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Essik arrived one morning with a cloth bag, and an inscrutable expression. “I have a favor to ask of you.”

Caleb nodded. A coil of dread writhed inside of him. He had known there was a price for learning Dunamancy and accepted it willingly, sight unseen. “Let us speak in the lab.”

Essik floated after him. He watched as Caleb set the thread and locked the door.

“There is a party tonight. I require a companion for the evening.” Essik handed him the bag. “If you are amenable: bathe, shave your face, and dress yourself in these. Do not expect to return before dawn.”

“What sort of party?” Caleb asked. ‘Amenable’ suggested he could decline, but he would prefer to fulfill the favor as quickly as possible. He had learned that it was often best to accept the first option rather than let a second, usually worse option, present itself.

“The sort of party where some of the guests will be wearing very little clothing, and kneeling at the feet of their companions.” Essik raised an eyebrow. “Are you familiar with this sort of thing?”

Caleb nodded stiffly. He remembered the lessons on depravity, on how to exploit people’s lusts. Years of training made him think tactically: perhaps he would learn something useful tonight about the mysterious Shadowhand.

“Good. Do you have any limitations or parameters you require?”

Caleb blinked. “You would allow that?”

“I am no monster.” Essik spreads his hands. “I desire submission, but I do not desire infantile behavior or unresisting obedience. If I request something of you during the evening, you may decline, but be prepared to propose an alternative service. It would help me to know what you would reject outright.”

Caleb took a deep breath. “No fire. And nothing … nothing that will modify my body beyond the course of an evening.”

“Is that all?” Essik sounded concerned, but Caleb didn’t offer any additional details. “… very well. Do not bite me. Do not leave marks on my face or hands. Do not leave my side. Inform me when something is too much for you, physically or inside your head. Do you have any objection to calling me ‘sire’ during the night?”

“No, I can do that.”

“Good. Do you think you could respond to ‘pet’ or should I use your name?”

“… call me what you will.” Caleb pushed away his thoughts on that. He had been Bren, apprentice, Patient 73, vagrant, thief, Prisoner 9150, Caleb … what was “pet” after all those?

“Very well, you shall be my pet tonight.” Essik floated to the door. “Be ready in five hours.”

~*~

The clothes were of fine black material. Soft and delicate, the feeling of them on his skin was almost like a caress. Caleb shivered from the sensation, and the thin fabric – it was chilly in the evenings now.

Essik was neither late nor early: he arrived exactly on time. He glided inside and smiled at Caleb’s appearance. “Lovely. I was right about your measurements.” He reached out and paused, hand hovering a few inches from Caleb’s face. “May I touch you?”

“I am yours tonight, sire,” Caleb murmured, praying that the rest of the Mighty Nein weren’t lurking nearby.

“That is true, pet, that is true.” Essik ran his fingers over Caleb’s freshly-shaven face. “Let us return to your study, for a moment.”

Caleb struggled to readjust, thinking he’d been about to leave and now suddenly returning to the lab. He locked the door with slightly shaking fingers. Trent’s voice was in his mind, chastising him. You clumsy oaf! Again. Slowly. You must seduce the target …

“Now that we are somewhere private,” Essik drifted close to Caleb. “Would you kneel for me?”

Caleb sank down before he could think.

“Good,” Essik murmured, and his hand was on Caleb’s face again, stroking his cheek. “You have been a mercenary, do you have any injuries I should be aware of?”

“No, sire.”

“One of your parameters is no bodily modification. Do you consider scars to be bodily modification?”

Caleb felt a jolt of fear. “Yes, sire.” What if Essik insisted, what if that was the price, what if …

“Understood. I will do my best not to break your skin tonight, but if I do, there is a healer at the party who can ensure no scars remain.”

Caleb closed his eyes. “Thank you, sire.”

“Such a polite pet. Has someone trained you before?”

A wave of nausea overcame Caleb. He was going to ruin this. He was going to be ill and beg Essik here for something else, anything else, as the promised favor. Or worse, Essik would insist they continue tonight and –

His mind went blank.

When Caleb came back to himself, lithe arms had encircled him. Essik was on the ground now, holding him. “Hush, hush, my pet,” Essik murmured.

