It was hard for Justik to look at Taneh and not see the echoes of his brother. The other rabbit’s fur was the same, the distinctive patches on eir shoulder and leg matching Justik’s memory. If anything, Taneh’s fur was brighter than it had been in years, a soft white untouched by dirt or field-grime, harkening back to their days as kits together. The slave’s eyes resembled Stannis’ as well, the deep blue of an afternoon sky. Where Stannis’ had been clouded with worry beneath an ever-furrowed brow, though, Taneh’s were bright and clear above a comfortable smile. If those had been the only changes wrought on Taneh in the last two years, Justik might not have tensed so tightly in eir presence.
Those changes, however, were far from the only ones. Ey stood naked, a slave among freeborn. Chains hung from the other rabbit’s neck and wrists, bound to the short shackle between eir ankles that reduced eir steps to a short shuffle. Justik knew there were changes beyond those, physical ones meant to make em more inclined to the late Baron Deterikh’s tastes. Likewise, Eir hands had been reduced to stubby animal paws incapable of holding a sword or a plowhandle; he’d seen those when the raccoon holding Taneh’s lead had made a point of presenting em in all eir vainglory. Justik could only wonder at what else had been done to transform his brother into the creature now before him.
If Taneh noticed eir condition, ey didn’t seem to care. He stood comfortably nude, a clear change from Stannis’ insistence on bringing breeches with them to the bath. Ey moved with an easy grace despite eir chains. Eir short, shuffling steps were somehow delicate instead of plodding, eir whole body shifting to accommodate its constraints. Ey mostly kept eir head bowed, apparently unware of the world around em. Even when ey did lift eir gaze, eir eyes were half-lidded, seeming almost asleep as ey walked.
Watching Taneh walk made Justik’s skin crawl. Ey didn’t move like a person should, or even like the broken souls the soldier had seen in the slave pens on his one tour of Krolik’s market for same. Ey moved like something not wholly here in ways that Justik, son of late Jedrik, had no words to explain. His paw itched to stray time and again to the sword at his hip, to snap the chains on the slave before him, to somehow shatter the spell that had claimed his brother and rendered this eerie being in his place.
Valentin, Baron Deterikh, stopped just short of the front gate and turned to face the soldier-turned-diplomat. “As agreed, you can take em outside the gates. I’m trusting you on your own recognizance. Don’t leave the barony and be back by dawn.” The lanky lynx held up one end of a thin chain, the other attached to the slim silver collar around Taneh’s neck. “You’ll want to keep a grip on this while you can.”
“Why?” Justik asked immediately, his eyes narrowing. “Are you afraid ey’ll run?”
“No.” Baron Deterikh smiled. “I just know ey prefers to be on a short lead. Eir thoughts tend to run away from em otherwise.”
Justik frowned, his ears flatting against the back of his head. He tugged on the hem of his jacket and bobbed his head towards Taneh, standing obliviously behind the baron. “Can we take off the chains, at least?” His chest tensed, but he leaned into the question. “If there’s no risk of flight, there’s no harm to it, is there?”
Valentin narrowed his eyes. “Every time I think I’ve satisfied your demands, you add another. Thankfully, this one Aura saw coming.” He fished in his belt-pouches, then held up a glass vial. “Sage’s water. If you can get em to let you remove them, use it on the link closest to the wrists; those are easy to replace. The shackles aren’t.”
“It sounds like you’ve done this before.” Justik couldn’t quite keep the smirk out of his voice. “I thought you said you’re not afraid ey’ll run.”
“I won’t.” The new voice was quiet, but it cut through the conversation. Taneh smiled at the soldier, then lowered eir head again.
Valentin cleared his throat. “You know you’re not supposed to speak without being addressed first,” he chided his slave.
“I know,” Taneh acknowledged, not lifting his head, “but he’s not listening to you. He might listen to me.”
“He’d better,” Valentin growled. “I’m trusting him to take care of you. I’m… quite fond of you and Rikeh, you know.”
“I know,” Taneh repeated. “Orders, master?”
Baron Deterikh smiled and put a paw on Taneh’s shoulder. “Obey Justik as you would me, but don’t supercede your standing instructions.” He glanced to Justik, then back. “Be back by dawn.”
“Yes, master.” The slave half-bowed, then rose to eir full height, almost a hinds-length above Justik, not counting eir ears. Eir blue eyes were wide and open, the easy smile fixed on eir muzzle. “Mister Justik? I’m to serve you.”
Justik tugged uncomfortably at his collar. From the moment Taneh had spoken, the whole exchange had become increasingly uncomfortable. “I don’t… I mean,” He stopped, his words failing him. He fumbled for the lead in the baron’s outstretched paw, wrapping his fingers around it as a holdfast in a storm. “Your service is appreciated, but unnecessary. I can take care of myself.”
“As you wish, then.” Taneh sounded… disappointed? “I’m to go with you, though I must be back by dawn.”
“Of… course.” Justik started walking, but the chain in his fingers went taut after several steps. He looked back to see Taneh still standing in the same place, Baron Deterikh beside him with a faint grin.
“You’re going to have to tell em to follow; ey’s very well-trained, and very well-disciplined.”
“I do as I’m told, and I do it well,” Taneh breathed in response, eir eyes fluttering.
Justik frowned. “It’s like that, then?” He rattled off an exasperated sigh. “Very well. Follow me, Taneh.” With that, the slave immediately fell into step behind him. As they walked to the stables, Justik looked back over his shoulder to see Valentin’s wave. He responded with a sharp nod, then escorted the slave that used to be his brother to his horse. “Do you remember how to ride?”
Taneh shook eir head and held up eir paws, then wiggled the blunt stubs that had once been fingers. “With respect, sir, I can’t hold the reins.”
