Inherent Cost

A train wreck outside Hojer injures Jere and Wren, destroying their anniversary bliss, and thrusting them back into the dangers of their home, where slaves like Wren are treated as animals. While Jere struggles for consciousness, Wren is seized with the other slaves. When Jere comes to the rescue he is furious to find Wren kenneled, neglected, and abused.

For the last two years, Jere has been using his status as a healer to protect Wren and his second slave, Isis. Wren’s controversial fire talent is getting harder and harder to hide, Isis is desperate to escape to her family in a free state, and Jere’s compassion is making enemies of powerful slave owners. Meanwhile, upcoming elections are stirring political unrest. Jere supports a reformation that could improve the lives of Arona’s slaves by treating them in human clinics like Jere’s, instead of sending them to animal healers. But the slavers are only motivated by the threat of an untreatable infectious disease spreading inexorably towards Hojer.

The more Jere becomes involved in politics, the more his clinic and his household come under scrutiny, prompting the Arona slave regulation board to harass Jere, questioning his ability to manage his clinic, and threatening to take away Wren and Isis. The two slaves are preparing to be evaluated, when Jere stumbles upon information that could separate the three of them forever.

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Chapter 10: International Medicine

Jere wrote up a message to be delivered by telegraph, and gave Wren a desperate, pleading look until he agreed to go deliver it. He wanted Kieran’s input, not because he didn’t trust Wren, but because he wanted all the help he could get.

While Wren was gone, Jere opened up the clinic. Isis joined him, staying far from patients as usual. Jere had told her about the audit, not to scare her, but because she deserved to know. He had kept enough from both her and Wren, and he needed her prepared for this.

“Can I go stay somewhere else that day?” she asked, giving Jere a hopeful look. “I mean, maybe Kieran could take me somewhere, or maybe I could go hide in the library with Imelda? She likes me, and books are okay.”

Jere shook his head. “It’s kind of implied that you should be here. It’s a test of my ability as a slaveowner—if I just send my slaves away, that’s not a very good sign.”

“Me screwing everything up won’t be a good sign, either,” Isis pouted.

Jere could tell that she was scared. He shared that sentiment. “We don’t have another option. We’ll do it, and hopefully everything will work out. I won’t let anything bad happen to you.”

“I’ve been in places that have been audited before. I just don’t want to do it here because I don’t want to fuck this up. I’ve usually been bound and gagged while they were there,” she said, then got a suspicious look on her face. “Don’t get any ideas.”

Jere smiled at her. “Trust me, it didn’t even cross my mind.”

Isis nodded, content with his statement.

When Wren returned, he came with a reply from Kieran. “She said she’ll send you a package with a list of things to check and do, and that you should stop ‘shitting your pants over every little thing.’ She’ll talk to you more when she comes to stay with me when you and Isis go to see her parents, but aside from that, just act normal. There’s no way out of this. Any attempt to avoid it looks suspect.”

“We’re still going?” Isis asked. She was clearly surprised, but whether that surprise was pleasant or uncomfortable was hard to determine, even with what Jere could feel through the mind connection.

Jere didn’t have an answer for her. He wanted to say no, but the glare Wren gave him kept him quiet.

“We’re at least going to follow through and act like we are,” Wren said. “It’s the right thing to do. We don’t need to draw attention to ourselves or make it seem like we’re intimidated.”

Jere wanted to protest, but the bell at the front desk rang. Before he could say a word, Wren was off to attend it, leaving him staring at Isis cluelessly.

“Wren’s probably right,” Isis reminded him. “He usually is.”

Jere nodded, getting ready for his first patient. He was interrupted when Wren returned, a nervous look on his face. “There’s someone here from the International Medical Board. He wants to speak with you.”

Even as he walked out to the reception area, Jere could feel his heart racing. Even a layperson could see how tense Jere was. Bullshit in Hojer was bad enough, but what was someone from the International Medical Board doing here?

Keep Isis out of the way,” Jere told Wren.

The man looked official, but not nearly as threatening as the Slave Control, Regulation, and Enforcement Agency investigator had. If anything, he looked as out of place as Jere did.

“Dr. Peters,” the man said. “The Board has decided to do a quick check on your clinic. I’ll be shadowing you today and reporting my findings.”

“Is this because of the fucking vet?” Jere snapped.

“Excuse me?”

“The vet from Pinemont. Barrett, I think her name was. Karmin Barrett. Evil bitch who doesn’t know how to do her job.”

The man gave Jere a blank stare. “I can only hope that vets here are being used to treat animals, Dr. Peters. We do random reviews; your clinic came up randomly.”

From the looks of it, the man probably believed it, but Jere wasn’t so foolish. Someone, somewhere had made this happen.

“We’re increasing the amounts of checks we’re doing across the continent. With the threat of disease and the elections in many of the slave states, we just want to make sure everything is running smoothly. We’re based out of Sonova—we commend you for the work you’ve done here.”

Jere didn’t buy it. If he was so commended, why were they targeting him?

“There are many people criticizing you,” the man admitted. “I’m sorry. I guess it’s just a hazard of working in a slave state. It’s rare for someone born and trained in a free state to even come out this way.”

