Eating at the Duke's Table

by Charles Matthias

The only difficulty with the archery contest that day was that it was excessively windy. For about a week the wind had been picking up steadily. He knew it was becoming a problem when it had blown his parchment about during their picnic last week. Now it was much more intense and quite fickle. He had been forced to stay inside the Keep while his fur dried off for fear of freezing in the chill. It was more violent beause of the mountains that flanked the Keep on either side. They were a good distance off, the Keep situated in a valley betwixt two short mountain ranges; the westward one terminated abruptly when it reached the ocean, which on a very good day was visible from the top of Channing's tower. However, the valley at times would funnel the wind, especially in the beginning of Spring and just after the first chill in the Autumn months. It also brought in terrible storms and would circle them back and forth if they came directly fomr the north or south. Storms coming east or west tended to get blocked by the mountains, so for the most part they had very little heavy precipitation.

For Matthias, who was sitting with Lady Kimberly in the stands in the central pavilion, this was all very interesting. Dr. Channing's explanations of the various meteorological phenomenon however sometimes went over his head. Still, it was all academic and really had almost no bearing on Matthias whatsoever, because he wa snot participating in the archery tournament. Lady Kimberly was watching closely, and he gave it a cursory glance, noting that once again, Habakkuk was entered into the contest. He followed the inscrutible kangaroo's efforts, but was not too surprise to see him eliminated part way through.

The afternoon was partially over, and it would not be too much longer before he would take Lady Kimberly back to her room so that she could get changed. He had his own doublet and hose set out to wear for this special occasion. He was not one for finery, but for her sake he would wear it. The morning after he had taken his bath and took that extra hour to let his fur dry had been a bit too serious for his tastes, but the rest of the morning had been quite enjoyable. He met up with Lady Kimberly who was waiting for him at the food pavillion. Gregor had been there for a change freely giving out his fine bread, with Brenner his tabby apprentice keeping things clean. They even saw Goldmark as almost a complete rat sneaking up and snatching a piece of bread here and there from the corners of the table. Matthias fondly remembered Goldmark's surprise when Brenner pounced him and dangled him by his tail over his very feline and quite wide mouth. They all had a good laugh when Brenner set him back down, with Goldmark squirming about.

The rest of the morning had been spent playing various games and walking arm in arm together. Matthias had smiled as Lady Kimberly had delightedly fexamined and fondled various crafts made frmo all sorts of substances, metal, wood, glass, and even from wax. Her paws were into everything investigating, though she shyly did not say much to the vendors. Matthias did not have the money or the goods to barter for any of the items, but he got the impression that Lady Kimberly mostly enjoyed seeing and touching, not having. From what he knew of her past she had lived in a place similar to this, from a family of servants. She must have often seen and touched, but never owned. No, she cleaned and took care of things that did not belong to her, but she did not own anything herself.

The games that they had played were fun, and Matthias deliberately let her win a few, though he still defeated her in some of his favorite games. She seemed to enjoy herself though, no matter what, and he helped her by showing her how to throw the dart, or how to toss the ball just so. When she managed to strike the right place on the dartboard or get the ball intot he bucket she was always so happy, and it made him feel good. He would give her a nice squeeze on the shoulder to encourage her, going so far as to give her a hug once. She was still not completely comfortable with that, but he knew she was beginning to like it all the more. He enjoyed it too.

He watched the next volley of arrows be loosed, and then he turned to her, sitting on his right. Her whiskers twitched as she scanned the targets to see who had hit and who hadn't. She then noticed him watching her and she turned away a bit, her nose twitching. Matthias leaned over, and whispered to her, "Are you having fun?"

Lady Kimberly nodded emphatically, "Oh yes. This has been a wonderful day!" She threw one arm about his shoulders, and gave him a quick squeeze. "Thank you for taking me around."

"It was my pleasure," Matthias replied bowing his head.

"When is the dinner?" Kimberly asked him suddenly, taking a quick glance at the tournament.

Matthias glanced up at the sky, notign that the sun was behind some clouds. However, they were not thick enough to hide it for very long and he did a few quick calculations in his head. "Oh, probably in another hour. The tournament should be over soon. When it's over, we'll go get ready."

She nodded, her attention going back to the ever dwindling number of archers. She looked very excited, her teeth nibbling away at the stick she had in hand. Matthias felt Phil's gift still hanging from his side. He had never before had any particular desire to keep a stick as long or as in as nice a condition as he had the stick that Phil had given him. The tapered end had long since been chewed off, but it was slow going as he took it tenderly. It satisfied his need to bite, but it also satisfied his desire to keep the gift in as good a condition as he could. Of course, only using it on special days also helped. Most of the time he just carried around a stick he'd snuck out of the cords of wood that were temporarily stockpiled at the gates before they were transferred to a more permanent location. However, for Lady Kimberly, he would look his best.

