Scrolls, scrolls, scrolls... there was so much that had been left undone since Posti's death that Malisa thought she would be overwhelmed long before she had grown used to her new title as Prime Minister. How in the world had the old warhorse found the time to teach Kindle or even stand in judgement of his fellow Keepers all these years? Magic. It had to have been magic. Pity she'd only been a bit of a dabbler in the arcane arts since the Battle of the Three Gates seven years ago. An animated quill would be very handy right now. So much work to do, no time to even think.
There was a knock at the door and the guard announced one of her father figures into the room, but she knew who he was from the sound of claws on stone as he entered her chamber. "Thalberg!" she cried cheerfully, "Come grab a quill and forge my name on some of these documents, would you?"
Reptillian eyes surveyed the darkened room. Little had changed in the former office of their mutual friend and mentor, now her office alone. It still retained the masculine Spartan fixtures Posti had favored. The tapestries that had been chosen more for their utility as insulation than decoration were still hung on the wall. Malissa had had the mirrors removed within days of stepping into Posti's shoes, so the walls seemed somehow naked without them. Without the mirrors, the chambers seemed to lack that unexpected regal feeling one used to get when entering the office, with the heavy curtains drawn back to let light flood the room.
Malissa didn't so much avoid sunshine and fresh air, she had simply not thought to schedule it in this week. Or the next.
The dim lights were not kind to the man who entered the chambers. But then, the brighter lamplight as he approached the desk did him no favors either. Thalberg was a reptilian monster who had more teeth in his elongated maw than the rest of the castle staff had collectively in their mouths. He moved with a stiffness that came to such creatures too long in the shade. Yet, his purple blouse with its white-laced sleeves and velvety sheen was still in step with the fashions of gentlemen to the south. He blinked tiny black eyes in a nearly flat head before he, quite impossibly, spoke. "No thank you. I have my own scrolls to sign, as well as Thomas' scrolls, in point of fact."
Malissa spared him a glance and a smile before diving back into the long neglected paperwork. "How is my father this morning, by the by?" she asked as she dabbed ink into a quill that seemed to be getting a bit heavier as the day wore on.
"In good spirits," Thalberg said with a bit of churlishness to his voice that Malisa knew was only one part act. "He managed to dodge Wassoka and myself this morning. He's spent most of the morning with the Stable Master, Doug. Posti's mare is likely to be foaling today and Thomas would like you to come down for the blessed event."
"Pfah! Why would I want to see that?" Malissa moved the quill a bit faster and went through several more scrolls to discover Thalberg still standing aside her desk. She frowned and didn't move to put the quill down. "Yes, Thalberg?"
"You shan't be calling upon Jennifer again?" He asked this in the tone of one reading off a list.
"I will not," Malissa growled as her face darkened. "Furthermore, I doubt she'll be calling upon me, in return. You were right, are you happy, Thalberg?"
Thalberg frowned, or at least seemed to. "Of course not. Your happiness is important to me."
"Good. Glad to hear that." She dipped the quill in the inkwell as if she was trying to kill a tiny demon trapped within the bottle.
"Of course," Thalberg said mildly, "there _is_ your duty to consider."
Malissa slumped forward and seemed to gather her strength before standing before the alligator-man. "Pick out a kid. Any kid. I'll adopt him. Will that make you happy?"
"It will not, Mal. What would make me happy would be for the curse to lift and Thomas to find a bride." Thalberg stared back at her without blinking. Being what he was, Mal had long ago discovered that Thalberg was quite good at the not blinking thing, but she gave her best effort at staring him down while he prattled on. "As long as the curse is in place, the... act... of bedding a woman produces an endless number of dangers to the woman that Thomas is not willing to risk."
Despite herself, Malissa could not help but picture Thomas in her mind. Like Thalberg, Thomas was cursed with a twisted, bestial form. Unlike Thalberg, Thomas was as much a horse as he was a man. They knew from the common Keepers that those cursed could still breed with "normal" humans successfully. However, between his sheer bulk and other... intimidating factors... Thomas remained justifiably celibate to the best of anyone's knowledge.
Of course, there were rumors that Thomas slipped out every now and then, but Malisa had gone with him on several of those occasions. It was never to meet someone; it was to meet _everyone_. If she hadn't known Thomas since coming to the Keep, she'd have said he was slumming. No, the Duke of Metamor simply needed to slip the reins of duty every now and then to remember what they all toiled for. Malissa strongly suspected Thalberg encouraged rumors that Thomas was getting a "little on the side."
