by Charles Matthias

Well, what do you think?” Coe asked the Lothanasa as she leaned over the prone figure. The priestess’s eyes were cold as she examined the knight’s form, pulling back the lips several times. Bryonoth continued to lay there, completely limp, as if she’d been a marionette whose strings had been cut. Standing back a few paces, the raccoon healer has his arms crossed before his chest.

Raven frowned, her ears folding back slightly as he tail tried to wind it’s way between her legs. “It’s so very odd,” she said at last, straightening up. She pulled the blanket up over the knight’s figure once more, right up to her chin. “It appears as if the curse is changing her. But that’s not possible.”

“I know. She was once a man. But you can’t deny there is something wrong with her teeth.”

She nodded slowly. “And there is more that I can see. Ah, Rickkter, you’ve arrived.” She nodded to the other raccoon as he stepped in through the doorway. “We need your mage sight. Come, take a look at her.”

Rickkter glanced between Coe and Raven for a moment before his eyes settled upon the figure laying recumbent upon the bed. “Bryonoth? What’s happened now?”

“Just look and see.” Raven suggested, stepping back a pace.

Rickkter nodded and narrowed his gaze. His eyes stared past her form, and his fur seemed to stand on end for a moment. The striped tail slowed in its swaying, the individual strands of fur being lifted by the very air. And then, he drew back and shook his head. “That’s not possible. It looks like the curse is melding with her again.”

“That is the same thing that I saw,” Raven admitted. “But how can it do that. It already touched her once.”

“Well,” Coe offered, his voice brusque. “It’s not impossible to be touched by two different curses. It has happened before.”

“But rarely,” Raven cautioned. “And only in very strange circumstances.”

The mage grunted, a churring sound that struck her as odd. “I think we can safely say her circumstances are strange.” Rickkter frowned and took a few steps forward. “But why did this happen, that’s what I want to know.”

“I took down some thoughts about her condition when I returned,” Raven said, though mostly to herself. “I am going to have a look at those notes once again. I just wish to study her for a few more minutes.”

Rickkter meanwhile had drawn back the blanket and begun examining her body with clinical precision. He lifted her arms, felt along her wrists. He gently pulled on her fingernails as well as flexed her fingers. “Her joints seem to be normal. No changes there. Arms look completely human still.”

“Almost all of her does,” Coe pointed out. “I only saw any difference in her teeth.”

“Her teeth?” Rickkter asked, and his tail flicked to one side. He bent over her face and pulled back her lips, and grimaced. “Yes, they are definitely bigger than they should be. They don’t look predatory though.”

“That’s what I thought as well,” the other raccoon added. “Aside from those teeth, she seems to be normal to me. I can tell that she is sleeping deeply at the moment. I’m not going to try to wake her just yet. Sir Egland said that she had a spasm of pain when the change came.”

“Yes, he would have been there. Who else knows of this?”

“His squire Intoran helped bring her in,” Coe replied. “I sent letters to both Raven and you at his request.” He glanced at the Lothanasa intently then.

“And I sent one other note,” Raven admitted, paws folded before her. “To one who asked to be kept informed of her condition.”

“Who?” Rickkter asked, when there was a sudden stirring at the door. He turned his head back, and saw another figure burst through, his eyes wide with apprehension. “Your grace,” he cried in surprise. “What are you doing here?”

Thomas looked back and forth across the four figures in the room. “I was summoned.” His eyes met them all once before settling upon Bryonoth. “How is she?”

“Sleeping, your grace,” Coe said, his voice taking on a tone of respect. “And changing.”

“Changing?” Thomas asked, his brow furrowing, both his ears turned forward now.

Raven nodded. “Yes, your grace, changing. Somehow, we don’t know how yet, but the curse has taken a hold of her again. It looks like it is the animal curse, the same that has struck each of us. What animal, we do not know yet.”

