It was early in the morning, and the sun had yet to rise. It was strange for anyone to be visiting the gardens at this hour, but upon my arrival I saw a strange rodent-morph standing beside a small group of young birch. I watched him draw in the earthy odours of the surrounding vegetation, seeming to savour every breath.
Leaving the stranger to his moment of peace, I began to make my rounds. It took a lot of time to ensure the irrigation equipment that supplied the various plants with their needed water and nutrients was in proper working order. The machinery was very complex, and required constant maintenance to keep it running. In no time, my attention was occupied by a blocked up sprayer nozzle.
When I settle myself to a task, the world around me seems to fade away. My attention becomes focused entirely on the job at hand. I usually remain in this state of mind until either I am done, or something interrupts my concentration. I was in this state until something tapped me on my back. Anyone who has every chased a grasshopper can probably guess what happened next; I jumped. Damn instincts. Sometimes being a grasshopper-morph really had its disadvantages. Turning, I saw the mouse I had seen earlier standing about 40 feet from where I had landed, near the spot I had just vacated. He looked more than a little surprised.
"I am terribly sorry. I did not mean to startle you." he said, sounding quite apologetic.
"That's all right. Sometimes it can be hard to control this body. One just tries to get used to it. 'sides, it was a really good jump." I replied, walking back over to the mouse.
"So it was. So it was." replied the mouse with a chuckle.
Now that he had finally attracted my attention, I took the time to have a look at my visitor. He was a very high-degree morph, standing only about four feet high. He had the colouration of typical deer mouse, with tawny fur that became white on his throat and limbs. What struck me the most about his appearance was the complete lack of apprehension in his expression. A lot of people found having a insectiod being standing in front of then to be a little unnerving. I guess I am a constant reminder that not every animorph came out of their transformation cute and fuzzy.
"I was just here admiring the work that has been done here. The plants seem to bring this place a life that is lacking in the cold hard stone of the keep." continued the mouse, "Are you the gardener?"
"I guess you could call me that, but I don't really like that title. This place is more then just a 'garden'. It is a collection of many of the plants of the Midlands, both common and rare, both natural and cultivars. As well as looking after these plants, I am also studying them, learning about them, seeing how and why they work. You could say I'm part botanist and part ecologist. Gardening just comes with the job"
"Well, I just wanted to compliment you on the beautiful place you have created here."
"Perhaps we shall meet later, and continue this discussion later, but the sun shall be rising soon and the day beckons me." said the mouse, looking up through the glass panes of the roof into the greying sky, "Good day, sir."
After he had left I quickly finished my rounds before I reporting to the quartermaster's office for work. On my way out of the greenhouse, I realized that the stranger had not even introduced himself.
Spending the day sorting through various requisition forms is tedious and repetitive work. It was a relief when I finally finished and could retire to my research lab for the remainder of the day. I had an experiment that I was intent on starting soon, and it needed a good deal of set up work. Reviewing my notes, preparing the seeds, making sure the growth chambers were calibrated and working properly, setting up notebook to record the results, and solving the multitude of small problems that always crop up when designing an experiment.
By the time I had everything set up to my satisfaction the sun had set. As tired as I was, there was still one thing I still wanted to do before retiring for the night; go to the Deaf Mule, relax, and have a drink.
Entering the Keep's pub, I noticed that the evening's crowd had already started to fill the large room. Weaving my way through the tables and patrons, I made my way over to the long bar. Nodding to the bovine bartender, I asked Donny for a flagon of wine. Instead of reaching for the kegs, Donny reached under the bar and brought forth a piece of dowel with a lot of notches carved into it. Placing the stick on the bar, he crossed his large arms and stared at me.
"What is this?" I asked.
Donny pointed to something inscribed near the top of the wooden rod. A quick glance revealed the word carved into the stick; `Jack`.
"Is this Jack's bar tab?"
The bull-headed bartender nodded.
"That is an awful lot of drinks."
"And he's going to hold me to that little agreement we made?"
"And you're going to make me pay?"
This time I just got a glare that brought the phrase `squashed like a bug` came to mind. No question about the answer to that one.
