked me and I jumped a bit. “What makes me such a good binder?”
“I love wearing the pretty collar you got me!” I replied reflexively.
If I was blushing before, now I flushed an entire shade of crimson darker. Seyari’s eyes went wide, and her cheeks went rosy as well.
I heard at least one ‘ooooooooh’ from the people with us.
“Oh, so it’s like that between you two!” One person said.
“Kinky!” Another said, followed by a soft hit. “Ow, hey! What!?”
I tried to fix the damage. “No, uh. Wait! I mean I like the collar and I think it looks nice and it’s really not a big deal to wear it because—” Crap! I can’t blow our cover here. “—Because Seyari’s really nice and she doesn’t make me do anything I don’t want to do already and—uh.” My brain shorted for a moment. “I’ll, uh, just stop now, okay.”
“Zarenna.” Seyari’s voice was sickly sweet. “Why don’t you be quiet for a bit, okay? Please?”
“Uh,” I tried to respond.
“That’s an order, Zarenna.”
My collar glowed. I clamped my mouth shut.
“Oooh, it even glows!” One of the mercs said.
“Hey, that’s electrum isn’t it! Her binder sure got her a fancy collar!”
“Yeah, Renna’s collar’s really pretty!” Oh Nelys, not you too!
“I wonder what se—"
“We really should be more respectful of their relationship.” I heard Aretan’s voice cut across the gaggle of other mercs. “There is nothing to be ashamed about enjoying a collar.”
I heard you trying not to laugh, Aretan!
I pouted. Hard.
My pouting had the opposite effect of what I wanted.
The laughter increased. My enhanced hearing even picked up a whisper of, “I didn’t think she could be this cute!”
Okay, that lifted my mood a bit. Still pouting though.
Next to me, Seyari had gone totally red with embarrassment. I felt anger from her, but not nearly as much as I would have thought. My mind whirled with possibilities. I wanted to talk, but Seyari’s order was in effect and I’d already given up my dignity to maintain our cover.
I did kinda like the collar though. But not like that! A choker or something would be better. Maybe with a bow. Wait, would that be worse?
I cradled my head in all four hands.
Seyari tried to speak up, but seemed unwilling or unable to yell. Aretan had lost control of the situation. Other groups had even started to take notice.
This can’t possibly get any worse!
I was wrong.
“Hey, why don’t we all play a game!” An unknown woman in a bright magenta sundress walked into our group. She had warm brown eyes and bright brown hair that complemented her dress perfectly.
The newcomer was carrying a large box. I could hear pieces rattling around inside.
“Who are you?” Aretan, the only person with any composure left, asked the mysterious woman.
“I’m Lilly! Nice to meet you!” She stuck out a hand. “I was with my daughter and husband on our boat. We saw the party from the river and just had to come to say ‘Hi’.” Lilly gestured behind her to a tall spectacled man in well-fitted clothes and a teenage girl in a pastel pink dress that matched Lilly’s.
“Hello, my name is Isidore,” The man gave a small bow.
Isidore’s teenage daughter looked indignantly away and mumbled something I wasn’t in a state of mind to try to make out. Isidore softly elbowed her.
“I’m Meri,” she curtsied. Then Meri turned her head again and I caught her mumbling. “I can’t believe we’re doing this.”
Lilly turned to me. “Oh, don’t you look strong! Would you be a dear and go get us something to set the game up on?” She winked at me.
I looked over to Seyari who was regarding the newcomer warily. However, I was not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
I nodded rapidly at Lilly, jumped up and took off to look for a table. I found one easily enough, but I took my sweet time getting back. I dodged the few questions lobbed my way by pointing to my mouth and then my collar. Everyone seemed to get the message.
I returned to find Aretan talking excitedly with Isidore. Something about demons. Lilly was bouncing person-to person chatting everyone up like an expert socialite. Meri, to my surprise, wasn’t sulking off to one side and instead had found one of the younger mercs. The two were chatting amiably and the young merc had a blush of his own.
Seyari, meanwhile had done her best to shrink into the background.
I walked up and set the table to the side of the fire. Everyone pulled whatever they were sitting on closer.
With the others distracted, Seyari turned to me. “Why did you say all that!” She hissed.
I tried to answer, but my collar glowed and I kept quiet.
“You can talk now, Zarenna,” Seyari said exhaustedly.
I tapped one of my horns in thought. “Uh, so I was just thinking about how to say you’re great as my binder but not give away y’know, too much.”
“Well, you sure gave away a whole fucking lot!” Seyari glowered, and looked over at the others who were all still distracted.
Lilly had started to set up the game board. I didn’t recognize the game, but I saw a dragon on the back of one of the included cards.
I clacked a pair of claws together. “I didn’t mean to! I really like the collar though. I mean, not what it stands for. But also, kinda, but not but yes and I—”
Seyari hit her face with her palm “Can it, Zarenna.”
“Do you have a weird crush on me or something?” Seyari tried to sound angry, but I didn’t feel much anger from her. If anything, it was less than when I came back with the table.
“I wouldn’t say it’s weird!” I defended.
Seyari’s eyes widened in surprise.
Wait. Oh. Ooooohhh. Uh oh.
To my surprise, instead of berating me, Seyari looked up at me, bit her lip and seemed to think. “I’m not sure about the collar thing. And I don’t think we can…”
“I’m sorry.” I hung my head. “I won’t think any further on this.”
“Wait—” Seyari almost shouted. Aretan and Lilly looked over. Seyari returned her voice to a hushed whisper. “Maybe later. But not now. I-I can’t right now.”
