Lindsey opened one eye. Her muzzle lay on its side, a lumpy pillow that had at one time contained feathers met her red-furred face. A patchwork blanket covered her kangaroo body. Darkness surrounded her. Her long ears caught the grinding of oars in the locks and the lap of waves against the Iron King’s sides. The air inside their room was warm but the sharp tang of the ocean was unavoidable. Her nostrils spread wide and she caught the crisp scent of Jessica and the pungent aroma of Kayla. The men were in another room down the hall but even the animal musks of Charles, James, and Guernef reached her.
Jessica made no noise when she slept apart from the occasional rustling of feathers. Kayla had once snored, but six months of wariness had cured her of that ill. Still their breath was warmth in her ears, a soothing counterpoint to the mechanical grinding of the oars, the merciless slosh of the ocean, and the glimmerings of unsettled dreams. After all they had been through together these last six months, they were still together.
Lindsey turned her ears and rolled as best she could onto her back. The long tail and oddly proportioned hips made it impossible, but she could manage enough to prop herself up on one elbow. Even though the Iron King was the flagship of the Pyralian Navy, and it was only the three of them berthed where a dozen sailors had once slept, the room was still cramped. They would have been given the state rooms, but they were even smaller. This was a vessel built for war, not ferrying dilettantes.
Jessica perched in full form in one corner, while Kayla and Lindsey had separate pallets opposite the door. They had no gear after the destruction of Marzac obliterated what little had remained. They didn’t even have proper clothes anymore and had to borrow scraps from the stores left on the ship, which after months at sea, were barely adequate to keep them warm let alone modest. So there was nowhere in the room for anyone to hide.
So who had spoken?
Or had it just been her imagination? It had been a week since they’d begun the trek north against wind and current, which made it only eight days since Marzac had been cast down and destroyed. Eight days since she had lost her Zhypar. Her heart ached at the mere memory of the kangaroo. And now, in a cruel irony, she was exactly what she wished she could have been for him these last five years — a female kangaroo. Was she now imagining that he spoke to her to ease her pain?
She half expected to hear the voice, but the room remained silent and still. Lindsey lay back down into her pallet and misery. Metamor was still a few weeks away at best. A winter storm could put it a couple months away. But what did she have to go back to? She tried not to think on it but let her exhaustion claim her again.
The groaning of the locks and churning of the sea continued. In the distance she heard men speaking. Dawn would come soon enough. Her eyelids drooped and a long sigh escaped her snout.
Her eyelids lifted for a moment and then fell shut into a haunted slumber.
They were an odd fleet, even in peace-time. The Pyralian flagship, the Iron King, was at the centre of the forces, while several smaller craft from Sutthaivasse flanked him. A company of Whalish dromus and dromonai acted as escort, while mixed in throughout were a smattering of merchant ships, masted and oared, as well as a handful of skiffs, carraks, and longships that had survived the battle in the Marzac straits.
A majority of the Pyralian vessels that hadn’t been sunk or foundered in the squall sailed northeast up the coast toward Tournemire and Breckaris. Commodore Pythoreaus had taken what Whalish ships weren’t involved in rescue of those stranded back to Whales for refitting and repairs. Prince Phil led the remainder north with what remained of the Sutthaivasse fleet and the merchant ships seeking a port along the western shores of Galendor. Almost all the food stores belonged to either Whales or Sutthaivasse, but they had been shared with the rest and while tempestuous weather would have meant some went without, the good weather held as they made their way north along the marshlands and coasts of southwestern Pyralis.
It was ten days to reach Blackwater, and there many of the Pyralian vessels slouched into port to winter. Another three days up the Pyralian coastline brought an escort of six Sutthaivasse longships known as Skekar. Upon sight of these, Malger boasted they were only a day from Sutthaivasse and would soon see her harbors. There they would restock their wares and board a fresh vessel for the long journey to Metamor. With fair weather, they could reach Menth in four week’s time, three if the winds shifted, which would bring them to Metamor by the second week of February. Just the mere thought of the Keep with its alabaster towers amidst snow-capped peaks and arboreal cloak filled the Keepers with an ardent longing that made them restless on their journey.
They bided themselves with resting and talk of simpler times. Kayla, Jessica, and Charles all spent a good bit of time speaking with Phil. The rabbit eagerly lapped up their news and shared what little he had of his own. All of the men, Andares included, spent time manning the oars as they never had quite enough which accounted for their slow pace. Abafouq and Guernef kept to themselves mostly, with the little Binoq doing what he could for the Nauh-kaee’s wounded thigh. It healed slowly, and the white gryphon, no matter how little he walked, always limped. Lindsey kept to herself though all spent time with her to comfort her. Every one of them could feel the loss of Habakkuk like a gaping wound. Little was said of Qan-af-årael who had also given his life, but apart from Charles and Andares, none had ever truly known him except for their journey together.
They found solace where they could. One of the corrupted prisoners on the Iron King was an Ecclesia priest, and he offered Mass every day with what little there was on hand. The altar was two pieces of wood carved with the likeness of Yahshua by one of the crewmen over a barrel draped in white linen meant for binding wounds. The golden chalice and paten were those originally brought, but even they had been bent and warped during the battle. Still, it was the first Mass that Charles, James, and Jerome had been able to attend since they’d set out on this journey, and each savoured it as a dying man does a drop of water on their tongue. A Lothanasi priest was able to offer prayers with Jessica and Kayla, but his supplies were fewer still.
But their hearts truly felt relief when the city of Sutthaivasse came into view. A line of hills backed by a sheer escarpment of upthrust gray granite shielded the city from the south, stretching to a narrow point on which a light house perched. The northern slopes of the hills were dotted with wharves, warehouses, and a number of homes. These stretched like an arm toward the city nestled between two lines of hills at the mouth of the Mendaisse river. The northern hills gave way to marshland as they descended to the coast, while the river formed a vast delta built over with buildings, bridges and canals. Spanning the river were several stone bridges stretching back toward the escarpment where the Sutt manor house loomed as an eagle in his eyrie.
