Chapter One: Introductions
Nathaniel didn't know anything about anything until that moment. At least, it would seem that way when he gazed back upon it in the years to come. In the moment, however, at the tender age of sixteen, it felt only like abject horror.
The gruesome nature of the barbed wire holding pens didn't match the lovely blue of the sky, with its white puffy clouds and free-flying birds. The ragged, tired-looking mothers clutching to their young with shaking arms didn't match the spread of lush green grass and the dotting of multicolored wildflowers in the forest clearing.
For sixteen years of his life, Nathaniel Jouile-Robert Orington had never thought to consider the origin of the animal servants that had surrounded him since birth. He had always realized they were servants, but never that people considered them subservient. He had always thought that it was their job to help around the house, like it was his father's job to sell things and the Queen's job to yell. But now, surrounded by the brutal truth of it all, watching them being bred and torn from their mothers only to be taught lessons with fierce beatings, he felt a strange sickness growing in his stomach. He had never thought them to be so brutally mistreated. He cast his hazel eyes back toward Elk, their footman, standing pristine and proud at the door to the large, garish carriage, waiting to let them back in. His gold-trimmed teal vest marked him as one of the Orington's servants, their family crest emblazoned on the lapel. If anyone had reason to doubt his belonging, they could easily shave his left ankle and find the crest tattooed there as well, stabbed under his skin as a permanent reminder of who owned him. Nathaniel thought it oddly like branding cattle. But the Serviteurs du Maison (called "Housepets" in common parlance) were anything but cattle. It wasn't until that moment that Nathaniel gave the matter any thought, but he suddenly realized how human Elk was, how a hard, shining intelligence appeared in his wide golden eyes, how he stood on hind legs and wore clothing and spoke. He had never once thought to compare this servant with his non-serving cousins who lived in the woods, munching grass and berries and doing other elk things all day. It wasn't until that moment that Nathaniel wondered who had it better: Elk or his non-serving cousins.
Being back in a place like this must weigh on him, thought Nathaniel. And upon looking for a sign of this pain, he found it immediately in the creature's wide, knowing eyes. The elk Serviteur waited for his master to ascend the steps to the large main cottage before gazing over the scene before him. Nathaniel glanced back at him, watching the dejection, then the anger, settle upon his widely expressive face. He was sweeping his eyes through the pens, and it was at that moment that Nathaniel remembered his father saying that the Orington family had used the same breeder for decades. That meant that Elk had likely grown for the first seven years of his life in this horrible place, to his elk adolescence, and that he likely had family remaining somewhere in those barbed wire pens.
Nathaniel's attention was snapped back to his own surroundings as the door of the cottage slammed shut behind him, blocking his view of the horror outside.
"Ah, Mr. Orington," came a sharp voice from the stairway. Nathaniel felt his nose twitch in a slight disgusted grimace as he caught sight of the woman coming toward them. She was old, her solid gray hair poised on her head in a tightly-wound bun, a long Victorian dress covering her body from neck to heel in black fabric. Everything about her was severe and controlling, from the way she walked toward them to the cruel, heartless expression in her eyes.
When she reached the bottom of the stairs, Mr. Orington gave a slight bow and she gave a slight curtsey, both moving minutely to show a mutual respect. Nathaniel suspected this respect stemmed from the fact that they were both extremely successful entrepreneurs who had built their businesses from scratch as young adults, his father in the import/export business, and this cruel woman in the servant breeding business. At any rate, their level of success was rare in Wonderland.
"It's been too long, Matilda," said Nathaniel's father, drawing her hand to his lips for a soft kiss. "How has your business been? It looks to have grown in strength and numbers as of late."
They chatted for a few moments about business tactics and recent ventures, both of them completely ignoring Nathaniel. He wanted to include himself in the conversation, to ask Matilda a sarcastic question about her (lack of) ethical practices, for he had already formed his opinion of her and her business in the mere moments he had been observing them, but he bit his tongue. His father had expressly warned him about embarrassing him in front of the strict woman and had promised him the punishment would be severe, should he disobey.
