It was time for morning lessons and, as was often the case, Danya had been sent upstairs to clean the room he shared with three other boys. That was the problem with being the oldest slave in Milaine House; he already knew all of what they were to be taught. After staring around at the already perfectly clean room, Danya sat down on his bed. He held his hand out in front of him, palm up, and focussed on heat.
The only magic companions were supposed to be able to do were harmless things like cleaning, repairing clothing, and heating or chilling drinks. Danya could do other things. Secret things.
An orange flame burst to life on Danya’s palm and danced harmlessly. It was his fire, tame, and so would only burn what he wished it to. Danya was not a pure blood companion like the other boys who lived at the House, something only Danya, his mother, and the master of the House knew. He was half soldier. If anyone else ever found out he would almost certainly be swiftly disposed of.
The moment Danya sensed someone coming up the stairs at the other end of the building he closed his palm on the flame, extinguishing it. Overly cautious perhaps, but he couldn’t risk anyone discovering his secret. His unconventional appearance devalued him enough without the addition of being a potential safety hazard.
As the person got closer, Danya didn't need his senses to tell that it was another mage who was approaching. The footsteps were hurried but still light, nothing like the way humans stomped carelessly around.
Duran pushed open the door to their shared room and tilted his chin in the direction of the stairs. "Line up."
Danya made a face as he stood. More than anything else in the world he hated line ups. Nobody was ever going to pick him, just invariably comment on how far he was from matching the physical ideals of a companion slave.
Duran stroked Danya’s back reassuringly as they headed down the stairs together. Duran already had a master, a man who visited him only when he had time in his busy schedule. All of them would have preferred to have a master whose arms they could fall asleep in each night, but being allowed to stay with his own kind and receive physical comfort from them was the next best thing.
The others were already outside, stripped down and lined up in a row of lithe bodies and blond hair. The matron glared at Danya as he slipped his robes off and joined the end of the line, like somehow it was his fault he had been up in his room.
They were arranged from shortest to tallest, with Danya being a whole head taller than the boy next to him. Though at sixteen Fanner was a few years younger than Danya's nineteen, it wasn't simply age that made the difference. Companions usually looked substantially younger than their actual age compared to humans, but there had never been that great a difference with Danya. Fanner looked like a twelve year old human, but at Fanner’s age Danya had looked around fourteen. Now he was estimated at seventeen.
The youngest boy, at the other end of the line, had just turned twelve but looked no more than seven. This was his first time in a line up and he was trembling slightly, though their kind didn't feel the cold. The boy’s fear was strong enough for Danya’s mild empathic ability to pick it up, a panicked animal feeling that made Danya’s gut clench uncomfortably.
Something slapped against Danya's arm and he looked up to see the matron shake her riding crop at him. Right. Eyes forward. They favoured subtler methods of training than beatings at this particular house, but that didn't exclude the occasional smack.
With his eyes straight forward Danya saw the approach of the woman who had come to browse them but could only watch from the very corner of his eye when she started at the other end of the line. She didn't linger long at that end, passing the first several over with barely a glance. She hardly even paused to really look at each of them until she neared Danya's end.
From the way she was hmming as she looked each of them over and then moved on, Danya could tell she was unimpressed. Next to him Fanner fidgeted and Danya had to hold back a sigh. Fanner just couldn't hold still when he was nervous, a trait that had prevented his sale for years. Even so, when the woman reached him she lifted his chin and examined his face with greater consideration than she'd given any of the others. Then she moved on to Danya.
Danya had grown very good at keeping his face impassive, at holding his body still, while he was examined. He moved his head around when she turned it, became moldable clay. When she took his arm and pulled he turned around for her.
"He doesn't look like your other boys," the woman commented, but there was none of the usual derision in her voice.
"The result of a trial with a new stud," the matron said. "Not one we made use of again."
"Hmm," the woman said. "But behaviorally he meets your usual high standards? The differences are solely physical?"
