Hawk's Jealous Prize

by Charles Matthias

April 14, 708 CR

"Where would you like the perches?" Weyden asked his new wife as they sorted through their possessions in their new home at Twin Hearths. Their quarters were more spacious than he could have afforded on his soldier's pay, but Jessica was a master mage at Metamor and in much demand for services. Already the still-under-reconstructed mage's guild of Metamor had asked her if she would be willing to take on apprentices, but she declined for the time being. For a time she just wanted to be a wife, and Weyden was grateful to be her husband.

Jessica turned her black-feathered head back and forth, golden eyes scanning the wide room with hearth at one end; the second hearth was in the small bedroom on the other side. A study and workroom for her magic adjoined the bedroom facing the outer wall. A small balcony overlooked the street and from which they could launch themselves into the air whenever they desired to stretch their wings. They also had a wash basin and limited facilities for preparing food, but they were more likely to find something already prepared in the market than make anything for themselves – at least until they had a clutch of their own!

Jessica pointed with a wing claw at the study doorway and cracked her beak in a grin. Her voice was melodious as she cawed, "In there I think. Near the books and scrolls."

Weyden carefully hoisted the small wooden perches first with his talons, and then slid them up onto his shoulder enough that he could carry them himself. His new wife could have simply levitated them to where she wanted them, but he insisted that they should prepare their new home together; Jessica heartily agreed.

He hopped to the study and bent over to place the perches down one by one. They were very simple, with a wide flat bottom of carved wood, rising up to a crossbeam that their talons could easily anchor on. When standing still for long periods of time, the perches were far more comfortable than anything else he could think of. He wasn't surprised Jessica would want them in her study. His golden eyes glanced across the various titles of treatises and tomes arrayed in stacks against the stone wall and his mind began to swim dizzily. He could read some, but the particular combinations of letters adorning those spines were all unfamiliar to him. His heart beat faster as he thought on how blessed he was to have such a wife as Jessica!

"Thank you, Dokorath," he murmured beneath his breath, casting his eyes heavenward to where the gods must be watching them. As a soldier, his devotion to the god of battle and war was not surprising, and it deepened with the passage of time, especially the more time he spent with his wife, and his duties to Metamor. The virtue of honor and courage, as well as a strong sense of justice called to his soul in a way he could neither describe nor ignore. But just that moment, he had to also offer thanksgiving to Velena too for bringing Jessica to him.

Their wedding seemed to him the most inevitable thing in the world. Even so far back as his second week in Metamor two summers past after he'd been told that he was becoming a hawk when he'd first met Jessica a part of him knew this day would come. And what a day it had been! All of his friend's from Yonson's guard, Maud, Larssen, and Van, as well as Captain Dallar the ram who'd been their gaoler for a time had been there in their best attire. And all of Jessica's many more numerous friends had put in appearance, with Kayla serving as her maid of honor. Larssen had served for him, while Lothanasa Raven had performed the ceremony. Weyden remembered the curious questions Sir Charles Matthias's children had asked at odd intervals through the service – they had never been in a Lothanasi temple before – as well as the adorable costumes that Lady Kimberly had made them wear.

The ceremony itself seemed a dance through a beautiful haze of light, color, incense, and song. He could remember few details in particular, but the vows he'd made before his friends and before the Aedra themselves he could well recall; he vowed that he would love and protect his wife through all joys and all despairs, be they of mind, body, or soul. And to that he would hold.

He could feel the sturdy golden ring wrapped about one of his left wing-claws, and tightened his grip for a moment, rubbing its cool, clear surface with the tip of another wing-claw. He'd eschewed all jewelry after his change, but this he adored and treasured. Few would see it through the heavy feathers of his wings, but he knew it was there, and so did his black-feathered wife. Could he ever think of anything else ever again?

As he positioned the perches close by the books, giving each little nudges with his talons until they looked right, he knew that a time would come soon when they would have to go out on patrol again. With Larssen and Maud also recently married, and now Weyden too, only Van remained unmarried and the youth promised he was keeping his eyes open. They had been assigned guard duty in Keeptowne for the next few months so that they could enjoy their first few months of married life, but Dallar promised them they'd be on regular patrols again by late Summer.

And this time Jessica would be with them. She had already spoken to George about joining Dallar's squad as a field mage. The jackal had been surprised, and then claimed he wasn't surprised at all. Her request was granted immediately.

Jessica could have anything she wanted as a mage in Metamor, from the most prestigious of positions in Duke Thomas's court, or even within the mage guild itself, for there were suites there of much grander scale than this humble lodging. She could have had as many students as she wished to teach and to aid her in her own magical research. But his beautiful hawk had willingly set all of that aside so she could be at Weyden's side always.

