Bonds of Silver, Bonds of Gold 13: Swindle (Part 3)

At Mister Dion’s words, Miss Datsia’s ears perked atop her head and her tail bushed out behind her. Her muzzle hung slightly open, and she blinked, as if too surprised to respond otherwise. Once the initial shock of the news passed, though, her shoulders fell and she let out a long and heavy sigh. Then her head bowed, and a slow smile spread across her muzzle. She looked nothing in that moment as much as relieved. “Excellent, Dion. Has this been confirmed?”

The vole nodded in response, matching the wolfess’ grin with his own. “The team Valentin sent to retrieve him just returned with the news; he and Inika retrieved the Baron’s horse from the Jazinsk border, along with a spear that Chelin identified as his. They found no sign of young Erik, but forward spotters said they saw a wagon, heavily escorted, headed towards Krolik. Short of word from Baron Jazinsk himself, I would say that we have as much proof as we need, Regent.”

Miss Datsia smiled. “Good, that will make his tale all the stronger.” She sighed and walked to the table, then leaned against it with both paws. “The barony is safe, for the moment, but we still have much to do.”

Mister Valentin nodded in response. “Agreed. I’ll go tell the guard to stand down.” He crossed his arms and turned to the vole. “Chelin won’t be in any state to ride. Dion, go get ready. I know you’ve just returned, but we need to get the Regent’s offer of peace to the Jazinskis before—”

“Cancel that,” The elder wolfess interrupted. “Dion, head to the border and begin the advance as we discussed.” She reached over to one of the many sheafs of paper, then pulled one free and tapped on it with a clawtip. “Keep your pace slow; you won’t be leading veterans this time. I don’t care if you take a week to get to Krolik. Just keep your casualties down until you’re at the city gates. You’re going to need as many spears as you can get inside the walls to deal with their—”

The lynx turned to Miss Datsia with an incredulous stare. “What? You said once Erik was gone that you’d negotiate peace with Jazinsk!”

Deterikh’s captain turned to Mister Valentin, her expression level. “Your point being?”

The sergeant-at-arms narrowed his eyes. “I said I would help you get the throne out from under Erik’s temper. I didn’t say I would help you use it to start a war.”

Miss Datsia’s tone didn’t change, faintly amused and patronizing. “Valentin, you’re a good soldier, but you just don’t have the guile necessary to make a good leader. The Jazinskis declared war on us. They’re hungry from a year of poor crops, so their troops will be weak. They’ve taken Erik into custody, so we have a martyr for the cause. If there’s a better time to expand our borders, I can’t imagine it.”

“So.” Mister Valentin scowled and crossed his arms. “Are you saying all of this… this was just to grab a piece of Jazinsk?”

Miss Datsia’s ears flattened and her tail bristled. “Of course not!” she snapped. “My goal was, and will always be, to ensure the well-being and future of the barony. Every ruler takes that oath. I saw a chance to solve two of her biggest problems at once, and with your help, we solved them.”

The lynx paused for a few seconds, then asked too lightly, “What problems do you mean?”

“Oh, come now, Valentin,” Mister Dion interjected. “Don’t play at being the innocent; that wide-eyed look of confusion doesn’t become you.”

The wolfess favored Mister Valentin with a patronizing smile. “The Jazinskis have been a thorn in Deterikh’s side for over a generation. The southern Ezustia Range is ours by right—”

“Oh, Great Family,” Mister Valentine groaned, putting a paw over his muzzle. “We lost those mines twenty years ago!”

“We gave them away twenty years ago!” Miss Datsia snarled in response, passion showing in her voice since she first heard my master had been captured. “My brother’s second-worst mistake on the throne.”

Mister Valentin’s ears flattened against his head. “Oh, and what was his first, falling in love?”

Miss Datsia turned sharply away from the table. “Valentin!” As soon as she snapped, she drew in a deep breath and visibly composed herself, then held out her paws placatingly. “Please. Do you think me that heartless? Melka and I were never close, but I don’t resent Wilik for loving her. No, it’s what he did afterwards that was unconscionable.”