Charles leaned over again, enjoying the feel of her body against his. "Have you ever been to a dinner like this before?"

Lady Kimberly shook her head, "I've served the nobles that have been eating, but no, I've never eaten form the table myself. We took all our meals in the kitchen, and only after the nobles had their fill."

"I thought your family were the personal servants of a noble?"

"Yes, my father and mother were, and I and my brothers and sisters were servants to the Baron's children," Lady Kimberly did not seem eager to talk about it, and did so with a very reserved voice. From what he had heard of her life, it had not been the best, though it was comfortable. She had never had a choice on her own, not even a chance to find the man she would love. It had been a minor lord under the Baron's thumb that had seen her and had wanted her for a wife. Her father had jumped at the diea knowing that it would mean that one of his own children would become of noble blood as well. She hated the man, a veritable pig and had taken a carriage out of there. That she had successfully escaped was not remarkable, she had other sisters who had also tickled the noble's eye, the loss of the one did not matter in the grand scheme of things.

Matthias scratched her back idly with one paw. "Ah, I see. Well, tonight you will be treated like nobility." Charles then took her paw in his and kneeled before her, trying not to bump into Channing who was onec again staring at the clouds. "Lady Kimberly, will you give me the honor which I so desire of escorting your loveliness to the feast?" He tried to sound as extravagant as possible, though he was sure that others could outdo him.

Her whole demeanor brightened once more, and she reached down and gave him a quick lick on the nose. He felt emboldened by it, and gently kissed her hand as best his lips could manage. Feeling the flesh beneath his teeth he had to resist the urge to chew, it was almost a reflex action for a rat. She then in a very pleased tone replied just as extravagantly, "O Sir Charles , I would be honored if you would humbly stoop to escorting me to this feast."

"It is not I that must be humble; thou art the one who must stoop to being with a lowly vermin such as myself." Charles lowered his head, taking his eyes off of her. Her watched as his tail twitched about his legs at the touch of her hands. He stared at her feet, the claws on them filed down slightly, and a few bits of dirt lodged beneath them. He wondered when she had taken her bath, he knew she must have because she smelled divine, with the subtle hints of pomegranite and pineapples. Yet when he had encountered her in the morning she was also completely dry. She must have taken hers the night before, it was really the only time she could have, since she did not smell nearly so good the night before when they had taken the Eucharist.

"Oh, you flatter me kind and noble sir!" her voice had a little catch in it. She was leading him on and he loved it!

"Nay, gentle Lady. I am but a lowly scribe, thou art a mistress of great beauty and honor. Your face is like a moonlight summer night by a still lake, the water sparkling and twinkling as fish jump to and fro. Your voice is like the sound of angels singing over the stillness of that lake. Your eyes are like the moon itself, casting their glow upon everything, even a lowly scribe like me. I am honored to be in your presence." Charles did not know how he had come up with that. He was amazed he had been able to say it without faltering or hesitating. It felt good to admit it, because it was true and it was what his heart wanted to say

Lady Kimberly couldn't respond to that, her wole body quivering in delight. "You are so sweet," was all she could say, and even then in a soft voice.

Matthias finally looked back up at her, her paw still held caressingly in his. He kissed it again and bowed his head, "No sweeter than thou art, my Lady."

She sat there, postively glowing from the praise. Matthias finally returned to sitting beside her, putting his arm about her shoulder and holding her close. She leaned into him, letting her head rest in the nook of his shoulder. He felt her whiskers tickle his chin, and he held his head upa bit higher, watchign the archery contest dwindle down. He wasn't really paying that much attention to it, just enjoying the fact that he was here with somebody very important to him. That was all that mattered.

Of course, Lady Kimberly moved once the contest was over, and he took broke free from his euphoria to help her to her feet. "Well, that was exciting," he murmured to her, the wind wipping about his face and making him blink a few times. "Shall we head back then?" She nodded and slipped her paw into his. The crowd was beginning to disperse. Channing was still sitting, idly noting the clouds and writing things down in his notepad. His beak was opening and closing in a bit of his own excitement at times, but Charles did not feel it was polite to ask, or to disturb him. Stepping down across the seat to avoid him, he helped Lady Kimberly down as well. They followed the crowd down back to the ground level.

