There was a moment for Nemo every day between sleep and waking. It was the moment when the sun began to rise and the first wisps of daybreak pierced his restful shell. His mind grasped at sleep but wakefulness began to cut into him.
Sleep had for years come to Nemo with difficulty. Even when he did grasp it, he struggled to hold it. When he held it far too often nightmares attacked him. Still the few dreams he had he savored all the more.
Every night he went to bed early and would lay there for some time in waking. After a while his settings faded away and new feelings took their place. Now as the sun rose his waking body regained sensation. But his dreams still held on, leaving him between wake and sleep.
In this place Nemo knew he was dreaming but was still in Metamor Keep. His eyes were closed but he could see through them, the stone room, the empty fireplace, the small table and chairs he had bought. He could feel the nicked surface just beneath his fingers and the threadbare carpet he bought under his feet.
Now Nemo looked beyond the room. He saw the city with silent figures walking through dusky streets. He could see the valley with cottages and puffs of smoke and inhabitants coming awake. In the distance Nemo saw the empire he had left and the land where he was born.
Time and sensation flowed together in these moments. Nemo was no longer as he had been, his sense of self was washed away. His body stayed in one place but his mind flowed through his life. For just a second his soul was at peace. Once again he felt…
…he felt her…
…her kiss on his lips…
“My beloved.” Madeline’s face filled his view. Her red hair falling over her eyes, across his body. His fingers ran up her back. So warm and solid, her skin was soft and supple. Her laugh rang out in his mind.
“Madeline…” A wail shuddered up from deep inside him. He smothered it and almost woke himself up. “Madeline I can’t…oh Eli I missed you so much. But you’re…” She smiled.
“I’m here my love.” Her blue eyes were so crisp, like cut glass. He could stare at them for hours. Madeline lay down beside him on his bed. She nestled his head against her. “I’m always here for you.”
“I don’t deserve you.” Nemo whispered. “I’ve done so many bad things Madeline. You can’t be around me. I’m not…”
“You are the man I loved.” Madeline said. “My beloved Sir” Nemo placed his finger against her mouth. She kissed it.
“I’m not Sir anything Madeline.” Nemo sighed. “That man is no more. My name is Nemo.”
“You’re a man.” Madeline whispered. “You belong to me.” A third body joined them on the bed. “Just as he belongs to us.”
“Jacques…” His son smiled up at him. “I don’t want to see him.”
“He’s our son.” Madeline said.
“Please I can’t.” Nemo whispered. “He is my failure.” Jacques’ smile stayed even as he climbed off the bed. That just wounded Nemo deeper. “Thinking of him…it makes me wish” Nemo sighed, “I wish I was dead.” Madeline rubbed his head.
“Yet you can think of me.” Madeline said. “Or am I hurting you as well?” Nemo tried to turn away but Madeline stayed with him. No matter where he looked she filled his gaze. Her hand grazed his face. “You know I wouldn’t hurt you.”
“I know I hurt you.” Nemo whispered. “I can’t undo that. I have to live with that for the rest of my life.” Madeline didn’t respond to this. Instead she turned away from Nemo.
“Come all you fair and tender maids, That flourish in your prime.” Her voice drifted through the quiet of the room and drifted through Nemo’s memories. She sounded just as she had when they first met. “Beware, beware keep your garden fair. Let no man steal your thyme. Remember the day you herd that?”
Not only did he hear it but also Nemo saw it as clear as the day it happened. The young girl tending poultry, her hair tied up and her skirt billowing. Her feet were bare and in her hands she held a switch she used to herd the fowl.
Behind her walked a young knight from a distance. Only days earlier his mind had been filled with dreams of serving the Church. Eli was his true master, he would remain celibate for life.
Now all Nemo wanted was to meet this beautiful maid.
“My sword didn’t fit me.” Nemo said. “My britches were too large. Was I really that gangly young man?”
“Once upon a time.” Madeline said. “I thought you looked cute. You looked like a boy playing knight.” The younger Nemo ran up to the maiden. He froze though before he could say anything. He raised his arm, then dropped it.
“I was scared to say anything.” Nemo smiled. “I knew you’d reject me if I did.” The scene faded away. Now the two lay together on a hill, staring at the water. Madeline’s head rested on Nemo’s chest.
“That doesn’t look like rejection to me.” Madeline said.
“I was incorrect.” Nemo said. “I never could understand though. You were so beautiful. Yet you settled for someone like me.”
“It wasn’t settling.” Her hand squeezed his. “I loved you so much. I still do…I…” Madeline kissed the side of his face. “We had passion didn’t we?” The sun faded and the setting melted way.
It reformed at night. A room, one window open to the warm summer breeze. A silver light outlined two forms in a bed together. Nemo held his love, kissed her. She scratched at his back.
“We had passion.” Nemo repeated.
“Among other things.” Madeline slid in front of Nemo. Now she wore a loose fitting shirt and a much shorter skirt. Nemo frowned. “Something wrong?”
“You look so beautiful.” She laughed.
