Justik, son of late Jedrik, ambassador to Barony Deterikh, dropped from the saddle of his horse and took a moment to appreciate the feel of ground beneath his hinds. Three days in the saddle and two nights on a bedroll beside the road had left him sore, exhausted, and hungry for anything but ridebread and weak ale. And yet, staring at the gates of Baris, mere strides from a bath and a hot meal, he hesitated. Just a year ago, Deterikh was the enemy. Everyone in Barony Jasinsk had heard the stories; Dion, the old ambassador, had spent years telling tales at every inn in Krolik of Mad Erik and his depravities. Then overnight, the tale changed. Captain Datsia had gone from liberator to usurper, Erik from tyrant to puppet. With a single rap of Baron Tomas’ staff, the war for justice had become party to a coup. Deterikh had gone from menace to ally, and not a single blow had been struck.
Then came two blows, in fatal succession. Datsia, daughter of Stela, Deterikh’s captain and the old baron’s sister, had killed young Erik — her nephew — in a duel, only to be avenged by his sergeant-at-arms. Valentin, son of Dorik, had claimed the barony, and an uneasy peace had settled between Jasinsk and Deterikh. It wasn’t a strong peace, Justik mused as he stretched his legs. It was weak and fragile, more quiet than calm. Despite a year of silence, a fullness of seasons without drums or swords, the soldier-turned-diplomat still felt his paw itching for the pommel of his sword.
It wasn’t Valentin’s rule that unnerved Justik, he decided as he walked his mount to the gate and showed his papers. It was the rumors. Whispers rippled through the streets of Baris, hinting at a story grittier and more bitter than Baron Valentin’s porridge-bland pronouncements. Loyalists to the late Captain gathered in every inn. Deterikh’s old diplomat, Dion, hid in half the town’s basements, or in an abandoned mine in the Estuzias, amassing an army of shadows. The ghost of Deterikh’s previous court alchemist roamed the halls of the keep. Some even said that it wasn’t Valentin who’d brought down Datsia, but his slave Taneh, secretly trained in the dark arts.
Thoughts of Taneh — Stannis, Justik reminded himself — made the Jasinski diplomat’s paw itch. By order of the Crown, slaves had no families, just owners. He’d heard from Dagos, Jasinsk’s sergeant-at-arms and Baron Tomas’ second, that there had been a scandal in Barony Vizuna years ago involving a lineage dispute that had almost torn the barony apart. The Slavers’ Guild itself had almost been expunged once, after the Crown Barrister’s Office found evidence of a few slavers using breeding rings to bolster their profits. After many royal manumissions and several public executions, the Guild’s leaders recognized the need to prevent such abuses if they didn’t want to end up in the gibbet themselves. No tie of blood could be allowed to survive the ties of iron, to prevent such abuses. The Crown now kept the Guild on its own tight leash, to ensure their compliance.
That didn’t make the sight of Baron Valentin’s plaything any easier to bear. He’d seen when the Deterikh alchemist had brought what was left of his brother to Krolik Tower. He’d heard, moments after the outcry from the great hall, of Stannis’ devotion to his new status. He’d spent nearly twenty years in the same house; he knew his brother’s movements, his tone. Something inside him refused to connect the old memories to the new. It wasn’t right in some way that his gut demanded, even as he struggled to make peace with the new name, the new life. It gnawed at him, like an old wound healed crooked.
Chelin, Barony Deterikh’s sergeant-at-arms, hailed him as he approached the inner gate of Baris Keep. “You’re late,” the plump tan-furred wolf called as he strode forward. Despite his girth, the sergeant’s uniform hung loosely on him, and he moved with a deliberate grace, his hindfalls quick and even. “We expected you yesterday; the baron was about to send out a team to find you. Is there trouble?”
“No trouble on the roads,” Justik replied with a shake of his head. His long ears snapped back as he talked. “I took my time. I’ve got a lot to discuss.”
The wolf’s ears perked in response and his tail curled. “Oh?” He leaned on the butt of his spear. “Trouble in Jazinsk, then? Is it Inika?”
Justik frowned. “Its not your diplomat, or the barony.” He waved past Chelin, towards the keep’s gate. “It’s something I need to take up with the Baron.”
Chelin’s tail drooped, and the wolf stepped back. He motioned towards the lynx standing at the gate. “Andor, run a message to the court; Justik’s arrived.” As the guard sprinted away, he turned back and shrugged. “You know the way to the stables and the guest-house. The baron’s in court until sundown, but I’m sure he’d rather receive you in his chambers first.”
Valentin’s chambers meant Valentin’s slaves. The rabbit shook his head again. “This is a strange request, but could you ask the baron to come to my room? Alone? It’s an imposition, but an important one.”
