Danya avoided his reflection in the mirror as he stepped into the small room that he shared with two other boys. Occasionally he would indulge himself in the torture of examining his form, mentally cataloging an ever growing list of flaws, but each time he chose that path he found despair drawing him deeper. Today he would resist.
The others were in lessons right now, but he’d learned all they had to teach him here years ago. When the wardens didn’t need him to help teach the younger slaves, he was sent back to the dormitory to spend the time alone.
He had turned nineteen a month ago. There had been no celebration, just a grim, tense awareness. With his flaws, and now his age, he would never sell as a Companion. When the time came — and it surely would soon — Milaine House would cut their losses and make what money they could selling him for some other purpose. Perhaps someone would want him as a house slave, or a labourer, or… well. There were many possibilities.
Danya swallowed around the lump that had formed in his throat as he sat down on his bed. He wished so badly to be like the other boys, to be precious and valuable and well-bred. But he wasn’t. He could never be. With the taint in his blood, he was lucky to be alive. If anyone found out…
If anyone found out, that very taint that put him at risk might be his only chance of survival. Danya held his hand out, palm up, and focused on heat. They had been taught this skill to warm drinks or soothe a master’s aching muscles with a heated touch, but in private Danya had discovered he could push it a little further.
Flame sparked to life in the centre of his palm and slowly grew, energy flooding out of him in its purest form. It felt almost alive in his hand, a simple intelligence fed by his magic. It didn’t burn him.
Danya was terrified that one day somebody would realise that his hair was too dark and his shoulders were too broad. That his father couldn’t possibly have simply been a poorly bred house slave who his mother had shared a moment of unsupervised affection with during a party, as she had claimed. That only the genetics of a Soldier could combine with a finely bred Companion to produce something as plain as him.
The matron at the nursery had seen through that lie and had chosen to protect him. Nobody else would be so sentimental.
A tickle at the edge of his senses alerted Danya to someone coming up the stairs and he closed his hand over the flame, extinguishing it. There was nobody in this world he trusted well enough to discover his secret.
Though if there had been one person, it would have been Duran, the boy who was approaching now. Danya could distinguish the mental feel of him from the others easily, the gentle confidence of the seventeen year old setting him apart. Danya would never tell him this, however. His ability to feel the energy of others was another aberrant trait he shouldn’t have possessed.
Duran opened the door to the room they shared and tilted his head towards the stairs. “Line up.”
Danya sighed. Duran was excluded from these. Though he was boarded at Milaine House, Duran had a master who visited him frequently. Danya envied him. Although Danya lining up to be examined by potential buyers was equally pointless, the wardens insisted he take part.
Duran kept a hand on Danya’s back as they headed downstairs, dropping it only when they stepped outside. It helped push back some of the darkness in Danya’s mind.
The others were already outside, a straight line of nearly two dozen boys in age order, stripped bare and doing their best to stand still and stare straight ahead. Out in the sunshine, their blond hair shone so brightly it looked almost like gold. Danya’s own hair was a dull light brown that reminded him of straw. The wardens had done him the small mercy of cutting it short enough that he couldn’t see it without a mirror.
Danya stripped off his robe and took his place at the end of the line next to Fanner.
Already, Fanner was struggling to keep himself still. He tried — oh goodness did he try — but he never could manage it. At thirteen, when he’d first arrived at Milaine House, it had been easy enough to pass off as endearing that he had almost been purchased a few times. At sixteen, it was no longer cute. It was a clear flaw.
Danya’s heart ached for him. He couldn’t be faulted in any other aspect. He was beautiful, diligent, demure, but if asked to stand perfectly still for more than a few moments, he simply could not manage it. Fanner had tried. The wardens had tried. Danya had spent hours working with him alone in their room, trying every strategy he could think of, but it had been no use. The boy was what he was. There was no changing it.
A warden gave Fanner a discreet tap with her cane as she walked past, but she knew as well as they all did that it was a futile gesture. Fanner stood tall and still for all of ten seconds before he started fidgeting again.
Their customer today was a woman, which was less common but not unheard of. Though it was considered inappropriate for women to keep slaves for sexual purposes, an expensive Companion still served as a valuable status symbol.
