Miss Aura’s carriage wasn’t the pinnacle of comfort or speed, but considering what took me from the Slavers’ Guildhall to the auction site, it was better than some. It certainly wasn’t as plush or luxurious as Mister Dion’s, but the bench on which I sat had quilted padding, and the roof was sealed against the rain. The ride was rough, and the light rain made the dirt roads muddy and slick. She might have been the wisest sage in the barony for all I knew, but Miss Aura handled the team pulling her wagon like a mother trying to herd kits. I fought down a bitter laugh; she gave better care to her horse than she gave me the night before, and no doubt they’d at least get a rubdown and a dry stable in which to sleep.
Despite the morning weather’s best efforts, the trip itself had been surprisingly short; we passed through the gates into the capital of Barony Deterikh well before midday. The rain had slowed to a misting, with patches of sunlight breaking through the clouds. The main street was cobbled, wide enough for two carts to pass each other and lined with shops and inns, leading to a dusty courtyard centered with a well and littered with troughs and hitching points. A few scattered tents across the space invited a small crowd to them, leaving most of the grounds bare. Guards in green and white livery loitered the edges of the empty market; they turned to watch Miss Aura’s cart as it rolled past them, watching with casual detachment as we passed, heading towards the inner wall.
The station at the inner gate was far more attentive; a pair of guards stood directly in the road, with two more to either side, while I saw at least one standing on the wall, a crossbow clutched to his chest. As the carriage approached, a lanky lynx in familiar colors over a chain shirt and leather leggings stepped out from the gatehouse. He held out one paw and stepped into the path of the rig, out of my line of sight. “Welcome to Baris,” he boomed out in a low tenor. “What business have you with the baron?” Miss Aura’s reply was too quiet for me to make out words, drawing the guard into a murmured conversation, while I strained to hear and struggled not to listen. I caught mention of the the name Erik from each of them, and Mister Dion’s as well, but their voices were too soft for me to catch more than tone.
It took little enough for the two of them to come to an arrangement; Miss Aura sounded bored and the guard indifferent, and after a few exchanges, the lynx stepped back into view, waving the others to him. To one of the pair, a stocky wolf, he beckoned, then motioned to the inner keep. “Fetch Dion, tell him he’s got a visitor with a package.” His eyes swept back to the carriage. “Won’t be long; he’s my fastest—who’s that?” His green eyes snapped to mine, and I dropped instinctively. “Hey!” Solid hindfalls scuffled against cobblestone as the guard approached, followed by a rattle of the door as the lynx seized the handle. “Who’s in there?”
The sage called down from the seat, “That’s the package I mentioned, a special order for Dion.” The carriage shook slightly, followed by a thud and muffled curse. “Taneh, show yourself!” Miss Aura shouted, a sudden tinge of irritation in her voice. Quickly, I fumbled with the door, clumsily gripping the handle between my paws and twisting to open the latch. I hopped down from the seat, then quickly dropped to my knees and lowered my gaze. “See for yourself, sergeant,” The raccoon grumbled, leaning heavily on one wheel, gripping one of her hinds in the other paw. “You can inspect em all you like, but ey’s not mine, or won’t be once Dion gets back with the rest of my coin,” she grumbled, though whether at Dion or the pain I couldn’t say.
“Em?” The sergeant’s brows rose and his head cocked to the side. His eartufts were shockingly white against his grey cheekfur. He turned to me and knelt, then pulled back sharply. “Oh.” My cheeks flushed sharply at his one-word response, while the need within me swelled in answer.
“I don’t ask,” Miss Aura said, wincing as she tested her weight on her hind. She hissed sharply. “That’s a sprain if not more.”
The lynx turned to her, visibly relaxing as he put me literally behind him. “I can have Inika fetch our physic as soon as Chelin returns.”
