Wheeler was not surprised his letter hadn't reached his noble cousin... mail to the Keep was a chancy business unless one had a trusted courier at one's disposal, but, he was somewhat put off by the stonewalling he got from the Steward. It was some sort of dragon thing, and while Wheeler had been fully prepared to deal with buxom woman acting like men and men covered in fur and not much else, the formally dressed lizard completely unnerved him.
"The Duke can not possibly see you today," the Steward said, his long jaws somehow flexing eloquently over the words. "You should leave and return in two weeks. I am sure I can clear a spot on his calendar at that time."
All of Wheeler's perfectly practiced words had failed him. He had begged and whored for the money needed to cross the continent and meet up with the caravan. He risked Lutin attack the three days prior to arriving at the Keep and, by abandoning the Caravan, he had forfeited his sword-arm fee. Now, he was being dismissed? He refused to believe it.
"I understand the Duke is a busy man," he sputtered, "I didn't expect to see him right this moment." Which was something of a lie. Rumor had it that Duke Thomas was something of a recluse (as was understandable, considering the curse), so he had expected to see the Duke after a reasonable amount of time. An hour's wait, at least, to be impressed with how busy the King of the Pass was. But not this.
"And, yet," Thalberg said with a trace of dry wit in his voice, "you seem surprised."
"Would you at least tell him I am here?" He glared at the Steward, as if by glowering he could hide the way his voice broke.
"I will be sure to mention it," the courtier said. "When I see him next."
"Dammit, NO!" Wheeler yelled to his own surprise, but he refused to back off now that the gauntlet had been thrown down. "I don't care if he's having a seance with the Pontiff's frigging ghost! How hard can it be just to let him know his frigging cousin is here IF he wants to see me!?"
Thalberg answered him with silence. The sounds of two Amazonian guards moving in unison to either side of him, filled the silence.
"Actually," Thalberg said coolly, "I'd be very surprised if he hadn't heard you himself just now." The alligator got up from his seat, his tail slapping the floor angrily several times, but there was no other indication of the Steward's anger. That worried Wheeler. "If you insist on staying until there is an opening in the Duke's schedule, you may do so at the Deaf Mule. But, Mr. Wheeler, I would not hold out much hope of seeing Duke Thomas before the curse strikes you."
Walking among the Keepers, Wheeler experienced the oddest mix of disgust and excitement and desire. The mix of emotions ate at his resolve. It was as if he had returned to Os-Var-Khai, the Far East island where men became animals in the pursuit of science and magic knowledge, and other forms of enlightenment.
And, yet, it was not. No salt air mingled here with the many musks of its citizens. The market did not murmur, as it did in Os-Var-Khai; it screamed. The range of sounds drove him to distraction. There wind wasn't scented with jasmine and orange blossoms. Kitchen smells weren't thick spiced with ginger, garlic, and cumin.
If he had riches, he would have left minutes after his meeting with Thalgard the Steward. If one was rich enough, even the most perverse pleasures could be tolerated. If he had even the slightest bit of wealth, he would have squandered it all in chartering a boat to Os-Var-Khai just to throw himself at Chang's feet and beg forgiveness.
But Grey Wheeler was not a rich man, even though he spent the last few years in rich trappings. Hiring himself as a guard to help the caravan past the Lutins was the only way he'd been able to make the journey here. The trip had been without incident or attack and for that he was grateful. Of course, had they'd been attacked, Wheeler would have had at least a tale of bravery to impress the Stewart with.
He counted the coins in his purse, disappointed that they had not multiplied since his last count. In any other city, Wheeler knew his body could get him whatever he desired if he found the right person to foot the bill. But not here. Wheeler was not sure he could bring himself to give his trust to some furred creature or to some child vainly trying to recapture what he/she/it had lost. Some woman, perhaps, who used to be a man...that was an experience he was willing to pay for. He had only enough coins to spend three days here before he had to decide to stay or return on the next caravan out of the Keep.
Two things happened that day to strengthen his resolve to stay.
