Otakar did not have as much trouble arranging his sons as he feared; the real challenge was finding all of his ministers on such short notice. But by the time the trio of carriages from Metamor were escorted into the outer bailey of the Eyrie complex overlooking the temple district of Salinon, all of his various ministers except for his minister of public works had been assembled to greet the Ambassador and his retinue. This was just as well because Minister Arnuyan had spent the morning inspecting the castle sewers and really wasn't fit company to welcome anyone.
He stood at the gates leading into the next bailey where they would be forced to climb a set of stairs to proceed; just one more reason that the Eyrie had never been taken in the long history of his land. It was already a climb of several steps just to reach the portal where he stood, which meant that his guests would be looking up at him when they arrived. His eldest son Ladislav was at his side, and on the next step down were his ministers of state and culture. The rest were standing on lower steps. Pyotr was busy arranging affairs inside the castle and would meet them further within.
And all of their eyes, all eleven of his ministers, his soldiers, his son Ladislav, and his own, were fixed upon the entourage riding almost triumphantly and without fear through the outer bailey gates. Two riders held aloft the horse-head banner of the house Hassan, and behind them rode another two figures, one of whom looked like nothing Otakar had ever seen before in his life. No monster creeping out of the fungus-laden boughs of Elderwood had borne such a beastly guise with martial pride. Not only did he have a long snout covered in white fur, with a pink nose at its end, but he also had sharp claws at the end of each finger and a long pink tail that kept trying to slide off one side or the other of his horse's flanks. Yet he was armored like any other knight, with broad breastplate that gleamed in the afternoon sun, a tabard the color of rust, and a heavy broadsword slung across his back in whose pommel was affixed a milky red sardius.
Otakar didn't care if this knight had been born a slave; he was going to be at the banquet with the rest of them.
And to his surprise, the strange creature rode forward a few extra steps into the courtyard and bellowed in a voice that while hissing with a beastly churr, resonated with a commanding baritone. "In the name of Duke Thomas Hassan V of the Northern Midlands, I present Earl Tarkas of the house Kardair of Euper'o'ill, the duly appointed Ambassador of Metamor to the lands of Dûn Fennas." He swept out a hand whose fingers were covered in white fur, but the back of which was black.
"Welcome to Salinon and to Dûn Fennas," Otakar called from the top step. "I am Duke Krisztov Otakar XII and I welcome you to my land, Ambassador Tarkas. A banquet has been prepared in your honor for you and the gentry of your retinue. My men will see to your carriages and horses if you would care to join us."
The human rider coaxed his horse forward a few paces into the bailey and he nodded his head, square jaw set in a respectful smile. "Thank you for your kindly welcome, your grace. As is the custom in your kingdom since the founding of your house, I request that my retinue be given use of the Kestrel's Wing."
Otakar could not stop himself from blinking in surprise, even as the Minister of cartography began blabbering objections to this request as his staff had migrated to the long unused section of the castle overlooking the southeastern flank of the town (including a secret ladder that let outside the castle walls). But the request was not unfair, for the Kestrel's Wing had been built by the elves of Quenardya deliberately as a home for visiting foreigners that they might have some privacy to conduct their affairs. The collapse of the Siuelman Empire into Sathmore and the fractious Pyralian Kingdoms had left that wing empty for many generations until some of his bureaucratic staff had elected to claim it for their own purposes. And so it had been for the entirety of Otakar's rule.
Now that would have to change and the older ways reasserted. "It would be my great pleasure to allow your men the use of the Kestrel's Wing. Too long its halls have been left quiet without the strange speech of foreign dignitaries to grace it. But you must pardon Minister Denwyr for his outburst. His scribes have used its halls for many years now to do their work. If it would suit you, you and your gentry may stay in my halls until Minister Denwyr has moved his scribes elsewhere. Your soldiers will have billets prepared in the meantime. It will take no more than a few days, I promise you."
"That would be sufficient. Thank you, your grace." Earl Tarkas lowered his head in gratitude, though his eyes never left the dozen officials and the Duke whom they surrounded. He gestured to the beastly knight at his left and then back to the wagons. "There are three of us who are nobly born, your grace, within my retinue. We three shall join your banquet if you will provide an escort to bring the rest of my entourage to where they can find meals and rest. I assure you that they are all human and will draw no exceptional notice."
Otakar nodded. "Captain Raff will see to it. If you will dismount and join me, I will introduce you to my Ministers and my sons."
Both the broad-chested man and the beastly knight dismounted, handing their reins to the riders bearing the Hassan standard. The knight then walked to the first carriage and opened the door. From within he escorted another very strange creature, this one garbed in an elegant damask gown with a necklace sparkling with rubies complimenting her neck. The neck was one covered in gray fur, while a long gray and black striped tail danced behind her head. Her face was dominated with large golden eyes framed by rings of black fur in a face otherwise filled with white fur. Despite similar fur colors, there could be no mistaking that the knight and this woman were two different types of beast.
And once again, every one, including Otakar himself, tried not to gawk at the bizarre Metamorian.
The Ambassador seemed to be enjoying their discomfiture. "May I introduce Sir Jon Kardair and his wife, Lady Deya Thores of Metamor. They are also very pleased at your warm hospitality."
Otakar wasn't sure whether he was more horrified by the beastly woman or more captivated by her exotic beauty. The nearly leering stare his son offered her convinced him that he needed to do as the Ambassador suggested. He spread his arms wide, deliberately blocking his son's view of the two animal Metamorians. "I bid you both welcome to my home, Sir Jon Kardair, Lady Deya Thores. Now come, and join us in a feast to celebrate this momentous and happy day."