A few minutes later I was making my way to a table with my wine and a much lighter coin pouch. Finding an empty table near the back of the room, I settled into the bench, carefully sliding my abdomen into the large opening between the seat and the backrest. Pouring myself a glass of wine I began to watch the activity around me. People of all shapes, sizes and species were singing, dancing, or strumming an instrument. Some were playing a hand of cards, a round of darts or a game of pool.
"Ah, Finally, a familiar face in this crowd. Would you mind if I join you?"
Looking up, I saw the mouse-morph I had met this morning.
"Actually, I would prefer to be alone at the moment." I replied.
"Nonsense. No-one comes to a place like this to be alone. Besides, you look as if you could use the company." said the mouse, slipping into the bench across the table from me. Signalling a passing waitress, he ordered some more wine.
"I think that we forgot to make introductions when we first met." continued the mouse, "My name is Topo. And you?"
Once the introductions were out of the way, we settled into small talk. Whoever this Topo fellow was, I couldn't help liking him. He had the sort of personality that seemed you instinctively liked. Cheerful and confidant in his action, but not arrogant. An interesting person to have a talk with.
While we had been talking, I noticed that his attention kept drifting down to my thorax. Finally I guess he built up the courage he needed to ask; "What happened there?" he asked, indicating the scaring where one of my arms used to be.
"Just one of the dangers of life at Metamor Keep. I had a little run in with a group of Lutins last month. It turned out to be a little more then I could handle, and they managed to cut it off before I could escape."
"I cannot even imagine what it would be like to lose a limb." responded Topo, with a slight shudder, "How did you ever adjust?"
"To tell you the truth, it was harder to adapt to having four arms after my transformation." I said, indicating the grasshopper body I now occupied.
"You are an interesting man, Daniel D'Alimonte."
That one sentence changed the whole direction of what had previously been an enjoyable conversation.
"What did you just call me?" I asked, startled at the use of my full name.
"What? D'Alimonte? That is your name is it not?"
"Yes, it is. But not many people know that, and I was just wondering where you had heard it from?"
"One learns many things in the course of one's life. That I should know your family's name should be no real surprise to you." replied the mouse, his demeanor now totally serious.
"I shall repeat myself, mouse. I have told no-one at Metamor that name. So, how is it that you know it?" I said, my voice growing sharp.
"There is no need to become hostile with me. I will tell you everything you want to know. That is why I am here after all. You said that you told no-one here your family's name. That may or may not be true, but I can assure you that I did not learn it here. I could not have, since I have only been at the Keep for a few days."
"How can that be possible?" I said, indicating his rodentine shape, "The curse on this place does not work that fast."
"Are all Metamorians so unenlightened that they think they are the only 'morphs' that inhabit this world, or is it just you?" replied the mouse, a hint of annoyance creeping into his voice, "That particular nasty piece of magic has not caught up with me yet. And I plan to be away from here long before I have to face that."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
Pouring himself another drink, Topo took a long pull from his glass before continuing.
"There is easy enough to answer to that question. As you must be aware, the universe is filled with many magical creatures. It is just that most of them chose not to associate with mankind. I just happen to be one of the ones that chose to be seen. Not every shapeshifter in the world has the wizard Nasoj to thank for their condition. For some of us it is just an innate ability."
"So, what are you then?"
"I am sure you've heard of the legendary werewolf, yes? Consider me to be one of his less well known cousins." said the mouse with a smirk.
"You catch on quickly."
This was getting a little out of hand. Here I was sitting in the Mule, listening to a strange `morph tell me that he was a creature out of legend. Sure, I had heard the tales of werewolves, the mythical shapeshifters that became lupine under the light of the full moon, but I had always seen them as nothing more than stories used to scare children. Then again, it is said that mothers down south are now using stories of the 'demons' of Metamor Keep to the same end.
"Is this some kind of joke?" I asked him, "I don't mean to insult your integrity, but that is quite an outrageous claim. Can you prove what you're saying is the truth?"
"This is no joke. I could bite you and then wait for you to grow whiskers and a tail. I think that would satisfy your need for proof, but that solution would not be acceptable to either of us. Instead, I will have to rely on this." replied Topo, reaching inside his tunic, drawing out a folded piece of parchment and placing it on the table in front of me.
