Erik’s first steps out of Baron Jazinsk’s chambers were hesitant, his arms held tightly around his middle. His head remained low, his ears flat and his tail pinned to his back. He looked even more like a prisoner than when we arrived; before, his bonds were merely physical, but his oath bound him more tightly than any chain could. He seemed to swim in his ill-fitting shift and pants, self-consciously focusing on floor, underdressed for his peers, overdressed for his desires.
Beside him, my master walked slowly, a few paces behind the Jazinski contingent. He held his head high and his stride was deliberate, but he kept pace with the young baron and his gaze barely strayed from the top of Erik’s head. He kept one paw on my lead as a reminder of my place and the other on Erik’s shoulder in reassurance, but where my chain slid freely through his fingers, the young baron had no slack at all. My master steered him carefully, nudging him forward when he dug in his claws, keeping him a few measured steps behind the guards escorting us back to the main hall.
More guards flanked the side entrance, and the procession stopped with Baron Jazinsk’s paw on the handle. “Valentin,” he called back without turning.
My master’s ears perked at his name. “Your Excellency?”
“Jazinsk’s taking a risk on your friend.” Disdain dripped from the baron’s words. “I’m not a gambler.”
My master chuckled softly. “It’s a risk either way, your Excellency. Do you favor your odds with Erik and I, or with Datsia and Dion?”
Baron Jazinsk’s only reply was a derisive hmph, and then the sudden rumble of the crowd as he pulled open the heavy wooden door. Inside the hall, the audience had swollen since daybreak; half of Krolik must have turned out for the spectacle. It took only a few seconds for the first few people to notice our return, and then word of our arrival rippled through the room. Cheers for the baron spread in waves from the wall, mixed with applause that rang out into the hall.
“Erik?” My master stopped just before the door and tugged gently at the young baron’s shoulder. Erik turned, and Valentin brought the two muzzle to muzzle. “Listen to me, and remember. You can do this. You’ve held court before. You just have to—”
“Valentin, stop.” Erik’s sigh cut across my master’s instructions as he brushed aside his sergeant’s paws. His shoulders were stooped, but he lifted his head high and perked his ears as he faced my owner. “I know what I’m doing. I’ve faked being in charge before.” The faintest of smiles passed across his muzzle, and his tail flicked behind him. “Besides, I swore, didn’t I?”
My master held fast at that, gazing deeply into Erik’s eyes. His muzzle was still, his eyes half-squinting, as if searching for something. After a few seconds, he turned his head, though the stare felt like it lasted much longer. “Yes,” he confessed, his voice low. “Yes, you did. Let’s finish this.” He gestured to the open door. “After you, Baron.”
“Thank you, Sergeant,” Erik replied as he raised himself to his full height, then passed into the Jazinski court. As he entered, the crowd rained down jeers from the rafters, a sea of scowls and sneers that filled the room. I imagined, in the back, one tiny island of artificial calm, Miss Aura struggling desperately against the urge to cheer for her sageson. I strained to see her, but the sharp crack of Mister Dagos’ staff against the stone floor snapped my attention back to the dais.
“Hear ye! Hear ye!” the Jazinski sergeant bellowed, his arms raised for silence. “On this, the seventh of Serpi, does the court of His Excellency Tomas, son of Miros, Baron of Jazinsk, return to order! Will the accused approach the podium!” Erik looked back to my master, then briefly cast his eyes to mine and smiled. I did my best to return the look and nodded my encouragement, and the young baron turned and strode up to the podium. His tail had resumed its lazy curl against his back, and his ears stood proudly over his head. He held his head high, and I could imagine the smile—an echo of the one he showed me as we gazed out over Baris together—that he offered to the others.
Picturing it in my mind made my chest tight, and I drew in a sharp breath. My master put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me to him, and I sank against his side. On the dais, Mister Dagos brandished his staff in our direction. “Erik, son of Wilik, do you speak for the others?”
“I do, Your Excellency,” Erik replied, projecting his voice clearly to be heard over the crowd’s jeering. “Not guilty on all counts.”
