Duke Thomas Hassan woke from pleasant dreams to discover a strong arm laying across his chest. Momentary alarm faded into blissful remembrance. It was no dream. He opened his eye and regarded the equine brow laying on the pillow facing his own. Grey eyelids remained closed, while long scalloped ears lay folded together, and thick, supple lips pressed together beneath a gently breathing pair of nostrils. Thomas stared at her, joy in his heart. He was married. He was a husband now.
His mind tried to recall the previous day, but so much of it was a blur to him now. After the wedding they’d help a massive reception with hundreds of Keepers and his other Vassals in attendance. The Great Hall of Metamor had never been so filled in all his years. And then their carriage had driven through the city to the cheers of all. Another boisterous dinner followed as the winter evening chased everyone indoors. But then, when they retired to the Ducal suites, Thomas and Alberta finally had the moments together they’d yearned for. And with an intimacy so achingly familiar, they consummated their marriage in a bed which had never admitted any but the lords of Metamor.
And now in that bed they lay, faces limned by a soft magical light left to watch over them. Dawn would not be for another few hours. Thomas would not be needed for some time. He wished to spend every moment he could with her. And as he thought it, Alberta’s eyes flickered open, and her nostrils flared with a satisfied whicker. “Good morning to thee, my husband.”
“Good morning to you, my wife,” Thomas replied, rolling onto his side and cupping her chin in his hoof-like hand. “It is so good to say that. I don’t think I shall call you anything else.”
“But I dost love to hear thee speak my name, my sweet Thomas.”
His tail twitched in excitement, and he leaned forward, brushing his lips against her ears to whisper, “Alberta...”
She slipped closer, her chest meeting his, hide rubbing against hide, legs entangling and hooves clacking beneath the sheets, dragging them into a desultory mess. “Oh Thomas...”
Together, the newlyweds reminded each other in the winter darkness just what their marriage now meant.
Five days remained in 707 Cristos Reckoning. In years past, these days were often the least stressful for Duke Thomas and his staff because there was little to do. Preparations for a small event honouring those who had fallen in the previous year would have been completed by this point. The snows would have shut out all but the most dedicated of merchants. Everyone who could would hide indoors and live off the provisions gathered the previous few months until the Spring thaw opened up the trade routes again. It was a time for merriment, relaxation, and huddling together for warmth, something accomplished far easier now that many had personal fur coats.
But as Thomas reflected, it was not always like that. Last year, Nasoj’s attack had shattered the season and left many dead. There was still much to do to complete the rebuilding from that awful time. And now this year he had the unenviable task of seeing to the safety of his vassals as they returned home, and dealing with a glut of merchants who’d braved the winter to reap great profits from his wedding.
So, to his regret, there would be no more rest for either him or his staff until after the new year had come. Alberta understood, and was content to wait another week before they began planning their procession through the valley and perhaps even some of the towns outside the radius of the Curse. He promised her he would spend as much time with her as he could, but she seemed to understand that his responsibilities as Duke would intrude and bade him go to them before they came to him.
So, still energized from his morning hours with Alberta, Thomas donned his woolen blue surcoat and breeches, and made his way to the chambers of his Prime Minister. He gleefully noted the eight guards standing outside his bedchamber door. Four for him, and four for his wife. There was an extra set of pages too. He bade one go and fetch something for Alberta to eat, and then his retinue followed him through the brightly lit halls of Metamor.
Malisa answered the door herself and hugged him around the neck. “Oh, Father, I’m so happy for you!” She grinned and beckoned him inside. “You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting to do that!”
Thomas laughed and hugged her in return. “Thank you, Mal. Thank you. It is... I don’t know how to describe it.”
“I’m surprised to see you up so soon,” Malisa admitted. She gestured at the half-eaten meal of bread and cheese waiting interrupted on her table. “Have you had something to eat yet?”
“Not yet, but I’ll attend to it shortly.” Thomas accepted her offer of a chair and then gestured for her to continue eating. “We’ve had a lot of good news in the last few days — some of it so good it’s been frightening — and we need to start getting things back to normal here. Our scouts are exhausted, our resources are stretched, and our vassals will become surly if we do not see them off. And if I’m not mistaken, there are a few important decisions we postponed until after the wedding. I’d like to tackle as much of this as possible now while the iron is hot.”
Malisa nodded and swallowed a bit of cheese. “A very good suggestion. Might I also suggest that you spend some hours over the next few days in open audience? Many will want to congratulate you, but many will also have matters they wish to bring to you. You haven’t been available these last few weeks, and your people need to see you.”
“Serving them as Duke you mean. Yes, that is a good idea. We’ll start tomorrow with that.”
“As for the scouts and the armies, I’ll send word for Copernicus, Jack, George, and Misha. Together we can discuss how best to arrange the rotations so every soldier will get their needed rest. I’ll do that this morning. Thalberg is already seeing to your vassals who I believe will start their journeys home by noon tomorrow.”
Thomas nodded and tapped his thumbs together. “I’ll visit him after we’re done here to go over those arrangements. Both Alberta and I will be there to personally thank them for coming.”
Malisa tore off a piece of bread but held it in her fingers. “Master Lidaman will want to meet with you soon to discuss the financial obligations we incurred to make sure our vassals did stay after the blowback from Marzac’s magic made the Curse act strange. I’ll arrange the meeting. Who should be present?”
“Just three of us, and Thalberg if he can spare the time. And bring one of your scribes who maintains the ledgers. I can never follow the arcane discussions of budgets, debts and obligations.”
She smiled knowingly. “Of course. There is also the matter of the Breckarin nuns. They will need an answer soon.”
Thomas shrugged his shoulders. “I confess I’ve not given them much thought. I don’t see any harm in letting them stay. Where did they want to stay?”
