A thumbnail moon in the velvety throat of night; stars sprinkled like pearls. Upon the beach the whole world seemed asleep, dreaming of dismay and delight in equal measure without chemical assistance. It was that transcendental time of night when it ceased to be very very late and became instead very very early. Beyond the sucking hiss of waves tasting the beach there was very little sound. The ocean smelled tired and old, bathed in salt tears of that thumbnail moon.
(fereste-te de omul imsemnat de Dumnezeu)
Tara was sitting on the beach, and had buried her feet in the cool sand. The solid weight of the sand was comforting, as was the whispering susurration of the waves. She was beyond tired; she knew she should go home and get her screaming over with, but Newton's First Law held her.
(a body at rest)
Her motorcycle was parked at the top of the strand. After making her deliveries of the night
(and it has been six nights since Willow and by all the gods yes I'm going to reckon my time like that)
Tara had driven out of Sunnydale altogether. A wild and strange sensation had overcome her; she found herself wishing she could just keep driving forever, even knowing she could not. She wished she could just escape with no thought given to her destination, for it would be the journey itself she would enjoy.
It had been a long time since she tested her boundary.
Once she was fifty miles from Sunnydale, she found she could go no further. The compulsion laid on her by her Master would not allow it. So she parked the bike instead, and took off her shoes, and walked barefoot in the cool sand. Even then the pain in her elbow was nearly crippling.
Once upon a time Tara had been able to see the whole world, to come and go nearly as she pleased, always as a collared slave. Some Masters were better than others. She had seen the Nazca lines, had danced in the court at Siam, had been besieged in a medieval castle and had even once fallen in love.
Of her bondage to this Master there was no end in sight, no way to run from him, and no way to take her own life. She thought of suicide only when at her lowest; despite her slavery the world was still beautiful. Even while he had her collar she could enjoy the sight of the thumbnail moon at night, the steadfast devotion of the sand and waves, the damp chill of packed sand on her bare feet.
And now Tara was afraid. She was very nearly broken.
For so very long Tara held on to one thing that her Master could never take from her: her compassion. Despite the horrors she saw every night Tara was not inoculated against grief; each new disaster and calamity struck at her heart. Five hundred years of human suffering poured upon her in an inky flood each night and yet she held strong. If Tara really were the mule he would ride to immortality, he would have to whip her every step of the way.
But which whip-stroke would finish her completely? The final blow had never been so close. Tara could almost feel herself capitulating. It would have been far better if she had never kissed Willow on the lips; she would never have remembered what she was missing.
She had kissed Willow, and then mourned every year she spent in bondage, and as a result never wished for death with such fervour as now, upon this lonesome beach.
Tara's elbow ached; she rubbed the mark absently with sand-covered fingers.
After another hour she sighed and hefted herself from the sandy beach. She stumbled a little as she lurched up the strand, her legs pinpricking with blood flow and catching on the weeds barely seen by the scant light of the crescent moon. Despite her exhaustion, Tara arrived home safe and fell into her bed like a dead thing.
She screamed that night, but didn't remember it. When she woke near noon, she collected half an inch of ink from the screamcatcher and poured it into one of the jugs. She was yawning and shuffling from the locked cabinet to her kitchen, wondering what she could possibly tempt her stomach with, when there was an alert from the vid.
(an alert, not a chime)
Her heart lunging suddenly in her chest, Tara practically ran to the vid screen and touched it. "Anya?" she asked, seeing the petite blonde woman through the video feed.
She was not her usual bubbly capitalist self. "Tara, he's on his way."
Ice now, cracking her spine like a bolt of lightning. "How long?" Tara asked, her heart still leaping in fear.
"Fifteen minutes, tops."
"Thanks, Ahn." The woman from downstairs signed off quickly, no doubt to make her own frenzied preparations. For her part Tara swiftly put on a burgundy dress with a floral sash, twisted her completely golden hair into a clip, and tried to tell herself that it was coincidence that her Master was on his way.
He didn't know she pushed the boundary last night, did he? Could he?
Into the parlour with soft bleach and a rag, wiping down every exposed surface. Tea. He would want tea. Earl Grey, with a touch of lemon honey. Real cream. Lady's fingers, perhaps, or scones to serve with it. Was her living space clean enough?
(I don't have enough ink)
Her head was pounding as she finished her preparations and hovered near the curtain; she tried to look calm and composed. Tara found herself straightening her clothing, checking her hair. Then the chime from the stairwell; she could hear him coming up the steps, and he was not alone. Would it be his female bodyguard with him, or his deputy?
Then his hand parted the beads. "Knock knock!" he called out as he pulled the beads aside to let himself through, his deputy on his heels.
Tara wondered if he had left his bodyguard downstairs.
As he saw her, his face broke into a grin. "Tara!" he called, walking easily to her, shaking her hand as he always did, two pumps with his other hand holding her elbow. "You look fantastic today. Is that a new dress?"
"N-no, Mr. President," Tara replied, blushing. "Thank you, though."
President Richard Wilkins stood in Tara's parlour, dressed in an immaculate three piece suit. As Tara saw it she knew he had it tailored by hand in a Sicilian shop, with the tailor so nervous he may have pricked the ankles when making up the hem. His leather shoes could have reflected the entire underworld they were so shiny. He stood in that disconcerting way he had mastered so well; despite being the President of the United States she could practically see him rolling up his sleeves to play a rack of snooker after, of course, wiping the cue of any lingering germs left by the previous user.
