For several seconds, my master stood over Mister Valentin’s snoring form, his spear clenched with both paws in a death-grip. Standing with his muzzle down and his ears back, he resembled little more than a frightened kit in his father’s uniform, the jacket and pants too large for his frame. He shuddered, his tail shivering behind him, and two drops fell to spatter on the ground by the sergeant’s head, but he never made a sound. When he did finally lift his head, his eyes were clear and his ears stood proudly above him. He squared his shoulders, and he suddenly seemed much older than I, as if the weight of the last year had all settled upon him in a rush.
Then Baron Deterikh turned and took one of my paws in his, and I felt that old familiar stirring of fire within me, that aching warmth that suffused me the night we stood on the roof and gazed out across Baris. “Come, pet,” he murmured. “It’s almost over.” It took only a gentle tug to coax me to follow, and then he strode up to the kitchen door and kicked it open, slamming it back on its hinges. Just beyond, two guards jumped at the sudden bang, then stared slack-jawed at my master. In one paw, he held his spear to block the entrance; in the other, he casually twirled his mace. In the time it took them to ready their response, he had stepped into the breach, turning his shaft to press it into the chests of both soldiers. The muscles in his arms quivered as he pinned their spears to their chests, raising his mace in an unmistakable threat.
“Drop your spears. Escort me to Datsia.” The words came out of him in a low growl, his tail bristling behind him. The two guards exchanged glances, then nodded, and two wooden shafts fell to the floor, echoing off of the stone. My master stepped back to free them. “Paws on your head. Lead the way. Pet, follow.” We all complied, and the four of us marched through the kitchens, past pairs of soldiers who all gaped as the runaway tyrant followed his makeshift scouts past stacked wheels of cheese and barrels of beer, down the length of a carving counter, and up to the swinging doors that lead to Deterikh Keep’s main hall.
At the entrance, one of my master’s hinds lashed out, and the guard at his right suddenly dropped to his knees. The one at his left turned, but before she could free her mace my master whipped the butt of his spear around, cracking it against her shoulder with a crunch. He ignored her cry, pulling me alongside him as he turned around and backed through the doors. As soon as we were clear, he spun to face the room at large, his spear brandished before him. “Datsia!”
The elder wolfess—seated on the Deterikh throne, her spear casually braced against it—adjusted a small stack of papers on an endtable beside her. “You’re late, as usual, and by at least an hour.” Her voice held all the concern of an exchequer worrying about a two-copper variance. “Inika lost her stomach, I see.”
All around the edges of the room, guards raised their spears, but they made no move to advance. My master stepped forward, drawing his spear back up into an easy ready position before him. “I’ve come to put an end to this.”
At that, Miss Datsia smoothed out her skirt and then turned, leaning on one arm of her seat. “Well, it will be ending, yes, though not as I’d hoped.” She rose and took up her spear, twirling it easily with one paw. “I’ll offer you this choice: you can abdicate, or I can succeed you.” She gestured to the front door. “I’d prefer the former, but either will suffice.”
My master put one paw on my shoulder to still me, then advanced again towards the dais, his spear at his waist. “Be bullied out of my inheritance or be murdered for it. Some choice.”
“Murder?” Miss Datsia’s muzzle wrinkled in disgust, her ears briefly flattening against her head. “Better one life than thousands, and you surely would’ve killed this barony if you’d remained on the throne.”
That brought my master up short, his ears pulling tightly back, and he bared his teeth in a scowl. “I wouldn’t have gotten us into a war.”
“No? Tell that to your slave, after that savaging you offered.” The regent’s spear stopped in its twirling long enough to snap dead in my direction, sending a shudder down my spine. “At best, you’d have coasted on Wilik’s name and reputation, playing with your petty court dramas until somebody put you out of the barony’s misery. At worst, you’d have done to Jazinsk or any of our other neighbors what you did to Taneh.” She glared at my master, her eyes throwing daggers into his. “Deterikh needs a steadier paw on the pommel than that.”