Distantly, Caleb realized he was crying and murmuring in Zemnian – doubtlessly a language Essik did not understand.

“Have I asked too much of you? You have been hurt, deeply.” Essik sighed heavily. “I should have asked this first. I assumed when I should not have.”

“No … no I can … I can.” Caleb steadied himself. “There was … I was …” he spat out the words at last “If you had asked me to call you ‘master’ I would have refused.”

“Ah. I think I begin to see.” Essik relaxed his hold on Caleb. “If you would still do this, you must tell me what I should avoid. I cannot reach into your mind and pull out your secrets. Nor would I, if I had that power.”

Caleb frowned at that. “You would not interrogate me? A former Empire subject?”

“At the behest of the Queen, I would do anything to preserve the safety of the Dynasty. For personal matters such as this? I would never violate someone in that manner.”

Caleb breathed easier. “No fire. Nothing that alters my body. No scars. No … do not … the way I speak, do not mock it. Do not bind my hands. Do not strike my hands. Do not leave me bound and blind and forgotten. Do not …” Caleb could not stop the words from tumbling forward. These were things he had not even said to Nott or Beau. “… do not threaten to share me around the room. Do not keep me underneath a desk. If you want to fuck me, do not insist I meet your eyes. I … I might not get hard, please do not mock me for that either.” Caleb glanced at Essik and quickly looked away.

Essik was quiet for a moment. “Thank you. You are doing this as a favor to me, but my job is to keep you safe. Information allows me to keep you safe.” Essik tucked a lock of hair behind Caleb’s ear. “There are other favors you might do for me. Less personal by far. I will hold no grudge nor judgment against you if you wish to decline tonight’s opportunity.”

“Thank you, sire,” Caleb said. “But I can do this. I can be your pet this evening, so long as you respect my limitations.”

“I shall. I know you have no cause to trust me yet, but I hope to become worthy of your trust by the evening’s end.” Essik slowly rose to his feet, and offered Caleb a hand. “Shall we go, pet?”

Caleb breathed deep and then took Essik’s hand.

~*~

“Why me, sire?” Caleb asked as they rounded a corner on an unfamiliar street. “Surely a man such as yourself would have no trouble finding a … paramour for the evening?”

Essik froze. “What do you mean by that?” his usually calm tone had a hint of ice.

“Well, ah,” Caleb waved his hand up and down. “You are very handsome.”

Essik paused, then laughed. “It pleases me to hear you say so, pet. Especially as you travel with such a handsome specimen.”

“Ah well, yes, Fjord is very handsome – ” Caleb began, but Essik cut him off.

“No, I meant the large one, with the pink hair. A pity he is … I believe the word is ‘inert?’ Or do you not have a word for that in Common?”

Caleb had no idea what this meant, and decided not to pry into Caduceus’ business at the moment. “I am not sure.”

“Regardless, you are mistaken of my circumstances. To find a male, and have him submit to me, a male drow?” Essik shook his head. “They are few and far between, and they charge a high price for their services in this city.” Essik sighed heavily. “It is no matter. You are here, and amenable to the arrangement, and Chenzira will be sick with jealousy this evening.”

“Who is Chenzira?”

“You will see for yourself soon enough, pet.” Essik glared at the horizon. “You cannot miss her.”

~*~

Caleb drew many suspicious looks on their way through the streets, but each time Essik laid a possessive hand on his shoulder and they were not troubled. They entered a richer district than the one the Mighty Nein lived in, with lavish homes and finely made clothing on display. Caleb kept his head down and followed where Essik led.

The home Essik stopped at was guarded by armed bugbears. They knew Essik by sight and waved him inside. One of them eyed Caleb up and down and chuckled, but said nothing.

Inside, a silent servant took Essik’s robe. Underneath, Essik wore black trousers fitted to his slender frame, and a purple shirt which billowed at the sleeves. He glanced at Caleb briefly. “Undress, pet, and leave your undergarments on.”

