Around half an hour before the first guests started arriving, Danya was seated at one of the long tables in the dining hall and told to stay put as the house slaves set things up around him.
He had never felt so uncomfortable in his entire life. Baine had done as Mrs Moore had asked and scrounged up clothes that fit her specifications from some of the bed slaves rented to entertain the guests. A leather collar shifted against his throat every time he swallowed and the only other item of clothing he wore was a strip of cloth that tied around his waist and just barely made him decent by anyone's definition of the word. He knew what he looked like, and it wasn't a finely bred Companion.
At least he was no longer the only one at the table once guests began to seat themselves, but he still stood out far more than he would have liked. Most other slaves knelt on the floor or stood behind their masters, ready to serve, and none of them had been dressed with as little subtlety as Danya. He kept his hands folded in his lap and his eyes on the table in front of him as a man sat down next to him.
He could feel the man's presence, his energy, a solid force just slightly too far away for Danya to get a proper taste of it. Still, it gave Danya something steady to focus on and helped him to stabilise himself in that way.
"They sat me next to a slave," the man commented to his friend. "Is that supposed to be an insult?"
"He's probably somebody's pet," Danya heard the man's friend reply. His energy was loose and in constant motion. Not in the least relaxing, but not unpleasant.
"There's no one with him."
"I don't know, Simon. Maybe he's supposed to be your entertainment for the evening."
"That would be insulting."
Danya shut his eyes and focused on his breathing. He had always hated parties, but at least he had known how to comport himself when he was acting as merchandise for Milaine House. Now he wasn't even sure what he was supposed to be.
Danya couldn't see Simon with his eyes shut, didn't hear him move, but he could feel him get closer. The very edge of the energy Simon gave off was just barely within reach, and goosebumps prickled down Danya's spine as he eagerly drank it in. Danya could barely resist the magnetic pull of his body.
"I know you can hear me," Simon murmured.
Danya sat up straight as his eyes flew open. He had almost forgotten himself. He tried to regain his composure, but he could feel his face heating.
"That was mean," Simon's friend said, but he was struggling not to laugh.
"Sorry." Simon leant back in his chair, and Danya finally braved a glance at him. He had a broad build and a strong, angular face with thick eyebrows and dark brown hair cut military short. Danya could only meet the intensity of his deep brown eyes for a second before he had to drop his gaze again. "So, why did they sit you next to me?"
"I'm sorry, sir," Danya said to the tablecloth, "I wasn't told. I'm sure they can move me somewhere else if it bothers you."
Simon dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. "No, I don't really mind. It just seemed odd."
Simon's friend leant forward to look at Danya. He had darker skin and rich, chocolate hair that hung in curls just past his ears. "Can you do any magic?"
"I'm a Companion, sir. I can't do much more than heat your drink."
"Chill your drink?"
"It's red wine. It's meant to be served at room temperature."
Danya shrugged. "Then I'm afraid I can do nothing for you, sir."
"Hmm. So why are you practically naked, anyway?"
"Hamish." Simon shot his friend a pointed look.
"What? I'm sure you were wondering too."
"I'd rather not know."
"There's no nobility in ignorance, Simon," Hamish scolded playfully.
"If you find any nobility in any of this, you let me know."
Something nudged Danya's elbow, and he reflexively leant away from the touch as he turned to look at the sixty-something year old man who had sat down on his other side. He did not like the feel of this man at all. It reminded him of sticky plant sap that refused to wash off. The slow, sweeping look he gave Danya immediately betrayed the nature of his interest.
"I'll have to thank our hosts for sitting me next to such a handsome young man," the man said with a smile that showed too many teeth.
Danya knew his type. They were the ones who tried to seduce the boys into sneaking off with them for a quick moment at parties, but who were never serious buyers. The way Danya was dressed wouldn't help in this situation. He looked like he was intended to be exactly that kind of entertainment.
Danya gave him a tight smile. "Thank you, sir."
"I used to have a lot of fun when I was younger, but…" His hand found its way onto Danya's thigh and stroked slowly upwards. Danya didn't want the energy coming off of him. "It gets harder to maintain an active social life as you get older, you know?"
Danya tried to discreetly push the man's hand away. "I'm sorry, sir. I'm a Companion."
The man squeezed down on Danya's thigh. "Don't lie to me. You're between me and another man who is not your master, and dressed like that. I know what you are."
"It's the truth!" Danya leant so far back from the man that his shoulder bumped Simon's "Why would I lie?"
