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.