by Bill Kieffer

In his dreams, Grey Wheeler replayed the sequence of events. In his dreams, the huge hands that lifted him off his feet in the alley belonged to the rat creature.

In his dreams, the rough treatment was but a prelude to something equally violent and, yet, intimate.

In his dreams, the rat creature became Chang and he, himself, became a horse.

In his dreams, the rat creature gnawed at him until his humanity fell away and there was little left of him but a child's doll. In his dreams, the rat creature swallowed him whole.

But in his dreams, he also heard the laughing of others and while his dream master told him not to listen, he could not help himself. And the shame grew within so much, he attacked the rat creature that he had called both friend and master. He sliced at the rat creature with claws the Keep's curse gave him and then the mask of the rat fell away and Grey Wheeler found himself staring hatefully back at Grey Wheeler.

Wheeler snapped awake inside the Keep's walls. Inside the "sick ward," to be precise.

A giant raccoon in a light green vest looked him over and checked his eyes. "You healed remarkably well," the raccoon said. "Either you were not as badly injured as I first thought, or you have some magic."

Wheeler looked away, ashamed to the subject of clinical interest. But the healer persisted. "I need to know if I am losing my touch. I came very close to calling the Lightbringer in and I do not like to do that unless I need to."

"I'm warded," Wheeler said after a long moment of silence. "It keeps me from safe from the worst of it."

"The worst of what?"

Wheeler sighed. "Life." He pushed blankets of fur off his chest and ran his fingers over the tattooed glyphs on his chest. The glyphs were not large, barely the size of his pink thumb, but Coe watched as they seemed to sigh at Wheeler's touch. Starting from the left, he pointed to the first two. "This one's for healing. This one is for endurance."

The healer nodded. "They seemed to have served you well, but, you have to know this, these wards will not protect you from the curse, if you stay."

Wheeler nodded sadly.

"This third one," the raccoon said, "What's it for?"

Wheeler touched the glyph that sat over his heart. It sighed at his touch and he heard Chang's promised whispers once more. He was beloved. Pain. Agony. And Hope, the most delicious torture of them all. A tear formed in his eye as he recalled the day Chang branded him. It had been a terribly long day and he had been surprised to have survived it. He smiled weakly at the healer, feeling oddly guilty that he should lie to a man who helped nurse him back to health, "It's just my name in another language. Grey."

The raccoon nodded. "And I'm Brian Coe, part time healer... although I haven't had much time for my other jobs here at the Keep." Coe smiled and held out his paw for a shake. "Be nice if I could get those wards for everyone here. I might even have time for card games again." Wheeler smiled weakly and took the paw gently. "I suppose so."

The raccoon completed his exam as Wheeler tried not to think about what he was going to do now. "I usually don't have outsiders waking up as calmly as you did. Or being examined by a raccoon as calmly as you. Been to the Keep before, have you? Cough."

Wheeler coughed. "You're not the first animal people I've known." Wheeler spoke slowly, not sure what he could safely say, "I... I've been to Os-Var-Khai. That's where I got the wards."

Coe whistled. "I guess they were expensive, then."

Wheeler just stared off at the ceiling, his thoughts a half a world away. "You have no idea how much these things cost me," he said under his breath.

After Coe got him breakfast and announced him as healed as he was going to get, Wheeler was escorted to the Civil Guard office. The Guard Captain, a wonderfully buxom blonde named Kilroy, peered up at him with dark eyes, she did not try to hide her irritation. "You were walking a friend home, and you don't know his name?"

Wheeler briefly considered making up a name, but if they caught the white tiger, it would all come out any way. "I was drunk," he said, by way of a blanket explanation. "Besides, as it turned out, he wasn't really much of a friend."

A meaningful silence fell between them for a moment. "No, I suppose he wasn't," the Amazonian Captain said after a moment. "If you saw him again, would you remember him."

Wheeler thought about that. He was never one to forget a face, no matter how drunk he had been. However, how many white tigers could there be at the Keep? On the other hand, would he be able to tell one white tiger morph from another white tiger morph? Previously, however, he would have written the whole night off as the cost of doing business, and said no and let the matter drop. But he was working on a deadline; if he couldn't secure a position within the Keep, he had to leave before the change begun. That tiger jeopardized everything. "Yes. Yes, I would."

