Miss Aura stood at the entrance to the Jazinski alchemist’s lab, her paws pressed tightly together before her, a casual smirk set on her muzzle. “That was quite the performance,” she called down the hallway. “I’d have wagered you rehearsed it.” Her voice only quavered as she got to the final word.
Erik’s answer was to stop and stare like a kit, ears perked and tail jutting out behind him. “Aura?” His voice was years ago and miles away. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh, not much,” she replied, picking at one sleeve of her top with her claws. “Consulting on Jazinski’s crops, saving my sageson.” She wiped at her eyes. “Waste of my time, it seems. You and Valentin had matters in paw.” She took one hesitant step forward, then another and another, until she was running towards us, her arms around my master’s shoulders. As he awkwardly wrapped his arms around her, she shook against him, her muzzle pressed against his neck. No sound escaped her, but her shoulders shuddered as she held him, and when she withdrew, the fur beneath her eyes glistened. “I thought I’d lost you, too.”
My master squeezed his sagemother tightly, his tail curling between her legs at his words. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, his tail curling tightly below him. “I didn’t know what else to do.”
“It’s alright,” Miss Aura sighed. “All’s forgiven.” She held my master for several more seconds, until both their shaking subsided. “Now, let me get a look at you.” She snorted and cleared her throat noisily, then stepped back and put her paws on his shoulders. “Did they treat you well? Great Family help me, if they hurt you—”
“Aura?” My… Mister Valentin’s voice suddenly overrode the sage’s. “With all respect, there’ll be time for that later. Right now, I need you and Rena to focus. We’re two against a battalion. We’ll need every edge we can get.”
The sage laughed darkly in response. “I’ve already made a few plans, but I can prepare a few more, if Rena’s game to help.” The Jazinski alchemist nodded, and Miss Aura’s tail lashed behind her to accompany her almost feral smile. “It’ll be three, though, so plan accordingly, sergeant.”
Mister Valentin opened his muzzle to protest, then closed it and shook his head. “Protesting would be useless. Your help is welcome, of course, but I won’t have time to argue with you. If I give an order, I expect it to be followed.”
Miss Aura drew in a sharp breath, but then bowed her head and heavily sighed. “As you wish.” She turned to the Jazinski alchemist, then cautiously held forth a paw. “I… was surprised by Baron Jazinsk’s insight.”
Miss Rena chuckled and took the offered paw in hers. “Your apology is accepted.” At the sage’s flush, she laughed. “Come; let’s see what can be done before tomorrow, and of course you’re welcome to stay another night.” Turning to my master, she gave a quick half-bow. “Baron, Dagos will surely come here to tell you when your room is ready; would you prefer to wait here, or should I suggest he find you elsewhere?”
My master shrugged in response, but Mister Valentin leaned a heavy paw on his shoulder. “We have plans to make and little enough time to make them. Do you have paper and charcoal to spare?”
The Jazinski alchemist nodded, then motioned us into the room after them. The alchemist’s lab reminded me of Miss Aura’s workshop, the floor mostly open, dotted with scuffed chalk-marks and traces of salt. A single table ran the length of the room, holding stands of clouded glass apparatus, some half-filled with powders and fluids. Half-familiar charts hung from two walls, with a bookshelf covering the third. Three steps within, the two sages fell to talking, leaving my past and present owners to plan our untimely return.
I did my best to follow my master’s conversation, watching as Mister Valentin drew charts and maps, listening as they talked of shifts and rotations. Soon, though, the words began to run together in my ears, as each interrupted the other with new suggestions. I paid as much attention as I could, but before long the pictures before me seemed more arcane than Miss Aura’s sigils. I bit my lip and shifted uncomfortably from one hind to the other, my paws pressed together before me, squinting at the sergeant’s papers, but I couldn’t calm the thudding in my chest.
Mid-word, my master stopped and turned to me. His ears flattened against his head and his tail wagged behind him. One paw gently brushed my shoulder, and he smiled. “This is people-talk, pet,” he chided gently. “Shouldn’t you be down with the other animals?”
I couldn’t help the whimper that rose in my throat. I managed to nod, once, as I sunk gratefully to my knees and pressed my paws against my thighs. My master’s fingers moved to the backs of my ears, and he stroked them gently as I shifted closer. That familiar ache, so long ignored I had almost forgotten it, flared to life deep inside me, and I pressed my muzzle to his hip, breathing deep of his scent, remembering it, letting his presence wash over my senses. In that moment, I wanted nothing more than to feel him within me, to let myself be consumed by his desire, an urge so potent that it made me tremble.
Mister Valentin chuckled above me, and I felt a second paw touch the back of my head. “Ey’s been really well-behaved.”
My master lowered his head and cupped my muzzle with his paw, lifting my gaze to his. I stared into his sky-blue eyes, whimpering at the thought of his muzzle against mine, his tongue dancing past my lips. He smiled and brushed his thumb slowly over my cheek. “Ey’s been through a lot, and it isn’t over. Best to give em a bit of rest. Little light?”
I sagged forward at that magical phrase, eyes closing as I sank against my master’s hip. “I am ready,” I breathed.
“I know you are,” my master soothed, stroking my muzzle with his fingers. “Relax, breathe deep. Close your eyes, count the lights within you. Just an animal. Just a slave.” His voice sank to a low murmur as he petted me. “You don’t have to think; you just have to obey.” He kept up his quiet patter as I fell against him, shivering and breathing quietly, counting the twelve lights that spun and danced before me as I fell deeper and deeper, even the need within me receding as I sank into trance.
Time disappeared as I knelt beside my master. At one point, I noticed that the sun had set. At another, I discovered that I had been hungry for some time. Each of these realizations, however, seemed distant and disconnected. My world had become his paw against my fur, his musk in my nostrils, and his words in my ear.
The tap on the top of my head, a sudden change from the steady caress of my master’s paw, made me lift my head, but not until I heard my master say, “wake up, pet,” did I manage to shake myself out of that drifting reverie. I blinked and rubbed at my eyes with my paws, and my master shook my shoulder gently. “Stand and follow.”
I yawned and nodded, then stretched as I stood. Behind me, the door to Miss Rena’s lab latched closed. “Yes, master?” I kept my voice low. “What is it?”
“That was Dagos,” Mister Valentin replied with a rustle of paperwork. “Supper is ready, after which our rooms should be as well. We need to get an early sleep; we leave for Baris at dawn tomorrow.”