The Keepers and their companions all stood on the deck of the Iron King, Malger grinning from ear to ear in his finery. “Sutthaivasse! The city of my youth. I don’t think I’ve ever quite been happier to see her than today.”
“She looks to be more prosperous than the last time I saw her,” Sir Autrefois mused quietly. The castellan for the late Marquis was wearing a borrowed Pyralian sailor’s uniform from that fit him loosely, making his muscular frame appear more flab than firm. “The last time I saw her your father’s head was being hoisted on a pig pole outside the city gates.” The last was added without any trace of acid of bitterness. It just was.
Malger, musteline features cloaked by his medallion, shrugged. “I do not lament his death. Nor your master’s. Since Handil’s head was so displayed, the merchants have revitalized my home and made it a place of commerce, comedy, and courtship. I fear my return has left many families off-balance.” His grin now took on a wicked cast that belied his beastly nature. “It seems they were just as happy to have the Sutts dead as your master was.”
Jessica gestured to the wharves and to an assemblage of soldiers and carriages she saw arrayed at the footing of the largest pier thrusting outward from the lowland canals. A broad boulevard began where the carriages were staged and lead into the hills toward the escarpment. “Are those for us?”
Malger squinted in the grey light of midday and nodded. “Yes. The messages I sent ahead were explicit. The carriages should keep you concealed as much as possible.”
“I think news of our arrival will spread anyway,” Charles pointed out. He had on a pair of stained white trousers rolled up thickly along his hocks with a sword-begotten hole for his tail but nothing else. His vine, still weak after Zagrosek’s fire, was once again imbedded into his flesh above his tail, but new green shoots were beginning to curl over his bare chest. He slept as stone for the sake of the vine, but most of his waking hours were as flesh for the sake of the sailors who were more unnerved by a moving statue than they were by the beast men of Metamor.
“Indeed,” Malger conceded. “The faster ships put to port days ago with the loose tongues of warriors victoriously returned from war. But with so many foreign ships arriving now the crowds on the palazzo will be a little too boisterous to chance being seen. Let them wonder and whisper instead!”
While Malger described the city the ragtag fleet broke apart. The escorts directed the most damaged of vessels to dock first at the wharves nearest the warehouses. The Whalish fleet were given berths furthest from the city. Dockhands scrambled like hundreds of ants to secure rigging and lash leadlines to the piers. Waves sloshed over the stone wharves as ship after ship settled into place.
The Iron King heaved to much closer to the river delta where a massive stone pier thrust out into the bay, obviously built to handle the largest ships. Small boats ferried out stout ropes connected to winches that slowly drew the huge Pyralian ship snugly to its berth. The huge vessel dominated much of the pier. From their perch atop the Iron King’s aft castle the Keepers could all see the maze of canals and channels that crisscrossed the lower portion of the city. Narrow boats navigated those canals, poled by the poor and the wealthy alike. From over rooftops and under bridges curious crowds poured out to watch the spectacle, their eyes widening and yews traced over their chests when they saw the strange creatures atop the Iron King’s aft castle. Word of the alien forms rescued from the ruins of Marzac had spread swiftly after the arrival of the faster Suttiavasse long ships. Now, with their arrival, the wonder of their alien nature overcame the natural caution evinced in the face of such strange presences arriving aboard the captured Pyralian flagship.
Once they’d docked Malger led them down the pier, which was cordoned off by ranks of liveried men-at-arms, to the tiled square at the foot of the pier and the numerous carriages waiting for them. Guernef, Abafouq, and Andares crammed into one and immediately drew silk blinds over the windows. The Keepers, including Phil, followed Malger into the largest, while Jerome kept an eye on Vigorueax and Autrefois in a third. Malger’s carriage was spacious with rows of seats in front, back, and along either side. To sit comfortably, Lindsey and Charles both had to sit sideways in the seats next to the doors, while the others made do in the front and back. The carriage sagged noticeably as Rupert climbed aboard and crouched on the floor.
“How long will it take before we can leave?” Charles asked.
Malger’s lips settled into an amused moue. “You just arrived and already you want to go. I should be offended.”
The rat’s eyes narrowed and he crossed his arms over his chest, making the fur there ripple. “I have a wife and five children waiting for me there that I haven’t seen in almost seven months now. Yes, I am a little eager to get home.”
“Of course,” Malger replied, the minstrel turned noble’s face taking on a sympathetic cast. “It will take only a matter of days to equip a swift vessel of seaworthy carriage to tackle the rough winter seas to the north. When we arrive, the first you’ll do is endure the ministrations of the tailors. I’ve ordered them ready to supply you with new clothes that actually fit. You should have them before we sup tonight.” He looked through the thin veil of dyed silk as the carriages lurched into motion, “With luck my duties here will be fulfilled in no more than a fortnight and I will journey north as well.”
“That will be greatly appreciated.” Kayla almost gasped in relief as she spoke, looking over to Malger, “You will not be staying?”
Malger only shook his head, “This is my father’s legacy, not mine own. My home, if I ever felt a place to be such, would be Silvassa.” He looked back to Kayla and then Charles and the others, “And Metamor, far more than this city. It may have been the home of my youth, but never my heart.”
The boulevard was thronged with crowds in a festive air that slowed the carriages on their journey as the cavalry leading the column forged a path through the gawkers. They watched the slow progress of Inns and storefronts creep by through the concealing veil of silk draperies over the carriage windows. Just beyond rode armed soldiers of the Sutt household as a moving wall keeping the throngs at bay. With little to see other than massive royal carriages the crowds could only crane their necks hoping for a passing glimpse at the beast-people reputed to have sacked an entire castle uncontested with a mere score of warriors. Occasionally a disparaging word would be cast toward Malger’s house or some unseen object would be hurtled against the side of the carriage. Many of those impromptu missiles struck the stoic soldiers pacing their conveyance but the well trained escorts merely shrugged off the assaults without word.
