"Come on in, Lord Mikal. Come on in and have a seat" invited the man sitting on the couch in the middle of the well appointed study. While his visitor crossed the room to a plush arm chair across from the couch, the man reached down and idly stroked the dog sleeping on the floor next to him.
"Hello, Josef. It has been far too long since we last met." replied Mikal as he settled into his chair. Looking at the animal at his host's feet, he asked "Is that a new hound, Josef?"
"Yes. Yes it is." answered Josef with a broad smile on his face. "Quiet an expensive one too. Supposedly from a long line of good hunting dogs if I can believe the scoundrel who sold her to me. Though, so far a better hunting hound I have never seen. Smart as a whip, I say."
Mikal sat back in his chair, rested his hands under his chin and grinned at the man showing off his newest acquisition. "You know, I can see you spending all of your families wealth on pleasures."
"Ah, the burdens of the nobility, my friend. Wealth is meant to be spent, so I might as well spend it on things that I shall enjoy."
"But, my dear Baron, duties and responsibilities also come with title, no matter how minor the Lord."
"Lord Mikal, my family may not have the long noble lineage of your line," said Josef sharply, "but we have earned our little place among the nobility of this kingdom."
"Of course, Of course." responded Mikal, smiling. "I meant no offense to you or your family. I am simply reminding you that we all have responsibilities. In fact, I am here to ask you help me with the welfare of the realm, from one noble to another."
At his visitor's statement, Josef gave an amused little snort. "And what would the mighty Earl of Setliff need the help of a small country Lord such as myself for? I mean, you a member of the royal court, and me a minor Baron who rules over a few tenant farmers. What possible assistance could I be to you?"
Mikal leaned forward in his chair, a serious expression falling over his face. "What I am going to say here will go no further?"
"Of course. Is it really that serious a mater?"
"Your word, Josef." asked the Earl, his expression still dead serious. "I need your word."
The Baron looked at his visitor questioningly. "Fine. On my humour, I will not reveal a thing that you have to say to me here. Your words will not leave this room." he answered.
Relaxing a bit, Mikal stood and walked over to one of the room's windows. While staring off at the horizon though the small panes of glass he began to speak again. "The King is fast falling out of favour with the court."
"That is news, my friend? His Majesty has never been one to bend to the whims of the court."
"Yes, I know that. Over the years he has upset many of the powerful noble houses, but has never gone far enough to have them actively plot against him. There has always been a balance between the court and the Crown."
"And the King has upset this balance?"
"Yes. And I intend to take full advantage of it."
"Full advantage of what?"
"This past week His Royal Highness passed a decree that his soldiers patrolling the Hogarth Hills along our northern border were to give wide berth to any of the monsters of the demon horse-lord that they may encounter."
The Baron gave another amused snort. "Monsters? Demon horse-lord? My dear Earl, Metamorian soldiers have always patrolled Hogarth, just the same as our own. It is a no-man's land that has almost no strategic value to anyone. We've left each other alone for years."
"Ah, but, my dear Baron," replied Mikal, turning away from the window to once again face his host. "Now the King has made it official. If the right political strings are pulled, then we can make it seem that the King has given up some of our sovereign territory to the northern monsters. That would create the right atmosphere to remove him from the throne."
"And you think that the court is going to rush to back you as the next king?"
"Of course not. I just plan to be the faction that comes out on top. So far I have the support of a few of the major houses and some of the minor ones. I would like to add you among my friends."
"This sounds risky, Mikal." said the Baron, reaching down to nervously scratch the sleeping hound between it's ears. "I want to know who you have supporting you before I make any decision of that sort."
"Carnes, Deiler, Rickerdsen, Paulsey and Matthews have all agreed to join me. Oh, and so has General Phipps."
"Mikal, if you have all this support, then what possible need could you have for me in your little cabal?"
"Why I need you is very simple, Josef. We have to have a place away from the capital, a place away from the spies and intrigue of the court. We need a place to meet in secret and make our plans. Your estates are isolated to escape notice, but still close enough to allow our associates to move between here and the capital easily.
"So, Josef, will you help us?"
The Baron sat silent for a while, apparently pondering what Mikal had just said to him. After a few minutes he spoke. "Mikal, you know I have no special love for our monarch, but if this should fail, then the consequences will be our heads on a chopping block. The returns on such a gambit would have to be very generous for me to involve myself in this scheme. And do not call upon that 'duty of the noble' tripe you were spouting earlier. I need a nice tangible reward for my troubles."
"I would not think of it. As well, I know you have no desire for political power, Josef. Instead, I will make it simple. I offer you money. Enough money to see that you live in luxury for the rest of your life. Wealth to buy a hundred hunting dogs of the purest blood. More wealth than you would know what to do with."
"A most tempting offer, Mikal. But still one I must think over. Give me a week to ponder it over and I shall tell you then."
"Of course, but I doubt you will receive a more generous offer." said the Earl with a smile.
"Probably not, but I have to see." replied Josef with a grin. "Now let me escort you to the door. You should be leaving soon if you want to make it back to the Capital before sundown."
With that, both men left the study, leaving only the dog sleeping next to the couch. The dog stayed there for a few minutes, then suddenly woke. Rising to its feet, the hound stretched it's legs and trotted across the room to a writing desk in a small alcove. Reaching the desk, the dog stopped, and then began to change shape, limbs stretching and bones shifting as it began to take on a decidedly more human-ish appearance.
Rising to stand on it's hind legs, the hound looks through the desk, eventually drawing a pen from one of the drawers. After inspecting the nib and determining the pen suitable, the hound selected a piece of scrap paper from a pile. Opening a jar of ink, the hound dipped the nib into the dark liquid and began to carefully inscribe letters onto the paper. After writing for a few minutes, the hound stood back and carefully looked over what it had just written. Seemingly satisfied, it cleaned the pen and placed it back into the drawer. It then got out a piece of blotting paper and applied it to the note, soaking up any excess ink from the page.
It then picked up the paper and began to walk across the room, stopping only to toss the crumpled piece of blotting paper into the fire place. Reaching the window that the Earl of Setliff had looked through earlier, the hound folded the note carefully until is was only a few inches across. Looking out the window, it determined that there was no one outside that would see it. Opening the latch, the hound pushed the window open. Reaching out the window, the hound lodged the note into a crack in the mortar of the outside wall. Bringing it's arm back inside, the hound closed the window and walked back to the middle of the room. Satisified that its superiors back at Metamor Keep would now know about the impending power struggle and be able to take any actions they sought fit to, the hound Shifted back to its dog-like shape. Settling back in next to the couch, it was asleep in minutes, this time for real.
A few hours latter, a Blue Jay landed on the window sill, grabbed the piece of paper lodged into the wall, and took flight heading north into the horizon and towards home.