"For goodness sake," Simon cut in just as the man leant closer. "Could you please stop groping the slave at the dinner table, regardless of what you think he is or is not?"
The man's face twisted in anger and Danya thought there was about to be a fight, but then the man's hand pulled away from Danya's thigh and he stood. "I'm going to put in a complaint and see what can be done about this. He is lying."
Simon watched the man leave before glancing back at Danya. "I hope you really were telling the truth."
Danya let out a shaky breath as he did his best to shake the lingering aura of the man's energy off. "I was. I apologise for the disruption, sir."
"He raised a good point, though," Hamish cut in. When Simon shot him a glare, he shrugged and explained. "He's dressed like a whore and seated between two men he doesn't belong to. Who is his master?"
Danya cringed at the vulgarity, but it was true. He could hardly blame anyone for mistaking him for a bed slave when his attire had been borrowed from one.
"Ah… Captain Bell, I suppose?" Danya turned in his seat so that they could see the freshly tattooed crest just below his collarbone. "I'm a gift for him."
Simon's expression went hard and flat as he stared at the crest, and Danya knew with a sudden, terrifying certainty that he was looking at his new master. His new master, whose breathing had gone rough and heavy with barely contained anger.
"Oh, shit," Hamish muttered.
"From who?" Simon asked, his voice dangerously quiet.
Danya licked his lips. He wanted to apologise, to ingratiate himself somehow, but he knew there was nothing he could do to change what was about to happen. "The hosts, sir."
A moment later Simon was on his feet and Hamish swore as he grabbed Danya by the wrist and hurried to follow him to where their hosts sat at the head of the table.
"We need to talk," Simon said to Mr Moore, his voice flat. "Now."
"Of course, Captain Bell," Mr Moore said, confirming what Danya already knew. "Privately would be best, I think."
Hamish kept a firm grip on Danya as they were led out of the communal areas, down a hall, and into a study. When their eyes met he gave Danya what had probably been intended as a reassuring smile, but it came out looking more like a grimace.
"You bought me a slave?" Simon shouted the moment the door was shut.
"Wine?" Mr Moore offered, his eyebrows lifting in question. "No? Yes, Captain, I bought you a slave. He may look a bit plain, but my understanding was that you preferred that. He has fine breeding."
"I don't care about his fucking—" Simon shook his head, covered his mouth, and paced. "This is very inconvenient for me. I can't own a slave."
"I understand and I apologise for the presumption," Mr Moore said. "I will, of course, take full responsibility for his disposal."
Simon stopped pacing. "Disposal?"
"He has your crest tattooed on him, Simon," Hamish said softly. "He can't be returned."
Mr Moore held his hands up in pacification as Simon turned a murderous glare on him. "It's not a problem, Captain. Why don't you have some fun with him tonight, enjoy the rest of the evening, and I'll have things taken care of in the morning?"
Simon turned abruptly and marched towards the door.
"Simon?" Hamish called out.
"I've changed my mind. Slave, come with me."
Danya sent the other men a questioning glance.
Danya hurried to obey. Whether he was wanted or not, Simon was legally his master unless he relinquished that claim. Danya's only hope now was that he would not.
Mr Moore tried to protest, but Simon brushed past him without acknowledgement and led Danya out of the room. He was close to bursting with fury that Danya was sure would be taken out on him. It wasn't until they reached the stables that Danya realised Hamish was not with them.
The stable boy took one look at Simon and immediately made himself scarce. Danya wished he could do the same, but there was no escaping whatever Simon wished to do to let out his anger.
Instead Simon ignored him, found his horse, and started roughly saddling the black mare to ride.
"Um." Danya took a step away from the wall and licked his lips. When Simon continued to ignore him, he spoke up. "I can be useful, sir."
Simon looked at him over his horse's back, his eyes sweeping down Danya's body. "It's clear what use they planned for you to be."
Danya fiddled with the tie that was the only thing holding the narrow strip of fabric around his hips in place. He swallowed hard. "Yes. I can take this off if you like, sir."
Disgust overtook Simon's anger and made Danya's heart sink. "Just… shut up. Stop talking."
Danya felt sick. If Simon wasn't even attracted to men — and his disgust certainly suggested that — then Danya stood no chance. One of the other boys with their prettier looks and their greater charms might have managed it, but Danya was well aware he didn't remotely have what it took to convince a man to compromise on his sexuality.
It was a relief when Hamish returned, the tube containing Danya's papers in hand. He gave Danya a bop on the ass with it in passing before handing it over to Simon. "You had me starting to think I was going to have to restrain you in there. The poor idiot's just really confused."