"Carrying a child is not without its risks, either." Malissa said tartly. "You don't prod Thomas like this, do you?"
Thalberg blinked at that. "As a matter of fact, I do."
A dubious eyebrow seemed to float high upon Malissa's perfect forehead. "You do?"
The steward nodded his rectangular head. "The curses do limit our exposure to the rest of the world, but that does not mean we are immune to its influence. Without visible heirs, the House of Hassan seems to lack stability. Thomas would be seen by some as a weak ruler. If you are seen as barren, then others will contest your eventual appointment as the Duke should anything happen to Thomas, just as your father's lands were conveniently absorbed by others when the curse trapped us here, even after we've proven your lineage."
"The difference here, Thalberg, is that who would want to rule a triple- cursed valley?"
The monster straightened his spine and seemed to gain another inch or two. His eyes grew colder and darker than Malissa thought possible and he spoke plainly the name that had brought this nightmare upon them: "Nasoj."
Matthew was of two minds over his duty as host to the gaggle of beggars before him. On the one hand, it was a duty befitting his station and he knew the young women of the Keep thought he was quite dashing in his outfit without being a peacock or a dandy. On the other hand, attempting to coerce several dozen so-called artists into an impromptu meeting was very aggravating. It was a bit like herding cats and refereeing a cock fight all at once.
The Court of Hassan was well known for its patronage of artists and his adoptive father, while an imposing figure as ever there was one, was a gentle and generous soul. Thomas did not just pay lip service to the idea of a noblemen's obligation to the common folk, as Matthew's own father was rumored to do so in life. Matthew respected Thomas; it could even be said he'd come to love the man as a father these past ten years. His foster child was certain the Duke wouldn't be so generous with his funds if it were to adversely affect the Duchy's existence, but still, how could the man believe, even for a moment, that opening the gates to any and all who declared themselves artists was a fine idea?
Most of these men, he was certain, were nothing more than peasants too lazy to put their backbone to a plow or millstone. Oh, and the smell! The Lutins who had killed his entire family did not smell half so bad.
"QUIET!" he yelled in his most commanding voice. The clamor faltered for a moment, but then continued as if he had said nothing at all. He put his hand to his sword, a fine rapier whose pommel was heavy enough to make a fine impromptu gavel on someone's skull.
He did not get a chance, however, to pull his weapon. A smooth feminine hand raised itself above the crowd and with an audible snap, the head of every degenerate in the courtyard turned in its direction. "Gentlemen, gentlemen," the hand's owner chided the circus before her, "Master Matthew would like your attention, if it pleases you."
Matthew shot the sorceress a sour look, but thanked her politely. He was 16... or perhaps 17... there really was not a way for him to be certain. He was a man, now, by anyone's measure, and assured a position of respect and authority within Metamor Keep, the son of Thomas Hassan in every way but in blood. He did not need Poppy to coddle him before commoners, even if the raven-haired sorceress was such a striking woman that Matthew had something of a crush on her. Her eyes danced with mischief at his growl, reminding him that she was beyond his reach in years and safe from gentlemen such as he, for she was married and well protected by that covenant.
It often made him rethink the value of remaining a gentleman. Such covenants seemed entirely too bothersome, especially knowing that her husband was a shiftless gambler that hid behind her skirt at the least little sign of danger.
Of course, Thomas would be quite disappointed if he could hear such thoughts in Matthew's head. Such covenants were the difference between the civilized world and the "monsters" to the north. He sighed and cleared his throat all at once lest he loose the mob's attention with his wool gathering.
"On behalf of Duke Thomas, I want to think you all for coming," he said, his hands outstretched as if to embrace them all, turning amongst them. He'd seen Thomas do this on many occasions and the crowds would just eat it up. Humph. Apparently, he needed to practice this a bit more. He dropped his arms. "The Duke has decided to open three new positions of patronage. You have all been... invited here to contest amongst yourselves for these new seats."
"Kept here is more like it," one ornery looking fellow snapped. "The Watchers at the gate would not let me leave this morn with my wares."
Matthew gave the fellow a good once over. He had the bulging arms of a blacksmith and fingers as thick as other men's arms. Matthew wondered what the man's chosen medium was for a moment before deciding that he really didn't care. "I'm sure there's been a misunderstanding," Matthew told the fellow. "You are quite free to leave. Any one of you. All of you. No one is being held here against their will."