Picking up the paper, I looked over it, my eyes finally resting on the heavy seal. The mark imprinted in the wax was one that I never thought I would ever see in my lifetime.
"You see, I was sent here specifically to find you and deliver this message." he continued, noticing the recognition in my expression.
"This came from the Duke of Carreas?" I uttered, waving the letter in the air. "To put it simply, yes."
"And you expect me to believe that that iron fisted bastard would ever be able to accept having a were-creature in his service? From what I was told he was intolerant of magic, of any type."
"What one man cannot bring himself to accept, another may embrace with arms open. Duke Mechellos Carras, the man who was responsible for the exile of your family is dead. Long live Duke Anteno Carras, Lord and ruler of Carreas." "What are you talking about?" I asked, a little confused by the fast-talking rodent.
"Just over a year ago, Mechellos Carras passed away. This broke his tyrannical hold on the land, but he didn't leave a direct heir. To avoid a power struggle, the court decided to place the Duke's nephew, Anteno, on the throne. I serve Anteno Carras."
"And what does this new Duke want from me? I'm sure he is very busy securing his throne."
"The Duke is trying to make amends for the injustices committed against people who suffered under his uncle's rule. Your family was one of those he wishes to make reparations to."
"So, the Duke expects a letter of apology to settle this? Even if it were enough, it should be presented to my father, not to me."
"This more than an apology." indicated the mouse, pointing at the piece of paper still heald in my hand, "Duke Anteno wishes to right a wrong committed years ago. A representative of my Lord has already visited your father, presenting him with an apology and a pension that will see him comfortably through his declining years.
"To you, I bring an offer. One that your father cannot accept due to his advancing age. To you, the Duke offers what is yours by right, the post from which your father was cast out of twenty years ago. He invites you to return to Carreas and take up the duties of the Steward of Lands, with the full autonomy and authority that was denied your father."
"Very generous of him, but it still doesn't explain to me why this offer was made. My kind are not regarded very well in the Midlands."
"Neither are my kind. Think about it, Anteno knew that you were here at Metamor Keep. Though he had no way to know what you had become, he knew that there was a good chance that you were no longer human. Yet, he made the offer; whether you would be child, woman, or even an animal. What does that tell you about my lord?
"Now, It is late and I need some rest. The letter you have from Lord Anteno will corroborate what I have said to you this evening. You have much to consider, so I will take your leave now. Good night." said Topo, rising from his bench.
Two hours had passed, and I had not moved from my seat. The evening's crowd had thinned out, most people having headed off to sleep long ago. The letter still sat unopened on the table before me. Topo was right. I did have a lot to consider, but I found that my mind was refusing to consider any of what I had just been told. Instead, I found my self sitting alone in a bar. And there I remained. I think I would have probably spent the entire night sitting on that bench, except that Donny eventually closed the bar for the night.
With nowhere else to go, I retired to my apartment. Sitting in a comfortable chair by the fire, I stared into the flickering embers. I considered what I had been told, and what I already knew. The problem was that everything I had to go on came from second-hand sources. I was very young when my family was exiled, and thus remember very little. I did hear a lot about these events from my parents while I grew up, and until I steeled myself enough to read Lord Carras' letter, I was going only on those stories and on the word of a strange mouse.
My mind wandered, as it tended to do when I had a lot of things to think about. The stories I had been told about life under the rule of Duke Mechellos floated to the front of my consciousness. The Duke was not known for benevolent rule. In fact, many regarded his reign as one of the most tyrannical and iron fisted periods in the small Duchy's history. Many people felt the harsh law of the Duke through his sheriffs and guardsmen. Stories of the injustices committed in the Duke's name included such tails as the enslavement of entire villages. Press gangs often were seen wandering the streets, abducting citizens to work as labourers. Taxes were suffocating, food was scarce, and the population lived below the poverty line. Unexplained disappearences of citizens were common occurrences.