Thomas’s frown deepened, and he could not help but lift one hoof and set it down again. “Has she awoken since this began?”

“No,” the Healer replied. “She was only brought here an hour ago.”

“I want to be informed the minute she wakes again.” He turned then to both Rickkter and Raven. “Both of you, figure out what is happening to her and why. If this is some devilry left over by.... I need to know. Do what you can, both of you.”

“We will, your grace.” Raven said, opening her paws before her. “Are you feeling well?”

“Since then you mean?” Thomas shot back. “Fine enough. There is much still I need to know. And I was learning it when your note arrived. I must get back there and apologize to them. But you three have work to do. Brian, please keep her warm and comfortable. And if she wakes, I want to know.”

“I will send a note at once the moment she rises, your grace.”

“And we shall figure this out. Can’t be harder than last time,” the raccoon mage muttered. Thomas nodded once to them, and then gave a last long look at the sleeping figure before leaving. “Of course,” Rickkter added in sour tones, “I shouldn’t bring down bad luck by saying something like that.”

“Ill luck or no,” the wolf priestess mused, “we should return with our notes.”

“Agreed. Return in an hour?”

“Yes, that will do. Brian, do take care of her in our absence.”

The Healer crossed his arms and nodded his head somewhat indignantly. “Don’t you worry about that, Lothanasa. She’ll be fine in my care.”

Nodding slowly, Raven took one last look at the recumbent knight. A slight shudder seemed to race up along her side, and then all was still agin. An almost half-smile lay upon her lips. Turning, Raven slipped from the room, the raccoon mage following close behind.

There were three of them, and an odder group he’d not likely to find anywhere. The most ostentatious was the beaver man, his fur a medley of red and black squares, as if his body were to be used as a chess board. The second was only slightly less distinctive, though the wide antlers that adorned his head, and the almost comical set to the moose’s face made him stand apart in the crowd. But the last, and by far the most normal looking, was also the most interesting to him. A tall broad man with an axe slung across his back with his red beard done up in braids. This was a man he had seen before, and who had now come as he knew they all would.

“Ah, can I interest you men in something to pass the time? A way to play a game of chance?” he called out to the three who were laughing as they made their way through the market. Their eyes had already found the booth and the three men standing watch over it, but now at the sound of his voice, their curiosity led them closer.

“What are you selling?” the plaid beaver asked, his small eyes looking down at the counter-top, and seeing only a set of cards arrayed out in a geometric pattern. Some were face up, showing numbers and symbols, and sometimes the pictographs of Kings, Queens, Priests, or Knights. Others were face down, and their backs were blue in colour, with an intricate design of swords and castles.

“Though all I carry to sell are cards,” he said, gesturing to the arrangement before them, “they themselves can provide far more than a bit of hard paper. They can speed up time. They can create or destroy wealth. They can make enemies friends, and friends enemies. The power of cards is without compare.”

“They’re very nice,” the bearded man said as he ran fingers across the back of one card. “But what use would a lumberjack have for cards? Can they chop down trees?”

He smiled at that. “I did not say they could do all. They are meant for a pasttime. To amuse oneself, and possibly enrich oneself. But do not deny that there are days when you have aught to do but sit and wait, my good lumberjack. It is on such days that these cards could be your greatest friend.”

“It would be nice,” the moose said. “And these look pretty durable.”

His smile did not change. “I have fashioned them myself from the finest of vellums.”

“I suppose a deck of cards would be nice. I learned a few games before I came to Metamor,” the beaver mused, his clawed and webbed fingers stretching over the arrangement, altering it slightly. The man could feel a light breeze through his leggings as he watched.

“I would be happy to sell a deck to you for ten silvers.”

It was the bearded man who snorted. “Ten? I’d not pay more than two.”

“They do seem nice,” the moose added, “But ten silvers? Two seems fair to me.”