Poppy shot him a dark look that was all eyebrows and shadows, even in the midday sun. "Of course," Poppy said to the milling artisans, "the portents suggest this is a bad time to travel."
Portents? Matthew snorted to himself. The portents she spoke of were in actuality a series of disturbing reports Castellan DeMule had gotten from the north. Garrisons were falling like raindrops across Giantdowns and even the most optimistic reports put Metamor Keep as the last barrier between the Northern Monsters and the Civilized World. Damn that wizard, Nasoj, but he had tumbled onto some force that seemed unstoppable with an army of Lutins that numbered beyond conception.
"But," Matthew said, firmly, "You ARE free to leave, despite that."
He knew Thomas would rather face Lutins unarmed himself than risk a non-combatant's life. He also knew Demule was not thrilled with the notion of feeding so many non-combatants if a siege were to occur. But, most importantly, Matthew knew from experience that, when it came to so many Lutins in one place, there was truly no such thing as a non-combatant.
With this, Poppy could not argue, instead she shrugged and made a "washing of her hands" gesture to the crowd. "But, of course. Should anyone care to risk a dangerous journey rather than partake in potentially beneficial competition, then, by all means, they are free to leave."
The crowd of would be artists seemed hypnotized by her hands. Considering the subtlety of her feminine magicks, that might very be exactly what she was doing and he'd never know. It was just as likely, however, that they were staring at her heaving bosom as it pressed bulging against the fabric of her blouse.
They were rather magnificent pieces of art themselves, Matthew thought to himself in a moment of distraction.
Then he was caught staring, a blush coming to his cheek as Poppy's eyes teased him not more than six feet away. "More flies with honey," she seemed to say with those dark eyes. Matthew could only glance at the herd of humanity before him; flies were an apt term, he thought. They're parasites, too.
Then, the whole issue of leaving the Keep became moot, as a horn sounded from the outer walls. "It's started," Matthew spat and began ushering his charges into the Keep fortress itself.
At the very least he'd have his chance to exact some vengeance on the Lutins as a species, he told himself as pages appeared out of their discreet shadows with his light armor and shield, bearing the Winc family device, a Scarlet Unicorn not too different from Hassan's Crimson Stallion. "At least I'll be able to face them as a man," he said aloud to no one in particular.
A hand came to rest on his shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. He found Poppy standing at his side, her kinky black tresses dancing within an aura crackling with readied mystical power. "And this time you are not alone."
A bold impulse struck him then, in the courtyard, amidst the chaos of Keepers running helter-skelter. He took her by the waist and smiled up into her eyes. Almost the same height, he noted happily. If they should survive this, another year would probably be all it took to get her to look up. Her eyes went wide as he watched and he smiled impishly. "A kiss for good luck?"
She did not hesitate a moment and leaned forward to kiss him quickly on the lips. And why not, she only really knew him as a boy. But the kiss lingered between them longer than she had expected, he knew from the way she hesitated to pull away. When she blinked and looked at him again, he knew she saw him as a man for the first time and this made him happy.
"We seem to be beating them back!" someone shouted.
And then... the world... changed.
Matthew was pulled into an undercurrent of a sea of flesh, his mind gasping for air as confused and desperate sensations filled his lungs. His self was torn asunder much as a house of twigs in a maelstrom, leaving his blank mind exposed to wildly harsh elements. In a few fragmented moments of the meaningless clarity, he knew only carnal desires and nothing of his true self. He was a cog in a mill, a clockwork machine grinding down desperate for attention and approval. Shame meant nothing to him. Indeed, he meant nothing to himself.
He caught glimpses of Poppy's face, distorted and blurred. The face meant something to him, but he knew nothing except that... there, cloth can be pulled away and flesh can meet flesh, flush with sweat and heat, and desires. Impulses. Needs. Mesh. Conjoin. Pleasure. But pleasure begets pleasures and pain begets pleasure and the need to fulfill his partner. He must please and the need is so strong that he impales himself with his sword and this pleasures the other so he bucks and repeats the cycle screaming because the screaming pleases and then there is a warmth in the midst of this madness.
A warmth that radiates out from between his legs and... then
changed once more.
Matthew staggered back from Poppy, but it was not the Poppy he knows. This one was a man with perfectly kinky black hair and the stubble of something that might someday be a goatee. His clothing has been torn apart, leaving his dwindling manhood exposed for all to see.
