About half an hour before the first guests started arriving, Danya was seated at the long dining table and told to stay put while servants set it around him. For a while Baine stayed with him, talking about nothing in particular, but once guests began to arrive Baine had had to go and see to them and Danya was left alone.
For about an hour, Danya was the only one seated at the table as guests arrived and mingled. Danya looked at each one, trying to work out which, if any, was his new master.
About a third were female, which immediately discounted them, and many of the men were too old or had wives on their arms. He really wished he had some clue as to what his new master looked like. He also really wished he hadn't been seated at the table. It was an unusual choice for any slave, but dressed as he was he knew he looked particularly out of place anywhere but kneeling on the floor.
All of the house slaves stood back against the wall, ready to assist guests in any way required, and slaves guests had brought with them were either standing behind their masters or kneeling at their feet. Danya was the only slave sitting at the table. Even though he'd been ordered there, he felt like he was doing something wrong. He kept his eyes downcast as though avoiding eye contact would keep anyone from noticing him.
"They seated me next to a slave," the man to the left of Danya said to his friend a moment after sitting down. "Is that a slight?"
The man sounded more curious than anything, as though he genuinely didn't know. Danya supposed he couldn't blame him. Danya didn't even know. He kept his eyes on his empty plate and pretended not to hear them discussing him.
"He's probably somebody's pet," Danya heard the man's friend reply, the slightest hint of scorn in his voice.
The man leant towards Danya slightly, and it wasn't until he spoke that Danya realised he'd been looking past him. "No, the man on his other side has a slave with him. He's totally ignoring this one."
"Who knows," said the man's friend in a way that sounded more like 'who cares'.
For a moment it seemed the man had lost interest in him, and Danya shut his eyes, doing his best to block out the party. He hated crowds.
"I know you can hear me," the man said suddenly, so close that Danya could feel the man's breath on his ear. Danya startled, his eyes flying open.
"That was mean," the man's friend said, his curled fingers pressed to his lips to cover his amusement.
Danya met the man's dark brown eyes for a moment before averting his gaze submissively. "I assumed you did, sir."
"So." The man leaned back in his chair next to Danya. "Why do you think they sat me next to a slave? Was it intended as a slight?"
Danya glanced at the man again, took in his short dark brown hair, thick, expressive eyebrows, and tanned skin. He looked to be somewhere in his mid-twenties. "I'm sorry, sir, but I really don't know. I was just told to sit here. I'm sure there's someone you could complain to if you're bothered."
The man shrugged languidly. For someone as solidly built as he was, he moved with surprising grace. "If it's not a slight, I really don't care. I could do worse. The lady I was stuck next to at the last party talked at me the entire time about her dogs. Just stop calling me ‘sir’. It irritates me."
“Certainly,” Danya said, biting his lip as soon as the word was out to keep himself from tacking on sir at the end.
The man reached over and grabbed one of the bread sticks. "You probably don't own dogs, so I think I'm safe."
"I'm a slave.” Lip bite, pause. “I don't truly own anything.”
The man made a sound of acknowledgement and then fell silent for a moment, but it didn’t last long. "Can you do any magic?"
Danya stared at the man, and after a moment shook his head. "I'm a companion. I can't do much more than heat your drink."
The man glanced at his glass. "It's wine."
"Chill your drink?" Danya amended.
"It's red wine," the man said. "It's meant to be served at room temperature."
Danya shrugged broadly. "Then I'm afraid I can do nothing for you."
"You don’t look much like a companion. I mean, clothing choices aside," the man's friend leant over to say.
Danya managed to keep his expression impassive. This was always an uncomfortable topic for him. "I’m from Milaine House, sir."
The man's friend's pale eyebrows shot up. Milaine House was well known and well respected. "I didn't realise they branched out in terms of appearance."
"Not by choice, sir," Danya explained. "But it's impossible to completely control a genetic pool. Just because a stud you bring in looks the part doesn't mean there's nothing less fitting he might pass on to any offspring."
The man made a face. "You sound like a friend of mine talking about breeding some of his damn horses. Maybe we should just develop cloning and be done with it if everyone hates variety so much.”