He led her back to the main portion of the Keep, along the Ivy Causeway, and then back to her own quarters. He stopepd at her door as she opened it up and nodded after her, "I'll be back as soon as I'm ready for you."

"I'll be waiting," She said before disappearing behind the oaken structure. Charles then happily sauntered back to his 'little hole in the wall' in the adjoining portion of the Keep. His room was still a bit chilly, he had no firepit in his place. He opened up the filter on his lantern, giving a bright illumination about the room. Slipping out of his clothes he placed them back into his dresser, which e noted was still as of yet undented. This was a new record for him. The frustrations he had taken out on it earlier had evaporated. What had changed in his life in the past month that could cause such a difference. The answer was simple, Lady Kimberly. She had filled some gap in him, and brought out the best in him. The worst had not seen the light of day in some time. Aside form that incident with Sir Saulius, whom he had no seen sinec Thursday, he had not lost control once. For that, he was very happy.

The green doublet and hose that he had laid out was still fresh as ever. It was speckled with a lining of gold along all the sleeves and creases. He first combed through his fur, making sure that he had not developed any knots or gnarls in it since this morning. Since he'd taken a bath, it went pretty quickly, most of his fur was going in just the right directions. He then slipped on the undershirt and then quickly pulled up the pants and hose. The iridescent color of the fabric reflected wildly in the lamplight. It had been the same outfit he wore when he had taken Lady Kimberly for that walk. It was his fanciest outfit, and for some reason he found himself wanting to wear it more and more as time passed. The green of the fabric and the deep rich brown of his fur, in some places almost a chartreuse, complimented each other splendidly. Carefully pulling on the doublet over top of the undershirt, he made sure that each clasp was secure. He ruffled the cuffs about, feeling the gold lining against his paws, and then looked at himself in the mirror.

He was quite striking, the bath had made his natural coloring richer and his fur itself fuller. He wiped his nose off once last time, twitching his whiskers as he did so. He then slipped Phil's gift into his buckler once more. He laid one paw on the stick as if it were a sword hilt and stroke a dramatic pose, holding his head up high, and standing as tall as he could, his tail curling about his legs. Charles had to admit that he probably looked better now than he had as a human being. Amazing how the spells and enchamntments of Metamor Keep worked out.

Afte kneeling on his bed to make sure his toe claws were clean, he purposefully strode down the hall, head aloft, even though for a four foot tall creature there was very little that he could look down upon. Most of the toddlers were taller than he when they were at their oldest form. Still, he felt proud and very regal at what he was doing. This was going to be a special night for the both of them, why shouldn't he feel a little like a noble? He did not have the blood, but that didn't matter to him anymore. He was going to be eating with the Duke, and he had managed to twist the Steward's arm into letting Lady Kimberly come too. That was what was important.

He walked briskly through th eIvy Causeway, admiring the budding flowers, the lillies, with their white bulbs coming open one by one. He gazed warmly at the bright colors of the pansies clustered about the base of each column. The ivy twisting its way up, with its own purple blossoms stood out straining for the sun's meager rays. Being on the Northwestern side of the Keep, it did not get as much sunlight as some places, but it got enough to create this breathtaking menagerie of floral charms. Matthias watched as each swayed in the wind, comig to rest when the wind settled down. There were a few bees roming about, sucking at the center of the flowers, and then darting about to find some more. Charles sighed as he watched. There was so much life about him, moving in its own fashion, being beautiful in its own way. There was never a reason not to be joyful it seemed. Truly, they were blessed.

Matthias stopped in front of Lady Kimberly's door, brushing his teeth off, picking an errant piece of wood out from between them while he waited. He knew it would take her just a bit longer to get dressed than it would he. That was the nature of things, but he accepted it. He glanced at his tail. The few straggly hairs on it were cleaned as well, and the whole thing almost sparkled in the torchlight. Was there a bit on him that did not shine? Were he not clean, his joy would burst through his flesh to give him some glow at least.

After waiting a few minutes, he gently rapped the back of his paw against the door. He had timed well, as Lady Kimberly called out in a very soothing voice, "Come in, good sir."

Charles opened the door, stepping in a few paces. He looked about the dimly illuminated room. There was no fire, and only the candelabra sitting on the hearth brought any light. Only one of the candles was light however. He could see from th esmoke trails that she had just blown the others out. He saw her sitting on her bed, silhouetted by the light, her face gleaming on one side. He could see the flame dance in her dark glossy pupils. Her dress glimmered in the faint light, not being quite nearly as reflective as his own was. She had picked up a slightly brighter green than his own, and it suited her well, offsetting the light tan of her fur quite nicely. Her arms were at her sides, and her tail was drapped over one side of the feather bed. She turned her head to one side, and held out her right hand, "Could you, noble sir, escort me to the Duke's table? I am expected there, but I need an escort."

