After a full day and night of Mister Dion’s undivided attentions, leaping from the ornate carriage and trusting the wilderness seemed a welcome option. The chain that ran from the bolt in the wall to my collar prevented it, but the thought passed regularly through my mind. No sooner had the Deterikh envoy’s driver closed the door and started the wagon on the road out of Barony Jazinsk, the vole had his belt undone and his knees spread, my muzzle between his legs and his paws on the back of my head. When the guards at the city gates hailed him, he draped his cloak over his lap and continued his efforts while he feigned interest in paperwork and signatures. Eventually, the vole collapsed in exhaustion on his seat, draped a heavy woolen quilt over his shoulders, and then fell into a deep slumber, leaving me to try to ignore my mounting aches and get some rest.
Matska and Koshki had already set and the sun had begun to rise when the carriage stopped. I still hurt from the night before, the night air was damp and chill despite the spring, and my rump had started to go numb from the hard wooden bench, despite the thick cushion. With the manacles on my wrists, my choice of positions had been sitting on the edge of the seat and leaning back against the iron bar, or returning to the floor of the carriage where I had already spent enough time. In the end, I had fallen asleep sitting sideways, shivering, with my hinds on the seat beside me and my head against the opposite wall. At the knock at the door, I let out a groan, but between the aches and the cold, I could barely move.
On the third knock, Mister Dion’s eyes cracked open. “Morning so soon?” he murmured, his voice even wispier than before; he sounded as though he could still use another hour’s nap. Still, he yawned and stretched, tossing aside the blanket. “Up, up,” he said to me as he fastened his pants.
It took several tries to get back on my hinds. Neither hinds nor knees wished to move at first, and my shoulders burned from their confinement and awkward position. Throughout my efforts, Mister Dion did nothing to help, he merely freed his leash from the wall and stepped down onto the ground, waiting with his paws on his hips and a frown on his muzzle. As soon as I was standing, he tugged firmly on the lead and then began walking, making no effort to wait for me as I stumbled out of the carriage, nearly falling in the attempt.
Mister Dion’s driver had parked the carriage at the bottom of a low hill, next to a winding path that led to its crest. Sitting atop it, in a sparse copse of trees, was an imposing two-story manor. Most of its windows were dark, but one lone light shone against the backdrop of breaking dawn. A waist-high wall of stacked stone ran around the base of the hill to either side, and a wooden sign at the opening in front of that announced clearly, “By Appointment Only.” The vole, however, strode past the warning, half-dragging me behind him.
A heavy knocker hung from the front door, which Mister Dion banged impatiently. He waited a few moments, then repeated the demand. Soon after that, hindsteps approached, and then the door flew open. On the other side stood a plump grey-furred raccoon rubbing at one eye with a paw. The robe she had hastily thrown around herself was likely once a deep wine, but a life of washing and wear had long since faded it to a dusty rose. With her uncovered eye, she visibly glared at the vole standing on her porch. “You’ve still not learned to read, then, Dion?”
“A pleasant morning to you as well, Aura,” Mister Dion replied, ignoring the jibe and doffing his cap. “It’s always a pleasure.”
“For you, perhaps,” Aura said. She glanced past Mister Dion, then back. “What’s his story?”
Mister Dion turned, looking at me sharply, then looked back to the raccoon. “That’s why I’m here. I was hoping for some of your help.”
Aura made no move to invite either of us inside. “Did Datsia send you?”
My owner coughed politely, covering his muzzle with one paw. “Captain Datsia wouldn’t approve of it; you know that.”
The raccoon’s muzzle bobbed upwards sharply. “That’s why she had to have sent you; you wouldn’t dare bring yourself here elsewise.”
Mister Dion forced a laugh at that. “Well, well. You haven’t changed, Aura. Sadly, your young charge has, which is why I’m here. Surely even you’ve heard by now.”
Aura’s eyes narrowed, and she pulled her robe more tightly around herself. “I’ve heard. I don’t believe a word of it.”
“Believe what you like,” Mister Dion lilted with a shrug. “If you’re not interested in helping, I’ll be on my way.”
The two stood off against one another for several seconds, across the gulf of the raccoon’s door. Then suddenly, she turned, tail lashing beneath her robe as she padded back up the staircase to our right. “Into the parlor with you; I’ll be with you after I put a kettle on.”
Inside, the manor was crammed to the rafters with books and scrolls. Shelves covered the walls, and bins lined the floor. Here and there among the stacks were knick-knacks and trinkets, odd bits of metal or crystal or stone. Animal skeletons strung together with wire shared space with star-charts and maps of the winds. The narrow hall wound past the stairwell and into a small parlor filled with more texts and artifacts. Several padded chairs sat clustered around a small table, and covered witchlights hung from sconces stationed among the piles. Mister Dion pulled me close on the leash and said softly, “Sit, and touch nothing.” All the humor was gone from his voice. “Anything in this place could be dangerous.”
