Beautiful World 03: Confrontation

I was well into my third beer when Julia slid into the booth across from me, jacket-sheathed arms folding on the scuffed laminate tabletop, her fingers interlacing. "So, this is about John, isn't it." Her tone made it a statement.

I scraped a line of frost from my mug and looked up at her. Her back-length hair, tied back into a tight braid, was green this month, a dark forest green that have passed for natural on the first take. She hadn't bothered to remove her wraparound dark glasses, creating the illusion of a CENSORED bar obscuring her identity. Beneath it, her mouth was twisted into a permanent smirk, though the expression was currently more prominent than normal. She'd turned up the collar of her black windbreaker, and the T-shirt beneath it had a text-picture of pi comprised of its digits.

I smirked and lifted my beer in a mock-toast. "You know, you haven't changed since college, Julia."

The quirk of her mouth bent into a frown. "Neither have you, Adam; you're still the only one in the group who doesn't call me Jules. This isn't about me, though; it's about you. Rather, you think it's about John, which is why you called me."

I shrugged and set down my mug again, flagging down a waiter. "Call it a point of pride; I hate diminutives. And yes, it's about Johnathan. What're you having? I invited; my treat."

Julia shook her head, holding out a hand, palm extended. "Nothing for me; I'm ankle-deep-head-first in a project. You sounded desperate, though, so I got things to a breakpoint."

The summoned waiter made his way to the table, pulling a notepad out of his apron. "Can I get you two something?"

"Just a burger for me, no tomato, no mayonnaise," I asked, emphasizing the removals. "Seasoned fries. Oh, and a refill. Julia, anything? I'm paying."

She leaned back against the bench, grunting her acquiescence. "Yeah, okay, I'll have the turkey club and an iced tea. No salt on the fries, and bring it in a to-go box?"

The waiter nodded. "I'll get these started and be back with your drinks." Then he was gone again, leaving me alone with Julia's frown.

"Okay, Adam," she said somewhat testily as soon as the waiter was out of earshot. "I'll stick around for half a sandwich because we're friends, and because we've been friends, and I hope because we're going to keep being friends, but I'm not interested in solving your problems with John."

I frowned, but before I spoke, I took the time to drain my mug, setting it back down against the scratched plastic with a thunk. "I just... don't get it," I said, looking down at my empty glass. "I mean, how can he turn his back on all of us for this?"

Julia's smirk reasserted itself as she rummaged in the pocket of her windbreaker and pulled out a heavy refillable lighter. "Long as you're phrasing it like that, Adam, you're not going to get it. There's a difference between turning away from one thing and turning towards something else."

My frown deepened as I fidgeted with my mug. "Yeah, I guess," I conceded, but I came back quickly with the real point of my ire. "But... Mitsuko?"

Julia groaned quietly, covering her glasses with one hand, rolling the lighter around in the other. "I don't even want to try to discuss Mitsuko with you."

"Oh, c'mon," I said, leaning forward in my seat and pushing the empty mug to the edge of the table for the waiter to remove. "You're in software design. Of anybody in his circle of friends, you'd be the one most likely to be able to tell him."

"Tell him what, Adam?" She asked, her voice low and tight. "That he's dating a pocket calculator?"

"Now who's not respecting whose opinion?" I replied with a smirk of my own. "I'm sure she's a very well-coded expert system, but at the end of the day, she's still just that: software. She's a program. C'mon, Julia, you do this stuff for a living."

Julia shook her head again. "I work on expert systems, not digital sentience. One's programmable; the other's not." She nodded a thanks as the waiter set a glass of tea in front of her, then a fresh beer next to me, whisking away the empty.

"See, that's my very point!" I quietly crowed as soon as the waiter was gone again, stabbing the table for emphasis. "He's not in love with a real thinking being. Not a person. If he were falling for somebody from Japan and said he wanted to move out there, I'd be fine with that, but that's not what he's doing. He's talking about turning his brain into so many sample-slides and rendering himself as some kind of expert system inside one of Tadashiissei's networks, all so he can spend the rest of his life... or whatever... with a programmable sex toy!"