He then half turned to his son and hissed between his teeth, "If you ever look at that woman that way again, I will be sure that your wife hears about it." Ladislav paled and nodded. His wife had studied at Marigund and probably knew any number of spells to make a lecherous husband regret every unfortunate glint in his eyes!
Otakar then smiled as broadly as he could to welcome his unexpected and very strange guests.
Sir Jon Kardair was impressed with the Eyrie's fortifications and concluded shortly after passing up the narrow stairs into the inner bailey that he would rather spend the next year hanging from his tail than to siege Salinon and its impregnable castle. He noted as many details as he could, not for planning any sort of attack, but for recommending them to Jack and George when he inevitably returned to Metamor. The mountains on either side of the valley offered several advantages that Salinon with its single bluff had already employed.
After passing through the inner bailey, Otakar with his train of ministers and with his eldest son at his side, led the trio of Keepers into a long hall in which a U-shaped set of tables were arrayed. The floor dropped a good cubit when it reached the walls, and the windows stretched from above their heads down beneath their feet, giving them the impression that they were floating above the city rather than perched at its apex. Tapestries of soft Spring colors, yellow, vermilion, violet, and indigo stretched between the windows so that at one moment they seemed to be striding through a vast forest, and the next strolling through an elegant garden. He could even hear the the soothing sound of water falling and pooling, though even with his large ears he couldn't tell where.
"Welcome to the Gyrkin Hall," Otakar announced with a broad sweep of his arms. "Here, my family has feasted and feasted noble guests for centuries. And you three shall have places of honor at the head table with me."
"We are honored by your hospitality," his brother Tarkas said as he kept step with the somewhat corpulent Duke. This was not the sort of girth that came from a life of indolence. Sir Kardair had seen it in warriors too old to return to the field of battle; men who had fought, born sword and shield, bled, and claimed victory over their enemies. Age would wear on them, their muscles fading as the years pursued their relentless march toward the grave and what lay beyond. Fat Duke Otakar may have become, with rounded fingers, balding head, and puffy lips, but he was a man who knew a sword as a lover, and who would not flinch from battle joined. For that he would respect him.
There were seven seats at the head table, the center for Otakar himself. Otakar's eldest son Ladislav sat at his right, while Tarkas was invited to sit at his left. Kardair and Deya were offered chairs next to Tarkas. The chairs were finely wrought, carved from a sweet smelling wood with a deep red grain, flecked with whorls of brown. The backs were carved so that they seemed to be the sheltering wings of some vast bird of prey while the legs ended in splayed talons. Despite their beauty and obvious elegance, Sir Kardair put one paw on the top and turned to their host with a sibilant hiss slipping through his fangs.
"Your grace, these chairs are not suitable for us."
Otakar had been boasting of the architecture to his brother and so his expression was somewhat sour at the interruption. "They are my chairs, Sir Kardair. Are not the chairs of the house of Otakar comfortable?"
Deya put a paw on his arm, little claws gently pressing into the exposed fur near his wrist. "What my husband means, your grace, is that your chairs, elegant and beautiful, and fit only for those of noble birth, were made in age when people such as us had not yet been. They have no room for our tails, your grace."
By now everyone who hadn't already been surreptitiously staring at them was now openly gaping at them, their whispers and pretense silenced as the singular nature of the faux pas became apparent to everyone. Otakar's surprise lasted just long enough for Kardair to note the shock and embarrassment. "My sincerest apologies, Sir Kardair, Lady Thores. You are right. Those chairs will not do for you. I will have others brought immediately. Forgive me for this unfortunate offense."
"There is no offense to give," Deya added with her silken voice, wide golden eyes brimming with her good cheer and both disarming and sultry manner. "Until eight years ago none of us would have ever thought we'd need chairs suitable for tails. Why it would be considered the foulest of manners to invite your dog or your horse to sup at the table with you. Now in this new age, some of us bear more than a mere fanciful resemblance to the same. We are not offended, and we are immensely grateful for the offer of new chairs."
Otakar merely had to glare at one of the nearby servers, and the chairs were hastily removed. Kardair put his other paw over his wife's and turned his head toward her, looking down into her wide face. She returned the longing gaze, her eyes fiery pools of molten light. Even after the many years of their marriage, and even after she had born him three children, how he still loved to savor and marvel at her beauty. His heart thumped in his chest with such pride over her glib tongue, her thoughtful and clever mind, her beastly charm, and of course, her devotion to him.
Men had always cast a covetous eye her way, and even in this land where their kind were heretofore unknown, they still did. Sir Kardair did not care if they looked, because her eyes were only for him.
So when her eyes flicked down across the long tables, the opossum knew something very interesting must have drawn them. He half turned, and saw that in addition to another pair of chairs behind carried in by a quartet of servants, these chairs having a stylistic gap between the back and the seat, another set of guards escorted into the hall a man roughly the same age as the Duke's eldest son who was dressed modestly but appropriately with a bright red shock of hair and an expression of limitless irritation.
Sir Kardair noted him for a moment, and then pretended as if he'd really been interested in the new chairs all along as he let his eyes and snout follow the servants bringing the chairs around behind the set of tables while Jaime Verdane was escorted to a seat at the end of the table furthest from them. "Thank you, good sirs, I will handle it from here," he said to the four youths carefully managing the new chairs. They stared in wide-eyed horror and awe at the six-foot tall armored opossum walking toward them and were quick to set the chairs down and back off.
