“I need proof, Brian,” the customer said apologetically. “You’ve never failed me, never taken advantage of me. But I’d be a fool to spend so much on a shapeshifter that doesn’t shapeshift.”
Master glared at It with venomous frustration. It kept an impassive expression, eyes glued to the floor just in front of Master’s feet. “I understand, my Lord,” his growly voice said. His growl turned into a warning. “It. Shift.”
A long, long moment passed. The customer took another look at It’s nude body, eyes lingering on the area between their legs, then shook his head and walked out of the shop.
It wasn’t stupid. Master wanted to sell It, but they weren’t going to have that, no matter the beating. They knew Master, and they didn’t know these customers. That’s why, week after week, It chose not to do what Master said. There were a lot worse people in the world, Cedar had once told It, before Cedar was sold to one of them.
Cedar had died, It had heard from Master a couple weeks later. Master said Cedar had been beaten to death by his new Master. That was when It decided never, ever to show off to buyers again.
It hadn’t survived seven years of life to be sold off to a lot worse person and die. No, It hadn’t.
“You stupid piece of junk!” Master yelled, punching them in the stomach hard. Master liked the stomach. The stomach wasn’t bones that could break, and it wasn’t kidneys that could kill It. It was easy to hide.
The stomach, that is. Hiding It was a lot of work, it turned out. Selling people – selling children – wasn’t a super safe business to be in.
It curled up into themself with a stifled groan, and then pulled themself to stand straight. It wasn’t stupid, see. Master liked a clear target. He was embarrassed when he missed. Embarrassment made him meaner.
Master hit It many more times, which they knew would leave their stomach bruised for another week or two until the next customer came to see them.
Master grabbed It’s hair and yanked their head back, spoke close enough that tiny drops of spit landed on It’s face. “You like bein’ hit or somethin’? Eh? Maybe I should give you to a fightin’ ring, instead. Rent you out to get beat every night. I’d make a hell of a lot more money if I wasn’t sittin’ around waitin’ for someone to buy you.” Master referred to It with disgust and disdain. That wasn’t new. Master said It was disturbing. Master didn’t like what was between their legs. It didn’t quite comprehend why.
It knew his threats were empty. It was expensive because It was rare, and Master was lucky enough to have It. A whole dragon’s hoard of coins, Master had once said. Someone would pay that much for It, someday.
Nobody had offered that much yet, and It wasn’t going to start shifting in front of customers just in case one actually had a whole dragon’s hoard of gold and an inclination to beat things to death. No, It wasn’t.
“Fuckin’ mute little idiot,” Master muttered. He shoved It away. “Go tend the kobolds, It. Do somethin’ fuckin’ worthwhile for me while I go figure how I’m gonna make rent offa you.”
It looked scared (though It wasn’t, because Master was never going to rent It when he might get a dragon’s hoard instead), and turned to scamper away.
Cedar had said that’s how It walked. They scampered. They missed Cedar a lot.
Cedar had given them a name, and- and It didn’t think of their name anymore. No, It didn’t. If It thought about the name, they might slip and say the name, and that would get them beaten.
Master was wrong. It didn’t like being beaten. It just tolerated beatings. Survived them.
He was wrong that It couldn’t speak, too, and It was going to keep things that way. Then It would never have to answer when Master asked them dangerous questions like you like being hit or somethin’?
It was very angry inside, sometimes, and they feared that the worst thing might be to speak and be angry and say something like, I hate you and I hate being hit and I’m not stupid, you’re stupid.
It walked into the kobold pen, which smelled bad but less bad since It had decided to clean things more than Master told them to. It reached Its hand into the cage’s feeding hole, and smiled when the kobold in there started sucking their finger. It had figured out that kobolds did that when they liked someone, and sometimes even when they disliked someone. It reached in to the hole, even though that was a tight squeeze, and pet the male kobold’s head with their other hand. The kobold shivered when It pet his little horns, and sucked much harder.
Too hard, so that It felt their fingers tingle and their navel heat up. It pulled away, and the kobold whimpered and stroked himself. Kobolds did that all the time, too. It didn’t fully comprehend why, but that had something to do with making more kobolds. It’d never seen a kobold make another kobold, though, so they thought maybe that was a lie.