Caleb didn’t look at the servant. He didn’t examine the walls to see the telltale signs of portraits concealing hidden eyeholes. He undressed efficiently and folded the clothes. He focused on the fact that he was not about to enter a room naked, that Essik had permitted him at least minimal dignity. The dark silk fabric felt like the flimsiest of shields, but it was something. He had done worse before, far worse.

“Lovely. But, I think you require something else tonight …” Essik perused an array of masks and hoods laid out on a table by the servant. They ranged from elaborate masquerade accessories to things that reminded Caleb of hawking hoods.

Caleb wondered how that might feel. To enter a room of strangers blind seemed horrifying at first thought, but it would also mean he would not be expected to make eye contact all night. That thought was more enticing than anything he’d read in one of Jester’s smut books.

“Here we are.” Essik selected a slender mask and lifted it to Caleb’s face. “Hold still, pet.”

Caleb lowered his eyes as Essik’s face loomed close. The mask was black and nearly matched his undergarments, with some gold filigree designs. Two short points rose at the top, mimicking the ears of a cat or dog, or perhaps horns.

It would do nothing to conceal his humanity, nor his identity as he was one of few humans in the city, but it was all part of the game: adults playing dress-up and pretend. It was almost silly, though he knew what awaited him tonight would be quite serious.

“Beautiful. Let’s go show you off.” Essik put a hand on Caleb’s shoulder, thumb tracing the back of his neck, and steered him through a doorway.

The room was spacious, candlelit, and full of drow. There were a few tieflings and hobgoblins, but they were greatly outnumbered. All eyes turned to Essik and Caleb as they entered the room.

“Chenzira, look who’s just arrived!” called out a plump drow woman. She wore a corset that enhanced her ample bosom and a skirt covered in long multicolored feathers.

Everyone turned to the opposite side of the room, some moving hurriedly to clear the way.

Chenzira was, as promised, impossible to miss. She stood in the center of the room, a towering figure in a sweeping black gown that glittered with embroidered jewels. It was unquestionable that she was beautiful, but her lips held the sort of sneer Caleb knew only too well. She had a handsome young drow man on a leash. He knelt at her feet like a loyal dog and his expression was that of sheer bliss. Caleb felt voyeuristic just looking at him.

“Essik, how kind of you to grace us with your presence.” Chenzira purred. She glided forward, though she stepped on the ground unlike Essik when he moved. Her leashed man followed her on his hands and knees. Caleb inwardly winced at the thought of enduring that all evening on a cold stone floor.

“I’m so often called away by my work, but I do my best to never miss one of these gatherings.” Essik smiled the smile of a politician.

“But of course. And what is this?” Chenzira glanced at Caleb with poorly-disguised fascination.

“My pet for the evening.” Essik ran his fingers through Caleb’s hair idly.

Many others in the room gathered close, including the plump drow woman in the corset.

“A human!” one of the many drow exclaimed.

“Essik, you are so scandalous.” The plump drow laughed, smirking as she glanced between Essik, Chenzira, and Caleb. It seemed she was quite aware of the unspoken conversations going on and delighting in the entertainment.

“I’ve never seen one this close. Is he … safe?” one of the men asked nervously.

“However did you tame a wild man?” a red tiefling leaned in close.

“Yes, Essik, however did you manage that?” Chenzira asked, her gaze piercing. “Is he tame at all?”

Essik smiled. “Quite tame, I assure you.” He tapped Caleb on the shoulder. “Pet? I’m thirsty. Fetch.” He pointed to the other side of the room where a table was set with drinks and food.

Caleb moved to obey. He heard the laughter of the drow behind him and hoped the dim light hid his flush of embarrassment. It was one thing to be sneered at by shopkeepers in the city, it was quite another to be treated like an animal in a private room.

The table was full of goblets with varying colors of liquids in them. He chose something dark and returned to Essik, keeping his eyes down.

“Good boy.” Essik accepted the goblet and addressed the crowd. “See? Quite tame. I would not bring an unruly pet into your home, Chenzira, what do you take me for?” Essik floated backwards and sank into a nearby chair. Turning to Caleb, he pointed to a pillow on the floor near his feet. “Sit.”

Caleb knelt on the pillow. He folded his hands behind his back and bowed his head.

