Cinder clutched the basket of clean linens to his chest as he ran through the halls, trying hard to not spill the sheets or break anything in his haste. Thankfully the halls had long since been cleared of most of the decorative tables and expensive, incredibly fragile ornaments that had once lined the walls. He tried not to think of that, of all the treasures his father had gathered over years of travelling, treasures that his stepmother continually sold off to fuel her extravagant life-style.

He skidded to a halt around the corner from the bedrooms. Closing his eyes, he took a deep, steadying breath before creeping forward, his ears straining for any sign that his stepbrothers were in their rooms. All seemed quiet but silence meant little when his stepbrothers were involved. They'd perfected the art of sneaking up on him when he least expected.

He put his ear to the first door along the hallway – Alexander's room – and listened for a long moment before slipping inside. The room was blissfully empty. He dropped the basket by the door and stripped the bed, changing out old sheets for new, then remaking the bed. The old sheets were shoved to the bottom of the basket. He moved around the room, gathering up the clothes Alexander had tossed to the floor and cleaning as quickly as he could. He pulled the curtains open, letting light into the room. The room seemed less terrifying in the light, but he didn't linger.

Cinder repeated the process for the next two rooms. His bare feet made little sound as he snuck from one room to the next. He was just finishing cleaning Donovan's room when the loud thud-thud of boots on stone made him freeze. Panic welled up in him, bringing with it a sense of urgency. He needed to run. He had to run. His eyes darted about the room. The bed was made. Windows opened. He grabbed the last of Donovan's dirty laundry off the floor as quietly as he could, nearly tripping in his haste but he caught himself just in time.

The knob turned. Cinder paled and dived for the basket, gathering it all up and clutching the basket to his chest like a shield as the door opened. He kept his head down, eyes on the floor. His stepbrother's shadow stretched across the floor between him and a door. Cinder repressed a shudder and tried to skitter out the room past his stepbrother, hoping that just this once he could finish the day's chores in peace.

He wasn't that lucky. A firm hand closed on his arm, yanking him back into the room. The basket tumbled from his arms, it contents spilling across the floor. The door slammed shut.

"You're not done here."

"Yes, sir," Cinder murmured. He shivered. He got scared just being in the room with any of his stepbrothers. It was worse when he was alone with one of them.

"On your knees."

He closed his eyes and dropped. It was better when he didn't have to watch. He could almost pretend then that it was something he wanted, that he had a choice.

Warm, wet flesh pressed against his lips and he opened, taking it in. A small whimper escaped as Donovan's fingers twisted in his hair, pulling tight. His lips were limp and pliant but that was all he offered. It was all his stepbrother needed. Donovan's other hand gripped the back of Cinder's head, holding him in place as his stepbrother fucked his mouth. There was no finesse to the movement, no tenderness, just the sharp thrust of flesh into his mouth. His jaw was going to ache afterwards. His throat would be sore for days, and he'd have a rasp in his voice that would make his stepbrothers leer and torment him more than usual. Still, it was better than when his stepbrothers first came to the house, when he would cry and beg for them to stop, which only made them hurt him more. It was better this way. Better to just accept it, to not fight back.

In a way, Cinder preferred Donovan over the rest of his stepbrothers. Donovan didn't talk during sex, he just took what he wanted of Cinder's body, came, and then threw Cinder out. He was efficient, never crueler than he needed to be, not unless Alexander or Edward were there to show off for. It was the closest to kindness Cinder got from any of them.

Cold from the stone floor seeped into his knees, making his legs ache. He wanted to cough, to rinse away the growing taste of salt in his mouth but he couldn't. His hands clutched at the fabric of his pants, even though he desperately wanted to reach out and steady himself. His stepbrothers hated it when he touched them. His jaw hurt. He whimpered a second time, the sound muffled around Donovan's cock. Donovan's fingers tightened at the sound. He did it again, just because it would make the abuse end sooner.

Donovan finished in minutes. His fingers dug into Cinder's scalp. His hips snapped forward, forcing his cock deep down Cinder's throat a few times, and then his seed flooded Cinder's mouth. He swallowed as best he could. It was that or choke on it, and he got enough of the latter that he avoided it when possible.

A bit of come rolled down his cheek as Donovan pulled out. He didn't move to wipe it away, not yet. Donovan's belt jingled as he refastened his pants. Cinder waited, not rising from the hard stone floor despite how much it hurt his knees. There was a moment of silence where Donovan just stood there, doing who knew what, and then he turned, his heavy boots beating against the stonework as he left the room.

Only when the door was once more closed did Cinder dare move. His legs ached but he forced them into motion, rising and gathering the basket back up. He scrubbed at his face with the corner of his sleeve, counted to twenty, and then stepped out into the hall. Donovan was gone and the hall was empty. He ran all the way to the laundry.

The doorbell rang, startling Cinder out of his reverie. He paused, scrub brush still pressed against the floor. It was strange for someone to ring in the middle of the day, stranger still for them not to have advanced notice that someone was coming. The butler's muttering carried through the halls. Cinder turned back to his work. It was probably another debt collector, come to take away more of his father's valuables. They were running low on things for his stepmother to pawn off. Maybe she'd pawn him soon. Anywhere had to be better than here.

He'd almost forgotten about the messenger when his stepmother's shrill tones rang through the house, calling for him. He dropped the scrub brush in the bucket of soapy water and slid the bucket under a nearby table, enough out of the way that his stepbrothers wouldn't trip over it, though it wouldn't stop them from spilling it on purpose if they were in the mood to cause him more trouble. He wiped his hands on his pants and gave himself a quick once over. There were stains on his shirt and large wet spots on his pants, but it would have to be good enough. He didn't have time to change, not without earning a beating for tardiness.

He found his stepmother in the sitting room. He had to brush past Alexander to get in and he repressed a shudder.

"Cinder! You useless boy, get in here. Quick, quick."

He hurried over to where his stepmother was seated before the fire and offered a hasty bow. "Yes, ma'am. Sorry, ma'am."

His stepbrothers were watching him. He could feel their eyes on him. He could tell where they all were, even without looking up from the floor. Alexander, the eldest, leaned against the wall by the door, probably planning to follow Cinder out when he left. Edward's raspy breathing put him towards the middle of the room, on one of the long couches littering the room, and he could see Donovan's boots out of the corner of his eye, not far from where his stepmother sat.

Over the years, Cinder had become hyper-aware of his stepbrothers' proximity.

"There's a very important series of balls coming up, and I'll need my boys looking their absolute best. The best they've ever looked. You'll need to take their finest suits from storage and make sure they're freshly laundered and pressed. Their shoes will need polished. And their buckles and cufflinks shined. Repair what you can. It'll be on your hide if any of my boys go out looking shabby."

"Yes, ma'am." He kept his eyes on the ground and nodded his understanding.

" Make sure the horses are all neatly shoed and freshly groomed. Clean the saddles and the barding. I want my boys to arrive in style."

He nodded again. "Yes, ma'am." She'd sold off their best horses. They had five left and none of them were particularly regal.

"Polish the silver. We may need to entertain. A celebration may be in order, if all goes to plan."

"Yes, ma'am." They were nearly out of silver. They certainly didn't have enough to entertain.

"Tell cook to lay in provisions for a feast."

"Yes, ma'am." They couldn't afford a feast. She must have sold half the house to be making such elegant plans. He wondered what the earlier doorbell had signaled. A messenger obviously, but what was going on? Some type of party?

"That will be all. Why are you still here?"

"Sorry, ma'am." He bowed and fled as fast as propriety allowed.

Alexander's foot shot out a second too late to avoid. He tripped. His head smacked against the doorframe. Pain lanced through his head and he bit back a curse, muffling it into a wordless noise. He raised a hand to his forehead. It came away sticky.

"Stupid, clumsy boy. Get out of my sight."

He fled to the sound of laughter. If some of the water falling on the floor came from him instead of the wash bucket, no one noticed. He finished the floors as fast as possible but it was never, ever fast enough. Alexander found him there ten minutes later. His bucket spilled. He'd have to redo it all. There was blood on the stones. Blood was always a pain to get out.

There was a woman in the stable. Cinder paused in the doorway with his mouth open. He half turned, prepared to scream about a robbery and then realized that no one would actually hear him, nor would they care if they heard him screaming. On second glance, the stranger looked far too well dressed to be a robber and she had wings. There was a faint point to her ears and her skin was pale, almost translucent. His father had told him stories when he was a child about people with wings – fairies from way up North – and they hadn't seemed like the type to rob a person.

He tried to remember what his father had told him about fairies. Beautiful, obviously. He could see that for himself. Honorable. Pleasant. Immortal. Fixed, though he wasn't sure by what his father had meant by that. Something about fate and purpose and an inability to effect change. If they left their homeland, it was for a reason, which meant she was here for a reason. Hopefully that reason wasn't to steal from them.

The faerie woman seemed to be having a quiet conversation with Edward's horse. She turned after a moment and regarded him with the bluest eyes he'd ever seen, as blue as the glittering dress she wore.

"Please don't steal the horses. They'll blame me if you do." He didn't know why he said that. It was a stupid thing to say, but it was out now. Damage done.

One of her thin, perfectly plucked eyebrows rose a fraction. Her impossibly red lips quirked in an almost smile. "I'm not here for the horses." There was a strange kind of music to her voice, like her words were part of a song he'd never heard. He liked it.

"Oh." He felt like he was staring too much but at the same time he felt like it would be impolite to look away. He'd never seen someone quite so beautiful. Tiny rainbows danced along her wings where they touched the light. "If you're looking for the lady of the house, I can show you to the main hall."

Her head tilted. "I'm not here for the lady of the house." Her tone suggested he was being slightly dense.

"Oh. My stepbrothers..."

She shook her head.

He frowned, his brow drawing together in confusion. "Who can I help you find then?"

"You're Cinder, are you not?"

"I am. Who are you?"

"You may call me Narenne. I'm here for you."

"Oh." He glanced down at his coal-stained shirt and muddy pants. No one ever came to see him, especially not fairies. "Um. Well..." It was a bad day for visitors. He had so much to do. "Do you mind if I..." He gestured towards the stalls.