"You must be Nathaniel," drawled the woman as she offered her hand for him to shake. Even though it was childish, he didn't want to touch her wrinkled skin, didn't want her long, apple red nails to scratch his palm. But once again, his father's threat lingered in his ears, and he gave her hand a firm but quick shake, finding himself hoping that none of her evil rubbed off on him. He bowed, as Wonderland social norms said he should, and she nodded appreciatively. "I understand you're in the market for one of my Serviteurs. There are many fine creatures up for sale who have just come of age."
"What month are they?" asked Nathaniel, as his father had prompted him to do. It would make him sound educated on the matter, he had said.
And apparently he was correct, because Matilda's eyes lit up. They were still cruel, just slightly more zealous than before.
"They are of March," she said emphatically, grabbing Nathaniel by the arm and steering him out the large oak door. "Come, come. They are on display for your choosing."
Instead of guiding him toward the barbed wire pens to the left of the large cottage, the severe old woman guided him around to the right, where a large set of tiny houses was arranged on a strictly-set grid. Each one was whimsical, in true Wonderland style, with bright colors and wild patterns, but each was no bigger than the typical dog house. They were not even large enough for the unfortunate Housepets to stretch out in, neither standing nor lying.
"Can they only sit in those houses?" Nathaniel asked before he considered the implications of the question. He hadn't even bothered hiding the disgust in his voice.
The eyes of the two adults were pinned on him now, his father giving a slight glare at how rude the question had been, Matilda's eyes wide in surprise. Nathaniel ducked his head down, pretending to examine his gloves in a bored fashion.
"I'm simply worried about the health of their spines and joints," he said flatly, as if he wasn't discussing the welfare of living creatures with their evil captor. "If they can only sit hunched over, they may suffer damage that would make them worthless immediately."
The adults seemed to take this better. Mr. Orington straightened up, looking to Matilda for the answer to what was now considered a serious and valid question. Nathaniel could tell she still didn't enjoy being doubted, but she cleared her throat and replied.
"I assure you, they are given up to six standing hours a day in the fresh air, and perhaps more if there are many visiting buyers. Their skeletal systems are in perfect health. My husband is a trained doctor and personally examines them before they are sold and marked with a family crest."
Nathaniel had saved himself by the skin of his teeth. Matilda signaled to a Housepet standing at the side of the house, an aging dog who instantly retrieved a fancy horn from the case beside him and blew it with all his might. A loud, low tone filled the air with nearly tangible vibrations and not even a second had gone by when the little doors to the houses opened simultaneously.
Creatures of all types stepped into the sunny field, their faces hard and expressionless as they displayed impeccable posture. At least a hundred of them stood there in front of their bright whimsical dwellings. For a moment, a dead silence spread over the valley. It was so quiet that Nathaniel could hear his heart beating in his chest. And then, a noise shattered the silence.
It was a sneeze, no doubt brought on by emerging from the blackness of the windowless houses into the bright sunlight of the clearing. Matilda was furious. Her glare was a force to be reckoned with, and before anyone had realized it, she was standing next to a trembling hare in the back row, grabbing him by the ears and growling nasty and insulting words at him.
"This is your last chance to be sold today. Do you understand?" And from nowhere, she produced a thin and supple rod of wood and proceeded to smack him about with it sharply. "And if it's not today, then you shall be stew for supper tonight, and I won't think twice about it. If you can't be worth money, you can at least be worth nutrition. Stand up straight. Stop sneezing. Stop shaking. Stare straight ahead and don't move one useless muscle in your useless body, or it will be your end."
Nathaniel wasn't sure if she had intended her words to be heard, for he could tell they were quietly hissed with malice, but the wind was blowing in his direction and they carried directly to his ear. He looked to his father, hoping to see a similar look of shock and worry on his face, but the man just shook his head at his son, chuckling softly.