Chenzira huffed and swished away, her pet crawling after her. The crowd dispersed, muttering to themselves about Essik and his shocking new pet. Caleb heard snatches of gossip about Chenzira, Essik, and himself – most of the guests were not bothering to keep their voices down at all.

“Pet, chin up.” Essik said.

Caleb raised his head. Essik was holding out his goblet, half empty now.

“Your turn.” He pressed it to Caleb’s lips.

Caleb tipped his head back and drank. It was wine, and from what he could tell a good vintage.

“She hates you, sire.” Caleb murmured, once he had emptied the goblet.

“Oh I know.” Essik kept his face calm and his words soft. “She is seething with jealousy, just as I intended. You are exquisite.” His voice lingered on the final word.

Caleb felt his cheeks flush. Inwardly he blamed the wine.

“Ah, the show’s about to begin.” Essik smiled. “You’re in for a treat, pet.”

Caleb watched as servants assembled a raised platform against a wall of the room. The guests scattered, most settling on chairs and couches, others sitting on the floor or leaning against unoccupied walls. Other servants, wearing jewel-encrusted collars and outfits that left little to the imagination, roamed the room offering small pieces of food. Caleb saw a few of the servants groped and pinched, and bit back a scowl.

A servant approached Essik. He was a young, slender tiefling with curling horns. Someone had painted his chest and back with delicate designs, and the latest guest had ruined some of them with his wandering hands.

“Sir?” the servant offered a tray laden with what Caleb could only assume were Xhorhasian delicacies.

“Thank you,” Essik took a small plate and plucked several items onto it. Then he murmured a string of words Caleb did not yet know. The designs on the servant’s skin reverted to their original precision.

“Sir …” the servant cast a grateful look to Essik before being called away by another guest.

“Are you hungry, pet?” Essik asked, holding out a small puff of food wedged between two tiny sticks.

“… yes, sire.” Caleb leaned forward and swallowed the piece of food. It was savory, with the herbs and mushroom flavors he’d come to expect of Xhorhas.

Essik fed him a few more morsels. Caleb ate, face burning as he realized there were many eyes on them now, watching Essik feed his wild human. Did they think he would bite Essik’s hand? Did they think Essik would start to feed Caleb something else? Caleb’s stomach churned and he blamed the mushrooms.

The lights dimmed in the room. Two drow climbed up onto the stage: the plump woman from before, and a woman built lean and muscular like Beau.

“That’s Xalyth on the right, and it looks like she’s got a new girlfriend.” Essik murmured to Caleb.

The plump woman, Xalyth, conjured vines from the air, curling down from the rafters of the room and snaking around the lean woman. First they bound her, then they began to raise her up into the air.

The crowd applauded politely, Essik among them.

Xalyth plucked a long feather from her skirt. She teased the bound woman with one feather, then another, and another, eliciting yelps of distress, increasingly, moans of pleasure. The crowd cheered and laughed. Twice, Xalyth released the vines, repositioning her partner, before hoisting her up again. Finally, Xalyth let the vines melt away and embraced her partner, lavishing her with kisses. The crowd applauded loudly.

“Go find a bedroom!” one of the red tieflings called out.

“No, stay and give us another show!” a drow yelled.

There was much laughter, and Xalyth and her partner left the stage. They settled on a nearby couch, the lean woman resting her head on Xalyth’s lap.

“Lean against my knee, pet,” Essik said, finishing off his plate of food. “No need to exhaust yourself.”

Caleb shifted and leaned against Essik’s leg. He hadn’t realized how tense he had become during the performance. Resting against Essik, some of the stiffness in his spine began to melt.

“Thank you, sire.” He whispered, unsure if Essik heard him.

Next onstage were a tall tiefling woman and a muscular drow man. She bent him over a bench and beat him, first with a whip, then a small set of leather straps, then a large flat paddle. The slapping sound made Caleb shudder several times. Each time, Essik reached down and stroked Caleb’s hair and neck.

The crowd was raucous during this display. They cheered and whistled and applauded. Some shouted out, begging to take the tiefling woman's role, while others offered to take the man’s place and let her further exert herself. The tiefling woman bantered with the crowd, laughing all the while.