"For you, my lady," he said as he took the first chair and positioned it behind his wife. Deya trilled under her breath, and glided her long tail through the gap as her languorous figure rested against the soft cushions. It was so easy for her to ignore the stares that her exotic feminine beauty elicited, or at least, make it appear as if she were ignoring them. Sir Kardair knew he was not as politically adroit as his wife or his brother, and so trusted her instincts in this as in so much else.
"Thank you, my knight," she replied, turning to gaze at him with a sincerity that was not forced. Despite the lavish attention she had always received from men of position, she had married him!
After maneuvering his tail into the hole in the back of the chair, Sir Kardair noted that he was the last to be seated. Duke Otakar was already engrossed in a playful conversation with his brother inquiring after Duke Thomas's health and that of his new wife's as well. Servants were beginning to move around the tables bringing platters of various bread, both soft and hard, mixed with a variety of barley, oats, and the occasional dried fruit. A goblet decked in gold and inlaid with rubies at four corners was set before the Duke, while more modest goblets of silver were arrayed before the other guests and promptly filled with a dry tasting wine.
With his brother on one side, and his wife on the other, Sir Kardair was cut off from the conversations surrounding him; he preferred it that way as it allowed him the chance to listen and watch. He studied each of Otakar's six sons, from the intemperate oldest who was making jests and eying the opossum knight with some suspicion, to the young pair of boys further down the table busy trying to see how many bread crumbs they could throw at each other. The middle three children were on the other side of the table, and each of them showed some strength in their arms, a precision in their gaze, and a bit of jealousy toward their eldest brother. The second in line, Mikhail, a man just old enough to have spilled blood in battle, demonstrated a studied courtesy with the polite manner in which he spoke to Deya. They had been seated next to each other, and he had wasted no time in welcoming her to Salinon and in complimenting her on her beauty.
She smiled at his efforts and in between bites of bread replied, "Thank you, Mikhail. It is a great honor to be in your lovely country. Have you ever ever been to mine?"
The young man shook his head, his short-cropped black hair not even stirring. "No, I have never ventured beyond the borders of Dûn Fennas, or as your people call it, the Outer Midlands. But I have seen many wonders in this land. The wide plains and long, rolling hills, the horses, the flocks, the forests, the mountains, the people and cities. All of it is very precious and dear to us here. Will you be staying in Salinon while your husband's brother serves as Ambassador?"
"For now at least," she admitted with a little laugh. Kardair could see her eyes taking the young man in with a deeper gaze than even he suspected. "You are betrothed?"
Mikhail nodded and rubbed one finger over the bracelet on his right arm. It was a circlet about a thumb's span across made of tough leather inlaid with golden runes. His cheeks dimpled a quick smile. "Yes, I am. She's of the house Rivers in Marigund and has become quite beautiful I am told, with long, brown hair that tightens into curls." His eyes took on a faraway cast as he spoke of her and offered a few more details on her appearance.
"When did you last see her?" Deya asked as her claws very gently pierced the edges of a particularly hard bit of bread.
"Eight years ago when we were betrothed. Our wedding is to be later this year."
There was an earnest nervousness in Mikhail's manner that reminded Sir Kardair of himself when he was not that much younger. Marriage should have a salubrious effect on the young man, provided his bride was of good character.
He turned toward his brother and smiled as he caught the beginning of a question he had wondered about himself. Tarkas set down his goblet and smacked his lips together once before saying, "Your grace, I have spent much time studying the Fennasi people, or at least, as much as we know of them in Metamor. One thing that has confused me for some time is that while there is a distinct inheritance from the elves in much of your society, your family name and many of the names of those closest to you seem to come from another source. I am curious how this came to be."
Otakar smiled and leaned forward in his seat, eyes noting the opossum knight's scalloped ears turning their way. "You are very astute, Ambassador. My family name and the given names of myself and my children do not come from the elves. Nor is my family originally Fennasi. Hundreds of years ago, the Otakar house was a clan of horsemen from the eastern reaches of the Steppe. One difficult winter we were driven westward from our ancestral lands, and then north out of the Steppe entirely. We came to Salinon and for a generation roamed the countryside thereabouts. Our military prowess was hailed and soon we had married into the noblest of families. But our name and our crest we kept, even as our power grew, and even as we were drawn from horseback to council chamber and to throne. And so it is that our family keeps to the traditional names of the clan, though in almost all other ways we adhere to the noble and exalted Fennasi traditions."
"Truly," Tarkas noted with a nod and a smile, "history provides an abundance of mysteries!"
"And as you have sought the mystery of my name," Otakar replied with a canny laugh, even as he leaned back in his high seat, "you must reveal to me the mystery of your own. Tarkas is not any Midlander name that I have heard before."
"Nay, it is not," his brother admitted with a similar laugh. He took a sip of wine and picked up a small bit of bread, even as the servants began moving around the table with plates of fresh fruits. "I was born a woman, and I was named Tabitha. But eight years ago, when the curses were laid down, I was trying to hold off a band of Lutins who had broken into our chambers. They were dragging my maid and I by the hair, even as I swung everything within reach at them to get them off. And then the Curses were cast, and I became as you see me; I am much larger than I used to be. I managed to take one of their axes and hacked half of them to pieces, stomping through the corpses so that I was drenched in their blood. The rest ran screaming, 'Tarkas! Tarkas!' as they fled. I took that as my new name."