Apparently, that was the right answer. The woman nodded, happy that her time wasn't going to be wasted. Wheeler let out his air, relieved that this wasn't going to be another of "those" times. The Captain said, "And the other? The one who jumped you?"

Wheeler tried to remember details, but could only see a wall of orange, black and white fur... "Sorry, only that it was an even bigger tiger than the first..." Something came back to him. "The white one called him Whiskers or something. Wicked! That's it."

Kilroy nodded knowingly. "Henry and Wicker Potter. We just happen to have them in custody." "Regular Troublemakers, are they?"

Kilroy nodded. "We have so very little crime here, but there's always a few."

"I vaguely remember being found by someone."

"That's be young Clay Potter. Turned his dad and brother in, he did," the guard Captain replied somberly. "A quiet boy, that one."

Wheeler couldn't think of anything to say to that except, "I owe that boy a debt of gratitude."

"Speaking about debts; this would be yours then?" She held up the purse Wheeler had described not five minutes ago and Wheeler nodded. "The purse is a lot lighter than when they lifted it, I'm sure, but at least you're not destitute anymore."

Wheeler caught the purse and looked inside. They were barely enough coin left for a few days in Metamor. There wasn't enough for passage back out of the Keep, either, and the caravan he came with wouldn't be back for another month. He would have to press the Steward for an audience with the Duke once more. That was going to be delightful. "Thanks. How come you didn't just give it to me before?"

"The tale the Potters told was that they found you and only took your purse because they thought you dead. That's still illegal, but only a slap on the wrist. The boy didn't see nothing but those two leaving you in the alley. We couldn't try them for assault unless you were a willing witness." The woman, who had been a man once upon a time got up and looked at Wheeler pointedly. "I'm about to go break the news to them. Want to come along?"

Wheeler got up. "You mean there's actually going to be a trial?" The few times Wheeler had pleaded for justice over the years, the crimes were always swept under the rug for one reason or another. The idea of a trial completely overwhelmed him.

Kilroy turned back and glared at Wheeler, thinking the man impatient. "Of course there's going to be a trial. What kind of savages do you think we are?"

Wheeler, wisely, kept his mouth shut.

Wheeler expected the captured tigers to be in stocks, out on public display.

They weren't. Things were certainly done differently on this side of the world.

The Potters were in the dungeon under the Keep; not in stocks, but a steel holding cage. Being in a dungeon brought back many memories to the traveler, none of which he would have cared to explain the Guard escorting him. The smell of rotting meat jived with the otherwise clean walls and Wheeler wondered if that was there for effect, if it was, he admired the effect. He let the Keepers there guess at what the expression on his face might mean. Wheeler wasn't quite sure himself; his body was sending out some very mixed signals. Wheeler smiled evilly as his eyes met the eyes of the white tiger and the bigger orange cat that was mugger's son.

It was clear to Wheeler which of the two was truly in charge. Henrik tried to play the innocent, but Wicked was full of bluster and curses. Henrik uselessly tried to make his son realize he was condemning them both with his actions. And then, realizing his son wasn't going to stop, Henrik joined in the verbal abuse.

He stared at the two desperate nasty men. They were just men underneath the fur. Poor excuses for men, but men just the same. Wheeler had seen hundreds of men just like these two over the years. It was rather sad. Woman were never crazy like this. Why couldn't he be attracted to woman like everyone else?

"You'll be here for the trial?" the Amazon captain asked.

"If I can secure a position within these walls, yes."

The Watch commander nodded in an almost friendly manner. "They'll find something for you to do... We've gotten quite good at finding tasks for people over the years; we don't turn away those that wish to stay. Don't worry about that. If you do stay, I won't have to call the boy to the stand."

That set off the white tiger. "That RAT is NOT my son!"

Wheeler felt the blood drain from his face and even as the Watch Commander was yelling at the guard nearest the cell to quiet them down, he recalled those piercing blue eyes looking at him from the shadows and he knew he'd been rewarded for his good deed. With a father like that, it was no wonder the boy had to nick apples.