Could anything else bring more pleasure to a husband?

He was about to return to the main room to see what else needed to be moved around when he heard a hearty pounding on the door and a piping voice shout, "I, Master Kuna, bear a message from the Metamorian Guild of Mages!"

Knowing this was not his affair, Weyden stayed inside the study and gingerly pushed the door so that it was nearly closed. Through the crack he could watch and listen in case his wife would need some help politely dismissing their guest.

Jessica set down some of the fresh blankets they'd received from Emily – the komodo had said they were to help keep their first clutch warm – and turned toward the door. In a polite but neutral squawk she said, "The door is open, Master Kuna. You may enter."

Stepping through the door in exaggerated blue robes whose sleeves hung down two hands from his wrists was a wiry Keeper with a broad flat head featuring dark rings around his eyes, dark ears that sat low on either side of his head, and a pink nose amidst otherwise gray and dusty fur. An array of thin black whiskers protruded from his jowls, but not nearly as many as Charles the rat sported. A very long and wide tail of the same dusty, almost reddish fur sprouted from the rear of the robe; this twitched constantly as he tilted back his head and wiggled his little black fingers around each other.

"Ah, Master Jessica," Kuna said in a very energetic voice, lips drawing back slightly with each word to reveal lots of sharp little teeth. He raised one paw and brushed it over his head though there was nothing there to press down. "The Mage Guild wishes to send its congratulations on your recent marriage."

"Thank you," Jessica replied, a genuine smile showing on her beak, though the mammal likely wouldn't recognize it if he didn't spend much time around bird Keepers. "Was there anything else?"

Kuna bobbed his head once and blinked, his dark eyes seemingly bright as they flitted across the various belongings, furnishings, and armaments in need of arranging still. "There is one thing. No, I am not here to ask you to join the guild officially, come to any meetings, or take on any apprentices."

"Good," Jessica replied, folding her wings behind her as if bracing for whatever it was the meerkat was about to ask. "They and you know my answer to that."

Kuna's whiskers twitched once and he bobbed his head again, his blue robe shaking with the quick motion. "That we do. Word of your ability to manipulate the Curses has been the talk of the guild these last few weeks. I have been sent to ask you to show me this magic that I might pass it on to the guild."

"Truly?" Jessica cawed in amusement. "I suppose they would eventually be interested." It didn't surprise Weyden either. In the last few weeks Jessica had received more and more requests from Keepers interested in having one of the other Curses temporarily applied, and many more who wished they could be changed for good like the rooster merchant Richard and the man who had once been his betrothed Norbert. Permanent changes were beyond his wife still, but she assured him that would not always be so.

"But I am surprised they asked you, Master Kuna."

Kuna stood a little taller, his tail thumping the floor. "I have served the guild faithfully as Grand Master in the year since Nasoj's winter assault. Why wouldn't they select me?"

"Faithfully?" Jessica asked, her voice becoming incredulous. "I may not be on mage's guild, but I am not ignorant of what happens there. I know how you were forced out recently, and how you ran the guild itself. So they have elected you a messenger boy? Was there no journeyman sufficient to the task?"

Kuna balled his paws into fists and tapped one foot hard against the stone floor, claws clicking out his agitation, an agitation barely controlled. "Aye, aye, all of that! I am, as Master Jesse puts it, learning a little humility. Aye, I am at that! Messenger boy!"

"Don't be upset at me," Jessica reprimanded him as a mother might an unruly child. "You brought that on yourself, Master Kuna. Be grateful that you are still a Master of the guild."

"Aye, well," Kuna took a deep breath and managed to still his paws. His expression turned official again and he lifted his gaze back to the black hawk. "The request remains that you show me how this curse altering magic works so that I can pass that knowledge onto the guild."

Jessica gazed at the meerkat for several long seconds, seconds in which Weyden could see her resolve hardening. He wondered whether he should step out and help scoot the little fellow out. But before he could move, her beak cracked and a single word escaped. "No."

"No?" Kuna exclaimed in a high-pitched whine. "But mastery of the Curses is what all we mages have been striving for since the day they were cast upon us! You have a power that could help everyone here at Metamor and it must be shared!"

"And until I understand it, I am not going to let anyone else use it. It is far too dangerous."

"Far too dangerous?" Kuna nearly jumped octaves again but restrained himself, tightening his grip on one side of his robe. "It is for the guild to decide these things, Master Jessica. Not any one mage. Besides, if more of us are studying these arts, then together we may be able to learn how to control the Curse itself, even turn it backward!"