Barony Deterikh’s sergeant-at-arms raised a brow. “I’ll… let him know, but he won’t be happy.”
Justik scratched his right paw with the claws of his left. “I can live with his discomfort for now. Thank you. I’ll see myself to my bunk.” Then the Jasinski diplomat-once-soldier tugged on the reins of his mount and entered Baris Keep, his other paw on the pommel of his sword and his ears straining to catch any whispers that followed in his wake.
Baris Keep’s guest house was a tall wooden building, solidly built and carefully maintained, with a steeply sloped roof and several chimneys. Time and care had worn the wood to a smooth polish, and the fieldstone floor had expert fittings. The glass in the windows was faintly yellow and grainy, but the fireplaces were all lined with brick and no smoke seeped into the rooms. It was, Justik hated to admit, more lavish than the barracks back in Krolik. He was going to miss this place.
Valentin, Baron Deterikh, son of Dorik, set down his porcelain teacup on the tray resting on the wooden table and smacked his lips. “It’s not my best brew,” the lanky lynx apologized, his whiskers drooping, “but I’d rather try to show some familiarity than serve the formal blend. We’ve had these meetings every two weeks for, what, a year now?”
Justik sat upright on the edge of his seat in the candle-lit guest quarters and scratched at his paw. Valentin’s tea, sadly, had been strong and bitter, the notes of sweet honey and spicy clove smothered beneath oversteeped tannins. At least the stew; rich with barley, sausage, and fennel; had blessed his muzzle, especially after three days of travel. Now, though, it sat heavily in his stomach, and his mind churned along with his guts. Valentin had entered alone, to be sure, but Justik had seen one of the baron’s slaves through the doorway as he’d entered. It wasn’t his brother, but the other one, the black rabbit whose white-dotted pelt looked far too much like Sta—Taneh’s black-on-white for Justik’s comfort. Echoes of rumors swirled in the diplomat’s mind as he digested his meal. “Just under, I think,” he said after a few moments. “My next visit would’ve been a year.”
“Would have?” Valentin cocked his head to the side. “Is that what you wanted to discuss? Chelin said you had something you needed from me. Is Dagos looking to replace you? I can send a commendation back with you, if that’ll help.”
The Jazinski diplomat sighed. “Dagos isn’t to blame, nor is Baron Tomas. It’s…” He paused again, then stood and stepped back from the small table. “I’m sorry, Baron Valentin. I don’t think I can continue to serve as Tomas’ presence at your court and still serve my conscience.”
Valentin stood as well and folded his arms. “Something’s wrong, and it isn’t with Barony Jazinsk, so it’s something here, or you wouldn’t be bringing it to me. You wanted to meet me here, not in my room, so it’s something about my chambers. It’s probably not the couch, though it’s in sore need of new cushions.” The lynx smiled. “That leaves the portraiture and thus my right to rule, or Taneh.”
Instead of answering, Justik began to pace back and forth in the small room. Baron Deterikh stood by the table, watching him trace a line back and forth across the wooden floor, his arms crossed and his posture relaxed. “ You’re the first Baron Deterikh in two-hundred years to take the throne at swordpoint,” Justic said without stopping. “The second, if you count the hour or so that Datsia sat there before you ran her through.” He paused in his steps, facing the far wall. “It wasn’t so long ago, though, that Jazinsk suffered the same, and not all the weapons were so clean. I have no question about your right to the throne.”
“That leaves Taneh, then,” Baron Deterik acknowledged, leaning back against the wall. The mace at his belt thumped against the wood. “You can’t do the job because of em.”
“I’m… uncomfortable.” Even the word made the rabbit’s ears twitch. He stood stiffly at attention, fighting to suppress the churning in his gut.
Valentin nodded. “I can see that,” he offered in the wake of Justik’s pronouncement. “Why the discomfort?”
Justik bowed his head. “I knew your slave, once.”
“So ey said,” The lynx replied. “That’s why I asked for you.”
That brought Justik’s head up and around. Valentin stood, leaning against the wall, his arms folded casually across his trim green jacket. “You did?”
“Aura told me you helped get Taneh into the stands.” Valentin smiled. “Eir presence and testimony in chambers, swayed your sergeant-at-arms. Dagos convinced the baron, and we’re at peace now because of that.” The baron pushed off from the wall and took a step closer. “You helped stop a war; you should be proud of that.”
