Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by Diana Wynne Jones, Harper Collins, et al. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Author's Note: This story was written for qwerty (aka xsmoonshine) in the Yuletide 2008 fic exchange. I originally meant to write a much longer story in which this would have been the second of at least four or five sections -- I wanted to write about Joris's family, about his early training in Khan Valley, about his first proper demon hunt, about what happened when he and Konstam came home from the Bounds, about how he was manumitted as soon as legally possible, and about his tentative efforts to reconnect with his birth family (the Khans having become, in most respects, his adopted family)... but I didn't have nearly enough time or skill to pull that off. So I chopped out this section, which is basically Joris and Konstam's first meeting, and wrote it as a standalone.
The Homeward Bounders offers endless possibilities for fanfiction: infinite worlds for settings, and lots of interesting characters who clearly had lives before they were rudely yanked out of them and who most likely continued to do interesting things once they got Home. The few passing details we're told about Joris's world are fascinating, and it was a joy trying to flesh them out into a plausible-feeling society.
This version of "To Be of Use" has been slightly edited from the version in the Yuletide archives, partly to remove a typo and some unneeded commas, but mostly to smooth the narrative flow and clarify a few incidents and ideas. No major plot or characterization points have been changed.
Summary: When Joris was seven his family sold him to the Sarkoy Agency, which was a reputable trading house affiliated with the Cardsburg municipal slave mart. He expected to become entertainment for the wealthy. He did not expect Konstam Khan.
To Be of Use
When Joris was seven his family sold him to the Sarkoy Agency, which was a reputable trading house affiliated with the Cardsburg municipal slave mart. Joris tried not to mind too much -- he was helping family, after all -- but still. Being a slave itched at the back of his thoughts.
The agency was based in a large, blocky building just next to the mart. The intake offices were on the southwest corner and the business offices above them. The rest of the building was slave quarters, where the merchandise lived and trained until the monthly auctions.
Joris was put in a dormitory room with five other first-class boys about his age. He was the youngest; the oldest, Ren, was ten years old. They spent the mornings learning math, reading, English, or whatever the agency thought would make them more marketable. In the afternoons they had to run around a track and do jumping jacks and balance exercises, so they'd be strong enough to do whatever work their owners might ask of them. In the evenings they had more classes; these were to teach them proper behavior and respect.
It wasn't that different from school and helping around the house, but Joris hated it. They were trying to make slavery seem nice, but they didn't have to and his new owner wouldn't have to either, so it was all a lie, like a doctor telling him a shot wouldn't hurt and then stabbing him once he let his guard down.
"It's not that bad," Ren said when Joris sulked through dinner. "We get enough to eat, which is more than I had before."
And that was true. It was also true that he was helping Nadia and Electra and Mama and Granna and the new baby -- which he didn't even know if it had been born yet, or if it was a boy or a girl, because slaves weren't allowed to have families -- but still. A slave wouldn't ever starve, but Joris didn't think that was worth trading away all your choices. Somebody was going to decide what he'd be doing for the rest of his life, and there was nothing he could say if he hated his new job. He didn't want to race cars or play sports or do stupid things to entertain rich people. He wanted to do something useful, like take care of his sisters and help Granna around the house.
Joris wanted to go home.
"If you want to be miserable that badly, there's not much I can do to stop you," Ren said, and he left Joris to his sulking.
Eventually the cafeteria workers kicked Joris out of the dining hall and told him to go back to the dormitory before curfew. He trudged through the long white hallways, wishing Pater hadn't died or Granna's arthritis hadn't stopped her from finding a proper job. Nothing felt right here. Everything was just a little bit wrong and that discomfort wrapped around Joris like a smothering blanket.
The wrong feeling got stronger as he walked, spiking as he passed a cleaning closet. Joris paused. Something smelled funny, too, a little sweet, a little metallic, and a little rotten, like bad eggs. He sniffed harder, and then went over to the door and tried the knob. It turned, which was peculiar. Usually the janitors kept everything locked.
Joris cracked the door open and peeked inside.
Something blood-red and misshapen hurtled toward him and screamed, tearing at his face with razor claws.
Joris slammed the door and fled.
"It sounds like a straightforward demon infestation," Dr. Abelard said, peering at Joris's face and prodding at his scalp with her long brown fingers. "You're very lucky, you know. By all rights you should be dead like that poor janitor, but you seem to have nothing but scrapes and no sign of spiritual infection. I'll give you a charm and check up on you tomorrow evening, boy, but you should be fine."