The frown reasserted itself on Julia's face, and she leaned forward, elbows on the table, ticking points off on one set of fingers with the other. "One, just because I said digital sentiences weren't programmable doesn't mean they don't exist; it means they can't be written." Her tone of voice had picked up a hard edge that suggested it would brook no interruption. "They can be evolved from expert systems with a sufficiently high degree of interconnectivity and a matching firmware base on which to grow. You're not into electronics, Adam; you're a biology professor. Stick to what you know.

"Two, the process of uploading doesn't to anybody's knowledge destroy anything other than the physical shell; every case of it that's been studied to date has shown no ill effect, no trauma, no disorders, and no loss of creativity or mental capacity. How many books has Imogene Franklin written since her conversion? Seven? Eight? And her literary critics say they're better now that she's no longer worrying about getting the whole thing done before the cancer kills her. Hell, imagine where cosmology might be today if this had been around during Hawking's time. John's an artist; if he really thought loss of creativity were a concern, he wouldn't do it, and Tadashiissei wouldn't let him if they were going to hire him. I know the idea of willingly giving up organics in favor of silicon squicks you, but that's a personal preference, not a fact, and no amount of wishing otherwise will change that.

"Three, Mitsuko is not a programmable sex toy; she's one of Tadashiissei's tour guides, and you're lucky that you said that to me and not to John, because he would punch you for that kind of crack. He may be just an art type, but I doubt he's forgotten his jeet kune do, and he still hits the gym pretty regularly."

During her tirade, I leaned back against the padded bench seat. Her blunt point-by-point had sucked a lot of the thrust out of my argument, but I wasn't prepared to grant that to her in public. "I don't see why he bothers hitting the gym if he's just going to go throw his body away in six months," I sulked.

"Procedural memory," Julia replied with her typical smirk. "Different part of the brain from regular memory. I'd have thought a biologist of your caliber would have realized that much."

"Oh, very funny," I snapped back, then sighed. "I'm sorry, Julia, I'm just—wait." Something she said during her rant came back to me. "How did you know about his new job?"

For the first time tonight, Julia chuckled. "Oh, he told me the day he got it. I've known for a week. We
did date for a few years."

I slumped back in my seat, defeated. "Am I the last person to know about everything that happens?"

"Not always," she said, leaning back and tucking her lighter back into her pocket as the waiter slid a plastic box in front of her. "I was the last one to figure out John and I weren't going to work out."

I sighed in response, looking with mild distaste at the burger I'd ordered and began picking at my fries. The conversation had killed my appetite. "I'm sorry; could I get a to-go box as well?" I asked the waiter, who nodded and left.

Julia took that as her cue to rise out of the bench. "If you're not eating, then I need to go. Tonight's a deadline I really can't miss." She stopped beside the table, one hand on her hip, the other holding her sandwich. "Look, I'm sorry this is hard on you. You and he have been best friends for years, and he's going through some changes that you're just not ready to face. I have it on good authority that he wants to remain friends with you, but this is something he's not prepared to give up, and you're going to have to decide either to accept it and stay friends, or give it up and him with it. I can't tell you which is the right answer, but I can tell you which answer he and I would both prefer."

I didn't look up at her. I couldn't look up at her. "Don't tell me you're on his side in this."

"I didn't break up with him because I quit caring about him, Adam." Suddenly, she sounded as tired as I felt. "I—never mind. Point is, I don't want to see the group split up over this. I want to see Mitsuko become part of the group, as much as possible. She's not the roadblock in this, and neither is John, for all his hard-assery. He just wants to be happy, and Mitsuko makes him happy. Being in Irokai makes him happy, happier than he can be out here."

Our waiter breezed by the table, dropping off a plastic box and a small tub of mustard. "So when are you going in there after him?" I quipped as I scraped fries off of my plate. I was burning every bridge at this point, but I was past the point of caring. I just wanted someone to understand, and here was Julia lecturing me like I was her student or something.

