The Jazinski sergeant pounded the end of his staff against the floor, bellowing over the raucous crowd, trying to restore order. The audience, however, was having none of it, trying to shout down my master. They hurled threats and insults in equal measure, along with the occasional wooden mug or spoon. Through it all, my master stood at rest, with his paws behind his back and his head held high. His gaze fell naturally on the elderly baron, who stared, slack-muzzled, at the intruder in his court. The guards guarding Mister Erik similarly gaped, as did most of the baron’s retinue.
Most surprising to me, though, was Mister Erik’s reaction: he hung his head, his ears flattened against his skull, and his tail curled between his legs. Far from joy at the prospect of salvation or rescue, he showed every signs of having been caught at something. He looked almost… ashamed.
Upon that realization, it felt as though all the stars had suddenly lined up, just so, in my mind: Erik’s fascination with my changes, his halfhearted offers of abdication, his flight from the throne, his willing surrender. When war had come to Barony Deterikh, he hit the same breaking point that I had when my father died. I spun to Miss Aura and jabbed an arm towards the prisoner at the front of the hall. “He’s—”
The jerk of my chain cut off my words, as the sage bent to hiss into my ear. “Twenty-ninth of Chervi, eighteen summers ago; the stars don’t lie, pet.”
Her mention of my birthday made me start, but a second tug at my neck made me turn back to the floor, where the baron had recovered from the shock. “Guards!” His cry seemed to shake the very hall, shocking the audience to quiet. Instantly, the hall flooded with a wave of soldiers in yellow tunics, their swords drawn.
At the first rattle of steel, my master took a single step forward and dropped to his knees, his arms thrust overhead. “Your Excellency, I throw myself upon the mercy of the court and ask to speak on behalf of the defendant!”
The sergeant-at-arms raised his staff and shook it defiantly at my master. “What gives you reason to think you have any right to speak here?”
My master didn’t move, nor did he lower his arms. “Your Excellency, I ask only for the same chance as any other commoner before the court, to present my case and be heard!” His voice remained level, but he was clearly watching the baron’s guards as they circled the chamber, cutting off his escape.
The Jazinski sergeant gestured towards my master with the staff, then towards the front door. “How did you get in here? What blackguard has betrayed Barony Jazinsk?”
At that, Miss Rena stood and stepped beside my master. “I did, Your Excellency,” she said, addressing the baron directly. “I received word that he had evidence to present at Erik’s trial; I agreed to give him that chance.”
“The alchemist,” the baron spat. “Should have known you were in league with them.”
“I serve the truth, Your Excellency,” Miss Rena replied cautiously. “I have rarely questioned your judgment in the past, nor have you mine, and your rule has been long and prosperous. I can only hope this continues.”
Baron Jazinsk put one paw on the hilt of his sword. “It was a mistake, one I won’t make again. Should’ve hanged the lot of you.” He spun to face his sergeant and waved his free arm at Miss Rena. “Put them with the prisoner; they can all face the gibbet together.”
At that, the sergeant blinked. “Your Excellency?”
The elderly baron’s grip on his sword visibly tightened, his arm shaking slightly. “Is there a problem, Dagos?”
Mister Dagos held very still for a moment, then shook his head. “No, Your Excellency.”
The baron returned to his throne and fell upon it heavily. “Then let the trial begin!” At that, the crowd launched into a raucous cheer that made my heart pound in my chest.
The sergeant, however, seemed rather unnerved by this turn of events. He turned to Miss Rena, then waved her over with his staff. My master followed behind her, and the guards around them closed in upon the trio. They sheathed their swords, but to a one they stood with their paws on their pommels, obviously waiting for the order to strike.
Once the three had been crowded together before the dais, Mister Dagos again cracked his staff against the ground. “Valentin, son of Freder. You speak on behalf of Erik, son of Wilik, Baron Deterikh. How plead ye?”
“Not guilty on all counts, Your Excellency,” my master replied, his voice rising above the jeers of the crowd.