During the interminable ride Malger engaged them with descriptions of notable buildings or architecture but his audience was only interested in finding an escape from the tight press of onlookers. After months on the trail, with the end of their journey within hands’ reach, they were only concerned with continuing their return home with all due haste.
At length the carriages drew into the shadow of the escarpment, a vertical wall of granite a couple hundred feet high atop which loomed the parapets and walls of the most noble houses, the Sutt manor being the most prominent of them. The boulevard curved upward along that sheer wall but the carriages did not turn, they continued forward into cooler darkness and finally drew to a halt. Malger stood and pushed the door open, inviting them to disembark.
“From here we will take the lift.” He explained as they climbed down from the carriage with a muted squeak of metal leaf springs. The travelers found themselves in a massive stone grotto artfully carved with architectural flourishes that, had he more time to marvel Charles would have found fascinating. At the far end of the grotto was a torch-lit wooden platform large enough to park two of the carriages side by side. Owing to the varied sizes of their passengers, however, Malger chose to dispense with the carriages. “Centuries ago a forward thinking engineer thought to make the noble houses difficult to besiege and dug a vertical shaft downward to this cavern to store provisions. Duke Gregor enlarged it and put in a winched elevator to get from the lowlands to the manor by a far more direct route.” He explained as they filed onto the broad wooden platform. Four huge wagon wheels stood vertically at four points of the platform, set into well-worn grooves along the wall. Once everyone was aboard he tugged on a dangling rope and a moment later the entire platform shuddered and began moving upward.
Occasionally they would pass large, iron-banded wooden doors inset into the vertical walls. A few were deeper set and set ninety degrees to the passageway to make forcing the doors with rams all but impossible. “My father took to storing the wealth of his conquering here, below the household catacombs. Many have not been explored since his day.” He chuckled as he leaned on one of the thick chains supporting the broad lift. “Needless to say, neither he nor my siblings rest here. I have no idea what became of most of them. Well, other than their heads decorating the eastern gates.”
“You sound rather glib, considering your head may have joined theirs.” Jerome said blandly, “And still may, if many of the crowds below have any say in the matter.”
“Another reason I have no wish to tarry here.” Malger agreed with a nod.
In due course the platform ascended to a secondary courtyard at the rear of the Sutt manor house where a crowd of house servitors awaited the return of their Archduke and the curious retinue they had been forewarned to expect. Even with that forewarning a susurrus of fearful whispers caught the Keeper’s ears as they came into view. Guernef was of most concern to them as he regally stepped from the platform onto the tiled terrazzo. A dark haired woman dressed in the finery of a noble stepped forward boldly without a second glance at the half-human beasts and curtsied briefly to Malger, “Welcome back, milord.” She said with a warm smile and a shift of her gaze that took everyone in, “And welcome to you, heroes of Metamor.”
Malger proffered his arm and she slipped one hand lightly upon his elbow, “Thank you, Val. You have had some success in your endeavours in my unannounced absence?” he asked as he followed Guernef from the platform. Charles noticed that she did not flinch at the fur she could not help but feel under the thin material of his shirt.
The woman smiled enigmatically and nodded, “Some small bit, Malger, yes. Success is all but assured.” Charles noted that though she was garbed as a noble she walked with the smooth gait of a trained fighter. No doubt under the encumbering spill of brocade she was as well armed as the soldiers standing about the periphery of the courtyard.
“Now come my friends,” Malger said, beckoning them with a wave of his free arm. “Come to my house and let us find you some new clothes.”
All followed the last son of Handil Sutt eagerly.
“And now,” the somewhat exasperated tailor said as he looked Charles up and down, “I think I’ll need to measure your... your... um.... tail. Is that all right?”
The rat chuckled and nodded. “It’s not as if the tailors of Metamor haven’t done the same many times before. Just be careful of my vine.”
The guest rooms that Malger had hastily arranged for them had at one point boasted of the power of the Sutt family, but many of Handil Sutt’s grotesque trophies had been removed. Only the outline remained on the wall where the sunlight had faded the uncovered paint. Separate suites were provided for the men and women, although there were not enough beds for all of them. But after over six months of travel, not a one of them minded sleeping on only their blankets, and Charles when stone didn’t truly sleep anyway.
The head tailor had a staff of half a dozen youths just old enough to court, and their expressions ranged from intrigued to horrified as they came to take measurements of the half beasts from Metamor. One of them approached Guernef but quickly fled at meeting the steeled gaze in the Nauh-kaee’s dark eyes. The rest clustered around Jerome, Andares, Autrefois, Vigoreaux, and Abafouq who were all human or looked it. Charles and James had to make do with the bravest who nevertheless by their posture and scent made it clear they’d rather be somewhere else.
The head tailor carried an air of excitement as he examined their bodies. Clearly he was looking forward to the challenge of reworking clothes to fit their odd shapes.
Charles chuckled beneath his breath while lightly brexing his teeth as the apprentice tentatively wrapped a measuring cord around the base of his tail. “What do you... do you want around your tail, master Matthias?” the youth asked. “Do you wish for a sleeve, or do you want it left open?”
“A little sleeve, enough for modesty. Any more and it will just chafe my tail.” The apprentice scribbled the notes on his sleeve, and then quickly retreated to confer with the master. Charles stretched, the vine brushing gently against his back. He looked at James. The donkey, for the moment, was also clad only in trousers, and the rat noted how much heartier his friend looked in the year since they’d met on the snowy morning after Nasoj’s assault had been driven back. It seemed a lifetime ago now.
James noted his look, smiled, glanced at the tailors, and shrugged. He opened his mouth to say something, when the door opened and more servants entered bearing boxes. The master directed these to be set down along one wall and opened. They opened with hinges to create three tiers of four inch deep trays filled with trinkets, belts, sashes, buckles, and other odds and ends. Another set of servants bore several bolts of cloth, with at least two dozen colours and some a patchwork that managed to look dignified rather than gaudy.