The slow methodical sensation of fingers in his hair was oddly soothing. Caleb’s mind began to grow fuzzy. It was almost like being drunk, but the gulps of wine had been some time ago and followed with food besides. Caleb felt a vague flare of fear that he was being manipulated magically, but then relaxed – he knew that feeling all too well and his current state was nothing of the sort. He was aware, he was calm, he was himself.

Was he enjoying this? After all the fear, the dread, the resignation to humiliation and pain, was that possible? Caleb tried to focus on that, but the crowd cheered at the arrival of a new demonstration.

A small drow bundled up in a robe clambered onto the stage, assisted by two lithe drow.

“This should be interesting. Pay attention, pet. This is Doctor Tuin, they’re quite inventive. Always tinkering away in their lab. Their assistants are Nym and Nizana. Nizana has the longer hair.”

Doctor Tuin produced a folding table and strapped Nym onto it. They arranged a series of toys on a small side table.

“Ruby, to begin with,” Doctor Tuin said.

Nizana handed Doctor Tuin a small device. Doctor Tuin pressed something and the device began to audibly buzz.

The crowd was eerily silent during Doctor Tuin’s demonstrations, watching with rapt attention as Ruby, then Amber, then Citrine, and then Emerald, were produced and “tested” on Nym’s helpless body. Finally, Nym cried out a word Caleb did not recognize, and Doctor Tuin ceased at once.

“My patient has given us some very useful data,” Doctor Tuin addressed the crowd as Nizana helped unstrap the trembling Nym from the table. “Shall we end here, or shall the lovely Nizana help me complete the data set?”

Nizana preened and the crowd roared their decision.

“Very well! Science marches on!” Doctor Tuin raised their arms.

Caleb watched as Nizana climbed onto the table eagerly. While the crowd was distracted by this, he saw Doctor Tuin conversing quietly with Nym. He couldn’t hear, but he could read the concern on the Doctor’s face, and the devotion from the other drow. Doctor Tuin kissed Nym’s hands, then turned to Nizana and assisted with the straps.

Caleb watched Nizana endure Emerald as a “warm up,” then test out Sapphire, Amethyst, and Opal. Each toy was more powerful and intimidating than the last.

“Do not worry, pet, Doctor Tuin never pushes them past what they can endure,” Essik said soothingly, running his hand down along Caleb’s back.

They watched as Doctor Tuin produced the final toy, something called Obsidian. Caleb shivered even to look at it. Surely Nizana would not, could not, accept that?

“Yes, yes, please!” Nizana called out. “Doctor, please, test me!”

Caleb could not look away. Nizana trembled and cried out, but the Obsidian toy was tested thoroughly.

The crowd applauded loudest of all after this performance. Nym and Nizana bowed, Nizana’s legs shaking visibly, and the Doctor packed up their case of toys. They were swarmed after they descended the stage. Caleb heard orders being placed for replicas of the toys, for prices and favors he struggled to discern.

“I have a few of the Doctor’s earlier models at home.” Essik mused. “These new models are tempting, but I’m so very fond of the originals.”

“May I ask why you did not bring them, sire?” Caleb asked before thinking.

“Oh, they are for private use. I am not always so lucky to have attentive pets at my beck and call.” Essik ruffled Caleb’s hair.

Caleb wondered when Essik would demand sex. Surely it would happen soon, a lurid display in the room to further drive his rival into envious conniptions? Other couples, and trios, were engaging in amorous tangles around the room. What was Essik waiting for?

“Essik, what are you doing hiding away over here?” a drow man approached. He wore finely embroidered clothes and his dark hair was trimmed short, with patterns shaved on either side of his head.

“Balok, so good to see you!” Essik floated up and clasped hands with the man. “You know my work keeps me busy. To tell the truth, I was hoping for a bit of a quiet evening tonight.”

“Quiet? You?” Balok laughed. “And with a new pet to show off? I doubt that.” Balok reached for Caleb.

Caleb froze. Was he meant to endure this? The man spoke to Essik with familiarity, what if they were friends, or worse lovers of a kind, what if …

Essik’s hand caught Balok’s wrist. “A pet is not fair game to any and all, Balok, you know this.” Essik’s tone was amiable, but Caleb saw the way his eyes had gone dark.