The woman walked straight past the youngest of the boys without so much as a glance in their direction and continued down the line. She didn’t even start to look at the boys until she had neared Danya’s end of the line, and even then she dismissed each one quickly.
Fanner was the first one she stopped to examine. Danya had to fight to keep his expression blank as Fanner forgot where he was supposed to be looking, accidentally made eye contact with the customer, pointedly looked away, then belatedly remembered he was supposed to be staring straight ahead and corrected himself. Out of the corner of his eye, Danya saw the woman’s lips purse before she moved on to him.
Danya was used to being dismissed outright, so he was surprised when the woman stopped in front of him and looked him up and down. He let her move his face from side to side and turned when she prodded him.
“He doesn’t look like the others,” she commented to the warden.
“We sometimes trial new studs to diversify our gene pool,” the warden offered, the standard lie. “It’s an experimental process that doesn’t always yield desirable results, but as long as any aberrations are purely physical, we still offer the offspring for sale.”
That wasn’t true either. Even without knowing the extent of things, they were well aware he wasn’t like the others. He had never quite been badly behaved, but if one of them was going to question authority, to speak out of turn, it was usually him. Like Fanner’s fidgeting, he never intended to misbehave. The traits expected of him simply didn’t come to him as naturally as they did to the others.
“He’s older than the others,” the woman noted. “You’ve had some difficulty selling him.”
“When people come to Milaine House, they’re seeking something specific. A slave who doesn’t match those signature ideals tends to get overlooked, despite still meeting our exceptional standards when it comes to training and breeding.”
The woman looked Danya over again and sighed uncertainly. “I won’t pay your standard rates for a slave you’ve clearly had such difficulty getting rid of.”
Danya’s chest squeezed. Someone wanted to buy him? She seemed strict and unaffectionate and Danya would need to be castrated if he were to be owned by a woman, but if someone finally wanted him, at all, did any of that really matter?
The warden must have been as surprised as Danya was, because it took her a moment to respond. “Yes, of course. Our standard rates drop with age, so—”
“I want an additional twenty percent off.”
The warden hesitated, but only for a second. They would definitely be making a loss on him at that price, but they would never get a better one. “Yes, I suppose that would be acceptable.”
“I want him tattooed at no additional cost as well. Here’s the design.” She pulled out a piece of paper and handed it to the warden. “I will have someone collect him tomorrow afternoon. Have him dressed appropriately for a dinner party. He’s a gift for a military man who will be in attendance.”
Duran was at Danya’s side as soon as the warden had led the woman away to organise payment, his hands gentle on Danya’s skin as he helped him back into his robe. He’d been sold. He would finally have a master. Danya almost felt too overwhelmed to be happy.
Fanner was at his side, too, and together they led Danya back upstairs.
It wasn’t until they were back in their shared room with the door shut that Duran finally broke the silence. “Military.”
“Yes, but…” Fanner shrugged. “I think it could be okay, Danya. Military camps often aren’t pleasant for slaves, but you’re not...”
“I’m not desirable to most men,” Danya finished for him, because Fanner was too polite to say it.
“Not to a man who doesn’t desire men, perhaps,” Duran offered diplomatically. He sat Danya down on his bed and clasped their hands together. “I assume your master does, given that you were chosen for him. If that is the case, it’ll be to your advantage. A man who desires boys, or who’ll settle for one in place of a woman, will always lose interest in time. A man who desires men may offer a more permanent position at his side.”
Though more likely not. They were all aware of the allure youth offered. Besides, his master hadn’t even selected Danya himself. What if Danya wasn’t what he wanted at all? Danya was to be tattooed with the man’s crest before they even met, and then he would be unable to be resold if his master didn’t like him.
Yet even with all his doubts and fears, Danya was in a better position than he had been before his purchase. Now he had hope.
That night, Danya lay still on a flat table while one of the wardens skillfully tattooed his new master’s crest onto his chest just below his left shoulder. Slowly, the silvery ink took the form of a proud lion. Despite all of his apprehension, the sight of it warmed Danya deep inside. He had a master.