Matthew staggered about in a circle confused, his own gherkin tight and uncomfortable against his upper torso. Every where he looked, confused women staggered about in male clothing, much of it torn as his was... but then the gate opened and several dozen Lutins strolled right in.
They didn't take more than three steps before Matthew screamed and charged forth with his rapier exposed. He screamed his rage and his call was taken up by those around him. He did not question the appearance of these odd Amazons; there would be time for that later. For now, it was enough that he had his steel drawn and they followed him against the evil green invaders.
Matthew sat in the woods. There were no patrols in this area, he knew. He had seen to that. Now there was only doing the deed and he needed a moment to steel himself. He was not certain why he had felt the need to come here alone and so secretively. Shame was certainly part of it, of course, although he understood on many levels that what had happened when the curse had overwhelmed them both was not his fault nor was it something to be ashamed about.
Nor was it the idea that he had been victimized by the Northeners yet again, although that was a hurtful thought indeed.
What he was doing now could be considered wrong, which was a problem. No, it _was_ wrong. Or it would have been in any other circumstances but his own. The curse would be cured shortly, he knew, they had the best and greatest mages working on it, all of them a million times smarter than the bastard, Nasoj.
He couldn't allow this abomination to continue. This was a foul parody of what things should have been. He would not stand for it. No man would. It had to end before the thing had grown and could be hidden no longer.
"So," he asked himself as he held the small earthen jug up for further inspection in the sunlight, "there is no reason to hesitate."
The House of Winc must live on, a voice from the past urged him. Do you think you mother wanted to have you? Or you brother? She did not, but it was her duty. You cannot shirk your duty.
"I live for myself, you bastard," he told the whisper and cringed at the high pitched voice that had come out of his mouth. He uncorked the jug and swallowed the bitter drought in two short gulps. "No one else," he croaked and this time the voice sounded more like his own true. "No one else."
Shattering the jug against a convenient boulder, Matthew took a deep breath. The deed was done. It was only a matter of time now. Matthew sent a prayer out to gods that had never heard him before, asking for forgiveness and hoping it would not hurt too terribly much.
Within the hour, he felt the first tingles in his loins, followed shortly and surprisingly, by pins and needles dancing on his fingers and toes. He dropped his trousers in time for the first waves of pain; if he could avoid ruining his pants, he would.
Alone, he twisted and writhed in agony, nothing compared to the misery he had suffered under the curse these last three months. He felt his loins spasm and he looked between his legs although he had promised himself that he would not, not until things were back the way the gods had intended him to be.
There was nothing there to look at, of course. Just a smooth mound of flesh where his legs met, bifurcated with a red irritated gash where his manhood had once been. Colors danced before his eyes and the world spun before he could bring himself to look away.
The pain became deeper and took on a panic-tinted flush as Matthew found himself kicked by invisible mules. He lost himself in the colors and the agony, as the smells of forest turned from pine to cheese to spoiled meat in a space of moments. A part of him decided the smell was coming of his own betrayed and betraying flesh. Another part of him decided he'd never left the sewers of Port Pleasant at all; that all had happened since was nothing but a dream and nightmare mingled now in his mind.
"Get out of me!" he screamed in midst of his attack. He clutched at a stick and held his body against it. It was long and slender, more a switch than a stick, really, and it bent but did not break. "Get out of me!" He screamed, but still there was no evidence that his desperate measure was working other than the hellish pain itself.
"Get. Out. Of. ME!" He screamed in a shrill voice that, horribly, reminded him of his mother on her deathbed. The birthing bed of a brother that had not lived long enough to see its murdered mother's body interred. He cried then at the memory and the unfairness of it all.
I'll use this stick on myself, if it comes to that, he promised himself. Anything it took to get it out.
And then... with a splash of blood... the world... changed.
Malissa found the Duke just inside the barn Doug, the Stable Master, kept the gravid mares in. He stood back from the crowd of stable boys that had come to watch the miracle of birth. Kindle, she noted absently, did not seem present but no doubt Quiz or Kee was tracking him down. Of course, there was every chance Kindle was still blaming himself for Posti's death and thought coming here would be too painful.
Before Thomas noticed her, she looked her adoptive father over. He was still an imposing figure after all these years, but how much of that was due to the curse that twisted his body into an equine parody of a man she was not certain. His spirit hadn't shrunk back from the challenges the curses brought to his door, she knew, and that was perhaps part of her answer. He also remained a bold dreamer who had never wallowed in misery the way Malissa (and Matthew before her) had. Like the wild stallion that he appeared to be at times, Thomas Hassan had not allowed himself to be broken.