That sent the gallery into a frenzy, but the Jazinski sergeant slammed his staff against the ground. “Order!” he bellowed. It took a second crack to still the crowd enough for him to be heard over their jeers. “Do you stand by the words issued by your sergeant-at-arms?”
Erik nodded. “I do,” he repeated. “The facts as they have been presented to Barony Jazinsk have been those that my aunt, Datsia, daughter of Stela, wished you to see. Dion, son of Lazlo, played Tomas and I off against each other, a ruse I deeply regret not having caught earlier.” He turned to face Baron Jazinsk directly. “It has always been my wish for closer ties between my father’s home and my mother’s, Your Excellency. It would be a shame for this deception to destroy both our legacies.”
Mister Dagos turned to his baron and bowed. “Your Excellency, you have heard the evidence presented in chamber, and you have heard the pleas of the accused. How do you rule?”
Baron Jazinsk rose from his throne and drew the sword from his sheath in a single fluid motion, and the crowd fell silent. Stepping forward to stand before Erik, he turned his gaze not to the accused, but to my master. Every breath in the room held still, afraid to disturb the deliberations. The tip of the baron’s blade shook from the tension in his grip, and his chest rose and fell. Anger warred with despair in his expressions, until his squinted his eyes shut and his shoulders sagged, his ears falling forward over his eyes. He threw the blade back into its sheath and turned his back on the crowd.
The crowd was on its hinds in an instant, their anger erupting in cries of “traitor” and “betrayal!” Smashes rang out from the ground as they threw wooden bowls down from the gallery to shatter against the stone, spattering drops of broth and scattering splinters about the floor. The revolt in miniature continued for almost a minute, with Baron Jazinsk shaking ever more furiously where he stood, until he snatched the staff from Mister Dagos’ paws and brought it with a crash down against the stone floor.
“Enough!” The single bellowed word was enough to stun the crowd into a semblance of order. One second passed, then another, and another, until Baron Jazinsk drew himself up to his full height and raised his voice to address the audience. “There has been betrayal here, yes, and treachery, but it has not been this man!” He thrust the end of the staff towards Erik. “There will be vengeance, yes, and justice, but it will not come at a cost of truth! A usurper sits on the Deterikh throne, one who even now threatens our safety! Let us focus our righteous wrath on the true enemy of Jazinsk! Join with me, my people, and let us restore my grandson to his throne!”
In the back of the gallery, near the front row, a single voice cried out above the crowd. “Death to Datsia!” It became a chant, carried around the balcony, echoed across the main hall. Death to Datsia. Death to Datsia. For over a minute, the words rang out throughout the room, until the audience degenerated into mad applause and cheers for their baron.
“Tomas!” Erik shouted to be heard over the crowd. “I have a favor to ask of you, baron to baron.” Erik turned and encompassed my master and I with a wave of his arm. “My sergeant and pet likely had a hard ride here, and they’ve likely not slept for dust in days before. Speed is of the essence, but a good night’s sleep and provisions will do us more than a few extra hours on the road.”
“Done,” the elderly baron nodded. “Aught else?”
Erik hesitated a moment, then said, “One last. I’d like the help of your alchemist for the night. Jazinsk’s finest will be busy guarding the front; we’ll need every edge we can muster for the fight to come.”
Tomas, Baron Jazinsk, frowned, but he nodded again. “Agreed. Rena.” He turned to the alchemist sitting under the balcony. “Escort them to your labs. Aid them however you can. Dagos, have a suite prepared for the baron and his aide.” He looked to my master, then back to Erik. “Koshki’s luck with you, Erik. You’ll need it.” Then, raising his voice to the audience, he spoke once more. “Court dismissed!”
My master was at Erik’s side in a heartbeat, a paw on his shoulder. “Good job, Erik. Now let’s get going. We’ve got a lot to prepare and not a lot of time.” He glanced at me, then back to Erik. “I suppose I should give you back your pet,” he chuckled. “Pity; I was enjoying em.”
I flushed at the words, but moreso at Erik’s smile. “Accepted, but I’ll be glad to share. My heart’s about to leap out of my chest. Let’s go before I collapse.”