She waved her hand in a magnanimous gesture, something more suited for the King's hall than a dimly lit stable. He nodded his thanks and pulled a shovel off the wall. She followed him as he moved to muck out the furthest stall.

"There's a ball tomorrow night."

"I've heard. My stepbrothers are going."

"Do you know the details of the ball?"

He shook his head, then realized she probably couldn't see him around the stall. "No." It wasn't his place to worry about details of a ball. He might as well worry about what the moon was made of. It had no relevance to his life.

"There's a Dragon Lord visiting. He's come to find a new consort."

"Okay." He'd heard a little of the Dragon Lords. Dragons that could take the form of men and walk among them. Ancient. Powerful. They were arguably the highest authority in the land, higher than even the kings. They ruled over all – human, fae, elves, dwarves, everything. All that lived and breathed was their domain, and one was here. It would be exciting if he thought he had the slimmest chance of catching a glimpse of the Dragon Lord.

"I'd like you to accompany me, as part of the Lord's retinue."

Cinder dropped his shovel. He stepped out of the stall and stared at her. "Are you mad?"

She tilted her head once more, like he was the one saying mad things. "No. Not at all."

He frowned. He almost thought this was a joke devised by one of his stepbrothers but he would have known if any of his stepbrothers had met a fairy, especially one as pretty as this one. They would have been crowing about it for weeks. So, not a joke then, at least not an obvious one.

"I can't go to the ball," he said, slowly and as clearly as possible. "I'm not nobility."

She took a step closer. He feared for the hem of her gown but it didn't seem to concern her. "You can if you're my guest."

The idea of it tempted him but practicality won out. "If they find out I'm not noble, they'll kill me."

"They would not dare dishonor me so. You will be safe under my protection."

That stumped him. There was only one thing he could say in response. "Why?"

The corners of her mouth curled up in an almost smile. "As a favor to your father."

Cinder's eyes widened. A thousand questions filled his head but they all got jammed up inside of him before they could make their way out his throat. He leaned on the lip of the stall for support. His knees seemed ready to give out at any second from shock.

She took another step closer. Her hand came up. He caught a glimpse of sharply manicured nails and worried for a moment that she was going to scratch him, but her touch was surprisingly gentle as she stroked his cheek. It felt weird to have someone's touch not cause pain. Her skin was cold and it left a faint chill on his cheek.

"He was an honorable man, your father. I mourned his loss. It would mean much to me if you would attend."

He didn't want to say no but he had to. "I'm afraid I can't. I have too much work to do. My stepmother will never let me go."

A real smile appeared on her face. There was a hint of mischief in it, matched by the sudden sparkle in her eye. He had a feeling that he would be going to the ball, no matter how impossible that sounded. "I will see to it that your family doesn't notice your absence."

"But my chores..."

"Will be done on time."

"I don't have anything to wear."

"I will provide for you."

He opened his mouth but try as he might, he couldn't think of any more excuses. If he was honest with himself, really honest, he wanted to go. How many opportunities did someone like him have to go to a fancy party? It was like something out of a storybook.

He sighed and nodded. "Alright. As long as my chores are done and I won't get in trouble for it, I'll go."

"Wonderful." She leaned forward and kissed him lightly on the cheek. It felt like someone had pressed ice to his skin. Even after she'd pulled away, he could still feel the press of her lips, like a cold brand. She smiled widely. "I'll see you tomorrow night."

One of the horses whinnied. Cinder turned to see what had startled it but there was nothing there and all of the horses seemed calm, despite the outburst. When he turned back, Narenne was gone.

There was something weird going on in the house. The cook didn't need his help that morning. Sometime between the butler setting the dishes in the sink and Cinder coming in to wash them, they'd already been cleaned and stacked in neat, spotless stacks. He walked through the halls with a soapy bucket only to find the floors damp and scrubbed everywhere he went. There wasn't a spot of dust in sight.

He still had to deal with Edward cornering him in the stables and bending him over a bucket, but even that was over in record time and with a minimal amount of bruising.

No one else seemed to notice anything amiss so Cinder kept his mouth shut and thanked his good fortune. When his stepmother called him into the parlor just before supper, he expected her to comment on the strange cleanliness of the house, but she was distracted by a letter.

"Cinder, there you are," she said without looking up. "My new boots are in. We can't spare the horses, so you'll have to walk to town to fetch them. The cobbler knows to expect you. Be back by morning."

It was too good of a coincidence. Cinder hesitated, feeling as if he should at least warn his stepmother that there was magic affecting the house, but that feeling lasted only a second. It wasn't bad magic, at least not that he'd seen, and none of the people in the house would have given him the same courtesy of a warning. No, better to take the excuse that was given and make his escape.

She didn't even notice as he murmured a quick "yes, ma'am" and bowed out of the room.

Town was a good ten miles away. Walking that far alone and unarmed, especially when it would be getting dark soon, could be quite dangerous. The road wound through a good deal of forest. Wolves weren't unheard of and highway men, while bold to stray this close to the capital, were still a worry. He didn't like the idea of walking in the dark, but at least it gave him an excuse to be out all evening and it was better than doing chores.

Cinder didn't get many chances to leave the house. He changed into his cleanest pair of pants and shirt, pulled on the closest he had to a sturdy pair of boots – only a few holes in the sides but at least the soles were intact – and set out. The air had a crisp, clean scent to it, like it was welcoming him outdoors. He felt the constant tension that lived inside of him ease as soon as he stepped past the gate.

Outside, he could almost pretend he was free. Not for the first time, he wished he could just keep walking – past the town, past the castle, past everything he'd ever known and on to a new life. It was a grand dream, but nothing more. His father may have married above his station but his stepmother had made it quite clear that Cinder was a commoner and that his presence in her house was only tolerated due to his continued servitude. If he tried to leave, she'd have him hunted down and claim that he was indentured. It would be his word against hers and he knew how that would go.

He heard horses approaching as he neared the mill, just after dusk. He glanced backwards, squinting in the gloom. There were three horses galloping towards him. Cinder ran off the road as far as he could and ducked behind a low stone wall. His stepbrothers' laughter made him shrink down further as they raced past. Thankfully they didn't stop to harass him. After a few minutes had passed and the sound of their horses faded in the distance, Cinder finally ventured from behind the wall.

The dark gloom of the forest loomed ahead. Cinder hated going in the forest. Every twig snapping made him jump, his heart lodging in his chest as he waited for someone to jump out and gut him. As the dark shadows of the forest gathered around him, he wished he'd been allowed a lantern. He was only able to follow the road because of how wide it was, an obvious clearing in between dark stretches of forest crowding in on either side.

He reached the first bend in the road. The mill and relative safety of the tree line were cut from sight. Darkness stretched out ahead of him, miles worth of darkness. He quickened his pace, switching from a walk to a light jog. The sound of his footsteps muffled the initial approach of the carriage. He heard it almost too late to get out of the way. The sharp exhale of a horse behind him warned him just in time to jump off the road. He nearly collided with a tree. The carriage made little sound as it rolled up behind him.

A glowing white carriage rolled up to him and then, inexplicably, stopped. It was drawn by four white horses but there was no driver that he could see, nor any reigns. The carriage was an equally strange affair, rounded on top and sides and reminding him of a pumpkin in shape. There was a small round door with a blue crystalline window. It swung open seconds after the carriage stopped and a familiar head appeared.

"Come in," Narenne said. Diamonds swung from her neck and ears as she leaned forward, glittering even in the gloom. It seemed as if there was light coming from her and the carriage. Maybe it was just his perception, now that he wasn't alone, but the forest didn't seem nearly as dark as it had before.

He climbed into the carriage hesitantly. He was reluctant to sit, sure his clothes would dirty the fine blue cloth lining the seats, but she waved him to sit opposite her. There was no driver inside either or sign of any mechanism to signal the horses, and yet the carriage slid smoothly into motion as soon as the door shut.

"Thank you," he said, meaning more than just the carriage ride.

She inclined her head and smiled, her lips forming a thin red line. "Were your chores all done?"

"Yes. How did you..."

She ignored his question and asked one of her own. "And your stepmother will not notice you are gone?"

"Yes, but..."

She smiled wider and pressed a finger to her lips. He obediently stopped talking. "Your obligations have been cleared and thus, you may attend the ball, as I promised."

Cinder wasn't sure he wanted to know how she'd accomplished all that with the household none the wiser. "I still have to get my stepmother's boots."

Narenne reached beside her and lifted a box he hadn't noticed before. She held it out to him. Inside was a pair of women's boots. He wasn't sure he wanted to know how she'd acquired them.

"I'm still not dressed properly."

"All in good time."

Silence stretched between them. There were a thousand questions Cinder wanted to ask but it seemed rude to just blurt them all out. He wasn't sure what was proper in a situation like this. The only lady he'd ever met was his stepmother and she had a whole world of rules unique to her. If Narenne though him impertinent, it wasn't reflected in her countenance. She seemed calm and strangely pleased.

After several long minutes had passed, he ventured a question. "How did you know my father?"

Her bright blue eyes regarded him evenly. "We met when he travelled to my homeland."

His father had told him of fairies, but never that he'd actually met them. Cinder had always assumed his father had been relaying stories he'd heard in his travels. He wondered what other things his father had seen firsthand and never told him.

"Did you know him well?"

Her smile shifted into an almost smirk. "Well enough. He was an interesting man. He stayed with us for two summers before he moved on. Did he never tell you of his visit?"

Cinder shook his head. "No. He died when I was young, and he was never home much. He enjoyed travelling. More than he enjoyed having a family, perhaps." He couldn't help the bitterness that crept into his voice. He loved his father, he truly had, but there was still a part of him that wished his father had made different choices, that things had turned out differently.

"He was but a man. That is all we can ask of him."

Cinder stared at Narenne. He wondered if her magic allowed her to read his mind. Her response seemed too well timed to be a coincidence. If she read that thought, she made no sign of it.

The carriage slowed to a halt long before it should. The castle was still a good distance away by his reckoning. Narenne stood and the door swung open without her touching it. She descended from the carriage as easily as if she were stepping off a stool, in the carriage one moment and then on the ground in one graceful movement. There was a strange path cut through the woods behind her, a path that he was certain did not belong in the forest. It was made of tiny stones and it glowed, much like Narenne and the carriage.