“They requested that they be allowed to build their convent in the city. They have asked for nothing other than permission to take over a few buildings that were never repaired.”
“Well,” Thomas mused, “if all the owner’s are dead and they’ve no family, or if the family is willing to donate them, then I don’t see why not. We cannot offer to help them either with workers or materials. Make sure they understand that.”
“I will,” Malisa popped the morsel of bread in her mouth and hastily chewed. “I don’t think there is anything else that can’t wait. I’ll send some messages to move things along.”
“And I’ll go speak with Thalberg,” Thomas said in agreement. He smiled to his adoptive daughter. “Thank you, Mal. I couldn’t do any of this without you.”
“And you, Father,” Malisa returned the warmth. “I think married life agrees with you.”
“And I with it!” He laughed, rose, and gave her one last hug. “I’ll see you again in a few hours I’m sure.”
“Until then.” Thomas parted from her and left, his hooves only lightly treading upon the carpets. The weight of responsibility had never felt so light.
Grey clouds filled the sky from one range of mountains to the other. A bright patch spoke of the morning sun but it could not penetrate the sky’s thick winter raiment. Every building had a border of snow that had been swept from the streets, most still white, but some dirtied from frequent travel and far too many horses. The chill deadened the overwhelming aroma of the city, but they could still detect a panoply of animal musks that both amazed them and unsettled them.
Kurt Schanalein was used to seeing the many different forms that Keepers came in, but he still marvelled when he spotted a creature that he’d never seen before. Some of them Tugal knew as they were beasts of the wintry north, but many remained a mystery. For Kurt the real novelty was the snow and ice, something Tugal teased him gently about as he pushed her wheeled chair about the city. They looked for nothing in particular, but it would be the last time they would have alone together, and so together they explored.
Tomorrow Kurt would begin the return journey to Breckaris with his soldiers. Tomorrow Tugal would begin helping the nuns find a place for their convent. But today they had each other.
“After spending these last few days here,” Kurt said softly as they passed by a badger who smelled of onions, “I don’t know how I’ll ever find wonder in Breckaris. It just seems so plain now.”
Tugal lowered her head slightly, the postulant’s hood concealing her face. “I’d never seen the sea before until I was taken to Breckaris.”
“True,” Kurt admitted. “But it doesn’t have the snow and it certainly doesn’t have the people.”
“It has a different people,” Tugal replied, though her voice was faint. “And snow is beautiful, but most of the time it’s just cold.”
There was an edge of bitterness to the words that Kurt hadn’t heard in her voice in a long time. “Are you feeling well, Tugal?”
“Aye. I’ve been thinking ever since we came here, that I’d never really seen these people as anything but monsters. But mostly, something else.”
When she didn’t say anything more, Kurt asked, “What is it?”
Tugal sunk lower in the chair. “They may look like monsters... but I was a monster.”
Kurt nearly tripped over his feet, but he held steady and kept the chair moving forward over the ice-slick stone road. “You aren’t the same person now, Tugal. Not by far.”
She sighed. “I know. But if not for you, I would be.”
Heat rose to his cheeks and he pushed on, ignoring the curious stares of merchants and Keepers as they passed through the market district. In Summer he knew the place would be boisterous and the noise unbearable. But now there were only a handful out haggling over prices. He hoped they wouldn’t overhear their conversation. “I only did what I did because I wanted to save my father. I didn’t know who you were at all.”
“But you saved me too, Kurt.” Tugal’s voice gained in warmth. “I can never repay you for it either. I know Breckaris will be blessed with your rule when that day comes.”
He still wore his soldier’s uniform instead of the finery due him as the heir to the duchy, but he knew she spoke the truth. “You’ve saved me too, Tugal,” Kurt replied, slowly at first, but with increasing confidence. “You gave everything to stop the evil controlling my father. I didn’t. And I’ll never forget that as long as I live. I’ll never forget you.”
She turned in her chair, soft feminine cheeks white in the winter air, blue eyes breaking the veneer of frost. “Nor I you. I’m sorry we must part, because I see you will one day be a better man than I was. But I have my place now, and you have yours.”
“I hope I can return to this place and see how you and the sisters fare.”
“You will,” she replied confidently. She turned back to the street and pointed toward the city gates. “Take me there, if you would, Kurt. I’d like to see everything one time with you before the day is over.”
The young man nodded, moving his feet just a little bit faster to show her everything that was Metamor.
Thalberg settled his massive bulk down in the cushioned chair behind his oaken desk. His ponderous tail slid through the wide hole in the back, and savoured the warmth of the crackling fire only a short distance behind him. The Steward of Metamor, cursed by Nasoj’s evil spells to be half-man and half-alligator, a river and swamp dwelling creature that could not be found natively for over a month’s journey to the south, poured himself a tumbler of wine as he relaxed.
Metamor had survived the first day of Thomas’s new married life, and for a few minutes he could relax. There was still so much to be done now that he needed to attend to two sets of servants; Thomas’s were already well established, but now he had to divert a portion of his staff to see to Alberta’s needs. No matter how much the Steppelander protested, she would not make Metamor look poor in neither the eyes of its people nor its enemies. She would be a Duchess, true and noble in both attire and spirit. And it was Thalberg’s job to supply her with her servants who could do just that.
And that was only one of his many duties! He sighed as yellow eyes surveyed the array of papers, maps, schedules, and plans he’d stacked on his desk. Some of this he could delegate, and first thing tomorrow he’d determine which tasks they were. He lifted the tumbler to his long jaws and tilted it back. The warm brew streamed across his broad tongue, splashed against the backs of his numerous fangs, and then seethed as it sank down to his gullet. Long practice kept any of the froth from spilling out the sides of his jaws. The pleasant warmth soothed his nerves and helped his muscles relax.