Malissa doubted he ever would be and she wished she could say the same for herself.
Lost in thought, she almost did not notice Thomas turning to her with what passed on him for a huge smile these days. Forward erect ears and exposed teeth under a broad flat nose that did not crinkle was a smile, she knew. After seven years, she didn't even have to think about it anymore. "I was afraid you would not come, my daughter."
The words did not sting as they once did. She had grown used to them, but they would never mean the same thing to her as "my son" would have. There had been times past when she had to consciously keep her hands from caressing his face or stroking his nose in greeting, as if he were a real horse. Unlike Malissa, however, Thomas was a horse only in appearance. Malissa was a woman in every way, except her passions and desires. She had come to accept that desires and passions were nothing compared to the fact that she had an ample bosom and wide hips made for child bearing, but she did not have to like it. As twisted and deformed as Thomas or any of the Morphic Keepers were, they were still men first in the eyes of others. In general, she resented this, but Thomas' overall demeanor made it impossible to resent him.
She reached out and took his right hand. It seemed like a huge hand, but it was not much bigger than Thomas' had been when he was a man. Perhaps it was the thumb and two long and thick fingers, blackened with a carapace that made his hands look as much like hooves as they did hands. She gave it a gentle squeeze. "And be chased all day by Thalberg lecturing me about my duty to produce an heir?"
Thomas chuckled, his equine nature making it a deeper rumble than it would have been otherwise. "Come winter, he'll quiet down. Don't worry."
Then before they could joke further at the steward's expense, they were summoned to the birthing pen for a ringside seat. She would have politely refused if it weren't likely to cause teasing about her gentle sensibilities. Being in the back would have been fine with her. Thomas spared her by waving them on and taking her from the crowd a bit.
Thomas looked at her, mischief dancing in his huge eyes. "I bet you three gold coins that it's a male."
Now, that got her attention. Thomas was a lousy better. On those rare occasions that he was in the Deaf Mule incognito, Thomas always bet on anyone but the pool champion, Cope. "Oh, lets make it a bit more interesting," she said, her discomfit mitigated just a bit.
"In what way?"
"If I win, you'll let Thalberg fix you up with someone."
Thomas started and then seemed to think about it. Then he smiled. "Let it drop, Malissa. The curse may be cured yet, and things will be different come that day."
Now it was Malissa's turn to hesitate. She looked at the mare, struggling with the birth, half-calmed by her handlers, half-frightened by them, and she wondered if there was anything within her that wanted that for herself. She was certain the answer was no, for in her dreams she was still Matthew and not the lady in the mirror with pity in her eyes. "What if... something were to happen to you or I before that day? What happens then?"
Thomas followed her gaze into the birthing pen and then looked at her. "What would you like to happen?"
Malissa did not have to think about that. "I want Metamor to continue strongly, curse or no curse, too many good people have died protecting this Valley to just give it up to the Northeners."
"As do I," Thomas said, nodding his huge wedge-shaped head. "Prince Phil will step in, if he has not yet taken the crown of Whales upon his head. Also... Posti has a son within the Keep. He seems an honest lad, although his mother's husband is a drunkard."
Thomas may have said more, but Malissa's mind was unable to get past the one implausible fancy Thomas had spoken of. "I'm sorry, repeat that please. Posti has a son? He was ancient!"
Thomas smiled and nodded. "It was a long time ago. I'll tell you the story one day, but suffice to say, it was a almost a score of years ago and he was still known as Bob Stein at the time."
Malissa nodded absently. Many mages took a singular name once they reached a certain level of expertise. Magus and Posti were two examples known to her, while there were others that had taken their names early in life, such as Kindle, which suggested they had left their old life behind to chase the elusive power of magic. Of course, then there were odd ducks like the wizard who called himself, I Want Power. "Still... he would have been... old."
"Yes," Thomas chuckled, "He'd been... Old... since I knew him as a boy of 12. In any case, there was a woman and her family had been thought to be dead. There was a connection there between them but before Posti could marry her, her husband turned up alive. One day, they showed up here to make themselves a place in the Keep and Posti did the math. Had the boy shown the slightest magical ability, he'd have been Posti's apprentice and not Kindle."
"Who knows about this?"