"Some just aren't meant to make it as a Serviteur, I suppose. Though, breeders as experienced as Matilda usually filter them out in the first weeks of life instead of waiting. It is considered by some to be inhumane, letting them live this long."
Nathaniel huffed in disgust, turning away from his father to watch Matilda marching back toward him, the punishing rod in her hand as a warning to the other animals.
"Now," she said, straightening to a startlingly strict posture. "Nathaniel. These animals are arranged in a very specific way. Before we put them up for sale, they undergo a battery of aptitude tests and they are arranged here for you by score. We've found that these scores are excellent indicators of their future success in the homes they are to serve, especially in the case of a young man's first manservant. Those here in the front row have scored the very best on their tests."
She gestured, then, to a solidly-built white and gray bulldog standing so still he looked to be made of marble.
"This is our finest Serviteur. He scored perfectly on every task with which we presented him. He is the pinnacle of good breeding and solidifying, perfect training."
The bulldog bowed low then, so low his nose nearly touched Nathaniel's shoes.
"Here, Nathaniel," said his father in a jovial tone, his large hand clapping his son on the back. "This is the finest of them all. We'll take him!"
But Nathaniel held up his white-gloved hand, then touched his fingers delicately to his lips.
"No," he said, looking out at the rows of houses. "I have not seen the rest. And I am not even slightly interested in having a bulldog as a manservant my whole life long."
He glanced apologetically at the bulldog, but his stone cold face did not give any emotion at this slight. Nathaniel supposed that was often considered a benefit of having a well-trained Housepet, but he powerfully disliked it. He knew he was acting spoiled, in the way it had all come out. But, then again, he was sure Matilda was used to that sort of thing: rich, snotty kids coming to buy their new property, property she believed she had made and therefore had a right to sell. It all made him a little ill.
"Very well," she said dismissively. "Take a look at the selection, make your choice, and have Retriever show you in when you've decided."
She pointed to the aging dog who had blown the horn and then turned on her heel and began to make her way back to her large cottage. Mr. Orington was surveying the field filled with more than a hundred tiny houses, shading his eyes against the sun.
"Well," he said, stepping down to the Housepet ranking second overall. It was a small elephant, giving the same stone-cold, obeying gaze. "How about this one, Son? You do want one of high quality and aptitude scores. Otherwise, problem behavior tends to crop up in the course of..."
But Nathaniel was already halfway to the back row by the time his father realized where he had gone. The white hare, the one who had been beaten by the evil black-clad breeder just minutes before, mistook his glare of anger at the situation for a glare of anger directed at him, and he scurried around the corner of his dingy brown house, only stopped from fleeing altogether by a thick black shackle and chain around his ankle.
"Hey, there," Nathaniel said softly, crouching down at the front of the house. "Come out here, Hare. I'm not about to hurt you..."
Hare hesitated, tugging hard on his leg and rattling the chain that prevented his escape. But when he realized it was of no use, he swallowed hard and tried his best to calm his trembling muscles. If he didn't obey his commands, he knew what would happen. The snotty, rich boy would complain to the Mistress, and he would be stew for sure. Hare wrapped his arms around himself, sitting against the little brown-painted side of his house, and took a few steadying breaths. Then, gathering all the courage he had, he crawled forward and stood.
The boy in front of him was taller than he by half a foot at the least, with waves of light brown hair crowning his head. He was dressed in a wealthy manner, though his shirt was coming untucked and his tie was in a state of chaos. Hare tilted his head slightly in confusion, looking up into the boy's eyes, which were nothing like the those of the others who had often come to jeer at him and abuse him for his poor placement in the aptitude tests. His eyes were a soft hazel, a circle of spring moss around a soft brown bark shining with flecks of gold in the morning sun, and they completely lacked the hardness and hate that was so prominent in the others.