She turned away from me. "I'm not, Adam, not for a long time. I'll be glad to visit, but no way am I moving there right now."

"Why not?" I asked, trying my best to come across as genuinely curious but probably sounding more accusatory than anything else. "I would've thought a software designer of your caliber would've been the first in the group to jump at the chance to live a completely digital existence."

She chuckled darkly. "Touché. Let's just say I have my reasons and leave it at that. Look, I really have to go, or I'm going to miss my deadline, and then things will really suck. G'night, Adam. Next weekend, I'm free and I should have the cash from this project in hand. Give me a call, we'll get with John and maybe Mitsuko can join remotely and we can play Bartok or Barbuda or something."

I shrugged, closing up my box. "Yeah, maybe."

Julia paused a moment, as if weighing the tone of my response, then shrugged. "Whatever, man. Take care." Then she was out the door, leaving me alone with my beer and my frustration.


Beautiful World 02: Regret

The front of Tadashiissei's Beautiful World facility was below ground level, flowering hedges shrouding the entryway. A ramp of multicolored tiles ran between them, leading from the sidewalk down into the earth, giving the illusion of descending inside one of their digital realms even before I had gotten inside. It always felt a little disorienting, the outer world disappearing behind me as I prepared to dive into the inner one, but I always got the impression that the effect was intentional. If so, it worked; before I had even gotten in the door, I felt a little bit like I was leaving the old world behind.

The rainbow of interlocking tiles continued on the far side of the glass double doors, spreading across the floor in ripples of color. On the white stucco wall above the row of counters sat a number of digital clocks, the names of major cities beneath each indicating the local time. At the far end of the line-up hung a single analog disk, a wedge of color-wheel running from hour to minute indicating the time in Irokai. Beneath the timepieces, signs printed in English and Japanese directed travelers towards their destinations: New Arrivals, Returning Travelers, Special Assistance, Gift Shop.

The line in front of the first-timer's window was filled with teenagers laughing and gabbing with each other, while adults at regular intervals worked to keep the cluster moving in an orderly fashion towards the window. Some kind of class trip, I guessed as I eased past them, over into the Returning Travelers line, eying the arc of color overhead and doing some quick calculation: eighteen-twenty, give or take a minute.

If I spent the money for a translocation after transition, we could still make our reservation slot. Given the option, I'd have much rather taken a tram to the restaurant from Mitsuko's block, but even with the frequency of their runs, the chance of catching one in time was slim, and the last thing I wanted was to miss the reservation. We'd been looking forward to dinner at Junsei-en for a month, and I wasn't going to be the one to disappoint Mitsuko.

While the counter-clerk helped the couple in front of me in line, I dug my palmtop out of my pocket and snapped it open, revealing a tiny screen on one face with a thumbboard and trackball on the other. It took only a few quick taps to bring up the quick-messenger, a few more to select Mitsuko's name out of the contact list.
In line at the transit desk, I pecked out in a hurry. Almost home.

A few seconds after I hit send, the screen lit up in a response.
I can't wait, said the message. Is everything okay?

My thumbs hesitated over the board, then tapped out a reply.
Sugoi. I glanced up as the two people in front of me accepted their passcards back. See you soon. With a click, I snapped the palmtop closed and approached the counter, pulling my passcard out of my pocket.

The woman behind the counter wore a white shirt and dark green slacks, with a multicolored ribbon pinned to her shirt just above her nametag. She smiled as I stepped up to the window, her hands folded in front of her. "Welcome back, Mr. Dart. Here for the night, or just the evening?"

I passed over the holographic passcard. "The night. I'll need an extended-stay booth."

She nodded in response and swiped the card. "We have your reservation already in the system," she confirmed with a smile. "You can proceed back to room seventeen. Enjoy your evening!" With that, she handed me back the small rectangle of plastic, which I swiped through the reader on the wall before I stuffed it into my pocket. With a wave, I pushed open the security door and headed down the corridor towards the transfer chambers.