The next afternoon, Danya sat on the steps outside Milaine House, his belongings packed up into a bag at his feet. Duran sat close beside him, one arm wrapped around his shoulders. They would almost certainly never see one another again.
Danya shut his eyes and leant into the warmth of Duran’s body as he focussed on the energy passing between them. Duran couldn’t feel it like Danya could, but he understood, as they all did, the need for physical contact to keep them in balance in times of turmoil.
Danya had been expecting a carriage, so it was a surprise when a red car pulled up in front of the House. Danya had never seen a car in person before. Fuel was too expensive for most people to bother and the ability to manufacture new ones had been lost, along with many other things, after the war that had happened long before Danya’s birth. Even this one, which belonged to quite a wealthy family, showed signs of age and wear.
The slave who got out of the car had short, dark hair that had been neatly greased back. He grinned broadly and waved, making sure to let them catch a glimpse of the black X tattooed on the back of his hand that meant he was a Neutral. Mages like him, born without magic, were allowed to be sent out to perform errands.
“I’m Baine,” the Neutral introduced himself as he took Danya’s bag from him. “Are you ready to go?”
Danya pulled Duran against him into a final, tight clutch, then took a steadying breath as he turned back to Baine. “Yes. I’m ready.”
Riding in a car was not at all like riding in a carriage. It was faster, smoother, and an altogether unnatural experience. Danya had read books, seen pictures of times when cars had filled the roads, a common thing for even poor families to own, but he found it hard to imagine. The sheer number of people, the huge industries required to construct so many vehicles and provide the fuel they required to run. The scale of it all seemed impossible.
Baine kept up a constant, sunny chatter as he drove. He explained how the car worked, told Danya funny stories about mishaps the rushed preparations for tonight’s party had caused, and enthused about all the leftovers he was going to eat after it was over. It was a welcome distraction from Danya’s uncertain future.
Mrs Moore, the woman who had come to purchase Danya yesterday, emptied Danya’s bag out on the floor of Baine’s small bedroom and sorted through his clothes with a frown on her face. She had come to check on their preparations for the party a few minutes ago and immediately declared Danya’s attire unsuitable.
She tossed one of Danya’s robes aside and scowled in annoyance. “All of this is far too concealing. Your appearance doesn’t make it clear what your purpose is, so your clothing needs to.”
Danya kept his head down and his mouth shut. It was the best he could do.
“Baine, find him something more fitting. I want his chest bared to show off Captain Bell’s crest and a collar around his throat.” Mrs Moore looked Danya up and down again and made a face. “Maybe some coal around his eyes? I don’t know. Do what you can.”
Baine offered her a disarming smile and gave Danya a pat on the cheek. “Don’t worry, ma’am. Captain Bell will love him.”
She grimaced, unconvinced. “Well, I hope so.”
Once the door was shut behind her, Baine turned a more sincere, sympathetic smile on Danya. “You’re gorgeous and I’m sure he will love you.”
Danya made a face. “Nobody has ever chosen me before. What are the chances that a man who has never seen me will find me to his tastes?”
“Just because you have a hard time selling fruit out of a butchershop doesn’t mean there’s no market for pears. People go to Milaine House for their rare, golden haired Companions. If they were looking for something else, for someone like you, why would they look there? You were chosen specifically because you do match what we know of this man’s preferences.”
A niggling fear grew in Danya’s belly. He hoped he was wrong, but… “He does want a slave, though, doesn’t he? He knows he’s to be given one?”
The uncomfortable expression on Baine’s face answered the question before he even spoke. “Well… not exactly. You’re supposed to be a surprise.”
Danya sat down heavily on the edge of Baine’s bed. “A surprise? They bought someone a slave without asking? A lifelong commitment — I would hope — and they just—”
Baine was making calming motions with his hands and Danya realised he had raised his voice. “I know, I know. It’s stupid, I know. I advised against it, but…” He shrugged helplessly. “But we shouldn’t despair yet. For now, let’s focus on making you so stunning he couldn’t possibly resist.”
Danya made a quiet sound that was partly agreement but mostly distress. At this point, what else could they do?