“Now that we have your measurements,” the tailor announced, “please come select the colours and fabrics you desire, as well as styles of buttons or clasps you’d prefer.”
They gathered around and made their selections one by one. Charles rather liked one of the patchwork fabrics as it had a fair bit of black, green and blue in it, perfect for scouting. He couldn’t suppress a startled squeak when he found a brass belt buckle in the shape of a rat’s head. The tailor looked relieved to find someone who wanted the unlikely bauble and set it atop the colourful bolt.
A sudden shout from across the room caught their ears. Charles was the first to move, leaping past a trio of startled assistants to dive into the hallway with only the barest of loincloths on. He was through the door into the lady’s room with only two steps. Jerome and James were right behind him.
The scene they found filled them with sudden embarrassment. Kayla and Lindsey had disrobed while the seamstresses took their measurements. One of them, a girl no older than seventeen, had a measuring cord in her hands as she lay crumpled on the floor, common white dress splayed around her legs. A look of utter befuddlement and horror marred her otherwise comely face. Before her, Lindsey kept her arms over her mid-section just above her hips, a beastly twitch to her jowls.
Jessica turned to the rat and lifted a wing to block the men’s view. “It’s all right! Everybody’s fine.”
The rat lowered his eyes and was suddenly very self-conscious. “Sorry, we heard the scream and...”
“No need to apologize,” Jessica repeated, her golden eyes understanding but also hardening. “Just get out!”
James and Jerome had already made their way out. Charles apologized one last time and scampered back to his room. Some of the apprentices sniggered behind their hands. Guernef glowered at them and they immediately stopped. “Is everything all right?” Abafouq asked while he rifled through the tray with sashes.
“Oh, I just think the seamstress touched Lindsey someplace she shouldn’t have, that’s all,” Jerome replied.
James looked down at his arms, and then over to the rat. “Wow, you were right, Charles.”
“About what?” the rat asked, still rubbing his paws together to hide his chagrin.
“Instinct’s taking over. After all these months, I heard the shout, and moved without thinking about it. I was trying to grab my sword every step!”
Charles grinned, pride pushing the shame out of his heart. He reached up and patted the donkey on the shoulder. “That’s a good sign my friend! A good sign!”
The tailor tapped the wares a trifle impatiently. “If you would all pick out what you want, we can begin preparing them for you. I know you don’t want to go to milord Sutt’s table as you are!” They needed no more convincing than that, and they all let the incident with Lindsey drift from their minds. They were going to get fresh clothes at long last!
Malger proved as good as his word yet again when by the fall of the winter sun, the servants returned with bundles of clothes for them, and an invitation to dine with the lord Sutt. Their garments were modest but well apportioned, and to their delight, all fit well. Charles found his garments roomy and loose-fitting as he’d requested; this way they wouldn’t damage his vine. A green v-necked tunic with decorative cuffs that came to the middle of his upper arms went on first, then a firm leather vest that left his chest open while protecting his back. Beneath this his vine snuggled appreciatively. The trousers came to just above his knees and was fashioned from the many-coloured patchwork fabric. The rat head belt buckle snapped over a series of tassels that were, he was told, the latest in fashion in Sutthaivasse. Apart from the fact that he was a rat, he looked much like many of the sons of the well-to-do families.
Of course, they wouldn’t wear such light clothes in this cool weather, but sporting fur did have its advantages.
The others were similarly attired, though somehow, Andares made his blue-hued garments look otherworldly just by wearing them. And Lindsey looked decidedly uncomfortable in her tunic and breeches, as she constantly adjusted her hips as they walked through the castle halls on their way to their private dinner with Malger.
Prince Phil and his ever present aid Rupert joined them along the way. As visiting nobility, Phil was granted his own suite, and another batch of Sutthaivasse tailors had provided him with something new to wear. His was more regal in bearing, but it appeared to irritate the white rabbit as much as Lindsey’s plainer material did her.
The dining hall was finely apportioned, with painted plaster walls arching between stone column supports to a high vault above. The vault had been painted as well, though many of the colours were beginning to fade and lacked the luster of those closer to the ground. Scenes of the countryside, armies, conquests, all blended in with scenes from vineyards and crops and ships and seas. Quite a few of them bore hints of Ecclesia symbology but nothing overt. The floor was tiled in a brilliant terracotta mosaic, though most if it had been covered in foreign carpets, and the massive mahogany table obscured the rest. Standing at the head of the table in an overly ornate chair that was more throne than dinner seat, was Malger dressed as a fop as usual.
“Welcome to my humble hall,” Malger crowed without a hint of irony. “Please sit where you will. You are all guests in my house.” So saying, he took his seat with immense satisfaction. Phil sat on his right, haunches firmly planted in the seat, while Rupert gingerly found a place next to the rabbit. Autrefois and Vigoreaux sat near one end, while Guernef lowered his bulk at the opposite end. Abafouq joined Guernef, with Kayla and Jessica nearby. Lindsey and Jerome sat near the servants of Tournemire, while Charles and James were forced to sit across from Malger. Andares, the last to sit, took the seat at Malger’s left next to the enigmatic, dark haired woman Malger merely referred to as ‘Val’ without appending any titles. The only empty seat was between James and Jessica, and that Malger assured them would be filled in a moment.
After two weeks in which to discuss their many travels, the Keepers and their allies were pleased when Malger kept the conversation away from such things. Instead he told then of his home in Sutthaivasse, and some of its storied history. All the while servers brought in platters of bread, cheese, pastries, and various exotic fruits to whet their appetite for the main courses to come later. Most of the servitors kept clear of Guernef, but there were two barely out of boyhood who took every chance they could to almost worshipfully near the giant gryphon. If the Nauh-kaee noticed them, he paid them no mind, eating what Abafouq sampled for him with a refined delicacy his companions had grown used to and that surprised the others anew.
