The next morning Danya woke to the sound of rustling paper.
He hadn't slept well. Worry had kept him awake long after Lord Bell had fallen asleep, and even after his brain had been quite prepared to finally rest the discomfort of his makeshift bed had left him tossing and turning. He was used to having a clean, proper, full sized bed in his shared room, not sleeping in a tent on a dirty blanket covered in horse hair.
"It says here we only have to feed you every day or two," Hamish said when Danya slowly cracked open his eyes. Hamish was sitting on the opposite side of the tent on Lord Bell's bed, looking through Danya's papers while Lord Bell packed up his belongings. "It doesn't say what happens if we feed you more than that. Would you get fat? I've never seen a fat mage before. Can you get fat?"
Danya sat up and finger combed his short hair back into order as he processed Hamish’s question. "No, we don't gain unnecessary weight. Any excess would just be passed through my body in the usual way. I'd prefer you didn't try to overfeed me, though. I'm sure you know how uncomfortable eating when you're not hungry can be."
"Hm," Hamish said, flopping down on Lord Bell's bed. "When did you last eat? Is it time to feed you yet?"
It had been about a day since Danya had last eaten, yesterday morning before he'd been collected and taken to the Moore estate. "Just a day. I'm not hungry yet. Mages absorb energy from the world around them and so generally only need food in order to replace dead cells in their bodies, something we also do at a slower rate. I'll only need food more than once every two days if I use a lot of magic quickly or if I'm injured."
"Damn," Hamish said, slumped on his side on the bed. "I feel all educated now."
"You used magic yesterday," Lord Bell said, and Danya glanced over at him, surprised the man had even been paying attention. Lord Bell didn't look at him, just kept sorting through and organising his bag.
"Not much at all," Danya said after a moment, "and I paced myself well. If I was set to it all day with no breaks my energy would be depleted and eating food would help to replenish it more quickly."
"Why does it even say how much you need to eat on your registration papers, anyway?" Lord Bell grumbled. "Obviously you know when you're hungry and it doesn't sound like you have any interest in eating more than you need. What, is this for people wanting to know how much food they should leave out? Does it say how often we should change your water? How often we need to wash you and how long we should walk you for each day?"
Danya just stared at him for a moment, not knowing quite what to say. "I prefer to wash myself, if that's okay, but you do own me so I suppose that's up to you."
Hamish burst out laughing. "I like him," he told Lord Bell between laughs.
Lord Bell eyed Danya over carefully. "Perhaps that smart mouth is why he didn't sell until he was nineteen."
Danya physically flinched, but he forced his expression to stay blank. "And then as a gift for a man who doesn't want me," Danya said mildly, refusing to let his feelings show through. "I suspect it has more to do with my comparatively plain appearance, however. People come to Milaine House seeking something specific, and I don't fit the criteria."
"You're kind of sassy, but I like it," Hamish cut in, breaking through the tension forming between Danya and Lord Bell. "You ever talk to Troy's companion, Simon? The kid is just this constantly blushing, contrite mess. It's kind of funny, to be honest, but for like... ten minutes. Living with him would drive me nuts."
Lord Bell made a vague sound. He'd finished packing his bag and was sitting on the ground next to it, facing Hamish. "The kid looks like he's about eleven. It's creepy. Obviously Troy gets off on him being like that, or he would have retrained him by now."
"Oh, no doubt," Hamish said. "He's fifteen, though, by the way. I asked. Mages just tend to age more slowly."
Which was another downside of being permanently tattooed with someone's crest. If Lord Bell had any descendants things would work fine as Danya could simply be inherited. If he didn't, however, it was likely Danya would be put down whenever Lord Bell died. Even if Lord Bell lived to be an old man, which in the military was unlikely, Danya would still be far from elderly.
General estimates of the lifespan of a companion slave were one hundred and fifty to two hundred years, with soldiers often living up to a hundred years longer than that. Of course few people wanted an elderly slave and usually only those truly skilled at magic were allowed to live until they died of natural causes.
"And yet if I were a parent, he would not be my first choice of babysitter," Lord Bell said as he hefted his bag onto his shoulder. "However old the boy is, Troy's obviously seeing a child when he looks at him. I mean, fifteen's still too young in my opinion, but the fact that we as a society see nothing wrong with someone looking at someone of any age and seeing a child and subsequently having sex with that person is more than a little troubling."