He’d long since accepted his lot as a reptile. Those who’d remained human and many of those who’d become beasts like himself could not help but feel a primordial fear when seeing the Steward of Metamor for the first time. Some never overcame that instinctual fear. He made no apologies for using that to the Duke’s advantage. But it came with its costs. He no longer had any taste for vegetables, which made his job as head of the Kitchens that much more difficult. But the most distressing was that he had almost no tolerance for the cold. With the exception of the Summers, he could never leave the city without running the risk of falling into a torpor and dying. He rarely even left the castle.
And with the promise of an unending stream of responsibilities before him in the weeks ahead, that was exactly what he wished to do. How he wished he could take just one evening to go to the Deaf Mule and drink and laugh with friends. And how few they were! Most could never understand how the work of Metamor’s Steward was never done. He knew what was said about him behind his back by those had made his life and duty all the harder. But it only rarely bothered him. His loyalty ever since childhood was to the house of Hassan and to Metamor. Nobody could ever take that away from him.
Even if he wished he could have a night to himself from time to time.
Thalberg downed the last of the tumbler and rumbled deep in his chest. There was no sense bellyaching; he had work to do. He pulled the nearest stack with a green-scaled paw hand and lowered his snout that his yellow eyes might peruse the letters.
Somebody knocked on his door.
Thalberg sighed, set the paper aside, and bellowed, “Come in!”
The door at the opposite end of his chambers opened and in stepped a skunk whose fur was all white. She wore a woolen cloak that mostly held her tail down over road-worthy tunic and breeches. Thalberg recognized her immediately as this was not the first time she’d come to his office seeking aid for a newcomer to Metamor. She’d been the first of the refuges from plague-struck Bradanes that had come to Metamor seeking a cure for their ailment. Once an aid to the now dead Lady of Bradanes, she had become to that displaced people their unspoken leader. While her people were welcomed with gratitude at Metamor, they often became yet another task for Thalberg to tend to.
“Good evening, Kozaithy,” Thalberg managed to say as he rose from his seat. “To do what do I owe the pleasure?” Despite being covered in fur, she was quite comely.
Kozaithy inclined her head respectfully and stepped into the room. “Forgive my intrusion at so late an hour, master Steward, but I know you have been very busy and this was the only time I could find you alone.”
“And I’m going to be busy for some time, but I can spare a few minutes for you now.” Thalberg pulled his red cloak tighter about his middle. Despite the warmth of his chambers, he did not like exposing his scaled-hide any more than he had to when around others. “Tell me what brings you here.”
“I seek your help for one of the people of Bradanes who has just succumbed to the Curse. The weather and the plague had made her very weak when she came here, and now she has been changed into a beast and will need somebody to help her understand her new body.”
Thalberg grunted and leaned his knuckles against his desk. “I assume you’re asking me because this woman is a reptile like myself? Why not ask Copernicus for his help. He’s a Follower as are your people.”
“Aye, and he has spoken with her and showed us how to keep her warm. But I thought of you because she is also an alligator, master Steward.”
Surprised by the news, Thalberg straightened, long tail pressing against his legs. “An alligator? I see. There are very, very few of us in the Valley, and no others at Metamor.” He sighed, knowing it was the right things to do, and in as friendly a voice as possible, added, “I will do what I can to speak with her, but I cannot give her more than a few minutes of my time, and perhaps not even that for a few days.”
Kozaithy folded her paws before her and lowered her eyes. “I was hoping that she might find employ with your staff. She also served in Lord Bradanes’s house.”
Thalberg let slip a hint of irritation. “I cannot employ all of Lord Bradanes’s old servants. There is plenty of work to be found in the city amongst the tradesmen. She will do well as a reptile apprenticing to one of the smiths.” Kozaithy lifted her eyes, green as bold as his scaly hide, and stared at him. “What did she do for Lord Bradanes?”
“Whatever was asked of her. Her father was milord’s Steward before his passing.”
“Perhaps I could find a place for her on my staff,” Thalberg mused. Depending on what her father had taught her, she could be very helpful, once he knew she could be trusted. It was worth looking into. “I still cannot see her right away, but I will make time in the next few days to visit her. Where is she and what is her name?”
“She is staying at the Cathedral with the others who’ve only just arrived. Father Hough will bring you to her. Her name is Miriam.”
Thalberg nodded thoughtfully and then lowered his snout, staring straight down it toward the skunk. “Thank you, Kozaithy. You may tell Miriam that one used to being an alligator will be by to see her soon and help her find her place.”
Kozaithy smiled, her tail tip flitting back and forth. “Thank you, master Steward.” She bowed and backed toward the door. “I will tell her the good news at once.”
“One moment,” Thalberg said, stretching out one arm to bade her stay. “Please tell Miriam that no matter what she thinks, she is not a monster. She’s just an alligator. They are not monsters. And don’t let anyone flinch from her in fear.”
The skunk’s green eyes narrowed, but she nodded in understanding. “We have already been filthy lepers. I do not think you need to worry. But I will tell her what you said. Good night.”
“Good night.” Thalberg watched her leave, and then sat back down in his chair. It groaned beneath his weight, but for a moment, he felt none of it. Slowly, his yellow eyes turned back to the stacks of paper. He poured himself another tumbler full of wine and resumed his beloved duty to Metamor.
Duke Thomas leaned forward in his throne as he did his best to listen to the elderly woman who’d once been a tanner before the curses had made her a grandmother instead. As she carefully described her problem, Thomas found his mind slipping between the cracks in her narrative to a certain lovely Assingh now his wife. They’d been married for two days, yet he hadn’t spent more than two hours wife her outside the ducal chambers. Which meant his thoughts were on what they’d done in those bedchambers, which made it very difficult to concentrate on the mundane problems of his subjects.