"But some people want lime green eyes and some people want heliotropes eyes," Danya said, somewhat facetiously. He leant back to give one of the servants room to put a couple of dishes onto the table. Potatoes and roast beef.
"But nobody wants blue eyes, right?" the man's friend asked, and Danya noticed for the first time that he had blue eyes a few shades darker than Danya’s.
"Hopefully someone does," Danya muttered as a tray of fresh sliced fruit was put across from him on the table.
The man scoffed. "There's nothing wrong with blue eyes. Way better than brown."
His friend laughed. "I think any companion born with brown eyes would deem their life fairly meaningless."
Danya winced inwardly. He found that far more insulting than it was intended to be. As if being decorative was their highest priority, even if it was often the truth of the matter. "Whether they could find a master who would want a brown eyed slave would be of more concern than the slave's own self worth, sir."
That dose of reality seemed to put a downer on the conversation, and after a couple of mumbled agreements the man and his friend began filling their plates with food from the various dishes on the table. Danya hadn't intended to end the conversation, but he had to admit the respite wasn't entirely unwelcome. Humans were difficult to talk to.
"You're not eating?" the man asked after a while when all Danya did was stare at his empty plate.
"I'm not sure I'm allowed," Danya admitted.
"You have a plate," the man pointed out, gesturing with his fork. "That suggests you're meant to fill it, right?"
"Hmm." Danya twisted his lips in contemplation. The thing was, he didn't know that he hadn't just been dumped here in an empty spot temporarily until they were ready to introduce him to his new master. He didn't know if he was intended to participate in the meal or if this had just been a convenient place to leave him.
"You should eat," the man said decisively. "Um, I command it?"
Danya laughed. "I'm a companion. Unless otherwise instructed, I'm not supposed to take orders from anyone but my master."
"And who is your master?" the man asked, genuine curiosity in his voice.
"Um. Lord Bell, I suppose?" Danya said. He turned in his seat so that the man could see the freshly tattooed crest just below his collarbone. He wasn't sure he was even supposed to be telling people this considering as far as he knew he still hadn't even been accepted.
Both the man and his friend were suddenly very still. The man's fork clattered back onto his plate, and Danya heard his friend mutter, "Oh, shit."
Oh shit indeed. From their reactions, Danya was suddenly certain one of them was Lord Bell and Danya had just broken the news to him about his new slave. Smooth, Danya.
"Who from?" the man's friend asked, sounding resigned, whereas the man still hadn't truly responded apart from freezing. The only thing Danya could sense off of him was tension, but it was building to something. Danya doubted it was joy.
"Uh... the household, sir," Danya said. "Lord and Lady Moore."
"Right," the man said firmly, his thick eyebrows pulled tight and low as he stood from his seat.
"Simon," the man's friend hissed as he hurried after him. Danya hesitated a moment before following the two of them down to the other end of the table.
"We need to talk," the man, Simon, said to Lord Moore flatly. "Now."
Lord Moore's eyes travelled over them, finally landing on Danya who dropped his gaze. In front of him Simon — presumably Simon Bell — was a bubbling mess of anger.
"Of course, Lord Bell," Lord Moore said, confirming Danya's fears. He stood. "Privately would be better, I think."
Danya wasn't sure whether he should stay put or go with them, but Lord Bell's friend saved him the trouble of deciding by grabbing his arm and pulling him along.
"You bought me a slave?" Lord Bell shouted the moment they were out of earshot of the party's guests.
"You didn't have one so we thought you might like him," Lord Moore said. His voice and expression were calm, but beneath that his emotions were strung tight.
"I don't have a slave because I don't want a slave," Lord Bell yelled back.
Lord Bell's friend grasped his wrist firmly and pulled him back a step, close enough that he could murmur into Lord Bell's ear. "They tattooed him."
Lord Bell looked at him, shrugging questioningly. In his anger, he didn't seem to understand the significance of that.
"They can't send him back or resell him. Unless there's anyone in your family who can take him, it's you or nobody."
Lord Bell frowned and shook his head. "I don't want a slave."
"If you don't want him, we can of course make sure he is disposed of on your behalf," Lord Moore said. He had seated himself in an armchair and with a quick glance around Danya finally noticed they were in a small library. "He wasn't expensive anyway. We thought you might prefer him for his peculiarities."