While Malger sampled a pastry with a white glaze and strawberry jam, a well-dressed servant leaned over the noble’s head and whispered something that not even Charles could hear. The marten masquerading as a man nodded and then, as the servant briskly departed, tapped a spoon against his goblet. “My most welcome guests, I’ve just been informed that our final guest has just now arrived and is being brought here as we speak.” The animal-morphed swung their ears toward the doors behind Charles as they could hear the sound of firm treads coming close. “And here he is. The young Philippe du Tournemire.”
Now all heads swung as the doors opened and in walked a boy no more than ten years of age. He was clad in royal blue doublet and hose and walked between the Sutthaivasse guards with some trepidation. His face, angular and hawk-like, much as Camille’s had once been, with searing blue eyes beneath a curly mop of blonde hair, betrayed a bit of childish fear and none of the arrogance they had once seen in the late Marquis. But there could be no mistake, this was his son.
“Welcome, young Philippe,” Malger said while standing. “I am the Archduke Malger Sutt, and these are my guests, as now are you. I trust your journey from Whitestone was comfortable.”
The boy tried to smile in a disarming way. “If a little surprising. I...” His eyes widened as he finally noticed who else was in the room. His face went an even paler white as he swept over the Keepers and assembled creatures from out of legend. And then his smile was genuine boyish delight. “Keepers! I get to sit at table with Keepers! Liselle’s going to tear out the rest of her hair when she hears this!”
Autrefois jumped to his feet, strode before the boy and fell to his knees. “Milord Marquis! I am relieved to see you safe.”
Vigoreaux was quick on his heels both in kneeling and in professing his gratitude for Philippe’s safety. The boy smiled at them both, and then frowned. “Sir Autrefois! Vigoreaux! But why do you call me Marquis? Where’s my father?”
“I fear your father has given up his life to defeat a great evil,” Vigoreaux replied. James nearly hacked up the pastry he’d been eating. The Steward continued as if he’d not heard that report of protest. “Your father’s title and all that goes with it falls to you, milord.”
Philippe’s delight vanished and for a moment he seemed on the verge of tears. “But he promised me he would come visit this year. He promised!”
Sir Autrefois put a steadying hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Come sit with us, milord, and eat. Lord Sutt has been most gracious with his table. Your father died bravely and you should be too.”
Charles nudged James, and the two of them stood up. The rat gestured to his chair. “Milord Philippe, please take this seat. It is yours by right of noble birth. We shall move to the end and let thy men share your place.”
Philippe glanced at Charles and his eyes widened, though not nearly as much as a moment before. “Forgive me, but are you a rat?”
Charles nodded and bowed respectfully to the boy. “My name is Charles Matthias, and I am your servant. I do remember the look on your father’s face the night you were born. I had been briefly in his employ at the time.” The others had all heard this tale, apart from Malger and Phil who both stared at the rat slack-jawed. Jerome nodded to them both and also bowed to the boy.
“Come, milord Philippe. You are among those who shared your father’s struggle against evil. For we are witnesses of his final moments, in which he acted to save all of us at the cost of his own life.” Jerome pulled his chair out too, and slowly, Philippe and the two men of Tournemire came forward.
Philippe, only ten, was as tall as Charles and stared into his face with delight. “Could you sit by me, master Matthias? I’d like to know more about my father. And Metamor.”
Charles bowed again, already liking this boy. “At your command.”
James moved into the empty seat beside Jessica, while Charles took the donkey’s seat. Philippe sat in the rat’s, with Sir Autrefois hulking next to him where Jerome had once been. Lindsey pushed herself away from the table and held one paw over her belly. “Forgive me lords, but I am not feeling well.” And with that she half walked, half hopped through the doors. All eyes watched her go, but none followed, despite the yearning look on Kayla’s face.
Vigoreaux took her seat, rubbing his hands as he kept a close watch on Philippe. Jerome settled in at the end of the table, and exchanged stolid glanced with Rupert who of course said nothing.
“Now that we are all seated,” Malger said, composure regained, though he did favour the rat a curious glance, “we may continue. Yes, on your return to Tournemire, you will be crowned the Marquis. I have no intention of interfering with that.” He glanced at the two retainers meaningfully. “But we are going to be discussing new treaties and arrangements for these lands. Ten years ago the house of Sutt stretched forth its hands to claim all of Western Pyralis. Your father was instrumental in preventing that. But now his hand has laid hold of too much. Between us we shall draw back and grant each land and house authority over their own land. None will be the strongest. Prince Phillip of Whales shall act as a mediator in our discussions to ensure all is fair. Representatives of Metamor, the Åelf, the Binoq, the Sondeckis, and the... Nauh-kaee shall also stand as witnesses.”
Philippe looked everyone over and then he stared hard at Malger. “You must be the runaway if you’re Handil Sutt’s son.” Everyone stared at the boy in surprise. He’d gone from nearly crying to a canny observer. “Liselle always said there were rumours one of you Sutt boys survived. You don’t seem too bad for a Sutt.”
“Why... thank you.” Malger replied, even as the rabbit at his right rocked his ears in laughter. “And who is Liselle?”
“Oh she’s my tutor. She gossips all the time. Better than my bodyguard who won’t say anything to me. I preferred Weyden, but father sent him to Metamor. Hey, do any of you know Weyden? He used to teach me how to fight with a sword.”
Jessica cawed in anguish. “Weyden... I know him very well, Philippe. He became a hawk like me. He told me many things about being in your father’s service, but he never mentioned you.”
Phil rested his paws together. “It seems we all have connections one way or another. Good. Then perhaps we can come to an equitable agreement to ensure peace in Pyralis.”
“Indeed!” Malger said with hope. “Now, milord Philippe, the first thing that we should decide, is who will act as regent for you until you come of age.”