She held out her hand. "Come. We must see you dressed."

Cinder took her hand and stepped out of the carriage.

The path had led to a gazebo and in the gazebo he had found a suit, all in white with diamonds sewn in to match her dress. He had protested – the clothes were too fine for a commoner like him – but she had insisted, and now that they were at the ball, he was glad that he had accepted. A glittering white mask covered the top half of his face. He was glad for its presence, because it meant he could pretend that he almost belonged among the crowded display of finery. There were so many people and they all looked amazing. He almost pitied his stepbrothers, for their clothes paled in comparison to most of the people here.

Several eyes turned towards them as they walked through the doors into the main hall. Narenne squeezed his arm lightly. It was reassuring, but not enough that he didn't still worry that someone was going to call him out for being a servant among nobility. A whisper spread through the crowd as more eyes turned towards them and he was sure, just sure, that everyone in the hall knew who he was.

Narenne turned and smiled. Her cold lips brushed against his ear. "They're admiring you, dear. Be at ease."

He didn't believe it, but the absurdity of the statement – that someone would admire him – did help him relax. He let a bit of the tension ease from his body. They passed through the hall at a steady pace. Narenne flowed through the room without acknowledging any of those gathered. Several people tried to call Narenne's attention but she ignored them as if they weren't even there. They skirted the edge of the dance floor and stayed well away from where the King – oh, gods, he was in the presence of the King – and Queen sat on their thrones overlooking the dancers. Cinder breathed a sigh of relief as they moved out of the hall and onto the patio.

They didn't stop there, among the milling conversations, but instead continued further into the grounds, down a set of stairs to the lawn and then towards a tall, perfectly trimmed wall of hedge with an arched opening. Glistening balls of light hung at the entrance to the hedge though there didn't seem to be any mechanism to support them. A handsome man with pointed ears stood to the right of the door. Cinder's brain belatedly made the connection. Handsome man. Pointed ears. Elf. That was an elf right there and Cinder longed to talk to him, but he didn't think it would be proper. The elf gave Narenne a polite nod and then went back to standing at attention.

They stopped at the entrance and Cinder stared in wonder up at the softly glowing light. Narenne's hand settled on his lower back, pushing him gently forward. "Go. This is the party you were meant to see. I will find you when it is time to leave and know that, no matter what happens, in there you are never in danger."

Cinder glanced over his shoulder at her. He wanted to ask what she meant but his body moved forward of its own accord. Green walls of hedge rose up to either side. He was able to stop once he was a few steps in but Narenne and the entrance were both gone when he turned back, the way out sealed off by hedge as if it had never been there. The only way left to go was forward.

The hedge came to a T not too far along. He took the right branch and followed it around. It branched off a few more times, leading him in a twisting maze that seemed to have no end. Faint giggling carried through the hedge in places. There were strange muffled noises and once, what sounded like a moan. He heard voices in parts but the words were indistinguishable. It was obvious that there were other people in the maze but no matter how far he walked, he didn't see anyone. After about ten minutes, the path opened up into a small clearing. A ring of stone benches surrounded a low fountain. The sound of flowing water filled the clearing with a sense of calm. Large pots of flowers sat in the corners of the square clearing and there was another path leading off from the other side.

Cinder sat on one of the benches and stared at the fountain. He knew Narenne wanted him to join whatever party was hiding in here, but it was so rare that he got a chance to be alone, to just sit and rest and not have to worry about his stepbrothers or his overwhelming list of chores. Water jumped up from the otherwise still pool at the base of the fountain, looping and swirling with the jets streaming out from the ornately carved statue in the center. There was magic in this too. Normal water didn't move like that.

"Fascinating, isn't it?"

Cinder jumped and turned, instinctively backing away from the sudden voice. The back of his foot hit the base of the fountain. He nearly tripped and fell but before he could there were strong arms around him, holding him up. Cinder stared up into deep green eyes and a plain green mask. The stranger lingered in the embrace far longer than necessary. Cinder wasn't entirely sure if he minded. His skin felt cold as the stranger pulled away, allowing Cinder to stand on his own. He longed to feel the warmth of the stranger's skin against his own once more.

"My apologies for startling you," the man said. He had an easy smile, visible below his mask. He looked like the kind of man who smiled a lot. There were gray streaks in his hair, though his body, or at least the shape of it in his tight-fitting green suit, seemed younger than his hair suggested.

Cinder shook his head. "No. I'm sorry. Thank you for helping me. I don't know what I would have done had-" Cinder cut himself off. He'd almost voiced his worry about getting the fine clothes Narenne had lent him wet, but a noble wouldn't be worried about that. A noble would own the clothes he wore.

The stranger hadn't gone far after releasing Cinder. He still stood much closer than propriety deemed polite, barely more than a hands width away. "Are you here with anyone?"

He nodded. "I'm here with Narenne."

The stranger tilted his head. "How strange. She doesn't usually bring guests. Since she appears to have wandered, would you like some company until she returns?"

Cinder hesitated. He'd been enjoying the solitude, but something about the stranger – so unlike in demeanor than his stepbrothers – made him reluctant to turn the man away. He nodded slowly, unsure of what to say.

The stranger grinned and settled onto the stone bench Cinder had just vacated. He patted the open space next to him, a clear invitation. Cinder settled stiffly on the bench, acutely aware of the man's proximity. Once they were settled, the stranger turned to him and spoke again. "Are you a friend of Narenne's?"

He wasn't sure if he could consider Narenne a friend. She was nice to him, exceedingly nice, but they'd only just met. "She knew my father. Do you know her too?"

The stranger smiled. "I'm travelling with her."

Cinder's eyes widened. His gaze moved over the strange man. There was nothing odd about him, nothing to suggest he was anything other than a human like Cinder. He supposed it wasn't too strange to run into another person who knew fairies here. For all he knew, fairies travelled amongst the nobility often. "That must be marvelous. I can only imagine the things you've seen."

The stranger grinned and turned more fully towards Cinder. "You don't travel much?"

He shook his head. "No. Never. I..." He hesitated. His face flushed. He shouldn't keep speaking, shouldn't keep taking up the man's time but there was something about him that made Cinder eager to talk. Perhaps it was just how nice he was. It had been so long since he'd had people be nice to him, and here he'd met two in such a short time. "I wanted to travel once, like my father had, but then things..." He frowned and stared down at his hands, clenched on top of his knees. "Things changed."

The stranger's hand settled over Cinder's. Warmth spread from the touch. It made him feel better in a tiny way, like a small flame of hope had been lit inside of him. The stranger pressed close to his side. The heat of his body was an almost palatable force. Cinder wanted to lean into it but he didn't dare.

"Maybe one day you'll get to travel." The stranger's voice was pitched low.

Cinder laughed. It was a bitter sound, cutting through the intimacy in the air. His stomach clenched and he turned his face away before tears could threaten. "No. That won't happen."

He could feel the stranger's breath on his neck. "You never know what fate has in store."

"I know what it has for me."

"Then let me offer you comfort, that it may rekindle your hope for the future."

He flinched as the stranger's hand touched his face. He expected pain – he always expected pain when a man touched him – but none came. The stranger gently turned Cinder's face towards him. Cinder didn't look up. He wasn't quite sure he could face the stranger, not when it was obvious what he wanted. If he looked, his fear might overtake him and Cinder didn't want that.

Warm fingers traced over his cheekbone and down his jaw to stroke his neck. He closed his eyes as the stranger's lips met his, soft and supple. It was barely a kiss – too light and too gentle to really count. It was enough for Cinder to know he wanted more.

The way the stranger touched him was so different from what he was used to. The stranger's hands were like ghosts on his skin, barely felt, and yet they warmed him. They made him want to relax and give in. He could pull away if he wanted. There was nothing holding him here, nothing forcing him. He stayed. He wanted to see, just this once, what it was like when he wasn't being forced.

Cinder reached out slowly, his hand tentatively breeching the space between them to press against the stranger's chest. The fabric of his coat was soft like fur. Cinder slid his hand over to the gap in the man's coat and slipped his fingers inside. He could feel the warmth of the stranger's skin through the thin layer of his shirt. He was as warm as Narenne was cold. Cinder wondered if all of the stranger's body was that warm.

They shifted closer. Cinder tilted his head up, asking but not connecting. He couldn't bring himself to do that on his own. The stranger took care of that for him. Their lips met a second time, and this kiss was as good as the first. Better, even, since it came with the stranger's warm body pressed against Cinder's. He shivered, not from fear but from want. How long had it been since he'd dared to want something?

The stranger pressed closer. His mouth opened beneath Cinder's. A wet tongue pressed against Cinder's lips and he opened, allowing it inside. He felt the heat of the stranger spread through his mouth, as if he'd taken a large swallow of warm tea, and he liked it. He moaned and then was instantly embarrassed by it but the stranger didn't seem to mind. Quite the opposite. One of the stranger's hands settled on Cinder's thigh and squeezed, not enough to hurt, but enough that felt heat pool in his groin.

It all felt so amazing and yet so chaste. He'd never been touched like that. It was never gentle for him, never kind. His stepbrothers never kissed him, never even tried, for which he was incredibly grateful. Cinder hadn't realized how much pleasure there could be had in a kiss. He felt like he was melting, like the core of him was liquefying, shifting into something new and different.

He wanted more. He shifted, rising up on the bench and turning. He straddled the stranger's lap and felt an intense thrill of pleasure as the stranger's strong hands gripped his backside, squeezing tight and pulling him down hard against the stranger's hips. He gasped. A sharp spike of terror washed through him at the display of force but it was gone as quickly as it came, washed away by the insistent press of the stranger's lips. He rolled his hips and was pleased to feel the hard weight of the stranger's cock rub against his own.

Those strong arms circled his waist once more and then he was being lifted, turned, pressed down on the stone bench. The stranger's heavy weight settled on top of him. Panic stabbed through him, chasing away all the pleasure of the moment. He tensed and pushed at the stranger's chest. He couldn't breathe. This was how it always started with his stepbrothers – being held down and forced – and he couldn't breathe. He trembled, waiting for the pain to come, but the weight on his chest lifted instead. The stranger pulled back, not far but enough that Cinder could feel the cool air on his face. He breathed deeply and tried to will his body to still but it wouldn't listen to him, it just kept shaking and he couldn't make it stop.