He looked to the beaver then, his smile waned only slightly at the rejection of his earlier price. Haggling was a necessity, especially if he should have what he wanted. “And you there, good man? Is two silvers all you wish to pay?”

The beaver looked surprised by this question and then nodded his head. “Yes, that seems fair to me.”

“Good!” he declared, smiling wider. “Then for two silvers each, you shall have it.”

The bearded man laughed then, and fished into his pouch. “Two silvers each? Cleverly done. I’ll pay it.” Both the moose and the beaver laughed as well and placed their coins upon the table. The older overweight man with spectacles at his side took up the coins while the broad man of his company watched the three Keepers.

When the coin was collected, the drew out from under the counter a small bronze case. “The cards are inside. I am sure you shall find them to your satisfaction. By all means have a look.”

The three did, and the gust of wind that filled the air flipped several of the cards upon the counter. “Now, if you two would excuse us,” he gestured to the beaver and the moose, there is something more I wish to show your friend.”

“Of course”, they both agreed, blinking in complacent surprise. They both went off, carrying the bronze case of cards with them. He smiled as they went. The red bearded man stared sullenly at him, face slack.

Reaching beneath the counter one more time, he drew out a mahogany case that was inlaid with gold filigree. “I have a special deck of cards that I would like to show you, good man. Do take a closer look.”

The bearded northerner nodded his head, and peered down at the case. The card seller opened the case, and showed the highly ornate cards within. A banner was snapping in the wind in the distance. His fingers felt the edge of the deck, tasting the edges until the thrill of it came to him. The right card. It was like a small jolt of energy and the intoxicating taste of absinthe balled into one.

He turned that card over to reveal the Seven of Hearts. There was a figure there amongst the symbols, a red-haired northerner whose beard was fashioned into twin braids. “That’s me!” he proclaimed in surprise.

“And it feels like you too.”

Reaching forward, the Keeper stroked his fingers across the card and nodded. The gust of wind was so sudden, that one of the normal cards upon the table flew off, and the fat coin-keeper had to rush out after it.

“You may go now,” the seller said, his smile tight, voice firm. “Enjoy your deck, my good man.”

The northerner nodded, turned, and departed. Still smiling, he put the ornate cards back in their case, closed it, and set it once more underneath the counter for safe keeping. The first had come. He only had to wait for the rest.

“Well,” Thomas said after inviting them to sit once more at his table, “it seems the mischief of Zagrosek has not yet ended at Metamor.” Their eyes all grew larger, and he could feel them leaning forward to catch his next words. “I’ve returned from the Healer’s quarters as some of you probably already know,” he did not glance at Andwyn, but he was thinking of the bat. “Dame Bryonoth has just fallen victim to the curses again.”

“How?” Malisa asked, her face a sudden mix of emotions. Thomas well knew Malisa’s earnest desire to once more be a man, one that seemed never to be fulfilled. Hearing that another was facing the curses again could only remind her that it might be possible.

“I don’t know yet. Both Raven and Rickkter are examining her and hope to have an answer for us soon. But none of us expected this to occur.”

“And there is another question that bothers me, your grace.” Thalberg said, leaning forward even more over the table. “If this is happening to Bryonoth, who is to say it will not happen to you too?”

Thomas blinked and then frowned. “I had not thought of that.” He met the stony gaze of his Steward and stared into those yellow eyes. Thalberg regarded him inquisitively, as if reproaching him for not having considered the question before, but also with anxiety. There was no doubt that Thalberg’s first thought was always on the safety of not only himself, but of the entire Hassan line. It was a comforting thought.

“But until we know why it has happened to Bryonoth, we can have no idea whether I will succumb as well. We should wait to hear from Raven and Rickkter first. Then we will better be able to judge if I am in any danger.”

Malisa frowned and shook her head. “Although both you and Dame Bryonoth were touched by the magic of the halter, I suspect that it would take more than just that device to render you vulnerable to the curse. I can still see it around you and merged with you, the curse that is.”