The sergeant turned to face the audience. “On the crime of turning the land against Barony Jazinsk, what do you have to say for the fact that we suffered the worst winter in twenty years, while Deterikh barely notices the cold?”
“Iladin, Your Excellency.” My master glanced up towards the audience, as if looking for someone. “I forget his sire, but he’s a sage that lives in Baris. He’s kept meticulous records of the crops and seasons for years, and this time last year, he came to Erik and bade him harvest early to avoid losing half our fields to frost.”
“More alchemy,” the baron sneered from his seat, making Miss Aura’s paw clench against my shoulder.
My master shook his head. “No alchemy, Your Excellency. Thirty years of record-keeping and a keen eye, but no magic.”
Mister Dagos frowned at that. “Yes, well, your envoy told us a quite different story over the last six months. We’ve heard all about the rituals held in Deterikh Keep, the—”
“Rituals?” My master’s snarl cut through the sargeant’s diatribe. “That… that vile—” He stopped sharply, then held up his paws, pads out in apology. “Forgive me, Your Excellency, but Dion has been lying to you. He has been for months.”
“Comets and dust,” Baron Jazinsk swore. “D’you think me so feebleminded, to fall for that excuse?”
My master sighed and shook his head. “No, Your Excellency, I’m sure your mind is quite keen, but I swear to you that Datsia—Captain Deterikh, I mean—had the only two people who could work any kind of real magic removed years ago.” Erik’s head snapped around at that, but my master didn’t seem to notice. “Whatever Dion told you Erik’s been doing, I assure you there’s been none of it.”
“None of it, you say?” The sergeant turned to the audience and spread his arms wide. “And what, then, of the tales of the slave that Baron Deterikh ordered taken from Jazinsk? What of the mutilations performed upon him? The details of young Erik’s appetites have been quite explicit, and so many witnesses abound to his deeds that you cannot possibly claim that none of it ever happened.” He planted the end of his staff against the ground, to drive home his point.
For several seconds, my master stood in silence, until he turned to Erik, who knelt with his head bowed and his ears flat. “I warned you,” he said with a shake of his head. Then, turning back to Baron Jazinsk, he said, “Your Excellency, it is true that Erik did have a slave, one of whom he was quite fond. However, I can prove to you that Erik neither mutilated nor abused his pet.”
Those words sent a shiver down my spine, and a lump of ice settled into my stomach. I closed my eyes, knowing what words had to follow. “Taneh!” Even knowing it was coming, I still flinched at the use of my name. “Heel.”
When I stood, a gasp rippled from the crowd around me, and then a low murmur ran through the audience. “Yes, master,” I called back, my voice cracking only a little. Miss Aura grabbed my wrist and gave it a squeeze, then released me with a slap on my rump. The chain between my legs clattered loudly against the floor as I made my way down the stairs. The guards all stared, in surprise or shock, or perhaps disgust. Jazinsk’s nobles and merchants made the same mutters and snickers that I heard in Deterikh’s court, but they stopped as my master turned to smile at me.
As I knelt, I caught Erik’s eyes with mine, and I felt as much as saw the shame at war with envy behind his eyes. Then he turned away with a shiver, and I smiled. I wanted to comfort him, but I hadn’t been given permission to speak, and even if I had, this was not the place. There would be time for words later; of that, I was suddenly sure.
Baron Jazinsk was unimpressed with the display. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m presenting my evidence, Your Excellency,” my master replied with a quiet chuckle. “This is Taneh, the slave that Dion bought from a pleasurehouse in Krolik, as a gift for Baron Deterikh. Feel free to ask em anything you like.”
Mister Dagos audibly swallowed. “Me?”
“Please,” my master insisted. “If I ask, you’ll just say I scripted it all. If you ask, I’ll have had no way to prepare.”
“But….” The Jazinski sergeant sounded at a loss, but he covered quickly. “How can we trust the words of a slave?”