Otakar stared at his brother for a moment before resuming his usual demeanor. There was both new respect and new caution in the Duke's appraisal of Metamor's ambassador. "I know of Lutins only by tales. They have never penetrated the expanse of the Barrier mountains bordering our lands, nor have they swept this far from Metamor Valley in a very, very long time. Why did they cry that name?"
"I wondered the same myself for a time. I asked the commander of one of our deep patrols in the north not long after the battle. He told me it meant 'crazed giant' in their tongue."
"Truly? And here you are as diplomat, Earl Tarkas. There are no Lutins to fight here."
"My liege does not believe Lutins are the only enemies of Metamor. Nor does he believe we should be without friends." Tarkas sampled a cherry and smiled. "Oh, very good, very succulent. My compliments to your gardens, your grace."
The usual verbal sparring of the nobility could never hold Sir Kardair's interest for very long. His eyes strayed, even as he idly ate of the sumptuous fruit, across the tables toward the only other person who seemed as much an outsider as he – Jaime Verdane. The red-haired man was moderately built though hampered by a slender physique. Still it was clear he was very used to swinging a sword and there was an air of reserve and dignity with the way he contemptuously ignored everyone around him. Jaime ate the food set before as if he were the only one at the table, going so far as to snatch the last morsel off a platter even while one of the ministers turned to reach for it.
Either Jaime Verdane did not care what his captor did with him, or he did not fear that anything worse would be done to him. Given the self-serving rules of the nobility that his brother and wife had often described to him, he had no doubt that it was a little bit of both.
But was Jaime the sort who would have rather been out riding down brigands and thieves and leading men against invading armies, or was he the sort who would prefer to be holding court over his subjects like Otakar?
One meeting would never answer the opossum knight's question, but it was a necessary beginning. He turned his white-furred snout toward the Duke, long pink tail wrapping itself around the opposite chair leg from habit, and hissed in a voice meant to be heard by those nearby. "Your grace, pardon my interruption, but I have a question for you."
Otakar and Tarkas both turned to look at him. His brother's left eye twitched at the corner in a way that Kardair knew meant he was surprised. The Duke held his golden goblet in his right hand and he smiled expansively as he finished chewing on a tart meaty fruit that the knight had never tasted before. "What question do you have for me, Sir Kardair?"
He opened his left palm and extended it, short claws pointing directly at the red-haired hostage. "You have introduced all of your guests to us but this man. Who is he, and why did you not announce him as you have done the rest?"
Otakar glanced at the end of the table. At the question, Jaime looked up, but then returned his focus on the melon he had nearly devoured down to the rind. The smile on Otakar's lips veered between sardonic pleasure and innocent munificence. "Why that is his grace, Jaime Verdane, heir to the Duchy of Kelewair. He is a guest in my house and will be staying with us for quite some time. Oh, Jaime, these are Earl Tarkas of Eupor'o'ill, Sir Jon Kardair of Metamor, and the Lady Deya Thores his wife. Earl Tarkas is an ambassador from Metamor just newly arrived. Do welcome them."
Jaime's face darkened as he openly studied them, lowering the melon rind to the table, letting the last of the juices soak into the thin cloth covering the marble. With a snort and shake of his head, he spoke in a voice as bitter and biting as myrrh. "I see that I am not a good enough dancing and prancing animal on a chain for you; you have brought the real thing."
A few of the ministers openly gasped. Otakar winced and out of the corner of his eye, Sir Kardair could see the Duke grind his teeth to bite back whatever retort had leaped to his mind. The opossum knight was not sure if Jaime was impugning him and his wife merely to rankle the Salinon court, or if he really felt such disgust at the sight of beastly Keepers. Either way, the insult to his Deya and to himself could not go unanswered.
Sir Kardair bolted upright in his chair, tail yanking it off the floor for a moment before he uncurled it from around the back leg. He hissed through his numerous fangs, jowls drawn back in wrath. "How dare you, sir, say such things! You slander my honor and the honor of my wife, a lady of noble birth! I challenge you here and now to combat!" So saying, he smashed the bottom of his fist into the stone table, making several goblets and platters jump.
"I haven't had a chance to hunt in months!" Jaime exclaimed with the relief of a man who finally found something to interest him. He leaned back in his chair and rested one foot on the table's edge. "I accept your challenge, Sir Beast."
Otakar jumped to his feet and bellowed. "There will be no challenges in my hall! Especially against my," he wrinkled his lips and managed to sneer the word from his throat, "guest. And sit like the noble man you are! You disgrace yourself."
"No prisoner is capable of it," Jaime retorted. Still, he did lower his foot, but only in order to stand. The soldiers that stood watch over the hall along the walls near the sunken windows as if they were floating in the air, took a few steps forward, hands reaching for their weapons. Jaime ignored them as he walked into the middle of the set of tables. "And I am a guest; I have privileges of my own. Never let it be said that the hospitality of Salinon can be likened to cows at pasture."
Sir Kardair did not wait for Otakar's next snarling demand. He put his left paw on the table and vaulted over, his tail tucking up into his legs to keep from smacking his brother in the back of the head. He could have jumped clear over the table and even further, but it was better that Otakar and his cronies did not know that just yet.
"Oh, let them fight," Ladislav said with a laugh. "He did insult Sir Jon's honor." The man's tone was so patronizing that the opossum knight desperately wished he could risk challenging him too.