“You can?”

“Yes. It is a black mass that inhabits each of us. Not like the stain of evil, but more like tar that clings to us.” Malisa gazed at her adoptive father for a long moment. “I see no difference in the way the curse touches you now, than the way it did before Bryonoth put the halter on you that first time.”

“Well, let us hope that you never see a difference.” He took a deep breath then, casting his eyes once quickly to the bat who had yet to say anything. Andwyn was standing on his perch, wings folded around his front. He only wore a blue vest, as anything more would restrict his movement. The bat’s expression though was one of concerned interest. There was no hint in his small, red eyes of anything else.

Returning his attention to Malisa and Thalberg, he said, “But we must keep an eye on Dame Bryonoth. She has suffered enough. I want to know if what is ailing her now is simply the curse, or something more nefarious at work. I’ve asked Raven and Rickkter to examine her, and once they have results, to inform me. I will then inform you.”

He leaned back some then, and looked once more at the small stack of reports that still topped the mahogany desk. “Now, we were discussing matters abroad. What else is there for us to know?”

Andwyn finally stirred on his perch, happy to provide. “There is one more matter relating to the brewing war that we should consider, your grace. Joy’s Legacy.”

“The mine?” Thomas asked, narrowing his eyes.

“Yes, the mine. The mithril mine,” Andwyn continued. “The surveys that we’ve had done of that cave indicate that there is more mithril down there than any previous find in all of human history. I have checked. The figures in the library are incomprehensible to me, but Keep engineers tell me that it is beyond compare. We have kept this quiet for now, with only the few engineers and surveyors we’ve had at that sight knowing about it.”

“In addition to those Murikeer told before he left,” Thalberg pointed out.

“I think we can trust their discretion,” Andwyn said, nodding in acknowledgement. “But once we begin to mine the mithril, word will reach the ears of the likes of Duke Verdane. How long do you think it will take before he and others march with all their armies on Metamor to claim the mine if they knew of its existence?”

Thomas looked to Malisa, but his Prime Minister simply shook her head. “It won’t take long,” she said through pursed lips. “If they know there is mithril in the valley, they will want to control it, no matter the cost.”

“Couldn’t we hide it for a time?” Thalberg asked, his yellow eyes thoughtful and disturbed.

“For a time,” Malisa replied, her face filled with unpleasant possibilities, “but not for a very long time. Having the mithril in the vaults doesn’t do us much good unless we actually use it.”

“We could loan out the gold and silver in the vaults,” Thalberg pointed out. “Replace it with mithril until we can gain a stronger hand in the Midlands.”

“Which we will achieve how?” Malisa turned on the Steward, her voice lecturing, but there was no joy in it. Thomas could feel the new level of uncertainty that the bat had managed to bring to them all with the mere mention of this issue.

“The mithril,” Thomas interjected, “will become a source of power for us, one that we can use to keep this valley secure. But we have to make sure that our hold over the mithril is secure first. Who is our chief threat to the mine?”

“Duke Verdane,” Malisa replied without hesitation. “If we control a source of mithril, his intentions of expanding his base of power will be dealt a severe blow. He’d have no choice but to go to war over the mine.”

“But he couldn’t hold it,” Thomas pointed out. “The mine is under the boundary of the curse. Anybody who tried to work it would become like us.”

“True,” Andwyn pointed out, his wings fluttering a bit at his sides. “But there are ways around that. If he were to level the castle, then to defend the valley he’d merely need fortresses built at either end outside the range of the curse. Then he could have a mining town for convicts be built to claim the mithril. We ourselves could become his slaves. All he would need is to have the ore shipped. He could have it transported south of the valley to have it processed. None who would benefit from it need ever risk exposing themselves after the initial campaign is over. And Verdane himself might even risk the curse to claim that mine. Especially if he knows how large it is.”

Thomas nodded slowly then. “Are there any allies we can gain in this fight?”

