Duke Thomas Hassan managed to escape Wasoko in record time this morning, although he had to put his stockings on himself (which wasn't such a bad thing; until Wasoko came along, Thomas had been dressing himself every morning for as long as he could remember). In his rush, the stockings had snagged on his hoof a little, but the run was hardly noticeable. If it hadn't been so cold, Thomas would have done without.
He munched on his breakfast apples as he made his way to his throne room, happy to have fresh fruit after a week of living off the land. As a horse morph, living off the land wasn't just a phrase to the Duke. He felt recharged and ready to face the next crisis... or crisi... or was it crisices? And the fact that Wasoko was too exhausted to chase after him, trying to dab imagined pieces of spittle from his lips, was an added bonus.
In his throne room, he found a young wolf morph waiting for him. The little canine was a dark grey and his page uniform was a little too loose, but he stood straight and tall and looked very serious with a visible effort to keep his tongue in his mouth.
"Powell!" Thomas greeted happily, "You've changed, I see."
"Yes, sir! It was right after you left on your mission." The little page smiled, letting his tongue escape in a wolfish smile. "Hurt some, but not as much as some said."
Thomas nodded, the page's happy energy matching his own. "It's different for everyone." He'd been in the middle of a siege when the curse had hit and he really did not want to think about it this morning. What was done, was done. "So, how's it feel being a wolf?"
The page's smile got wider and his tongue longer. "Better than being a stupid cat." Then he stopped and with a visible effort put his tongue back in his muzzle. "Except for... my tongue... keeps... popping out.... of my mouth," and his tail began wagging before he grabbed it. "And that... happens."
Thomas chuckled, Powell was always so serious... and a hard worker, doing about twice the work as any of the Duke's previous pages. He was going to miss him when one of the knights took him as squire. "Maybe you need a lighter uniform, Powell. You may have lost the ability to sweat, you know, as a canine."
"That's what Mr. Hughes said, Sire." It took Thomas a second to realize the boy was referring to Chris, who was a tutor to most of the youth of the Keep. The youth gave up on his tongue as he broke out into another smile. "My mum is sewing me a new uniform, even as we speak."
"Your Mum is a saint."
"Yes, Sire," the wolf said quite seriously. "She tells me that every morn."
Thomas handed the page the apple cores and then sat in his throne. It felt good after a week in the saddle, not that he regretted his little vacation, but it was good to be home. "Fetch Thalberg for me, and tell him I'm ready to begin the day."
"Yes, Sire." And with that, the little wolf turned to leave but stopped for a moment to look at Thomas uneasily. "Um, Sire... you have..." And the page made brushing motions near his lips. Thomas repeated the pantomime and found a few tiny pieces of apple there. The wolf then scampered off before Thomas could thank him.
Thalberg arrived a moment later. Apparently, he'd been on his way here when the page ran into him. "I wish you'd have awakened me when you arrived last night."
"It was very late, you needed your sleep."
Thalberg cocked his head sideways. "You've been gone a week on your little trip and I have a lot of items I need to bring you up to speed on before the morning's appointments begin, not the least of which is--"
"It was very late, Thalberg. I needed my sleep... in my own bed."
Thalberg sighed. "Well, that's understandable. Then, if you're rested now--"
"Aren't you going to ask my how my vacation was?"
Thalberg fixed his monocle and smiled politely... as much as an alligator morph could. "My apologies, milord." He casually placed his schedule down and coughed politely. "How was your vacation, Thomas?"
"Excellent," the horse morph said. "I had a manicure from the cutest woman I had ever seen and then I had a nice mud bath with volcanic ash, which like getting a nice warm flea dip... Thalberg, close your mouth, I'm joking. We just stalked the manticore for a days and got to know each other better. Wessex was too busy watching out for me to relax, of course, and you wouldn't believe how disappointed Eindah was."
"So, it was a snark hunt, then."
Thomas smiled. "No, actually, it turns out the manticore was quite real. It's just that, Jasc -- that's the manticore's name, by the way, Jasc is quite the pacifist. Claims to be a minor Solfire deity. You know, Eindah actually seemed somewhat disappointed that none of his men were in any danger of sacrificing themselves to save me from my own folly. It was very touching, in a way."
Thalberg blinked and waited a moment. "I'm glad you enjoyed yourself, milord. Now, about your briefing..."