That Lord Bell was against pedophilia was something of a comfort. Danya was too old now for it to be a direct issue between them, but as at least half of the individuals who bought slaves from Milaine House were men seeking young boys, it was good to know. Though the slaves raised at Milaine House were encouraged to accept such things as normal, it had always sickened Danya. He’d seen the fear in the younger slaves when the eyes of grown men had browsed their naked bodies, had felt it himself when he was a child. They were tougher than humans, but they had limits. If treated too roughly, they could be permanently damaged or killed.
Of course, being sold to a lady wasn't necessarily preferable. Not if you enjoyed having testicles. Mages couldn't get humans pregnant, but a lady having intercourse with a slave was considered far more inappropriate than a man doing so. Though a castrated slave wasn't incapable of performing sexually, it was genuinely considered adequate evidence that a lady wasn't involved with her slave in such a way.
When they exited the tent, Hamish following Lord Bell and Danya following Hamish, there was a young man waiting with their horses prepared for riding. This time Hamish delayed mounting, waiting until Lord Bell had mounted his horse and then helping Danya up behind him to save them a repeat of the embarrassing struggle that had occurred the previous night. Danya appreciated it.
"It's a good thing you're not hungry," Lord Bell said as he kicked his horse into a slow trot towards the gate in the tall mesh fence surrounding the camp. "We already ate and we don't have time to delay any further."
By about fifteen minutes after they'd ridden past the border of the camp, Danya had noticed the differences between Lord Bell and Hamish's riding styles. While Lord Bell on his black mare tended to keep a steady pace, constantly moving at the same sustainable speed, Hamish preferred to thunder ahead on his speckled gelding and then wait, resting his horse, while Lord Bell caught up. Danya thought what Hamish was doing looked like more fun.
After he had gotten over how awkward it felt to ride behind Lord Bell, or at least accepted it, Danya had begun to realise just how mind numbingly boring an entire day of riding would be. Some of the scenery was interesting, especially when they passed crumbling pre-war buildings, but after a while much of it was simply trees, grass, and a dirt road overgrown with invading flora.
The back of the white, long sleeved cotton shirt Lord Bell wore to ride in was dirty and from what Danya recalled, so was the rest of it. The more Danya stared at it, the more it bothered him.
At the House, anything dirty had simply meant an opportunity to practise their cleaning skills. They had often made things dirty intentionally, in fact, just so that the slaves in training could learn, so having a stained shirt right in front of him that nobody intended to do anything about did bother Danya a little.
"Lord Bell?" Danya said in an attempt to draw the man's attention.
"Don't call me that," was Lord Bell's immediate, firm, and somewhat annoyed response.
"Okay." Danya shifted his grip on Lord Bell's waist. "What would you like me to call you? Master?"
"Simon," Lord Bell — Simon — said. "As it is my name."
Being asked to call their master by his or her first name was not an unusual request for a companion slave to be faced with. They were supposed to be close to their masters. It was more unusual in this case because not only was he not close to his master, but his master didn't have any desire to be close to him.
"Simon," Danya said, “may I clean the back of your shirt?"
"It's a riding shirt," Simon said. "I wear it because it doesn't matter if it gets dirty."
"I know," Danya said quickly. "I wasn't suggesting it would be a particularly constructive thing to do. I just like to keep myself busy, and I can always improve my skills."
Simon considered that silently for a moment, but ultimately shrugged. "As long as it doesn't bother me, I don't really care what you do."
Danya smiled to himself and decided that he would take that as blanket permission for any future activities he may wish to partake in.
The slight jolting of Simon's back with each step the horse took made cleaning the shirt frustratingly difficult at first, but after several minutes Danya began to adapt by allowing himself to be moved in the same rhythm. Though he'd always hidden it, along with anything else that might make him appear more skilled at magic than most companions, Danya was extremely adaptable.
It was a fabulous feeling, mastering and then sinking away into the simplicity of the task, picking out every impurity in the fabric and casting it out to be blown away in the breeze. Danya imagined humans must find the same kind of peace in tasks such as knitting. It wasn't until Hamish spoke that Danya realised they'd caught up with him again.