“Whales perhaps,” Malisa said. “But they would do us no good if Verdane marches on us. He can hug the mountains the whole way in and never be in reach of the Whalish fleet.”

“So it may be that we must hope his civil war actually intensifies,” Thalberg murmured morosely. “Is there no way we can prevent others from knowing that we possess this mine?”

“There are several things we can do,” Andwyn replied, a slight grin returning to his features once more. “I do not think we can have any hope of preventing the Midlands from learning of the mithril. So we must simply make people believe it comes from somewhere else.”

“From where?” Thomas asked, wondering what insidious scheme the bat might be concocting now.

“From the Giantdowns of course,” Andwyn replied, a smile stretching over his snout. He scratched his upturned nose with the edge of one wing. “Let us spread rumours that Nasoj has found mithril in the Death Mountains, and is using that to gather an army.”

“Verdane and others will simply send spies to the Giantdowns and discover that it is not true,” Malisa pointed out, though the slack look of inevitable doom had left her features.

“Yes, they will,” Andwyn agreed. “And we will need to be ready for them. They will have to pass through Metamor on their way to the North. We cannot stop them here, or Verdane will know what we are up to. But we should have our own men ready in Politzen and Starven to intercept them before they are able to find anything more.”

“You can’t stop them all,” Thalberg pointed out. “Eventually Verdane and the others will discover the truth.”

The bat nodded slowly. “Yes, that is true. But the diversion will gain us time to make other alliances to prevent our enemies from striking.”

“Who are our enemies?” Thomas asked, tapping his hoof-like hands on the table. He felt a strange sort of impatience coming over him. For some reason, the image of Dame Bryonoth laying in that bed, her teeth changed oddly was beginning to fill his mind. He would worry about her later. “We know that Verdane will be forced to march against us, but he may be bogged down in a civil war. If not him, who then will strike? Sathmore? Can we count on them not trying to take the valley? They certainly have the forces to do it.”

“Sathmore would have to cross Verdane’s land as well as our own,” Malisa pointed out. “They could sail troops in, but if we have Whales as an ally, that would be very risky.” She shook her head then. “No, the only fear we have from Sathmore is a religious one, not military.”

“Explain that.”

“The Lothanasi High Council will almost certainly become involved in any negotiations. Raven’s position on the Council will become more tenuous if we do not make certain concessions.” Malisa blanched. “There may even be a vote to remove her from the Council if we do not cooperate to some degree.”

“What sort of concessions might they ask for?” Thomas wasn’t sure he wanted to hear the answer.

“It may be something simple such as a certain portion of all mithril mined be shipped to Elvquelin. Or, if the civil war in the Southern Midlands turns into a holy war, they may try to force us to bring that war to our own domain. They may seek to have the Patildor presence in Metamor curtailed or removed completely.”

“If that is the case,” Thomas said through clenched teeth, “then I say damn them.”

“Perhaps not in their hearing,” Andwyn suggested.

“I will not turn against my own people for their sake. If they want some mithril, fine, we can give it to them. But I will not bring the holy war to Metamor. No matter what else, that has to be made clear.”

“They may not ask for that,” Malisa pointed out, her own voice strained. “But we should be ready if it does come.”

“I am ready now,” Thomas declared, fighting the heat he felt in his voice. “What of the other nations?”

“Pyralis is too far to mount any serious campaign,” Malisa went on, her eyes looking inward. “They may logistically support Verdane, but it would not amount to much. Whales has never shown an interest in acquiring power beyond it’s control of the Western Seas. There are no organized forces in the Giantdowns capable of striking just now. Yesulam might desire it, but they would act through others if at all. The city states of the Southlands may not hear about the mithril for years to come. That leaves only the Outer Midlands.”

“What of them? Will Duke Otakar try to strike for the mine?”

Malisa pursed her lips once more and took a deep breath. “If they do, they would have to rush over all the cities north of the Marchbourne first. But they just might.”

