Bonds of Silver, Bonds of Gold 19: Bargain (Part 3)

My master’s ears drew tight against his head at Erik’s proclamation. “That would’ve been nice to hear about six months ago,” he grumbled under his breath. Then, more loudly, he addressed my previous owner. “I want to commend you on deciding to stand up for yourself, but if we’re going to get Datsia off the throne, we need you to take it back. Or would you rather we end up at war?”

Erik shook his head and rubbed at his wrists again; in the rich light, I could see as well as smell the sores where the shackles had rubbed his fur raw. His fur, once a rich black, had grown grey with dust and neglect. The loose cotton shirt they’d given him hung sloppily from his shoulders, and the rope belt holding up his pants looked as if it were cutting into his waist. Still, he held his head high and met his sergeant’s gaze with clear eyes. “I can’t go back, Valentin. This isn’t just some kittish whim; I’ve had days to think about this.”

“Days, he says,” my master sighed in exasperation. “Against six generations of history. Listen, Erik.” He pressed against the bridge of his muzzle with one finger, his other paw on his hip. “I know that you didn’t get a lot of respect on the throne. I know I had a large part to play in that, and I’m sorry. I’d swear on my dagger if I had it with me.”

“Is that the one you used to stab me?” Erik loudly barked back, snapping my master’s ears flat. He clenched his paws at his side and his tail bristled behind him. “I trusted you before, and I got burned for it. Now you want me to throw myself back into that fire?”

“Erik, that’s—” My master’s voice cut off sharply as his paw rose, claws bared. He quickly balled it into a fist and forced it back to his side, his whole arm tensing. “I’m sorry.” His voice dropped again, trying to sound civil. “I want you to do the job as you should have the first time.”

Erik crossed his arms, glaring at my master from across the room, but then hung his head and sighed. “It wouldn’t have mattered. I would’ve been a miserable baron.”

My master’s muzzle froze, half-open, eyes wide. “Oh, dust.” He sputtered briefly, then shook his head. “Now you’re just repeating Datsia’s lies. I’m sure you’ll—”

“Valentin, stop.” Erik hissed the last, hugging himself tightly. My master closed his muzzle, and Erik stepped forward, glaring as though he wished to lash out, clutching his waist as if he feared being hit. “I don’t want your praise, or your lectures. I want you to listen to me for once in your life.” His tail jutted out from his back and his shoulders trembled. “What’s changed from last month to today? I’m still the same as I was. Inexperienced. Nervous. Living every minute in my father’s shadow.”

My master chuckled weakly and sat again on the edge of Baron Jazinsk’s table. “Well, you’ll be a better ruler than Datsia, which is what matters.”

Erik rolled his eyes. “So, I’m the worst possible choice for baron, excepting the present. Valentin, you aren’t hearing a thing I’m saying.”

“You’re not saying anything worth hearing!” my master snapped. I heard his claws dig into the hardwood and flinched. Then he held his paws, pads out in apology. “I’m sorry, that wasn’t necessary. Listen, Erik, Datsia has to be removed. If not, Deterikh’s either going to swallow its neighbors or it’s going to be crushed and its lands scattered.” Every word fell heavily from his muzzle, his pleading tone weighted with anger. “What of your father’s legacy then? I know I’m asking a lot of you but you have to trust me on this. Deterikh needs a peacemaker on the throne, not a warmonger.”

“And then what?” Erik threw his paws in the air in frustration. “What of next week, and next month and next year? I’m still an unstable half-breed.” He flung the phrase back at my master. “I’m still carrying the weight of the stars and my mother and what I did to Taneh.” He jabbed one finger in my direction, his claw aimed at my muzzle. “I almost killed em, Valentin! I couldn’t fight until I was backed into a corner and then I lashed out until I was more afraid of what I’d done than I was of what I couldn’t stop. You’re asking me to throw myself—willingly—into the flames!” Erik’s voice cracked, then dropped to a whisper. “I can’t. I just can’t.”

Baron Jazinsk harrumphed from his seat at the table. “I’m disappointed in you, boy.”

Erik didn’t turn, and his voice remained soft. “Yes, well, I’m disappointed in me too, grandfather.”

My master stepped away from the table, his tail held low through force of will, though his ears remained flat against his head. “Listen, Erik, I know this is hard for you.” His scent was predatory, his motions stiff and awkward, but the anger was gone from his voice. He sounded like a parent, consoling a frightened child. “I’m starting to get a sense of what this means to you, and you’re right, it probably is a bad idea. However, the idea of leaving Datsia in power is far worse, and I think you recognize that, don’t you?”

Erik nodded once, and my master put one paw on his shoulder and leaned down to meet the young baron eye-to-eye. “That means we need to get her off of the throne, and the only person who can really do that is you.”

“Why, though?” Erik’s rebuke was quick and plaintive, his voice rising sharply. “I don’t want to be baron! I didn’t want it before! Why can’t you do it? You’re capable, you’re knowledgeable.”

“I—” My master drew in a sharp breath, then let it out, sagging forward slightly. “Listen, Erik. I know you don’t want this, but I can’t. This goes beyond what you want, or even what I want. If I help you retake your seat, then Datsia’s clearly a usurper, and we’re just restoring the normal order of things. If I take the throne from her, then I risk throwing Deterikh into a race for succession. You’ve heard the stories of Jazinsk’s troubles before Tomas, didn’t you?” Erik nodded again, and my master lifted his head, projecting his voice. “The Jazinskis have prospered for decades, but prior to him, they had twenty years of uncertainty. That would mean all of Wilik’s work securing the peace, gone. You don’t want that, do you?”

Erik tensed, his ears flattening, but then shook his head. “No, of course not,” my master soothed. His ears were arched forward at this point, his voice gentle. “But that means that, at the very least, you have to take the throne back from Datsia.” He held out a paw to forestall the protest that visibly rose to Erik’s muzzle. “I can’t take it from her, but I’ll be there to help you hold onto it until the barony is stable. If, once that’s done, you still want to be rid of it, then I’ll accept your abdication.”

The word cast a heavy pall over the room, and for several seconds no-one spoke. Then Erik turned to my master, his ears flat against his head and his tail curled. “On your blade, sergeant.” His whisper filled the parlor.

My master nodded, then turned to Mister Dagos. “Your dagger, please?” Baron Jazinsk’s sergeant passed him the slim blade, which he balanced across the pads of his paw. “I swear to the Great Family, I’ll accept the barony of Deterikh from you after this war is ended, if that’s what you still wish.”

Erik’s ears rose slightly at that, and a faint smile spread across his muzzle. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” my master countered with a chuckle. He turned the blade around in his fingers, then passed it to Erik. “An oath from you, as well. You’ll do all you can to reclaim the throne from your aunt, and remain on the throne until the barony is secure.”

Erik’s ears wilted once more, but he took the dagger from my master, gripping the blade in one trembling paw. “I swear to the Great Family, I’ll fight to retake Barony Deterikh until my final breath.” He drew in a heavy breath and sighed. “Will that suffice?”

My master smiled and gently shook Erik by the shoulder. “That’s fine.” Then he turned to Baron Deterikh and straightened. “Your Excellency, I think we’re ready to return to court.”