Ever since the announcement had gone out that he would be in audience for his people for a few hours each day until the new year came, Keepers had lined up to be able to speak with him, something they had not been able to do in some time. Most, as he’d thought, came to congratulate him on his marriage. He received quite a few makeshift charms and tokens meant to aid them in conceiving a child, all of which would be quietly stored away or disposed. And a handful, such as this old woman, sought his personal aid.
He sometimes wished that there was some higher temporal authority to which he could turn for his grievances. But he was forced to trust the counsel of his advisors and make those decisions himself. He still wasn’t happy with the disposition of the guards, nor the arrangement of Metamor’s finances, but at least they were making some progress addressing those problems. The guard issue he knew would work itself out in the coming days and weeks. But the finances would prey on his mind for months, perhaps even years.
But at least now he had someone who could help make all those burdens seem as nothing. He smiled as he dwelt on Alberta, who even now saw to their horses that they might ride together later. And then he scolded himself when he realized that the woman wasn’t talking anymore.
“Forgive me,” Thomas said, with a warm smile, “but my mind has been wandering these last few days.”
The woman smiled knowingly, grey hair framing a face that would have been lovely if not for the wrinkles in her cheeks. “I remember when I first married, your grace. I understand. May the gods bless you both with long life and many children.”
“Thank you,” he smiled as broadly as his equine lips would allow. “Now tell me again what you wish of me.”
This time he was able to listen to her tale, and when she finished, promised her that he would have her son brought home from his scouting duty in the north before the new year that he could be with family again after so many months in the field. A scribe noted his name and his company, and he bid her good day. She left with a grateful smile, bow, and she nearly kissed his hooves so great was her joy.
Thomas’s soldiers shifted a little closer when the next petitioner stepped forward. Six men draped in dun-coloured woolen cloaks approached, each bearing chain mail beneath their cloaks. Their weapons would have been confiscated before they could enter the audience chamber, but their hands still hovered near the empty scabbards from habit. The lead man was broad of shoulder, stocky, with a light complexion and somewhat youthful face. His mail was lined with gold, though he could see no sign of heraldry on any of them.
“And who might you be, noble sir?” Thomas asked, sharing the unease of his soldiers.
The lead man threw back the hood of his cloak and stared up at the horse lord with impetuous dignity. “I am Lord William Dupré. Once the Baron of Mallow Horn, I have been exiled from my home and my family and warned under pain of death never to return. I and my men come before you, Duke of the Northern Midlands, to swear our fealty to you and to pledge to you our very lives.”
And then as one, Lord Dupré and his five men all fell to one knee, fists upon their chests in a knightly salute. Thomas blinked, long tail shifting uncertainly in the confines of the throne. His lips moved silently, stunned and incoherent. Neither Dupré nor his men looked up at him to see his confusion. The scribe completely dropped her quill and stared gape mouthed at the men. Whispers ricocheted through the line of Keepers waiting to see Thomas.
Thomas’s ears folded back a moment, and then he said the only thing he could. “I accept your pledge to me, Lord Dupré, but I must know why you have come to me to make this pledge, and why I should trust a man who has been exiled.”
William Dupré did not move, but his words carried a martial clarity that kept Thomas’s tail in agitation. “My former liege, Duke Titian Verdane, cast me from his land and from his house after I sowed discord in his lands under the orders of an evil man. This evil man controlled me with a magical deck of cards.”
“Deck of cards?” Thomas was very glad he was sitting, because if he hadn’t, he would have toppled onto his side. “The Marquis du Tournemire?”
“Aye, your grace. He controlled my actions and took everything from me. Verdane ordered that I be subjected to the curse of Metamor as part of my exile. But three days ago the Marquis’s hold over me was broken, and my mind was restored to me. I know you are an honourable man, your grace. I cannot return to my home, and so my men and I will make our new home here. It is my hope that I can be of service to you, your grace, if you will have me.”
Thomas took a deep breath, heart trembling. He’d seen what Marzac’s power had done to Kyia, but he also knew that the Marquis was dead and Marzac gone from this world. Whatever evil this man had done at the Marquis’s behest could not truly be laid at his feet. Still, what was he to do with this man who clearly meant to stay and suffer the Curses?
“I will need to time to consider your offer, Lord Dupré. For the time being, I order you to remain in the city. How long have you been in the Valley?”
“Three days now, your grace.”
Thomas lowered his equine brow and squinted at the men. In a much quieter voice he asked, “Did you see a flash of light three nights past?”
Dupré nodded. “For a moment I was a ram, your grace.”
“Do not speak of it to anyone, either you or your men. Where are you staying?” He made a note to ask Andwyn why the bat hadn’t warned him of Dupré’s arrival. A worse thought struck him — what if the bat hadn’t known at all? How could an exiled Midlander noble travel through his lands without the bat knowing? As much as it pained him, he was going to have to end his audience early today.
“The Shoeshine Inn,” William replied in a whisper, a small grin spreading over his weathered lips. “We will not venture out again until we have heard word from you, your grace.”
“See to it that you don’t, Lord Dupré. Now you and your men be off. Come when I call you without delay.”
“I am yours to command, my liege.” Dupré lowered his head further, then as one, all six men rose and walked from the audience chamber like a string of monks heading to cloister. All eyes followed them, voices dropping to whispers as they passed.
Thomas waited until they had departed before rising from his throne and shaking his head to the next petitioner. “You shall be first tomorrow. I must go.” The disappointed groans followed him and his guards as they left through a rear door.
Dressed in black habits from head to toe, the half dozen women of varying ages could not help but be conspicuous as they climbed through the rubble and half-standing buildings in one of the few areas of Metamor not repaired since last winter’s assault by the armies of Nasoj. They were made even more noticeable by the one woman confined to a chair with wheels attached that one of the other sisters would push about. This wheeled chair was often blocked by uncleared rubble, but the sisters managed.