“Oh that,” Philippe said with disdain. He shook his head. “I don’t want to talk about that. I want to hear about my father.” He turned to Charles. “You knew him. Tell me more please.”
Charles smiled and nodded. “Of course, milord.” He gestured to Malger and Phil. “Perhaps after we’ve finished with why you’re here.”
Philippe shook his head. “We’re all still eating. My father told me never to talk politics while eating. It just makes a mess.”
Malger finally laughed. “How very true! Very well, I’ll have the main courses brought, and Charles can tell you more about your father. We’ll discuss affairs of state after.”
Charles saw the secret grin that flashed over the young boy’s face. Yes, he was definitely his father’s son. Crafty and clever in getting what he wanted, but still genuinely a boy with a boy’s desires. The rat couldn’t help but like him. As servants brought in platters of fish, mutton, and numerous pastas, Charles set out to describe that night ten years past when the Marquis had learned of his son’s birth. Philippe and all the rest listened with rapt attention.
Lindsey shut the door and pressed her back against it, tail tip poking between her large feet. Her fur trembled beneath the loose fitting but comfortable garb. After two weeks with next to nothing on the clothes felt foreign. Once she was confidant that no one had followed her back, she quickly but gently removed the offending garments.
Lindsey dropped the clothes on the floor and trembled anew. Ever since that night before they’d reached Blackwater, she’d heard that single word repeated over and over again at night. But at the dinner she’d heard it again, the first time ever while the sun still shone. And it seemed more insistent than before.
Lindsey put her paws on the bed she’d been given while they stayed. Her snout poked through the curtains hung to keep in the warmth, but the darkness within brought nothing. “Who are you?” she asked, voice ragged and raw.
“No,” Lindsey replied. “Please leave me alone.” Nothing. The kangaroo took several long breaths, ears folded flat against her head, toes arching and claws digging into the carpet. Why did it only ever repeat that one word? It wasn’t a word she’d ever used herself, being too formal, a construct only the courts of the south employed. And only then as an answer to a question. So what was the question?
“Stop it! Stop it! What do you want from me?” Lindsey crawled onto the bed and drew the curtains closed, trapping herself in darkness. The air was still and warm. In quieter tones she asked, “Where are you?”
Her paws slid down across her chest and belly, and then stopped when they felt a slight rupture. Lindsey couldn’t see it, but let her thumb trace along its edge. Her pouch. With a start, her other paw spreading over its depth, she knew that there was something inside.
Licking her teeth, Lindsey asked, “Are you my child?”
The kangaroo sobbed and stroked her paws down across her pouch. “With Zhypar?”
Lindsey lay on the bed with her paws over her pouch and tears soaking her cheek fur. What she had longed for in the ten years since she’d first fallen in love with Zhypar Habakkuk had finally come to pass. She was carrying his child. But he had passed beyond the grave, and only that sick display the Marquis had forced them to make on the Dais had given her this blessing. From out of evil Eli draws good — Zhypar had told her that many times. Her heart waxed from joy at the child to sorrow at the father’s passing.
But for the first time in two weeks, it did wax.
Her claws traced out little circles in the fur covering her pouch. There was something inside. She could feel it. Her chest expanded with new breath. She couldn’t wait to tell the others.
Do not tell anyone about me.
Lindsey stiffened, but nodded. Best to keep this to herself for now. The child was hers and Habakkuk’s. Nobody else need know. Nobody else should know.
Charles spent the better part of an hour turning their ears with tales of the Marquis in his younger days before Marzac had turned him into a monster. They all took delight in the story of Philippe’s birth, and the Marquis’s change from a noblemen caught in war to a proud father. Malger especially seemed interested in the tales since they were of a perspective he’d never before heard. The disguised marten only recalled his hated father’s frustration at failing to crush the armies of Tournemire. To know that a friend of his had aided his enemies in that long ago time brought him no end of satisfaction.
But eventually their talk did return to politics, and the chief concern was for the disposition of Whitestone. The city that stood at the centre of western Pyralis was nominally under the control of Tournemire, but that was a victory won against Handil Sutt, who had himself taken Whitestone in his march of conquest. Philippe was loathe to give it up, mainly because he’d spent most of his youth there — for him, the coastal city of Tournemire was only a dim memory of his earliest years before his mother had died.
Unsurprisingly, Malger didn’t see it that way. “This is not a matter of sentimentality or of maintaining your hold on Whitestone, Philippe. Tournemire’s armies have mostly abandoned the city already. Why else do you think my soldiers were able to bring you here to Sutthaivasse unmolested? Neither Tournemire nor Sutthaivasse can hold Whitestone against their will for very long, nor should we. They should be allowed sovereignty over their own lands.”
Vigoreaux shook his head firmly. “It is not a matter of sovereignty, your grace. It is a matter of discretion and wisdom. Baron Dalando of Whitestone is a contemptuous man of intemperate disposition. It would be foolish to allow him unchecked power over either ‘his’ people or ‘his’ lands. Wiser hands must be at the helm of Whitestone.”
Charles grunted and frowned. “I have to concur. I spent some time watching Baron Dalando, if it is the same man that I knew ten years past.” At Malger’s nod he continued. “He was often drunk and had no compunctions about beating those around him. Even an intemperate man can lead well if he knows something of it, but Baron Dalando is poor even at that. He’s allowed his land to be conquered twice in the last ten years. I do not think he is a fit defender for Whitestone.”
Malger sucked on his lip as he pondered how to answer, when the usually silent woman at his side spoke. ‘The issue is not whether or not Baron Dalando can be trusted to rule fairly. There is no question that he cannot! The issue is that neither Sutthaivasse nor Tournemire should have sovereignty over Whitestone. It is better for both sides if Whitestone is not a vassal of either. As we both know,” she looked pointedly at the new Marquis’s men, “too much power in one hand can be a very dangerous thing. Neither of us have the wisdom to avoid corruption as we should. We can decide later how best to handle Baron Dalando. First we need to agree that neither of us shall control the city.”