Lord Bell glanced at Danya, and Danya shrank back from his angry gaze. It was times like these that Danya's more soldierly instincts began to kick in and he wanted to burn the whole place down so that he could get away. Okay, so perhaps soldierly with a twist of companion. A soldier probably wouldn't have been quite so fixated on fleeing.
"We'll take him now and decide what to do with him later," Lord Bell's friend said.
Danya wasn't fond of the uncertainty, but he preferred it over the guarantee of a negative outcome. It would at least buy him some time to find something to cut the chip out if necessary.
"If Lord Bell doesn't want him, perhaps he oughtn't take him," Lord Moore said. "He needn't be of trouble to you."
Lord Bell's friend slapped a hand against his friend's chest, pushing him back before he could respond. "He's been tattooed with Lord Bell's crest and is therefore Lord Bell's property. Lord Bell will decide what to do with him and does not require your assistance in doing so."
It wasn't until they were halfway to the front door that Danya noticed Lord Bell's friend was no longer with them, but Lord Bell didn't look like he was stopping and so Danya just kept following him. In truth, he would have felt safer with Lord Bell's friend. He wasn't entirely sure Lord Bell wouldn't have simply decided outright to be rid of him.
As Lord Bell charged into the stables the stable boy came to assist him but was immediately dismissed. Or rather, he was completely ignored, which he took as a dismissal rather than choosing to stay in anything resembling close proximity to the man. The stable boy was a mage and not a neutral, and Danya suspected he was strongly empathic. Those with strong empathic skills were often quite good with animals. He mimicked the stable boy and stayed close yet well out of arm's reach.
Lord Bell opened up one of the stalls and led out a large, black mare. Danya half expected the mare to panic at the way Lord Bell angrily and roughly prepared her to ride, but he wasn't actually hurting her and she seemed to be used to his moods. That was a bit concerning.
"Um," Danya said, stepping forward once Lord Bell had finished readying his horse and had nothing left to do but wait for his friend while looking agitated. "I can mend and clean things. Like clothes. I could probably manage armour, too, and, with a bit of practise, weapons."
Lord Bell stopped and stared at him for a moment. "What?"
"Before. I said the only magic I could do was heating or cooling drinks, but that's not true because I can maintain, mend, and clean things as well."
Lord Bell shook his head dismissively and turned away. "How useful you may or may not be isn't what concerns me."
Before Danya had the chance to pry into what Lord Bell's specific concerns were, his friend returned carrying a wooden tube bearing the Milaine House insignia. Danya’s papers, of course. Baine was following behind, close on his heals.
"Well, exciting night!" Lord Bell's friend said with false cheer as he stepped up beside Danya. He offered Danya a smile and his hand while Baine hovered uncertainly in the background. "I'm Hamish."
Danya took Hamish's hand hesitantly. Hand shaking was such a human thing to do. "Danya, sir."
"Yes, I know," Hamish said with a grin. "Says so on your papers. Might as well drop the ‘sir’ thing with me too now.”
Having no patience for their chit chat, Lord Bell cut in. "I'm never coming to one of these ridiculous parties again. Did they do that to trap me? Buy me and slave and tattoo him..."
"No, I think they're just idiots," Hamish said as he went to get his own horse. "Really, I think they were trying to please you. That's not to say that you ought to overlook it, but there is no conspiracy."
Danya found himself inching closer to Baine and forced himself to stop. He had no choice but to go with these men.
"I'm in the military, I can't have a slave," Lord Bell mumbled as he and Hamish led their horses outside. When Danya followed, so did Baine.
"Plenty of people in the military have slaves," Hamish pointed out. "Hell, some slaves are in the military."
"Not companion slaves.”
Hamish inclined his head agreeably. "True enough. Not as fighters, but certainly as aids to high ranking individuals. It's a mark of power. Really, it's almost expected that you have one."
Once they were outside, Hamish and Lord Bell mounted their horses. When Danya tried to follow Hamish, the less frightening of the pair, Hamish gave him a shove on the back of his head. "Ride with Simon. He's your master, pup."
