Miss Aura must not have been told of the plan, or had chosen to overlook it; Miss Rena’s door remained tightly shut, and no sound came from within. Mister Valentin let out an exasperated sigh and shook his head. “Of all the times….” He knocked at the alchemist’s door, one hind bouncing in anticipation. “Aura?” He waited a dozen slow breaths, his muzzle darkening after each, then pounded again, banging against the door with his fist.
Deep within the alchemist’s quarters, something stirred, followed by the click and rattle of the interior door. Dimly, hinds shuffled against stone, and I could just make out Miss Aura’s voice, muttering to herself as she stumbled closer. The latch on the outer door clacked, and then the Deterikh sage peered out through a crack, blinking rapidly. Her fur stood unkempt, and sleep lidded her eyes. “Is it sun-up already?”
“Half an hour past, at least,” Mister Valentin replied sourly, his muzzle twisted into a scowl. “Can you be ready in ten minutes, or should we leave without you?” By the lay of his ears and the tone of his voice, I had some sense which he would have preferred.
Miss Aura stood silent on the other side of the door, then pulled it open as she stepped inside. The trunk she’d brought sat beside the entrance, with a small bundle of clothing atop it. No blankets were visible on the couch, nor could I see any sign of the sage having slept in the room. “You’ll have to forgive my indecency, sergeant,” she said as she cast aside her robe, leaving herself nude.
Mister Valentin’s eyes widened at the sage’s sudden exposure, then turned away. “If you’d said, we could’ve waited in the hallway.”
“If we’re to depart that soon, there’ll be no time for formality,” Miss Aura replied as she slid the bra up her shoulders and fumbled with the clasp. “Besides, Taneh wears not a stitch and you don’t seem to care.”
The sergeant sniffed. “That’s different. Ey’s a slave.”
That made the sage chuckle. “Oh, of course, and that’s all the difference right there.” She struggled into her blouse, then retrieved short braies and stepped into them. “Rena? No time to break fast, I fear.”
“Hmm?” The alchemist swung open the inner chamber, then stepped into her small parlor. Her own robe hung loosely over her shoulder, the sash at her waist tied in a hasty bow. “Pity, that. Another time, then.”
“If we live to see it, certainly,” Miss Aura replied with false cheer. She tied her skirt around her waist, then kicked the trunk. “If you and Erik can manage the trunk, we can be off. I’ll want the rest of my time at the wagon. I’ll want some apples for Kelena, and then we can be off.”
Mister Valentin shook his head. “Listen, Aura, there’s no time for treats. We need—”
“We need every advantage we can give ourselves, sergeant, and that means listening to your sage.” Miss Aura glared at the sergeant over her outstretched paw. “Rena and I cooked up a draught that should let her gallop from Krolik to Baris in a single day and not two, but it’s too bitter for her to drink and too much at once and she’ll come down with the shakes. An apple ensures she eats it, and having a few means that if she starts to flag, we can lift her spirits.”
Miss Rena nodded. “I’ll dash to the kitchens and see what can be done, then meet you at the stables.” With that, the alchemist slipped past Erik and I, leaving the door open behind her.
The sage waved to her Jazinski counterpart, then turned back to the sergeant. “That’s two minutes you wasted making me explain myself. Shall we go? You said we were in a hurry.” Despite her smile, her gaze was cool, and the tip of her banded tail lashed behind her.
For a moment, Mister Valentin shook with barely-repressed frustration, squinting at the sage with his paws balled into fists. Then, suddenly, he burst out laughing, sagging back against the wall. “I yield; you win.” He slid the bag from his shoulders and gestured towards it. “Taneh, carry this.” As I knelt and shrugged into his pack, he walked to the chest and motioned for Erik to take the opposite handle. “Listen, Aura, why don’t you tell us about the other surprises you’ve prepared once we’re on our way, alright?”
Erik took up his position beside the sage’s trunk, then groaned as he strained to lift the massive trunk off the ground. “Oshka’s strength, Aura! What do you have in here, bodies?”
Miss Aura chuckled at that. “Not whole ones, at least,” she replied. “Mostly books and some scrolls, with a few hard-to-find reagents I suspected I’d want, and those surprises I mentioned.” She motioned towards the door. “I’ll latch up once you’re outside.” I quickly stepped outside, out of the way, while the two struggled the sage’s chest out into the hallway. As soon as they were clear, she fumbled with the catch on the inside of the door, then pulled it closed behind her. “Let’s go.”
The hallway from Miss Aura’s chambers to the front of Krolik Tower seemed to stretch on twice as long as before with Erik and Mister Valentin grunting their way down its length. Once outside, though, it was a thankfully short stretch under warm morning sun to the stables. A few hostlers and slaves stood around the wagon, loading bags onto the roof and tying them down. Mister Dagos stood beside Miss Rena, directing the work.
Mister Valentin motioned for Erik to drop his end of the trunk, then dropped his side with a groan. “What’s all this?”
The Jazinski sergeant turned to face us, then motioned towards the trunk. “Make sure that goes on bottom at the back,” he said to one of the slaves, a heavyset lynx wearing only a leather collar. Then he approached and clasped arms with Mister Valentin and smiled. “The baron thought it best to send you with a few goodwill tidings. It’s not much, but Barony Jazinsk stands with you in this.”
Mister Valentin and my master exchanged raised brows at that. “That’s very generous of you,” my master replied carefully. “Are you sure you can afford to be so giving?”
Mister Dagos smiled wanly in response, not quite able to cover the pain in his expression. “If Valentin’s words are to be believed, then we have little choice in the matter; it’s give them to you today or Datsia in a month. Tomas and I agreed that you were the better option.”
My master swallowed at that and put his paw on my shoulder. His claws dug into my fur, but he kept the tension to just his fingers. “Jazinsk’s generosity in our time of need will be well and truly remembered.”
“I trust it will,” the Jazinski sergeant replied.
“Speaking of which,” Miss Rena added, hefting a small burlap sack in her paw. “Aura? You wanted apples? The last ones in the larder. I hope they’re enough.”
Everyone fell quiet at that, with uncomfortable glances shared in the awkward silence. Wordlessly, the Deterikh sage took the bag, then went behind her wagon and began rummaging in the trunk. “Won’t be but a few.” While she prepared the treats for her horse, Mister Valentin helped my master and I into the wagon, then climbed in himself. Outside, I could hear Miss Aura whispering to her mount, mostly soothing tones without any real content. Erik shivered beside me, and I ran a soothing paw down his leg, shushing softly. He half-turned to me and nodded, and I patted his knee with one paw. Across the small space, Mister Valentin caught my eye, but I gave a shake of my head, and the sergeant shrugged in response.
“Help me up?” I heard Miss Aura ask, and then the wagon shook as she climbed up into the driver’s seat. “You’ll know soon enough if we’ve won, I suppose.”
“We’ll be waiting for news,” Mister Dagos replied as he poked his head into the wagon. “Valentin?” He held out his paw, and my master’s sergeant took it in his. “Koshki’s luck with you. You’re going to need it.”
“Koshki’s luck with us all, Dagos. We’ll send word.” Then he pulled the door to the wagon closed and rapped on the sliding door to the front of the wagon. Miss Aura cracked the reins, and we began to move.