The air in the Keep was quiet and soft, but as Matthias passed beneath the ivy boughs, the purple flowers long having since wilted in the early August heat, his very breaths become hot and slightly damp with the ocean air. It was an unusually humid day for Metamor, where mostly dry weather was typical of summers. In fact, it was the sort of day that made the rat grateful for the trimming session he had endured a few weeks past. Running a paw through the shortened fur, he could see the pinkish-grey skin beneath. How had he ever survived growing up in a desert he never would know.
After his visit with the other rats in the cellars, he had gone to the Long House. Craig told him that Misha was on an errand for Phil, so the rat took the time to train Garigan some in the Sondeckis room. His student was coming along nicely, already he had gained a great deal of control over his anger, and it took Charles an hour of constant probing and pestering to stir the ferret's fury into revealing itself. He also introduced the Yellow to some of the elementary forms expected of all of their clan; most were just stances and postures, but they were all vitally necessary for techniques that would come later.
However, around noon, the prairie dog had interrupted their activities by delivering a small slip of folded parchment, the wax seal of axe and bow pressed into the surface. In just a month's time, the Longs had completely moved their operations to the Long House, and had incorporated the heraldry the Keep provided into every portion of their lives. There was always somebody in the main office, usually Misha, but sometimes a face that Matthias had not seen before. It felt good to meet and greet all the other Longs, for soon he would be one himself, a prospect that filled his blood with excitement and anticipation.
Yet the note he received was not from Misha, as he had expected, but from Caroline. She needed him to come to Will's workshop, which was of course located in town. So the rat found himself crossing the courtyards in the scorching afternoon sun, much obliged to his recent trimming. It was quicker to head through the gardens, and he did so, barely taking any time at all to admire the forest of greens, yellows, blues, violets, and every other shade possible. As he passed by the alabaster fountain with four bucking stallions, he noticed another figure in the gardens, standing a good distance away, and along a terrazzo walkway that Matthais thankfully did not need to traverse.
Though it had been sometime since he had seen the man, and never since he had finished his change, he knew it to be Yonson instantly. However, morbid curiosity snatched a hold of his eyes, and forced him to gaze and gawk at the bizarre animal bending over a curious funnel shaped blossom. He was wearing a pearl gray doublet and hose, though the filigree and cuffs were a light purple, and the unicorn was engraved upon the left breast of his coat. From out beneath the hose poked a black and white-striped tail about as long as the rest of his body arched almost like a question mark behind him. He was not wearing shoes, but the dark-skinned feet resembled hands in the way they splayed out. His head was a mask of black upon white, with a an odd tuft of golden brown fur between his eyes. And the eyes, they were almost perfectly round bronze disks that sat above his short round muzzle.
Charles blinked once as he stared, but forced himself to continue on. Yonson had not seen him, and for that he was grateful. His plan to join the Long Scouts to stay away from the man had so far worked, he had only run into him a few times so far, and that was usually from a distance. Aside from their meeting on the parapet the morning of the first day of the Summer Solstice Festival, they had never spoken. Yet many times he wondered what exactly the ambassador was up to. Apparently, negotiations were slow between Marzac and the Keep, but that was mostly due to the lack of a Prime Minister and not any diffidence on Yonson's part. He'd barely been here six weeks anyway, and politics was not Matthias's forte. Also, Father Hough said that the exorcism had been performed, so there ought not be need fear of him, right?
Pushing dark thoughts from his mind, unable to answer the question he asked himself, Charles continued on his way through the gardens, and then into the town itself. Will's workshop was presently before him. Knocking, Caroline opened the door and broke into an ottery purr. "Glad you could make it."
Charles inclined his head respectfully. "Good to see you too, Caroline. I trust your father is well?"
She nodded. "He's off having dinner."
She shrugged her shoulders, the oddly loose over-shirt sagging a bit. "He left this morning for Lord Barnhardt's estate, he should be back sometime this afternoon."
"Did he say why Phil sent him there?"
"No, I'm afraid not."
Charles nodded absently then, gazing across the workshop. The anteroom was mostly empty aside from a writing table, chest, and bed. Caroline had moved many of her personal belongings into both the Long House and Misha's place in the last month. "So, what did you need me for?"