“Unless Verdane is willing to negotiate a deal with Otakar,” Thalberg mused. “The Red Wolf has long sought an alliance with Salinon. He married his son off to one of Otakar’s nieces after all.”

“A wife who died only two weeks after the wedding,” Andwyn said as if he were discussing the weather. “Quite tragic.”

“Even so, if Verdane and Otakar were to come to some agreement, then how could we possibly stand against their combined forces?”

“Quite simply,” Malisa replied, her tone sharp, “we cannot. If both the Southern and Outer Midlands are arrayed against us, we will fall. We need to make sure that one or the other stays out of the fight, or that there is no fight to begin with.”

“There will be a war,” Andwyn predicted calmly. “I do not see how it can be avoided, only delayed and possibly won.”

“Otakar is by far the more natural choice for an ally,” Malisa went on, casting a slightly annoyed glance at the bat. “We share no border with the Outer Midlands, so it is harder for him to attack. But, he does share a very long border with the Southern Midlands. If Salinon were to ally with us, then Duke Verdane may not risk an attack at all.”

“May not?”

“Verdane would never leave his own territory undefended. And if he were to attack Metamor with enough strength to defeat us, he would have to leave himself open on his Eastern border.”

“He could hire Steppe raiders,” Thalberg pointed out. “His treasury is not lean.”

“Nor is it deep enough to empty the Steppe, which is what he would need to do,” Malisa added, a smile beginning to grow on her face. “Yes, I think we need to make an alliance with Duke Otakar of Salinon if we are to have any hope of avoiding war with Duke Verdane.”

“But what can we promise Otakar?” Thomas asked, tapping his chin thoughtfully. An alliance with the Outer Midlands did have its possibilities. But Otakar would want more than just a piece of paper with fancy words upon it. Though they had never met, what he had heard of the man told him that much. He was not a man to forget slights easily.

“Mithril for one,” Thalberg groused, obviously unhappy with the direction the conversation was heading. “And if it does come to war, perhaps part of the Southern Midlands as well.”

“That is not ours to promise,” Thomas pointed out. “And I am not going to start a war over a mine that we already possess.” He rubbed his forehead slowly then, and held up the other to forestall any other from speaking. “That is my decision for now. We still need to speak to our vassals. But for now we should let rumour slip that Nasoj has possession of a mithril mine in the Death Mountains. That will allow us the time we need to build these alliances. Once we’ve spoken with our vassals, I want an ambassador sent to Salinon. We shall think about what he will say in the meantime. Is there anything more?”

His three advisors glanced at each other one at a time, and each shook their heads. “No, your grace,” Malisa said for them. “That is all that we have this day.”

“Good. I need to think now. Have something brought up. The rest of you get something to eat as well.” Thomas rose then from his seat, and the others were quick to do so as well, except for Andwyn, who was already standing to begin with.

“Of course, your grace,” Thalberg said, lowering his crocodilian snout. “I’ll have something brought up immediately.

“Thank you. And have my itinerary for the morrow brought as well.”

The alligator nodded once more before the three of them walked briskly from the room. Thomas sat in quiet contemplation, trying to keep the names and possibilites straight in his mind. But all of them, whether he willed it or not, kept returning to that one knight that lay changing in the Healer’s quarters. Try as he might to consider anything else, his mind only wanted to dwell on Alberta. His heart trembled and ached, and he knew that he could not fight it for much longer.

After he had eaten and finished reading the reports, Thomas would go to see her again.

Both Raven hin’Elric and Rickkter had returned an hour later as promised, bearing their various notes on the subject of Bryonoth. But after several minutes examination, they found that the knight was no different form before, and so they had agreed to retire to someplace private to peruse their notes for any tidbits of information which may shed some light on why Bryonoth was changing again.

