Jillian slapped the alarm clock and stretched, blinking in the early sunlight. She felt far more rested than she had in days—finally, proper deep sleep without tossing and turning as her mind raced.
She rolled out of bed, realized she was naked, and snatched up her robe. Even living alone, she just hadn’t been able to shake the discomfort with showing off that much of her body. Gary teased her about it all the time, and wasn’t the first to do so. She headed for the bathroom to shower.
The collar around her throat caught her eye in the mirror. How had she forgotten about that? Blushing, she reached up to unfasten it. She couldn’t go to work with it on. People had been fired for less outrageous fashion choices.
It wouldn’t come off.
With her heartbeat starting to speed up, she leaned closer to the mirror, turning the collar so she could see the buckle.
The tongue was fused in place at both ends, turning the entire thing into a single smooth solid piece of metal hardware that showed no indication that it had ever been possible to move any part of it. Unless she had a way to cut through the thick band itself, which she knew she didn’t, there was just no way that collar was coming off.
Hands braced on the bathroom counter, she closed her eyes, trying to slow her rapid breathing. What was she going to do? Call in sick? But she clearly remembered Min telling her to go to work today and to expect to be off tomorrow. Nothing in there about getting fired. And she wasn’t supposed to come to harm, surely losing her job would count as harm? What should she do?
She should shower and get ready for work, and trust that somehow, this wasn’t going to be a catastrophe. She had already waded into waters completely past her depth, and had a sinking feeling she had yet to find out just how deep they really went.
She took a final deliberate breath, opened her eyes, and stepped into the shower, trying to pretend that it was just an ordinary morning. The collar got wet, of course, and she could feel it around her neck even after the rest of her was dry. It was far more uncomfortable mentally than it was physically.
No one on the bus paid any attention to the woman in the knee-length grey skirt and sky-blue blouse with a black and green glossy snakeskin collar around her neck, but then, even in a smallish city, people ignored a lot. Walking into the office still took all her courage, and she found herself tensing up, preparing for nasty comments or sidelong looks and snickering.
Except that… nothing happened. She exchanged the same greetings as any other morning, and saw no difference in the way anyone around her behaved.
Maybe they couldn’t see it? If Min could make herself look, alternately, like a goddess and like a regular human woman, then maybe she could make it so that people couldn’t see the collar.
It still felt like a fragile thing to trust in, but what choice did she really have? Hoping fervently that whatever magic kept people from noticing the collar continued to function, she made her way to her desk and tried to calm herself enough to concentrate on another day’s work.
An accounting degree, and she paid her bills by sending people unpleasant notices about theirs being overdue for payment and approving payment plans. Not what she’d intended to do with her life. It was reliable, though, and paid reasonably well, and had decent benefits. It was hard to want to jeopardize that security.
When she spotted her immediate supervisor, she left her desk to corner him in the break-room. That made her apprehensive on multiple levels, since he was the one who persistently ignored her insistence that he speak to her as one professional to another.
“What’s up, darlin’?” he asked, opening the fridge.
“I’m going to need tomorrow off. I had to book an emergency dentist appointment. They can’t promise I’ll get in on time, since it’s short notice. If I’m all swollen and all, I’ll be no use here. So I think I should probably just take the whole day as a sick day.”
He shrugged. “Fine. Go get that tooth taken care of, babe, we can do without you for the day without the whole place falling into ruin. Can’t have you running around with a sore tooth acting like it’s PMS squared or something, and it’s kinda unlikely you’re taking a Friday off for a party.”
Jillian forced herself to take a deep slow breath. There was just no point getting into it right now, she had other things on her mind. At least she could be quite sure the collar was invisible, since there was zero chance Brett would have failed to say something about it. Almost certainly something rude. She simply nodded, thanked him, and went back to her desk.
She texted Gary to tell him she was exhausted, might be coming down with something, and really didn’t feel like company tonight, that all she wanted was a bath and her bed. He told her to look after herself and promised to see her soon.
Concentrating on work was nearly as difficult as it would have been with a genuine toothache.
Midway through the afternoon, she found her thoughts drifting towards Min. That touch on her cheek that had stirred something inside. The flush of warmth in response to Min’s praise. The fear of what was going to happen to her during those twelve hours. The faith in her friend that tempered the fear, and turned it into something that wasn’t exactly fear or exactly unpleasant, although that roused an entirely different sort of fear. Above all else, wanting to see her. That would be easy, just walk out of here, catch the bus, go to Min’s apartment. That was something she should do. Right now. She should do it now.
She caught herself before she began putting her things in her purse to leave. No, she couldn’t yet. She still had another hour to go.