Charles smirked, it was much like before, but he loved it. "Why, beautiful Lady, I would be honored." He took her paw in his own and bowed deeply before her. She rose from th ebed to stand at his side, and he took her arm in arm as they left the room. As he passed it he blew out the single candle before leaving the room. He closed the door for her, and then he led her on a new path. Taking her up a flight of stairs and then across an open promenade, he led her towards the central heart of the Keep. The doors were opened for them by the two women standing guard, and they were led into a very brightly lit and well decorated hall. Matthias knew were to go, and took them up another flight of stairs, all of which were carpeted in a rich scarlet fabric.

He noticed the way she kept her head forward, though he noticed her eyes wander to the tapestries about the walls. A few of thme even had pictures of th eKeepers as they were now, animals and children and a few humans about. Most though came before the time of Nasoj's sorcery. Charles knew many in the Keep who loathed his name and cursed what had been done to them. Yet somehow, at least for himself and his closest friends, he was happy for what had happened to this place. He liked th enew life it had given him. It was so much happier and and joyous than the one he had left. Also, it meant that he did not have to do those detestable things anymore. He had been given a new life as a rat. Most might see that as a curse, and in fact, some still did. He saw it as a blessing.

Especially now. Especially now that he knew Lady Kimberly, and she him. It was so good to have a friend like her, one that he felt he wanted to do more than just take to festivals and to rocks settled comfortably in a copse of trees over looking the southwestern wall of the Keep. Still, any such plans as those must take their time in coming to fruition. That was not something to decide lightly. He was coming closer and closer to it, but right now he did not have the time. He hated to admit it, but he did not have the time. Perhaps after a few more affairs were put to rest, he could devote himself more freely to her, but not now. Still, what time he did spend with her was always the most enjoyable part of his day.

They finally reached another pair of double doors, ornately carved oak with intricately designed handles. There were two more guards with the familiar symbol of the Keep emblazoned across their breastplates. Matthias pulled from his pocket the invitations that they had recieved, and the guards pulled open the doors to let them in.

Charles led Lady Kimberly, who was slightly nervous about this now, into the large room where sat a long table which was lined by chairs and places to eat. There were a few servitors already placing things about, and a few faces already seated. Charles recognized a few faces from the Keep itself, and there were a couple more that he knew lived on outlying manors in the valley, but he wasn't quite sure just who they were. Standing idly about was the Steward Thalberg, his teeth less yellow than usual and dressed in a very ornate red gown with ruffles at the collar and at each wrist. His cape swirled about his massive body, the crocodilian tail quite visible beneath it. Charles found it odd that he would select a red outfit, especially considering the very green scales that adorned all of his body, except for his belly. However, it did not seem to concern him.

Thalberg approached them, his yellow eyes gleaming. Lady Kimberly involuntarily backed away from him, but Matthias gave her paw a reassuring squeeze. Her eyes looked to his and she smiled a moment before stepping back up next to him. Thalberg stood tall, at least two to three feet over their heads. He looked down his muzzle at them, the reptilian smile firmly affized to his snout. "You two are seated over here." He pointed towards the far end of the table. It was not the end, thankfully, somewhere in the middle. They would be in th midst of minor dignitaries. All th eimportant people would be gathere about Duke Thomas. It was even more obvious now to Charles that this was an invitation of convenience. They needed another person at the talbe, and his name had come up.

"Thank you, Thalberg," Matthias nodded to the man as they were led to their seats. Thalberg had not been kidding when he told him that it would be crowded. Their seats were right next to each other, and their plates and utensils were almost overlapping. They had been given high chairs though, so they would not have any problem seeing over the top of the table. Charles pulled Lady Kimberly's seat out for her, and she quickly stepped up into it. He then got into his own seat, and smiled at her.

"I trust that is satisfactory?" Thalberg asked laconically.

"It is wonderful, thank you for your help."

"Good, the meal will start in a few minutes, the rest of the guests should be arriving shortly. Duke Thomas will be the last one to enter the room. You will of course stand as he enters the room now. You will not sit again until he has seated himself. Is that clear?" Thalberg's tone of voice turned quite nuetral as he explained the proper protocol. They both nodded, and so he went on, "There are three portions of the meal, each will be brought out in stages. The first will be breads and frutis and other vegetables. As you both are omnivores, you will may eat as much of that as you wish. The second portion will be mostly meats. Normally it is an offense not to eat a particular type of food, but now that many of us here can't quite eat everything, certain exceptions have been made. You two may eat the meat if you wish, you do not have to, but I recommend you eat some of it. After all, the Duke did invite you. The third portion of the meal will be various deserts, wines, delicacies, almost anything to tickle your tongues as it were.