“Here,” the eldest of them said as she laid weathered fingers against a wall that climbed from the ground at a diagonal to a height of six feet before disappearing back to the ground. The wall was good solid stone, perhaps were a chimney once stood. “We could have an altar placed against this wall.”
“Is it facing east?” the one pushing Tugal’s chair asked in a very quiet voice.
“Oh yes,” the reverend mother replied, her voice so rich and kind that it warmed the wintry air. “We can have a small chapel here for the Breaking of the Bread.” She turned around and gingerly walked the six feet to the remnants of another wall. “And here we can have the cloister wall. We’ll need to tear up the stones over there so we can make a garden.”
Tugal smiled a little as she watched the reverend mother let her imagination sweep her away with plans to turn this abandoned section of the city into something vibrant with life again. They hadn’t even been given permission yet, but that didn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm of any of the sisters. And their enthusiasm helped her. Kurt’s caravan had left early that morning, and already she could feel his absence.
But it would do her no good dwelling on that. She looked to the leaden sky and offered a prayer to Eli that Kurt would be safe. Her heart warmed with her A-men. She smiled to the other nuns and listened attentively to their plans.
Thomas paced back and forth in his private chambers even after Thalberg and Malisa arrived. His hooves were wearing a path through the decorative Kelewairan rug, an irony that he couldn’t bring himself to appreciate. But apart from asking his friends to sit, he didn’t say more until the bat Andwyn hobbled in through the door. Turning his long equine head on the bat, he frothed, “Why didn’t you tell me that an exiled South Midlander noble was moving through my lands and intended to swear fealty to me?”
Andwyn’s red eyes stared in surprise at Thomas, his fox-like ears turned to catch every sound. He pulled his wings around his chest as if to ward off the chill. “Your grace, I had only just learned of their presence in the city a few hours ago. I only learned of their intent when you did. They have moved very quietly and unobtrusively through your lands.”
Thomas stomped to the table, ignoring the alarmed wide-eyed stares of Malisa and Thalberg to keep his ire on the bat. “You’re my spymaster, Andwyn. You know what everyone has to break their fast before they do. How can you not have known that William Dupré was coming here?”
Andwyn lowered his head, his voice unsettled. “I did know that he had been exiled, but my spies were not able to learn where he was exiled to. Poor weather and a broken axle delayed my spy, and when he was able to get moving again, the trail had been obliterated. Whoever these men are, they are very good at concealing their tracks.”
“Surely they would have learned of them in Metamor. And why didn’t you warn me that he was in the city once you learned of it?”
The bat’s head lowered even further, his toe claws digging at the carpeting in frustration. “I thought it best to learn why they were in Metamor first. And as you would be in audience, I did not wish to distract you with such news. It never occurred to me that they might go to your audience!”
Thomas felt the heat in his chest begin to cool. Still, he glared down at his spymaster. “So why is it that it took you so long to come here?”
“I took a few minutes to move some of my spies about to keep a closer watch on Lord Dupré and his men, your grace. I will not lose him again!” This last was said with such fierce conviction that Thomas realized that Andwyn was as much angry with himself for missing this as he was.
“See that you don’t.” Thomas took a deep breath and then looked to Malisa and Thalberg. “Forgive me, but this has taken me by surprise. You recall the civil war in the Southern Midlands that came to an end a short time ago. Lord William Dupré was one of its antagonists. But it seems he was not wholly to blame. He had the misfortune of crossing the Marquis du Tournemire and was under his control.”
Malisa blanched. “The Marquis again! How much suffering has he caused?”
“Apparently the civil war was his doing. For some reason, it seems Verdane decided to exile Dupré to our lands so that he would suffer the curse. Dupré has taken it upon himself to swear fealty to me now. I am very wary about allowing the man who married Verdane’s daughter into my service, but I cannot very well refuse his fealty if he is so willing to offer it.”
“Thomas,” Thalberg said, yellow eyes intent. “I don’t know who this Dupré is or what he intends. But if he was once an intimate of Verdane, then he could provide valuable information to you. He could become a strong ally. But you should not keep him close or invite him into your inner circle. He should be kept somewhere where he can do no harm.”
“I agree,” Malisa added, her face regaining some of its colour. “But I think we should examine him magically to see what lingering effects the Marquis’s control has had over him. This is the first chance we’ve ever had to do that. Everyone else the Marquis has had collared is dead.”
“Sorry we’re late,” another voice announced as two figures came through the door. The pair, a jackal and a fox, both possessed the lingering scent of grime, though both had also donned fresh clothes to hide it. The jackal grinned wickedly. “We just had a little bit of trouble with a debriefing.”
Thomas frowned at the Patrolmaster. “Is it something we should know about?”
“Nothing important but I’ll put it into my next report.” George looked at the assembled advisors and stretched one arm behind his back. “So, what’s the occasion?”
“George, Misha, please sit,” Thomas suggested. “We’re discussing the arrival of a Southern Midlands noble who was exiled and sent here. He caught me by surprise in my audience an hour ago and tried to swear fealty to me.”
George snorted derisively, while Misha’s one ear folded back like a beast who’d smelled something they didn’t like. “What was he exiled for?” Misha asked.
“He was involved with the civil war,” Thomas replied. “He claims it was under the Marquis’s control.”
Misha jumped to his feet, fire in his eyes. “The Marquis! But he’s dead!”
“And why he says he’s no longer under his control.”
George tapped one claw to his chin and asked, “What young hothead is this who got himself exiled? And why in the world would he come here?”
Thomas ground his teeth together and said, “William Dupré, Baron of Mallow Horn. Or was at any rate. And he came here because he says being cursed is part of his punishment. Now he wants to serve me doing the gods know what.”
George’s ears perked and he sat up straight. “William Dupré? Dupré is here and swearing loyalty to you?”
