"I’ll cut your tongue out if you don't shut up," the guard threatened as his hand fisted in Dara’s short, dark hair, but Dara refused to be quieted. He didn't care if it was true. Or he did care, but he cared about his resistance more.
As he struggled, the blows he landed on his aggressors reflected pain onto him, twice as hard, lashing deep within to land in a place private and raw. He'd learnt to fight back, though his efforts perverted him. They rotted out the core of him and left something bitter in its place. He could never be what he was before, never be what he could have been, what he should have been.
He screamed, too, though nobody had ever come to his rescue. Nobody had ever dared intervene in this game. He bit when they tried to gag him and pain strummed all around him, threatening to black out his vision.
Burch, the largest of the three guards, easily weighed twice that of Dara’s slender frame and was just as strong as he appeared. Even doing his best angry cat impression, Dara had never escaped them, but the idea of going along with what they had planned willingly was unthinkable.
They were taking him down to the dungeons. They always did, because that was where the equipment was, the restraints and the tools they would use. Dara didn't understand how hurting someone else could be fun, but then he wasn't like other men. Hurting others hurt him. If he were normal, would he understand it better? Did everyone else appreciate how someone could find joy in the blood of another, even if they didn't share in the hobby?
They had reached the stairs before a voice interrupted them. "What the hell is going on?"
The holds of the guards loosened on him and Dara struggled with renewed vigour, but their grips quickly tightened again.
"Punishment, sir. This little rat was disrespecting his betters."
"No!" Dara shouted as he struck out. A hand clamped over his mouth and he bit it, hard. Pain reverberated through Dara, pressing in on him like a physical force, but the guard yanked his hand away and didn’t bring it near Dara’s face again.
"Disrespecting his betters... how?" the man asked. Dara tried to look over his shoulder to see who the voice belonged to, but the guards held him too firmly for him to turn.
There was a moment of hesitation in which the guards struggled to come up with a viable answer and failed. "Does it matter, sir?"
"He's in my colours," the man said, and immediately Dara froze. He knew whose colours he wore. The man behind him was Prince Maric. The guards would strip Dara of those colours before they started so that he didn't ruin them with his blood, and then leave them for him to put back on afterwards.
“No, your highness, I didn’t do anything!” Dara insisted. “They just like to hurt me.”
"Shut up," one of the men hissed as he thumped Dara’s head against the stone wall. Pain flooded out Dara's thoughts for a moment, but it was a minor injury and things quickly righted themselves.
The prince sighed loudly. “You’re right, it doesn’t matter. He’s in my colours. He’s mine. The only one with the authority to have him disciplined is me, and I don’t remember giving you any orders. Let him go.”
The guards exchanged looks, and a moment later Dara was released. He hit the stone floor with a strangled sound of pain.
"Good," the prince said. "Slave, come with me."
For a moment Dara froze. He couldn't move. Was he in trouble for disrupting the prince? He had just said he was the only one with the authority to discipline Dara...
"Slave," the prince repeated, more firmly this time, and Dara quickly scrambled to his feet.
The prince had been away with the military since he’d come of age, and it showed. The only times Dara had seen the prince before had been when he was much younger, dressed in finery and covered in jewels like his father. Now the only jewelry the prince wore was a single ring that signified his status. His shirt was new and clean and the same blue as the uniform Dara wore, but the buttons down its front were pale wood rather than silver like Dara’s. The prince kept his ash brown hair cut short and practical, but he’d made no effort to force it into an unnatural tidiness like most nobles preferred.
There was an open door further down the corridor, and the prince led him through it. The prince's rooms. Dara had never known they were here, though he'd been dragged down this corridor many times. They had been unoccupied for years, though, so Dara supposed their location had been of little meaning.
Dara had expected something elaborate yet cold, but the room before him was the opposite of that. There was a crackling fire with an armchair beside it, and in the middle of the room sofas and armchairs sat around a low wooden table. A large, soft rug covered most of the floor.