Lacking any other options, I knelt beside Mister Dion’s chair, bowed my head, and waited. The air was still and dry, filled with dust and a number of musty scents that defied description. When a tickle in my nose made me cough, the room echoed with the sound. I shifted uncomfortably on my knees, while Mister Dion contented himself by playing with my leash. Several minutes went past before Aura returned, squeezing into the room past her books. She’d changed into a red blouse and brown skirt, and around her neck hung a chain from which dangled a heavy silver medallion set with a number of small crystals. “Kettle’s on. So what’s this about Erik?” Her voice was brusque, but there was genuine concern tucked away inside of it.
Mister Dion grimaced and shrugged. “It’s not the baron himself, so much. It’s Jazinsk. There’s been much talk of light harvests over the border; you’ve heard that much, I’m sure.”
Aura scowled. “I’ve heard, and seen. Lots of full wagons leave from here, and only a few come back full. The mining’s been good, so I hear, but you can’t eat metal out of the ground. That doesn’t cover Erik, though.”
“Patience, patience.” My owner chuckled softly. “You really haven’t changed, have you?” He sighed. “The truth is that ever since the baron appointed me envoy to Jazinsk, I’ve heard a number of cold words. There are some in the court that still blame him for his mother’s death, and—”
“I asked you of Erik, Dion,” Aura interrupted sharply. She dropped into a chair and crossed one knee over the other, smoothing her skirt. “I don’t want to hear of Melka; there’s nothing more to be done for her. Keep yourself focused.”
Mister Dion rolled his eyes. “I am focused, Aura,” he said drily. “You wanted to know about the baron and how he’s changed. Before I can tell you that, I have to explain what’s happened. You’re not at the court any more; you don’t have all the information. Now, may I finish?” At Aura’s quick head-bob, he continued. “So, as I was saying, a fair number in Barony Jazinsk’s court still bear a grudge against Deterikh, and now they’ve had a heavy winter to compound their troubles. I just came back from their court, where a fair amount of harsh language was leveled in my direction, including subtle accusations of their hardships all somehow being our fault.”
“Fools,” Aura grumbled, shaking her head. “As if we could control the weather. Not for lack of interest, mind you, but it’d take more alchemy than the whole of the barony could muster.” She shrugged. “Continue, please.”
“Of course, of course.” Mister Dion smiled and sank back into his chair. “The Jazinski are asking the impossible, of course, but therein lies the issue. Our relations with them have been on rough ground for some time; this has only made it worse. Baron Deterikh’s father passed on, and in the wake of his death, there have been… grumblings… around the court.” He rested he elbows on his knees and steepled his fingers before his muzzle. “You’ve heard, I’m sure, that he’s pressed three more squads into service, and right before planting season.”
“I had, yes.” Aura’s voice lost some of its edge. “I wondered why.”
The envoy shook his head. “I doubt there’s any need to wonder. Sharp tongues are rattling, and swords may follow. It’s all well and good to defend ourselves, but I fear the young baron may be seeking to prove himself, to the memory of his father or his own sense of incompleteness, I don’t know.”
Aura’s eyes narrowed once more, but her voice stayed even. “So why the slave?”
“Oh, yes.” I felt Mister Dion’s gaze on top of my head, but I kept my own eyes carefully downward. “I wanted to make sure the young baron’s temper had an appropriate outlet. If having a ready means to cool his passions means sparing us a war, I’m all for it. That’s why I brought him to you; I’ve some… changes… I’d like you to make to him.” That made my cheeks flush and my ears redden.
The words brought a dark chuckle out of the raccoon. “I can only imagine what you might have in mind. Dion, consider. You’re asking me to put my skills to work for you after the Deterikh court told me my services were no longer needed. What makes you think, even for a moment, that I’d be willing to help you?”
Dion’s voice fell to a near-whisper. “Aura, I’m asking you to help me give Erik a target for his anger so that we don’t have to worry about him taking it out on our neighbors and dragging us into a war that neither side can afford. You know he’s conscious of his heritage.” His paw touched the back of my head. “This one’s Jazinski and ought to serve as a good substitute for Erik’s political ambitions, and given this one’s parentage, there shouldn’t be any… confusions.”
Aura’s eyes flashed in response. “I told you to leave Melka out of this, Dion. I won’t warn you again.” She sighed and rose from her seat. “Fine, you’ll have my help. The kettle’s surely ready by now, and I’ve got plenty of tea. Tie him here and follow me into the kitchen; we’ll discuss what you want done with him.”