She handed Joris a necklace with a steel pendant; it had Shen carved into both sides. "Someone will come by and put wards over all the doorways," she said, "so don't worry about being attacked again. Management has called for some demon hunters and this will all be cleared up by the weekend."
Dr. Abelard stuck her head out the infirmary door, waved down one of the passing guards, and ordered the man to take Joris back to the dormitory. When they arrived, the other boys swarmed around him, jabbering in a rapid-fire mix of Kathayack and English until Joris dropped to the floor and pinned his hands over his ears.
Ren made the others shut up. Then he sat next to Joris, nudged his shoulder, and said, "So what was the demon like? Was it a Great Demon? Had it really killed someone?"
"It was red and horrible, all claws and teeth and too many arms," Joris said, wrapping his arms around his legs and leaning against Ren. "So it probably wasn't a Great Demon; they're supposed to be white, aren't they? Dr. Abelard said it killed a janitor, but I didn't see. The closet was dark and I ran away."
"Coward," said Stanis, who was the biggest and strongest of the boys and liked to make sure everyone knew it. Joris hunched in on himself.
Ren shut Stanis up with a scathing glare. "Running from a demon isn't cowardice. It's sensible. If Joris hadn't run he'd be dead and the demon could have killed us all before anyone discovered it. You might owe him your life, so stop being an idiot."
"Do you really think I saved people?" Joris whispered to Ren.
"Yeah," Ren said. "I saw a demon once. It had possessed an old drunk who lived in the alley, and it was using him to butcher other people. The city council hired a demon hunter, and she pinned it down right outside my uncle's flat. She had to shoot the man to force the demon out -- it had eaten his mind, he was just the walking dead -- and then she fought it in the hallway." Ren scowled in remembered fear. "It was blue and grey, and it kept twisting, like it didn't have a proper shape. It almost killed her. She was all cut up and the police took her off in an ambulance."
Joris shivered. What if a demon possessed one of his old neighbors? What if it flew in through a window and stole Nadia or Electra from their beds? What if it ate Granna's mind or cut up Mama and killed the baby? People tried not to think about it much, and most houses had Shen and other signs carved around the windows and doors, but no ward was perfect and you couldn't keep watch all the time. Everybody knew someone who'd been attacked or who'd seen a demon. And he was stuck here in the agency; he couldn't do anything to help his family.
"Hey. Don't worry about it. We'll be fine. I heard one of the guards say they're bringing in some of the Khan family, and they're the best demon hunters in the world," said Ren.
Joris managed a smile, as if he'd been worrying about himself. "I wonder if we'll be allowed to see them," he said.
"Who knows?" said Ren. "But we'll probably still have lessons, so we should get to bed. If you're planning to have nightmares, try to be quiet about it."
It was a feeble joke, but Joris laughed anyway.
They did indeed have lessons the next morning, though the teachers seemed just as distracted as all the slaves. Everyone kept turning toward the doors and intercoms, wondering if the hunters had found the demon. Joris stared at the same paragraph in his reader for nearly half an hour before he realized he ought to turn the page.
He managed two more pages before he began to feel queasy.
He shifted in his chair, but the feeling didn't go away. Instead, it got stronger, and now he felt cold as well, like he was going to start shivering. But his face was hot. Joris touched the scrapes on his scalp and wondered if the doctor had been wrong. Maybe he was infected.
He asked to go to the infirmary.
The teacher raised a skeptical eyebrow -- slaves were not supposed to ask for favors -- and then his eyes focused on the raw scrape marks around Joris's forehead. "Oh," he said, "right. Wait a minute while I call a guard, boy. Nobody goes anywhere alone until the hunters are finished."
Joris waited by the door, feeling worse and worse, until a red-uniformed woman strode up with a gun held ready in her hand instead of the usual shock rods. The teacher frowned pointedly, and the guard holstered the weapon and offered her hand to Joris. He didn't take it. After a moment, she shrugged and drew her gun again.
"Stay close, boy," she said as they walked down the hallway, "and be ready to run. I have silver bullets but those only go so far."