"There will be toasts at the beginning of the meal and at the end. You may call out a toast if you wish, but only after Duke Thomas has called out one. Duke Thomas will also call out the final toast at the end of the meal. Do not try to toast after that. Do you understand?"

"This seems awfully complicated," Matthias observed.

"It really isn't, but since you have never eaten at this table before I had to explain a few things to you both. Now, if Duke Thomas decides to make a speech, he hasn't told me yet whether he plans to or not, then you must be silent, and you cannot eat during that time. I also recommend laughing at his jokes and applauding at its end."

"What happens if we don't?" Matthias ventured. He had never thought of Duke Thomas as an autocrat.

"Nothing. It is merely courtesy to one's liege." Thalberg let his jaw hang opena bit in mirth. It was obvious that he was enjoying himself. "Now, that is really all that you need to know. If you get confused, then simply follow the lead of your neighbors. I must see to the other guests." Thalberg then turned, his cape swirling behind him, his tail nearly knocking the nearest chair over as it came about suddenly. Charles felt glad that the impossing reptile was now out of arm's reach.

Charles looked over to Lady Kimberly who had been seated to his left this time. That was not unusual, he was seated closer to Thomas than she was. He was considered more important than her. He wondered if there would be anybody else form the Writer's Guild here tonight. There certainly weren't any so far. He doubted that any of the other rodents would be here either. Aside from the possible exceptions of Gregor and Phil, he was the most prominent rodent about. He had a sneaking suspicion that Phil knew more than he let on, but he had nothing to prove. Lady Kimberly, that appelation sometihng that he used, very few others did since it did not even belong to her according to the rules of nobility. Neither of them were of noble blood. The invitation she had received made it clear that Duke Thomas's court was going to consider her a commoner. The invitation had read only for Kimberly of Brathas, a small minor barony just a bit southwest, flanking the mountain range and on the sea coast.

"Are you comfortable?" He asked her as she squirmed a bit in the chair, getting her tail positioned behind her.

She nodded, looking down at the table before her. "Yes, thanks."

Matthias put a paw on her arm and patted it affectionately. He then examined the table before him. It was covered in a rich maroon table cloth with gold lacing along the edges. The embroidered designs across it were of Thomas's family crest. The plate's set before thme were of porcelain, and the various utensils set beside it were made of what looked to be polished brass. Charles picked up the fork, and held it in his hands experimentally. It had been some time since he'd eaten with a fork and a knife. He used spoons whenever he had some of Donny's famous vegetable soup. The rest of his meals he ate with his hands. Wood utensils he usually chewed through.

He looked over at Lady Kimberly who was keeping her eyes on her plate. "Hey, do you know how long it's been since I used a fork?"

Lady Kimberly didn't look up as more guests began trickling in and taking their seats. The other conversations about the table sounded very self-important. She shook her head, "I don't know, how long?"

"Oh, a year or so I'd bet. Maybe longer. I can't really remember the last time. I'm so used to eating with my hands I hope I can remember how to use these things," Charles remarked laughing a bit as he did so.

Lady Kimberly nodded, but her eyes stayed on her plate. Charles set the fork down and leaned over and gave her a little hug about her shoulders, "Hey what's the matter? You're a guest, enjoy yourself."

She looked up at him, her eyes a little nervous. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be, lets enjoy ourselves." Charles smiled at her, and she wiggled her whiskers in return. Charles looked about as more guest came into the place. He noticed some more familiar faces, though most of the people filling up the tables were lesser nobles from the outlying countries. He noticed a few humans as well, though he wondered whether they were just gender switched or not. One never could really tell with them just what they were. He also noticed Father Hough being led to a seat near the head of the table. Hough was indeed an honored guest. He wondered about that.

However, there wasn't really any time to ask him. Just as he got up the nerve to go walk up to the Catholic priest, Duke Thomas strode into the room. The masive percheron stallion, held held aloft, the two ears swivelling back and forth, the deep dark eyes scanning the faces, his muzzle snuffling at the air, and his hands calmly rested at his sides, radiated an aura of dominion. The shadow like Prime Minister, another horse though a much less impressive one, at least in the presence of his liege, followed after him. Everybody quickly came to their feet, the few toddlers in attendance standing on their chairs. Matthias quickly came to his feet, also standing in his chair, as did Lady Kimberly, her head bowed as they all looked the Duke. From his now lofty height, Matthias could see over many heads and down towards the throne like headtable. Thalberg stood at the side, and called out in a very loud and commanding voice, though it was obviously unnecessary, "Lords and Ladies, honored guests, rise in the presence of His Highness, Duke Thomas of Metamor Keep!"