Thomas nodded, eyes narrowing. “Yes. Do you know him?”
The jackal, upon whom all eyes had turned, laughed and slapped his thigh with one paw. “You should have accepted him right then and there! That man couldn’t tell a lie if he tried. Oh, he doesn’t always say the truth, but darn it if he doesn’t believe it’s the truth with all his heart. If he wanted to swear allegiance to you, then he meant it with all his heart. There’s not a deceptive bone in that man’s body. But don’t try to out flank him. He’s a devil on the battlefield.”
“You’ve fought at his side?” Misha asked in that curious surprise that a boy has on learning his father might have a new adventure story to tell.
“Against him. And lost.” George scratched at one arm as if the tale behind his words were nothing important. “Before his brother died and he inherited his title and lands, he lead that prick Verdane’s elite troops, the Wolf’s Claw.”
“The Wolf’s Claw?” Thalberg asked curiously. “An apt name for the House Verdane.”
“You’d say the same if you ever saw them in battle. They’re a cross between Misha’s Long Scouts and DeLaroque’s Knights of the Red Stallion. I made the mistake of thinking they were like any other troops. I had them surrounded, but my employer wanted Dupré alive, so I gave them a chance to surrender. Dupré, that brazen whelp, told me exactly how he was going to defeat my men. I laughed at him, and then he proceeded to do exactly what he said.” George shook his head. “I escaped, but only just. I had the scars from the four arrows he stuck in me until Metamor did this to me.” He gestured as his dusty coat of fur and then shrugged. “He then proceeded to slaughter my employer and chased what was left of my men almost to Marigund.”
George turned his eyes to the Duke and narrowed them. “Pardon me for saying it, your grace, but you’d be a fool to turn this man away.”
“We don’t know whether we can trust him,” Thomas replied. “Apart from what you’ve told us, we do not know him that well.”
“Then the bat here isn’t doing his job,” George snapped, gesturing at Andwyn.
Andwyn narrowed his red eyes. “The battle George is referring to had as its genesis an unscrupulous merchant in Mitok who was making a fortune illegally transporting various magical artifacts. One of these ended up being used to assassinate one of Titian Verdane’s cousins. The merchant hired George and his band of mercenaries to protect his interests.”
George’s eyes raised a bit. “Okay, you have been doing your job. So why don’t you know enough about Dupré?”
“It isn’t his past that I do not know of. I met him myself when I served our ambassador in Kelewair,” Andwyn replied rather testily. “It is his part in the recent civil war that is shrouded in mystery. And why Verdane would exile him here.”
“I admit,” Misha said with a moue, “that has me suspicious. I trust your judgement George, but you have to admit this is pretty odd.”
“Why? This is the perfect place to exile somebody. They’ll never be able to leave.”
“Not if they become a woman like me,” Malisa pointed out. “Or a child.”
George growled under his breath. “Fine! I’ll go talk to him.”
“Talk to him?” Thomas asked, ears lifted and tail still.
“Aye, talk to him face to face. I’ll find out from his own mouth what in all the hells he’s doing here.”
Thomas nodded and breathed a sigh of relief. This was exactly the sort of thing he wanted. George could talk to Dupré as a fellow soldier. And George was, if anything, blunt. And if he was right about Dupré, so was his newest subject. “Thank you, George. We’ll hold off any further discussions about what to do about William Dupré until you’ve had a chance to speak with him.”
George leaned back in his seat and appeared satisfied. “It’ll have to be tomorrow. I’ve got too any patrols to reorganize today to do anything else. Where’s he staying?”
“The Shoeshine Inn,” Andwyn replied. “He has five men with him.”
“That’s fine. I’ll go by myself.”
“You sure?” Misha asked, putting a paw on his friend’s shoulder.
“Yeah. Dupré will appreciate the ballsy approach.”
Thomas tried not to laugh, and failed. “Thank you, George. Let us know what you learn. Until then, I suggest we return to our many duties.” Misha and George were the first out the door, pausing only long enough to bow their heads to their liege.
Sir Egland’s breath misted in the air as he sat astride Galadan watching Alberta run Povunoth in circles around the empty field between the castle and the northern bailey walls of Metamor. He was used to her grace in the saddle, but he wasn’t used to the quartet of guards who stood by uneasily keeping a watchful eye on her and him and his squire. Intoran was noticeably uncomfortable, pacing back and forth looking for something to do.
As much as they unsettled him, the elk knight was more bothered by the lack of antlers on his head. They’d fallen off last night, and even though he’d hoped that their weight would leave his head and poor strained neck, the abrupt lightness made him feel dizzy. Not to mention somewhat less of a man, something that he had a hard time explaining even to himself.
He lifted one hoof-like hand and rubbed it over his empty head and sighed, sending another gust of mist into the air. One of the guards, a large bull named Andhun, glanced at him and asked, “Is something wrong, Sir Egland?”
Egland lowered his arm and turned his head to the bull and quickly regretted the sudden flash of vertigo. “I just lost my antlers last night. Still not used to the way my head feels. Oooh.”
“Not sure what I’d do without my horns,” Andhun replied, and the woman next to him chuckled. “It’s true! I just feel stronger with my horns.”
Egland and Intoran both nodded in understanding, while the woman continued to chuckle. “And run into doors and walls too.” The other two guards, a teenager and a warthog, both guffawed. Egland and Intoran nodded at that comment too.
All their heads turned as Alberta rode up alongside. Povunoth stamped his hooves and snorted with the desire to gallop again. Alberta’s equine brow was bright with long ears upraised. “Wilt thee sit there watching me or shalt thee join me in a run, T’samut?”
Egland gestured with one hand at the castle. “I thought you wanted to wait for your husband, Yisaada.”