The first was a rat-like creature that caught his eyes as it slinked in the shadows. It was reaching for a apple to steal when it noticed Wheeler staring at it and froze, almost blending in perfectly with the shadows. Almost, but it's blue eyes told the man it had not vanished. Something stirred Wheeler and he casually brought a finger up to his lips, and held it there until the creature blinked slowly once.
Wheeler engaged the green grocer in conversation and took great pains to walk the chubby lizard man to the end of his stand away from the rat creature. He purchased a plump tomato and got to hear a bit of local colour. As the green grocer pointed out directions to the Deaf Mule with his green arm, Wheeler saw a furry brown hand snatch two apples into the shadows. His mission accomplished, he felt a surge of pride.
The second thing to strengthen his resolve to stay happened on his way to the Deaf Mule.
He came around a corner and noticed two wolves on the other side of the street walking in his general direction. One was a grey wolf; a real wolf: NOT a morph. It was tied, via a harness, to a tether that was held by the other wolf. That wolf was a buxom young wolf morph and her green skirt showed off her figure to great effect. Wheeler watched her take a few steps in the crowded market place, noting that she walked a little like a guy, but he suspected he was imagining that. Wheeler was surprised to see a morph with a pet to begin with. For some reason he had thought the curse would make them shun animals altogether. Obviously, that was poor logic on his part.
A strong looking man came around another the corner and nearly bumped into the pair. He was flustered, and apologized profusely, but Wheeler wasn't paying much attention until he heard the man ask the normal wolf if he'd written any more poems lately. The four footed wolf whined and looked up to the two footed wolf as if to ask for permission to speak. Wheeler nearly stopped in his tracks, but had the presence of mind to only slow and stop at the next stand and try to watch without appearing to watch. The female wolfmorph rubbed the male wolf's head and instead answered for him. "No, Helen, he hasn't. Don't know if he ever will again, but Christopher seems hopeful."
For one brief moment, he saw himself at the end of that leash, forced to obey the will of his "master." He knew he was going to stay. Wheeler suspected he would hate himself for it later, but he knew he was going to stay.
His first night within the Keep, Wheeler had the strangest dreams. He dreamed of finding a man who used to be a woman and that everyone who saw him with this man knew his lover to be a woman and it was all right. He dreamed of dressing in silk from head to toe and walking on a moonlit shoreline, leaning on the strong arm of Dramm. He dreamed the only laughter to be heard was from circling gulls above. He dreamed of the rat creature and those blue eyes glaring at him from behind the apple stand, commanding him to distract the grocer while the eyes stole him blind. He dreamed of the rat-creature pouncing him and then sharing an apple with him because he had earned it.
Fear and pleasure haunted his dreams as he was compelled to do more for the rat creature... compelled because the rat creature commanded him to... compelled because he wanted to please his master... compelled because that's simply the way things were done.
He dreamed of becoming a woman and walking the streets, of the men she could chose from.
He dreamed of all the torture he inflicted on others, but this time he could not smell the burning flesh and he could not hear Terrance screaming... betraying his friends to save his captain's life... and for what? For what? The hot irons became a whip and each time the whip snapped silently in his dream, he found himself whipping a pathetic little man who looked just like him, and the hate he felt for the image nearly woke him up.
He dreamed of growing fur and being stripped in public... he dreamed that his shame was stripped from him as well, as he is exposed to be nothing but an animal... an animal who could not talk unless his master said it was all right... an animal who composed poems for his master only.
He snapped awake at the sound of a floorboard squeaking. For one wild moment, Wheeler thought the rat thief had come back for him. Eyes wide and heart thumping, he stared into the darkness of his let room, looking for the floating set of blue eyes that would mean he was to be stolen away.
But alas, the only thing lurking in his room was a little square of the lonely night. Whatever the sound had been, wind or a ghost, it did not matter for the room was empty and his heart sank even as he fell back to sleep.