I nodded, remembering our conversation right after I’d woken up from being stung by a titan scorpion. “I can wait.” I turned back to the group.
“Hey, if you want to play, we have room for one more team!” Lilly waved us over and patted a spot next to her. “You two can sit next to me and Izzy!”
“Okay!” I replied as enthusiastically as I could.
I sat down next to Lilly, and Seyari next to me. Isidore, or Izzy, sat next to Aretan who in turn sat next to Nelys. Meri was with the mercs on the other side and seemed quite the young socialite, especially toward her new friend.
Lilly fixed me with a warm smile and explained the rules of the board game.
The game was fun! Complicated, with a lot of pieces and cards, but fun! The theme of the game was about dragons and the fantasy was fun to indulge in. Especially when I could act out the fire breathing on some of the cards (not on the pieces of course).
Predictably, Lilly and Isidore took the win, though Aretan and Nelys had nearly overtaken them during the final point tally.
Once the game was over, the group lapsed again into quiet conversation. Up above, the stars shone bright in the clear night, and a sliver of moon peeked out from among them.
Unfortunately, while the game worked as a distraction, people soon brought up collars again and I was once more the center of attention.
“You know,” Lilly said, “It’s really not that unusual to be interested in collars in the bedroom. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about, Zarenna!” She turned to me with a smile that sent a chill down my spine. “If you want, I could teach you a few things. There’s a lot more than collars if you’re into that. Embrace it!”
I could swear her eyes turned red for a moment.
“Uhhh,” I responded eloquently. “No, uh, thanks but no thanks.”
Lilly pouted and shrugged. “Your loss!”
I heard one of the mercs mumbling something along the lines of how lucky Seyari was and that she’d try the collar thing if she was my binder instead. I pretended really hard I didn’t hear that.
From behind Lilly, Isidore looked at me with a neutral face before turning to his wife. “Don’t corrupt the wrath demon, dear.”
Lilly giggled in response, and leaned over to plant a kiss on Isidore’s cheek.
I was surprised how casual the two of them were around me. It must have been because everyone else was so relaxed. Even though I was bound, people in Ivlaet and Ratev had been nervous or downright afraid at first.
“If you two want any other relationship advice, I’m a bit of an expert on that sort of thing.” Lilly turned back to me pointed a thumb at herself.
“Sure!” I replied, then froze. “But, uh, we’re not, uh, a couple or together or anything.”
“Bullshit!” One of the mercs shouted, then backed down and mumbled, “Sorry”.
Lilly looked me directly in the eyes. “If. You. Say. So!” She winked. “But I can tell you right now her type needs a friend first, and you look like you’re doing well at that. Oh, and don’t forget to work on your shared interests. As ‘friends’ of course. Most importantly—”
“I’m right here you know!” Seyari cut Lilly off. “We are not together!”
“Well, you’re bound together, right?” Lilly put a finger to her chin innocently. “Have you never experimented? You know, with the binding?”
“No.” Seyari replied icily. “Shut. Up.”
“Okay, okay, fine!” Lilly put her hands up in surrender. Then she put them down and added with a smile “I just can’t help it! You two are so cute!”
Seyari looked to me. “Zarenna,” she said in a dangerously level voice. “Please remove Lilly from our campsite.”
I felt the command through the binding magic. “Seyari, can we talk about this?” My collar got hot.
Seyari glared at me, flushed with embarrassment. “No. Go.”
I felt all eyes on me. Lilly smiled even wider.
“I’d really rather not—” I tried to protest one last time. Oh no. I felt the magical contract dim and disappear.
My collar glowed for a moment, then went dark. The sigil burned off my cheek. I tried to turn away, but everyone was already looking at me. I saw surprise, and fear on the expressions of the mercs.
“Yes, sure thing mistress!” I said rapidly, not even caring for my word choice. “I’ll be right back.” I turned to Lilly and whispered. “Please don’t be scared, just let me lead you away.”
Lilly laughed hard, nearly doubling over. She gave me her hand and I ran off with her toward the river. I heard rapid footsteps behind me, but didn’t turn to look at who they were.
Once we were out of view of the camp, I stopped amongst the greenery by the bank. Out on the river a small ship hurried along through the still night, headed south.
“I knew it!” Lilly exclaimed. “I knew you were—”
A blur rushed past me and impacted Lilly. I could hardly believe my eyes as I watched Meri punt Lilly hard enough for the woman, still laughing, to go sailing through the sky across the river.
To my surprise Meri turned to me and bowed stiffly. “My greatest apologies, Sov—”
She didn’t get to finish that sentence as vicious wind picked her up and flung the teenage girl across the river as well. She splashed down next to Lilly near the far bank. I turned and looked, but, thankfully, the two of them seemed to be alright. I watched a sputtering Lilly bonk Meri on the head.
I kept watching the river and saw the wind had shredded the sails of the ship. Seyari came to stand next to me and said nothing. I wasn’t sure about turning to face her right then. Together we watched as the ship slowly turned and hit rocks. Before our eyes, the small ship started taking on water in the shallows by the far bank. Even at a distance, we could see and hear an outrageously-dressed man on the deck shouting at the crew.
Moments later, Isidore stopped by and we pointed him to the developing scene. He sighed, apologized, and walked off.
“Seyari,” I finally asked, still staring out over the water. “What happened?”
Seyari groaned beside me. “I don’t fucking know.”
I reached up to feel my collar. “At least the collar’s not broken. We—”
A strong gust of wind sent me tumbling into the river after the others.