Danya would really have preferred not to ride with Lord Bell, but disobedience was only likely to make things worse so he did as he was told.
“Wait!” Baine said as Danya began to approach Lord Bell’s horse. He quickly pulled his simple, crimson formal robe over his head, leaving him almost naked. He held the robe out to Danya, but his eyes were on Lord Bell. “May he…?”
Lord Bell gave a nod and then waited impatiently as Danya tugged it on. Danya would have liked to thank Baine properly, to have given him a proper goodbye, but all he had time to offer was a grateful smile. The one Baine gave him in return was tight and worried, not at all reassuring.
Embarrassingly, it took three tries for Lord Bell to successfully pull Danya up onto the horse behind himself, each attempt straining Danya’s arm painfully. Danya had never mounted a horse before and anxiety hadn’t done good things for his coordination.
The road was dark and the horse moved quickly, but it was the man in front of Danya that scared him, not the beast beneath him. The animal wasn't difficult to understand or predict, and the worse thing it could do was buck him off. Or maybe step on him? Bite him, kick him? He was fairly sure those were things horses did.
It was almost ten minutes before Danya realised he had no idea where they were going. Even if he'd been bold enough to ask, he doubted Lord Bell would have heard him over the thundering of hooves. Surely they couldn't be going far or they would have been pacing the horses better. Danya held on tightly, feeling intensely awkward about having his arms around Lord Bell's waist.
As soon as Danya saw the miniature city of torch lights, he knew where they were. At the nearest military camp. This one was permanent but new, so it had a fence and a couple of small buildings but not much else besides tents. There were a lot of tents.
This one was a human military facility, so the only slaves were general workers and companion slaves such as himself. There would be no soldiers here.
When Lord Bell dismounted Danya almost fell off with him, having still had his arms wrapped tightly around the man. He quickly grabbed hold of the saddle horn to stabilise himself and wriggled forward to sit in the saddle properly. Lord Bell ignored him and led his horse towards the stable.
Danya shuffled nervously on the horse, wondering if Lord Bell planned on letting him down at all. Perhaps it was a test? Or perhaps Lord Bell was just being unkind. It was impossible to tell with the man completely disregarding Danya's existence. Eventually it was Hamish who showed up to help him down.
"I'll get some things to make a cot for him in your tent," Hamish told Lord Bell, and then hurried off before any complaints could be made. Lord Bell just sighed and walked away, and Danya could only assume he was supposed to follow.
Danya hesitated outside of the larger than average dark green tent Lord Bell entered, but after a moment he decided that if Lord Bell wouldn't give him instructions he would have to make assumptions. He stepped into the tent.
Danya could see Lord Bell fiddling with something in the dark and grumbling, and after a moment he realised it was a lamp Lord Bell was attempting to light. Collecting a small amount of his magic within himself, Danya molded it into a ball and then released it, sending it to hover just above Lord Bell's shoulder to provide him light for his task. The action had been mostly automatic as it was a simple spell used commonly at the House, and it wasn't until Lord Bell looked up at him in surprise that Danya realised it might strike an outsider as something more worthy of note.
"Sorry. Just trying to help," Danya said cautiously. He wasn't actually sure at all if Lord Bell objected to the use of magic, he just knew that he'd gotten the man's attention and right then that seemed like a bad thing.
Lord Bell made a sound of acknowledgement and turned back to the lantern, getting it lit a moment later. Danya allowed his magelight to blink out.
Danya looked around the small tent. There wasn't a great deal to see, just a bed made up on the floor, a saddle bag presumably filled with Lord Bell's possessions, and Lord Bell's armour stacked neatly in one corner of the room. It was the armour that caught Danya's attention.
Making sure he didn't touch it in case Lord Bell was protective of his belongings, Danya grazed his eyes over each piece. Overall it was well taken care of, but there were knicks on some of the metal pieces and the leather was stained and scratched in multiple places.
"I could fix this," Danya said simply, though it wouldn't be quite as easy as that statement suggested. He'd never worked with metal or leather before. However, if there was one thing he was good at it was extrapolation. If he could extrapolate the reparation of cloth into a skill to heal flesh, he could probably manage a bit of metal and leather.