“As eir owner, I believe eir words fall under my oath. Or you could simply kill em if you don’t like what ey says.” That sent a spasm into my stomach, but then my master’s fingers gently brushed the back of my head. “I’d rather you didn’t, though; I’ve become quite fond of em.” Then he sighed. “Listen, Your Excellency. Either you trust me, and you accept that this was all a setup that Dion perpetrated on Datsia’s orders; or you don’t, in which this was all just a charade anyway. I leave it to you to decide. Oh, and…” He bent down and murmured into my ear, “You will answer truthfully any question put to you, pet. That’s an order, little light.”
Those two words fell upon me like a thick comforter, and a wave of heat rolled up from between my legs. The edges of my vision went grey and that familiar leaden weight settled into my limbs. “Yes, master. I am ready.” The words left my muzzle without thought, without fear. I was doing what I was told, and doing it well.
“More witchery!” The baron snapped as he leaped to his hinds.
“Perhaps, Your Excellency,” Mister Dagos concurred with a grimace, “but… who pressed you into slavery, Taneh?”
“No one, sir,” I mumbled. Two… three… “I sold myself. End of last winter.”
The sergeant paused, then asked, “Why did Baron Deterikh have you changed?”
I shook my head slowly, feeling it shift sluggishly on my shoulders. “Dion, sir. Said I was to be a gift, to keep the baron relaxed, to distract him from Datsia and the war.”
I heard a step, then another, and suddenly Mister Dagos’ voice was louder, though still distant. “Did he hurt you? Abuse you?”
“No, sir,” I murmured. I was doing well, doing as I was told. “He did, once, but he was scared, not angry. He didn’t mean it. I think he loved me.”
Seconds ticked by while I waited for the next question, focusing on the lights dancing around me and the rise and fall of my chest. “Do you… do you like what’s been done to you?”
A fresh wash of heat crawled up my spine at the question. “Yes, sir,” I moaned, arching my back against the warmth that rippled through me. “Not what was done, but that it was done. Couldn’t handle being a person. Safe. Owned.”
“You’ll have to forgive eir rambling, Your Excellency,” my owner interjected. “Ey tends to drift a little when like this. Is there anything else you need to know?”
“Just one thing,” Mister Dagos said, his voice more curious than demanding. “Why would anyone want this?” My heart jumped at the question, and for a moment the weights threatened to fall away from me. An image of my father’s casket came to me, as it did so long ago in the slavers’ pen, but inside it I saw myself, trapped. I choked at the thought and began to shake, and a stifled whimper escaped my muzzle.
Then my master’s paw touched the back of my head. “Easy, little light. Answer the question.”
The words sent me down, back into the warmth, and I bowed my head. “I am ready. Yes, master. I always wanted it, sir.” The deep breaths helped to sink me, back into the depths. “I was afraid of it, but when my father died, I became more afraid of what would happen if I didn’t.” Was that true? Did I even really know any more? Did it really matter? This was what I was now, and I was happy. “Erik… understood. Wanted to help. Wanted… to help.” Correcting those last two words took more effort than I wanted, but I was sworn to tell the truth, and I had only suspicions about Baron Deterikh.
Mister Dagos grimaced, then turned to his liege and carefully bowed his head. “Your Excellency… I think Valentin may be telling the truth.”
“No! No!” The baron jerked his sword from its scabbard. “I will not have my vengeance taken from me!”
My master held out his paws, pads up in supplication. “Your Excellency, you will have your vengeance. Just not against him.” He put a paw on my old master’s shoulder. “Erik was a pawn in this, as was I… as were you.” He stepped forward, cautiously placing one hind on the dais. “We’re all pieces of a larger game that Datsia has been playing, one that needs to be stopped. I beg of you, Baron, to grant me an hour of your time in private to explain.”
Tomas, Baron Jazinsk, held very still for a second, then stabbed his sword back into his sheath. “Dagos, Rena with me. Guards, bring the prisoner. Valentin, your slave.” Then he turned to the hall and, in a shockingly deep voice, bellowed, “Court is adjourned for lunch!”