"Of course," the matron said, though that wasn't entirely true even in ways she was aware of. Danya had never been as naturally submissive as the other boys. He was rarely actually rebellious, of course — he knew better than that. He just had a habit of being bold in ways that weren't always appreciated.
The woman gave a sharp nod. "I'll expect a discount. His age betrays the difficulty you've had with selling him."
Danya was being sold. Danya was being sold to a woman. He'd wanted nothing more than to be sold for many years, but... to this woman? She seemed cold, not at all like she would be able to fulfill his need for physical affection. Plus being sold to a woman would mean he would almost certainly be castrated.
"Do you do tattooing?" the woman was asking when Danya started paying attention again. When the matron confirmed that they did, the woman pulled a piece of paper out of the purse strung at her hip. "This is the design. He will be a gifted to a military man at a dinner party, so pack both formal and practical clothing for him. I will send someone to collect him tomorrow afternoon."
And then she left.
"Military," Duran commented as he led Danya back up to their room.
"Yes," Danya said. They both knew the kinds of things that could happen to slaves in the military. They seldom stuck to only their master's tent.
"You're not as young or delicate as the rest of us. Your niche appeal may be of benefit to you."
"Maybe," Danya said, though he was unconvinced. If he was all that was available, he suspected many men would choose him over nothing. Still, that wasn't necessarily worse than the castration and neglect that would likely have come with being owned by that woman. He was a virgin and had always had the affections of the other slaves to rely on, so he had no frame of reference to decide which fate would be preferable.
It wasn't what he'd always dreamt of, though. He had always imagined a wealthy man coming and choosing him because of his peculiarities, not in spite of them. One who would keep him close at all times, who would cuddle up with him at night. A gentle man who would take pleasure only when Danya did. One who would talk to him, who would allow him to read, who would appreciate his intelligence.
That had been a stupid, naive dream. There had never been any chance of it coming true.
They tattooed Danya that night.
Danya's new master's crest had a lion on it, and Danya thought it looked quite good on him in the shimmering silver of the tattoo’s ink. It was strange how much pride the sight of it just below his collarbone made him feel even though he didn't even know what kind of man his master was yet. He couldn’t decide if he was excited or terrified to find out.
It was one of Danya's purchaser's own slaves who came to collect him, and Danya was in awe of the fact that the young man was allowed to drive the car. That they even had a car this far out from the city was unusual. Or rather, that they had the gas to fuel it with. Gas was expensive and hard enough to acquire even within city limits. Outside of the cities, hardly anyone bothered.
"I'm their chauffeur," the young man explained when Danya expressed his envy. "That means driving is my job. None of them even know how."
The young man was a neutral, meaning that although he was technically a mage, and therefore a slave, he had no magic. It was kind of a raw deal, Danya thought, since it meant the man was effectively human in most ways. He also found the black X's they tattooed on neutral's hands to be rather insulting.
Cars were fast, Danya discovered, a fact that he had known but never truly appreciated. He'd barely left the House during his lifetime and he'd certainly never been inside a car. He could only recall having seen a couple before the one he was in. Horses were the preferred means of transportation in the area, either saddled or pulling carriages.
By the time they reached the home of Danya's purchasers, Danya had begun to relax. The car was fun, and the neutral slave, who he had learnt was called Baine, was good company. It was a pleasant start to his new life.
One of the first things Danya learnt after arriving at the house was the the woman who had selected him the previous day was Lady Moore, and that she was the lady of the house.
When he showed her the formal robes he’d brought for the dinner party, she outright sneered. "Considering your greatest worth is your body, the clothes you've been supplied with don't do a terribly good job of showing it off."
Danya physically flinched but stayed silent. Telling her that he was no common whore would likely not have gone down well.
After going through all the clothing Danya had brought and giving each robe a look of disgust, she sent Baine out to buy something ‘more appropriate’. While they waited for him to return, Lady Moore gave Danya a lecture on proper behaviour he really didn’t need.