Lord Bell barely glanced at him. "If you want to."
If you want to was such a bizarre statement for someone who owned him. Danya would have preferred Lord Bell to want him to. Still, the task provided a useful distraction and an opportunity to prove he could be of at least a little use, so he got started immediately. He began with the leather first as it was both more visibly damaged and more easily fixed.
Lifting stains was fairly simple and would make quite a noticeable difference, so that was the first step he took even though the purpose was purely aesthetic. It also helped Danya get comfortable with the material without having to interact with it in any complex way.
Most of the stains were blood, Danya discovered as he began weaving the unwanted particles out of the thick leather. Given Lord Bell's occupation and the purpose of armour, that was hardly surprising. By the time Hamish returned with the bedding, Danya had just begun to make visible progress.
"What are you doing, pup?" Hamish asked curiously, tossing the bedding towards the corner of the tent as Danya finished cleaning up the lower third of Lord Bell's breastplate.
Danya twisted the breastplate to examine it from different angles, ultimately deciding to work from the top down next and meet his efforts somewhere in the middle where the highest concentration of staining was. "Making myself useful. Cleaning first and then mending."
Hamish hovered over Danya and stared down at him for a few moments while he worked before laughing joyously and looking over at Lord Bell. "Have you watched him do this? It's fascinating."
"No," Lord Bell responded simply. Out of the corner of his eye, Danya noticed him getting undressed. Likely either simply changing out of his formal clothes or changing into whatever he slept in. Danya wished he had that luxury. They had left his belongings behind, and now all he had were Baine's slightly oversized formal robes.
Hamish sat down on the floor next to Danya and leant in to watch him work. It was odd and disconcerting to have someone watch him so carefully, but Danya also found it somewhat flattering. When he paused for a moment to stretch the kinks out of his neck, Hamish yanked the breastplate out of his hands.
Hamish held it up for Lord Bell to see. "What's that, Simon, ten minute’s work? You could make money getting him to do this for other people."
"That's not what companion slaves are for and I don't need the money," Lord Bell said, but he didn't dismiss Danya's work outright as Danya had expected. Although Lord Bell made no comment, Danya noticed the way his eyes lingered over the half-cleaned breastplate.
"I'm not done yet," Danya said, as though that weren't blatantly obvious. "Not even with cleaning that piece, and then I have to do the repairs which will take longer of course."
Hamish grinned. "Well, I'll have to make sure he keeps you then so you'll have time to get to mine, pup."
Danya desperately wanted to ask Hamish to stop calling him that, but he didn't dare. He hadn't quite figured out where he stood with Hamish. Though Hamish was definitely nice — far kinder than Lord Bell — he also seemed to have some measure of control over what Lord Bell did and whether he intended to or not, he was already displaying a habit for using degrading language towards slaves. It wasn't worth the risk of angering him.
"We should get to bed," Lord Bell said after Hamish had returned the breastplate and Danya had begun to make progress on getting the rest of it cleaned. "We have an early start tomorrow."
Hamish slapped his forehead. "Oh man, I forgot! Damn, I guess we'll have to take him too." He paused in contemplation for a moment. "Although, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Companions are more or less status symbols, so having one with you may make you look more respectable."
"Maybe," Lord Bell said, effectively ending all discussion on that line of thought.
"Where are we going?" Danya asked Hamish quietly. He wasn't entirely sure he was supposed to be asking questions, but Hamish didn't seem interested in strongly enforcing the boundary between slaves and humans, so he thought it would probably be okay.
"A diplomatic thing in Lainton," Hamish said. He'd taken the breastplate from Danya again and was holding it up to the lantern to examine his work. "Your new master here was a major player in an effort to flush the vamps out of Stowley a couple of months back. He's become a bit of a representative of our particular corner of the military as a result, whether or not he wants it. Lainton's been having vamp problems for years, so they're pretty interested in meeting him. We're riding out there tomorrow."
"Oh," was all Danya had to say to that.
If anyone hated vampires more than humans, it was mages. Way back before the war, there had been a huge problem involving vampires taking the children of mages and keeping them captive as a source of blood. Their children couldn't fight back like many of the adults could.