“No need,” Miss Aura replied, shaking her head. “I’ve a lunch with Iladin, he’ll tend it and I’ll check his work. Just help me back to the seat.” The sergeant moved to assist, and together they lifted the sage back onto the driver’s bench. “Can’t be too much—and there you are, Dion,” she called out to the vole as he approached, following the wolf that had been sent to retrieve him.
“It is, yes,” Mister Dion replied with a bow, doffing his cap. His shirt was dark brown beneath with a vest worn over in Deterikh green, with his cape around his shoulders. “So, let’s see your work.”
Miss Aura sighed. “As you will. Taneh, rise.”
At that, I stood, returning my paws to my side. I felt as much as heard the vole’s approaching steps, his eyes as they inspected Miss Aura’s results. “Well, well, well,” the vole murmured appreciatively as he circled me. “I must say you’ve outdone yourself, Aura. I had some idea of what to expect, but this!” His voice dropped and a single finger brushed the edge of one of my ears; it took every ounce of will not to jerk my head away from his touch. “Very nicely done.”
“You knew I did good work, Dion,” The sage called down from her seat. “Come up here; let’s talk coin and other matters.” Mister Dion climbed up into the carriage seat beside her, and the two fell into hasty whispers. I heard the rustle of papers, and then silence, followed an appreciative whistle and more quick murmurs. Then suddenly, as if to cover an uncomfortable pause, Aura spoke too loudly, “So, that’s that, then. Ey’s all yours, once you’ve paid for the work.”
“What’s that?” Mister Dion sounded faintly confused for a moment, then quickly regained his composure. “Oh, yes, payment. Here.” Another rustling of paper followed. “A letter of intent to the exchequer, payable upon delivery. I trust that’s as good as coin? You can draw your funds at the mint before you leave.”
“And it lets you claim an extra two days’ interest while the exchequer scrabbles for enough loose coin to fill the request. You’re still a right bastard, Dion.” The sergeant and his retinue all snickered in response, but Miss Aura just sounded tired. “I’ve got a sprain to tend and lunch is waiting. I can’t wait for you to find the silver yourself. Give me your paw.” She grasped Mister Dion’s fingers in hers. “Covenant kept,” she intoned, then bowed her head and kissed the back of his paw.
When she rose again, her gaze briefly caught mine, and she winked.
“Good, good!” The vole said, too cheerfully as he hopped back down from Miss Aura’s carriage. “It’s been a pleasure working with you on this, Aura, it truly has. You really should come to Baris more often; we don’t see nearly enough of you these days.”
“And I see all too much of Datsia as it is,” Miss Aura retorted. “The next time you have need of me, send one of your guards to schedule a visit first.” She gave a salute to the guard, then a nod to Dion, and then tugged the reins on her team and steered them carefully back and away from the gate.
The snap of a clasp at my neck reminded me of the collar still encircling it and the leash once again attached. “So, Taneh—was that what she called you?”
I shivered but nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Mister Dion chuckled. “Of course, since it is your name, after all.” He paused a moment, but when I said nothing, he merely smiled and started walking, pulling me behind him. “I’ll want to replace those irons of yours before tonight,” he said. “There’s still time for that yet, though.” We crossed a bridge over a dry moat, then passed into the keep proper. “I’ve your new set waiting for you; I think you’ll approve. First, though…” He paused, then ducked his head down to my ear. “Little light.”
My blood ran cold and my cheeks burned, but in the time I thought to snap my head up and look at him, that familiar warmth and mental fog settled into place and it was all I could to to keep from falling flat. “I am ready,” I murmured, eyes closing as the heaviness settled back into my limbs.
The Deterikh envoy clapped like an eager child. “My, my. I don’t know where to begin. Tell me, how are you feeling?”
“Scared,” I confessed, the word instant. “Relaxed, aroused.”
“Good,” was Mister Dion’s instant response as he pulled on my leash, dragging me behind him. “On all counts. Let’s away to my room, shall we? I’m eager to test the rest of her craftsmanship.”