Just then a young tiger morph page Thomas had never seen before walked in. Since Thomas prided himself on knowing every Keeper's name (or at least the ones that worked for him), he stopped Thalberg before the Steward could truly start the debriefing. "I'm sorry, page, your name is...?"
"Powell, Sire" the young tiger morph said with Powell's voice. "I've just changed, is all."
"Just now?" The Duke asked with a note of confusion in his voice. Powell was just a wolf a few moments ago, after all.
"I changed right after you left for your mission, Sire." the little feline page explained. "It hurt some, but not as much as others said."
Thomas stared at the orange, black, and white page for a moment. The posture and the earnestly serious expression on the little cat's face said Powell, all right. The Duke stared into the page's eyes and realized that this was indeed Powell. Great, that meant the other page was letting him call him Powell. How embarrassing.
"You make a good jungle cat, Powell."
"Thanks," the page said a smile vanishing his serious facade. "It's better than being a stupid dog."
Thalberg cleared his throat and Thomas rolled his eyes a little, carefully not to do it too much, lest they see the whites of his eyes and think he was annoyed at them. He knew he couldn't put off the debriefing much longer. He was the Duke, after all. "Powell, if you could just leave us alone for a few moments?"
"Of course, Sire."
"And bring a fresh pitcher of water, when we call for you next, in case I forget to ask."
"Yes, Sire" and the little tiger paused, looking at Thomas's horselike legs. "Sire, there's a run in your stocking... allow me." The tiger than darted forward and manhandled the Duke's left stocking until the run was hidden. Before the Duke could decide whether a thanking or a chiding was in order, the page was off like a bolt from a crossbow.
Thalberg was waiting rather patiently to see if the Duke was going to try to dodge the lance again. The Duke caved. "I'm sorry, Thalberg, go ahead."
"As far as the Keep itself, goes, nothing major happened. Raven is still certain someone's trying to attract Ba'al from within the Keep. We had a caravan shipment that was attacked and defended without loss of life human at least after it left. Lutin losses were impressive. Oh, and we also had a mugging, if you can believe that."
"Let me guess," the Duke said, "the Potters."
"Henrik and Wicker Potter, yes." Thalberg said. "Pity, really. The boy's friends, roughnecks all, are making out as great Guards under George's guidance, once they were put on separate shifts. The boy's got tendencies and the father's encouraging them, living vicariously through his son. He'd make a great fighter if we could just harness all the energy."
"Who got mugged?"
"Well, that actually dovetails into the second half of the debriefing." Thalberg inhaled as if about to announce something unpleasant.
"Oh, please tell me it wasn't the new pontiff: I'll go off running back into the woods screaming."
Thalberg smiled almost imperceptibly at that. "Actually, it was a relative of yours from the Wheelier side of the family."
Thalberg sighed, "Well, he claimed to be a relative, at least..."
"I believe he was, now. But when he showed up in the caravan, I had my doubts."
Thalberg stopped and adjusted his monocle. "Am I going too fast for you?"
Thomas whusked loudly and shook his head. "I take my first vacation in seven years and while I'm gone... I have a relative visit? No one's visited me since the curse fell upon us! Where is he, now? A nearby town?"
Thalberg hesitated for only a moment. "He's gone."
Thalberg sighed. "Please, he may have just been a gold digger..."
"The Potter's killed him?"
"Uh, no... He just up and left after a different unpleasant incident."
Now there was white flashing in the Duke's eyes. "Find him."
"We tried. The man evaded them as easily as Rikkter did when he first got here. Believe me, the man was full of surprises."
"I want to talk to someone who got to know him well. Who gave him the tour? You? Cope?"
Thalberg looked at his notes as if the answer were there. "Nobody, milord."
Thomas stood, his tail twitching and then swishing wildly. "Explain that last part to me, would you?"
Thalberg looked up from the notes. "Your vacation was a secret, as you'll recall, and he was insisting on meeting with you. I thought it best to keep him confined to places like the Deaf Mule where he could be watched. And, before you ask why I didn't have someone magically summon you, let me remind you that you gave strict orders that unless it was a Keep emergency, you were not to be disturbed."
"Do you have any idea what family means to me?"
"Yes, Thomas, I do. Which is why I was especially concerned about this visit out of the blue. I was afraid that it might blind you to the danger he represented."