The path from Junsei-en's front door back to the tram passed over a wooden bridge crossing a small pond, topped with floating lotus blossoms. To one side, a few meters away, a low waterfall flowed down over a rock wall, churning the clear blue water into a white froth. On the other, the pool deepened and widened, with brightly colored
koi dancing and darting in and among the flowers that drifted across the surface. The whole was surrounded with rocks, beyond which grew a bamboo forest that obscured vision and completed the illusion of peaceful isolation.

The first time I had come here, it had all been a game. The water in the waterfall didn't come from a river, or a recycling pump. It came from an algorithm, a clever piece of code that gave the appearance of running water. If I put my paw in it, it felt wet and it made the individual strands of fur wave, but those, too, were just tricks of the mind, more data pumped directly into my head from Tadashiissei's servers. I knew, but didn't bother to test, that if I spent the money to activate a special feature and flew up to the top of the rock wall, I would be able to see that the water didn't come from anywhere. It just poured out of the side of the cliff, without origin or destination. It was all just ones and zeroes.

The second time—the first time I'd come with Mitsuko—none of that mattered. It was beautiful, and that was enough. Gone was the wonder in how they had rendered it all, the questions about bit rates and throughput and storage. All that remained was the quiet joy at listening to the breeze blow through the bamboo while gazing up at the sunset. I bought a votive candle in a paper boat in Junsei-en's shop and watched Mitsuko kneel down on the bridge to float it out onto the water, then folded her paws in mine, watching it bob on the surface as colorful fish nudged it from beneath, trying to make it tip. It had been a perfect moment, the nature of the sensations lost in the sensations themselves, the wind and the sky and the water all coming together to a single unforgettable impression, like an Ezra Pound haiku.

This time, I stood on the bridge, short claws digging into the wooden railing. Tonight, the breeze was stronger, and the bamboo hummed and chattered softly as the wind tapped stiff stalks together. The fur of my arms and tail fluttered, sending a shiver up my spine. I lifted my eyes to the full moon rising over the horizon, trying at once to remember and to forget.

Soft, warm paws touched my back, then slid around my waist as Mitsuko pressed herself to my back, holding herself close to me. I let go of the bridge and enfolded my arms over hers, curling my tail back around her waist. The rise and fall of her chest added its gentle percussion to the symphony of sensation, and for a moment all I wanted was to stay forever in this position, lost to the rest of the world.

After several moments of simple silence, Mitsuko spoke. "Something is wrong." Her voice was gentle, the delicate hints of her Japanese accent giving a lilt to her words. It had been one of the first things to draw me to her, back when I had first come to Irokai and she had been assigned to our group as a tour guide. There had been no illusions then; she was cheerfully honest about herself, and it had entranced me. I had spent as much of the trip as I could just listening to her talk.

I looked down from the moon to the dance of its reflection against the rippling surface of the pond. "It's nothing, really," I replied quietly, wishing I could feel as convinced as I tried to sound.

Mitsuko squeezed me once around the stomach in a soft hug, then stepped back, coaxing with her motions for me to turn around, away from the waterscape to face her, taking her gloved paws in my own. Her eyes were a deep emerald green, almost black in the twilight, set in a sea of short ebony fur. Beyond the mask, the white fur looked greyish-blue, the grey beyond that a deeper charcoal. "What happened?" she asked gently, her head tilting to the side in an expression of delicate concern. "You were so quiet over dinner."

My gaze drifted down from her face to take all of her in as a whole. The green silk dress she'd chosen for the occasion shimmered softly in the moonlight. The stripes on her tail bobbed slightly as the wind ruffled the fur at their borders. Her feet, like mine, were bare, a concession to the difficulty of making even sandals that looked good when contrasted with toeclaws. Her forearms were sheathed in the same silk as her dress, giving her entire ensemble a touch of antique elegance.

My eyes came back to hers, and I smiled, my ears arching as I squeezed her paws gently. "You're beautiful, Mits."