“You will do exactly what Lord Bell asks of you,” she told him. “I don’t care whether you feel it’s befitting your snooty bloodline or training. You will give him the respect befitting a lord.”
He wasn't actually a lord, Danya knew — nobody was these days. Who even had the authority to make someone a lord? Danya wasn't even sure he knew what a lord ever was. These days, it was just a term used to signify status.
"I will give him the respect befitting my master, ma’am, the greatest respect any slave can offer,” Danya said.
For a moment Lady Moore looked uncertain, like she couldn’t tell if Danya was mouthing off at her. She gave a sharp nod. “You will. I’m sure a man like Lord Bell knows how to punish disobedience with adequate force.”
He truly, desperately hoped his new master wasn't quite as obnoxious as this lady. He could probably be happier with a violent man than an obnoxious one. Those who were truly annoying could sustain their nature constantly, but there was a limitation on how many hours of the day a man could spend being violent. Unfortunately, there was no rule insisting that someone could be only one or the other.
The ‘more appropriate’ clothing Baine returned with consisted of two pieces of fabric. One was something like a loincloth, just barely adequate to cover Danya enough for a formal event not likely to degrade into debauchery. The second was a smaller, narrower piece of cloth to be fastened around his neck as a collar. Danya had never been collared before. It felt strange every time he breathed, every time he swallowed.
"She's usually not quite that bad," Baine told Danya later that evening while he was helping Danya get ready for the party. Almost everything Baine said, he said with a smile on his face and good humour in his voice. This was no different.
"Okay," was all Danya said in response, his even tone revealing nothing. He wasn't sure how Baine would feel about his mistress being insulted or even if he might tell her. It was best to play things safe.
"She's just nervous about this party," Baine continued as he fiddled around with Danya’s already thoroughly combed short brown hair. "Lord Moore has left her to organise it all on her own, and they really do hope to impress Lord Bell. Your new master played a huge part in pushing the vampires back out of Stowley recently, so all the powerful households are keen to seek his favour. They were going to buy him a sword until they learnt that he didn't yet own a slave."
"Why me?" Danya asked. Baine seemed like a safe source of information.
Baine laughed, though Danya could see nothing funny. "You're not standard fare for companion slaves, I'll give you that. It was mostly rumours, I believe, that your new master has no taste for pretty boys. Supposedly, that standard companion slaves aren't to his tastes are why he doesn't have one."
A worrying thought occurred to Danya. "And does anyone actually know how he feels about non-standard companion slaves?"
The smile slowly dropped off Baine's face. "Well... no, not really. That concerned me too, actually. It was really quite a rushed purchase, and it's supposed to be a surprise."
Danya slapped a hand over his face and groaned. "They bought someone a slave without asking? Buying someone a puppy without asking first is idiotic, buying someone a slave— Oh, and now I have his crest stamped on me permanently, so good luck selling me—"
Baine was making wavy calming motions with his hands and Danya realised he'd been yelling. "I know, I know," said Baine. "Believe me. It's stupid, I know, but... maybe he'll like you? You should wait and see first before getting so upset."
Danya wondered if Baine would have been happy to wait and see if it had been his own future on the line, but he had the worrying feeling the answer to that was yes. The guy was excessively cheerful. While at first Danya had found it reassuring and infectious, now he just found it grating.
Now that Danya knew there was a serious chance of him being rejected, he was just as concerned as Lady Moore was about making a good impression. He was also hurriedly muddling through a backup plan.
His magical capabilities were well beyond what anyone knew, so that would work in his favour. If they needed to take him away to be disposed of, there was no reason they'd send anyone but a lightly armed human. Danya had never been in a fight before, but he suspected setting fire to someone's face would be sufficient to deter them.
First he'd have to find some way to get the tracking chip out of his wrist, though. He didn't fancy the idea of slicing himself open and rooting around to find the damn thing, but he'd do what he had to and be glad he had healing skills enough to at least prevent himself from bleeding to death. For now, though, he would focus on making a good impression and hope his new master would actually want to be his new master.