"He bought me a slave. What was that poor idiot even trying to do?"
"Ingratiate himself, obviously. He dropped a decent amount of money fucking up this badly."
"Well, that makes me feel a little better."
Hamish flashed him a grin, but it quickly dropped away again. "You have to be more subtle, Simon. Men like him talk, and they're not as toothless as they might seem."
"He's a coward. I know that doesn't mean he's not dangerous."
"Fortunately I think his head's imbedded too far up his own ass for him to figure out what really got you so angry. Kept saying he didn't mean to imply anything about your sexual tastes. So now he seems to just think you're desperately insecure. Like, you're definitely going to fuck that slave, but nobody damn well better think you're doing it by preference."
"Ah, the military way."
"Pretty much. Look, everything's fine, okay? Just…" Hamish gave Danya a wary glance. "Play the part that's expected of you."
"I never thought we'd see the day when you would lecture me on subtlety."
"Mostly because I never thought you'd live this long."
"Well, you have only yourself to blame for that."
"We all make mistakes."
Danya had been so focussed on Simon and Hamish that he hadn't even noticed Baine approach until he tapped quietly against the stable doorway.
Simon immediately turned and fixed him with a glare. "What do you want?"
Baine hesitated, sending an uncertain glance in Danya's direction before turning back to Simon and taking a step forward. "My master wanted me to encourage you to let him take Danya back so that he can get rid of him, sir. He has other entertainment available that might be a better match for your, ah, tastes. If you like."
"I didn't ask what your master wanted and I don't want to know."
"Ah." Baine took a step back, paused, then took a deep breath and stood up taller. "Well… I wanted to ask if you would let me give Danya my robe. He's underdressed for riding, sir."
"He's underdressed, period," Simon commented, then waved a dismissive hand in their direction as he turned away. "Yes, that's fine."
Baine stripped out of his long, crimson dress robe and helped Danya into it, communicating with looks and touch the things they couldn't say with words when they weren't alone — apologies he didn't owe and hopes that things would work out better than seemed possible just then. They had only known one another a few hours, but he already felt like a friend.
By the time Danya was dressed, the horses were ready and Simon was growing impatient. Danya gave Baine a nod of thanks, took a deep breath, and turned to face his increasingly uncertain new life.
When Danya tried to follow Hamish, the less volatile of the two, he gave Danya a shove on the back of the head and pointed him towards Simon. "Ride with your master, pup."
For a moment Simon looked as though he might send him away as well, but then he reached down, grabbed Danya by the arm, and pulled him up behind himself with a single, painful tug.
Danya's whole body prickled as the heat of Simon's energy bled into him, almost too intense for a moment before he adjusted to the new sensation. He didn't even notice he had wrapped his arms around Simon and leant into him until the horse started to move and he had to cling even tighter.
Danya had listened to Duran gush about his master late into the night so many times, but he'd never really felt like he understood. Now he was beginning to see what Duran had meant when he said that the touch of the right human would make even the most reluctant slave happy to serve.
Physical contact with other mages was good. It balanced the magic within him and kept him healthy and stable. But this… this was intoxicating. Danya wished he could put his hands on Simon's bare skin, wished he could convince Simon to soften to him and offer in abundance what now passed between them only reluctantly. He craved that intensity, that joyous glow of strength and tranquility that emanated from Duran after a long night with his master.
Just as much, he wanted to be loved. To be useful, to be wanted, to have a place and purpose. To not have to wonder, every single day, how much longer his inadequacy would be tolerated. Simon had not wanted to let Mr Moore dispose of him, but had that merely been an act of stubborn spite? He clearly didn't actually want to keep him.
Danya pressed in closer against Simon's back. If this was all he would be allowed, then he would take from it what he could.
About ten minutes later the horses slowed, and Danya peeked around Simon's back to see a sea of lights beyond tall gates that were already opening for them. A military base.
Hamish explained Danya's presence to the men guarding the gate without delving into any of the discontent surrounding his acquisition and provided them his papers for confirmation. Simon waited, silent and pensive, until they were allowed in.
He seemed determined to ignore Danya's very existence as he climbed off his horse and left Danya on her alone as he led her towards the stables. He might well have handed him over to the stable boy along with his horse if Hamish hadn't suddenly appeared to help him down.
With no orders or even acknowledgement of his existence given to him, all Danya could do was hurry to follow behind Simon as he made his way through rows of tents. Simon didn't so much as spare a glance back at him before suddenly disappearing inside of one of them.