Thalberg explained the three enchantments that had been bonded to his very distant cousin, Grey Wheeler. At first, their purpose had been mysterious as he was not completely honest about their purpose. Then they were horrified to discover that their were reminders of a time when his cousin had been a slave. Under the right conditions, Wheeler could easily be made a slave again.
Thomas was aghast that anyone should have to live with that for a magically extended life-time, much less the shame that kept Grey from going back to his family in Port Pleasant. "I'd still like to talk to someone who was close to my cousin while he was here."
"I thought you might, which is why I scheduled Clay Potter for later today."
"My, the Potters seem to have had a busy week while I was gone. Clay's the horse-morph, isn't he? Make him my lunch date," Thomas commanded. Thalberg nodded and went to leave, but stopped short and made quick brushing motions over his own right shoulder. Thomas found a few stray tiny apple pieces on his and brushed them off.
The little wolf page ran in with a pitcher of water as Thalberg left. He was trying not to pant and the effort showed in his eyes, even though his back was ramrod straight and he had an earnestly serious expression on his face.
"I'm sorry, lad," Thomas said. "What's your name, again?"
"Sire?" The wolf pup seemed startled that the Duke should have to ask. "It's Powell, Sire."
"I see," Thomas said. It was an odd name. How odd that two pages should have the same name, unless this was someone's -- like Pascal's -- idea of a practical joke. He could play along, although he wasn't sure if morphing between two forms was a good idea for such a young boy, if that was the case. "Is anyone waiting to see me?"
Powell the wolf smiled, his tongue unrolling out of his mouth of its own accord. "Colby Wolf, Sire, she's a farmer."
Colby Wolf turned out to be a rabbit-morph, not a wolf (that was just her last name). Her husband had recently died and she needed an extension to bring the harvest in, but her lord was refusing her. She hoped Thomas would be able to intervene in her behalf. Thomas was reluctant to get directly involved in a conflict between a lord and his charges, but his heart went out to the young widow. He promised to send some volunteers to her farm tomorrow, mentally wondering if he would be doing Dan a favour by volunteering the botanist, but he suspected that if the Duke told George to count it as patrol duty, the insect morph would be a little more appreciative.
The next appointment was with Ben Soltris, a racoon morph who had been a candle and soap maker since the curse hit. He was annoyed that another soapmaker had been allowed to settle in the Keep, which was news to Thomas, but Thomas couldn't see the problem that this presented, despite the fact that Soltris explained it to him patiently and varying volumes and degrees of outrage. The meeting wasn't over until the guards poked their heads in, concerned.
The meetings went on like that, until Thomas was beginning to think that sleeping under the stars on rock-hard dirt, wasn't so bad afterall. And between each meeting, the tiger page and the wolf page alternated announcing the next visitor. It was a bit of a lark, but it kept him sane through the morning.
The tiger morph page introduced Clay Potter, and Thomas stopped him from bowing so they could shake hands. He was somewhat jealous of the other horse morph's long relatively delicate fingers as his own hands were stunted and could barely open past a fist. He managed to get by with them. He reminded himself that others, like Phil, had it so much worse.
The page held up two cupped hands to Clay and the horse morph happily accepted a tiny brown field mouse from the lad's hands. "You see, he wasn't afraid of you. Thank you for holding him while the guards checked me for weapons."
"Your mum lets you have a pet?" The page continued, oblivious to Thomas' frown. The first appointment Thomas really wanted to talk to, and the Lad was dawdling. It seemed to be making Clay happy, however. Thomas remembered him from the stable as being sullen and quiet.
"It's just me and my mousie, right now, Ayeoys." Clay said with a smile, sad thing that it was. "I'm 18 and I don't live with my folks."
"Oh, I'm sorry," the page apologized, suddenly flustered. "Blaine said you were a pony, so..."
Clay smiled while cheek-rubbing his mouse and then deposited him in the top pocket of a plaid shirt the Michael the beaver had inspired. "I'm a draft pony. In my natural horse form, I'm big horsie. But not as big as a draft horse."
"Wow," the page gushed, his ramrod posture forgotten, he turned to Thomas. "What kind of horse are you? Is Clay bigger than you?"
"I'm a hungry horse, Powell." Thomas chided gently. He had no intention of comparing animal forms with anyone.