"What's he doing?" Hamish asked. Danya hadn't been addressed, so he kept his head bent to his task.
"He said he was going to clean the back of my shirt, so I assume that's what he's up to," Simon replied nonchalantly. He didn't sound like he much cared.
Hamish laughed. "I wouldn't bother with that, pup. He'll just get it dirty again the moment you're done."
Danya's lips tightened almost imperceptibly. He didn't think Hamish was being intentionally rude, but he also wasn't sure how kindly Hamish would take to being asked to give greater respect to a slave.
When Danya made no response, Simon spoke for him. "He's just bored."
"Yeah, I bet," Hamish said as he continued riding alongside them. "Plodding along slowly on your horse."
"You can feel free to take him any time," Simon said.
Hamish chuckled. "Nah, Alf here's two small for two. Too small to go fast with two, anyhow. I'll let you keep him for now."
"Kind of you," Simon muttered.
Being spoken of as a burden and as though he wasn't there had Danya feeling angry and just plain hurt. He had expected that wherever he ended up he would at least be wanted, even if it was for things he'd rather not be wanted for.
"Aren't you hot, pup?" Hamish asked suddenly after a few minutes of silence.
Danya was tempted to simply not respond again, but ignoring a direct question was far more defiant than being unresponsive to general conversation. He was quiet for a bit too long before he answered with a simple, "No."
Danya still wore the robe Baine had given him, the only piece of clothing he now had, and the crimson fabric was thick and covered everything but his head, hands, and feet. It was still quite early in the morning, but the day was already beginning to warm up, the heat of the sun shining down on them unimpeded now that they had broken out into open grassland. A human would most certainly be hot in what he was wearing.
"Is that a mage thing, then?" Hamish asked. "Not getting hot."
Danya considered being brusque with him again, but if he kept that up it would become obvious and he risked losing himself an ally. "Yes. As is the case for most mages, I find changes in external temperature have little impact upon me."
"That sounds like it would be nice," Simon said, surprising Danya. Simon had seemed to be avoiding conversing with him.
"Being too hot does sound uncomfortable," Danya said in an effort to continue the friendly conversation.
"It is. The heat and the sweat dripping everywhere," Simon said. "It's uncomfortable and gross."
Danya could see the beads of sweat that had begun to form on the back of Simon's neck, and an idea came to him. "Maybe I could..."
Fire came more naturally to Danya, but he'd mastered ice too. He wouldn't need anything quite that cold. Danya concentrated his energy into his hands and manipulated it into performing as he wished, creating an area of cool air that remained suspended just beyond the boundary of his hands. When Danya moved one of his hands, the cool air would follow it.
When Danya experimentally lay one hand on the back of Simon's neck, Simon jolted sharply.
"Sorry!" Danya said immediately as he yanked his hand away.
"What the hell was that?" Simon demanded, rubbing the back of his neck.
"His hand," Hamish said. He was watching Danya curiously.
"What?" Simon asked impatiently.
"Um, yes," Danya said. "I was trying to make it cold. Sorry."
"Well it was definitely cold," Simon said, sounding annoyed. "Which is why it would have been nice if you had warned me before you put it on the back of my neck."
"Sorry," Danya said again. "I underestimated human sensitivity to cold."
Simon huffed and leant forward in the saddle, reaching a hand behind himself and offering it to Danya. "Here," he said, and then when Danya just stared at it, confused, added, "Hands are better at dealing with sudden temperature change."
Danya summoned the chill back to his hands and cautiously took hold of the hand Simon had offered him. He was relieved when Simon didn't jerk his hand away. "Is that too cold? Not cold enough?"
"No, that's good," Simon said after a moment, and then slowly pulled Danya’s hand upwards and pressed it against his cheek.
Danya kept perfectly still, feeling the slightly rough line of Simon's jaw beneath his fingertips. All he could think of was that he was finally, finally doing something that his new master appreciated.
So, of course, Hamish cut in to ruin the moment. "Is it very cold? Let me feel."
Simon didn't seem like he planned to relinquish Danya's hand and Danya definitely didn't want to take it from him, so Danya motioned Hamish around to the other side of Simon's horse and offered Hamish his free hand.
