I shivered as the stiff spring breeze blew in outside and, once again, quietly wished that Miss Aida had located my station somewhere else in the parlor of the Blue Moon. The cushion on which I knelt was overstuffed with down and dyed a deep blue to match the decor, and the girls usually ensured that I had water enough to sing or play as requested, so I felt I dared not ask for another location. Still, it meant that with each gust that blew down the street, a chill ran along my spine and made the fur of my tail bristle. I knew it would improve as summer approached, and it was far better than the frigid gusts when I first arrived, but it was still a struggle to suppress the response and not disturb the melodic line.
That discomfort, I knew, was part of why Miss Aida kept me where she was. It hadn’t taken me many pointed caresses or pointed giggles to realize my place, and the increasingly emboldened cook had taken to reinforcing it himself. Fila was fond of making me look as feminine as possible and then calling attention to my maleness in front of the guests. Tani, in contrast, seemed most eager to test my limits for pain and discomfort. The others mostly just took to stroking or touching, daring each other to see long they could keep me on the edge of release without ever achieving it. Most of the Blue Moon’s visitors got a laugh out of Miss Aida’s girls’ clever antics, and many of the ones who didn’t felt at least a faint pang of sympathy. Both of these encouraged the freer flowing of coin, either to her employees or my beggar’s bowl.
The rest of her motive, however, had been more explicit. As a pleasure-house in Barony Jazinsk’s capital, the Blue Moon turned a fair profit from the steady stream of merchants and guards looking to ease the flesh between travels. The best coin, though, came from visiting nobility and aristocrats eager to indulge themselves. On my first day under Miss Aida’s roof, my new owner told me to gaze out the window from time to time as if longing for freedom, to keep watch for people dressed in finery, and to launch into a round of “King Comes Riding” when I saw anyone. That would be her signal to excuse herself from any entanglements and try to attract her latest prize.
As the latest shiver passed through me, I turned to the window. The sky was starting to darken, and Koshki had already risen in the sky, though neither of the other moons were visible yet. The afternoon crowds were dispersing, seeking the warmth of taverns and homes. The cook would be starting supper soon, I knew, which meant being dispatched to help him, however he wished. I remembered my first trip to the city, years ago, and the inn at which which we stayed after a long day of bargaining at market. That called to mind memories of my father, which in turn reminded me of all the reasons that brought me here. At that thought, suddenly feigning homesickness became much easier.
Lost in those thoughts, I almost missed the dandy walking rapidly towards the entrance of the Blue Moon, but once I’d seen him, he was hard to miss. The tan-furred vole probably stood about my height, but he carried himself with his head held high and his shoulders back, a proud posture that left him seeming taller than those around him. Atop his head perched a cap with rolled edge that between his expansive ears. A heavy cape, dyed a deep forest, hung from his shoulders, held fast with a glittering brooch to the collar of his loose-fitting white shirt. His pants were a green that matched his cape, and his tail hung low and swayed in time with his steps. He’d apparently already been heading towards the pleasure-house before I saw him; his head was raised and he walked with a purposeful stride.
Still, orders were orders. I brought the recorder to my muzzle, took a deep breath, and started the opening trill of the signal-tune. As soon as she heard it, Miss Aida broke from her discussion with an older raccoon with streaks of grey in his fur and approached me. She lightly cuffed me on the side of the head and said, “Enough with that warbling, boy. It’s even-time; I’ll have something more calming. ‘Marigold Stroll,’ if your fingers can manage it.”
“Oh, I’ll bet he’s good with his fingers!” Fila called out from her seat near the stairwell, leading the few assembled in a small round of laughter. My cheeks flushed, but as my owner walked to the front door, I started to play the requested tune.
Before Miss Aida could get there, though, it opened widely, letting in a fresh gust of evening air as the well-dressed vole stepped through the door. “A pleasant evening to you!” he called out, his voice projecting into the parlor. “Are you, perchance, the matron of the establishment?” His voice was a solid tenor, but oddly light. After that, their voices fell too far to be heard below the music, but when the two of them entered the parlor, the vole was still speaking. “—been to two others already today, and I—” He stopped, suddenly, then said more quietly. “Well, well. If I might ask, who is that charming creature?”
It took several seconds for me to realize that the dandy was looking directly at me, and the way he held his eyes suggested far more than casual interest. After so long being the object of ridicule when I was noticed at all, his hungry gaze unnerved me greatly. I did my best to tune out his attention, but almost as soon as I had registered it, I fumbled the recorder so badly that it let out a squeak. My ears went crimson, both at the error and the stare, but I knew if I tried to keep playing, I’d just make more noise, so I returned my paws to my knees, holding the recorder in a white-knuckled grip.
I heard Miss Aida’s hindsteps approach. “This is, well, he’s not had much use of a name, really. The girls all just call him ‘boy.'”
The vole tsked, clicking his tongue against his front teeth. “Surely he had a name before you got him? He looks too young to have forgotten it already.”
My owner hmphed, then put a paw on the back of my head. “Up, boy, and introduce yourself.”
My eyes went wide, and I almost stumbled as I rose, the chain at my ankles rattling too noisily to my ears. I glanced in Miss Aida’s direction, expecting her to cuff me for speaking, then turned my head back to the vole. I couldn’t bring myself to raise my voice, or my head, but I managed to whisper, “S… Stannis, sir.”
“Stannis,” the vole repeated, projecting a broad smile. “A charming name. So, turn, and let me see you.” I glanced again to my owner, then turned in a full circle when she nodded. “Well, well.” He removed his cap and folded it in his slender fingers, then murmured to Lady Aida, “May I speak with you alone for a bit?” He motioned towards the front door, then stepped back into the hall.
Miss Aida folded her arms across her chest. “I’ll wager a silver he’s got a bag of sweets in his pocket for the younger ones,” she grumbled disparagingly. “Best to see what he wants, at least. Down, boy, and I’ll have that tune again.” Then she turned and followed the vole, leaving me feeling uncomfortably exposed for the first time in quite a while. I knelt once more on the cushion, but my muzzle was far too dry to do more than blow hot air. Even finishing the last of my mug didn’t really help, but once it was done I could stall no longer. I brought the recorder to my lips and, after a bit of fumbling, managed a weak but stately rendition of “Marigold Stroll,” and I only missed a single fingering, which I recovered quickly enough.
By the time I finished, the two had returned from their discussion. My owner approached and snapped her claws together at me. “Up again, boy.” She helped me to my hinds, then motioned towards the vole, who stood near the staircase, his cap in one paw and that predatory smile on his muzzle. “You’ll go with Dion here up to Tani’s room and do what he tells you.” My owner did her best to project disapproval, but her voice was distant, filled with shock and a bit of worry; she reminded me of my mother, of how she might have sounded had she known my plans. “You’ll still be needed in the kitchen to help the cook break fast come morning, but I’ll have him wake you when he needs you.” Then she looked at the vole, her eyes narrowing slightly, but then she perked up, projecting false cheer. “Enjoy your night, and you’ll let us know if the Blue Moon may be of any other service, of course.”
“Of course,” The vole—Dion—agreed, bowing his head. Then he turned to me and motioned me up the stairs ahead of him. “Come, Stannis. We’ve a long night ahead of us.”