As we’d been instructed, both Rikeh and I knelt just inside the door to the baron’s parlor. Our heads bowed, we waited with paws on parted knees, anticipating our master’s return. When it opened, we both lifted our head and called out, “Hello, master!” in unison.
Master Valentin, Baron Deterikh, replied with a groan as he stepped into his parlor. “Rikeh, to the kitchen,” he mumbled wearily as he slumped towards the table. “Tea for three, bowls of stew, and whatever bread and cheese they can spare.” Mister Chelin filed in after him, with Miss Aura behind. “Taneh, heel. It’s going to be a long night.”
“Yes, master,” we replied as we both stood. My love brushed eir stubby paw against my arm, then took off at a dash for the kitchen. Eir golden-hued chains—a gift from the alchemist to complement my silver ones—rattled as ey shuffled rapidly out the door, tugging it closed behind em. I knelt beside the baron and, unbidden, took one of his hinds onto my knees to massage it as best as I could.
The lynx groaned and sagged against his high-backed chair. “Stars, that feels good.” He leaned down and tousled the fur between my ears. “That was the most brutal day in court I have ever had to endure.”
Mister Chelin, Deterikh’s new sergeant-at-arms, shifted forward on his seat and leaned his elbows against the table. “It could’ve been worse, I’m sure.”
“I’m not sure how,” my master retorted. “It seems half of Baris was in Erik’s camp, the other half supported Datsia, and the only common ground between them was disappointment in me. I think they’re all just holding their breath, waiting for me to make some gross misstep.”
“They weren’t holding it quietly, from what I heard,” the stocky young wolf chuckled. “At least none of them questioned your succession.”
“I don’t think any of them dared.” My master rubbed the bridge of his muzzle with one paw. “The reports of both of my predecessors’ deaths were too widespread, and I was one’s confidant and the other’s best friend. Iladin’s recital of Erik’s last words probably didn’t hurt either.”
“Neither did your accomplishments, don’t forget,” Deterikh’s sergeant-at-arms added. “You stopped a war and laid two heads of state to rest on the same day; that’s no simple feat.” Then Mister Chelin grinned, his ears perking. “At least Inika wasn’t here to challenge every statement you made.”
Miss Aura cackled at that from one of the couches along the wall, her tail hooking in amusement behind her. “No doubt she’ll be busy making plenty of her own mistakes at Tomas’ court.”
“Matska’s grace, Inika’s making a better showing there than I did here.” My master hissed against clenched teeth as I kneaded the ball of his hind. “She’s no Dion, but hopefully that will be worth a few coin in her favor. With luck, Baron Jazinsk will find her directness refreshing.” He tugged his hind out of my lap, then replaced it with the other, letting out a fresh groan of discomfort as I worked the tension out of his weary pads.
Deterikh’s court alchemist picked at the tattered hem of her blouse. “Speaking of Baron Jazinsk, do we know for sure that he’s agreed to end the war?”
“Not for sure, but I think we can assume so.” The young sergeant added. “The reports from the front are that the Jazinsks have pulled their forces back to just outside Krolik’s walls, same as we have. We know Inika’s made it inside, and we received confirmation that they turned back the ambush from their southern approach.”
That drew a general sigh of relief from around the room. “Any word of Dion?” Miss Aura asked, her tail lashing. “Have they caught the right bastard yet?”
My master shook his head. “No word on that, no. I think if they’d caught him, they’d have said, so I have to assume they’re still looking. Hopefully when they send their next envoy, he’ll come bearing that snake’s head on the end of his spear.”
“So who did you have Inika ask them to send?” Miss Aura asked, her gaze suddenly on the painting over my master’s shoulder.
My master shifted uncomfortably in his seat, then pulled his hind out of my lap. “Justik, son of Jedrik. I told you that before.” My heart leaped into my throat at the name, and my chest suddenly felt tight, but my master just put a paw on the back of my head and brushed my fur with his fingers. “Something the matter, pet?”