With Balok’s hand so close now, Caleb could see the faint traces of paint on his fingers.

Balok pulled away, a brittle smile fixed on his face. “Well, enjoy your evening, Essik.” He winced, shaking his hand in the air as he walked away.

Essik sat down once more. “The presumption!” he hissed. “How dare he …”

“Was Balok being his usual self?” Xalyth settled herself on the arm of Essik’s chair. “Hello, darling.”

“Hello, princess,” Essik kissed Xalyth’s hand and she kissed his. “Yes, but I scared him off. Vile man, he gets worse with every party I swear. Where’s your acrobat?”

“I sent her home to ice her shoulders. Poor dear pushes herself too hard for me. She really doesn’t need to impress me, she’s already in my bed.”

“Shouldn’t you go comfort her?”

“That comes later, Essik. The waiting is part of the routine. Besides, we both need our space after a performance.” Xalyth leaned over, glancing at Caleb. “You haven’t been playing with your pet much tonight. Shy?”

“Cautious. And I want to tease Chenzira, not give her the whole show as it were.”

Xalyth laughed. “That’s a fine idea. But still …” she plucked one of the feathers from her skirt, a white one, and held it aloft. “Is he more of a pup, or a cat?”

“A cat, I think,” Essik reached for the feather. “May I?”

“Of course.” Xalyth gave him the feather. “This isn’t one of my special ones, don’t worry, I’d warn you before using one of those.”

Essik bobbed the feather in front of Caleb’s nose.

Caleb hesitated … then batted at it with his hand. This led to a series of movements which ended with Caleb on the floor, flat on his back, the feather tickling his belly and arms.

“Such a pretty pet,” Xalyth cooed. “Would he like one of my special ones, do you think?”

“Oh I think he’d be quite fascinated.” Essik swapped out the former feather for another, this one in a shade of blue. “Remind me what this one does again, in Undercommon if you don’t mind?”

Xalyth said a word Caleb didn’t understand. It was yet another reminder of his vulnerability here.

“Lovely. Relax, pet.” Essik lowered the feather and traced it over Caleb’s chest.

The feather trailed icy tendrils across his skin. Caleb yelped in shock. It reminded him of waking up coated in a thin layer of frost after sleeping in the woods.

Essik zig-zagged the feather over Caleb’s ribs and curled it underneath his arms. The effect wasn’t exactly pleasant, but it didn’t hurt either.

“I recall a certain feather you wielded against me last summer …” Essik said to Xalyth. “Do you have one of those tonight?”

“Of course!” Xalyth handed him a pale violet feather.

“Now pet, I enjoyed this one for myself. You must let me know if you don’t enjoy it.” Essik reminded Caleb.

“Yes, sire,” Caleb nodded, bracing himself for whatever this next feather was.

At first he thought it was nothing. Then the stinging snap of energy flashed from the feather to his flesh. Lightning, so faint it couldn’t do any real harm, crackling across his skin. It followed the rivulets of melting ice and his sweat, making Caleb squirm as the feather touched him in one spot and the effects traveled to another location entirely.

Xalyth clapped her hands. Essik smiled fondly down at him. “I thought that might be nice, after the chill.”

“Thank you, sire,” Caleb blurted out. It felt right to say it.

He caught the look of surprise on Essik’s face before the man hid it away.

“I think … the orange, and the … what was the brindled one again?” Essik asked Xalyth.

There was a brief discussion Caleb couldn’t understand. He reminded himself that learning the local language would be a useful thing if they were to stay here for much longer.

“Sit up, pet … that’s right …” Essik put his hands on Caleb’s shoulders, positioning him so his back was to Essik. “Now, tell me if this too much for you.”

The first feather was like delicate sharp claws raking over his skin. Caleb stiffened and held his tongue. It wasn’t breaking his skin. It felt like it might, it felt needle-sharp and dangerous but it wasn’t breaking his skin.

“Talk to me, pet,” Essik murmured.

“I’m … I can …” Caleb’s arms itched. “Please, sire …” his voice cracked.