Justik hmphed and studied the situation, then grunted. “Alright; you’ll have to sit in front of me. Just grab the… damn.” He motioned towards the pommel of the saddle. “You can’t, can you?” Not waiting for an answer, he put one hind in the stirrup, then swung himself up into the seat, then immediately slid back to make room. “Lift your paws, step where I stepped, and I’ll pull you up.”
Taneh didn’t move. “Sir?”
“What is it now, Taneh?” Justik sighed again, his paw itching.
“With respect, sir, I can’t lift my hinds that far, and even if I could, I couldn’t sit astride.” Taneh’s head dipped even lower, as if fearing punishment for bearing the bad news. “I could ride sidesaddle, but your mount isn’t equipped for that, either for my safety or hers. Per standing orders, I must refuse.”
“And what order is that?” Justic snapped.
“Master Valentin’s order that I protect my own life, sir.” Taneh’s ears flicked, and ey briefly lifted his head with a smile. “I’m not to deliberately put myself into a situation that might injure me unless, it’s to protect another.”
Taneh’s voice never broke cadence, but Justik swore the slave was laughing at him, or at least the predicament before him. “I should just break those shackles,” the unhappy diplomat groused. “That solves a multitude of problems.”
“In the short term, sir, yes, but then you’ll owe my master for their repairs. Silver is expensive, even with the Estuzia mines in friendly paws.”
Justik looked down at the slave from his saddle. Taneh’s head was still bowed, but he distinctly felt the slave’s eyes on him. “Do you talk this much to Valentin?”
Taneh shook eir head and giggled, eir ears pinkening as ey shifted eir weight awkwardly. “No, sir, but my master has other ways to keep my muzzle busy.”
“I… see.” Justik slid off of the horse. “So how do you normally get around?”
“I walk, sir,” Taneh couldn’t quite suppress a chuckle. “If Master Valentin or Aura need to transport us, they use a cart.”
“Like chattel.” Justik spat the word, then blinked. “Wait, us? You mean Rikeh, as well?”
“Yes, sir.” Eir voice softened, and ey looked up with a warm grin on eir muzzle. “Rikeh and I serve together. A matched set for our master.”
Justik frowned as he yoked his horse and ran hauling tackle. “Who is Rikeh, anyway? What’s hi—eir backstory?”
Taneh shrugged. “Aura found em, sir, and my master named em after the late baron. More than that, I can’t say.”
The soldier hmphed again, tugging straps and fitting buckles. “It’s creepy. And that one looks far too much like you for my comfort. Like you’re related.” And we’re notstop?”
For the first time, the other rabbit’s voice trembled. “Sir?”
“You’ve got a brother, Matska’s grace!” Justik barked the words, heedless of Taneh’s ears flattening against eir head or eir shrinking back against the far wall of the cart. “It’s me!” He pounded his balled left paw against the rail of the cart, making it rattle. “Stannis, I’m here to take you home!”
It took several moments for Taneh to sit up in the cart. “But, sir—” The slave stopped eirself, then let the smallest of smiles cross eir muzzle, eir ears arching forward. “Justik, I am home.” Ey smiled. “And I’m not called that any more.”
Justik sighed exasperatedly and threw his paws in the air in frustration. “I just don’t know any more. First Deterikh’s a threat, then they’re an ally. Erik’s a tyrant, then he’s a victim. When Dion came to court, The baron hung on his every word. Now Dagos says everything he’s ever told us is suspect. Even—” The rabbit cut his words short, but he couldn’t stop his balled paw from hammering the railing of the cart. “What happened to you, St—” He stopped again and ground his teeth, biting back the old name. “Taneh. You’re called Taneh now, and… Matska’s grace, what’s wrong?”
Some time during the diplomat’s outburst, the slave in the cart had begun to tremble. “What is it?” Justik dug his short, well-trimmed claws into the wood. “It was something I said, wasn’t it?” Justik, son of Jedrik, might have been appointed a diplomat, but he was a soldier by trade, and soldiers lived or died by their attention to detail in the field. “It wasn’t Deterikh, or Erik.” He stressed the names as he said them, watching the slave that had been his brother. At the first, Taneh did nothing; it had no impact. At the second, the briefest of smiles flickered past eir muzzle. Justik’s eyes narrowed. “Was it Dion?” At the name, Taneh’s whole body seemed briefly to draw in on itself. Eir arms pulled in against eir sides, and eir thighs and knees clenched together. It lasted only a moment, an involuntary twitch, but in that motion, Justik saw a mountain spire.
Justik pried his claws from the cart and slowly extended one paw to the slave. He stood there, waiting, until Taneh placed eir own blunted paw in his. For the span of several breaths, the soldier just stood, feeling the reshaped flesh beneath his fingers. Taneh’s paw was warm to the touch. Finally, he spoke. “I think we should go outside the city and talk for a while. I’d like to hear what’s happened to you.”
Justik held still for several seconds before bursting out laughing. It felt good to laugh, like a waypoint had finally been reached on the map. His laughter shook the cart and rolled along the river. “Great Family, I needed this,” the diplomat said when he got the wind back inside of him. “All of it. None of it helps me understand you, but it’s helped me understand how we got here. It’s been a map I’ve sorely needed. Tell me this, Taneh.” He held out a paw, palm up. “Are you happy?”
“I don’t know that I understand either, sir,” Taneh admitted with a small shrug. “All I know for sure is that I’m happy, yes, sir. I’m happy with my master. I’m happy with Rikeh. I’m happy… being a slave. I don’t know many who can or would say that, but I can and I do.”
Justik nodded. “I don’t understand, but can I believe that. Lie down and get some rest. I have to have you back to your master by dawn.”