Hamish grabbed at it, pulling Danya backwards slightly in the process. Lacking any spare hands to brace himself with so that he could regain his balance, Danya was sure he was about to fall off of Simon's horse, but Simon's grip on Danya's arm was firm and he pulled Danya back upright.
"That is nice," Hamish said, still gripping Danya's hand with his own. He couldn't get his horse close enough to do much else. "I should get a slave."
"If it's the magic that appeals to you, you may wish to avoid companion slaves," Danya said. With Hamish and Simon each having hold of one of his arms, he was getting worried about one of the horses moving away suddenly. He fidgeted nervously in the saddle as he spoke. "I'm more magically accomplished than most companions. An ideal companion is expected to have extremely limited magical abilities. When you buy a companion, a good part of what you're paying for is assured uselessness. The rest is just aesthetics."
"Wow, you're really substandard all round then," Hamish said flippantly, and Danya had to force himself to keep his hand limp and still in Hamish's. It stung, but as Hamish was currently benefiting from this particular aspect of Danya's poor breeding he was fairly sure it hadn't been intended as an insult.
"I wouldn't really get a slave anyway," Hamish said after a moment. "That's an entire lifetime of commitment."
"Not necessarily," Danya countered. He shifted slightly in the saddle. Leaning over to hold onto Hamish's hand was getting uncomfortable. "Slaves can be resold if they're not permanently marked. Tattooing isn't necessary these days as anything more than a decorative mark of ownership. A properly implanted tracking chip will do a better job of preventing theft while also allowing for resale."
"He's not getting a slave," Simon groused. There was a moment of silence, and then he asked, "So they basically stuck my crest on you because they thought it would look nice?"
"I suppose when you buy someone a gift you prefer that they keep it. You don't make it a priority to make the gift easy to resell," Danya said. His back was getting sore from leaning towards Hamish.
"Maybe if you buy them a hat or something. You can throw out a hat, give it away, or simply put it in a box somewhere and forget about it. If what you're giving someone is a living thing, however, it does complicate your options somewhat." Simon swatted his spare hand vaguely in Hamish's direction. "Give him his hand back. That can't be comfortable."
Hamish reluctantly released Danya's hand and Danya shuffled back into position on the saddle, stretching to work out the stiffness that had developed from sitting in such an awkward position.
"You just want both for yourself," Hamish grumbled.
"Yup," Simon said, and grabbed Danya's newly freed hand with his spare hand, leading it around and pushing up his shirt to rest it on his bare stomach before abandoning it there to return his hand to the reins.
Hamish had galloped on ahead after Simon had made him let go of Danya's hand, and Danya was glad of it because it left nobody to see the flush that went through his body at the feeling of Simon's hot, tight stomach beneath his fingers. Each time Simon moved, Danya felt the muscles shift under his hand.
Mages just didn't get muscles like those — not even the soldiers. They didn't need them. Although a sturdier build was considered preferable for combat, a mage's fighting ability came almost entirely from their magic.
Danya had been raised by humans at Milaine House, of course, but they had consisted of a flabby older gentleman, his strict, bony middle aged daughter, and his son, who had been well on the way to being as portly as his father. Danya doubted that any of them had muscles like Simon’s, though he supposed he didn't know for sure as they had all consistently kept their clothing in place. Danya was glad of that.
Ultimately Simon got tired of holding up Danya's other arm and so it too ended up wrapped around Simon's waist and tucked under his shirt. This one was spread across Simon's chest. For the next hour, Danya amused himself with the feeling of the sparse hair on Simon's chest against his hand. Danya wish he could make his curiosity blatant and actually stroke his fingers through the hair, but the texture of it against his stationary hand was interesting enough to provide a temporary distraction. Chest hair was another thing mages lacked.
Simon shifted, pulling Danya out of his contemplation of body hair.
"You can eat now if you're hungry," Simon said as he reached into the saddle bag and pulled out a paper bag, "but we're going to a dinner party tonight, so you might prefer to wait."
Whatever was in the paper bag, it was beyond Danya's recognition. It looked like it had egg in it, maybe. "It would be rude to go to a dinner party and be too full to eat anything," was Danya's excuse.
Simon made a sound of agreement and ate his monstrosity.