"Well, we have to take a little walk outside the Keep first, then I'll show you." Caroline stepped past the rat, and began striding out the door. Matthias followed after her, closing the door behind him. To walk out of the Keep takes a bit of time, but after several excursions into the woods, the rat had once again found his endurance for that sort of exercise, and so this little jaunt was practically effortless.
As they made their way down the winding path, marred by scores of wagon tracks up and down, as well as a prosperously growing lane of grass and weeds in the middle, Matthias caught up alongside the taller Keeper and peered up. "So, how are things between you and Misha?"
She appeared to blush slightly. "They go well. He hasn't given me a mission of late, so I will have to have a talk with him about that. How is Kimberly?"
Matthias grinned at the very thought of her lovely countenance. "My Lady fares pleasantly. She told me the other day that Thalberg has promoted her in the kitchen staff, so that when Bernadette is gone, she runs the Keep's kitchens. I'm hoping to spend the evening with her actually. I've already talked to D'Alimonte about picking up some flowers, but I won't till just before I go to her door. I want them to be as fresh as possible."
Caroline grinned at that, even as they neared the landing along the Metamor River that the timbersmen had used in their flume. She walked on out along the pier that swayed with each step. Curiously, Charles followed her out, wondering what she could possibly have in mind out there.
Metamor river was too narrow at this point to allow any serious commerce to exist, and so aside from the meager huts along either side, there was very little developed in this region. With the battlements of Metamor Keep overlooking the two pronged wharf, where small sailing ships were docked between them, it was good only for small produce and for the annual log flume. At this particular point, the river widened out just enough to permit sailors to make sport on good breezy days, but for the most part, it was unused.
Charles came to stand just behind Caroline, leaning against one of the large wooden pylons and gazing meditatively at the rippling surface of the water. Gentle reeds swayed back and forth beneath the crystal surface. Rocks long since smoothed out dotted the shore, and one could glimpse the occasional fresh water fish darting in and out between them. It appeared to be rather deep at this point, well over Matthias's head in fact, though an exact measurement he could not guess.
"So, what did you want me for?" the rat asked, noting a sudden smile creep up onto her thick muzzle. Her whiskers danced gleefully as her grin turned mischievous. "You know, when either you or Misha smile like that, I get nervous."
"Oh, do tell?" she said, stepping towards him. And then, with a sudden flash of movement, she flung her arms out, the webbed palms striking his chest solidly, and unbalancing him. Charles tried to grab at the pylon, but his claws slashed through empty air. Waving them back and forth, and crying out in shock, he tumbled head over heels into the icy chill lake. The cold gripped him fast, as the water filled his ears, eyes, and nose. His mouth was open, and it flooded his throat, even as he pushed at its yielding surface, trying to gain some purchase.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity of goggling lights like after a terrible blow to the head, and bizarre images that churned and melted into each other like a painting in the rain, Charles managed to break through to the air again. Coughing and sputtering, he splashed his paws about, the chill sinking through his fur and clothes. Caroline was laughing merrily to herself, a staccato sound that struck the rat as very odd, and infuriating. "What in the world, gah... did you do that for?" Charles shouted as he continued to spit up globules of the frothy mess.
"Well, how else are we going to see how well you can swim if you do not get in the water?" she asked innocently, gently stroking one paw down the side of her cheek. Charles stared incredulously at her a moment, even as he furiously treaded the freezing water.
"You could have told me!"
"Now where would the fun have been in that? Besides, you reacted pretty well, I think that's a good sign. Misha says you grew up in a desert, so I thought I'd have to come in after you."
Matthias grumbled at that little revelation the fox had made, but seeing as it was only Caroline, he shunted mock thoughts of vile pain and death from his mind. "This water is freezing!" he stuttered, and altogether rodent-like squeaking sound. What made matters worse was that the cold, having settled into his bones, made his teeth chatter together.
"Well, it is coming down from the mountains, what did you expect?" She leaned against that same pylon, idly scratching at some loose dirt in her soft, but thick, chocolate-brown fur.
"I didn't expect to get wet!" Charles shouted again, trying to make his way to the pier. Grabbing at the planks, he attempted to lift himself up onto the dock. Caroline reached a paw down, and hoisted him up. Shivering from the cold, he dripped copiously onto the wood, his tail curling about his legs, and his body shrinking down reflexively for warmth.
"Now, I do want to test your techniques, so you'll have to get back in."
"Back in that?" Charles barked incredulously.