There was a bit more mulling and debate, but no matter how much minutiae was dredged up, Val always brought matters back to the sovereignty of Whitestone. Most of the Keepers looked bored at the exchange, though both Kayla and Phil remained firmly engaged, listening with keen ears and watching with studious eyes. Charles, Jerome, and Sir Autrefois offered their thoughts on the war in the land ten years ago but otherwise left the wrangling to Malger, Val, Philippe and Vigoreaux.
As the night wore on, Philippe surprised them all by sighing and nodding. “I guess you’re probably right, milord Sutt. I shouldn’t rule in Whitestone anymore than you. But I love the city, and I want to be able to visit there whenever I want. I’ll agree to renounce my sovereign claim to Whitestone, but I’m going to maintain a residence there as part of the agreement. That and Baron Dalando cannot be left to rule on his own.”
“We will attend to that in time, young Marquis,” Malger replied with a beleaguered smile. “For now I think we have reached an accord, and I suggest we leave it at that for the night. Quarters have been prepared for you and your men. My men will take you there that you might enjoy a good night’s rest.”
Philippe nodded and rose, young face betraying wisdom but also the characteristic hawk-like gaze the late Marquis had also sported. “Am I always to be escorted while in your house, milord Sutt?”
Malger narrowed his eyes but kept his smile fixed firmly in place. “Your father was not Handil Sutt, young Lord, and while he was the hero of Breckaris Stand he was still scarcely more popular in Sutthaivasse than my own sire. They would have raised his head on a pike alongside Handil’s own. I think you will be grateful for the protection.”
This did not make the boy happy, but it did satisfy. He bowed and bid Malger a good night, then smiled and clasped hands with Charles. “Thank you for telling me more of my father. I hope to see you again before you leave.”
“I hope so too, milord Marquis,” the rat replied with a broad grin on his snout. “Good night!”
Philippe du Tournemire left with Sir Autrefois and Vigoreaux following behind him. Only the Keepers and their allies remained at Malger’s table. Malger smiled to them once they were alone. “Forgive me for keeping you from your beds for a moment longer. But there is something I wish to say to you all before we each retire. Your ship will be ready to leave in a few days. But of myself I will now speak.
“My friends, I hope you can bear with me, as I have many things that I must attend to before quitting this city.” Malger said as he sipped at a dry aperitif provided after all the other courses had been expended. “As should be very clear now, my father left many things at odds during his conquering, chiefly among them the disposition of the lands he conquered. I mean to set the chaos of his reign to rights, but I cannot do so swiftly. In ten days I will be gathering the nobles who remain in the wake of his destruction in this very hall to return much of what was stolen from them. I will then offer them the choice to remain vassals of Sutthaivasse, which since my father’s death has been prosperous for most, or to regain their independence.” He sipped lightly at his wine and let that sink in for a few moments as everybody listened in silence. “I pray that the transition will proceed with as little uproar as possible, and then I plan on abdicating my seat.”
“Abdicate?” Charles chuffed in surprise, raising an eyebrow curiously. “You hold as much, no - more, power here than Duke Thomas himself!”
“Power I never envisioned nor wished to attain, Charles. I was the youngest of a half dozen sons and the least worthy of it, in my sire’s view.” The once-minstrel of Metamor explained flatly. “Nor power I have any intention of keeping, save perhaps for the pleasure of the title I have so unexpectedly attained with their murders.” A smile crossed his face. “As such, I intend to leave these lands to those who have skilfully shepherded it into prosperity in the years since. I cannot hope to better their efforts, and my continued presence, the very name of my house in ascendancy over the conquered people, will only serve to foment further rebellion in people already hard pressed to recover from decades of bloody war.” Lightly he set down his wine cup and a servant drifted forward smoothly to refill it. “They deserve the peace and prosperity they have enjoyed, but also the freedom to choose their fate with the secession of the Sutt house from position of overlord to their fate, unless it is by their own will.”
“Who will you leave behind to oversee your holdings, then, if you do plan on retaining your title and powers as Archduke?”
“Regent Sicallin has provided well, and I have already petitioned the King to ascend him to the title of Duke of Sutthaivasse. I should receive his response within the week. While you were being pored over by my house staff I drafted further messages to him concerning the disposition of the sailors and soldiers taken as Prisoners of War, namely that I do not seek reprisals for their actions while under the taint of Marzac.” Malger turned his gaze to Prince Phil, who sat to his immediate right, “Prince, I will be drafting a writ of surrender to your navies of all waters south of Sutthaivasse’s immediate reach.”
“Whales is hardly in any better condition than Sutthaivasse. Holding that much territory, so far from Whales, will be a trial.” Phil pointed out diplomatically though he smiled at Malger’s gracious offer.
Malger nodded ruefully, “The forests of Marzac should provide more than enough material from which to rebuild our fleets in short order, I trust. The pirates that once haunted those waters have been utterly decimated and are no longer the threat they once were. United with what strength remains we should be able to hold the islands. Perhaps you might offer Sathmore some treaties to keep them off our backs in the interim?”
“That would likely be best worked out with Regent Sicallin, as you are set upon elevating him to rule.”
“I have already discussed this matter with him. He is amenable to Whalish control of the Marzac straights again.” Malger paused and laughed softly, “More than amenable, he is desperate to see Whalish ships on the waters to resume trade around the horn again. I can arrange that he treat with you, in confidence, while your ships are reprovisioned?”
“I wish to be home again as swiftly as any, Malger. As long as we can arrange these politics swiftly, yes. Whales has long seen it her duty to patrol the straits and to keep them open to commerce. Only the corruption of Marzac forced us to blockade those waters. With your help, we will open them up again. But many of our ships are in need of repair before they can make the return journey.”
“I will see to that. Any Whalish ships requiring repairs will have full availability of all that Sutthaivasse has to provide, from House Sutt’s own coffers.”