"Guests do not fight in my house!" Otakar insisted. "Guards!"
All but the quartet standing near to Otakar's throne converged at a run toward the two combatants. Jaime snarled and leaped bare-handed for the opossum. Sir Kardair lifted his arms and stepped backward a few paces, grabbing the imprisoned noble by his wrists and forcing them forward. He then swung his tail around and wrapped it around Jaime's left knee, pulling toward him so that the man buckled backward. He gasped in surprise as Kardair pushed him effortlessly to the ground, his long, sharp-fanged snout inches from the side of his face.
Kardair hissed loudly, the fur along the back of his head swelling with his beastly anger. But it was an anger that he controlled. And while he hissed, he worked his tongue to form soft words in the captive scion's ear. "Trust the bird."
Jaime blinked and the fight drained from his muscles, as his lips parted in a brief moment of shock quickly swallowed by a grunt of frustration and one last bout of struggle for show. Sir Kardair snarled in a louder voice, "Do you yield to me, Jaime Verdane?"
Jaime ground his teeth together, and then in sight of all of Otakar's sons and ministers, humiliated and crushed by a beast-man from Metamor, he nodded his head. "I yield."
Kardair rose, dragging Jaime to his feet, and then with one paw smoothed out the man's tunic before giving him a curt nod. "Never speak so of my wife or I again."
"I shall not," Jaime replied, even as he stepped back a pace into the waiting arms of Otakar's guards. Two of them grabbed him by the upper arms while the rest closed ranks around him. The opossum knight walked calmly back around the tables to his seat, pointedly ignoring the procession that every other person in attendance watched. By the time he picked up his chair and settled himself back within, all eyes were upon him, including a livid Duke Krisztov Otakar.
"Sir Kardair," the Duke managed, voice brimming with a hoary indignation, "you, a guest, violate the laws of my house and heap dishonor upon your head and think that you can once more so blithely sit at the head of my table?"
His jowls and whiskers twitched and his eyes blinked once, but Sir Jon Kardair made no objection to the Duke's reprimand. He stood and turned to face the Duke, even as Deya's paw slipped around his fingers and gripped them tightly. "Your grace, forgive me. That was impertinent of me as well as foolish and discourteous. I will excuse myself and retire to the chambers you have so generously provided where I will bring no more offense to you, your noble sons, your honorable ministers, and to my family. By your leave, of course."
Otakar stared at him for one moment and then nodded, waving one hand and turning his face away from not only him, but his brother and wife. "You have my leave. Quit my table; if I hear word that you are involved in any altercations within my city – any altercations – I will have you sent back to Metamor in chains. Raff, escort the knight out."
Relieved, Kardair turned to his wife, pressed the side of his head against hers for a moment, and then walked back the way he had came, the dutiful captain at his heels with a none too pleased curl to his lips.
The Eyrie complex was an interconnected mass of buildings fashioned from a bright gray speckled granite. In the evening twilight the walls almost appeared to blush. Between the buildings were narrow staircases, small gardens, and a few wide courtyards that allowed for outdoor gatherings, though from their scent Kardair could tell that they had most recently been used for equestrian training. Probably for Otakar's sons.
Captain Raff led him past one such courtyard, down a set of stairs, and then to a wide terrace overlooking the western bluff. Above them stretched a building at least three levels high, the topmost level extending a good cubit out from those below it. Raff gestured to the doorway and said, "This is the Ducal residence. Your family has been lent the rooms at the rear until the Kestrel's Wing is made ready for you."
"Thank you, Captain."
The man frowned and with one hand tightly gripping the cape around his shoulders, he looked the opossum knight full in the face; he had to tilt his head back to do this, but he did not show any fear of him, only uncertainty. "Sir Kardair, if I may, the ways of your people are not the ways of mine. My master, his grace, is a man who prizes hospitality and the proper treatment of guests. The defense of the honor of his guests is his task and his alone. You brought shame to him with your display."
Kardair felt a twinge of regret touch his heart. This man who he had only just met a few hours ago was being completely earnest. How he hated the subterfuge the games of politics had forced him to play!
"I know, and I am sorry for my actions. I will leave all such affairs to his grace's capable hands." He turned and cast one glance out across the waist-high railing and the broad vista stretching toward the setting sun. A broad red-limned sky of clouds cloaked them from above, while the green swards of earth surrounding the lake and village at the base of the bluff stretched below them. Somewhere beyond the horizon was Metamor Keep, his home.
He blinked at the vista once, and then returned his focus to the captain. "I hope that my behavior has not jeopardized my brother's duties here."
Raff shook his head. "I do not believe so, Sir Kardair. But it would be best if you keep the promise you just made to me. His grace's promise to send you back to Metamor in chains was not a vain one."
He could say nothing to that and so gestured at the doorway which had been designed to appear like a pair of vast feathered wings. "Do you need to escort me to the chambers or will I be able to find my own way?"
Raff grunted and opened the door by lifting a handle that was carved in the shape of a talon. "This way."
Kardair fell into step behind him as they passed into a large foyer. Rooms adorned either side for reclining, reading, and for study. They walked past several doors that were kept shut, before turning to the left to reveal a set of smaller rooms where a pair of Metamorian guards stood watch. "Here you are. And if you wish the chance to practice your sword arm, come to the northern practice fields. We've a good number of men who would like to see what Metamor has to offer."
