With Mister Dion and Aura out of the room, I had little to do but wait. At the edges of my hearing, I could tell that they were talking, but I couldn’t make out any words. I tried to still my heart and hold my breath, but the best I could do was pick out their voices and the muffled clatter of porcelain. I shifted uncomfortably on my knees, unable to keep from wondering what they were discussing. I knew, at some level, the answer was me, but beyond that, I could only imagine. Mister Dion had said he had changes he wanted made, but I wasn’t sure what he meant. Given who had said it, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. No doubt I would be finding out soon enough.
I caught myself shivering and forced myself to breathe slowly, regularly. My fingers felt numb, and my chest hurt. I was scared, in ways I hadn’t been in months. At the Blue Moon, I hadn’t been happy, but at least I’d been safe. Once I’d learned my routines, everything had become habit. I could trust that given day would be much like another. Now, though, I had no idea what was going to happen to me, and it shook me to the bones. I felt fairly sure my life was safe, if they were going through all this effort, but beyond that, little of what Mister Dion and Aura had discussed had made any sense, and I was feeling very lost, and very frightened. I tried to quiet myself, to get my heart under control, but the calm refused to return.
Fortunately, I soon heard a door open, and Aura’s voice suddenly grew louder. “… right bastard, Dion; that hasn’t changed.” She pushed her way into the room, then leaned on the back of the chair beside me. “So, I’ll have him to you as soon as I’m done with him. It should be three weeks; but it won’t be less and it could be more. It’s all in how pliant he is. Half in a week, regardless of his state, and half when I bring him to the baron. Agreed?”
Mister Dion walked up to my side and bent to take my leash. “Agreed.” He then held out his other paw to her.
Aura took the proffered paw, but her fingers clenched tightly around the vole’s, her eyes narrowing. “See to it that you keep to your end of this, Dion,” the sage half-growled. “You won’t enjoy the consequences if I have to come looking for what I’m rightfully owed.”
The vole let out a gasp, his breath audibly catching in his throat. “Yes, yes, I agree.” His voice was even fainter than normal, barely a whisper that he seemed to struggle to make.
“I know you do,” the raccoon continued. “You haven’t any choice in the matter.” Her other paw closed around back of Mister Dion’s, and the vole began to visibly shake. “Covenant made, Dion, son of Lazlo, of Barony Deterikh, and sealed until kept or broken. For your sake, it had better be kept.” Then she bent and pressed her muzzle to the back of her paw.
Mister Dion cried out and jerked his fingers free of the raccoon’s grasp as if yanking them from a fire. “What… why in the stars?”
Aura smiled, but her eyes remained dark. “Consider this a promise, that you’ll have the results you want. In exchange, I’ll have the guarantee that you’ll actually return with my coin, and that when I arrive at the gates, you won’t let Datsia’s guards fill me with arrows while you escort your present inside. Now, I believe our business is done here, and I have work to do.” She took the free end of my leash from Mister Dion’s other paw. “If you’ll excuse me, you know the way out.”
For once, my owner seemed at a loss for words. He half-stumbled backwards, hastily bowed and doffed his cap at the parlor door, then turned and practically fled for the front door. After it slammed shut behind him, the sage bent and unclasped the leash from my neck. “I thought he would never leave. I hadn’t planned on a houseguest, but we’ll make do. Up with you. What’s your name?”
I rose but kept my silence, knowing what I’d been told of names. Several seconds passed before Aura put a paw on my shoulder and turned me to face her. “Listen to me, boy.” Her voice had regained a hint of edge to it. “No doubt you’ve been well-trained to do as you’re told, but as of now, that won’t be enough. To do all the things that I’ve been asked to do, I’m going to need the kind of response that comes from knowing what to do without having to be told. To get that from someone who doesn’t know the first thing about what’s happening….” Suddenly, her posture shifted; it wasn’t a change in stance or position, so much as a sudden release of tension throughout her entire figure. A smile, genuinely warm and tender, settled on her muzzle, and she held out a paw to me. “You’re going to have to trust me.”
I blinked, ears flat against my head, looking down at her proffered paw in confusion. Then I grasped it in my own, clutching it like a holdfast in a storm. “It’s… it’s Stannis, Miss Aura.”