Essik took the feather away. “Good pet, keeping me informed. That’s why I can take such good care of you: because you tell me these things.”

Another feather flicked over Caleb’s shoulder. This one felt like the warm fur of an animal. After the sharp tension, and the crackling lightning, Caleb wanted to sob.

“You might want to take your pet home, Essik, before the night grows too late,” Xalyth advised. “Chenzira’s out for your blood, and you know how wild these things get into the early morning.”

“Oh yes, that’s true. I’m not exactly drawn to that aspect anymore. I prefer more quiet intimacy.”

“Me too, and my girl’s going to need some warming up by now.” Xalyth fastened the feathers back onto her skirt. “You didn’t hear it from me, but everyone’s been talking about you and your pet all night. Chenzira’s been flouncing around and nobody’s giving her a second look. I mean, drow matriarchal play? The throwback was fun for a while but now it’s just tacky.”

Essik and Xalyth shared an uproarious laugh, turning several heads in their direction. Caleb stared at the floor and resisted the urge to wrap his arms around his chest.

Xalyth meandered away into the crowd.

“Well, pet, I think it’s time to retire.” Essik floated upright. He held out his hands to Caleb.

Caleb took them and stood up, legs wobbling slightly from being on the floor for so long. He waited for Essik to let go of his hands, but the man didn’t let go. He seemed poised to bring them up to his mouth to kiss them, like the Doctor had to Nym, and Essik and Xalyth had to each other. Caleb hadn’t seen any drow doing that in the streets.

A faint tug at the back of his head startled him. Suddenly his mask was loose. It fell to the floor and cracked in two.

Every eye in the room was on them. On him. On his face. Caleb’s cheeks burned. It had been a flimsy shield, but it had been one all the same, one given to him by Essik. And now it was gone. Panic, heedless of the reason, bubbled up inside his chest. He had to get out of this room. He had to run, before something terrible happened –

Essik reached out and covered Caleb’s eyes with his hand.

Caleb’s breath caught in his throat. The faint pressure against his face grounded him. He didn’t have to look at Essik, or anyone in the crowd, or see them looking at him. Dimly, he felt Essik maneuvering his body. Essik cradled Caleb’s head against his chest and kept his hand over his eyes.

“Oh what a shame, Essik,” Chenzira’s voice cut through the darkness. “I know you wanted to keep him all to yourself, but this is a party after all.”

There were some scattered chuckles from the crowd. Not as many as Chenzira would have liked, Caleb suspected.

“You must have tied it too loosely. Poor dear looked so startled.” Chenzira’s voice was dripping with mock-concern. “Essik, you really should take better care of your pets.”

Some gasps and scandalized murmuring burbled among the crowd now. They sensed blood in the water.

Caleb felt Essik’s body stiffen. The room was eerily quiet for one so teeming with life and energy only moments before.

“I do appreciate your considerable experience, Chenzira,” Essik began.

Someone in the crowd cackled. Unkind laughter began to circulate. Caleb wondered just how many boys on leashes Chenzira had gone through over the years.

“– as I’m sure your boy could tell us … where has he crawled off to? Did you lose him already?” Essik ran his fingers through Caleb’s hair.

The crowd’s laughter was significant now. Caleb could just make out a frustrated gasp from Chenzira before even her temper was drowned out.

“Time to go, pet,” Essik whispered into Caleb’s ear. He gently escorted Caleb from the room, still keeping one hand over Caleb’s eyes.

~*~

The walk back to the Mighty Nein’s home was quiet and chilly. Caleb had made it two blocks before he’d shivered so much that Essik enveloped him in his robe. They moved together practically embracing, Caleb shuffling along the streets and struggling to keep up with Essik’s levitating speed.

To Caleb’s relief the house was dark and quiet: the others were asleep or perhaps out on ventures of their own.

“Where is your room?” Essik asked.

Caleb’s heart sank. He had let himself forget what this was about. “Through … through here …” he moved, lighting a candle along the way and bringing Essik into his room. He had hoped to keep this place free from anyone else, but it was private and he couldn’t very well have Essik do this to him at the foot of the staircase.