Nathaniel too was surprised. The hare in front of him wasn't made of stone like the others. He had what some would call audacity, looking the human in the eye, presenting himself with his trousers grass-stained and his vest crooked on his shoulders. For Nathaniel, it was a sign of unbreakable character and heart, something the other Serviteurs lacked immensely. And maybe it was because his mother had told him to choose someone he felt he could make a lifelong bond with, and maybe it was because there was a death threat hovering over the hare's head, and maybe it was because the poor thing's muscles still trembled and his eyes looked desperate and sad, but whatever the reason, Nathaniel offered a hand to Hare and gave him a soft smile.
It was that moment that Mr. Orington reached the pair of them.
"I intend to buy him," he said quietly to his father. He was hoping the hare would shriek in joy, would show his happiness, his relief at being able to get out of the dangerous situation he was in, but instead he just stared. He stood still as a statue, like the other Housepets, except for the fact that he was staring at Nathaniel's hand with the most confused and surprised look on his face. Nathaniel wiggled his fingers about in front of the hare's eyes, which finally brought him to the present again.
"Here," he said reassuringly, once again offering his gloved hand to the trembling hare. "Take it."
But just as the shaking hare made to take the human's hand, Mr. Orington stepped in, grabbed his son by the shoulder, and guided him firmly away from the animal.
"Nathaniel," he said in a gruff tone. His eyebrows were pinching together in the middle in a look of frustration and disgust. "I thought I had explained this process to you. We greet Mistress Matilda. We choose from the three or four finest Housepets she has available: the true top-bracket, costliest Pets, because they are the best. Not bottom-tier garbage. Do you understand?"
Nathaniel pursed his lips in frustration of his own, then cleared his throat, took a step back to break his father's grip on his shoulder, and spat, "You and I have different definitions of 'best.' He is not an unfeeling stone. He is a creature with heart and personality, and I want him as my manservant. Perhaps a top-tier Housepet would be best for someone callous who cares only that he is obeyed and everything is done right, but perhaps there are also different opinions."
With that, Nathaniel turned on his heel and marched angrily toward the house, extracting a satchel of coins his mother had given him from the pocket of his jacket as he walked.
"Prepare the Hare at the very bottom for transport," he barked at the old golden retriever as he passed by.
His father was following him at a distance, shaking his head in surrender. Sometimes, it was easier to give in to his stubborn son's demands than argue the issue with him. And at any rate, though he didn't understand it, his son had connected deeply to the last-place hare. Deeply enough, at least, to put up a fight for him. When it came down to it, Nathaniel needed a servant to aid him in his transition to adulthood. Whether that servant was a finely-tuned, deeply successful Housepet or a bumbling bottom-tier idiot made not much difference. Whether the hare would become a favorite or quickly discarded, he was only the first among many servants to come in his long and successful future. And after all, buying bottom-tier saved him a substantial amount of money.
Nathaniel found Matilda in her large kitchen, overseeing the preparation of what seemed to be a lovely meal. The room was alive with the buzz of many occupied Housepets, all of them working together to chop carrots and potatoes, prepare a thick brown broth, and sharpen the knives.
"Ah," she said, beaming with an unconvincing, manic happiness. "Have you decided, young Orington? I had you sighted for that second-place elephant the moment you walked in."
"No," he said firmly. His father had joined him in the kitchen by that time, watching the exchange play out. But at this point, he set his hand softly on his son's shoulder and bowed gently to Matilda once more.
"It seems Nathaniel here has chosen to take the problematic hare off your hands," he said with a chuckle.
Instantly, Nathaniel could see that his father knew something he didn't. It was a war of glances and expression between the wealthy import-export businessman and the powerful breeder, and it was then that Nathaniel fit the pieces of the puzzle together: the busy Pets, the carrots, the pot of broth, the scowling woman who looked very much like she had just had her dinner snatched out of her hands. She had been preparing to make stew for dinner; stew with meat from a hare she found very aggravating.
But then Mr. Orington spoke a language she understood perfectly.
"I will pay you twice what he is worth," he said sternly, withdrawing his own satchel of coins as well. "Enough to pay for this meal five times over."