Her ears reddened in response, but she smiled, her eyes sparkling from the compliment. "You are changing the subject," she chastised gently, extracting her paws to waggle a finger mockingly at me. Her other rested on my chest, smoothing out the lapel of my jacket.

Looking into that warm radiance I knew I was making the right decision, no matter how hard it was going to be. I shrugged with one shoulder, making a moue of my muzzle. "It's Adam," I said, as if that explained everything. In a way, it did, but I clarified anyway. "He's not making this easy on anyone."

Mitsuko sighed, nodding as she leaned forward, resting her head against my shoulder. "He is afraid, and he is angry," she replied. "He thinks he is losing a friend."

"He will if he keeps this up," I rejoindered testily, regretting it almost as soon as the words were out of my muzzle. I hugged Mitsuko's shoulders and leaned back against the wooden railing, my tail entwining with hers. "I shouldn't be like that. It's not
us, or even you. It's...." I tried to find the words for it, but none came. I didn't want to use his epithet. If it had been rude before, it would've been insulting now.

Mitsuko didn't spare me the indignity. "He thinks it is all a game, that none of it is real." She sounded more disappointed than hurt.

I winced and nodded. "Yeah, that's how he put it. He's why we were almost late; he came over while I was getting ready and tried to pick a fight."

She lifted her head from my shoulder, looking into my eyes, one hand on my chest. "Should I talk with him? I could call or send a message."

I shook my head. "Somehow, I think that would just make things worse." I quietly urged her back to nestle against my shoulder. "If he doesn't think of you as real, he'd just write it off as company propaganda or something."

Mitsuko giggled, her ears flicking against the underside of my muzzle. "
Hai, that would be it," she said, stressing her Japanese accent into a bad parody of broken English. "Ikanobari Mitsuko, Irokai propaganda minister. I will convince you to move forever to my country through pretty word-pictures of chromatic landscapes and impossible acts of beauty." Then she stuck out her tongue and pulled down one of her eyelids in a faux-anime taunt pose. "Hnngh."

In spite of my best efforts, I laughed, a full-throated bark that took the wind out of my lungs. Mitsuko joined in with her own giggling, and together we just held each other and shared a moment of humor, a much-needed lift to both our spirits.

When the laughter subsided, I leaned down and tenderly nosed one of her ears. "I love you."

She lifted her head and smiled, pressing her muzzle softly to mine. "I love you too, John," she said when she broke for air.

Then she leaned back against my shoulder, and I held her in my arms. Together, we leaned back against the wooden railing and let our gazes wander upwards, watching a million pinpoint votives float slowly across the midnight sea.


Bonds of Silver, Bonds of Gold 01: Sale

The sign that hung over the large wooden door needed no explanation: five oversized golden chain links entwined in a loop. The face of the squat, stone structure was empty besides, absent even a window to let in the sun. Everyone else walking past gave the entrance a wide berth, as though standing too close invited the attention of the occupants. A few passers-by stopped to stare at me as I paced in front of the building, then hurried on their way, averting their gaze. Not my concern, their actions said. Nothing I can do.

Turning my back on the city square, I tensed my paws into fists, then raised one arm and knocked, rapping my white knuckles against the wood. As soon as I did so, it swung open to reveal a grey-furred wolf standing within. Aside from a collar made of polished steel chain locked around his neck, he was nude. Despite his exposure, he stood tall, his ears erect and unashamed. A metal tag dangled beside the lock at the hollow of this throat, glinting in the sunlight. He rested one paw on the edge of the door, then cocked his head at me, his silver eyes boring into mine in an unasked question.

My eyes darted to the paw holding the door open; he'd been declawed, his fingers ending only in soft fur. My attention snapped back to his face, I opened my muzzle to speak, but my throat had suddenly run dry. "I... I need... I mean...." I stammered, one paw rising shakily to gesture overhead, towards the sign, hoping to explain without saying a word.

"Milos, down," called a thin but stern voice from behind the wolf. "Take the boy's cloak."

