Late January 708
The vulpine wrapped his claws on the desk, his grey eyes cold and good ear folded back. In front of the fox a cheetah sat, stroking a bruised arm as well as a bruised ego.
“What did they say to you?” Misha asked calmly.
“‘His grace does not care to be bothered by a messenger.’” Stealth answered, “I told him it was an important message from you that needed his attention.”
“And the seal? Did you show them the seal on your harness?”
“I did...” The cat glowered, “He told me to leave before the Duke and Duchess approached... I refused and then he kicked my foreleg.” Stealth rubbed his arm again, “Big guy with hooves.”
Misha took a breath and sighed, disturbing several sheets of parchment on his desk. The Long scout took the letter he’d intended for the Duke and tore it in two. “Very well, I’ll just have to push ahead without the horse lord’s knowledge.”
“I’m sorry, Misha.” Stealth said with his head turned down, “I failed you. I should have ignored that guy and gone past him, he never would have caught up.”
Misha shook his head, “Then you’d end up in the dungeons or with an arrow through your skull.” He got up and walked to the door.
“But you get past them easy enough.” Stealth countered.
“Exactly,” Misha said with a dry chuckle and opened the door, “They can’t get me so they get at me through my people. I knew they’d get back at me!” Misha looked out the door and called out, “Get Finbar and Georgette! I just heard back from the Duke’s men and they gave us the go ahead.”
“Misha!” Stealth shouted and stood up in a panic, “I’ll get in trouble if you say that – they’ll say I lied to you!”
Some noises could be heard outside while the fox turned back to the sore cheetah in the room, “How can they? They never let you deliver your message – for all they know you were trying to deliver a late Yule time card. Now wait in here, Spots, I’ll get Jotham to tend to that arm.”
Thomas arrived back in his chambers feeling wonderful and invigorated. He always enjoyed going out for a run, either under his own power or on that of a true stallion. He loved the freedom and the fun when he and Phil went on such outings but Phil left the Keep many months ago, no, a year ago. He sometimes went on outings with his daughter but since the death of Posti she was almost always too busy.
But then there was Alberta. She breathed life into him. Her defiance of protocol and love of the saddle energised him. And she was still in the stables, helping the stable hands tend their mounts! Tom never felt as alive as he did that day... Then a page handed him a letter.
“Oh, hello there, lad, what’s this?” He asked, still feeling giddy.
“It’s from Sir Brightleaf, milord.” The unchanged boy said shyly, “He told me to give it to you after he left...”
Thomas frowned and took the letter fearfully.
Anxious that he might be scolded for being the bearer of bad news the boy quickly and silently left the Duke’s chambers while the horse lord broke the seal and removed the parchment within.
To his lordship, Duke Thomas Hassan V
‘Misha is still sore at me’ the horse lord sighed. Misha had the habit of reserving honourable titles for derision...
Your grace, thank you for the warm reception my messenger, and good friend, received at the hands or should I say hooves of your guards.
Thomas blinked and ear flicked. He received no message but this one – handed to him AFTER the fox scout left the Keep. He read on,
Seeing as you decided to ignore my last message I’ve taken the incentive to push ahead with my plans. You will however receive a debriefing, in due time.
Sir Misha Brightleaf,
Knight Commander of the Order of the Bow and Axe
The equine’s eyes widened in horror.
“Is something wrong, milord?” Thalberg asked gently though he already knew the answer.
“That damned deranged fox will lead us into a second war!!!” The Duke snapped. “Bring me George. Bring George now. I want that dog in here NOW!”
“Where did he go exactly and when?” The horse lord asked quickly, his tail flicking back and forth.
“You should have read his first message.” The jackal answered idly, finding the whole thing slightly amusing. He fancied a sip of wine from the cabinet yonder though the Duke wasn’t offering.
“WHAT MESSAGE?!” The duke demanded in a whiny.
“Why don’t you ask your guards? Since it’s clear Stealth never got past them.” George put his legs up. Even he didn’t dare rest his leather shoed paws on his lord’s mahogany desk so he used the other cushioned chair.
“S . . .?” The equine started, perplexed, “Thalberg’s kitchen thief?”
“No,” George said calmly. “Stealth the courier, scout and friend of Edmund and Misha. He has been running errands for them for some time.”
Thomas kicked the canine’s legs off the chair, “Bring me the captain of the Guard. NOW!” He ordered one of his aides. “As for you,” He pointed at George, “You should be ashamed, Misha is under your command and YOU let him leave!”
George shook his head slowly. “I am with Misha on this. We need to hit those people NOW. Not stand around like fools trying to negotiate with them. We thump them once or twice and they WILL start to talk a lot more to us.”
“And you NEVER brought it to my attention, not once. Just now.”
George growled. “I DID. Misha and me both talked to you about these raiders. Talked to you about going after their base outside the valley. You kept brushing us off.”
“My liege?” a woman standing at the door asked.
It was the captain of his guards. Like all gender morphs she had the ability to become a bimbo, however, the female human was also able to use her curse in other cosmetic ways – her bust was actually quite modest but her hair was very long and reached down to her legs. It was very silky and beautiful, from afar it could be mistaken for a horse’s tail, one that rivalled that of the duke!
