I stayed in bed for an hour after Mister Valentin’s departure, but no position remained comfortable for long. Despite the rest and the sage’s tending, I hurt from the top of my head to my knees. A dull pain throbbed in my side, my stomach felt knotted, my back’s complaints from lying down had become a full protest, and the emptiness between my legs had returned. I knew Master Iladin would be back soon, as would Mister Valentin, but I needed a distraction from all of my aches.
It took some effort—and a fair bit of pain—to get my legs over the side of the bed, but soon I had my hinds on the floor and my paws on the edge of the mattress. Everything spasmed as I pushed myself upright, but I managed to put my weight on my legs without them collapsing. The first steps were difficult; it felt as if things inside me were moving that had no business being able to do so. I wrapped my arms around my waist, though, and I focused on making one step, then another, slowly turning a circle about the room. I felt myself favoring my left leg, which was little surprise; that side had taken the brunt of my master’s kicks.
Once I knew I could walk without toppling, I gathered my chains as best as I could to keep them from swinging and limped carefully to the door. Mister Valentin had left it open, and the witchlights in the parlor remained uncovered. Unfurled scrolls and other sheets of papers lay strewn about the main table, with half-empty teacups around its edges. Plates sat stacked on a wooden plank at one end, still covered in scraps. At the other, the baron’s teapot held a few last cold dregs. One of the chairs sat on its side, another on its back. From the state of the room, the formal council had gone about as poorly as my master’s mood had.
It hurt to bend, to move even the relatively light chairs, but the need to feel useful even in my master’s absence moved me to straighten the room. What made it difficult, though, was the paintings that hung on the walls. From their vantage point on high, six generations of barons past stared down upon me as I did my best to tidy the parlor, righting furniture and gathering cups. I couldn’t bring myself to meet their gaze as I worked, and the longer I walked around, the more uncomfortable I became. My master’s father, Wilik, stood in the last frame. Unlike the portrait in the bedroom, he stood alone in this picture, dressed in full regalia. Painted in his prime, his fur held only a few patches of white, and he stood as straight as the spear at his side. His eyes were the same gold as his son’s, large and bright, with hints of weariness at the corners, as of a soldier who had seen one battle too many. The line of his muzzle was flat, his ears erect; it was hard not to read his expression as a scowl, disapproving and disappointed.
I flinched as I met the portrait’s stare, then lowered my eyes again. “I’m sorry, sir,” I said aloud, addressing my master’s father. “I never knew you, or what you thought of your son, but I can only hope that he’s made you proud.” I swallowed heavily, feeling at once like a fool and a fraud. I hadn’t prayed since my father died, and I didn’t even know if I had permission to speak, but I felt the need to help, somehow. “I don’t know if the Great Family listens to you, sir, but my master… your son… is in a great deal of trouble. He’s probably scared, and lost, and….” I drew in a deep breath and let it out. “I know I’m just a slave, and I have no right to ask, but if you could ask Oshka to protect him until he’s home, sir, it would mean a lot to me.”
“One good thing about the dead,” Mister Dion intoned behind me, “is that they have very little to say.” I spun, ears flattening against my head, to see the vole, dressed in a loose cotton shirt and trousers, leaning against the doorframe. A mace hung from a heavy leather belt around his waist, with a scabbard tucked against the other hip. Bandages encircled his lower left leg. “It makes them better company than brash young slaves who speak altogether too much.”
I blushed, my chest tight. All of my resolve to stand up to the unctuous envoy melted in the hot embarrassment of being called on my misbehavior. “Yes, sir.” My paws shook and I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach.
The envoy smiled and limped into the room. “Much, much better. Have you seen Valentin about? I have news for him.”
My heart skipped a beat. Could my prayers have been answered? “Has my master returned?”
The vole’s ears rose and his eyes shone. “Well, his horse has, at least.” At that, the pit in my stomach yawned wide and my blood ran cold, but Mister Dion continued, heedless of my expression. “Most regrettably, it seems as though the Jazinski have accepted his quite generous offer to exchange himself for a temporary truce.” He doffed his cap and held it to his chest. “A young martyr for his country. His sacrifice will be remembered.”
My jaw rose and fell for several moments, but no sound escaped me. An invisible paw held my chest in a death-grip. I finally managed to whisper, “Is he…?” I couldn’t bring myself to finish.
“Oh, no, no,” the vole replied, still smiling. “They won’t just kill him. They’ll want a full trial, to make an example of him as a warning to others.” He snickered. “What better way to deter others who would spoil their harvests and corrupt their citizens?”
My eyes went wide; the envoy’s words were a jumble in my ears. “Spoil their… but he had—” I stopped and blinked. “Corrupt, sir?”
Mister Dion let out a chuckle. “Oh, my, my, such delicious innocence.” He motioned towards me with his paw. “Just imagine what Baron Jazinsk had to say when he learned of what our teenaged tyrant had done to a Jazinski slave, to say nothing of what he then did with em. And in the middle of court, no less. Scandalous.” His paw went to his muzzle in mock embarrassment.
The implications of the envoy’s statements hit me like a blow to the chest, and my knees went weak. I dropped heavily into one of the chairs I’d just righted. “You… lied to them. None of that is true.”
“None of it?” The vole clucked his tongue as he limped over to the table. “I’d say a fair bit of it is. More than enough to make the rest seem plausible.” He leered as he approached, one paw at the hilt of his mace. “You were quite lovely at the end of his leash.”
My stomach twisted; his stare felt greasy. My voice rose in a plaintive wail. “But you brought me here! You were the—”
“—the one who took you to Aura’s, on the baron’s orders,” Mister Dion interrupted, his voice oozing smug amusement. “Yes, I was.” He took hold of my chains in his free paw. I tried to shove him away, but without fingers I could only push on his wrists, which made him laugh. “I really must compliment you, Stannis. You’ve played your part in this beautifully, even if you didn’t know it.”
At the mention of the name, the world went grey at the edges of my vision and a chill settled into my paws and hinds. It was as if the sun had risen in my mind, burning away the fog that had settled over my memory. I sank back against the back of the chair and lifted my mutilated paws before my eyes to stare at them. “You… did this to me. All of it.” I looked up at Mister Dion, voice hollow. “Why?”
The vole shrugged. “Would the truth please you? Because I wanted to do it. Because I enjoyed it. Because I could. Do you need more reason than that? You’ll have to ask the others.”
“The others?” I dropped my paws back to my lap, then flinched as they neared my waist. I didn’t want to think about what else had been done to me.
Mister Dion nodded, his grin spreading. “When they arrive, I’ll let them—oh, good, good, they’re here.” Miss Datsia stepped through the doorway, dressed in a tan jacket and dark green skirt, similarly armed to the envoy. Mister Valentin followed close behind her, in a button-down shirt and cotton pants, carrying a spear loosely in his paws. I tried to catch his gaze, but his face was a glass-eyed mask. The longer I stared at him, the deeper my heart sank into the pit of my stomach.
The sergeant-at-arms turned to Mister Dion with a yawn, having given no sign of even seeing me in the room. “You said you had news?”
“Oh, yes, yes.” Dion nodded to the lynx, then turned to Miss Datsia. “Your nephew is in Jazinski custody. As of roughly six hours ago, you are Regent of Barony Deterikh.”