Weyden shifted his wings to push open the door; the meerkat was starting to obviously irritate his wife. But he froze in place when the look of irritation in her eyes turned into something he had never seen before in her gaze – utter disdain and contempt. Her voice, hard-edged and vicious, made his heart thump in his chest. "Little man, I have no intention of teaching you anything about my powers. And even if I did think you meant to pass them on to the rest of the guild instead of keep them for your own amusement, I would not teach you."

Kuna spluttered in indignation, but Jessica cut him off. "I will not teach you nor anyone else. This is my power, and mine alone! If you or anyone else wishes to learn it, then study it for yourselves! I have changed several here at the Keep already. Surely you can study my craft on them."

This time the meerkat, tail thumping and his voice rising to a screech, as his arms flailed in every direction, did manage to reply. "I am not here for myself! I am here representing the honorable and venerable Mage Guild of Metamor!"

"Honor?" Jessica bent toward him, making the meerkat stumble backward into the wall next to the door. The door was between him and the passage beyond, a passage his eyes darted toward but could not reach. "You would speak to me of honor when you used trickery to win your election as headmaster of the guild?"

"I..." Kuna whimpered, crouching lower and lower, his robe bunching around his legs and tail. "I just want to prove to the rest of them that I am no fool!"

Jessica spread her wings out, claws twitching as she did so. "That I believe," she cawed, her black feathers shrouding the meerkat within their shadow. "But I will not teach you anything. Although... aye, would you like a demonstration?"

In a rather timorous voice, his head slowly bobbing up and down, Kuna squeaked, "Aye."

"Manipulating the Curses takes a great deal of power and I have been trying to devise ways of keeping it powered without my constant attention. That will give the guild something worth studying I think."

Kuna blinked, and Weyden sucked in his breath. He desperately wanted to step out and interrupt his wife, but his talons felt rooted to the stone. The meerkat seemed to realize just what Jessica was saying, and he straightened up, stuttering an objection that his tongue couldn't quite form.

But his wife moved, powered by an alacrity he'd never seen her use with any other, and she crafted her spell within mere seconds, draping her wings down against the meerkat's shoulders as she finished. Only she kept pressing, as Kuna began to shrink down into his robe, new youth blossoming into his beastly visage as his voice rose into a shrill cry as piercing as a babe's.

When Jessica stepped back, the meerkat collapsed into a robe more than twice his size, even the tunic and breeches he'd worn beneath bunching and tangling him in a ridiculous mess. "You," Kuna screamed in exasperation as he tried to climb from that pile. "Change me back!"

"Show yourself to the guild, little boy."

But Kuna continued to flail about and even manage to stomp one foot, "Nae! Change me back!"

Jessica folded her wings behind her and scowled. "Calm yourself and do not remember your anger any more."

Kuna blinked and stared into her face, his nascent rage suddenly evaporating as if he really had forgotten that he'd been deliriously furious a moment ago. After blinking eyes that had not shrunk with the rest of his body, Kuna began to extricate himself from the pile of adult clothing. Weyden guessed his age at no more than seven, perhaps eight; not even old enough to be a message boy. Still, he whined and cried, "Please, Master Jessica. Change me back!"

"No," Jessica reprimanded him in a stern motherly voice. "And if you ask again I will make you into a girl too."

Kuna clamped his muzzle shut, eyes wide in alarm.

"Good. Now if you behave, I will remove the spell... eventually. For now, go back to your home. Do not bother us again."

The meerkat child sniffled but nodded. He managed to climb out of the robe finally and though he desperately gripped his trousers, he tumbled out of them with his first step. His tunic came down to his knees, so with that scrap of dignity left to him, he grabbed his trousers and robe, bundled them in his arms, and hurried to the door. Just as he stood beneath the transom, he popped his head back up and looked at the black hawk. "You promise? To turn me back?"

Her golden eyes did not soften, nor did her voice. "If you behave."

Swallowing heavily, the meerkat dashed back down the hallway without another word. Jessica shook her head in irritation, and swung the door shut with a gentle tap of her wing. She then began to warble a bright little tune as she resumed sorting their things.

Weyden leaned back against the wall of the study, being careful not to disturb her books. His heart continued to beat with worry, and he shut his eyes, offering and repeating over and over again a silent prayer to Dokorath for guidance. He hoped desperately that it was all a mistake, that he just didn't understand the things she knew, that perhaps there was some explanation that made what he'd just witnessed a normal, even expected and perfectly natural thing.

Because for the first time in all the time he had known Jessica his new wife, for just a few moments, Weyden had been afraid of her.