Justik’s chest tightened at the baron’s words. “Aura — the raccoon holding… Taneh’s… lead, she….” Justik’s head spun, matching his overfull stomach. “She showed me hi—” He stopped and took a deep breath. “Eir, sorry. Eir paw, and the damage done to it.” He paused again, letting that image linger in the air for a moment before continuing. “There’s a lot of rumors about what happened last Serpi. She said some rumors had grains of truth in them. I don’t know what to believe. I don’t know what I can believe.” His scratched idly at his paw as he talked. “I want to believe the official record, what the bards and sages have proclaimed, but I just can’t. It doesn’t explain the stains on Taneh’s paw, the ones that aren’t there any more. It doesn’t explain your other slave, the one that looks too much like my…” He stopped again. “Crown law says slaves don’t have families. That doesn’t change how I feel.”
Valentin was silent for a time after Justik’s impromptu speech. “That took courage, telling me. Did you come all the way here just to tell me this? To resign your post?”
“Hopefully not.” Justik turned fully to face Baron Deterikh and put his paw on the pommel of his sword. “I also wanted to take Taneh home and get em well.”
Baron Deterikh’s eyes drifted down to the rabbit’s paw, then back to his face. His arms remained folded, though he shifted his weight away from the wall. “Listen, Justik, I think Taneh’s already home, but what I think won’t sway you, will it?”
“No, Baron,” Justik admitted. “I’ve been thinking about this for almost a year.”
“I see.” Valentin stepped forward, lowering his arms to his sides. Baron Deterikh had almost half a head on the smaller rabbit, but even just a year on the throne had left its mark on the lynx. He’d begun to sport a small paunch, and he didn’t move with the same crispness. “You realize I’m not inclined to sell em to you; I’m quite fond of em.”
“I’d hoped to appeal to your decency,” Justik replied with just a hint of cracking in his voice. “Surely you’d be inclined to listen to a heartfelt appeal from family. Or is that merely a rumor as well?”
The baron chuckled tensely in response to that, then popped . “Clever, but beside the point. Even if I set Taneh free, I don’t think ey’d leave. I can’t be the one to tell you that, though. I’ll make you a counter-offer, though.”
Justik tilted his head. The churning in his guts had stilled, but his head still spun. “What?”
Valentin motioned towards the door. “I’ll fetch Taneh and let the two of you talk it out. If you can convince em to leave, I’ll let em go.”
The rabbit blinked; the itching in his paw had stilled. “One further term.”
“That’s quite the demand, given what I’m offering, but I’ll listen at least.” Valentin knelt and pulled a knife from his boot. In the light of the candle, the polished blade glinted gold. “Will this do?”
Justik nodded. “I don’t want anyone else around during our talk. If I’m to believe what I hear, we have to be alone.” The rabbit hesitated, then pressed into the suddenly stuffy silence.. “Away from Baris, preferably.”
The lynx put his own paw on the hilt of his mace; it looked natural enough, a simple shift of Valentin’s arms, and yet there was an unmistakable response to Justik’s words in the movement, so much like his own. “You want me to entrust my slave to you, let you take em out of the city, and… talk?”
The Jazinski diplomat flinched at the stress on the last word. Had he pushed too far? There was still time to back down, to laugh off the suggestion as silly and apologize. “Yes.” Justik’s gut seized, cramping around the soup he’d so desperately missed. And yet, the word hung before him, and his head, for once, felt clear.
Silence filled the space between the two men while the flame on the candle crackled. “Before I do, I expect an oath in return,” Valentin said, breaking the stillness in the air. “If ey chooses to leave, I’ll accept your resignation. If ey chooses to stay, however, I’ll accept your apology, and I’ll expect you to stay on as Tomas’ voice in Deterikh.”
The rabbit scowled, and his ears pulled back against his head. He’d come expecting either a flat refusal and a fight, or a quiet acceptance and a graceful departure. Nowhere in his plans had he considered that he might have to return. He scratched the itch in his palm. “Done.”
“Very well, then,” Baron Deterikh turned the blade of the knife around and balanced it on his outstretched paw. “I swear to the Great Family — Oshka, Matska, and little Korski — that I’ll do everything I can to make Taneh’s side of your conversation as free of influence as I can.”
“Thank you. I’ll be—”
“Just one thing, diplomat,” Valentin interrupted. “Look up and to your right. Do you see the knot above the window? Just to the left of the mullion?”
Justik turned as indicated, then looked back to the baron. “I do, why?”
Baron Deterikh flipped the knife up onto its tip in his fingers, then snapped his whole arm up and to his left before Justik could react. The knife spun end over end, then embedded itself in the wood with a sharp thunk. Above the cloudy glass window, just to the left of its mullion, the baron’s knife jutted out from the knot. “Have Taneh back by morning. The guards at the gate will be awaiting your return.”