"Phil. Kindle, I think. Magus, I'm certain. Myself. Poppy most likely suspects as she was traveling with them at the time." Thomas shrugged. "The mother swore never to tell the child and it seems she kept her word. The lad will be starting here at the stables soon, where he'll become a squire if Doug deems him worthy and one of my knights agrees."
"Does he have what it takes to rule?"
Thomas smiled and shrugged again. "Blood will out, one hopes. There's no doubt he comes from good stock."
Malissa thought about this. Her own father was a good lord, but hardly a great one. He was known as a niggardly Duke in his day, but not a greedy one. The best that could be said about him was that he was a pragmatic man who was loyal to the crown, and that was more than could be said of many other royals. Malissa thought of herself as pragmatic and extremely loyal to Thomas. Was that her father's blood outing? She rather doubted it; her trials and tribulations were her own but she wasn't about to argue with Thomas. Despite his more romantic notions about humanity in general, she knew that he knew that blood was always a dice roll. "Continuity," she said aloud.
Thomas nodded, confirming her thoughts. "The APPEARANCE of Continuity. He's a horse morph and his 'father' openly suspects him of being a bastard child. The House of Hassan has given the family gifts and purchased many art pieces from them over the years. There's plenty of evidence to suggest he's my child."
A startled cry from the mare distracted them for a moment. "But... you buy a LOT of art pieces, you're a patron," she hissed in a whisper. "If you had a bastard, you'd have acknowledged him long ago. We all know how you feel about family."
Thomas looked at her and his eyes danced teasingly, but Malissa held her ground. "I know you, better than that, Thomas."
"You do," Thomas agreed, soberly. "In many ways I DO wish that I had sown wilder oats whilst I could. But, I didn't. Still, one could argue that I kept things hush, hush to protect him."
"One could," Malissa agreed, cautiously. "Is this fair to the boy?"
"Posti didn't have the bluest blood, in fact, he started out as a stablehand. If the boy's half the man his father was, he can do my job. As for fair... please, Malissa, is any of this truly fair?"
The mare screamed again, sending an echoing shiver down her spine like ice water when it suddenly cut itself off.
"That's our cue," Thomas said, guiding her into the birthing barn. "Time waits for no man."
They found Matthew staggering through Town, trouser legs bloodied and torn just as dusk was stealing into the Keep. Matthew let the animal people approach, but no one else. They helped Matthew to a nearby herbalist who had once been a plump, pumpkin shaped woman before the curse. Now she was much thinner and smelled of musk, although the otter beige fur that covered her head to toe was a much more dramatic change.
She chased the others away except for a young girl who shared as much in common with a fox as she shared with Matthew's still human form. Without hesitation, the herbalist ordered the vulpine to draw a hot bath for Matthew, with rose petal water that apparently was kept hot all day for just such emergencies. Mathew knew her by her voice, but neither the name nor the woman's true face came to mind.
Matthew was stripped of clothing immediately, uncaring of the disfigurement the curse had inflicted. A moment later, the brass tub held Matthew in a warm caress of floral scented water. The pain began to dull within minutes and the color began to appear on pale, hairless cheeks.
"So what are we calling ourselves now," the half deer woman asked with maternal gentleness as she poured rose water over Matthew's dark hair. "Mattina? Matty? Matilda?"
With a confused expression that slowly turned belligerent, Matthew looked up into the healer woman's black nose. "No."
"Well, you're a woman now," the animal woman said gently, as if to a child. "You've begun your cycles. What you once were is gone now; we don't know if we can ever get it back. It's best if you accept that and move on. They say a new name will help draw the line between past and present." Matthew blinked dully and looked away from the herbalist, his eyes coming to rest on a pair of eyes across the room. They belonged to a very beautiful woman, but he was in no position to appreciate that at all.
"How about Malissa?" the woman suggested. She said more, but Matthew mentally turned his ears away from her. He refused to listen and eventually she went away to give Matthew some time alone with his new reality.
Eventually, Matthew pulled himself from the tub and walked over to the woman. A tall, pale woman with hair as dark as midnight looked back uncertainly at him. Almost as tall as Poppy had been and perhaps even better looking, the sight of the waterlogged woman excited him just as the older sorceress had when he had a silly crush on her. Only now, this woman was his own age and not married.
Of course, that was because the woman looking back in the mirror was Matthew and his reflection held nothing but horror and pity for him in her eyes.
With a screech of pain and denial Matthew punched at the woman in the mirror and bloodied himself once more.