Danya hesitated outside, unsure whether Simon expected him to follow or not. So far, he seemed to simply be hoping that if he pretended firmly enough that Danya did not exist, it would become reality.
Well, it wouldn't. At least not without some action on his part. Mr Moore had offered to make that happen and Simon had firmly declined, so for now he would just have to deal with Danya's continued existence. Danya pushed aside the flap and peered cautiously into the tent.
Simon was crouched in a corner, becoming mildly annoyed at a lamp as he fought to get it lit in the dark. He startled and glanced back when Danya sent up a ball of light to illuminate his work.
"Magelight," Danya explained.
Simon grunted and returned his attention to the lamp, getting it lit a moment later, but the brief acknowledgement felt like a victory. With orders clearly not likely to be issued any time soon, Danya found a clear spot on the floor of the small tent and sat down.
At first he had thought Simon was testing him, seeing how long he could obey the command to stay quiet, but he was starting to realise Simon was just tired and perhaps a little overwhelmed. A man who had earned status rather than been born into it might not even understand the role of a Companion.
"I really can be useful, sir," Danya said, and then when Simon gave him a tired look, hurried to add, "Not like that. Not if you don't want. I can use my magic to clean and repair things, and I can do the same work as a human servant without pay. Or perhaps there are those who would pay for my company, if—"
Simon reached his hand under his jacket and pulled out a hidden knife.
Danya sat very still. Simon had told him to shut up, to stop talking, and he had disregarded that command. He had been given a chance to prove his obedience, and instead he had shown himself to be willful and annoying.
He knew he ought to fight back, to pull out every power he had kept hidden away, and… and… probably still die, but at least in a way that meant something. At least in a way that would make Simon see him as something more than an inconvenience before he spilled his blood, even if that something was a threat.
Instead all he could do was watch as Simon came closer, shut his eyes as he felt cold metal against his skin… and then pull back with a gasp as Simon suddenly pulled the knife towards himself and something fell into Danya's lap.
As Simon went to return his knife to his bag, Danya stared down at the leather collar in his lap in disbelief. It had a clasp! He could have just…
But of course, that wasn't the point. The point was that he would need to do better if he expected Simon to tolerate him. The point was that Simon could kill him, and next time he might choose to.
There was still a tense silence between them when Hamish pushed through the tent flap a few minutes later and shoved a pile of bedding towards Danya before turning to Simon. "Figured your cot here's not really big enough for two."
Simon made a vague sound of acknowledgement and began stripping out of the formal attire he'd worn to the party.
Hamish sighed. "Look, I can take him tonight if you want. We're close friends. Nobody would think it was strange for you to share him with me."
"They'd find it odd that I let you have the first night with him."
"Oh. Yeah. Okay, scratch that idea."
Simon tossed his dress shirt aside and stretched out his arms. He had a kind of lean musculature that had been hidden under the formal clothing. "Don't worry about it. You were right before. Everything will be fine as long as we maintain a consistent image."
"I'm always right, Simon. Always."
Simon tossed his pants in the general direction of his bag, sat down on his cot, and turned his attention to Danya. "I expect your discretion. If anyone starts asking you questions about what we do or don't do together, what kind of master I am, anything like that, that's none of their business."
"Of course not, sir. I know not to gossip."
"Good. Now Hamish can fuck off and let us get some sleep. I'm more than ready for this day to be over."
Hamish shot Danya a mock-offended look. "You see how he treats me now that he outranks me? No respect."
"This is exactly the same amount of respect I have always had for you."
"Wow. True, but wow."
Simon pointed towards the tent flap. "Out."
Hamish was laughing as he left, and Simon no longer looked quite so tense.
Danya waited for instruction, but when Simon lay down on his cot and blew out the lantern it became clear it wasn't forthcoming. He quickly made his own cot out of the bedding Hamish had provided and settled in for the night.
It was impossible to sleep, of course. So much had happened, and it was all so bad — but not as bad as it could have been, of course, because he was still alive. Simon had, for some reason, not wanted him killed. Would that last, though? Danya clearly was not wanted and Simon seemed to think owning him would be troublesome.
If everything truly was hopeless, Danya promised himself he would do everything he could to escape. He didn't know if he could get the tracking chip out of his wrist, nor where he could run to if he did get away, but if he was going to die he needed it to be on his terms.
If they wouldn't let him live as a slave, he wasn't going to die one.