It reached in to pay attention to the next one in the same way. She nibbled and sucked at It’s fingertips, and sometimes she touched herself at the same time.
It thought of how they missed Cedar, and they missed their brood. It’s brothers and sisters had touched lots, too, when they could. They’d been sold off quickly, before they could talk. Turned out dragons that could look like plain humans with wings and horns were very in-demand for some people. It had been kept by Master, for that dragon’s hoard of gold.
These poor kobolds were in separated pens from each other like It and their brood had been. There were only three left from this group, and they sold fast. There was a fad, Master said. One rich person got a kobold, then suddenly every rich person wanted a kobold.
They would miss each other, too. They already were missing each other. They cried and chittered at night often, because their cages were far enough apart that they couldn’t touch, and they really liked to touch.
It wiped tears off their cheeks, then screwed up their face because they’d had gotten kobold spit on their face.
The third kobold, the one in the pen farthest from the door? He was It’s favorite. It had seen lots of kobold broods before, because the goblin ladies Master Brian knew got paid to have lots of broods, because Master Brian could sell each baby for a lot to the rich people.
This kobold was different. He was beautiful , like many of them. He was calm, he was powerful. He was only around It’s age, and a little tall for a kobold but still shorter than It.
He looked at It with his serious gold, reptilian eyes, and It felt like he could see through all of their being. It felt their breath stop in their lungs, felt their head spin.
The kobold reached his hand through the feeding hole first. This happened every time. It never knew what to do, so they did what the normal kobolds did when they put their fingers through – It leaned down and sucked at the scaly fingers, tongue pressed gingerly to the underside of his sharp claws.
It shivered as the kobold pulled back. He smiled at It, and sniffed at the fingers. It watched with rapt attention. The kobold licked his own fingers clean of It’s saliva.
It felt very hot and uncomfortable. It looked around, just in case, and then looked back at the kobold. “I hope he doesn’t sell you, Gold,” It whispered.
Gold tilted his head, listening intently. It knew the kobolds understood some things, even if they couldn’t talk.
It… felt this burning, burning desire to bite, to keep, to…
They had a very little hoard. They’d stolen a little copper coin from Master once. They’d found the coin on the floor, and hadn’t given it to him. They had a baby fang, one of their littlest brother’s purple feathers, and a little silky pink ribbon. They didn’t have any gold. Not yet. And the hoard was secret. It wasn’t allowed to have a hoard, and they weren’t allowed to mark and keep.
It was a slave. Slaves didn’t own things. Slave were owned things.
But It really, really wanted to keep Gold.
Flushed and beside themself, It turned to leave. Gold chittered suddenly, softly, and clutched the cage links with a rattle. It squeezed their eyes shut. They couldn’t take too long. They had to feed the kobolds and leave.
They looked back at Gold.
His long claws were poking through the links. Gold was asking them something very important. He looked very needing.
It walked back to him slowly, curious. Gold chittered softly, smiling as It came closer. They felt their cheeks flush.
“What?” They asked softly.
Gold shivered and chittered again, and his eyes pleaded.
“What is it?”
Gold tilted his head. He reached through the links higher and touched It’s face very gently. Then he touched his own mouth and chortled.
“I don’t understand,” It shook their head.
Gold made a series of sounds that sounded like a mimic of It’s words, then tapped the side of his head with his claw, where his pointed ear was. He licked his mouth – he didn’t really have lips.
“Sorry,” It murmured. “I’m not stupid. But I don’t understand.”
Gold made a sad little noise, then shrugged and smiled. He reached through to touch It again. It leaned into his fingers, liking the cool scales against their skin.
It shivered, and shimmered at the same time. “Fuck,” they muttered, pulling away and looking down. They had changed their body to match Gold’s, but without trying to. Embarrassed, they shifted back.
Gold looked amused.
“…fuck you,” It said without venom.
Gold made a noise like a laugh, leaned his head against the bars, then watched It very calmly.
It, even more embarrassed, went and got the food ready. They fed the kobolds by hand… and they fed Gold last, because Gold was their favorite, and their fingers would tingle all night from the feeling of Gold’s tongue on the tips.