I bit my lip. “No, master.” The word was a lie, the sudden flush of embarrassment making the ache between my legs throb.
A soft thump at the door interrupted his words. Instead of further teasing, he merely hooked his thumb towards the door. “Go open that.”
I shifted awkwardly and rose to my hinds. “Yes, master.” I dashed over to the door and, twisting the knob in both paws, opened it to admit Rikeh, a wooden tray balanced across eir paws, loaded with bowls and a tea service. Eir chains rustled against the ground as ey walked slowly to the table to lay down eir burden. Eir order fulfilled, ey knelt where I had been moments before, and I took my position beside em.
For several seconds, no-one spoke. My master poured tea, Mister Chelin dug into his stew, Miss Aura joined them at the table, and my love and I shared the warmth of each other’s body. I heard the gentle shift of eir chains, felt the touch of eir stubby paw against my knee, and the emptiness between my legs flared, begging to be filled. I returned the touch, and a quiet whimper escaped Rikeh’s muzzle, eir ears folding back against eir head. I giggled, and ey turned, briefly pressing eir lips to mine.
“Down, both of you,” Master Valentin reprimanded, a smile on his muzzle. “There’ll be time enough for that later.”
“Oh, let them play,” Miss Aura chided, holding her mug in both paws. “This is all people-talk. You don’t even need them in here for this.”
My master grinned and lightly stroked Rikeh’s ears. “No, I don’t, but… truth be told, I’ve gotten used to their involvement. I need every honest voice I can find to warn me when I’m about to do something rash, and I sent one of my best advisors to Jazinsk to act as my voice there. I see no reason to turn down help where it’s available, even if sometimes I have to order them not to speak.” His eyes caught mine in a pointed stare, and I ducked my head, my ears growing warm under the sudden attention.
“Fair enough, I suppose,” Mister Chelin conceded. “It’s not like you’re bringing them to court with you. Will you really want them in the room when the envoy is here, though? Isn’t that just begging for trouble?”
“Probably,” my master admitted. “But he already knows about Taneh. I want him to see ey’s being well-treated. I can’t think of a faster way to build confidence in us. That’s why I asked for him in the first place.”
“It’s not Taneh’s presence that worries me,” the wolf grumbled as he tapped a claw against the patch of white on Rikeh’s shoulder. “Those markings are far too similar to be coincidence; they even look alike, in the muzzle and such. That’s going to raise questions.”
“What could he possibly ask that could be a problem?” Miss Aura asked as she filled her mug. “He won’t have any reason to suspect the truth.”
“He won’t have to,” the young sergeant countered, tapping against the table. “He knows what happened to Taneh, and even if he accepts that ey wanted it, that doubt has to linger. All he has to do is ask why they look so similar. That would be reason enough to suspect something, even if it’s not the truth.”
Rikeh and I exchanged glances, but Master Valentin leaned forward and put a paw on my love’s shoulder. “Listen, Chelin. If he asks outright, we tell him. If he’s smart enough to piece together the truth, then keeping it from him will hurt us in the long term. So far, no one has questioned Rikeh’s presence or history, and I don’t see that changing. That’s the way of slaves; they’re mostly beneath people’s attention.”
“And if he doesn’t ask directly, the answer is simple,” The alchemist added with a flick of her tailtip. “The Slaver’s Guild has a branch in Baris as well as Krolik, and I chanced upon a close fit. I wanted a gift to offer at the inauguration, and, well….” Her grin widened as she tugged at the hem of her blouse. “Baron Deterikh seemed so pleased with Taneh, I thought he should have a matched set.”
The words sent a spasm of warmth up my spine, and from Rikeh’s muffled whimper against my shoulder I could tell it had done the same to em. I shifted closer to my love and took eir paws in mine, then nuzzled into the other rabbit’s velvety black fur. I might have been nothing more than a slave, but it didn’t matter. There was nothing more I could want.