My master stepped up to the edge of the dais, his tail pulled tight against his back. “Someone like you, perhaps? Someone ready to backstab at a moment’s notice for a bit of extra silver?”
“Better than someone willing to resort to poison,” Miss Datsia retorted, nodding to the glistening tip of my master’s spear. “You think I can’t smell it? Not that it matters, but that you’d sink so low is telling enough. Did you come up with that plan, or did Aura suggest it? She’s wanted her own vengeance for years. She never did forgive me for having her removed.” She sighed theatrically, her shoulders drooping. “She’ll be doubly hurt over this, no doubt.”
My master stepped up onto the dais, tightening his grip and shifting to a defensive stance, his shaft held across his body as a shield. “Better to be killed in cold blood than to live under a tyrant.”
Miss Datsia actually laughed in response. “Tyrant? Everything I did was for the good of Deterikh!” Her voice rose in response, sharp and tense. “I protected the keep from dark influences. I engineered the return of lands who stole them in a war of aggression. I removed a threat to Baris’ very future from the throne. If I’m guilty of any crime, it’s of caring more about the sweep of Deterikh’s future than the fine details. Yes, lives will be lost, and that’s regrettable, but how many will be spared because of decisive action? Tyrant? I’m a physician, cutting away dead flesh to save a patient.” Her spear then suddenly snapped to a halt in her paws, its tip leveled at my master’s heart. “I’ve spared enough words with you. If you won’t leave, then I’ll have your body removed.”
My master’s response was a quick shift of his stance, his weight on his front leg. His spear thrust out in a jab, but Miss Datsia’s spear didn’t move; she simply flowed to the side, and the tip met only air. “Hasty.” Her tone suddenly became clinical. “You’re moving from the elbows; the swing starts at the shoulder.” His spearpoint snapped sharply to the left and down, but again he slashed at where the regent had been.
“You’re working against your own inertia,” Miss Datsia chided. “You’re trying to be clever, but you’re losing a lot of cont—” Her words rose in a yelp as my master snapped his spear around in one paw, crashing its back into the side of her knee. “Good! Creative, but now you’re—” Her own spear snaked down and around, and then my master’s weapon went flying, knocked out of his awkward off-paw grip with a quick lift of her own. “—defenseless and open.” She thrust and turned, and her spear came down in a sweep, slashing his left arm with the tip of her spear.
My master howled as blood gushed from the gash carved into his arm, but he didn’t fall. In his right paw, he already had the mace free from his belt. As Miss Datsia brought her spear around for another slash, he crashed it down against her, snapping it in two and sending splinters flying. His swing continued unbroken, as if he hadn’t even noticed the impact. The heavy head of the mace swung around and back up in a single arc. He stepped forward, and his paw came down in a backswing to crush the regent’s skull.
As he started its decent, a sudden glint of metal became visible in the middle of his back. Black blossomed around it, Deterikh green stained with fresh red blood. My heart froze as his body went rigid, then slack, crumpling to his knees. The mace slipped from his numbed fingers and crashed to the dais, and both his paws went to his chest, clutching the half-length of spear that Miss Datsia had shoved into his gut. He pitched forward, heaving, but nothing left him.
“Erik!” My pet’s name was out of my muzzle before I could think. I started to run forward, but suddenly two pairs of paws were on my shoulders and arms, holding me by my chains. I thrashed and struggled, but there was nothing I could do as the regent knelt beside my master and put a condescending paw on his shoulder.
“You were stronger than I thought,” she said approvingly to his struggling body, “but you were never strong enough. You were a risk, one I couldn’t afford. One that Barony Deterikh couldn’t afford.” Then, leaving him, she rose and smoothed out her skirt again, dropping the other end of her broken spear. “Guards, go find Valentin. Have he, Inika, and Chelin brought to the main hall. Then have someone summoned to clean this mess.” Then her eyes fell directly on me. “It’s time to end this. Come here, little light.”