Alberta shook her head, long tail flicking from one flank of Povunoth to the other. “Thomas hast been detained. Some southern noble. ‘Tis a matter of state, but he didst promise to come later.” There was disappointment in her voice, but she could not help but glow when she spoke her husband’s name. She took a long breath, her deep brown eyes studying the castle with afternoon sun in the distance. “He wilt need to come soon, but he wilt come.”
“Then let us ride together for a bit, until he comes,” Egland agreed, though hoping his antler-less head wouldn’t betray him.
The ground was level at this end of the ridge, though beyond the curtain wall it sloped precipitously. Egland well recalled the night one year ago that he had navigated that incline in his beastly form with Sir Saulius strapped to his back. That night he’d been chasing Alberta, then still his brother in knightly arms, Albert, who had kidnapped the Duke and rode him like a common beast to the south. An evil wizard had fixated him on the idea of making Thomas a breeding stallion of the Steppe, and an enchanted halter had given him the chance to make it so.
But Egland had helped stop him and ultimately break the halter’s hold over Thomas. And yet, despite the evil that had brought them together, a true love had developed between Thomas and Alberta. What could never have been conceived elsewhere, in what must surely have been the most bizarre of courtships in all of history, had finally led to a Ducal wedding in Metamor with the former Steppelands knight.
The elk snorted in amusement when he realized that Alberta would be using Thomas for breeding, but not quite in the way originally intended.
The pair of them galloped at a decent enough pace to drive the biting air through their furry hides. Alberta’s long tail was drawn straight behind her, while the thick fur around Egland’s neck hunched back to his shoulders. He could smell the threat of snow in the air, but with a body suited to the north, the thought of more winter weather rarely bothered him. Galadan, his steed, wasn’t as keen on it, and he could feel his horse’s irritation at galloping through the white froth vibrating up through the saddle.
But he still loved to run. Both he and Povunoth demonstrated their knightly training with verve, and by the time they’d made three circuits of the field, they were snorting and champing for more. Egland bleated his delight and Alberta brayed as they rounded one last time. And that’s when they noticed that there were several more faces on the field than had been there a moment before.
“Thomas!” Albeta cried, turning Povunoth back toward where Intoran, the guards, and now her husband waited. The Duke of Metamor was perched on a stately black steed who stomped his hooves with regal indignation. Thomas lifted the reins to turn the stallion, but Alberta was upon him. She wrapped and arm around his shoulders as Povunoth clattered to a stop, and yanked him half out of the saddle and hugged him as equines do with their necks.
“Alberta! You looked beautiful out there!” Thomas said with an exasperated laugh. His guards had as one moved toward them, before remembering that this was his wife and not a would be attacker. They backed off, smiling to each other and watched.
“‘Tis a lovely afternoon for a ride. Didst thy affairs tax thee?”
Thomas shook his head. “No more than usual. I will speak of them later. Right now, I just want to enjoy this evening with you.”
Egland rode up behind them, but then pulled Galadan to a halt. He patted the steed on the neck as he watched Alberta and Thomas lead their horses in a steady trot through the snow. The guards all watched them go too. Egland wasn’t quite sure what to feel himself, when he felt the strong grip of Intoran’s hands holding Galadan’s reins steady. “They do look lovely together,” the oryx said softly.
“Aye, they do indeed,” Egland agreed. He turned his head smoothly, missed the familiar whistle of his antlers, and smiled at his squire as best his cervine snout would allow. “They do indeed.” Intoran returned the warmth with a gentle parting of his muzzle, and then the two of them joined the guards in watching the Duke and Duchess ride hand in hand.
Thalberg’s morning had been consumed by preparations for the new year’s feast. He’d spent three hours alone in the kitchens making sure that they had sufficient supplies for the bevy of courses that would be served. The next hour had been dedicated to reviewing places at the banquet for the gentry and other distinguished guests. With the Ducal wedding only a week past, few of the valley nobles would be in attendance, which meant the feast would feature many of the wealthier merchants and a large contingent of Metamor’s knights, soldiers, and scouts, as well as a few mages. But that was good too. Thomas needed to maintain strong ties to all the leaders of Metamor.
But after a brief midday meal, Thalberg finally cleared enough of his workload away that he was able to fulfill his promise to the white skunk. Kozaithy had spoken of a refuge who had become an alligator like himself, one who might be a valuable addition to his staff. He hoped he would be able to help her with both.
The Ecclesia Cathedral nestled in one corner of the Keep, hidden away until revealed by Madog a year and a half ago. Sunlight streamed through the tall stained-glass windows, though none of them were visible from outside the castle. Thalberg had only been in the Cathedral a few times, being Lothanasi himself, but he instinctively knew that he trod upon holy ground each time he set foot beneath its arched doorway.
In the early afternoon the sanctuary was mostly empty. Father Hough held the Breaking of the Bread each morning and then left the consecrated bread in a monstrance for the faithful to adore. That still stood on the altar, resplendent in gold with the multi-hued light glinting like a the Ducal gardens in full bloom along its polished surface. The monstrance held in a central receptacle one piece of the consecrated bread, while around it radiating like rays of light were the arms of the yew upon which their deity had been sacrificed. Thalberg narrowed his yellow eyes as he gazed at the sight which rapt the half-dozen Keepers kneeling in prayer. He did not know if he understood it or not, but it was true devotion.
Thalberg stared for a full minute before he could tear his eyes away and look for somebody not in prayer. He saw a young man dressed in a white smock. Too old to not have been cursed; he must have been a girl a year or two back. Thalberg knew he should know his name, but it escaped him just then. The young man was busy adding fresh candles to a side altar festooned with mosaics of angels surrounding a woman of immaculate beauty and simplicity.
He looked up when the alligator approached on heavy feet. “Master Steward,” the man said in a polite but not servile manner, “what may we do for you?”