Nathaniel spilled the contents of his satchel onto the table, a few of the thin coins spinning for a moment before falling still. To the sizable pile, Mr. Orington added three gold coins as thick as his thumb, releasing his notion that he was going to get out of the encounter cheaply.
"Very well," she said, a chill tone in her voice. Nathaniel shuddered, feeling very much that she had been looking forward to killing the poor creature and was upset about being robbed of the pleasure. She approached the table and counted the gold, checking its validity with her expert, hawk-like eyes. When she had verified that the count was sufficient, she unhooked a key from the ring in her pocket and handed it over to Nathaniel. "My husband will be examining him as we speak. You may unlock him when you feel ready to take him. Bring him back in two weeks, when you are certain that you will keep him, and we will imprint your family crest in his skin without additional charge."
Nathaniel bowed not out of respect, but because he felt glad to be done with her. She simply looked at him with her cold, gray eyes and said nothing.
The doctor had just finished his examination when the Oringtons returned to Hare's tiny brown dwelling. He assured them that the hare was in perfect health "except for a few surface welts which, as you know, will decrease in size by the morning." And after giving his report of superb health, the man exclaimed that he was likely late for dinner and darted off with a look of frantic anxiety in his eyes.
No wonder, mused Nathaniel. Anyone would, being married to that woman.
"I'll prepare the carriage and have Elk bring it around for you," said Mr. Orington. This was a large moment in the development of a relationship between master and Serviteur, and he did not want to intrude or influence it. While his son was young and still in need of guidance, Mr. Orington felt it was not his place to guide this particular interaction. After all, his son was his own person.
When his father had stepped outside a safe hearing distance, Nathaniel turned to the shackled Housepet beside him, taking time to admire the creature. His fur appeared silky and healthy, and his eyes certainly possessed the same shining intelligence Nathaniel had seen in Elk's.
"My name is Nathaniel Orington," he said to the still-trembling hare. He offered his gloved hand once more, tilting his head in the same quizzical way the animal had earlier. And though he had seen the intelligence in the creature's eyes, he was still surprised at how smooth and intentional the movement was when the creature placed his paw in Nathaniel's hand for a shake.
"Master Orington," he mumbled uncertainly, staring at his white paw displayed against the white glove. "My name is H-Hare."
"Well, Hare, let me unlock you. Here..."
Nathaniel knelt down in the grass, fitting the ancient-looking skeleton key into the shackles around Hare's ankles, detaching the chain and then freeing him completely. The creature tilted his head once more, his eyes fixed on Nathaniel as he straightened up. He gazed around at the countryside, and his human owner could see in his eyes that he was contemplating how far he could make it if he bolted for the horizon, and if he'd make it before he got caught.
"You've no need to run, Hare," said Nathaniel carefully. "Look, my father gave me this."
From his coat he produced a strong but supple punishment rod, much like the one Matilda had used on him only an hour or so ago. The creature flinched, flattening himself against his dwelling in fear.
"No, look!" Nathaniel insisted, and the hare nervously set his eyes on his new master once more. "Look, I've no use for it, do I?"
He tossed it away, hearing it splash in the nearby decorative pond, a fat bullfrog croaking unappreciatively.
"I shall never strike you," Nathaniel promised, looking his Housepet sincerely in the eye. "And now that that's out of the way, let's take a carriage ride, shall we?"
"I've never b-been..." mumbled Hare, his heart still thumping in his chest at the sight of the rod.
"Well, there's a first time for everything, and there's a world out there you've never seen. A carriage ride is a good start."
And just at that moment, the gilded Orington carriage came to a stop beside them, Elk holding the reigns. He hopped down gracefully, opened the door, and allowed Nathaniel inside.
"You'll sit with me," said Elk with a reassuring smile, gesturing to the high seat in the front. He remembered what it was like to be newly purchased, and he felt for the poor trembling creature. "It's more fun than riding inside, anyhow."
When everyone was safely aboard, Elk hitched the reigns and started the carriage's journey west toward the tallest hills of the Queendom, where the Oringtons' mansion was extravagantly perched.