Raff smiled to him, inclined his head in respect, and then turned back the way he had come. Kardair smiled to himself and then turned back to the curious stares of his fellow Metamorians. "Chipping, Rolf," he said to the two men from Midtown who did not know the touch of the Curses but nevertheless had Duke Thomas as their liege, "where is my family?"
"In the back room. Your squire is with them," Chipping said with a faint laugh. "Where are Earl Tarkas and your Lady Deya?"
"Still feasting with Otakar. They will join us later."
He found his three children in a small room with a quartet of beds, a washbasin inlaid with ivory, and several wooden toys designed to look like horses, soldiers, and a variety of other animals common to life in the broad plains and hills of the easternmost reaches of the Midlands. Playing with these toys were his two elder daughters and his young son. His squire and his nephew, Ned, watched over them; Ned also bore the dusty red colors of his knight.
"Father!" his children echoed, rising to their feet to greet him as he had taught them. His eldest daughter Lucy, almost ten years of age, smiled beneath a bright head of auburn curls. His seven-year old Maria had her hair in pig tails and kept swinging her dress back and forth. His youngest and his boy Jon who at four still had a bright wide face, with golden blonde hair and adoring blue eyes that could never but be joyous when they saw him.
Kardair knelt down, long tail sweeping the stones behind him, and he stretched out his arms. "Come here." They wasted no time, rushing into his arms and pressing their faces into his furry cheeks. He stroked the backs of their heads with his paws, little claws catching in Lucy's curls and Maria's pigtails. "Have you been well-behaved for your cousin?"
"Yes, Father," his girls echoed. Little Jon lifted a wooden toy dog in his free arm – the other had a firm grip right through the opening in Kardair's tabard to the linen and chest fur beneath – "Look Fatha, it looks like you!"
The wooden dog did have white and black painted fur, but that was the extent of the resemblance. Jon smiled and churred. "Oh my, it does, doesn't it. Are there any that look like your mother?"
But his boy shook his head and waved the wooden dog about. "Just you, Fatha! Will you play knight with us?"
"Will you show us around the castle?" Maria begged as she almost pranced in her bright yellow dress.
"Is Mother going to be back soon?"
His heart swelled with delight but he spoke firmly and gently. "It is time for each of you to get some sleep. When your mother returns, she will come in and see each of you. Tomorrow we will see some more of the castle, yes. In a few days our new home will be ready for us. And I'm sure there will be other children that you can play with. Ned, can you help me get them ready?"
His nephew Ned had just turned thirteen and had narrowly avoided suffering the Curse. He had expressed a bit of disappointment that he had not yet changed, although he had long since ceased offering any complaints. In appearance he had the same bright complexion and build common to the Kardair family, but the brown eyes of his real father who had once served as an ambassador for Metamor before being slain during Three Gates. When his manly growth finally finished he would be nearly as tall as his knight and just as strong.
"Of course," Ned replied as he picked Maria up in his arms and made her sit down on the bed. "Did you get yourself ejected from another banquet, Uncle?"
His jowls lifted, fangs glistening, though there was no anger in his snarl. Ned laughed and shook his head back and forth even as he helped Maria out of her sun dress. While his children eagerly tried to tell him about their adventures with the wooden figurines, Kardair did his best for them.
It was some hours later before his wife and brother finally retired for the evening. Once his children had been put in their beds, he prayed with them, and then joined Ned, and the few soldiers that were stationed with them in the Duke's residence. He inquired after the rest of their retinue, learned of the disposition of their supplies, horses, carriages, and the like, and then asked them their opinions on the Eyrie and the castle staff.
He spent a bit of time standing on the terrace overlooking the lake, with the stem of a pipe clutched between his fangs, jowls curled around the wood while thin trails of smoke rose from the bowl and from either side of his snout. He waited until the half-moon was at its highest in the sky before returning inside to offer his evening prayers to Eli.
By the time he had finished he heard the familiar voices of his wife and brother entering the area of the residence reserved for them. They found him crouched by a warm fire in a room with a few chairs (all of which made accommodations for tails) and several trophies mounted on the wall. "Good evening, brother," he said to Tarkas, before gently kissing his wife with his snout. "I apologize again for my outburst at the feast."
Tarkas sighed and slumped in the chair nearest the fire. "You really cannot help it, can you, little brother? Every offense, every little threat, you have to defeat then and there. You could have cost us greatly. Our duties for Metamor are more important than our pride." Tarkas's blue eyes found the lemur and in a quiet voice asked, "Are they listening?"
The Lady Deya Thores was more than just a woman of delicate beauty and courtly charm. She was also gifted in many simple magical arts. While she could never summon a bolt of lightning or set stone (or even damp wood) aflame, she nevertheless could do many things that most men could only marvel at. She glanced briefly to the left and then returned her gaze to them both. "There were some charms, but they will not hear us now. I do not sense any spies listening in. You may speak freely."
"Good," Tarkas said with relief. "This is important, Jon. Do not bother yourself with any insult, with any disgrace, that whelp from Kelewair tries to bring on you, on Lady Deya, or on anyone else. If not for him we wouldn't have any chance here at all. With luck and with some dignified groveling, I think I can help the Duke see what a wonderful alliance he can forge with Metamor."
"We don't need his help for anything," Kardair replied in a grumbling manner.
"We need his help if we hope to push south. In another five to ten years we can control all the lands to the Sathmore border if we have Otakar's help. Trade today, territory tomorrow. Remember that." Tarkas grunted and made a quick gesture with his figures; it was patrol-sign, something that even a spy would probably miss if any managed to listen in despite Deya's charms. Kardair read it in an instant, "Did he get the message?"
