The knock at Tani’s door, some time after daybreak, didn’t wake me so much as rouse me from the half-aware stupor into which I had slumped. Mister Dion lay curled next to me, one arm under my head, his other draped across my back. I tried to rise, but my arms refused to respond, and when I reared back to try to stretch them, hot agony jolted across my shoulders. I let out a cry, then quickly bit my lip to stifle it.
The door opened, and the cook stepped inside, padding quickly to the head of the bed. His thick fingers worked the rope holding me out of the tether, then carefully lowered my arms. It took him a moment to unwrap my wrists, and then he was carefully easing me off of the mattress, untangling me from the vole’s clutches and helping me onto my hinds. What wasn’t throbbing in pain had either gone numb or was starting to tingle. I tried to walk, but the best I could manage was a painful totter, wobbling back and forth, dragging the chain between my ankles, leaning on the wolf for support.
The stairs were a hazard, but with him in front and me behind, we managed not to tumble down to the kitchen. There the wolf helped me to one of the benches and motioned for me to sit, then to lie down on my back. I opened my muzzle to protest, but he quickly snapped a finger across his lips and shook his head, then put his paws on my knees and began to work the soreness out of them. My muscles screamed in response, but I bit back the cries of pain as he clumsily tenderized my aching joints. I could barely roll myself over, and his efforts across my shoulders brought multiple whimpers from me, but by the time he was finished, I could at least feel my fingers again.
He helped me back to my hinds, then motioned for me to follow him into the cooking space proper. I did my best to obey his directions, but I was shuffling through the steps. I wasn’t sure that I cared. I felt numb and hollow inside, as though something in the night had broken and fallen out of me, and I hadn’t seen where it had gone. I felt like I ought to want it back, whatever it was, but even that seemed beyond me. A sharp pain split one fingertip and I yelped. I looked down to see fresh crimson staining the counter. The knife I’d been using to carve hunks off of the wheel sat sunk into my thumb, a good quarter-inch. The stack of wedges was safe, but the wheel itself had specks of blood on it.
Immediately, I took the knife and started scraping the cheese clean, but then the cook’s paw was on my shoulder, the blade suddenly on the counter. The wolf marched me to the cauldron in which he’d been boiling porridge, and he took my split thumb in one paw. With his other, he motioned for me to open my muzzle, and when I did he stuck his forearm between my teeth, then jammed my injured thumb against the hot iron, adding the searing pain of a fresh burn on top of the slice. I bit down on his arm and let out a shriek that was thankfully muffled by the cook’s fur, but my feeble efforts to jerk my paw out of his grip were useless.
For a good five seconds, he held my thumb against the metal, until the blood had burned away, leaving only blackened fur and a seared cut. When he let go, I grabbed one paw in the other and collapsed, sobbing, to my knees on the hard stone floor. The wolf worked his arm out of my clenched jaws, petted me until my tears subsided, then helped me to my hinds and walked me carefully back to the bench. He gestured for me to lie still, then walked out of the room, towards the parlor.
Once alone, I turned my face to the ceiling, but all I could think to do was stare. I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I wanted to protest what had happened, both the violation and my response to it, but I couldn’t even bring myself to do so. The slaver had warned me what my life would be like, but I hadn’t truly believed her. Now… now I knew. I brought my paw to my eyes and squinted at it; the inside of my thumb, just above the knuckle, had an deep brown line across it, surrounded by angry red flesh and blackened fur. I tried to bend it, but the skin felt tight, and too much effort sent a fresh wave of blistering pain to my wrist.
I started to wonder if I would be able to move my thumb again, but all I could do was ask myself in response if it mattered. It wasn’t as if what became of me was of import to anyone. Before I could wander too far down that trail of thought, though, heavyset hindfalls signaled Miss Aida’s approach. She shouldn’t see me here, I thought. She’ll think I’m lazy. I rolled off of the bench onto the floor, then pushed myself onto my knees, trying to ignore all of my aches and pains as I waited.
My owner wasted no time in approaching me, but she stood in front of me for several moments, saying nothing, and then set on the bench beside me and rested a paw on the back of my head. I flinched at the touch; it was too light, too… tender. She didn’t put her paw away, instead resting it on my shoulder. There she sat, silently, passing time beside me. Eventually, she broke the stillness, her voice low, almost apologetic. “I’ll miss you, boy. You were good for the Blue Moon.”
That made me turn my head, a knot of ice swelling in my stomach. “Master?”
“I… sold you, boy,” she said, the words rushing out of her quickly after that. “It’s too good a deal for me to pass, and it’s best for everyone. Dion hails from Barony Deterikh; he’s a diplomat and counsel, to the baron himself.” She hmphed, sounding like she was trying to make herself believe it. “You’ll be among nobles, boy. It’s a step up for you, and those rumors… well, a gossip will say anything.”
As soon as she mentioned the name, that lump of ice spread to engulf my chest, meeting the numbness that had already threatened. I drooped, ears flattening against my head. “Yes, ma… miss.”
She nodded sharply, then rose. “You see? You’re adjusting already. Up, boy.” I rose from my knees, and Miss Aida froze. “Great Family,” she murmured. “The sweets weren’t a joke.”
I drew in a deep breath, then let it out slowly. “Miss, if you’ve sold me, I should see to my new owner.” My voice was flat, and the ice inside refused to thaw. I started to shuffle past her, but then suddenly the lynx’s paw was on my shoulder, holding me in place.
“Hold a moment, boy. I’m not done with you.” Miss Aida’s words were firm.
When I stopped and nodded, Miss Aida removed her paw, then folded her arms across her chest. “I told you some time back I’d give you a story, and I’ll not leave a debt unpaid. You know the cook?” She paused a moment while I nodded. “He worked for my last master.”
I blinked, then spoke very carefully. “You… used to be a slave, master?” I didn’t raise my gaze, but I couldn’t keep the question down.
Miss Aida nodded. “Long ago, yes.” Her voice grew distant. “Sold by a family with too many muzzles to feed to an older nobleman with a taste for young girls. He had a fire in him I’ll not wish on my greatest enemy, yet he never laid a claw on me. The older slaves in his manor, though, all tasted his anger at some point. His cook, he beat until the poor thing thought of himself as little more than part of the cookware.” Her muzzle twisted into a frown, her ears flattening. “Not a day went by that he wasn’t catching a lash for some minor slight, or just so the old man could vent his rage.”
My owner’s eyes narrowed. “When he grew too feeble to have any use for a chamber girl, he set me free. Maybe he feared what his other slaves would do to his favored pet; maybe he just couldn’t stand to see what he could no longer have.” She shrugged. “Either way, he sent me on my way with a bare neck and a small purse. I opened shop to put the only skills I had to use. It paid well enough, and soon I had enough to deal in my own stable.
“He was the first slave I bought, to give him a better life than he had, but by then, the scars ran too deep, or so I thought.” She came back to the present, her eyes meeting mine. “I’ll not ask what magic you worked, but in the time you’ve been here, he’s changed, and for the better. One day I’ll even have his old name, perhaps, if he even remembers it. If there’s any justice in the world, then someone will do for you what you’ve done for him.” Her fingers went to my throat, and then the Blue Moon’s sigil was gone from my neck. “Now, I’ll take no more time of his time. Go on, now. Your new master awaits.”