"Shh," the stranger crooned. His lips brushed over Cinder's forehead. "It's okay. I won't hurt you."

He tried to respond but his voice failed him. Tears pricked at the corners of his eyes. He couldn't get his mouth to work so he nodded instead. His hands clenched the front of the stranger's coat in hopes it kept him from leaving. He was being stupid, so stupid, but he couldn't help it. His body was trained to react certain ways. He didn't know how to act when those expectations – pain, violence, terror – weren't being met.

"It's okay." The stranger caressed his face. If he minded how Cinder was acting, he didn't show it. "Are you okay?"

He nodded, though that was partially a lie.

The stranger's fingers brushed over his lips. "May I?"

He squeezed his eyes shut and nodded again. It was always easier with his eyes closed.

The stranger's breath ghosted over his cheek, giving him a moment's warning before their lips connected. This kiss was just as gentle as the first, not demanding, not pressuring, and the tenderness felt there made some of the tension in Cinder's body unwind. He opened his mouth without being asked, encouraging the stranger on. His body slowly settled back over Cinder's, pressing down but not too hard. It wasn't as scary the second time. He could deal with this. He could handle it. He kept repeating that thought to himself, over and over in his head.

Hands slid down his body, first over the flat plane of his chest, then up his sides, and then down again, this time taking his shirt buttons with it. He barely felt the cool air on his skin as the fabric fell open. He felt it even less as the stranger's lips moved down, pressing kisses across his jaw and over his throat and then following the open path laid for him down Cinder's chest. Cinder gasped. His body arched up from the stone, rising to meet the stranger's lips.

Then the stranger slid off the bench entirely. Cinder made a noise of disproval deep in his throat but it changed to a startled gasp as he felt the stranger's hands on his belt buckle. He reached up, setting his hand on top of the one unfastening his belt, and then hesitated there. Neither of them moved. Cinder lifted his head just enough to see the stranger kneeling at the base of the bench, his expression as even as it always was.

He took his hand away. The stranger smiled at him and opened Cinder's pants, exposing Cinder's growing erection to the open air. He kept smiling as he leaned forward, mouth opening. Hot breath surrounded Cinder's flesh and then he was in the stranger's mouth, swallowed by him. Cinder shouted, his voice sounding far too loud against the stillness of the clearing but he couldn't help it. He'd never felt anything like that, like he was being wrapped in warmth and comfort. Then the stranger moved and Cinder was certain he was going to come undone. He clenched his hands at his sides, not sure what to do with them and not wanting to reach for the stranger and risk upsetting his mask.

The stranger took that problem away from him. He released Cinder's cock and moved up, kneeling over Cinder once more. "Do you trust me?" His eyes seemed to be piercing straight through Cinder.

There was only one way he could answer. He nodded and didn't fight it when the stranger took Cinder's wrists in a gentle grip, pulling them up over Cinder's head and off the edge of the bench. Fear coursed through him and he shoved it down. Just this once he wanted things to turn out okay, but they couldn't do that if he didn't give the stranger a chance to prove Cinder's trust was well deserved.

For a second Cinder wasn't sure what the stranger was doing. He couldn't really do much from his current position and it seemed a strange way to hold Cinder down. Then something tickled at his fingers and slid up the back of his hand. He turned his head to the side. His eyes widened as several thin green vines reached up out of what had been empty ground and curled loosely around and between his wrists. Once they were fully around his wrists, they tightened, effectively securing his arms above his head. The stranger let go and slid back to the opposite end of the bench. Cinder tugged on his arms but the vines held firm.

"Does that hurt?"

"No." The vines held him tightly but there was a softness to them, almost like silk. He was trapped but it didn't hurt. Panic hovered at the back of his mind. He told himself it'd be okay. He would be okay. The stranger had said he wouldn't hurt Cinder and Cinder believed him.

"Ask and you will be free."

He nodded, not trusting his voice to give the answer he wanted. If he opened his mouth, he knew he'd ask to be let go. Part of him – the part of him that wasn't currently on the edge of panic – wanted to see where this would go. He wanted to know if the stranger really didn't intend to hurt him.

"Thank you," the stranger said, and then bent back over Cinder's body.

Cinder moaned as his cock was enveloped in warm, wet heat once more. He felt helpless with the way he was tied down and yet, for once, the person taking advantage of him while he was helpless wasn't using the opportunity to hurt him. It felt wonderful and thrilling and terrifying all at the same time.

Hands slid under his hips, lifting him higher into the stranger's mouth and also making room for his pants to come down. The fabric was pulled away to pool around his ankles and then the hands shifted, removing first one shoe, then the other, then divesting him of all the clothing on the lower half of his body. His skin prickled as a cool breeze brushed over him. He shivered. Seconds later, the stranger's hands were on him, rubbing over his skin and warming him. His legs were pulled up over the stranger's shoulders.

Cinder gasped as he felt a wet finger press against his entrance. The stranger sucked Cinder deep into his mouth. Cinder's head rolled back and he groaned, wanton and loud. The finger slid inside of him and he was undone. He shouted as he came, stars filling his eyes as he emptied himself into the stranger's mouth. The finger pressed further in, working its way into him all through his orgasm. A second finger joined the first and he nearly came a second time as they brushed over the sensitive spot inside of him.

The stranger was watching him. Cinder let his head loll to the side and stared back as best he could. His eyelids kept threatening to drift closed but he couldn't sleep, not with the stranger's fingers still working inside of him, keeping him wound tight with pleasure. There was a smile on the stranger's face, a small secretive smile that Cinder wanted to own and keep just for himself.

He let his legs fall open as the stranger rose up from the ground to straddle the bench. His pants were open, giving Cinder a good look at the stranger's thick, glistening cock. Cinder moaned. He could already imagine how that would feel inside of him and he wanted it. For the first time in his life, he actually wanted someone inside of him and he was going to get it.

The stranger lifted Cinder's hips, positioning their bodies together. He leaned forward, tilting towards Cinder and then his hips snapped up, forcing his way into Cinder in one sharp thrust. It was warm. So warm and it was inside of him, filling him. Cinder gasped but he wasn't the only one. There was another, similar sound near the edge of the clearing and he turned his head sharply towards it.

There were people standing around the edges of the clearing. Beautiful, gorgeous people. Some had wings, some had pointed ears, and some had tails. Some were quite obviously not human at all, not even the slightest and they were watching him, watching them. They were watching the stranger fuck him. Many were plainly aroused. Some were touching each other, but all of them, every last one of them, was riveted to Cinder and the stranger.

"Don't look at them." The stranger's hand turned his head, even as his hips kept pumping. Cinder wondered how long the crowd had been there. Judging by the stranger's expression, he'd known all along. His erection showed no sign of flagging and his pace stayed even, not slowing nor quickening. It would have been maddening if Cinder hadn't already come. It still was, in a small way, but it felt good too. The stranger seemed entirely in control of what they were doing, and that helped reassure Cinder somewhat.

Then the stranger leaned over him, pushing their bodies even tighter together and taking Cinder's mouth in a deep kiss. He forgot all about the spectators. There was only the mysterious stranger and the hard stone bench beneath his back and the vines holding him down and the stranger's warm weight pressing down and inside of him. He breathed into the thin space between them, chased the stranger's mouth when they parted, which was never for long. His legs wrapped around the stranger's hips.

Through it all was the building sensation of fullness, like he was complete for the first time in his life, no longer wanting. Warmth spread through him. It built up in his mouth and his chest and his groin, spreading out and pooling deep in his belly. The stranger's pace never faltered, never changed. His hips rolled into Cinder, as sure and relentless as ocean waves washing upon the shore. Cinder surrendered to the rhythm, let his body rise and fall in time with the stranger's and then it was over, far too soon.

He came with a sigh and melted against the bench. His legs fell away from the stranger's body. He no longer had strength to hold them there, but that was okay. The stranger had stilled and Cinder could feel the stranger's seed spilling from inside of him. They stayed that way for a long time, foreheads pressed together, bodies connected, breath evening. Then the stranger pulled out, stood up, and tucked himself away in his trousers. In seconds he went from roughed up to immaculate, as if nothing had ever happened. The wide grin on his face gave him away. He produced a handkerchief from his pocket and cleaned off Cinder's thighs before helping him back into his trousers. The vines were the last to fade away, slinking back into the ground almost reluctantly.

Cinder sat up on the bench and stared at his wrists. There were no marks there, no lingering pain. He hadn't been left with a single bruise. He was sore, but in a pleasant way, like after he'd been working too hard for too long.

They were alone again. He wasn't sure when the spectators had left but he was glad they had, for it meant this moment was his alone. The stranger sat next to him and placed a chaste kiss on Cinder's cheek. "You are magnificent," he said, his breath tickling Cinder's ear. Cinder blushed and turned his face slightly away to hide the flush. "Tell me your name."

He froze. Panic flooded him. He couldn't think. He couldn't move. His mouth hung open but no sound came out. He couldn't say it. He could lie but he didn't want to resort to dishonesty. No answer wasn't much better but it was the only answer he could give, not unless he wanted to die. Narenne may have promised her protection but she wasn't here.

Worst of all, he didn't think he could handle seeing the stranger's beautiful face marred with disgust as he learned the truth.

The stranger's fingers caressed his cheek and gently turned his face towards the stranger's. A look of concern had replaced the man's smile. "What is it?"

Cinder pulled back quickly, sliding off of the bench and taking two steps away before he'd even realized he was moving. "I..."

The stranger stood, but thankfully came no closer. He reached out, as if to pull Cinder back to him but the gesture only made Cinder take another step away. "Whatever it is, I promise it will be okay."

He shook his head. It wouldn't be okay. This was a nice dream, but it wasn't his life. He was still a servant, even if he wore fancy clothing. He didn't belong here. "I'm sorry," he whispered. Confusion crossed the stranger's face as Cinder turned and fled.