Afterwards, Thomas and Malissa walked back towards the magical palace. The Keep was ancient. Its origin might very well predate human civilization. The magic of the place had saved them all by allowing the defending wizards to twist the three curses with a counter curse into something that they could control to some extent. It had damned them by enrobing the valley with the curse and counter curse so that anyone staying within Metamor Valley for more than a few days would be cursed themselves.
It was a marvelous place, but it was also their prison, but Malissa did not want to dwell. "So, you were correct," she said, "It was a male."
Thomas nodded as he took an apple from a page who vanished discreetly behind his lord a moment later. "Kindle said he'd name him Posti, after our friend and his Master."
Malissa smiled, "I wonder what Posti would say about that?"
Thomas's eyes glistened, but did not twinkle as they did when he joked. "Posti would have surprised you, I think. Someday, I will tell you a story about that foal in there. He's going to surprise everyone, I think."
They walked in silence for a bit, a luxury among ruling class whose work is never truly done. It was a beautiful day and Thomas finished his apple in four casual bites. Malissa kicked at a stone that was in her path and said, "I won't."
Thomas looked at her curiously, one ear up and another ear limp. "How so?"
"I'm not wise like Posti was," Malissa said halfheartedly.
"Wisdom comes in time, Mal. In the meantime, if it helps, I can assure you that you frighten the staff much more than Posti ever did, and he could turn people into pumpkins."
Malissa rolled her eyes, but only smiled a tiny bit. She was relatively certain that Posti couldn't have done that. Well, at least he wouldn't have done that. "Thank you. I mean... I'm not going to get pregnant. Ever."
"I said, 'Don't worry about it.'" Thomas gave her a gentle one-armed hug without breaking stride. "We'll beat the curse eventually."
"I'm still a man, in here. Deep inside."
Thomas nodded again, "As am I, Mal."
"But you're still a man." Mal said a bit tartly.
"You're still human," Thomas asserted without rancor. "Look, I'm not going to force you to marry and calf me a grandson any more than I am going to stay in the stable until someone decides to saddle me up. Yes, it would be nice to have a grandchild, I'm not denying that. I won't even insist you try dating men, even if they are still women inside."
The horse lord took her hand and stopped, bringing their tiny retinue of guards and pages to an awkward halt. "I trust you to help me run the Valley, Malissa. I think I can trust you with your own life."
Malissa gave him a brave smile. Her life was not her own, and maybe it never had been. What Nasoj had done to them all... What he had done to Matthew who had reclaimed his rank and who would have soon been ready to reclaim his lands from those who had divided the ancestral land of Winc between them like dogs on table scraps... It had filled her with rage for seven long years just to think about it, but now that rage was slowly vanishing.
It frightened her that she couldn't sustain that hate and rage forever. As a boy, hate and rage for Lutins had been the only things that had kept Matthew going until Thomas had rescued him. On the cusp of manhood, he known he would be a warrior first and a diplomat later, for a lifetime of anger had shaped what he would become. He had had a clear vision of himself, standing triumphantly on a battlefield holding a shining sword and his Scarlet Unicorn crested shield beneath the Red Stallion banners, giving glory to his fathers and the king.
Now, Malissa knew Matthew for the silly boy that he was, looking back she saw him as Poppy must have seen the boy. And every morning there was less and less rage to fuel the man deep within her cursed, endowed body. What would happen when the rage faded away completely? Without the rage, would there be nothing left for her but the curse and a future as a human brood mare?
And Thomas trusted her with Metamor Valley?
"I don't know if I can do it, Thomas," she whispered. Her throat nearly closed up, but he had to know. She stepped closer to her adoptive father, finding strength in his mere presence that she'd only sought within herself until now.
"I'm afraid," she admitted with a whisper. "I'm afraid I might not be strong enough, Father."
Thomas smiled proudly. "That's the bravest thing I've ever heard you say." Slapping her on the back, and pulling her in closer with his arms. "None of us are strong enough alone," he said in a quiet but strong voice. "Together, however, we are strong enough for anything."
To her surprise, Malissa returned the embrace with a clinging appreciation. Had she just grown up a bit or given in? Wisdom comes in time, Thomas had said and she hoped that he was right. Until then, she was going to have to accept it second hand from the man who really ought to have been her father in a real universe.
Direct from the horse's mouth, as it were, and to her everlasting surprise she smiled at the thought and the warmth it brought her.