I guess my family received better treatment then most, being affiliated with the Duke's court. Of course, being forced from the lands you have managed for generations is not an affront you could forget easily. For as long as anyone can remember, the position of steward of the Duke's land was held by a D'Alimonte. One of those `his father, and his father before him` things. To many, the incident that led to our departure from Carraes would have seemed but a minor difference of opinion. Unfortunatly, it was enough to ensure that my family would never again see the forests of Carras while Mechellos still reigned. One day, the Duke was touring his lands when he came across a clearing dominated by a large red pine. His greed overcame him and he ordered my father to have the huge tree felled to become the central pillar of his throne room. My father refused because of some spiritual connection that the local peasants had with the tree. The Duke's wrath at this refusal was swift. Within two days, every member of my family found themselves escorted to the borders and told never to return to Carreas on threat of death.
Through out my youth, this story was told to me repeatedly by my kin. This fixation with the past is what finally drove my to take my leave of them. I travelled north and eventually found work handling the imported food stuffs coming into Metamor Keep. I don't know if I had been planning to stay on at the Keep, but I found that choice made for me after the Battle of the Three Gates.
And now, a stranger appears in my life, carrying from the throne of Carreas an offer of atonement for past misdeeds. Not only that, but the messenger the Duke chose to deliver this offer was an anthropomorph, one that claimed no heritage to the curse of Metamor Keep. From what I had seen of Topo, the weremouse seemed a decent person, not the sort of person you would expect to be serving a tyrant, though one could never be too sure. He had an infectious personality, the kind that was always on your good side. I think that if the situation was different, I would have no hesitations about forming a friendship with the mouse. Still, my impressions about the messenger could not play a large part in considering the offer he carried. I would need more information before I could decide, and the first piece was sitting on the end table. Picking up the Duke's letter, I cracked the wax of the seal, unfolded the parchment and began to read.
The Duke's letter didn't tell me anything that I hadn't already known. It seems this Anteno was a good writer, though he was of the sort that liked to put a lot of effort into the beauty of his prose, and not enough into the details it was supposed to contain. The apology was there, as was the offer of the post of Steward. Also, a large portion of the letter was given to describing Topo, to ensure that I knew that the Duke had full trust in the mouse.
The next step was a visit to the library. Metamor Keep's library was one of the best in the world, but an extensive search revealed that it did not contain what I needed to know. Carreas is a small nation and is easily overlooked. All of the references I found were at several years old, still dating from Mechellos' reign.
The only option left was to visit the intelligence office to see if they had learned anything of the tiny duchy. Although not usually done, non-classified information could be accessed by Keep residents, as long as they had a good reason.
When I arrived at the offices of the intelligence bureau, I was greeted by the desk clerk, a young girl of about fourteen, wearing a child's dress and her blonde hair in pigtails. That's were the childlike aspect ended though. Her attitude and demeanor were very mature and entirely businesslike.
"Good day, sir. How can I help you today?" she asked, looking up from behind her desk.
"Hi. I was wondering if I could see any information you have on the present political situation in the Duchy of Carreas? Particularly any happenings in the last year."
"What kind of information would that be?"
"Anything relating to what has happened with the ruling house of the land."
The clerk jotted a note down on her pad of paper and continued; "We will see what we can do, but first I need to ask you a few questions."
"First off, do you understand that anything we release to you may be incomplete, if we feel that that information should not be made available for security reasons?"
She then went into a series of questions about who I was, my position and duties in the Keep. Some seemed quite personal, but I was told that it was necessary to insure that I was not planning to abuse the privilege.
"Okay, now comes the important question. What is your reason for requesting the information? Without knowing this, its release cannot be authorized." stated the clerk.
"Personal business." came my response.
"Could you be any more specific?"
"How much do you need to know?"
"Enough to be satisfied that you do not plan to exploit what you learn here. We cannot have people coming in here to use our resources in ways that are against our interests."
"As I said before, it is for personal business. I was born in Carreas, and have received a communique from the Duchy's government that requires a response. Unfortunately, I can't make that response until I have some solid knowledge of the present political situation there."
"I am afraid you are going to have to be even more specific then that."
Sighing, I began to give her a summarized version of the Duke's letter, careful to tell her only what was absolutely necessary. I avoided any mention of the mousey messenger that had delivered it. I didn't know for sure, but I think he wished to keep a low profile during his visit. Revealing him to the Keep's spies certainly wouldn't help.
Seemingly satisfied with my story, the clerk signed the form she had been filling out and placed it in a pile of what I assumed were similar requests being processed. After informing me that it should be processed in about a week, she bid me a good day and continued with her work.