As he ran through the hedge, he tried to tell himself that it was better this way, safer. He couldn't quite bring himself to believe it.

"This is all your fault. You made us look like fools."

Cinder looked up from sweeping the fireplace in time to see a foot flying towards his face. He brought his arm up to block the blow but it didn't help. Edward changed direction mid-kick, sending his foot into Cinder's side. Cinder bit his lip to muffle a groan as he went tumbling to the side, ashes spilling across the floor as the bucket was knocked over.

A second kick followed the first, knocking the wind out of him and forcing tears from his eyes. He whimpered and put his arms over his head as Edward kicked him again and again. What had he done wrong? He hadn't messed up any of his chores, he was sure of that. He wanted to run but that would only make Edward angrier. He had no choice but to take it.

Edward stomped down on Cinder's leg. There was a loud snap and he screamed in pain. Fingers twisted in his hair, yanking his head up and back sharply. His face was a mess with tears. Edward liked it that way. He couldn't stop the sob that ripped from him, nor the one that followed after. Once he started, he couldn't stop but that only made Edward more turned on.

Edward crouched down to Cinder's height. "You filthy little whore." His fingers twisted hard enough to pull out some of Cinder's hair. Spittle hit him in the face. "Do you have any idea what you've done?"

He tried to shake his head but Edward's grip didn't afford him much movement, not unless he wanted to rip his own hair out.

"Answer me!" Edward shouted, accompanying his words with a violent shake. Pain radiated up Cinder's leg, making it hard to think.

"N-no," he gasped out between sobs.

Edward slammed Cinder's face into the floor. He screamed and clenched his hands futilely against the stones. He hated this life, hated his stepbrothers, hated his stepmother, hated all of it, and his night at the ball only highlighted his despair. He would give anything to be able to live in that night, when the world had been kind and he could pretend he was loved.

"You made us look like fools." Edward ground Cinder's face into the stone. Blood filled his mouth with a coppery taste. He may have lost a tooth. This was going to be a bitch to clean.

"I don't... I..."

He shuddered as Edward pulled his face away from the stones. Cinder closed his eyes and tensed, waiting for the next blow.

"At the ball." Cinder's eyes flew open in shock. Edward knew. How did he know? Cinder was certain no one had recognized him. He hadn't even seen Edward there so how did he... "Do you have any idea how... how poor we looked in those threadbare clothes?" Edward spat the words like a curse. The tension in Cinder shifted. Edward didn't know. Cinder was safe, relatively. His secret was safe.

He realized too late that Edward expected a response. His head hit the stones again. Black and white spots filled his vision. He didn't make a sound that time, too stunned to scream. His voice wouldn't work but he kept trying, nonsense spilling from his lips until he finally got the words out. "Sorry. 'm sorry. So sorry."

"You'd better be." Edward's grip relaxed just a fraction, enough for Cinder to tell the worst of it was over. He heard Edward shift. Edward's free hand ran down his back and then slapped him hard on the thigh. "You're going to make it up to me, though, aren't you? You're going to take your punishment and then you're going to pay me back like the good little slut you are."

Cinder shuddered. He squeezed his eyes shut. He didn't want this. He didn't want any of this. "Yes, sir."

Edward's hands went away and for a brief, mad moment, he thought about running. It was too late to run. He could barely move and his injured leg wouldn't let him go far. Besides, he had nowhere to run to. More tears spilled as he heard Edward's belt come off.

"Get in position."

He sobbed again as he shifted, rising slowly to his knees, head down on the stone, hands limp by his head. Moving was sheer agony. His leg was a blaze of pain and his sides ached. He made it up through sheer will alone. The pain continued as he knelt there, never abating. His shirt was shoved up over his head and his pants yanked down to his knees, leaving him bare from neck to thigh. Edward stood. Cinder curled his hands into fists and waited for the first hit.

Edward's belt lashed across his back, marking a thick line of fire on his skin. He screamed against the stone floor but he dared not move. A second and third hit followed shortly after. His tears mixed with blood and ash on the floor. He lost count of how many times Edward hit him, lost his voice, lost track of everything but the pain. This was the core of his world – pain and suffering and endless agony. He only noticed the beating had stopped when Edward shoved his way inside, grunting like a boar as he took Cinder from behind.

Hopelessness washed over Cinder, momentarily taking away the pain and the fear and the humiliation. He felt lost and empty. He never should have gone to the ball. Before, he hadn't realized there was anything other than this life. Now that he knew, now that he'd experienced what life was like outside his family's home, it made this life seem all the worse.

He wasn't sure how much longer he could take it.

Cinder woke in a haze. He wasn't sure how exactly he'd managed to stumble to his room – as much as you could call the tiny space he'd cleared for himself at the back of the coal cellar a room – but he had, somehow, and cleaned the floor up as well. He remembered it like a dream. It was a dream he never, ever wanted to repeat.

He was distantly aware of the cold. There was often a draft in the cellar, strong enough in the winter that he often wondered if he was going to freeze to death, but it was summer now and it shouldn't be this cold. After the cold he noticed the touch and the two put together made a vague sort of sense.

Cinder turned his head slightly. It was resting on something softer than his pillow, and thicker too. He looked up at Narenne. She was watching him, her expression gentle and serene. One of her hands was carding through his hair. It felt nice and he was a little surprised that it didn't hurt. Everything was supposed to hurt. That was the rule of his life.

Cold radiated through him. He wasn't in pain anymore. That observation should concern him but it didn't. It barely registered. Was this what dying felt like?

"Why are you here?" He hadn't realize he'd spoken until he heard his own voice in the air.

Narenne smiled. Her hand never stopped its gentle motion. "To invite you to another ball."

"I can't." There was a reason he couldn't, why he shouldn't but it kept slipping away from him. He couldn't concentrate but that was okay.

"You will." Her words sounded like a promise.

"It will make things worse."

"It will make your life better."

He had no argument for that. He closed his eyes and let the cold wash over him. It pulled him into a deep slumber where he dreamed of princes who were dragons and castles of ice.

The household was in a tizzy for the week leading up to the ball. Auctioneers were in and out of the house as his stepmother sold off every last possession of his father's that she could find. He felt like his childhood was being ripped away, piece by piece. The house was stripped of everything that reminded him of his family, and in turn it lost all recognition of home. Now it was just his stepmother's house, filled with people he hated.

His stepbrothers bought fancier outfits, more in line with the glitter and glamour that Cinder had seen at the last ball but their suits still paled in comparison to several of the outfits he'd seen. At least Edward couldn't call these outfits threadbare, but Cinder was sure his stepbrothers would find some way to fault him if they weren't well received at the next ball.

He was less surprised this time when his chores were done for him the day of the ball. His surprise had been worn up when he'd woken the day after Edward's punishment to find his injuries completely healed and a trail of frost on his pillow. He checked over the house as quickly as possible and gave the stable an extra-thorough cleaning since he had nothing better to do. His stepmother found him there mid-afternoon. She hovered outside the doorway, eyeing the ground inside the stable as if it were covered in snakes.

"Prepare the carriage. We've been invited to stay at my cousin's for the weekend." Her eyes narrowed and she poked her closed fan in his general direction. "We does not mean you. You're to stay here and keep the house in order. If I find but one thing out of place when we get back, it'll be your hide."

"Yes, ma'am."

He saw them off with no small sense of relief. The cook and butler saw no need to be in the house if the family was gone, so they went home shortly after his stepmother and stepbrothers were off.

Cinder couldn't remember the last time he'd had the house to himself. He made himself a small dinner, using scraps from lunch that the cook wouldn't miss. Shortly after sunset, he heard a carriage draw up. He hurried to his feet, expecting to find his stepmother returned but instead it was Narenne's glittering white carriage. The door stood open.

Once again she drove him to that path in the forest, where he found another outfit, more beautiful than anything he could imagine and tailored as if it were made for him alone. It reminded him of a bird, with long trailing sleeves and tails and a pattern in blue and green swirled like feathers. The party was in full swing when they arrived. They sailed through the main hall once more, but instead of heading out to the gardens again, Narenne led him into the halls of the castle. They wound their way deep into the castle, down and around until they were surely in the heart of it.

A fairy in gold stood guard outside a thick metal door. He nodded to Narenne as they approached and pulled the door open. It creaked on its hinges. Hushed voices carried from inside the room but it was too dark to make out details. Narenne detached from his arm and nudged him through the door with a gentle push on his back. Cinder stumbled forward. He glanced back at Narenne. The door closed behind him.

It was dark. He wasn't sure what part of the castle he was in, but he was definitely underground. Dim light flickered in from the doorways lining the hall. He could vaguely make out the shape of the openings. Some were closed, with only tiny squares of light at head height to signal a doorway, others were wide open, spilling faint shafts of light from inside. Giggling came from further down the hall.

He glanced to the side, to the first open doorway, and then quickly looked away. That room was occupied and judging from the way the masked man moved behind the lady's skirts, Cinder had no desire to stay and observe. He made his way down the hallway, sparing only brief glances for the open rooms. There was something peculiar about the doors. They were made of a thick, heavy metal, with an open slot along the bottom of the door and a small, barred window near the top. He glanced at the next open room where a woman was shackled to the wall and suddenly it all made sense.

Cinder's chest tightened. He turned, ready to run out of the hallway, out of the dungeon, but there was someone in his path. A bit of the tightness eased, only to be replaced with a different kind of anxiety.

"We meet again." The stranger in green smiled. His suit was slightly more ornate this time and his mask was patterned to look like scales.

Cinder forced a return smile but it was wan. He was glad to see the man again, really he was, but he very much did not want to be here. It reminded him far too intimately of what would happen if his identity were ever discovered.

"Greetings," he offered with what he hoped was a respectful enough bow.

The stranger waved a hand. "None of that. We have no station behind our masks." He stepped closer, moving into Cinder's personal space, a bit too close for comfort. "I trust you've been well since our last meeting." The stranger's fingers, ever so gentle, almost achingly so, brushed along his cheek. "I wasn't too rough on you."

Cinder laughed. He couldn't help it. It was all so absurd. There was a handsome man who was kind to him and he was worried that tying Cinder down was too rough. His face ached in memory of where it'd been scraped against stone the other day. Tears threatened and he turned away to compose himself, wiping frantically at his eyes with the corner of his sleeve.