Kardair grunted and sat down, making the affirmative sign back as he did. "Very well, it will be easier with Otakar than without. I admit that. But I do not like sitting around talking. You know that."
"I do," Tarkas replied in the sort of understanding voice one uses to assure a child that they had, in fact, done wrong. "But if you are going to protect me, you are going to do exactly that. I will protect you too, brother, but you have to help me. And that means no more foolish stunts or shows of bravery. No more protecting your honor at each slight. And definitely, do not ever touch Jaime Verdane again. We need him right where he is."
Kardair was already beginning to wonder if it was wise at all to have come to Salinon. It was hard to say no to a summons from the Duke, especially one so noble and wise as Duke Thomas Hassan. "I will do as you say. I apologize for the difficulty I have caused you."
"Forgiven," Tarkas replied as he leaned back in the chair and sighed, eyes closed and his hands crossed in his lap. "I am tired and I am full of food and wine. I think I will get my sleep. I shall see you both in the morning."
"And we you," Kardair rose, his wife's hand at his side. He wrapped an arm over her shoulders, lowering his hand to rest just beneath. Her tail brushed against his. Before he quite knew what was happening, she had kissed him on the cheek.
Jaime paced in his tower cell , hands clenching and unclenching, as he seethed with indignation and confusion. Until that day he had never before seen a cursed Metamorian. It had taken all of his self-control to pretend as if he hadn't noticed them from the first moment he'd stepped into the Gyrkin hall. He normally held his tongue when meeting yet another of the Duke's guests, but before they had always been dignitaries from another part of Otakar's domain. Here he had the chance to meet a guest from afar and that gave him a chance to show foreigners just how inhospitable the Duke's hospitality could really be.
He had never thought the Metamorian knight – just what had he been anyway, some sort of rat? – would have actually challenged him to a duel of honor. That the beast knight had defeated him so quickly couldn't help but make him grind his teeth together in shame.
But the most perplexing of all had been those three words whispered into his ear, clearly meant for him alone. "Trust the bird."
What were they doing here in Salinon? Had the Metamorians come to free him? That couldn't possible be the case because there was no love lost between the Verdane and the Hassan houses. A quiet war had been raging on their borders for almost a hundred years. The last siege of Metamor from their south had been led by a Verdane. That probably meant that they wanted to use him for some other purpose, something which may or may not be beneficial to him, but would certainly benefit the Metamorians. And if that was the case, they should have sent a vulture instead of a jackdaw then.
A caw at his left made him stop and turn in surprise and then anger. There perched on his sill, framed by the starlight in a window that didn't have bars but may as well have, was the jackdaw. It bobbed its head up and down as it looked at him expectantly.
"What do you want?" Jaime snapped, a little louder than he should have. More prudently, though still snarling, he said in a quieter voice, "Do you understand me? What are you anyway? Bird? Pet? What?"
But the jackdaw merely sat there and cawed at him again with an irritating insistence that he knew he should expect. If not for that beast knight's hushed admonition, he would have already taken out the little bit of bread he'd stuffed in his tunic and begun tossing him pieces. "Nothing for you," Jaime declared with crossed arms as he finally managed to stop his stalking. "Not until you speak for me."
The jackdaw stared at him with his bright eyes, almost two little stars in the midst of his black and gray feathers. He cawed again.
Jaime put his hands to his face and then stomped toward the bird who promptly flew away, only to appear again at the other window with another angry caw. Gasping in frustration, Jaime pulled out the small loaf of bread and tore off a little chunk. The bird's eyes followed the bread, from the man's fingers, and then to the spot he threw it. The jackdaw leaped down to the ground, snatched up the bread in his beak, gobbled it down, and then stared up at the man waiting for more.
Jaime slumped against the wall, his heart aching in the misery of his prison. No tears moistened his eyes, but he felt very close to weeping. Through this misery he mindlessly tore at the bread, tossing each piece to the bird who greedily scarfed them until there was nothing left. A few more caws were offered his way, but at some point the bird understood it was not going to get anymore and it flew away.
For several minutes Jaime sat there against the cold stone walls, the numbness beginning to seep into his back as the night air sucked away the meager warmth his fire provided. His eyes remained fixed upon the spot where the bird had been enjoying his meal but he could see nothing of it. He would have given up nearly anything right then to become a bird, even the ability to change back if it came to it.
When his Verdane practicality forced him to climb to his feet, he realized that there was a little scrap of parchment nestled in between the stones where the jackdaw had waited for its treats. Jaime frowned and bent down to pick it up. Like the piece the bird had brought him earlier that day, it had little marks on it that looked very much like letters. Curious, Jaime stepped over to his desk and found the other piece beneath his prayer book. Both pieces appeared to have been cut by a knife along all of their edges.
Jaime spent a minute placing one edge against another to see if the marks made any sense. He was about to give up when suddenly he found that by not lining up the shorter ends he could see a single word jump out of the scraps – 'free'.
He stared at that word for several minutes, mind numb but still present. Eventually he took each piece and stuck them between the pages of his prayer book. He then shut all the windows, put a few more logs in the fire, enjoyed the feeling of the flames as they warmed his face and hands, and then retired to his bed where he lay staring at the ceiling as wild orange shadows danced back and forth.