“That’s what you want isn’t it?” Madeline asked. “The beautiful woman you loved?”
“I…no I do.” Nemo swallowed. Suddenly he was more aware of his half sleeping mind. “But I can’t have you Madeline. I can’t…not the way I want you.” He rubbed his eyes. “Get me out of here please?”
“What do you want to remember?” Now she draped her arms over his shoulders. “I just want to help you my love.” Nemo nuzzled against her arm. “Here, maybe this memory will be better for you.”
The two figures became three. Now Madeline’s hair was down and her skin shone. Nemo lay in bed with her, cuddling her against him. At her breast was a newborn. This memory brought a smile to Nemo’s face.
“Jacques…” Nemo whispered. He reached out but his arm never touched the memory. “I…I want him back. I want my son back. I want you back Madeline.” Nemo’s fist clenched around his bed sheets. “I want our life back but I can’t have it. It’s gone.”
“And it’s my fault.” He barked out a laugh. “It was my cowardice and my arrogance. I’m the reason everything went wrong Madeline.” Nemo shuddered as the image changed. Now his memories showed him that place.
The worst day of his life.
“I can’t be here.” Nemo said, shutting out the memory. “I’ve already lived through that once, I won’t do it again.” The image returned to Nemo and Madeline with their son.
Time rushed forward. Jacques was a toddler and churning his little legs to keep up with his father’s mighty steps. The first winter the three lived in their tiny cottage, trying to stay warm. Every time Nemo returned from a trip or a campaign, his son would be waiting for him but now a little bigger.
“We were so happy there,” Nemo said. “In our little cottage. Those were the best days of my life.”
“Mine also.” Madeline said.
“Every time I had to leave I wondered if I’d come back.” Nemo mumbled. “But someone had to bring in the money. I could have been a scholar but Eli knows the world needs more people to hit things with pointy sticks.”
“You were the best at hitting things with pointy sticks.” Madeline said. “You were my hero, my shining knight.” Nemo shook his head. “You are my knight, no matter what you believe now.”
The image now shifted to one more familiar. “One of the only positive memories I had while traveling.” Nemo said. “My first time in Metamor Keep.”
“There’s something different about it.” Madeline said.
“Everyone is human and ages normally.” Madeline nodded. “Yeah this was a little while before the curse. Not that long…” He could remember his first time walking into Keeptown. It had been ice cold and the wind cut through his skin.
“The people were friendly enough but that’s not what impressed me.” Nemo said. “There was a sense of freedom here. Oh the barriers between the classes still existed. Yet even before the curse the felt less in grained then in say the Empire.”
“The Empire you always knew your place didn’t you?” Madeline said.
“Oh yes. In the Empire I was the best glaive fighter they had.” Nemo said. “I was still just another warm body. Since I wasn’t born in the Empire I would never earn a commission. I could save the life of the Emperor but I was an outsider for life.”
Nemo could now see faces, the faces of Metamor Keep as it was now. Human and anthro, people who were excited and scared. But able to interact with each other. They didn’t worry about social standing. “This place is nothing like anywhere I’ve been before.
“In Metamor Keep no one is human.” Nemo laughed. “Yet they show me the best of humanity. Soon James won’t be human and if he will open his mind he can become a great man here. Metamor Keep’s beneficent influence is all around him.”
“And you believe Metamor Keep will save that brat you protect?” Nemo frowned. “Did I say something wrong?”
“I don’t think James is a brat.” Nemo said.
“Yet I said it and I am your dream so you must.”
“No he’s not a brat.” Nemo sighed. “James is stubborn, arrogant, scared and prone to acting without thinking, or not acting at all. But if he’s a brat, it’s because he’s been forced to act as one. The environment he came from—”
“Don’t make excuses.” Madeline said. “You know he’s a grown man. Or a grown lizard I guess. He’s gotta take responsibility.” Nemo nodded.
“Maybe so. But I believe he can change. He can be better than he is.” Now time moved away again. Nemo was all-alone, long after he had lost his family. He stood on the grounds of the Dorothea Manor.
This day was warm with a light breeze. Nemo stood in his light armor with the crest of Lord Leontes in the center. He had only been hired a few months ago. Most of the knights working for the House of Dorothea were former mercenaries.
Lord Leontes couldn’t understand loyalty but he could understand money. It was his philosophy that the only thing that motivated people was money.
“I couldn’t stand Leontes” Nemo said. “Conversing with the man gave me the urge to bathe.”
“How does that make him any different from other nobles?” Nemo smirked. “Why would you work for such a repulsive man?”
“Simple. I needed the money.” Madeline’s arm draped across his shoulders. “Beyond that, my life had become a burden not worth continuing. So working for someone who could send me into the maw of death seemed wise.”
“And what were you doing that day?” Their gaze turned towards two figures in front of Nemo and the other knights. A teenage boy wearing a velvet cap, breeches, surcoat, coat, a golden belt and a hawking glove. Beside him was the latest falconry instructor Leontes had brought in.