There was a sudden silence as Thomas made his way to the front chair, with the Prime Minister shadowing him the whole way. Thalberg did not waver his eyes, but kept those yellow orbs focused on the guests, as if watching them to see if they made a mistake. Scanning His Highness's face, Matthias noted an odd distracted quality to it. There was obviously something wrong, though he could not tell what. Looking to the shadow he saw a similar look of concern. Thalberg seemed more interested in the present.

Thomas swished his thick luxuriously tended tail to his side as he settled comfortably into the permanent throne-like chair. It was crafted from the same stone as the rest of the castle, butit was inlaid with several jewels and intricate carvings. A maroon cushion, much the same hue as the tablecloth with golden tassle lay in the seat of the throne. The back was inlaid with the same cushioning. The structure had obviously been erected before the time of Nasoj's sorcery, as there was no place for him to place his tail, which was why he had swished it to the side before sitting down. Thomas looked over at Thalberg for a moment, and then waved his dark hand almost negligently.

Thalberg noticed the gesture and then called out in his booming craggly voice, "His Highness invites you all to sit at his table and feast on this the second night of the Equinox-Easter Festival. Let the feast begin!" Thalberg then with an almost extravagant flourish, tossed his cape back over his shoulder, the blackened interior sweeping out over his shoulder, and he took his place to the left of the Duke. The rest of the guests then quickly sat down as well, and the conversations started up again.

Charles looked over to Lady Kimberly who looked quite subdued. Her eyes came up to meet his and her nose wrinkled at the smeel of something absolutely audacious. Charles then suddenly detected it too. He looked over at the opposite side of the table. There was a slightly portly man whose sides jiggled as he talked. His black hair was very oily and it glistened in the bright torchlight. He was talking animatedly with a wolf that was sitting next to him. It took Matthias a moment to recognize him. It was Lord Loriod, who before the curse had been the wife of the previous Lord Loriod who had gone mad at the change and had flung poisoned himself, at least that was the official story. Even when he had been a she, he had been known to be quite gluttonness with a penchant for exotic perfumes and spices. There were rumors that he was also consumptive, but he seemed in fine health according to Coe. Matthias did not like him at all.

"That would be Lord Loriod." Charles inclined his head as he spoke softly. He did not want to attract the Lord's attention.

"What did he put in his hair? It smells awful," Lady Kimberly protested, putting a paw to her nose.

Matthias reached to pull her hand down, "Don't do that, you'll attract his attention."

Lady Kimberly nodded, "I won't."

The first course was as Thalberg described, an assortment of breads, vegetables, and a particularly aromatic tomato soup. Matthias was glad to have something to mask Loriod's bad choice of fragrances. Servers came about and placed a bit of each before all the noncarnivores, a meatier soup was given for their benefit. Their glasses were filled with a slightly yellowed liquid that bubbled slightly as it was poured. Matthias put his hand to his glass, notingt he fine qualiy of the craftsmanship. To drink out a glass was also a novelty. Usually he was left to drink from a tankard made from wood or even on some occasions clay. Glass was simply too precious. He tapped his claws against it, enjoying the sound of the ringing. Lady Kimberly chuckled at his antics.

Duke Thomas rose to his feet, glass in hand. Thalberg did not have to tell anybody what to do, they each rose to their feet, glass in hand. Thomas held his aloft, his mane falling to the other side of his neck, "A toast! To the next season; may the crops prove bountiful, and let our storehouses be overflowing. To the Harvest!"

"To the Harvest!" Everybody chimed in chorus, and then they took a quick drink. Charles savored the taste of the exquisite wine. He wondered just what brand it was. It was not a chardonnay, that much he knew. It didn't seem like a bourbon either. Apart from that, he couldn't tell, but it was some of the best win he'd ever tasted. He hoped that there were going to be lots of toasting tonight.

Kimberly leaned over and whispered in his ear, "A little bit at a time, dear."

Charles almost laughed where he stood as another noble called out another toast. He took a smaller drink that time, and for the rest of the toasts that were called out, though there were not that many, mostly the usual sorts of toasts that would be offered: to Thomas's health, to the prosperity of the Keep, to the death and rotting of Nasoj, and to various other sundry causes.