"I offended you?"

Cinder glanced over at the stranger. There was real concern in his voice, like he was honestly worried about Cinder's opinion. He shook his head. "No. Not at all. That was..." He hesitated. It sounded so foolish to admit it in words, especially to the stranger's face, but he felt he needed to, if only to banish the concern in the stranger's expression. "It was the best night of my life. Honestly."

A wide smile bloomed across the stranger's mouth and he looked ten times handsomer for it. Cinder felt a small part of himself melt at that look. He wanted to do anything for that man, just so he could make him smile like that forever.

"Good." The stranger stepped forward again and settled his hand on Cinder's face. "I was worried. You left so hurriedly and I admit I find myself quite enamored. I was afraid you didn't care for my... proclivities."

He raised an eyebrow. "Proclivities?"

"With the vines."

"Oh." Cinder felt his face heat and turned away once more. The stranger was watching him now with a new intensity. All of Cinder's desire to flee died with that look. "No, it was... different. But good. Just quite different than what I'm used to."

The stranger's fingers trailed down his throat to stroke along the hollow of it. His eyes never left Cinder's face. "Would you care to indulge in another of my proclivities?"

Cinder hesitated. There was a chance that he wouldn't like whatever the stranger had in mind. It might hurt. He considered it for several minutes but the prospect of pain didn't seem as bad with the stranger. They'd built up a small amount of trust from their last encounter. The stranger had had Cinder completely defenseless and he hadn't taken advantage of it. Instead he'd given Cinder the best sex of his life. He could deal with a bit of pain in exchange for that.

He nodded. The stranger grinned. His hand settled on the small of Cinder's back and he gestured ahead of them. "Excellent. I had something prepared, on the off chance that you would return."

The stranger had been expecting him? Pleasure spread through him at the thought and he wished, hopelessly, that this wouldn't be the last time he saw the stranger. He wanted more than a single night could offer.

At the end of the hall was another thick metal door. The stranger pulled it open as if it weighed nothing and gestured Cinder through. Inside was a large wooden table lined with an assortment of leather buckles and straps. There were large metal loops fixed to the leather, more on some pieces than on others. A pair of benches lined the side walls with shackles above them. Opposite the table was another of the thick metal doors, but there was no window on that door.

The stranger closed the outer door behind him. He turned to face Cinder with a serious expression. "Can you be obedient to me?"

The sudden change in the atmosphere confused Cinder but he went with it and nodded. It was second nature to him to be obedient. Any shred of resistance he may have once had had been beaten out of him long ago.

The stranger took a step towards Cinder. "Subservient?"

He nodded again. If only the stranger knew how close to home he was hitting.

The stranger took another step, closing the distance between them. "Can you give up your will to me?"

He hesitated. It sounded too much like the life he wanted to escape, yet at the same time it felt different. It felt like it was more than just being a servant. Like the stranger wanted to own him. His skin tingled at the idea and he shifted in an attempt to mask the beginnings of an erection.

"Yes," he said with no hesitation in his voice.

The stranger looked pleased and that alone was enough to make Cinder not regret his answer. "Take off your clothes."

Cinder blushed but complied. He stripped off the finery piece by piece, folding each article neatly and setting it on one of the benches. He hesitated with his fingers on his mask and glanced at the stranger, who shook his head. Cinder left it on. When he was done he returned to stand in front of the stranger, well and truly exposed.


The stone was cold against his bare knees. In a few minutes, it would start to hurt. He shivered as memories of getting caught in Donovan's room invaded his mind.

"Shh." The stranger's hand was in his hair, carding through it like Narenne had done days ago. He looked up, half expecting to see Donovan there instead of the stranger. The stranger was watching him, his expression soft. "If at any point you want me to stop, I will. Just say 'red' and it's over."

Cinder frowned. He wasn't sure if he could believe that. There was no way the stranger would stop in the heat of the moment. Men couldn't just shut off like that.

The stranger smiled softly. "I promise. No matter what, I will stop. I don't want to push you beyond what you're comfortable with."

He swallowed around the sudden lump in his throat. He wanted to trust so badly but he was afraid that his trust would be betrayed. This was the one good thing in his life and he wanted it to stay that way.

He only had one night. He could afford to trust a little. The stranger had shown before that he could be trusted.

Cinder nodded. He licked his lips. The stranger's eyes hungrily followed the movement of Cinder's tongue. "Okay."

"Thank you." The stranger leaned down and placed a kiss on Cinder's forehead. After he pulled away, he turned to the table and picked up one of the leather pieces arranged there. "Tilt your head forward."

Cinder did as commanded. The leather slid around his throat, closing tight but not enough to choke. He shivered as he felt the buckle close.

"Left hand." He extended his arm for the stranger to put another leather band around his wrist. "Right hand." He switched arms. Another piece of leather circled his wrist. "Arms at your sides." He obediently dropped his hands. The stranger knelt behind him and Cinder felt more leather closing around his ankles. "Follow me."

He stood, glad to be off of the stone floor, and followed the stranger through the door into a larger room filled with a variety of equipment. None of it looked pleasant. He hesitated for a step and then forced himself to keep going further into the room, shying closer to the stranger as if he would protect Cinder from the implements around them. Whips and chains hung along the wall with swords and knives and curved needles and spiked implements. He shuddered and kept his gaze firmly on the floor lest he lose his nerve.

They stopped beside a wooden apparatus that appeared partially like a sawhorse. It had one wooden beam going horizontally with an A fame supporting either end, and then another beam that stuck out perpendicular from the center of the horizontal beam, which was secured to the ground by a thick post. Two wings extended from the middle of the perpendicular beam, rising up like a wide pair of horns. Small metal hooks and thin strips of chain hung from seemingly random intervals along the beams. The stranger gripped Cinder by the hips, positioning him in front of the horizontal beam.


Cinder shivered at the command in the stranger's voice. His cock twitched in anticipation. The stranger moved towards the side of the room and grabbed a coil of rope from a hook on the wall. His footsteps echoed ominously in the large room. When he returned, he tied the loose end of the rope to the loop of metal at the front of Cinder's collar. The stranger touched Cinder's back, guiding him forward until he was bent over the apparatus, his chest resting on the perpendicular beam.

The stranger pulled the free end of the rope through a metal ring set in the floor, drawing it tight enough that it dragged Cinder's head slightly towards the floor. He looped the rope once through the ring and then walked behind Cinder. His feet were pulled wide apart and fastened to either end of the sawhorse. The stranger's hand roamed over Cinder's ass as he passed and then he was walking to the front again. Cinder's hands were pulled up and back, tied to each of the wings. The rope was tied off and the stranger walked around to Cinder's front to admire his handiwork.

Fingers pressed against Cinder's lips, teasing along his mouth for a moment before pressing in. Cinder sucked obediently without being told, earning him one of the stranger's pleased smiles.

"You look gorgeous like this, you know, all stretched out and helpless. I hardly know where to start." His eyes were fixed on Cinder's mouth and the play of Cinder's lips over the fingers twisting and sliding inside his mouth. Cinder moaned as he imagined what it would be like to have the stranger in his mouth. The stranger licked his lips and dropped a hand to his buckle. "But I suppose you have an idea."

The stranger was half hard when he pulled himself out of his pants. Cinder moaned as he remembered how good the stranger's cock had felt inside of him. He wanted that again. He wanted everything. He would have fallen to his knees then and there if he wasn't tied down. Thankfully, the stranger wasn't inclined to deny him. He took a step forward and pressed his warm flesh against Cinder's mouth. Cinder opened gratefully and swallowed.

He'd never given a proper blowjob before. With his stepbrothers, it was just something to be endured, but he wasn't enduring it now. He closed his lips and let his tongue explore, running his tongue along the new flesh and tasting the stranger on his lips. He didn't have much leeway to move his mouth. He tried as best he could but it was barely more than a subtle shift. The stranger took the hint and started pumping his hips, slow and steady.

"You're amazing," the stranger breathed, his voice high and reverent, like a prayer. "Simply amazing."

Cinder hummed in response, making the stranger groan and shift his hips faster. Fingers carded through Cinder's hair, never pulling, never hurting. It encouraged him. He grew bolder, shifting his lips and turning his head on every downward pull. The stranger groaned even louder. The taste of salt hit Cinder's tongue and he sucked harder, twisting his tongue around the stranger's head as he pulled back. The stranger gasped and sped up, just a tiny bit more. Cinder licked at the stranger's cock, holding the suction as strong as he could until he felt the stranger give in. Seed spilled into his mouth and he lapped it up, swallowing voluntarily.

The stranger pulled away with a sigh. He tucked himself back in his pants but didn't refasten them, and bent low to take Cinder's mouth in a brutal kiss.

"You're gorgeous," the stranger whispered in Cinder's ear. "I want you so much."

His words made Cinder bold. "Then take me."

The stranger smiled. "Not yet."

He walked away again, moving off to the side of the room, out of Cinder's field of vision, and then returning to stand behind Cinder.

"Do you remember the word I told you?"

Red. The word to make it stop. "Yes."

"Use it if you need to."

He had a second to wonder what the stranger meant and then something hard and heavy smacked against his ass. He gasped, more from surprise than pain, though there was enough of the latter, and jerked against his bonds. They held tight, prohibiting him from moving more than a few inches. It struck again and Cinder felt the word fly to his lips. He bit his lip to keep it in.

Pain spread along his ass and down his thighs as the stranger struck him, not hard, but enough that it stung. He clenched his fists and closed his eyes tight. He wasn't sure what kept him from ending it. Maybe it was the strangeness of it all. It wasn't severe pain, not enough to damage him. The pain grew in intensity with each successive hit. His skin burned with it, like he was on fire.

He didn't understand why the stranger was doing this to him. Up until now he'd been gentle, taking care not to hurt him. Even now, Cinder could feel that intention. This wasn't about hurting him. He jumped when the stranger's hand landed on his back, rubbing a small circle in his back before another hard smack landed on his ass. He did it again and again – rub, smack, rub, smack, reassurance and pain, tension and relief.