Vampires had always been a mutual enemy of humans and mages, but instead of working together to eliminate them humans had done as humans tended to do and lashed out at anything different from themselves, catching more than just those who would seek to harm them in the process. There were a few other innocent beings who got caught in the crossfire, most of them fae, but they were trickier, better at hiding, and had far smaller populations than mages.
In the end even the purely evil beings, such as vampires and other demonic beings, had been pushed to the sidelines of a war that raged between humans and mages. Human populations were far larger than those of mages and they had access to some devastating military technology, but the mages hadn't been willing to go down without a fight. Ultimately, humans and mages had shredded the world between them and it hadn't stopped until the entire population of mages had been either killed or enslaved. Naturally, despite being the ones who had begun the war, humans still tended to blame the mages.
Lord Bell took the breastplate from Hamish and tossed it onto the floor before poking Hamish in the back with his foot. "Go to bed."
As soon as Hamish was out of the tent, Lord Bell knelt down next to his armour. For a moment Danya thought Lord Bell was examining his handiwork and felt a dash of pride run through him, but the hiss of a blade being unsheathed quickly blocked out all emotions but fear.
There was no expression on Lord Bell’s face when he turned to Danya and Danya couldn’t feel any emotions from him strong enough to set off his empathic ability. Lord Bell was approaching Danya, though, and Lord Bell had a hunting knife in hand, and that gave Danya plenty to fuel his fear.
The two halves of Danya warned. As a companion he wanted to remain still and impassive, to take whatever was coming, but his more soldierly instincts told him to fight back no matter the consequences. His training was deeply ingrained, though, and in the end it was his more passive traits that won out. Danya’s heart thundered in his chest, but he stayed still as the knife neared his throat. Lord Bell held Danya’s head still and then Danya felt the knife cold against his neck.
The knife sliced upwards, the cloth collar fell into Danya’s lap, and Lord Bell withdrew. Despite its constant pressure on his throat, Danya had completely forgotten he’d been wearing the collar. It had a clasp, Danya wanted to say, but all he could do was stare slack jawed at Lord Bell’s back, his heart still threatening to break through his ribcage.
Lord Bell left Danya to sort out his own bedding, as disinterested in Danya as he had been since he'd discovered he owned him now that the collar was off. Danya squeezed his eyes shut and did his best to calm himself down. He needed to think. Behaving like a frightened animal would get him nowhere.
Before Lord Bell had found out he owned Danya he had actually been reasonably pleasant, which suggested hostility wasn’t a constant part of his nature. Danya desperately hoped Lord Bell would adjust soon and go back to how he had been when they’d first met. If that happened Danya was fairly sure he could enjoy Lord Bell's company, and he was sure that if Lord Bell would just give him a chance he could prove himself useful.
He had to be prepared for the possibility of that not occurring, however, and that was what was on his mind as he lay on the lumpy, itchy blanket that smelled of horses in the dark of the tent.
These days, tracking chips were inserted in the upper backs of slaves where it was almost impossible for them to access on their own and nestled next to their spines so that even with help any attempt to remove them would be dangerous. All soldiers had had their chips relocated from their wrists to their backs when this new method was introduced, but nobody had bothered doing the same for companions.
Danya didn't quite know what he would do if he did escape, and whatever he did try was likely to fail, but if the only alternative ended up being certain death he really didn't have much to lose. He had a vague idea of going out into the woods and up to the mountains to seek out the fae rumoured to live there in the hopes that they might take him in. He had no particular reason to believe they would. Danya could, perhaps, survive up there on his own, but he would have no way of ensuring he wasn't tracked down. He really didn't want to run away and subsequently get caught. Nasty things were done to runaways.
The first thing Danya needed to do was to get hold of something sharp. Lord Bell had several knives stacked with his armour. Danya had already had a demonstration of the efficacy of one, though whether it worked as well on flesh as it did on cloth he didn’t know.
Unfortunately Danya suspected Lord Bell would notice if one of his knives disappeared and Danya couldn't be sure he would get the opportunity to take one if and when he needed it. He would have to find something of sufficient sharpness that nobody would miss.