That morning, Wheeler did everything right. He apologized. He bowed. He scraped. He did everything short of begging. He kept his cool during the second meeting with the Steward, but the alligator morph's attitude went beyond ice. The Duke remained too busy to be disturbed, no matter how far his distant cousin had traveled. Wheeler was extremely careful not to let his frustration show this time during the interview, but got no further than the first time.
Depressed and miserable, Wheeler made a beeline for the Deaf Mule. Along the way, he glanced at shadows hoping to see his rat shadowing him, but it wasn't to be. He was alone in the Keep without a friend.
It wasn't the best stuff Wheeler ever threw back, but it certainly vanished quickly enough. He was quite buzzed by lunch and quite drunk by dinner. Donny tried to cut him off, but a white Tiger morph waved the bull morph off and said he'd take care of the drunken fool. Overworked, Donny reluctantly agreed. "I couldn't help but overhear what you said before," the Tiger said by way of introduction as he joined Wheeler at the table.
Wheeler stared at the tiger like he was a piece of meat for a moment. The Tiger's maleness practically knocked him over. His open shirt showed a sculpted and furry chest. The paws were almost human looking, but covered in white fur. The breeches were tight to the point of distraction, and it took a full minute for Wheeler's alcohol washed mind to realize the tiger was appraising him in kind.
Wheeler blinked as his mind caught up. What he'd said before? He'd said so many things before. He had said so much, in fact, the bar crowd had left a trench of open space around him like he was fresh off a plague ship. It didn't matter. He doubted he'd lied, so best to go for the gusto. "Did I say that aloud?" he said with a laugh and then turned serious. Somebody here was going to take him seriously or he'd die trying. "Well? I do. I said it and I meant it. So, what do you think of them apples, huh?"
The Tiger leaned back, gently amused. "I think I would like that very much."
Wheeler had to blink once or twice. He held onto the table as the room began to roll a bit to the left. He found his voice, but it was a lot smaller then it had been a moment ago. He was not sure what the tiger was talking about, but he could hope. "I have money," he said.
The tiger appeared not to hear and leaned forward with half lidded eyes, "Maybe it's the liquor talking, but... let's go to my place."
Wheeler could hardly believe his ears. His breath caught suddenly and it was hard to talk. "I have a room upstairs."
The tiger threw back some of his wine and licked his muzzle to get the last bit of it and then touched his left eyebrow with his tongue, showing off. He smiled evilly at the look on Wheeler's face. "I have... toys... you might like."
Wheeler allowed the tiger to lead him out the door before he could change his mind.
They walked in circles, or so it seemed. Wheeler tried to talk to the tiger, but the tiger wanted him not to attract attention. "People might talk," the tiger advised him and that dampened his spirits. He thought a place like Metamor Keep was free of shame.
The tiger steered them into a dark alley and Wheeler asked dully if he lived back here. Grunting loudly, the tiger said, "We should have gone upstairs to your room, I have to have you, now."
Mixed emotions fought within Wheeler and he nearly cried. Suddenly, he knew something was wrong. He's been here before too many times. Not in this alley. Not with this man. But it was always a place like this. It was always a man like this. But drunk, he could stop himself. When the tiger maneuvered him behind some barrels and told him to take of his clothes. Wheeler obeyed, powerless to stop himself; knowing what was to come. Hoping that it wasn't going to happen the way it always happened before, Wheeler unbuttoned his top. His blouse was off his shoulder and half way down his arms when suddenly something grabbed him from behind and threw him across the dark alley.
His arms entangled, Wheeler could not protect his head from slamming into the oncoming wall. He saw stars where no god meant for them to be. His tiger screamed and something in orange and black roared back at him.
Again something grabbed him and threw him across the width of the alley and again a wall caught his head harshly. Daggers for hands. An orange and white blur in the moonlight. More screaming. None of it his. Silence was safety. Their words meant nothing to Wheeler, who was too busy holding on to his consciousness.