The stranger spoke between strikes. "Let go." Another hit, jarring something inside of him. "My beautiful darling." Another smack. "Give into it and let go."

Cinder's mind detached from the pain. He could feel something building inside of him, pulling with it all the terror and hopelessness and anguish that were constantly sitting inside of him. Emotion welled up inside of him. He tried to keep it down, to keep it in check, but it was too much for him. It overwhelmed him. His breath came out in a loud, wet sob and he sagged against his restraints, head falling forward as tears rolled from his eyes. Another smack landed on his ass. The pain felt like it was going straight through him, to his core, and he sobbed louder, losing control.

Tears flowed freely. He couldn't stop it or the hitch in his breath or the way his voice cracked and broke as he let it all go. Everything that he hated about his life washed over him and he cried, harder than he had ever in his life. He'd cried in pain before but he'd never let himself cry over his life before. It had seemed pointless, but now he couldn't help himself. He couldn't stop. He wasn't sure if he'd ever stop.

There were hands on his back, soft, soothing hands, rubbing circles up his sides. They ghosted gently over his ass, making him flinch and writhe as they stirred up new pain on his sensitive skin. The stranger rubbed at his feet, then his legs, his touch slowly bringing the burning pain down to something more manageable. It distracted him. His sobs lessened. He could hear the stranger talking to him but the words barely penetrated over his misery.

Cinder felt the stranger shift behind him, changing positions. His hands moved up Cinder's thighs, oh so gentle, moving over his ass. Lips pressed against his skin, first on one cheek, then the other, and then, inexplicably, kissing between them, just over Cinder's entrance. He jerked in surprise, his tears forgotten, as a warm, wet tongue brushed against his opening.


"Shh." Cinder felt the stranger's breath on his sensitive skin. "It's okay."

The tongue came again. It felt weird, not quite right, and yet at the same time there was part of him that was curious. The stranger's tongue circled his entrance twice, leaving a thick trail of moisture behind. Then he pushed forward, his mouth sealing over Cinder's body. His tongue pushed inside. Cinder shouted and bucked against the wooden frame but it held him still while the stranger's tongue moved, pushing further in and then curving, raking inside of him as it pulled back out.

The stranger sucked at Cinder's entrance, teasing Cinder with his tongue until Cinder was panting. His hips jerked against the wood but there was nothing to rub up against. He was hard, so very hard and it was maddening. He wanted more. He needed more.

"Please." The word escaped him before he had a chance to think about it. He never begged, it always made things worse, but he couldn't help himself. "Please."

The stranger pulled his mouth away. His thumbs slid in to take his tongue's place. They teased at his entrance, pushing only a tiny bit inside and stretching, pulling him apart. "Please what? What can I do for you, my dear?"

"Take me." His voice was hoarse from crying but he didn't care. "Take me, please. I need you."

"Anything for you, my dear."

He sobbed in relief as he felt the stranger move. His hands slid up Cinder's ass to rub along his sides. Thick flesh pressed against him and then in him and it was amazing and warm and everything he wanted. Cinder cried out. His hands twisted in the ropes holding his arms up and he pushed against his bonds, forcing his body back tight against the stranger. Hands closed around Cinder's waist, so warm and so nice, and then the stranger was taking him in earnest, not slow and gentle like the last time, but hard and fierce, pounding into Cinder like an avalanche. He screamed. His voice echoed into the room, loud and wanton, but he didn't care because he wanted it. He bucked against his restraints and fucked back as hard as he could.

It was over too fast. Cinder whined as he felt release building inside of him. He gripped the ropes as he tried to hold it back but he couldn't. It felt too good – the stranger's hands on his hips and his lips on Cinder's back and his cock inside of him. He came apart. His release hit him harder than it ever had before and he fractured, flying apart and then resettling in a new configuration, new and different than what he'd been before.

When he came back to himself, the ropes were undone and he was being pulled away from the wood. His body ached, but in a good way unlike anything he'd felt before. The stranger sat on the floor and pulled Cinder into his lap. He tucked Cinder's head against his shoulder. Strong arms wrapped around Cinder. It was warm in the stranger's embrace. He felt protected. Safe. Drained, like all his worries and cares had been washed out of him.

He drifted. His eyes fell closed. He rested in what was the closest he'd ever come to peaceful sleep. The stranger's hand was in his hair, combing through like he had done earlier. He wanted to stay like this forever. For now, for just this moment, he let himself pretend that he didn't have to go back, that this was all there was to life.

"Tell me your name," the stranger said, his voice soft and low.

Cinder tensed. The stranger's hands instantly soothed some of the tension but it couldn't take away all of it, not with all the fear that was at its core.

"Please, I must know your name."

Cinder shifted, sitting up slightly more. His ass burned. It felt like he'd been kissed by a dragon.


"Don't," Cinder interrupted.

The stranger studied him. His fingers brushed against Cinder's cheek. "You can tell me."

He wanted to. He desperately wanted to. "I can't."

"I promise, whatever it is, you won't get in trouble. Tell me your name."

His lips parted. He almost said it. He intended to say it but what came out was a different word entirely. "Red."

The stranger made no move to stop him as Cinder stood and walked out of the room. He felt strangely bereft as he pulled off the collar and the restraints and left them on the table. The soft fabric of his borrowed clothes stung against his sore skin. He hesitated at the outer door and almost turned back. There were other implements in that room, things that would hurt, things that would kill. The beatings his stepbrothers gave him were nothing compared to what would happen if he was caught.

He left before he could lose his nerve.

Alexander was in a foul mood after his stepbrothers returned from their visit to the city. Cinder redoubled his usual efforts to hide from his eldest stepbrother. It was easier when Alexander was angry. He tended to stomp loudly and shout at anything he saw that displeased him, which usually gave him away long before he was in sight of Cinder. From what Cinder gathered, Alexander was as furious as Edward had been about the state of their clothing compared to the rest of the patrons of the ball and the lack of valuables in the house that they could sell off infuriated him.

Cinder managed to avoid his brother for three days. He was just finishing up the laundry when Alexander stormed into the room and grabbed Cinder by the collar. He was yanked up off his knees and out into the hall. A protest died on his lips. Alexander's face was flushed red, a sure sign that he was about to work out his displeasure on Cinder's flesh. Alexander pulled him out of the house, towards the stable, where a number of unfamiliar horses were hitched to the fence. He hadn't heard any visitors inside the house.

There were men inside the stable, half a dozen of them, predominantly older gentlemen. Most looked like they spent far too much time at the dinner table. One looked oily, like a rat, and he rubbed his hands as Cinder was dragged in. Edward and Donovan waited beside one of the vacant stalls.

"Here he is. Just as I promised." Alexander's voice was cold and distant.

The words made no sense. "What?" Cinder tried to look up at his stepbrother but Alexander just stared straight ahead.

Alexander's grip tightened, pulling Cinder's collar painfully tight, almost tight enough to choke him. As they neared his other stepbrothers, Cinder saw a sawhorse set up in one of the stalls. Edward had a coil of rope in his hands.

Warning bells went off in Cinder's head. "No." He jerked backwards, trying to free himself from Alexander's grip. It was too late. Alexander held him tightly and then his stepbrothers were there, grabbing his arms and pulling him into the stall. He screamed and struggled but it did him no good. Every time he escaped one grasp, another was waiting to take its place.

Coarse rope wrapped around his wrists. He was bent over the sawhorse, held there by Alexander's hard presence behind his back while Donovan took the ropes and tied them off to a post at the end of the stall. More ropes held the sawhorse in place, keeping Cinder bent forward. His legs were bound together after he tried to kick Alexander. He opened his mouth to scream again but Edward cut him off with a rag. He tried to fight it, tried to push it out with his tongue but Alexander held his head still while Edward forced the fabric in. They secured it with another length of rope. The coarse material scratched at his cheek. He shook his head to get it off but it was tied too tight.

Cold air assaulted him as his stepbrothers ripped his clothes off, leaving him with not even a shred of dignity. He tugged futilely at the ropes around his wrists but it only made them dig in tighter and cut into his skin.

"He's a feisty one isn't he," a strange voice spoke behind him.

Cinder turned his head in time to see the ratlike man stepping into the stall. Cinder's brothers stepped aside to let the man in. Thin, bony hands traced the curve of Cinder's ass. Cinder flinched, which only seemed to make the man more pleased.

"Well worth the price." The man's hand moved to his belt. He unfastened his trousers. "You said we could do whatever we want?"

Alexander nodded. "Whatever. The slut's used to it."

Tears rolled down Cinder's cheeks. He whimpered into the rag and looked away. His entire body trembled.


Cinder screamed again as the man shoved into Cinder's body.

Narenne was sitting on Cinder's bed when he limped his way to his bed. He was naked, covered in blood. Hardly the kind of state to entertain a lady in, but he was too tired to care. They'd kept him tied up for hours. More men had come after the first few had left. There would be more tomorrow.

He dropped onto his mattress, the force of his knees hitting the thin padding making him whimper. His head fell on Narenne's lap. He was staining her beautiful dress but he didn't care. Her scent wrapped around him, cold and comforting. He turned his face into her thigh and sobbed. He'd thought he'd run out of tears hours ago but they ran freely down his face now. Cold fingers carded through his hair. It should have soothed him. It always had before but he was beyond soothing now.

Deep shudders ran through his body as he sobbed, reminding him of his whole host of hurts. He ached everywhere. They'd cut him. They'd beaten him. They'd raped him over and over again while his stepbrothers watched, sometimes even joining in. He couldn't go through that again.

Narenne's hand moved down his back. His skin froze under her touch. It made the pain go away, the physical pain at least. He wished she could freeze the core of him, freeze all the way down until he felt nothing at all.

He wasn't sure how long it took for his tears to run their course but by the end he was wrung out, through and through. He felt terribly cold, like he did in the dead of the winter, but he knew he would not die of it. He wanted to.

"I can't do this anymore." His voice came out a hollow croak.

Her fingers kept carding through his hair. They'd never stopped. "Only two days until the final ball."

His eyes squeezed shut at the thought, though no more tears emerged. "I can't."

"You must."