“Don’t they ever dress formal at this place?” Madeline asked.
“Leontes believed dressing formal would make your servants forget you were of higher rank. I never forgot.” A falcon swooped in; it was a goshawk which landed with a screech. Nemo smiled.
“That’s Patroclus.” Nemo said, “James kept him before his current hawk. He was a very intelligent bird, though my knowledge of falconry is limited.”
“His doesn’t seem to be.” Madeline said. Young James stroked his birds feathers and then fed him a piece of meat.
“How boring is this?” One of the knights whispered to Nemo’s past self. “We have to stand to attention because the noble twerp wants to play with the birdy.”
“Who is that?” Madeline asked.
“Sir Maylin.” Nemo said. “Unfortunately he wasn’t very quiet.” James head snapped around.
“Did you say something knight!” Sir Maylin blushed.
“Nothing sir! Just wondering what we’re doing out here.” Past Nemo and current Nemo rolled their eyes in unison.
“What do you think moron? We’re doing our jobs.”
“You are doing what I tell you to!” James yelled. His face began to turn red. “I am your boss and—” Nemo gestured to Madeline. The world froze for a second. He pointed to the bird on James glove.
“Now pay attention to this.” Nemo said. “Patroclus was still new and being trained. And one thing James said never to do was to…well” The bird screeched and suddenly took off. “Never yell. Any loud noise or sudden movement can set them off.”
Patroclus had a bell attached to his leg so James could easily find him. This was unnecessary though since Patroclus found his target.
The head of Sir Maylin.
“Gahhhh!” Sir Maylin screamed as blood began to roll down his face. All of the knights jumped back and Patroclus dug its claws in. Past Nemo pulled out his short sword. He prepared to strike the bird dead.
“Stop!” James yelled. All the knights turned towards him. “Don’t do anything, if you kill that bird I’ll have your hand.” Nemo froze.
“I really didn’t want to lose my hand.” He said to Madeline. James pulled out another piece of meat.
“Don’t anyone move.” He said. “Talk in calm tones.” Nemo felt ridiculous taking orders from a fifteen-year-old, but he did as James said. He slowly lowered his sword.
“Come on Patroclus.” James held up his gloved hand. “Come to me.” In complete contrast to the yelling teen from earlier, James demeanor was gentle and calm. He whistled at the bird and held up the meat.
Patroclus began to loosen its grip. “That’s it.” James whistled again and the bird leapt onto his glove. Maylin let out a sigh of relief. “Go get yourself healed. I won’t report this to my father but you will never yell again. Agreed?”
“Yes sir boss.” James ignored him; he was instead focusing on his bird. Nemo of the past stared at him in confusion. Nemo of the future smiled at this.
“James had spent the whole morning yelling at us, complaining about his violin lessons and his dance lessons. Then I saw for a moment this brat acting…different. He was kind and even forgiving of Sir Maylin.”
“Why was that?” Madeline asked.
“I don’t fully understand. Being with that bird brought out James’ better nature, which we didn’t often see.” Nemo nuzzled against his wife. “But it’s there. I’ve seen flashes of it. There is a good man in him, one that can come out.”
“Is that why you stayed with him?” Madeline asked. The scene shifted, again returning to Metamor Keep. Now it was the present day, everyone including James was cursed.
“Metamor Keep has thrived despite its curse.” Nemo said. “In its walls I see the best of humanity. This is a place of change, of transformation. And it’s where James can be transformed into something better.” He clenched his fist. “But someone has to help him and that’s me.”
“You really care about him.” Madeline said.
“I know he can be better than he is.” Nemo said. “I’m going to help him along. Even if I’m cursed myself.” He pounded his fist against his side. “I don’t know, though, if I can help.”
“Why not?” Madeline asked.
“I’m…I’m not the right man.” Nemo stammered. “I couldn’t protect you. I couldn’t live up to my responsibilities as a husband and I want to guide this young man? I’m—” Madeline kissed him, leaving Nemo quiet.
“You’re the man I married.” Madeline said. “The man I loved. I spent my entire life with you, for that I have no regrets.” Nemo embraced his wife. “Metamor Keep is a place of change is it not?”
“Yes. Your entire life will change here.”
“Then it’s the place you need to be as well.” Madeline said.” She looked him square in the eye. “Let it change you into someone who can forgive himself. Forgive yourself. You are my knight.”
“I don’t know if I can.” Nemo whispered. She nuzzled her face into his chest and for a moment Nemo felt her heart beating.
“You have to try.”
A bright white light lit up, interrupting the two. Madeline turned towards it with a dreamy smile on her face. “I’m afraid that’s for me.”
“Don’t go.” Nemo whispered. “Stay with me.”
“I can’t. I can’t come back.” She began to walk away but Nemo stubbornly held her hand. “You can come to me but I can never return to you.”
“I will.” Nemo swore. “I will see you again.”
“I know my love.” Her hand slipped out of his grip. The light overwhelmed Nemo until he had to shield his eyes. “Good-bye my beloved Sir—
Nemo opened his eyes.