As my master pressed down onto the table, Baron Jazinsk leaned back in his chair, visibly recoiling from the force of his words. The point of his dagger began to shudder as the knuckles of his paw grew white. His eyes narrowed and his cheeks bulged as though forcibly holding back a torrent of rage. His ears pulled tight against his head, their tips quivering in visible anger. Finally, at my master’s proclamation, the baron’s chair flew backwards as he leaped to his hind, stabbing the hardwood once more. His chest heaved in heavy breaths as he visibly struggled for control.
“Dagos,” Baron Jazinsk finally hissed after several seconds of effort. “Get this man out of my sight.”
“Listen, Dagos,” My master said quickly, facing the baron’s sergeant. “Deterikh doesn’t have to break your ranks; they just have to push you back, one mile at a time, until you’re too tired to fight. How long do you think you can feed your army? Three weeks? Four?”
Mister Dagos rose from his seat near the door and stepped closer to the table. “That’s none of your—”
“It doesn’t matter,” my master interrupted, his voice guttural and tight, rushing his words. “Datsia planned for two months in the field, with emergency stores for two weeks beyond.” His green eyes gleamed as he stared at Dagos. “You might buy yourselves a week if you forage as you fight, but you’ll be ruining what’s left of your fields to do it. You’re counting on a fast victory so you can send your conscripts home to their fields in time for a late harvest plus whatever you can carry home from our wagons, but you’ll be starving and desperate long before you’ve made any progress. Meanwhile, we don’t even have to try to raid your wagons. We just have to wait you out.”
The Jazinski sergeant’s eyes widened as he looked from my master to his. “Why… why tell us all of this?” He put one paw on his own sword. “What do you hope to gain?”
My master sagged against the table and dragged his claws against it, making me wince with the rough sound. “Listen, Dagos. I’m trying to stop a war, and I need Erik—alive—to do it.”
Before Mister Dagos could reply to that, the Jazinski baron spun away from the table, snatching the dagger and jerking it free from the wood. He rounded on the prisoner, still facing the floor, and stormed over to him in a flutter of robes. As he neared my former master, my gorge rose and I could taste bile in the back of my throat. The baron’s arm rose, and suddenly I was moving, running, sprinting towards the guards. “Erik!” Several voices rose at once and I heard the whisper of steel brushing against leather, but I didn’t care. I dove, arms outstretched, trying to interpose, hoping to take whatever blow was meant for him. For several seconds, my world was no more than the feel and smell and scent of old chain as I pressed against Erik’s front, the heat of his breath against my ears, and the pounding of my heart in my chest. Then something fell behind me, landing on the rug with a heavy thud.
“Taneh,” my master called softly into the sudden awkward quiet. “Heel.”
I lifted my head and opened my eyes, and found myself staring into Erik’s. His ears were back against his head, and a trembling smile rested precariously on his muzzle. The fur beneath his deep blue orbs was damp. I paused a moment before pressing my muzzle to his, then did as ordered and rose to face my master. Baron Jazinsk stood in front of me, his eyes wide in surprise; his dagger had fallen from his fingers. Behind him stood Mister Dagos, one paw on the baron’s shoulder, the clothes beneath it wrinkling. To either side of Erik, the guards stood with their swords drawn. My master rested against the table, gripping its edge with one white-knuckled paw. The other hung loosely at his side, and he clacked his claws together and motioned for me to join him.
“I would ask you forgive em, Your Excellency,” my master said as I knelt at his side. With the blood rushing in my ears and my heart racing, his voice sounded like a hoarse whisper. “Taneh’s always been protective. It’s a habit I’m loath to break.”
Baron Jazinsk didn’t turn, but nor did he reach for his dagger, or his sword. For several seconds he merely stood, staring down at where I had been, moments before. “Why?” he asked in a voice barely louder than my master’s.
Mister Dagos released his baron’s shoulder and bent to retrieve the fallen dagger. “I don’t know, Your Excellency. You’d have to ask it, or its master.”
The elderly baron held his ground for a few more moments, staring down at Erik, who had again lowered muzzle to the floor. When he finally turned, some of the fire was gone from his eyes. “Explain.”
My master’s paw stroked the back of my head gently. “Erik is eir former master, Your Excellency. Ey was protecting him.”
“I see that,” Baron Jazinsk snapped. “Why?”
“Why?” My master’s voice rose in a gentle question. “Why, indeed. What would an unwilling slave changed against his will hope to gain from saving the life of his captor?”
For several seconds, my master’s words hung in the air, stifling all debate. It seemed that no-one dare be the first to break its spell. I had to force myself to breathe, afraid that even that much noise would be too much. Finally, though, Mister Dagos turned to Baron Jazinsk. “Your Excellency,” he murmured gently, “I believe Valentin is telling the truth.” He turned to my master. “You said that Dion’s intent was to march along the Ezustia range and flank our forces?”
My master nodded in reply. “He estimated he could make the trip down and back in three weeks, give or take a few days to clean out your mining camps.” He grimaced and drummed his claws on the table. “His intent is territory, not prisoners.”
“Noted,” Mister Dagos replied. “Your Excellency? I believe this is sufficient information to warrant a change of strategy.”
Baron Jazinsk held back for a few seconds, then returned to the table and righted his chair, taking his seat as though nothing had happened. “Can we draw in our southern flank? Cut off that approach?”
Mister Dagos paused, chewing his lip in consideration, then nodded. “I believe so, Your Excellency. I’d need to check our charts, but I’ll do that once court is adjourned. We can afford one day’s delay if we send a messenger.”
“Done!” The baron hammered the table with his fist to punctuate his point. “Send more to stop the advance, then reverse it. They’re not to break ranks and let this become a rout, but they’re to pull back as they can. Harry the Deterikh line, but never commit to a full assault. They’re to think, as long as we can manage, that we’re testing for weaknesses while we lure them back to the walls.”
“Sir!” Mister Dagos saluted. “I’ll have your orders out by nightfall.”
The baron nodded again, then turned to my master. “Erik,” he said as he steepled his fingers. “Will the people accept him if you put him back on the throne?”
“I think they will, Your Excellency.” My master’s voice was less sure than before. “Datsia’s played him up as a martyr to build her case for war. Returning him safely will weaken her position considerably. He’ll have his work cut out for him to rebuild people’s confidence as their leader, but negotiating a swift peace will be a good start.” He hesitated briefly, then leaned forward, his elbows on the table. “I trust, Your Excellency, that that will be possible?”
Baron Jazinsk chuckled darkly at that. “Fine.”
“Well, then.” My master sat back in his chair and rested a paw on my shoulder. “It sounds like all that remains is for you to pass judgment on Erik.”
The baron nodded, then turned to the guards standing watch over Erik. “Unchain him,” he said as he rose. “As a gesture of good will, he can walk back to the main hall on his own hinds.”
The guards both saluted, and then there was much rustling of chain and clacking of metal, and then Erik’s shackles fell to the floor with a muffled thud. My master rose, as did Miss Rena, and the two moved towards the door. “By your leave, Baron,” my master said with a grin as he motioned towards the door. “Let’s get this behind us.”
Erik lifted his head, still rubbing at his wrists. His muzzle was set in a thin line, and his blue eyes were hard. The wetness beneath them had spread, but his voice was steady when he spoke. “No.”
That brought my master up short. “Listen, Erik, I know you’re angry at how this has all happened, but let’s not—”
“I said ‘no,’ Valentin.” Erik’s voice was little more than a whisper, but it still rang out in Baron Jazinsk’s chambers. “I won’t do it. I’d rather rot in prison for the rest of my years than spend one more day on Deterikh’s throne.”