“This will take a moment, Myrddin,” Thomas turned to George, “Get out.”
George growled and stood up, turning he walked silently past the woman and out of the room without another word.
Thomas ignored the canine and ushered the human into the room. “I’m told your people rejected a messenger from Brightleaf while we were in the field today.”
“I was riding alongside you, milord, I never saw anyone.”
“No one reported this to you?”
“No sir.” She answered respectfully.
He nodded, “Who do you have who has hooves?”
“Several of the guards, I could question them or have this messenger summoned for his statement.”
“That would be best. Bring the messenger to me, Zachary or Stealth or whatever.” Might as well find out what happened from the source...
“I’m sorry! I was just delivering a message!” Stealth said, looking at his grace with cub eyes.
“What happened?” The Duke asked, ignoring the feline’s trepidation. “Why didn’t I receive that message?”
“They didn’t let me – they told me to go and kicked me away.” The cheetah said, trembling slightly.
“They kicked you?” The duke asked shocked. “Who did?”
“I... I don’t know who he is, a mule with dark fur and a deep voice.”
The duke nodded. “What exactly did you tell him before he kicked you?”
“That I had an important message, he told me to leave the area before your arrival but I didn’t move...” He said with a sigh, “I’m sorry, sir.” The cat whimpered.
“You have nothing to be sorry about,” Thomas answered. “He had no right to treat you so.”
The cheetah nodded, feeling embarrassed in the presence of this imposing noble. The furthest he’d ever been in the ductile chambers was the Steward’s office. Now he sat in the Duke’s private study. It was unnerving at best.
“Look ...Stealth? I apologize for your rough treatment at the hands . . . hooves of my people.”
“Thank you milord...” Stealth said softly, “I...” he began.
“Speak.” Thomas ordered bluntly.
“...I’m sorry I stole food from your banquette last year.” He mumbled.
He nodded and patted the cheetah on the shoulder. “Thank you.”
Stealth smiled and looked down.
“Chin up.” The duke ordered bluntly again. “...You seem shy, lad. Thalberg spoke of you as a defiant young man needing direction.” Thomas chuckled wryly, “He said the same about Misha but that was a long time ago.”
“What will happen with Misha?” The cheetah asked.
The horse lord sighed deeply, “I can do little but await his return... we haven’t been on the best of terms lately.” He said with a tinge of sorrow.
“Little? ...milord, I thought nobles aren’t supposed to show signs of weakness.” The cat said in surprise.
“That we aren’t.” The duke concurred, “But these are my private chambers and Misha trusts you to deliver things to me.”
“But I thought you didn’t trust Misha?”
Thomas sighed. “I do trust him but not as much as I should. And what is worse he no longer trusts me.”
“That sounds dangerous...” The cheetah commented, “I mean cooperation and good communication is vital between our leaders... isn’t it?”
“It is. It is essential in these times. If I’m right, he’s gone to destroy a raiders’ hideout in the south.”
“In a territory that’s harbouring them... And the local nobles can claim it as an act of war.” Stealth mused.
The equine nodded with a grimace.
“I’m sorry, I said too much.” The cheetah mumbled anxiously, “I won’t waste any more of your time.”
“No, please,” The duke surprised him by saying, “Stay for a moment. I could use a good chat right now and I don’t fancy disquieting my wife with quandaries in the south.”
Stealth nodded, he did feel like he was being delayed. He wanted to say something reassuring but he didn’t know what so they sat through an uncomfortable silence for some time.
“...So how’s your day been?” The horse asked offhandedly.
“Not too bad...” The cheetah answered awkwardly.
They sat through several long moments of silence.
“Misha isn’t stupid.” Stealth said suddenly, “He’s silly, odd, nutty, so on and so forth but he’s an intelligent and competent soldier and leader. With any luck he’ll cover his tracks and even make it look like some neighbouring kingdom was responsible!”
Thomas weighed the comment, “He does good work in the north but these aren’t shabby ragtag tribes he’s dealing with now.”
“No but he wasn’t always a keeper; he used to be a solder in the southlands, George too. That’s where they developed their strategies in the first place.” The feline countered, “This might go better then we could have hoped.”
The duke sighed and nodded. He didn’t have any hopes for the vulpine’s most recent bout of idiocy and anything other then what he was anticipating would be good news but it would do him no good to brood and grimace.
“I suppose it could.” He stood up suddenly, “Thank you, Stealth. I have other pressing matters I must tend to now but I appreciate this talk and I will give that guard a serious chewing out, I assure.”
“Thank you Milord.” The cheetah stood and bowed.
“Call me Thomas, at least while there’s no one about to look official for.”
“Yes mil- Tom, Thomas! Will Tom do?”
“Tom is fine.” He answered and opened the door.
With the outside world visible, Stealth didn’t repeat the name but just bowed again and then left. He walked quickly out of the ductile chambers but with a spirited aura. Metamor was just full of surprises.