Whatever Metamor truly wanted with him, it was clear they were going to dangle the idea of being set free to obtain his cooperation. They would have it. Maybe, just maybe, no matter what they intended, he might actually be able to use them to win his freedom. He was finished being a disagreeable guest.
Although no matter what happened, it was sure to frustrate Otakar to no end. That thought alone brought him a cold, miserly satisfaction.
It was very late that evening when a man in his thirties with already balding head quietly entered Otakar's private study. Otakar was enjoying a last glass of wine before he retired for the night. A pleasant fire warmed him and the ticking of a clock marked off the seconds. All else was silent. Otakar read from a book he'd obtained from Metamor, a strange collection of fanciful tales that seemed at times very different from the stories spun by bards or passed down through family lore. He lifted his eyes from the pages and smiled to his guest.
"Velar, thank you for coming."
"It is my pleasure, your grace," the young man said as he stepped within the room and shut the door behind him. "As you requested, I have news about your guests."
"All of them," Velar replied with a smirk.
Otakar's lips tightened, but his chief mage had earned the right to be a bit sarcastic. He gestured with a wave of a ringed hand at the seat opposite him. "Tell me of them. Let us begin with our newest guests. What have you learned of them?"
Velar settled himself in the damask chair and shifted his voluminous sleeves until they dangled unimpeded from the chair's arms. "They do appear to be what they claim to be. None of the soldiers, scribes, or servants that accompanied them seems to believe differently. Although the Lady Deya Thores did not tell you all that there is to know of her."
Otakar nodded thoughtfully as he brought her beastly appearance to mind. "The strange lady with the large golden eyes. What was it the ambassador said she was... a lemur? Yes, that's it. A lemur. Some animal from the Isle of Manzona I believe."
"A traveling circus brought one with them to Marigund when I was a boy; I recognized what Metamor's Curses did to her," Velar replied with the smirk of self-satisfaction. "But what she did not say of herself, your grace, is that she too has magical talent."
Otakar's eyebrows lifted and he took a slow breath. It was not unheard of for diplomats to bring a mage with them for protection or for ferreting out secrets. That one noble born and whose beauty, regardless of its exotic nature, was likely sufficient to bring any number of secrets to the lips of men also employed the arcane arts made the Metamorians all the more dangerous. "How do you know this, Velar?"
"She disabled all of the listening cantrips I placed in those suites within moments of entering."
"All of your cantrips?" Otakar said as if the news really dismayed him. "She must be quite powerful then."
"She has some skill," Velar admitted as if he were surveying the work of a student. "But she does not see everything. I was able to listen in to their conversation this evening regardless of her efforts. In between excoriating that knight for his discourteous behavior, the ambassador let slip that his intentions here are to gain your help in pushing Metamor's borders south. He wants to take advantage of your capture of Jaime Verdane to carve up the Southern Midlands, or so he claims."
"Truly?" Otakar wouldn't be surprised if that were true. The Southern Midlands had just endured a bitter civil war that had given him the opportunity to swing Bozojo to his side. He now controlled a good deal of the trade along the Marchbourne and that had already swelled his coffers and brought a great deal of joy to the merchant class and even to the farmers and various guilds in Salinon who saw a greater demand for their wares. Metamor had solidified its control over the city of Giftum at the mouth of the Marchbourne, but had not otherwise pressed its advantage.
"They did think that no one was listening," Velar insisted. Otakar only stared impassively at him. He would judge the Metamorians intents for himself. "I will use stronger cantrips in the Kestrel's Wing now that I know of the Lady Thores's gifts."
"Very good. I take it then that you have nothing else of note to report on the Metamorians?"
"Nothing yet, but it is early. I will learn more."
"I am confident you will. What of Jaime? Has he had any more flying visitors?"
Velar nodded and his smile regained its usual confidence. "That crow I mentioned just visited him again. And I noticed something about him this time that I had missed before."
Otakar sipped at his wine and narrowed his eyes. "What is that?"
"I mentioned that there seemed to be something magical about him, but that I couldn't tell what." He waited a moment as if expecting Otakar to actually prompt him. But the Duke only waited and eventually Velar continued. "Today I figured it out. The magic on this crow looks exactly like the magic touching our guests from Metamor."
That did give Otakar pause. "The crow is a Metamorian? What could they possibly want with Jaime? Has the crow revealed himself?"
"No," Velar replied and then his expression soured. "And I have not been able to determine where this bird goes when he leaves the donjon. I still think a well-shot arrow would be the best solution to this mystery."
"Thank you, Velar. Do you have anything else to report?"
Velar pressed his lips tight at the rebuff. "No, I do not, your grace."
"You have done well. Cast your cantrips in the Kestrel's Wing, and continue to listen and observe. Do not let your hand be noticed. Now go; I have much to think about."
Velar rose from the seat, placed his hands inside his large sleeves, and bowed his head. "Good evening, your grace." With that he excused himself and left Otakar alone in his study.
The Duke leaned back his head and smiled. He didn't know what the Metamorians were up to but it was going to be very entertaining to find out. Perhaps even a good learning experience for his eldest. And despite his pet mage's complaints, it was best to let them think their subterfuge remained undetected for now. Let them gain confidence and let them have their hope of success. When the time was right, when he knew enough that the advantage would be his, he could let his mage feather that bird with arrows, or his guards bind in chains that over-zealous knight.
And of course, if he was really lucky, he could instigate war between Metamor and Kelewair.
Mind awash with possibilities, the Duke of Salinon sighed in contentment. He would sleep well tonight.