Phil’s ears bobbed humorously as he nodded, “You are gracious, Duke. I seem to remember that it was Sutthaivasse that struck forth with all due haste to support Whales, not the other way around. With much loss of man and ship alike.”
Malger nodded sagely, “On both sides, my Prince, on both sides. Whales and Sutthaivasse should be brothers, shoulder to shoulder. My father would have made adversaries of you in his hubris. May that dark desire forever be set aside, yes?”
“Indeed, indeed.” Phil raised his goblet in agreement and Malger tapped the silvered rim lightly with his own and both drank. “To brotherhood.”
“To brotherhood; Sutthaivasse, Whales, and Metamor should Thomas be willing.” Malger echoed, “And as diplomatic liaison between Sutthaivasse and Metamor I am confident I can convince him to such a profitable alliance.”
“I don’t think you’ll have any trouble there,” Kayla predicted as she raised her goblet. The other Keepers all joined her, glasses raised in a joyful toast.
The Keepers were awake well before the sun rose. Even after a long night around Malger Sutt’s table, regaling each other with stories one moment and then negotiating peace in western Pyralis the next, not a one of them could sleep for long. Too many months had been spent sleeping on edge for them to find comfort even in this safe seaside city. Though they did not post a watch, for that would have been absurd, they could not completely forget the many lessons of the mountainous wastes, forests, swamps, and grasslands.
With the sun’s rise they found themselves on one of the balconies overlooking the Mendaisse river as it flowed past the castle and through the city and its many canals. Malger had sent them bread and cheese to begin their day, and his regrets that he couldn’t join them as his attention was fixed on writing up the official agreements they had come to last night with the new Marquis du Tournemire.
“It’s just as well,” Kayla said as she sipped at a cup of steaming cider. Sutthaivasse rarely saw snow in its winters, but the mornings were still cool if not freezing like they would be in Metamor. “That those two men are going back to Tournemire with Philippe. They were victims as much as any of us, but it’s been awkward travelling with them these last few weeks. I almost chocked when they described the Marquis as a hero!”
“He did save my life,” Jessica objected with a sharp caw. The black-feathered hawk lifted one talon and pointed at the skunk. “It was his card that stood between me and the sword.” She lowered the talon and then lowered her eyes. “Not that I can forget what he did to all of you in Breckaris.” She glanced to Lindsey who crouched in one corner, elbows on the earthen balustrade. “And especially you.” Lindsey’s long ears flicked at the words, but she did not turn or open her muzzle to speak.
“It was the corruption,” Abafouq said simply and shook his head. “If we had not been protected, we could have done the same ourselves.” The Binoq stoked one hand through the flank of his companion Guernef. The Nauh-kaee was busy swallowing fruit whole. “I am very grateful that we have been spared!”
Kayla frowned, long tail flicking back and forth behind her. “I don’t know. It looked to me like he enjoyed doing what he did to us. And especially to Rick.”
“My Weyden is still in prison because of him,” Jessica added. Her feathers settled quickly. “I’ll have to tease him about oranges when we get home.” She chuckled, as did the others. Whatever else, Philippe did have a few amusing tales to tell, as only a child could tell them.
“I’m sure they’ll have let Weyden go free by now,” Charles said softly. The rat leaned against the banister, petting his vine as it curled around his chest. They all wore the garments fashioned for them, but this time Charles had managed to worm into his with the vine on the outside. It did not seem to mind the cool air. “And Rick should be awake too. And the Duke married! I wonder what else we’ll find when we return home. I wonder how big my children are.”
“Weyden asked me to marry him when I returned,” Jessica announced, her golden eyes distant. “I hope all of you can be there for it.”
“We shall!” Kayla assured her, finally smiling. “As I hope all of you will be there for Rickkter and I to wed.” She gave the rat a meaningful glance, but he only smiled and nodded in return.
“I don’t know what I’ll do when I get back,” James murmured. “Go back to being a Glen Scout I guess. There’s this... this... no, never mind.”
“And we shall certainly stay for a while,” Abafouq added. “At least until the mountain passes clear in the Spring. It will be nice to stay in Metamor for a time.”
“I too will linger,” Andares said in his smooth baritone. “But I cannot say for how long. The stars will guide me as they did my master. But I do wish to see Metamor, the first of my race to do so in many years.”
“And I wish I could go see it, but it is not to be,” Phil sighed.
“I thought you said you would see us back to Metamor!” Kayla asked, her voice pained anew.
“I hoped to,” Phil replied, shaking his head with obvious regret. “But the damage done to Whales was too great. In the last two weeks I have conferred with my commanders to learn the extent of our losses. The Whalish Navy has been crippled in the western seas. We’ve lost thousands of sailors in this fight, and more ships than I care to number. My father and I will both be needed as leaders and as symbols for the morale of our people to see to our recovery. It will be years before Whales has returned to her former strength. I fear a trip to Metamor, no matter how much my heart yearns for it, would be irresponsible. I have wasted time even in coming so far as Sutthaivasse, but as last night and today will prove, I can still serve to ensure that during this time of rebuilding, Whales will not need to have fear from war in Pyralis.”
Phil spread his white paws wide and his long ears fell. “Still. I wish I could go on with you. But my ships will return south once we’ve finished restocking and making repairs. Two day’s hence at the earliest. Three certainly. But I will enjoy what time I have left with you my friends before we leave.”
Charles put one paw on the rabbit’s shoulder and smiled. “We understand, Phil. We will take whatever message you wish to send to his grace, Duke Thomas, with us.”
“Thank you, Charles.” The rabbit swelled as much as his lapine body would allow. “Just seeing each of you again has brought me great joy.”
“Indeed!” Charles gave Phil a firm hug, then set his friend to one side with the gentlest of touches. “Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but I would like to explore this city. I’m not sure how much of a start we’ll give the city, but it’s not like they haven’t already seen us when we docked. I’d like to make a good name for Metamor even here. Who else?” He had no shortage of volunteers.