Then his tiger swiped once and knocked him from the bigger cat's claws onto the ground. He heard the two tussling for all of a second and then the two cats were pulling at his clothes. Too dazed to defend himself properly, he put up a token resistance. They found his coin purse, and satisfied with that, left him bleeding on the cold, hard alley ground.
Staring up at stars, he realized that they weren't going to rape him. Spared that, he began to cry. The alley. The attack. He'd let it happen to him again. Again! It was as if he had invited it upon himself. Hating himself for being a victim, Wheeler passed out wishing he were dead.
He almost got his wish.
By chance, Clay saw Wicker and his father slink out of the alley and the way they moved suggested something was afoot. That meant trouble for somebody. As soon as he was sure the two tiger morphs would not notice him, Clay ducked into the alley as silently as possible.
He did not want under confrontation with his father. Since Clay's change, Henrik was suddenly certain Clay was not his son and that Josie must have cheated on him at some point many years ago. Clay's new form had been a complete surprise to him, and it certainly wasn't what he would have chosen, but it was better than being a child all his life or a girl.
Or a criminal, he added bitterly.
Outwardly, Clay had always been mild and even tempered, as well as artistic, so there was no doubt in anyone's mind who the father was... until Clay's change. His father had always been so timid and mild, before the curse of the Three Gates, when he'd been a small man. Now he was a large hulking tiger who wasn't going to accept things as they were.
Henrik accused her of having an affair. she denied it, of course. However, Josie had never been a good liar and Clay saw something in his mother's eyes, like a half-forgotten secret recalled. Henrik had seen it, too, and he reacted by becoming as wild as his youngest, Wicker.
The family Clay had spent years trying to hold together was no fallen completely apart. His mother had gone off to who knows where. His father and younger brother were wallowing in their own filth. Tina had made something of herself, but had long ago stopped trying to pick up the pieces of her family and was working on her new one.
Nothing ever stayed the same.
His transformation was the final straw, and he felt like it was all his fault. It wasn't fair... the curse did not always change the children in the same way it did for the parents. And, if his mother had cheated... once... was it his fault? There were too many unanswered questions in Clay's life right now.
His disfigured hands would never again make anything more intricate than a chamber pot. He had stopped enjoying the work itself months ago, but at least it had been something he could call his own With no job and no home, Clay ended up at the Royal stables. The huge, mindless horses there were beginning to fill the void of family nicely. It was a little humbling; creating art had always been so effortless to Clay. He took great pride in learning and mastering things the other, younger stablehands had learned years ago. But something else was missing...
Clay saw the slumped body and the torn clothing and knew his father and brother had moved from mild burglary to something else entirely. Rushing to the man's side, he clumsily checked for breathing and tried to pull an eye open. The whites of the left eye were beginning to fill with blood and the pupils seemed uneven... not that Clay could easily tell in the moonlight.
He almost called for the civil guard, but something stopped him.
His disfigured fingers ran over the exposed human skin... unchanged pink human skin... and he felt an incredible longing. The feeling was bittersweet and sad, but it felt like a hunger he could not name. He used to look just like this, Clay thought.
There were punctures and lacerations on his shoulders and upper arms. The man had tattoos he couldn't read, but that wasn't important. Clay ran his fingers over the glyphs, as if touching them would make some kind of sense to him. In the moonlight, he thought for a moment he smeared them on the man's chest... but it was just a trick of the shadows.
The man was bleeding, but it wasn't life threatening. Nothing Clay couldn't take care of, if he wanted to. With that thought, something turned inside of him and he remembered consoling Tin who had become Tina and he recalled fondly watching Wicker's injuries heal not too long ago. A yearning he didn't understand filled him and Clay stared at the injured man trying to figure out what that meant.
Suddenly, a familiar smell struck his nose and he sneezed. A puddle of dark urine began to spread out from under the beaten man.
The idyll was broken. Clay instantly became aware that the ground was too cold and the moaning, injured man smelled like a brewery. Belated guilt suddenly came upon him and Clay cursed himself he hesitating. He called out for the Guard, and he kept calling until he heard footfalls in the alley behind him.