The lynx was unimpressed. “You mean giving her a son.”

“I mean taking an unimaginable risk with the barony, staking her future on that….” She glanced down at the fist she’d raised in front of her and lowered her arm back to her side. “That unstable whelp.”

“That ‘unstable whelp’ was my friend,” Mister Valentin retorted.

“Oh, of course he was!” Mister Dion laughed. “That was why you stabbed him in the back.”

The sergeant-at-arms rounded on his accuser, one finger pointing accusingly. His fist shook. “Don’t push me, Dion.”

Mister Dion leaned back against the wall, unphased. “Or else… what, precisely?”

“Just…” Mister Valentin stood still for a moment, then turned away, dropping his arms as he slumped. “Don’t.”

“Oh, poor Valentin,” The vole cooed around a smug smile. “Having an attack of conscience? Life is so much easier without one. Still, isn’t it a bit late to grow one? You did volunteer to help with this.”

Mister Valentin tensed but his voice remained weary. “I haven’t forgotten what I agreed to do. I also haven’t forgotten why.”

Miss Datsia stepped towards the lynx and put her paw on his shoulder. “Valentin, you’ve said it yourself. He didn’t have the mettle he needed to be baron.”

Mister Valentin didn’t raise his head or his voice. “You mean he wasn’t ready to go to war with the Jazinskis.”

“I mean he would’ve given into every demand made of him, then lashed out blindly with twelve times the strength he needed.” Miss Datsia’s tone was gentle but firm. She waved her free paw in my direction. “You saw what he did with just his fists. Imagine if he’d had an army at his disposal.”

The lynx turned to look at Miss Datsia, then followed her arm. His eyes met mine, and for the first time since he entered the room, he seemed to see me. “Listen, Datsia… maybe he’d have been fine if he’d actually been allowed to be the baron. I don’t think you ever gave him that chance.”

Miss Datsia shook her head in response. “No, I never did. It wouldn’t have been worth the risk to the barony.”

“And fighting the Jazinskis’ war is?” Mister Valentin asked in response. His eyes remained on mine, weary at the corners but still faintly smiling.

The wolfess’ ears flattened against her head. “Yes, I think it is.” She looked at me, and she smiled again, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “About that slave, though. Dion, as much as your suggestion appalled me, I must admit it worked beautifully. My congratulations to you for that. You have your orders.”

The vole snapped to attention and nodded sharply. “Regent.” Then he turned and walked out of the parlor.

Miss Datsia waited until the door had closed behind her envoy, then turned to face her sergeant-at-arms. “Valentin, Erik was your friend, and I understand that, but your loyalty must be to the office, not the holder of that office. You understand that, correct?”

The lynx’s expression hardened. “I do, yes.”

“Good.” Miss Datsia chuckled mirthlessly and walked over to the door. “You did what was necessary, and you played your part well. Now I need you to help me fill in the last few holes. We need to dispose of that slave.”

My blood ran cold at Miss Datsia’s words, and Mister Valentin’s eyes went wide. “But… Taneh had nothing to do with this!”

The wolfess gave an exaggerated sigh. “I’m aware of that, but again, it’s too much a risk. What if someone compels it to talk? I don’t like it either, but it’s the only way.”

The sergeant-at-arms’ paws went out, pads up, pleading. “Listen, Datsia, it doesn’t have to be like this. I’ll take em to Aura’s, have eir memory wiped. Ey doesn’t—”

“That’s not good enough!” Barony Deterikh’s regent barked. She sighed again, forcing her ears upright. “It’s still too risky, Valentin. Everything we’ve done will be for nothing if word gets out of what happened. The only way to ensure success is to silence anyone who would speak out. We can’t have it running around the keep, and we can’t sell it. That only leaves one option. Can I count on you to finish this… Captain?”

Mister Valentin’s eyes closed, and my blood froze solid when next he spoke. “Yes… Baroness.”