She tilted her head to one side, that same mischievous grin spreading across her lutrine face. "Is the Rat of Might afraid of a little cold?"
The rat's brows furrowed at that. "That's not the point!"
"And what is?"
"I..." Matthias stopped just as he started to speak, unable to answer the question. It was mostly from embarrassment at this point, for indeed, the otter had him in a corner. He had no choice but to climb back into that icy pool. "All right, you win."
"You might want to take off your clothes," Caroline suggested in a much less playful tone of voice. It took the rat a moment to realize that she was completely serious about that.
"Why in the world should I do that?"
She gently tugged at the very heavy garments on the rat's back. "Well, for one, it is easier to swim if you aren't wearing anything. Secondly, you won't be as cold if you do. Besides, when you are on a mission, you probably won't be wearing much at all half the time."
Grimacing, Charles pulled the sopping wet shirt over his head, and found that it was a bit less chilly without it. Still, if he could have blushed, he would have done so furiously, for Caroline appeared to take a sadistic pleasure in watching him undress. Discarding his trousers, he stood behind one of the pylons, paws before his navel, while his tail curled about his skinny shins. His eyes were drawn to the rippling, glassy, surface once more, and with a bit of reluctant trepidation, he dipped his hind paws in slowly, but drew them out abruptly as the icy touch grasped at his toes.
"Go on, how else are you going to learn to swim if you do not get in the water?"
"I can swim fine enough, thank you!" Charles declared, even as he sat down on the pier, and dangled his legs in the chill. "I may have grown up in a desert, but I'm not ignorant."
Caroline broke into another grin just then. "Look at it this way, you won't be hot the rest of the day at least."
"That makes me feel so much better," the rat remarked sarcastically, even as he lowered himself into the water, his paws still gripping the wharf as if his life depended on it. Gazing back towards the otter, he saw that she too was removing her loose fitting gown. "What are you doing?" he asked in some surprise.
"I'm taking my shirt off, silly," she said as if it were an ordinary, everyday thing.
"But..." Matthias stammered as he finally slipped into the cold waters, treading gently.
Caroline flashed him another lutrine grin, and then shimmied out of her gown, and gently folded it up on the wharf, setting it atop a pylon. She stretched, as Charles averted his eyes, and then dove into the water off the other side of the docks. A few moments later, Charles felt paws gripping his sides, and he let out a sudden shriek, before Caroline pushed him away from the pier and out into the open waters.
Charles splashed water at the grinning otter, and grumbled, "You didn't have to do that."
Caroline leaned back, her thick tail propelling her in lazy circles about the rat. "But it was fun," she said between strokes. After the rat grumbled a bit longer, she began to simply tread in place , and then nodded at the distant shore. "I'd like to see you swim all the way out there, and then back here. I want to see what sort of style you have."
Shivering, but not as much as he had before, Charles set one paw before the other, cupped tightly, and began his trek across the breadth of Metamor River. The sun did glisten upon the wet fur of his back, and after a while, the cold wasn't so bad anymore.
It was some hours before Caroline let him climb back onto the dock and rest. She had not been all that satisfied with his first performance, and made him repeat it several times, each time showing him some small trick to the way he should move his arms and legs. The advice on swishing his tail back and forth to give him more momentum had been invaluable. She also instructed him on the art of swimming quietly. That would take him a bit more time to master than he had today, the rat admitted ruefully.
However, lying on the pier, with the afternoon sun filing his fur and warming his bones, was one of the best ways to relax that Charles had ever discovered. According to Caroline, they would be training him in the river for about a week, unless of course the weather turned nasty. There was always the unspoken certainty that at some point he might have to swim in foul rain or thunder, and maybe even a hail storm. Still he preferred not to dwell on what might be, but instead on how much he was enjoying the heat now.
His fur was still quite wet, but not nearly as bad as before. Caroline was still out in the water, enjoying herself. Typical of course, being an otter, she would love the water. A couple times as he watched her, he saw that she had caught a fish between her teeth. However, after a little while, she returned to the dock, and leaned against one of the pylons. "Well, did you enjoy your first swimming lesson, Charles?"
"Except for being pushed into the water, and getting my clothes all sopping wet, yes, I did enjoy it." Sitting up, Charles put one paw on his shirt which was lying spread out on the planks. "You know, this is still damp. I'm going to hate having to put this back on."