When Dara started to kneel, the prince waved a hand to stop him. Dara tried to breathe normally as the prince shut the door behind them, but his body had forgotten how.
The prince circled around in front of Dara and watched him with unreadable grey eyes. "Now, can you explain to me why three members of the castle guard decided they wanted to hurt you?"
Why. That was a tough question for someone who didn't understand violence. Surely the prince, who was a soldier, could comprehend it better than Dara.
"I don't know, your highness," Dara said eventually, his voice quiet. "I don't know why people want to hurt other people. Do you?"
"Did you do something to get on their bad side?"
Dara shook his head. "It's not that, your highness. It’s fun for them and they know there won’t be any consequences if they target me.”
The prince's eyebrows shot up. "Because you're mine, and I haven't been here to do anything about it?"
Suddenly, Dara realised the gap in the prince's understanding. Of course he didn't know who Dara was. Or, more importantly, what he was. What he had been and what he could still do. Dara still felt rubbed raw inside, and it was distracting him.
"I'm sorry, your highness; I was unclear. I don't mark. I can heal from any injury quickly and without scarring. Why would anyone care what they do to me when I ultimately walk away from it unscathed?”
Suddenly, the prince was looking at him more intently. "You have magic?"
Dara caught his arms wrapping around his chest and forced himself to drop them back down to his sides. “Nothing useful, I’m afraid, your highness. I can heal quickly and completely from just about any injury, but I’m no fighter and never will be.”
“That guard — he hit your head against the wall. That’s already healed?”
“Almost instantly, your highness,” Dara confirmed. “Serious injuries can take hours to heal, but minor things are gone before they’re really there at all.”
The prince studied him silently for a moment before taking a step closer. "Why don't you stay a while? You interest me.”
Dara's pulse picked up. He could no longer meet the prince’s gaze. "Do you want to see it, your highness?"
The prince’s head tilted. “See what?”
Dara nodded his head at the knife on the prince’s belt. “My magic.”
"No!" The prince’s face pinched with disgust. “I don’t care how quickly you heal. I’m not a sadist like those guards.”
"I didn't mean to suggest—" Dara started. "I’m used to pain, your highness. If you wanted to cut me a little, just to see, I would understand. What those guards had planned for me was far more… extensive.”
"Those guards,” the prince said. “Once I’m gone, they’ll do it again, won’t they?”
The prince let out a sigh and tapped the ring on his finger against his chin, deep in thought. Eventually, he beckoned towards Dara. “Come here.”
Dara hadn’t been far away, but the prince’s hand kept beckoning until they were close enough that Dara could feel the heat coming off of the Prince’s body. The prince reached up and traced the side of Dara’s face with rough, calloused fingers. “You’re very handsome.”
“Thank you, your highness,” Dara whispered back.
The prince’s fingers trailed down Dara’s neck. “Your skin is very soft.”
Dara didn’t know what to say or if the prince even wanted him to speak at all. He stayed silent and still and just breathed.
With two fingers under Dara's chin, the prince raised his face and pressed their lips together. Nobody had ever kissed Dara before. He tried to copy the slow, teasing way the prince’s lips moved against his, but only ended up feeling like he was getting in the way.
"Sorry," Dara said immediately after the prince pulled away. "I'm not... I haven’t been trained for this. Nobody has ever kissed me before."
The prince's hands trailed up underneath Dara's uniform shirt, his fingers kneading at Dara’s skin. "Are you a virgin?"
The prince seemed to like the idea of that. Dara shook his head. He was starting to look like a disappointment all around.
Apparently the prince didn't find either his inexperience or his experience too off-putting, though, because his mouth sunk to Dara's neck. The prince sucked gently at Dara's skin, and with the prince holding Dara gently in his arms, it actually felt nice. Dara let his eyes fall shut and tried to keep his breathing steady.
"I won't mark," Dara reminded the prince in case that was what he was attempting.
The prince let out a huff of laughter against Dara's ear. "Well, it’s a good thing you’re wearing my colours so people will still know you’re mine. Come over here."