The first sensation that came to me the next morning wasn’t the pounding at the door, but the way Erik clung more tightly to me with each bang. He pressed himself against my side with a grimace on his muzzle, his eyes squinted tightly shut and his ears pulled flat against his head to block out the sound. His breath whistled quick and shallow through his muzzle, and he shivered despite the heavy comforter.
With his legs tucked up against his chest, he looked like a frightened kit. I cast a scowl towards the door, then gently put a paw on Erik’s shoulder. “Pet?” I shook gently, and he hunkered down further under the blankets. “Open your eyes, look at me.”
Erik drew in a sharp breath, then looked up at me. The corners of his eyes were damp. “Yes, master?” he breathed.
I smiled as gently as I could and rubbed my muzzle against his. “Now is the time not to be afraid. We have to go.”
My pet swallowed hard at that, but then he nodded and pulled me into a hug. “Thank you.” Then, sitting up, he turned to the door and called out, “Come in!” Gone was the kit afraid of the world; in his place sat Baron Deterikh, faintly annoyed with its interruption.
Mister Valentin jerked open the door as soon as the first word was out of Erik’s muzzle. He still wore his pants, but his chest was bare, his shirt draped over his shoulder. In the dim pre-dawn light, his eyes glittered like polished emerald. He stood just inside the inner chamber for a few seconds, studying the scene before him. He glanced towards the pile of discarded clothing beside the bed, then back up to my master. “How was your night?”
“The best I’ve had in years,” Erik replied with a chuckle. Beneath the mattress, his paw clenched mine in a death-grip. “When do we leave?”
If the sergeant saw Erik’s arm trembling, he gave no sign. “We should have left half an hour ago, but I only just awoke myself.” He hooked a thumb towards the door behind him. “As soon as you’re dressed, we need to be on the road.”
Erik nodded, then waved Mister Valentin back out of the room. “I’ll make haste.” Ignoring his nudity, he slid off the bed and made his way over to the dresser. “Rise, pet. Follow.”
Mister Valentin watched as I slid off the end of the bed, his eyes trailing over me as if looking for fresh injuries. He spared another glance towards Erik, then shrugged. “I’ll be waiting.” He stepped back across the threshold, and the door latched shut behind him. A second later, I heard a soft thunk behind me, and then the scrape of wood against stone.
When I looked back, Erik had his head down against side of the wooden cabinet, his shoulders slumped and his tail hanging low behind him. “I can’t do this,” he muttered. “I can fake it for an hour or a day, but a month? A year? How long does he expect me to keep up this charade?”
“As long as you can, pet,” I chided softly as I approached. I placed my paw on his shoulder, and a shudder ran down his spine. “Mister Valentin’s said he’ll talk abdication when the war is over, once the line of succession is—”
“Dust on succession!” Erik hissed, shoving the wardrobe backwards. His spear slid forward and clattered against the ground. “I can’t handle this! It shouldn’t be me!” His voice had started soft, but he grew louder with every word. “It’s not—”
When my paw hit the side of Erik’s temple, his protests died in his throat. His eyes went wide and one paw went to his muzzle, visibly shocked that I would dare to raise my fist to him. “Who owns you, pet?” I asked, putting as much disapproval into my voice as I could.
Erik swallowed heavily at that. “You do, master,” he whispered in reply. He cast his gaze downwards, his ears flattening against his head.
I folded my arms across my chest. “And what does it mean if I give you an order, pet?”
“It means I obey, master,” my pet replied.
“Good pet,” I nodded. “So, here then are your first standing orders. When you are in public, you are to act as Baron Deterikh would. At all times, you are to maintain the pretense of being nobility.” I cupped one paw under his muzzle and lifted his gaze to mine. “No-one is to suspect from here out that you are anything but the master of the barony. If I hear any questions about your ability from any quarter, then I will find some means to punish you. Is that understood, pet?”
Erik swallowed, but his tail wagged behind him. “Yes, master.”
I chuckled at his response, both physical and vocal. “Good. Second, after Datsia is removed from the throne—and we will remove her—you will find time to tell both Miss Aura and Mister Valentin of our arrangement.”
Erik’s eyes snapped wide in response. “But—”
I held up my free paw and shook my head. “No buts, pet. If your sergeant has a problem with it, he’ll probably be eager to accept your abdication, and your sagemother already knows what stars you were born under.” I smiled faintly at that. “None of this will be a surprise to her.”
“Y… yes, master,” Erik replied with a whimper. He shivered, but he didn’t pull away from me.
“Good pet,” I said as I stepped forward and hugged him. “This isn’t going to be easy on you, and I know that. In public, everyone must think that I’m your slave. Nothing you do to me to prove that will be held against you. If you feel the need to apologize once we’re alone again, I’ll forgive you then. Alright?” He nodded, and I gently kissed the top of his head. “Now get dressed, pet. Mister Valentin is waiting.”
With that, I let go and stepped away, and Erik began shuffling into his uniform. He looked both uncomfortable and unhappy as he dressed himself, grimacing at every piece of clothing like a fresh shackle. Once together, though, he tugged the hem of his jacket down and squared his shoulders, and before me stood the young baron that first greeted me when Mister Dion gave me to him. “Am I presentable?” he asked as he looked over his shoulder, adjusting his pants around his tail. Despite his question, he sounded more sure of himself than he had in weeks, even before his flight from power.
“Yes, master,” I replied as I bowed my head.
Baron Deterikh chuckled in response to that and clapped me on the shoulder. “Good.” He paused a moment, then placed a tender kiss against my muzzle. He retrieved his dagger and slid it inside his jacket, then clipped the mace to his belt. Grabbing his spear, he beckoned to me to follow him, then strode over to the door. “Sorry I’m late,” he called as he walked into the outer chamber. “Someone’s pet needed a quick reprimand.”
“No later than I expected.” Mister Valentin replied. The sergeant stood by the door, shouldering his pack. “Let’s go find Aura and get going. Every ray of light is precious at this point.”