The desire to go to Min grew, slowly but steadily.
She scooped up her phone, found Min’s number, and sent her a quick text. «I can’t get away from work yet. I’ll be there ASAP I promise!»
Min’s reply was simply, «I know.»
Jillian found herself watching the clock more than actually getting any work done. This felt like a cage, one made up of slow ticks of the clock, seconds dragging by. Illogically, she was sure that each second took several seconds to pass. She wanted, no, she needed to go. She owed a debt and it was time to pay it. The thought crept in irregularly that she should be terrified by the uncertainty of what she might have to do during twelve hours of… service. For twelve hours, you belong to me, Min had said. That thought, having formed once, kept crawling back to the surface. Twelve hours belonging to an inhuman owner who was also her kind patient friend.
She wasn’t quite sure what it was exactly that kept her heart beating faster, her breathing a bit fast and shallow. While her mouth was dry, her skin damp with sweat… and not only her skin was damp. It was some side effect of the bargain, it had to be. Or a physiological response to her heightened adrenaline. Or both. That would account for it.
The instant she could, Jillian fled. She fidgeted at the bus stop, fretted on the ride to the stop nearest Min’s apartment, and might well have tested whether she could run in her two-inch pumps had Min’s place been any farther from the stop. She pressed the buzzer and waited.
No words, just the click of the door unlocking. She pulled it open and hastened through the foyer to Min’s ground-floor unit towards the back of the smallish apartment building.
The door was ajar, so she pushed it open cautiously. “Min?”
“Come in,” Min said. “Lock the door behind you. Leave your purse on the coat-rack, it’ll be safe there.”
Jillian closed the door and flipped the lock shut, hung her purse on an empty hook on the black metal coat-rack, and oriented on Min. It felt like every nerve in her body was screaming at her to get closer.
Min was currently relaxing in one corner of the soft dark couch with her feet tucked up beside her. The flat-screen TV across the room was turned off, but there was music playing from somewhere, a mellow instrumental Jillian didn’t recognize.
The living room was familiar space, comfortable and tasteful, set up with enough clear space for Min to manoeuvre in her chair. Furnishings tended towards black metal and dark green fabrics, though in contrast, the walls were a warm pale cream and the hardwood floors and trim were light maple or oak. Two plants in large floor pots flanked the window; there were a few nicknacks, a beautiful framed painting on one wall showing a lily-strewn pond in a forest clearing, though no rugs anywhere.
The most striking was a life-sized statue of a woman, in a casual pose, almost flirtatious with her hips canted sideways like that and her hand hovering near as if to draw attention there. Jillian had yet to figure out what it was made of. It looked like alabaster, white with a faint lustre, but it certainly wasn’t stone—Min had given her permission to explore it by touch, and she knew that it was silken-smooth but had a slight give to it, a pleasing texture that simply invited one’s fingertips to continue. Some sort of resin, maybe? Inlaid all over it were designs in what looked like gold and silver. Its mid-sized breasts had spirals around them, though the nipples were bare and the colour around them had a more honey tone; its waist was circled by a corset of gold and silver filigree. More gold and silver wreathed both thighs and spirals cupped its rounded lower cheeks, but made no effort to conceal that hairless groin. It adorned lower arms and the backs of gold-nailed hands, and even its face with its full smiling honey-coloured lips and an expression that looked somehow playful. Jaw-length hair was made of something black and soft and fine. The bright cobalt-blue eyes were rather startling against the rest.
Min held out a hand. Not entirely sure why, Jillian sank to her knees on the floor at Min’s feet. The moment Min’s hand touched her cheek, the driving need simply stopped.
“I’m sorry,” Jillian said. “I wanted to come, I would have come, but…”
“Hush. It’s all right, dear. I understand. That compulsion was not of my creation. It’s an inherent part of the bargain. I didn’t think you were trying to back out. So. Everything is taken care of. In return for your brother pleading guilty to possession, the charges of trafficking will be dropped, and the possession charges will lead to probation, mandatory rehab and counselling, and an otherwise suspended sentence rather than prison time. He was not involved in the assault and there will be no evidence to mislead anyone into believing he was. Does that fulfil my side of the bargain?”
Jillian closed her eyes. “Yes,” she said quietly. “Perfectly. And thank you.” Just maybe that would be enough for her brother to sort himself out. If not, there was nothing more she could do.
And with the first word, she knew there was nothing to fear. Mistress didn’t want her to feel anxious and afraid. Mistress wanted her to feel calm and safe, because her happiness mattered to Mistress. The fear remained, but she knew it was groundless, at least.