The wolf's reaction to his name was instantaneous. He dropped to his knees, his head bowed and his tail tucked. The door, now free of his grasp, begun to swing closed of its own accord, until I propped it open with one hind. Milos raised his arms to me, and I awkwardly slipped the rough-spun woolen cloak from my shoulders and into his paws. As soon as he had it, he shuffled to the side, out of the doorway, never rising from his awkward crouch as he approached the wooden coat rack beside the door. He stood just long enough to hang my cloak, then returned to his previous posture, resting his paws on the floor beside him.

I stared for several seconds, watching the whole proceeding, until the voice that had spoken before cut through the jumble of my thoughts. "So, come to observe my pet, or was there something else?"

I tore my eyes away from the wolf, towards the speaker. Behind the desk that dominated the room sat a tall , middle-aged raccoon. Her eyes were yellow-flecked violet, shining like chips of amethyst shot with gold. She kept her teeth hidden behind a thin smile, and her black-furred ears stood relaxed and erect, but there was no masking the feral glint in her gaze. She wore a loose cotton robe dyed in a range of greens, cinched at her waist by a broad, brass chain-link belt. Her wrists, her ankles, and the end of her tail were similarly adorned, the metal gleaming against her dark fur.

She beckoned me within, and I hesitantly crossed the threshold into the front office. Witchlights illuminated the interior, soft yellow lights that floated around the edges of room. Woven tapestries hung on the walls and insulated the stone floor. A pair of solid wooden chairs sat to one side of the desk, the raccoon's lavishly stuffed seat on the other. The coat rack holding my cloak hovered near the door leading back to the city square and safety. Behind the desk, a second door, this one sealed with a heavy bolt and a lock, led further into the depths of the Slavers' Guild.

The door swung closed behind me as I released it, and I stiffened as it closed. The raccoon's smile tightened, her ears flicking back against her head briefly. "Come to see the wares?" she asked, stepping out from behind her desk. She clicked her claws twice, and Milos hurried over to her side, kneeling again behind her. She reached down and lightly combed her fingers through the wolf's fur. "Looking for a servant, perhaps?"

I shook my head rapidly, my ears flat back against my skull. My cheeks felt hot, but my fingers were numb. "No, that's not it, I—"

The raccoon tilted her head to the side. "Oh, I see." She nodded knowingly. "Looking to become a man, are you? Young strapping buck like you? We can rent for an hour or a night, if you like." She cupped her paw beneath Milos' muzzle and stroked the fur of his throat, eliciting a pleasant growl out of the wolf. He shifted in place, spreading his legs, revealing his plumping sheath. "This one's personal, but I'm sure we could find—"

"No!" I blurted quickly, tensing. "Not to buy, not to rent. To—" I cut myself off quickly, tearing my gaze away. My breath came in short bursts, and I forced myself to take a deep breath, then let it out in a noisy rush. "To sell," I finally mumbled, unable to pick my eyes up off of the floor.

"Oh?" The slaver dragged out the syllable. "And just... what... would you be selling?"

I turned towards the door leading outside. It might have only been a few paces behind me, but it was an uncrossable gulf away. I struggled for the words to explain and found only fear, pride, shame. I tried to put these into words, but none would come forth. My heart pounded in my chest, and I looked up, shivering, into the raccoon's hungry violet eyes.

She licked her lips, a reflexive flick of her tongue as her eyes bored into mine. "Oh, my," she murmured. The thick rug absorbed her hindfalls as she glided across the floor, and then suddenly she was beside me. I caught the faint scent of hazel from her fur as she loomed over me. "And just why would a young thing like you be on the market?"

I shrugged and pulled away from her. "It's none of your concern."

I'd taken half a step when her paw was at the back of my neck, claws grabbing the collar of my shirt. "Not an attitude you should take, child," she hissed, her breath warm against my ear, her voice low and harsh. "If I were the one holding your leash, I could order you to tell me, beat you to within a hair of your life if I didn't like the answer, and then ask again." One arm thrust out in front of me, one claw pointing to the locked door at the far end of the room, behind her desk. "This is no game, child. Once you're through there, there's no return short of release from your master." Her voice tightened on the last word, as did the cotton around my neck, catching my breath.