Oddly, he felt better and better the closer they got to the infirmary -- no chills, no queasiness. The strange, oppressive dark feeling drained away, and the guards patrolling the building looked odd and silly instead of like a barely adequate defense against something awful.
Joris bit his lip and worried. Something was wrong.
Dr. Abelard looked him over, splashed a bit of rubbing alcohol on his scrapes, and tied another Shen charm around his wrist. "That's all I can do, boy," she said, shaking her head. Her beaded braids clicked and clacked, making the guard twitch in the doorway. "I don't have the equipment to check for more subtle problems, but I'll ask the demon hunters when they get here. They shouldn't charge extra for that -- anyone who comes in contact with a demon during a hunt is supposed to be examined anyway, and you definitely made contact."
"He did?" asked an unfamiliar male voice, in English. "Has he given a full report? The details could be very important."
"Sir!" said the guard, sounding very respectful.
Joris whirled and stared at the stranger in the doorway. The man was dressed all in white, from his baggy shirt and trousers to his thick gloves and tabard, except for the black Shen painted on his chest. A curved sword and a gun hung from his belt, and he held a funny square instrument in his left hand. His hair was black, his brown skin practically glowed, and Joris had never seen anyone more heroic-looking in his life.
"You're the demon hunter!" he said.
"So I am," said the man, with a brilliant smile. "Konstam Khan, at your service." He bowed slightly to Dr. Abelard. "If you'll excuse me, ma'am, I need to borrow this young man."
He offered his hand to Joris, who accepted it in a daze. "You can call me Konstam," the demon hunter said as he tugged Joris out into the hallway. "What should I call you?"
"My name is Joris," said Joris. He didn't give his family name; slaves weren't allowed any.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Joris," said Konstam, and he sounded like he honestly meant it. "Come with me and I'll introduce you to my partners."
Konstam took Joris out of the slave quarters and into a large office that he and two other demon hunters had borrowed from the Sarkoy Agency. The other hunters were slim, dark women with long black hair worn in tight crowns around their heads. They looked like identical twins, but one carried a sword and a gun like Konstam, while the other wore goggles and was frowning down at a complicated machine with seven dials.
"I can't get a clear corporeal reading," she said as Konstam closed the door. "It's obviously in the building -- I think it can't slip out past the wards -- but I can't pinpoint it at all. It might as well be everywhere, which is impossible."
"That's interesting!" said Konstam, as if this bad news were a holiday gift. "I wonder how it manages the effect?"
"We'll find out," the sword-wearing woman said grimly. "Who's the boy?"
Konstam pulled Joris forward so they stood side by side. "This is Joris," he said, "the one who saw the demon. He's going to tell us all about it. Joris, these are Melinda and Noor Khan, my cousins."
Noor pushed her goggles up onto her forehead and smiled at Joris, just as sincerely as Konstam but not nearly as enthusiastically. "Thank you for helping us, Joris," she said.
Joris flushed. "Um," he said. "I saw the demon yesterday and I don't know if it killed anyone and Ren says maybe it changes shape and something feels wrong and and it scratched me--"
"Joris," said Konstam, resting one hand on his shoulder. "Take a deep breath and start at the beginning. When did you see the demon?"
"Last night," said Joris, feeling suddenly calmer. "I was walking back to the dormitory after dinner, and something felt funny. Then it smelled funny -- like sugar and rotten eggs -- and it was coming from a storage closet. I opened the door, which is wrong because it's supposed to be locked, and the demon came at me." He closed his eyes, trying to remember every detail for Konstam. "It was red, and it had too many arms -- maybe five or six -- and it screamed like somebody dying in a car crash. It had claws, too, like glass." He pointed at the scrapes on his head. "So I slammed the door and ran. I don't know why it didn't follow me."
"Interesting," said Melinda, tapping her sheathed sword against one gloved palm. "It's not a Great Demon, that's obvious, but it has some talents and it must have had a reason not to leave the storage closet. It isn't there anymore, but... do you suppose it's nesting?"
Noor made a sour face. "Preserve us! I hope not. They're always worst when they're feeling parental. What do you think, Konstam?"
Konstam shrugged. "This is your job, remember? Elsa Khan made me promise only to offer support and advice until she says I've fully recovered from facing that mind-eater last month."
"Pffft!" said Noor, grinning at him. "As if you'd ever manage to sit out a hunt. I know that look in your eyes. You've had an idea."