He was aging remarkably well for being over five hundred years old. Tara reminded herself not to lean on anything while he was here.
(does he know I pushed the boundary last night?)
By his face Tara could never tell what he was thinking. President Wilkins had long ago mastered the knack of showing only what he wanted others to see; his greatest skill was never letting anyone know that he was acting at all. To the millions of people he had stewardship over Richard Wilkins was a hero, defending the rights of the family, cracking down on violence, bringing social reform, building schools and hospitals, and firmly against the use of foul language. He wasn't so handsome that he was unapproachable; his down-to-earth looks and his genial countenance weighed heavily in his favour.
By contrast, his deputy was a small figure, who rarely spoke or even smiled. Tara wondered how much Allan Finch actually knew about his boss.
"The place is looking great," her Master was saying, walking along the bookcase. As she stood still, she saw him whip out a pristine white handkerchief to draw along the shelf. He smiled when he lifted it and it revealed no dust.
Thank the gods Anya always found out when he was coming, even on surprise visits such as these. Tara wondered if the woman had contacts in the capital city of Los Angeles, or if the bodyguard warned her.
How much money could Anya be persuaded to part with for such an early warning system?
"How has business been?" he was asking, turning to face her once again, his smile warm and inviting.
"It has been good, sir," Tara replied. She knew he was not talking about the money. He didn't care about the money any more than she did. With trepidation numbing her tongue, she added, "But I didn't expect you for a while longer, sir, and my quota is not full."
"That can hardly be your fault, can it?" he said, standing by Willow's chair, putting one hand upon it. It should have smoked and burned under his hellish touch, but it did not. "I am here a little earlier than you expected."
Tara's throat closed tight. Did he know, did he know?
He was looking at her carefully, trying to read her expressions, her body language. It had taken five hundred years for Tara to abide that look and give nothing in return. "Would you like to collect what I have managed to set aside?" Tara asked.
"And no time for tea?" he countered, looking at the tray she had spread out. Tara bobbed her head and looked toward the door, hoping he could read that just as well. "I suppose you may just want to get on with your work," Wilkins drawled, noticing her look. "Not that I'm complaining!"
He drew out a golden pocketwatch, handmade in the twelfth century and worth more than entire countries. "We might as well take the collection," he said. "I suppose I can't stay away from the office all day. It should be easier to play truant when you are your own taskmaster. It has been absolute ages since I had a decent game of golf."
There was the slightest of barbs in that supposedly-innocuous statement; in the spaces of his words Tara could hear what he was really wondering (if your quota is not full then what have you been doing with your time?).
Tara forced a smile on her lips as she led the way to her workroom, again glad that her apartment was so tidy and clean. Allan Finch continued to hover behind Wilkins, almost treading on the Master's heels. She had very little patience for Allan Finch - he was not of Tara's race, and might not even be enslaved to Richard Wilkins. He might possibly be working for money.
(I guess everyone has their price)
Inside her workroom, heading to the cabinet, she found her heart hammering in trepidation despite his assurances. Tara unlocked the cabinet by touching the lock with her fingers. Inside were her gallon jugs. She took a step back and was again very conscious of not leaning on anything.
Wilkins frowned as he looked at the offering. "You said you didn't meet the quota, Tara, but this is surprising." Again that slight barb, so slight and yet so sharp she could have spilled blood. He looked again at the apothecary's shelves, the thousands upon thousands of tiny jars. "It doesn't look as if you are short on ingredients. Have you been running out of clients?"
Tara wasn't sure how to answer, even if she could force words over the brick wall in her throat. Would he move her to a new den?
(please no, don't send me away
away with no chance of Willow)
As he watched her struggle for words, he sighed. "Okay, Tara. I'll overlook it this time. Maybe you've just been working too hard, needed a break?"
Tara still couldn't say anything. "I'll grant you an extension," Wilkins promised. "In six months I'll come back, and I'll want the full quota, plus what is missing here. Remember, work always comes before play, doesn't it, Mr. Finch?"
The little man bobbed his head, but didn't say anything.
Tara began to wonder if the man was mute, or had his tongue ripped out by savages. How much did Wilkins pay the man, and did he sleep better at night than Tara did?
The apothecary had to clear her throat of her relief before she could answer, "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." She carefully abased herself, blinking and stuttering and blushing, lying with every ounce of strength she possessed.
Carefully. This man was far worse than Warren Mears.
Wilkins looked at her again, and Tara could see what passed in his mind. She was just a lowly little worm with no backbone and no spirit. All he had to do was scowl at her and she'd fall to pieces. What a broken, pathetic, and meek little thing.
Which was exactly what Tara wanted him to see.
(he's not the only one who deserves an Oscar for such acting)
It was poor Mr. Finch who had to place the full jugs in his rolling cart and get them down the stairs. As he struggled with his burden of ink-screams, Tara wondered if he would ever ask Wilkins to either hire him a minion to do this for him, or to ask for a lift to be placed in the three-storied den.
On further reflection, Tara knew he wouldn't. Richard Wilkins may act the paternal protector of the weak and the helpless; his slaves and hired help knew better.
More compulsions than one sealed their lips.