Thalberg cracked his jaw and placed his hands together, “I’m looking for Father Hough...”
“Ramad,” the youth supplied.
“Raman,” Thalberg repeated, recalling now that this young man was studying to be an Ecclesia priest. “I’m looking for Father Hough, where is he?”
“He’s hearing Confessions right now. And for the next few hours. I could tell him you’re in need of him.”
Thalberg shook his head, and then lowered his voice. “I don’t truly need to see him. I’m here to see somebody in his care. One of the refugees of Bradanes. Miriam by name.”
Ramad smiled, his handsome countenance brightening with a cursed-begot charm. “Ah, I see. I will show you where she is. Come.” Thalberg followed him toward the front of the sanctuary, and through a door set just out of view along one side. This led to a small hallway lit only by braziers at both ends and several small south-facing windows. Doors led off to either side. Ramad took the third, and Thalberg immediately felt a wall of warmth strike him.
The room was modest with a single cot and a meagre table on which Miriam could lay her things. Most of one wall was dominated by a hearth which was kept ablaze. A stack of wood occupied what little space remained. Wrapped in heavy, grey woolen blankets was another alligator. Her snout was slender and green, with familiar yellow eyes perched atop the wide end, and bright white fangs descending across her lower jaw. She kept her body covered in the blankets, but he could still see the scaled hands ending in black claws, and the tip of the broad and lengthy tail poking out the back like a rat testing the air for cats. Even through the pleasing aroma of woodsmoke, he could smell on her the same sort of dry musk that clung to his chambers.
Though he’d never seen a woman become an alligator, there was still something distinctly feminine in her shape, despite the fact that like all reptiles, her chest bore no mammalian characteristics. He couldn’t quite decide why, but there was no doubt in his mind that this was a woman.
“Oh,” she said, turning to stare at him. She climbed to her feet, the cot springing back up behind her. Her long tail rested on its edge, but he could see its contour beneath the blankets. “You must be the Steward Thalberg.” Her voice was slurred, but not as bad as he’d feared.
“That I am,” he replied. He turned to Ramad and said, “Thank you for bringing me here.”
Ramad immediately understood. “If you have need of anything, I’ll be in the sanctuary.” With that he left and Thalberg gently closed the door behind him.
“I’m told that you only finished changing a few days ago, Miriam.”
She nodded, an awkward thing for an alligator as the end of her jaw swung nearly a foot up and down. “Aye. I’m so cold.”
Thalberg gestured to the fire. “You’re doing the right thing. But you are always going to be a little cold here at Metamor. Our species dwells in the rivers and swamps far to the south. You’ll learn to live with it and do what you can to keep warm. You won’t be able to go outside for a few months, but it can be quite pleasant in the Summer here.”
Miriam turned her snout toward the fire, her yellow eyes reflecting the flames. “I’ve never seen an al... al...”
“Alligator,” Thalberg finished. “And neither had I. Being Steward to Duke Thomas means that I am very busy, but I will set aside what time I can to help you adjust. First, you’ll need good thick clothes and a more permanent place to stay. You should also spend time talking with others, it will help you learn to use your tongue as I have. And then you’ll need to find a way to support yourself.” Thalberg paused and inhaled deeply. “I’m told that your father was the Steward of Bradanes. Did he have you do anything for him?”
“Oh aye,” Miriam replied earnestly. She turned to face him more fully, long tail sliding off the cot with a whump. “I helped in the kitchens, learned how to attend to milady Bradanes, and even got to pick out a guard or two for milord from time to time.” The words were slurred, and she stumbled over a few of them, but Thalberg understood well enough.
“You picked guards for Lord Bradanes?”
She lowered her snout, paws tightening around her middle, the scales on her palms rasping against each other. “There was one, Desmond. I fancied him as a girl. He used to bring me treats from the village.”
Thalberg surprised himself when he laughed, a loud boisterous sound that bellowed from his gut. It took Miriam by surprise who flinched back a step. The crocodilian Steward held out his hand to steady her, and did his best to smile. “Forgive me, you took me by surprise. How old are you, Miriam?”
She did not lift her eyes to him, but she did appear to relax. “I am just shy of my twenty-fourth year.”
“You never married?”
“My father had trouble finding a husband for my older sister. She was betrothed only a month before the sickness came.” Miriam sat back on the cot, fidgeting to shift her heavy tail aside. “My tongue hurts.”
“You’ll get used to it. I wish I could stay longer, Miriam, but I have many duties that need my attention. Do not fear. I will help you. I will have something sent for you to eat that you will find more to your taste. Practice speaking as much as you can. I know it hurts. Our tongues move differently than they did when we were human. And our lips do not move much at all. Speak with the back of your throat and you’ll find it easier.”
Miriam sat patiently, nodding less vigorously, and looked up at him. “Thank you, good sir.”
Thalberg took a deep breath and added, “I will also do what I can to find a place for you on my staff if you wish. It’ll keep you in the castle where you can be warm, doing things you will know how to do.”
Her whole body quivered, and she looked as if she wanted to bound off the cot and hug him about his waist. She started forward, then paused and leaned back on the cot. Her yellow eyes gazed down her snout and into her pebbly hands. “Thank you.”
Thalberg saw the consideration in her gaze, and rumbled deep in his chest. “You will learn to accept it in time, Miriam. I did. So can you. Now I must go, but I will send for you when I can.”
She looked up at him, as if really seeing him for the first time. Her yellow eyes went from his booted feet and long green tail, to his red robes which concealed everything, up to his yellow and green jaws and his pockmarked leathery hide. Lastly she settled on his slit eyes perched on either side of his head. “Do I look as you do?”
“Better,” Thalberg replied. He immediately felt embarrassed, and his chest fuming, he excused himself and gently shut the door. He stomped away growling at himself.