Caroline shrugged slightly. "Then don't, nobody will care if you are naked or not. It's not as if many of the Keepers aren't walking around without clothes in this heat anyway."
Matthias nodded slightly, but then laid back down. A gentle thumping could be heard from up the forest trail. Blinking, the rat saw a faint blur pass from beneath the green boughs in the distance, and slowly emerge onto the clearing. After it grew larger and more distinct, he finally placed the sound. "Is that a carriage? I hear hoof-beats." And then a moment later: "I can smell the horse too, as well as... Misha!"
Caroline jumped to her hind paws, and sprinted to the end of the dock to see. Moment's later she turned back, her whiskers split wide in a grin. "It's him, he's got somebody with him though."
"I don't know, it smells like a rabbit though."
Charles reached over for his clothes, and with a grimace, pulled the slimy, wet shirt back over his shoulders. It was long enough to drape past his navel, so he did not bother with the trousers, but simply hung them over one arm as he walked towards Caroline and the soft earth at the end of the wharf.
It didn't take long for Misha to spot them. The fox was guiding the carriage, while the rabbit sat next to him, paws crossed over its lap. "Caroline! Charles!" the fox called out, nearly standing in his excitement. The carriage turned in their direction, the single horse leading it chuffing stubbornly as it tried to stay on the road. Brightleaf tugged on the reins a bit more, and it reluctantly set upon the path towards the river.
As they drew up to a stop only a few ells from the docks, Charles caught his first decent view of the rabbit. A rabbit it was indeed, white of fur, with long floppy ears that were standing upright, and a rather round head. Dressed in a simple velvet chemise with underskirts and cris-crossing lace-work, she - for it was very obviously a woman - clutched a single handbag between her paws. Even from this distance, the rat could see that this lapine was less lapine than Phil, for her posture was very ladylike.
Caroline offered a wet paw to Misha, who accepted it as he climbed down from the carriage seat. "I'm glad you two are still here, saves me the time writing messages." He held out one paw, indicating the rabbit. "May I introduce to you, the Lady Heather, the Clover of Barnhardt."
Charles bowed at the name, genuflecting upon one knee. "An honor it is to make your acquaintance, my Lady." Rising back to his feet he smiled openly. "I am Charles Matthias." In days past he would have gone on to explain that he was the Head of the Writer's Guild, but as he had abandoned that post, he no longer knew quite how to introduce himself properly.
"And I am Caroline Hardy, daughter of Will Hardy, the Jeweler," Caroline grinned, even as her right arm encircled Misha's waist.
"I'm pleased to meet each of you, Phil has told me so much about you all," Heather said, her face brightening up at each of their names. Her voice was soft, yet bubbly in a way that was endearing.
"Phil?" Charles found himself asking without realizing it.
She nodded then, her ears rocking in much the same way that the Hare of White's always did when he was amused. "We've been corresponding for some time now, but today things have finally been just right for me to come back to Metamor. Thank you for bringing me here, Misha."
"It was an honor," the fox declared. "Phil choose well."
At that, she appeared to blush, but said nothing. Misha then continued, turning to face the rat and gaze longingly at the otter. "Phil has requested that we join him in his parlor for a bit of supper this evening. Lady Kimberly as well. You don't have to come, but..."
"But how could you resist?" Heather finished for him.
"I don't know," admitted the rat, his whiskers tingling in expectation. By that point though, the dampness of his shirt filled his marrow. "Do you think I could have the time to dry off and change first?"
It was nearing sunset, or at least the time when the sun dipped beyond the mountains to the west, when Charles, with Lady Kimberly upon his arm, came to stop at the foyer before Prince Phil's chambers. Misha and Caroline were already there, teasing and cajoling each other playfully as any two lovers might when unobserved. They didn't even stop after the two rats arrived, but acknowledged their presence, and then continued to make mischief.
Caroline winked at Charles, and then grinned to Lady Kimberly before saying, "You really ought to take Charles swimming sometime." Of course, this embarrassed Matthias to no end. Once again, the otter now found a way to make the rat wish he could still blush!
Kimberly tightened her grip on his arm, and mercilessly continued the teasing. "Is it true what they say? Do wet rats smell horrible?"
"Kimberly!" Charles choked out, unable to handle the assault from two sides. Misha sat quietly watching the entire affair. He was probably hoping that they didn't notice him and turned their attention towards him.