Then the meal began in earnest. The conversation's were not quite so loud as before, as many were concentrating on the food. Matthias and Lady Kimberly were two of those people. Lord Loriod seemed to dominate the talk about them, keeping all four of their neighbors wrapped in the palm of his hand. Matthias idly listened to talk of rumors of wars, news from the Midlands, and a very disturbing rumor that the crown prince had gone missing. Matthias had to admit that she wasn't here, but he did not know what that meant, if anything.

It wasn't until after the second course had come and gone had the conversation really begun to disturb him. Loriod seemed to take distinct pleasure in making very rude and bawdy jokes. Lady Kimberly kept her face down into her food the whole time, trying not to look embarrased when she heard them. Loriod was a master at conversation, and the true purpose behind his intent was slowly becoming clear to Matthias. Charles looked about him at his neighbors. Every one of them was a noble of some rank or station. Some time ago, Charles, along with many others at the Keep managed to force Thomas's hand into enacting a tax upon the nobility to fund certain projects, such as the Gnawer's Support Group, that mostly went to the benefit of the commoners. With a sudden start, Matthias realized that he was surrounded by people who did not want to be his friends.

Loriod finally turned to face them after one very liscentious joke that made even Matthias's stomach curdle with embarassment. Kimberly had her paw upon her nose again despite herself. "What's the matter rats? Smell something out of place?" There was a definite hint of condescension in his voice.

Charles wanted to come up with some witty retort, but found that he could not. He was mad, and the wine was warming him up more than he'd expected. "It's your hair. What did you put into it, a dead skunk?"

There was one hesitant chuckle, but it did not last for long. Loriod just looked down his nose at the two of them, his eyes haughty, "You two have been spending too much time in the sewers. You don't know the refined fragrance of the rare Shalom flower. It is the most fashionable perfume among the Midland courts these days."

"I've seen Shalom's flower," Matthias pointed out. "Very pretty, but eating the petals can kill a full grown horse. Did you know that?"

"Of course, part of the attraction. It shows how strong my blood is to be able to withstand it. Of course, you two wouldn't know anything about that." Loriod explained, turning to the side as if he was finished talking to them.

Matthias saw that Lady Kimberly was not moving, nor looking up. He had about had it. They had embarrased her, and now they were openly insulting her. This was supposed to be a special occasion, and because of some pompous ass it was being destroyed. "You're blood may have been stronger at birth, but I think you've manage to clot it. Perhaps you should see a doctor and have it leeched out."

"What would a peasant know of noble blood?"

"It's red," Matthias's voice was very low and quiet. He could feel his muscles tense building in force.

There was a sudden silence about them, nobody quite sure what to say to that. Loriod turned back to face him, his eyes confident, a sick looking smile on his pudgy face. He leaned forward lsightly, his fat collecting on the folds of the maroon tablecloth. He took a quick sip of the wine, and then set it back down again. He put his thick fleshy fingers together and tapped gently at the table in front of him. "Are you threatening me?"

"No."

"Good. It would disappoint me so terribly if I had to have you arrested for threatening a noble. Of course, you filthy rat wouldn't know anything about that now would you?"

"I know more than you realize?"

Loriod laughed, "You probably have more diseases that I realize too! The both of you together in fact. Tell me, just what filth do you two sleep in when you are together? Or have you already eaten the cherry she gave you?"

"That is a lie!" Matthias snarled between his teeth.

"Oh really? She's no better than a filthy prostitute, and you are nothing but a disease-filled walking corpse who thinks he's important enough to sit with real nobility. Go back to your sewers; run to your little holes and tease yourselves. You will never know my blood is." Loriod seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself. Matthias seriously wondered just how far into his face he could push his fist before killing him.

"You honorless and soulles pig!" Matthias let his voice rise a bit, his rage nearly uncontrollable now. This needed to be put to an end. "How dare you say such things? My blood is richer than yours. Her blood is richer than yours. Your blood would kill a nosferatu!"

"Big words! Yet you are still a peasant. Didn't your parents teach you anything about blood?"

"Yes, I have drunk blood that has made mine pure," Charles came back, the memory of the events of Friday night coming back to him. "So has Lady Kimberly. You know nothing of nobility."

"Lady? You would call a filthy vermin like her Lady? How deluded you really are!" Loriod laughed racuosly and Matthias stood up to jump at him and crush his windpipe. He stood rigid; his fists clenched at his side and his claws digging into the flesh of his palms. He needed to calm himself, he needed to remember that these were words from a foolish man. Yet, they were insulting to her, and that was sometihng he could not forgive.