“Just ‘Aura’ is fine for now,” the sage corrected. “Stannis, good. Follow me, Stannis.” She teased her fingers free of mine, then turned and led me past the overstuffed shelves, then up the stairs and down a short hall to an open room with a hardwood floor. In front of one window was a tube on some kind of makeshift stand. A desk and chair sat in front of that, with an open notebook and charcoals. In the middle of the room was a low circular table covered in symbols; atop it sat several smoked glass spheres, each engraved with another mark. Charts upon charts of tiny symbols hung from the walls, and what space wasn’t covered in those held still more stacks of books and scrolls. Faded and scuffed chalk lines criss-crossed the floor. “What was your father’s name, and do you know when you were born?”
I stood near the doorway, transfixed by the sight. As soon as I crossed the threshold into the room, the air smelled of rain, and a tingle lingered in the space, like a warm breeze after a thunderstorm. “Jedrik, mi—Aura.” I shook my head; had I really adapted to my condition so quickly? “It was… midsummer, eighteen years ago. A day before services, my mother said.”
“Eighteen… yes, here.” She ran a clawtip along one shelf, then pulled one of the books. “A day before services in midsummer.” She flipped pages quickly, then started scanning through it. “Had the early harvest started yet?”
I bit my lip, trying to remember what I’d been told. “I’m not sure I know. Father used to joke of being scolded for taking me out for raspberries off the bush before I could open my eyes.”
Aura nodded in response, then flipped another page. “Ah!” She rapped a knuckle against the book. “Bless Iladin and his pedantry. Fourth of Lipi, first bushel of raspberries in the market square. They’d have been harvested a few days before, so services on the last day of Chervi, which puts on you on the twenty-ninth. Remember that, Stannis.”
“The twenty-ninth of Chervi,” I repeated. “Okay, but… why? And who is Iladin?”
Aura hefted the book as she walked over to one of the charts on the wall and ran a clawtip down its length. “He writes almanacs and keeps one of the strictest diaries in Deterikh. If you need to know what day something happened in a given year, he’s the one to ask. So, that said, let’s see… fourth of Lipi.”
“Twenty-ninth of Chervi, miss,” I corrected.
The sage grinned at me over her shoulder. “Good, you’re learning, but don’t call me ‘miss’.”
I blushed. “Yes, Aura.”
Aura’s grin spread and her tail hooked in amusement. “If you’re really this quick a study, you’ll do fine.” She grabbed the open book and a stick of charcoal off of her desk, then made some quick notes before walking back to the symbol-laden table. She took the glass spheres and began placing them around the edges. Once she was done, she stepped back and cupped her muzzle in one paw, crossing the other arm around her waist. She stared at the arrangement for some time, then finally waved at it. “Interesting, but it tells me what I need to know.”
I hesitantly stepped forward, wincing as my shackles rattled noisily on the hardwood floor. “What is it?”
“Hmm?” The raccoon’s head lifted, and her eyes went wide. “Oh! Oh, heavens. Those won’t do.” She looked around the room quickly, then walked out the door. “Stand there, don’t move.” She was back a few moments later, carrying a kerchief and a vial. She knelt beside me and daubbed a few drops from the glass tube onto her cloth, then carefully folded it and rubbed at one of the links near my ankle. After a few moments of vigorous polishing, I heard a clank, and I looked down to see the end of the chain sitting on the floor! The other side vanished as quickly, and then she stood behind my back and did the same for the bar on my manacles. “There, should have done that an hour ago.”
I rolled my shoulders, trying to work some of the pain and numbness from them; they burned, but it was a good burn, an ache of use after being still too long. “Thank you. But… why? How did you do that? And what did you do to Mister Dion?”
Aura shook the vial in front of me. “Sage’s water; it dissolves metals, but naught else. I told you you would have to trust me; that’s easier to earn than demand. As for Dion….” She grinned and shrugged. “I promised him I’d do what I said, and I gave him a reason to do the same. When you don’t know what alchemy looks like, any ritual can be a powerful one if it’s done right.” She punctuated her words with a faint snort and a giggle, tail waving.
I stared, muzzle agape for a few moments, then burst into laughter. After so long, that moment of humor felt like a crack in the wall holding back a flood of emotion. Soon I was on my back, covering my muzzle with my paws, cackling and gasping for breath. For several minutes, all I could do was laugh and marvel at the events that had brought me to this point in my life.
As the spasms subsided and I wiped the tears from my eyes, Aura approached and held out a paw to me. “Do you think you can trust me, Stannis?”
I nodded and took her paw in my own. “Yes, Aura.”
“Good,” she said as she pulled me back to my hinds. “Then we can begin.”