"Maybe," said Konstam. He turned to Joris and crouched down so their faces were at the same height. "Joris, you said you had a funny feeling when you got close to the demon. Had you ever felt anything like that before?"
Joris shook his head, hating to disappoint Konstam. "I felt it again today," he added. "Dr. Abelard says you should check me for infections or possessions." He wondered which of their gadgets could detect possession.
But the Khans didn't seem worried. Instead, the twins were grabbing equipment from the desk and Konstam was beaming. "I don't think you need to worry about possession, Joris. No, I think you're going to help us. Where did you feel the demon today?"
"I feel the demon?" Joris said, horribly confused. "I thought I was just getting sick. Um, it was in the classroom. Room #214."
The three Khans froze for a moment. "A classroom," Konstam repeated. "Where there are children. And the demon may be nesting."
Melinda swore and dashed for the door. "I'll start the evacuation! Call me when you pin the demon."
Joris watched Noor tuck knives into various parts of her uniform and Konstam shove gadgets into a bag. Somehow he wasn't scared, though. The Khans were famous, the best demon hunters in the world. He knew they wouldn't let anyone die.
Konstam didn't hold Joris's hand as they hurried back to the classroom, but Joris didn't mind much. Konstam needed his hands free to fight the demon. As they ran, Konstam explained that the evacuation was important because nesting demons always needed a lot of prey, and they liked children and young animals best. "We think they siphon off their life energy," Konstam said, "and young creatures are more vibrant. So it's very important to keep children away from danger. That means I'll send you back once we know where the demon is. Do you feel it yet?"
"Maybe?" Joris said, feeling torn. He didn't want to die, but he didn't want to leave Konstam either. He wanted to see the demon killed. And they were getting closer to it. The shadowy wrongness had started to wrap around him again and he felt like he'd swallowed water the wrong way.
As they reached his classroom, Noor sneezed.
"Aha," said Konstam, laughing, "now we know we're on the right trail! Noor is just a touch allergic," he added to Joris, "which is why she works the instruments and the wire while Melinda does the close-in fighting and goes to the spirit world to finish the kill."
Joris nodded and sidled closer to Konstam, staring nervously down the hallway. "It's that way," he said, waving toward the two further classrooms and the bathroom. "I think it's close." He wanted to puke.
"Good, very good," said Konstam, practically bouncing on his toes. He held his left wrist to his mouth and pressed a button on his complicated-looking watch. "Melinda, we're outside room #214, in corridor G. Joris says the demon is toward the end of the corridor or possibly around the corner. Get into the cross corridor to the south and wait for my signal."
Joris shivered; this was it, they were going to kill the demon. He touched the scrapes on his head and wondered if he could watch. But Konstam smiled down at him and said, "Thank you for your help, Joris, but it's not safe for you to stay here. Noor, take him back to the guards and go around to the north end of the cross corridor. We'll work a three-way pincer."
"No problem," said Noor, and nudged Joris with her palm between his shoulders. "Come on, time for you to go back to your friends."
The other boys weren't his friends; they were just slaves he lived with for now. But Joris kept quiet and let Noor drop him off with the guards, who'd set up a sort of ring around the northwest corner of the building.
"Good luck!" he whispered as she turned down a side hallway.
"Luck has nothing to do with it," Noor said as she fed gold wire into a sort of mechanical crossbow. "We know what we're doing. But thank you, Joris, you've been very helpful. It's always better to ambush a demon than the other way around. You've saved us a great deal of danger."
Joris blushed. The Khans were going to save everyone in the agency building, and they thought he'd helped them. He was only a kid, only a slave, but he'd helped Konstam.
He walked on air all the way back to the dormitory.
It took less than half an hour for the Khans to finish. Mr. Sarkoy, the agency's owner, came on the intercom to announce the demon's death and call all the slaves to the dining hall for lunch. "Market day is tomorrow," he said, "and we have to get back on schedule."
Joris poked aimlessly at his meal. He'd almost forgotten, for a while, that he was going to be sold. The Khans hadn't treated him like a slave. They'd called him by his name, not 'boy,' they'd listened to him, and Konstam had even tried to explain a little about demon hunting. He'd felt like he was doing something important -- almost like he was still free.
"What were the demon hunters like?" Ren asked, poking Joris with his fork.