"Oh, I'll get lunch!" When the page went to leave, Thomas reached out with his hoof like hand and grabbed the lad's orange and black fuzzy head. Something just clicked. "Stay here, a moment, if you would. Did Clay just call you Eye-O?" The tiger morph nodded curiously. "You told me your name was Powell."
The page blinked and then smiled. "It is. Ayeoys Powell."
Just then the wolf page pushed in a cart with two huge salad bowls filled the greens and shaved beets, the closest Thomas came to red meat in seven years. He seemed to be panting slightly.
"And what's his name, then?"
The wolf blinked and flinched when he saw that the tiger page was standing between two horse-morphs. "Uh... that's Mr. Pants?" The tiger morph said seriously and then giggled.
The little canine page shot the feline page a hurt look and then glanced at Thomas. "I'm Powell, Sire. Tim Powell."
"We're identical twins," the tiger page exclaimed happily.
Thomas and Clay both looked from one page to the other and then at each other and then back to the pages.
The wolf page smiled. "I'm one day older."
The little tiger morph rolled his eyes. "14 hours. That's not a whole day."
"Your poor Mother." Thomas said.
In unison, the Powell pages said, "That's what my mum says."
"How long have you been both my pages?"
"Six months," they answered in perfect harmony. "You only wanted one of us but..." then they stopped short and glared at each other for a moment, before rushing out their next words as if in a race. It was a dead heat. "but, sometimes we synchronize, and it's too hard to learn two different things! So we shared you."
Clay smiled. "Aren't identical twins cute?"
"We're NOT cute!" the twins protested and then realized speaking in duet probably was cute.
Thomas sat back down on the throne and began massaging his temples as Ayeoys and Tim took turns explaining that they could hear each other's thoughts sometimes, which the wolf morph demonstrated by describing Clay's little pet mouse. Having two bosses was too confusing, and since they were identical, nobody really noticed.
For months, they pretended to be one Powell and no one had caught on. In fact, no one had noticed all last week since their change. Or if they had, they hadn't said anything.
"Ok, from now on, nobody calls you Powell anymore. You're only to answer to Ayeoys and you to Tim. Is that understood?"
"But, Sire," the little wolf page sputtered. "I'm Tim. He's Ayeoys."
Thomas smiled. "Sorry, it's just that you both look alike and it's hard to tell sometimes. Now go. And would one of you please explain to the paymaster that you're owed some back pay. Break it to her gently, we don't want her head exploding."
With evil smiles, the two pages rushed out the door, bouncing past each other.
"You're good at this," Clay said. "It's not easy being the Duke all the time, is it?"
"No," the Duke said. "If it's not the Lutins, mythical beasts stalking the Keep, or the Lightbringer worried that someone's worshiping th devil and we're all in mortal peril, it's something else. Let's eat our salad before it gets cold," Thomas frowned as Clay paused. "And -- yes -- I know it's already cold and that it was cold when it came in. That was a joke."
"No," Clay motioned towards his own cheek. "You have lipstick on your cheek."
Thomas sighed and wiped of the smudged that had been there since this morning since the farmer widow.
After lunch, Thomas began to feel more like himself and less like "the Duke." He even let Clay's little pet mouse sit in his hands while he fed it a bit of apple from his salad. Clay adored it, he could see that, and Thomas toyed fleetingly with the idea of having a small pet of his own... but he was so busy... it wouldn't be fair to the animal.
"Tell me about my cousin, Clay. Thalberg said he left before the curse claimed him."
Clay suddenly became very quiet and stared at the mouse. "I am very angry at Thalberg for what he did, but I understand why he did it. But if you want to know about Grey, you can ask him yourself."
Thomas sat upright and felt a flash of delight. The mouse squeaked and stood up curiously and Thomas found himself looking for a piece of lettuce to feed him before asking all the questions he wanted to ask. "Is he all right? Where is he?"
Clay moved his muzzle towards the mouse and Thomas looked curiously at the cute creature as it climbed happily from one hand to the next. It was very cute, but Thomas didn't want to be distracted from the subject of his distant cousin. Then the mouse looked right at him, it's eyes going from black to the sharpest jade green Thomas had ever seen.
"Ask him," Clay said gently. "He was really looking forward to talking with you."
Thomas closed his eyes. Gods, he hated Mondays.