He shook his head. The thought of another day of that treatment was unbearable. "No. Please. They'll kill me."

"They won't. I promise, it will all be worth it in the end."

He shifted his head, turning to look up at her. "I'll run away." He had no idea how he'd manage it. He had no money, no strength left to even move, but he had to. Being eaten by wolves in the forest was better than this.

Narenne stared down at him. There was a deep sorrow on her face. Her lips twisted into a thin line. "I know it's hard, but you must stay."

"Why?" His voice broke on the word. He forced himself up and away from her, even though his body screamed in agony at the movement. His back hit the wall too hard and he winced. "Why do I have to stay? Why are you doing all of this?"

Her cold hands closed around both of his. She pierced him with her gaze. "There's a set pattern to events. We – my kind, the fae – we can see them, but we cannot interfere. My part in this was laid out when I made a promise to your father." She squeezed his hands tight. "We cannot change events, but you can. If you are just patient, you will see."

He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall. He didn't want to. He desperately didn't want to but he knew he had to. He could give her two more days.

There was no pretext when the carriage came for him on the day of the third ball. Cinder watched it roll up to the house from where he was curled up on the stable floor. A fresh wave of tears ran down his face, but he couldn't tell if they were generated by relief or despair. The cook left for the night, walking out of the house and straight past the carriage as if it wasn't even there. Once she was out of sight, the carriage door opened. Narenne stepped out, her red dress swirling around her like wine in a glass. It kept shifting as she moved, more than it ought. It made him feel a little ill and he looked away.

"My poor boy," Narenne murmured. She knelt next to him and brushed a cool hand over his forehead. The chill of her touch washed through him, faster than it usually did. He felt like he should be worried about that, but he was beyond concern. It took the pain away and that was all he could really ask for at this moment.

Her arms slid under his legs and shoulders. She lifted him as if he weighed nothing. If he had any pride left, he might have chafed at having a woman carry him, but his pride had been shredded away years ago. The carriage seat was soothing against his back. The fabric of it was soft and chilled. It reminded him of Narenne. She produced a blanket from thin air – she simply drew her hand through the air and the blanket appeared. It was warm and felt like fur.

He must have fallen asleep, for one moment he was in the carriage and the next he was being lowered into an ornate tub. Nonsense fell from his lips. He wasn't awake enough to form coherent words. Narenne shushed him and laid her hand over his forehead once he was settled in the tub. The water was warm, warmer than he'd ever been given the luxury of using at home. It smelled of lavender and cut grass and clean laundry.

He dozed in the water. His head was hazy, as it had been for the majority of the past three days. He was tired and he ached and he wanted to be done with it all. One more ball and then he was leaving. He was walking away from it all, even if it meant being caught and killed. He was done.

The water soothed his hurts. By the time Narenne ushered him out of the tub, he could stand without pain. He still had bruises and he could feel the lash marks on his back every time he turned, but they had healed enough that they wouldn't cause him pain. Narenne had another outfit waiting for him, this time a fiery red suit that dipped low on the sleeves and tails. He tied his mask on and they returned to the carriage.

They arrived late. The ball was well under way. They walked through the main hall and down a different corridor from last. They moved to a room, not far off the main hall. Another elf was on guard. He nodded to Narenne and then let Cinder in with a lingering glance. Cinder stepped in and blushed. There were couches arranged about the room, most of which were occupied by sets of people in varying states of undress. There were more people scattered on the floor amidst piles of pillows. They were all engaged. Hands delved into bodies. Breasts were bared. The sounds of copulation surrounded him.

He felt sick.

Cinder pressed a hand over his mouth and weaved his way to the side of the room, trying not to look or listen. It was impossible to avoid it all. Memories of the last few days overwhelmed him. The room spun dangerously. One of the large French doors opened for him and he hurried through, only to collide with an unexpected barrier.

He stumbled. His hand shot out to catch his balance on the wall and he leaned into it for support. "I'm so sorry. Please forgive me."


He looked up, eyes widening in panic as he realized the person he'd walked into was none other than Alexander. Recognition washed across his stepbrother's face, followed quickly by fury. In the space of a breath, what should have been Cinder's final dream evening turned into a nightmare. He gasped as Alexander grabbed him roughly by the arm and pulled outside. No one looked up from their pleasure. No one here would help him, just like no one had ever helped him. Terror overwhelmed him. All the helplessness of the last few days washed over him and it was like he was back in that stall, unable to move. His back hit the stone wall of the castle but he barely felt it.

"What the hell are you doing here?"

Alexander loomed over him, his face twisted with rage. Fear tied Cinder's tongue in knots. He babbled, not sure any of it made sense. He might have mentioned the fairy and the carriage, but Alexander didn't seem to understand a word he said.

"Answer me!" Alexander bellowed. His hands closed around Cinder's throat and he was lifted up onto his toes by the force of Alexander's grip.

It was hard to breathe, let alone talk, but he managed it barely. "I... was... invited..."

Alexander roared in pure fury. He slammed Cinder back against the wall. Cinder's head hit the wall hard enough to leave him dazed. At least he didn't have to clean his own blood off the floor here. There were other servants for that.

The hands around his neck tightened. He couldn't breathe. His hands curled around Alexander's wrists but it was a futile effort. Alexander was far stronger. There was no way he could pull him off. He received another brutal slam into the wall for his efforts.

A loud buzzing filled his ears. Through it he could vaguely make out Alexander shouting – something about money and ungrateful and whore. Another voice entered the picture but he couldn't make it out, he just had a sense that it was important. The darkness of the night deepened, creeping towards him from the edges of his vision. It was hard to focus on anything. His face burned.

Then the hands were gone. There was more shouting. He fell to the floor. Cold stones caressed his face. He gasped for breath but nothing happened. It was like all the air had fled from him.

"-my property."

"-no right. He's-"

"- whore. Not worth-"

"How dare-"

He still couldn't breathe. His chest ached, like something heavy was pressed against it but there was nothing there. He reached out towards the other voice, the comforting voice. His hand flopped feebly on bare stone.

A bag of coins was thrown. More men came in, dragging someone away. A shadow fell across his face but it was too dark to make out who it belonged to.

Voices. Hands. Warmth. Darkness. Nothing.

He woke in an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar room. The bed was softer than anything he'd ever slept on. There was thick fabric overhead, forming a canopy over the bed. The curtains to either side were drawn shut, obfuscating most of the room behind the gauzy fabric. It made it seem like he'd woken up in a dream. He could make out vague shapes – a door, a dresser, a fireplace. Enough to know that he wasn't anyplace familiar.

There was a warm hand on his neck. He could breathe. His throat ached but it was a minor ache, barely noticeable. He turned his head, following the hand up to an unfamiliar face.

"Hello." He recognized the voice. He would never be able to forget that voice, not after the two amazing nights they'd spent together.

Cinder's eyes widened. The stranger was obviously a lord and this was likely his bed, which meant Cinder was sleeping in a lord's bed. He tried to sit up but the hand on his neck shifted to his chest, holding him down with ease.

"Don't move yet. You were injured. You need your rest."

"I can't." Cinder's voice was raspy and harsh. It hurt to talk but he forced the words out anyways. "I have to go."

The stranger raised an eyebrow. "Go where?"

It sounded stupid when the stranger said it like that. He had nowhere to go but he couldn't go back. Not after Alexander had seen him. He shuddered at the thought of what Alexander would do to him. "Away."

Genuine concern filled the stranger's face. "Not back to the man who assaulted you, surely?"

He shook his head.

"You have somewhere else you can stay?"

He shook his head again.

The stranger frowned. "Who was he?"

Shame filled Cinder and he turned his head away. "My eldest stepbrother."

The hand on his chest started rubbing slow circles in his skin. Warmth spread through him and he couldn't help but relax a little. "Are the others as pleasant as he is?"

He nodded.

"Then you will be pleased to learn that you never have to return."

Cinder turned quickly to stare at the man in shock. "How?"

It was the stranger's turn to flush and look away. "I... um, well, I bought you." He cast a sheepish look at Cinder. "It was the only way to get your stepbrother to agree."

Cinder stared. He had no idea what to say. On the plus side, he was free from his brother's torment and he quite enjoyed the time he'd spent with the stranger so far, and yet as kind as the stranger had been, he'd thought Cinder was a fellow lord at the time. Who knew how his treatment would change once Cinder was his servant.

"I'm not like them." The hand on Cinder's chest moved up to brush against his face. "I don't want you as a servant." His thumb brushed over Cinder's lips. The man seemed enraptured by Cinder's face. "I cannot promise not to hurt you. As I mentioned before, I have my proclivities." The stranger's flush deepened as he spoke and Cinder couldn't help the answering flush that spread across his face as he remembered the way the stranger's tongue had felt inside of him. "But I promise it will go no further than what occurred in the dungeon. You will always, always have the choice to end it. You will have control."

Cinder frowned. It seemed too good to be true. "If I'm not to be your servant, then what am I?"

A shy smile spread over the stranger's face. "A free man and my consort, if you'll have me."

He stared. His voice stuck in his throat.

The stranger's smile widened. His hand was gentle and warm against Cinder's face. "I want you to come live with me. Share my bed and my home. Be my mate."

"I..." Cinder's thoughts raced. This was more than he'd ever dreamed of. More than he'd ever hoped for and it was just being given to him. He hardly believed it. "But I'm a servant."

"Not anymore."

He thought of his stepbrothers and the men in the stables. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to start crying. "You don't know what I've done... what they made me do. It's not right. I'm not fit to be with someone like you. I'm dirty."

The stranger shifted, moving closer. His arms wrapped around Cinder. "Then I will make you clean again."

"You can't." Even as he protested, he was curling into the stranger's embrace.

"I can. Will you finally tell me your name, dear one?"

He didn't hesitate. The words had been waiting on his lips for weeks. "Cinder. My name is Cinder."

"I am Sydney Curzon. Do you know who I am?"

Cinder shook his head. He was glad to finally have a name to put to the stranger.

Sydney smiled. "I am the Dragon Lord."

Cinder's eyes widened in shock. That meant... He was... Sydney was...

He'd fallen in love with a dragon. Perhaps his fate wasn't so bad after all.