"Even worse!" Caroline put a paw to her nose and pinched it slightly.
"I do not smell bad!"
Kimberly grinned and leaned over, kissing at his ear. "Of course not, dear. You smell more wonderful than a garden of spices."
The sudden compliment made him feel better, and he turned to face his love and gently kissed her own ear. "And you are that garden!" She broke into an even broader grin, her eyes smiling brighter than her muzzle ever could.
Misha and Caroline chuckled then. Charles glanced at them from the corner of his eye as he held Kimberly close to his chest. They were dressed in matching colors, liveried blue and a dusty brown linings, though the gown looked a trifle odd on the otter, what with her thick tail and all. The hose appeared suited to the vulpine form of Misha though, as it brought out his natural red fur. The two rats wore matching green outfits, though the filigree on Charles's was black, while on Kimberly's it was white.
"So, why did Phil send you, Misha?" Charles asked after a moment. "I would have thought that he would send Rupert for such a job."
"I was surprised too, but he said that he needed Rupert for a few things here. I suspect he wanted that ape to help him arrange things in preparation for Heather's arrival. Besides, he knew that I could keep her safe, and that she would not bolt at the sight of a predator. You do know that she is not so rabbity as our dear Prince is?"
The rat nodded absently, drawing forth his chewstick from the buckler. "I guess I shouldn't be too surprised by that. Phil is an extreme case."
"I like him, he's sweet and kind," Lady Kimberly pointed out.
"I guess it is easier working with him if you don't trigger his flight instincts," Misha mused solemnly. Charles felt a pang of regret at that. Their fox companion was a predator that ate rabbits, but those that knew him came to find that he was quite a gentle fellow when he chose to be, and most especially with friends. His delicate work on the Fadger clocks, and on Madog proved that if nothing else.
The creak of the door hinges made all their heads turn, as there stood Rupert, large, butler-like and with a wide grin. With a sweep of his long, dark-furred arm, he bade them enter, and one by one they did, with Misha staying at the back, stepping cautiously across the threshold. Set before them was a modestly proportioned table, with large, white, lace tablecloth draped overtop. Phil and Heather stood at one end, paw in paw, each dressed in delicate porcelain hosiery.
"Come, sit, I'd like you four to be the first to meet my fiancée," Phil declared in his piping voice. It was clear that the Prince was struggling to be as human as possible, as there was a slight hunch to his posture, something that they all accepted, but it also appeared to be something that Phil was fighting with utmost resilience.
After the introductions were once again made, the six of them took their places about the table, as Rupert brought in trays of food, mostly bread and cheese, with only a small spattering of meat for the fox and otter among the rest of their delectables. After they each had finished what had been provided, Rupert returned with a bottle of wine, there was a hint of apples though in its scent, and poured the six of them a small share.
Before the great ape could return once again to the other room, Phil called after him, "Rupert! Please, join us and share a drink. You are equally my friend too. I would be honored if you stayed with us here and partake of the toast."
Rupert struggled a moment with what appeared to be conflicting emotions, and then hunched over at the far end of the table, and procured a seventh glass. Phil beamed even brighter, were it possible, and raised his glass, clutching it firmly between both his paws. "To love, the greatest of all joys."
"To love!" the each echoed, and then took a sip from their glass.
"And to our women, the finest of all creation," Phil offered a second time.
"To our women!" Charles and Misha crooned, while Rupert silently held aloft his mazer.
Heather then held aloft her glass. "And to our men," at this she gazed down at Phil, who stared up at her as if his whole body would melt from the joy, "dearer souls we cannot find."
"To our men!" Caroline and Lady Kimberly cried out, taking very small sips from their wine as they did so.
Charles took a deep breath, rubbing his paw across Kimberly's as he did so, and then turned to face the rabbits once more. "Phil, you know, I never had expected you to know love."
The writer rocked his ears in merriment at that. "There are such large and amazing events transpiring beneath the surface of our perception all the time. Sometimes, it is even love." And then the two lapines were once again in each other's eyes.
Charles sat there a moment, thinking over those words, and then he felt the touch of Kimberly's tail against his own. He gazed into her face, and like Misha with Caroline, and Phil with Heather, he allowed himself to be lost in her eyes, the most beautiful orbs in all creation. None of them noticed Rupert silently retreating to his room to allow them these moments in the privacy of their own arms.