Instinctively, my paws went to my throat, pulling against my own shirt to breathe clearly. "My... my mother!" I shouted between gasps. "Please—" My voice broke, a shudder running through me. "I—I'll tell!"

Instantly, her grip relaxed and she stepped away, but the first sob was already starting. "My father... the plow and the winter broke him." I tugged uselessly at the collar of my shirt. "My mother can't... couldn't feed us all. Somebody... I had to do something!" The damage was done, the truth exposed. I shuddered, biting my lip to stifle the sobs welling up in my chest, breathing shallowly through my muzzle. I wiped at my eyes with one paw. "This way... this way it's one less to feed, and more coin in her purse."

Something warm brushed my leg, and I looked down to see Milos pressed against me. His fur was thick, slightly coarse but well-groomed. His silver eyes met mine, and a fleeting smile crossed his muzzle before fading back to the carefully neutral expression he wore when I first saw him. I reached down and stroked the back of the wolf's head, fingers gliding over his ears. He let out a low rumble of pleasure, pressing back against my fingers, and his clawless pads kneaded the ground.

The slaver cleared her throat quietly, and I looked up to see her standing beside her desk, arms folded across her chest, wearing a slightly bemused smile. "Milos, heel," she said quietly, all trace of hostility gone. The wolf crawled back over to her and curled up at her side, and she petted him lightly as she watched me. "Everything I said before is true, lad," she chided. "Once you belong to another, only your master can set you free. You could be killed and no-one would care."

I blew my nose heavily on my sleeve, then threw up my arms in a helpless shrug. "What does it matter?" I sighed. "A quick death from some noble's sword or a slow one in his fields. Either way it's the same fate; one's just faster and less brutal."

The slaver shook her head at that. "You'll live a lot longer if you can still your tongue. Still, I admire your attitude." She sat quietly on the edge of her desk for several seconds, then nodded. " Very well, I accept your offer. Have you any skills besides leading a dray and counting seed?"

I shrugged again. "I've sung in the local choir, and I know all the holes on a recorder."

"Singing and playing?" The raccoon tilted her head to the side. "And can you read?"

"Some," I admitted. "I've led my row in hymnal before."

The raccoon's smile widened, her violet eyes shining against her fur. Her striped tail bobbed behind her as she mused aloud. "There's a sale on domestics in a week in Barony Deterikh that fetches a high price; you'd pull ten times the coin there that you would locally." She squinted at me, considering, then nodded. "If you can make learn what I have to teach you in eight days, I'll send a hundred, sovereign, to your mother, and I'll sign a contract to that. If not, she gets your sale price on the bid less travel and ten percent. Have we a deal?"

My eyes blossomed at the figure. That kind of coin would feed her, and the rest of my family, for a year or more. "It's... yes." I swallowed heavily, eyes fixed on the door behind her desk. "Yes, I accept."

She nodded and clapped her paws together, then sat at her desk and began rummaging through drawers, pulling out a thick ledger and some additional papers. She carefully opened it and began leafing through pages. "Your name?"

I closed my eyes. "Stannis, son of Jedrick, of Barony Jazinsk."

She meticulously inked my name into the ledger, then again onto one of the forms. The tip of her quill scratched against the durable paper, uncomfortably loud in the still air. Then, she carefully blotted the ink and set the book aside, rolling the pages of the contract. She slid them into a capped leather tube, which she passed to Milos. "Take these to Stannis' mother, then return," she said to the wolf. Then, to me, she said, "Give Milos your mother's address."

I did so, and the wolf nodded to me, bowed to her, and then rose and padded over to the front door, stepping through it silently. I watched it as it fell closed behind him, then turned back to the slaver, who rose from her desk.

"Follow me," she said, motioning towards the other exit from the room, the one into the depth's of the Slaver's Guild building.

My head bowed, I fell in step behind her. My heart pounded in my chest, but my head was clear. I had done everything I could.