Rickkter suggested the library, but Raven did not want to leave the Keep itself. In turn, Raven suggested her offices in the Lothanasi Temple, but Rickkter objected because he would not feel completely comfortable there. And so they made a compromise, finding a secluded alcove in one of the Keep’s towers that would afford them the privacy and space needed to study.

The alcove, like many places in the Keep, seemed to have been waiting for them. The back of the alcove had a narrow window that looked out across the rest of the castle. Around the walls of the alcove was a cushioned bench that they could sit upon, while a table filled the space between. The table top was inlaid with a mosaic of the Hassan coat of arms, while a candelabra shone warm light on it from above.

Raven and Rickkter sat opposite each other as they pored over their notes. Raven kept hers in a small journal, and routinely she would turn the pages back and forth with one claw. Rickkter seemed slightly less organized, as he had information on several loose pages of parchment, little notes he’d written down when the moment had caught him. Several times he would shuffle through his papers until he had the two he wanted, and then he’d hold them side by side to compare them for several long moments. Afterwards he’d discard them both ad go hunting for that next sheet.

The daylight was beginning to wane when Rickkter finally leaned back in his seat and grunted in a rather animalistic way. “Well, I still don’t know why this is happening, but I’ve got a few ideas.”

Raven closed her journal softly and nodded, her blue eyes lifting to meet the green of the raccoon’s. “What do you think caused this?”

He picked up some of the pages and began to try and sort them out once more, before finally depositing them all in one stack. “Well, let’s think about what’s happened to Bryonoth. She was corrupted by this spell from the halter that focussed on magnifying the power of the curse itself. She was in touch with that magic for a very long time, before Zagrosek tore a chunk of her spirit out to hide whatever means he was using to control her. Since then that hole has been healing.”

Raven nodded slowly and rested her paws atop the journal. “She has been in contact with very strange magics for a long time. Any combination of them could have had this effect on her. You said that you had a few ideas.”

“Yes,” Rickkter agreed, crossing his arms over his chest as he leaned back. “It seems quite likely that the way she controlled the halter made her susceptible like this. Perhaps it had fed off her own connection to the curse to enhance the connections of others. While we were at the stables, she used the halter to force us all into animal forms, and it took a great deal of concentration from her. Once the halter was destroyed, it’s possible that the curse simply lost any hold over her.

“That’s one idea though. The second I have is that when Zagrosek cut out part of her spirit, he somehow damaged the way the curse touched her, so that it seemed she wasn’t cursed. When her spirit healed, the curse attacked her again, and is now changing her according to a new plan.”

Raven listened, her eyes never leaving the raccoon’s visage. “If she was no longer under the effect of the curse, why didn’t she change back into a man?”

Rickkter blinked at that, frowned, and then stared back down at his pages. “That I don’t know yet. Have you found anything?”

“Well, I must say that I can only confirm your ideas. I considered both as well. But I think we can rest assured that Duke Thomas is safe. If either of your ideas is correct.”

“Why?” Rickkter asked, though from the way his eyes seemed to look up into his mind, she felt sure he was already developing the answers himself.

“Well, if your second idea is true, then Thomas would not be affected because he was never harmed in that way. And even if it was the prolonged exposure to the halter that made Bryonoth susceptible we should still feel that Duke Thomas will be spared another change. Thomas was having his own curse strengthened, not weakened. So the curses would have nothing to latch on to.”

Raven rolled her claws across the top of the journal once. “As to why she did not become a man again, I don’t know either. I think we will want to study this more.”

“And check in on her again before it grows too dark.” Rickkter glanced out the window and narrowed his gaze. “Or maybe after I’ve had something to eat.”

“If it is so late, then I must leave,” Raven announced, rising from the cushioned seat. “I have duties I must attend to. If I can, I will stop by her room later to see how she is faring.”

“Good enough,” Rickkter replied, also rising. “And we shall discuss this again on the morrow then, yes?”

Raven nodded once. After a few more short words, they parted, each with something new to think about.

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