“Let’s sit down,” Essik settled on the bed, drawing Caleb down with him.

Caleb shifted uncomfortably. If it was going to happen, at least it would happen in the house, where he was far from the prying eyes at the party, and he could clean himself up afterwards in the bath. Essik had been a man of his word the entire evening. He’d restrained himself even at the party, and that boded well for what was about to happen. Caleb reminded himself that it didn’t always hurt. It hadn’t felt good in a long time but maybe …

“Put it out of your mind.” Essik said. His tone was firm.

Caleb blinked. “What?”

“Sex.” Essik shook his head. “There will be nothing of that between us tonight. Now please, do your best to relax.”

Caleb was too confused to relax entirely, but he became pliant in Essik’s hands. It had not been a physically taxing evening but mentally he felt drained. It was easier to simply lie back and let the other man do with him as he would.

Essik’s hands slid underneath the loose fabric of the shirt he had given Caleb. His fingers stroked along tense muscles, easing the tension away. Caleb gasped in spite of himself.

“There you are … there you are …” Essik murmured. His thumbs found the indents just over Caleb’s collarbone. He pressed.

Caleb moaned.

“So much … too much …” Essik shifted, easing Caleb over and onto his stomach. “You have not been taking proper care of yourself …” Essik kneaded along Caleb’s back. “Not to worry … I can care for you tonight.”

Caleb remembered doing something like this with Astrid and Wulf. On the nights it had been too cold or they had been too exhausted for sex, they’d held each other and stroked each other in ways that had nothing to do with arousal or release. Those had been Caleb’s favorite nights. On the other nights, Astrid and Wulf had wanted sex beforehand. Caleb had never understood why that was a requirement for them, before the cuddling.

He wondered at that memory, and then let it go, focusing back on the moment. Essik was talking again.

“I do not wish to impose. May I stay, or would you prefer I leave?”

Unable to stop himself, Caleb whimpered at the thought of Essik leaving. “Please …” he managed. “Not … not yet …” he heard how weak and desperate he sounded. Pathetic. He was pathetic.

“Of course. Would you prefer I leave in the morning, before your housemates arise?”

Caleb thought of the knowing looks, the teasing questions, the speculations, the rumors. He thought of being cornered and asked about specifics. “Yes. Please. Morning. Unseen.”

“My feet shall not touch the floor.” Essik turned Caleb over onto his back again. His hands rested on Caleb’s hips. “Is there anything particular you like?”

Caleb thought of what he ought to say in this situation. He thought of smirking lips and a dirty joke about a wizard’s staff. He thought of Astrid’s thighs clutching his head. He thought of the potions for sale in the less reputable shops. He thought of the way Beau looked at Yasha and Keg and Avantika, the way Jester looked at Fjord and Yasha, the way Astrid and Wulf had looked at each other and him.

“Just … this?” Caleb winced. “I am sorry. But it feels so good.”

“You have nothing to apologize for.” Essik’s hands reached down, and he began stroking the arches of Caleb’s feet. “And I am more than happy to continue with this.”

“Ah … well then …” Caleb moaned and sank back into the mattress.

Caleb drifted. For once it was not an unpleasant sensation, fading in and out of awareness. He was warm, he felt safe, there were hands on him but they were not stripping him or hurting him or twisting his body in ways that disgusted him. He wasn’t bleeding or sweating.

His mind settled and his body relaxed.

~*~

He woke with Essik curled up beside him. A blanket was between their bodies, but Caleb could feel the other man’s warmth even through the fabric. He shifted, draping a tentative arm over Essik, and fell back to sleep.

Morning came, signaled by the glowing crystal he’d purchased that served as a kind of clock. The room was bathed in soft blue light. Essik was gone, the indentation in the bed the only sign he had been there.

It was what Caleb had wanted. Why then did he feel disappointed?

Caleb summoned Frumpkin with a snap. Frumpkin appeared from the Feywild and reached out a paw, nudging at a piece of paper Caleb hadn’t noticed beside the pillow.

If you are amenable to another deal, I have more spells. – E

Caleb put Frumpkin up onto his shoulders. He would have to think about this.