"What is going on here?" Duke Thomas's voice carried over the table, and quickly caught their attention. "Lord Loriod, Matthias, explain yourselves!" Matthias turned to face him, saw that he was standing. His eyes were fierce, but at the same time there was a softness ot them he couldn't quite fathom.

"Nothing, your Highness. Just a disagreement that is all," Loriod glibly replied.

"This is a festival, we are to be of good cheer, come now, let us enjoy ourselves. Put your differences behind, and enjoy the food." Thomas called out, his voice very encouraging. Matthias sat back down and looked over to Lady Kimberly. She was shivering, her paws in her lap and her eyes there as well. Charles felt his rage melt away and he leaned over and gave her a hug, putting his own paw into her lap and takign a firm grip. He massaged her paw for a few moments, not saying anything. Loriod did not say anything further either. It seemed that he had gotten his entertainment for the night.

The rest of the meal passed by in a blur, even the closing toasts were just words in his mouth that he did not remember. This evening that was to be so special for them had turned into a nightmare. He wished he'd never sought Thalberg out to get him to send out another invitation. Had he been the only one here to take the brunt of Loriod's jokes, he could have beared it. However, he could not abide the thought of having Lady Kimberly's honor questioned. Her purity was more important to him than his own skin. She was too sweet to let some pompous, overfed, petty noble destroy it in one night.

When the feast was finally over, Matthias moved to help her form her chair, he wanted to leave quickly. Most of the nobles stayed at the table, continuing to drink. Thomas left as well, and strnagely enough, the Prime Minister stayed behind. Instead, Thalberg followed after him. Matthias did not think about it as he led Lady Kimberly from the room. Once they were out into the carpeted hall again, she fell into his arms, sobbing. "I'm sorry," Matthias said, trying to comfort her. "I didn't know. None of what he said was true. You are the sweetest and most beautiful lady in the world. I would never mean to hurt you. I love you."

It was the first time he had ever said it quite so simply. I love you. Three words with such powerful meaning. He had not thought that he could fall in love so easily. He had not thought that he could even say what he knew to be true. It felt like he had just given up soimething of himself, something very private and was now exposing himself to whatever lay ahead.

Lady Kimberly looked up into his face. "Do you mean it?"

Charles looked dow at her, and with one gentle paw wiped a tear from her cheek, watching it streak across her tan fur. "Of course I do. I love you, Lady Kimberly."

She hugged him tighter, holding on to him. "Oh, Charles. I love you too." He shook with the words, as if they were somehow the greatest things that he could ever hear in his whole life. He stood there dumbfounded, amazed at what had just happened. He then found that he was happy, happy beyond belief. That part of him that he had given up had come back to him one thousand fold. He felt as if he would over flow with joy at what he was hearing. The bloo din his veins pounded so hard that he was afraid they would burst. He felt as if his whole body would explode from the fire that was passing through him. He hugged her back ina tight embrace, shedding a tear of his own.

It was Thomas's voice that distracted him. Thomas was standing not five feet from them, with Thalberg standing just to one side. Thalberg was staring at them from the side of his head; he looked like a whipped puppy. "I'm sorry about Lord Loriod. I did not mean for this to happen to either of you two. My Steward is also sorry about what had happened, aren't you Thalberg?"

Thalberg nodded his massive snout, "I apologize Charles, Kimberly. I should have known that he would do something like that."

Duke Thomas then continued, "Next time you two are invited to eat at my table, and there will be a next time, and it will be soon, correct Thalberg?"

"Absolutely," Thalberg agreed quickly.

"As I was saying, next time, you two will sit close to me, and neither Loriod nor his cronies will be there. You have my word on that." Thomas put a hand to each of their shoulder's trying to comfort them for a perceived misdeed.

Matthias looked up into his face, he was at least two feet taller than he, and just nodded. "Thank you, your Highness. You are too generous."

"You are welcome, my good friends," Thomas nickered softly before turning his back to them and walking off. Thalberg quickly followed after. Thomas thne turned around after only six paces, "Oh, one more thing. You two look beautiful together."

Charles stared back into Lady Kimberly's eyes. She had nothing in her eyes but him, the joy at hearing his testimonial still there, nothing else mattered. Charles felt his heart surge again, nothing else did matter. He turned back to face the horse who was their liege, "Thank you , your Highness. We do look beautiful together." Thomas nodded and then turned back around and quickly disappeared down a corner. Matthias gave Lady Kimberly another hug and then began the long slow walk back to the Festival ground. Dr. Channing would be reading the second place story before too much longer. Still, he wished that it would never come, so he could spend his time with her, in this hall, by themselves.

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"Eating at the Duke's Table", copyright Charles Matthias