"Amazing," said Joris. "Especially Konstam. He's awfully brave, and he figured out how to find the demon, and then he made the plan to kill it. I wish I could be a demon hunter."
"I don't," said Ren. "That's dangerous. I'd rather play sports or maybe be a valet."
Joris frowned. "It doesn't matter. We won't get to choose anyway."
"True. Good luck tomorrow," said Ren. "I hope we both end up with good owners." He picked up his tray and headed for the washroom.
Joris stared listlessly at his noodles and wished he weren't a slave. If Pater hadn't died, if Mama hadn't been having a baby, if he'd been old enough to leave school and find a job, if they'd had other family to take them in... but he'd been sold and he'd just have to live with it. It wasn't like he had any other choice.
He could probably learn to like racing cars.
The Cardsburg municipal slave mart was a huge, cavernous building sectioned into smaller auction rooms by sliding walls. All the first-class boys between seven and twelve years old were herded into a medium-sized room near the outer wall for an auction that started at noon. They weren't allowed any breakfast and no more than a few sips of water, so they wouldn't cause disruptions by needing to leave. Joris slid to the back of the group and pressed against the wall panels, wishing desperately to be somewhere else, somewhere that didn't smell of sweat and fear and didn't ring with loud voices talking about money and training and conformity.
On the platform, the auctioneer banged his gavel. "Order, order, gentlewomen and gentlemen! Please have your cards ready. Now offering lot #685, an eight-year-old boy, ethnic Kathayack, with preliminary horsemanship training, courtesy of the Sinjian Agency. Bidding starts at eight thousand crowns. Do I hear eight thousand?"
Several hands in the crowd shot up, waving brightly colored cards with numbers or family crests. The auctioneer nodded and began to raise the price.
It went on and on, one boy after another, until they reached the six from the Sarkoy Agency. Ren went first, sold for nine thousand five hundred to a rail-thin woman with pitch black skin and hair, who wore the crest of a notable horse racing stable. Joris hoped he'd be happy there.
The other four were sold in quick succession, and then the auctioneer beckoned Joris up to the platform. He tried to stand straight and keep his knees from knocking, but it was hard to feel like a person. His sleeveless gray shirt was damp with sweat and the concrete floor was rough under his bare feet.
Joris stared blankly into the crowd while the auctioneer rattled off his description -- "lot #701, a seven-year-old boy, ethnic Nordian, bilingual in Kathayack and English, courtesy of the Sarkoy Agency" -- and began raising the bids. The price hovered at nine thousand, and then nine thousand two hundred, and then the auctioneer raised his gavel...
"Ten thousand," called a voice from the doorway. Joris jerked his head up and stared. He must be dreaming.
Konstam Khan, flanked by his cousins, pushed into the room and held up a red card with the sign of an anchor. "I bid ten thousand," he said again.
The auctioneer raised one blond eyebrow, shrugged, and said, "I have ten thousand. Do I have ten thousand one hundred? No? Going at ten thousand. Going. Going. Sold for ten thousand to Mr. Khan." He banged the gavel and Konstam shouldered his way through the crowd to the platform.
"Hello, Joris," he said, as a guard ushered them over to a side room and handed Konstam a sheaf of paperwork. "I'm sorry we were late; we got distracted by autopsying the demon."
"Oh," said Joris, still not sure this was real.
"We just have the formalities to get through -- signatures and all that -- and then we'll head back to Khan Valley," said Konstam. "You'll be my personal slave, but I'm afraid your duties will be a bit specialized. Elsa Khan has been nagging me to stop working alone and I think you'll make a good apprentice. Do you mind? If you'd prefer not to be in danger, you can work on the farms or in the factories instead."
Did he mind training to be a demon hunter? Joris gaped. "I-- um-- thank you!" he managed after a long pause, just as Konstam began to look worried. "I promise I won't let you down!"
"Oh, I don't think there's much danger of that," said Konstam, smiling again. "I always find the best of everything, and I'm sure you'll do splendidly." He offered his hand to Joris.
Joris was not nearly so sure, but Konstam was offering him the chance to do something that mattered, something that might indirectly help keep his family safe. He would do everything he could to live up to Konstam's expectations.
"Thank you," he said again, and he shook Konstam's hand.
AN: Thanks for reading, and please review! I appreciate all comments, but I'm particularly interested in knowing what parts of the story worked for you, what parts didn't, and why.