“Yeah,” Jere muttered. He wanted to feel reassured that the inspector was a fellow outlander, but he couldn’t. What if the man said something wrong, gave Hojer’s officials the wrong impression? Something as simple as mentioning that the slave patients were treated as well as the free patients could draw more attention from Hojer’s slave agency, no matter how positive such a comment would look in a more civilized setting.

“If you’re interested, the Board maintains a list of vacancies. I’m sure you’d fit better in a more progressive place.”

“No, thank you.” Jere tried not to be blunt, but the offer worried him. If his problems were so public that officials in Sonova knew about it, he wasn’t sure if he had a chance here at all. “Let’s just get started.”

Chain Link

Isis had been nervous since Wren returned from the telegraph office. The fact that there was another unwanted intruder in their house didn’t help matters. Wren had done his best to keep her out of the way of the official from the International Medical Board, but she insisted on hanging around the clinic. They needed her around anyway; she was part of the team that was being reviewed.

“I don’t want to be here for the audit,” she mumbled. “Or go for certification. Or anything. I just want to be left alone.”

Wren agreed, but he knew there was something more to it for Isis. She had been bringing up her parents casually, pondering what they might be like, what the town might be like, where they might be living. She wasn’t saying either way if she wanted to go, but Wren could see how hard she was trying to hide her feelings. Jere had a lot of influence on Isis; she would choose to go based on what she thought pleased him. Wren was pretty sure that he didn’t have the same sway over her.

“What about the stuff with the Lighthouse Organization?”

“It’s probably not even them, anyway,” Isis said, dismissive.

Wren raised an eyebrow in her direction.

“It’s a lot of work, and they’re far away, if it even is them, and Jere can’t just pick up and leave you and the clinic and everything else just to go and check something stupid like that out for me, especially with the audit and the medical board and whatever else is going on. There’s someone coming into the clinic and interrupting us all the time, obviously Jere won’t be able to leave now. It’s not even worth talking about.”

Wren had been through his own stages of self-pity enough that he could recognize it in Isis. “Jere and I care about you, and Kieran does too. But I know that neither of them has really asked you if you want to go. You say you do, but I have a little more first-hand experience with actually being a slave. I just wanted to make sure you were really okay with this before I make Jere do it.”

Isis looked at him suspiciously. “What’s your plan?”

“Kieran has offered to stay with me during one of her breaks so that Jere can go with you.”

Isis was silent for a moment. “You’d really do that for me? This isn’t, like… a joke or something?”

“I wouldn’t do something like that to you. I know we’ve had our disagreements, but I want you to be able to have this.”

“What if they forgot about me or something? I mean, it’s been nine years. What if they had a bunch of other kids, and they like them better, or they see me and they don’t like what they see, or—”

“Just stop it,” Wren cut her off. It was easy to see her getting upset, and they couldn’t afford that, not with the visitor from the Medical Board lurking around.

Wren motioned to an empty exam room, shutting the door behind them and turning on the sink to cover their conversation. Disinfecting was always the best busy work—a medical clinic could never be too clean. “You know your parents better than any of us do. Were they the type who would abandon you just because you’re a slave? Just because of your gift?”

Isis shook her head. “They didn’t like slavery. We had family just outside of Sonova, and a lot of them had physical gifts. Sometimes my parents would talk about moving there, away from the ‘cruelty.’ I didn’t know what they were talking about, then.”

“See? They’re not going to reject you for being a slave, or for having a physical gift. My family made it very clear that I was disowned the moment the gift identifier notified them of my speed gift.”

“Assholes,” Isis declared. “But what if they just don’t like me? Like, what if they want someone nice, or polite, or I mean… I’m fucking damaged, Wren. What if they don’t want me like I am? Like, I’m all scarred up, and I do weird things, sometimes, and I’m really jumpy around new people. What if I screw it all up? What if they see me again and they decide that they hate me? Then that’s their last memory of me and my last memory of them. I don’t want that. I should just stay here.”

“Do you really think they would have kept looking for you for all this time just to give up that easily?”

“I’d rather not find that out.”

Wren let the silence stretch for a moment.

“You know what, you and Jere have each other!” Isis finally snapped. “I have a vague memory of people who used to care about me like that. I don’t want to lose it!”

“It could start being a real, fresh memory,” Wren pointed out.

“Would you go?”

Wren shook his head. “To see my family? Not for all the fucking money in the world. But I know they don’t want to see me. They made it perfectly clear before they let me be taken. That I was a disgrace, a shame to the family… that kind of thing. I’d want to see my younger brother, maybe, depending on how he turned out. If he was a slave and we could find him… but I’d rather he be free and I never meet him again. He’d hate me like he’s supposed to; he liked to cause trouble as a kid, but I’m sure he fell in line as he got older. I wouldn’t want to see that. But if there was even a chance that my family wanted to see me? I’d throw a fit until I got to go.”

Isis smiled at him. “I like it here.”

“And nobody will make you go anywhere else,” Wren promised. “You’re stuck with us. I tried to get rid of you for months. Now that we get along, I’m pretty much as committed to keeping you here as Jere is.”

Isis smiled at him, a little. “Thanks. You really think you can convince Jere to take me?”

“Trust me, I can convince Jere to do anything I want him to.”

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