As the Guard Captain led Wheeler back out, Wheeler asked where he might find the young man. "He would be working at the stables, I suppose. You shouldn't have any trouble spotting him, he's the only bay Fell mucking the stalls."

A small bird flittered in and then flittered out again so quickly, Wheeler almost didn't see the note appear in Kilroy's hand. "Ahhh, a message from the Steward. He'd like to meet with you at your earliest convenience, if we're done here." The Guard smiled officially. "I think we're done here."

The thought of being invited to speak with the Stewart made him so happy that he forgot to ask what type of rodent a baifel was. The Guard Captain asked a soon-to-be-off duty constable to walk Wheeler to Thalberg's office. As it would get him out of uniform that much sooner, the officer agreed.

Wheeler's talk with the Steward was a rather awkward and strained. Thalberg all but called him a liar, a treasure seeker, and a fraud. Wheeler readily admitted that several of the copied documents were replacing documents the scribe hadn't seen. Wheeler had had to describe the papers from memory, so if there were any irregularities that might explain it.

The Steward said they had information on the Wheeliers, who were truly distant cousins of the Duke. Wheeler told the story of how his great grandfather had changed the family name to make it easier to spell, as the man was mostly illiterate himself. Thalberg all but admitted that they had gotten his letter weeks ago when he said even his claim of being Grey Wheeler was in doubt. Records show the child, Greystroke Wheeler, was thought to have died at the age of 12.

"I was shanghaied," Grey said honestly, "I was kidnapped and forced to serve as a cabin boy on The Black Capricorn. The less said of that time in my life the better. I escaped, eventually, to the Far East."

"And you came here rather than go home?"

"Port Pleasant?" Wheeler shook his head. "I don't have a home, really. I spent many years in Yesaelam trying to purge myself of my experiences over the years."

"I take it, you were a monk during that period."

Wheeler had a flash of an image of himself strip down to his silk shorts and bound to the floor, strapped so that he was helpless on his knees before Dramm. Unable to look up at Dramm. Wondering what the merchant would do next to him. Dramm ordering him to beg for mercy, despite the fact that it was the last thing he truly wanted.

"I was a supplicant, yes."

The Stewart made a face, or at least appeared to try to make a face. The alligator's face was not quite up to the challenge. "There is a record of a Greg Whaler being expelled from the Holy city under rather... unusual circumstances."

"I was known by that name in the Holy City, yes." Wheeler held his temper. "If you know those circumstances, you, perhaps, now understand why I traveled to Metamor Keep in the first place."

Thalberg barked a short laugh. "No one comes here without a good reason, Wheeler. And I can see how the gender exchange might appeal to a man of your... tastes. Nevertheless, the issue here is your intentions to the Duke. You come here with lies and falsifications, you shouldn't expect to be treated fairly."

"Those documents were created to illustrate the relationship, not to prove it."

Thalberg shifted in his seat and waved a scaly hand at him dismayingly. "Let's put that aside for now, and let's pretend the Duke allows you to stay within the Keep. Let's say he wanted to employ you, in fact. What position would you expect?"

Now it was Wheeler's turn to shift in his chair. "If the Duke were to have relations with the countries of the Far East, like Os-Var-Khai, I would make a most excellent advisor. However, I realize that that is a most unlikely occurrence. If the position were open, I might also do well as the Stable master."

This caught the Stewart's attention. "Do you know a lot about horses?"

Wheeler smiled weakly. "I, myself, am not a great horseman. I can barely tell the difference between a Clydesdale and a Shetland Pony. However, on the sea voyages in my youth, I was in charge in the cleaning and feeding of the horses in our hold." He did not mention the methods he'd been taught to use, he had the feeling it wouldn't appeal to Thalberg. "I found it very rewarding."

"I imagine it was pretty physical job," the alligator said, seeming to measure Wheeler as he leaned forward. "You didn't think it beneath your station?"

Wheeler didn't know he was going to laugh until it was out of his mouth and he was instantly embarrassed by it. He apologized almost as readily. "Oh, I'm sorry, but -- like I said - I'd been kidnapped. I didn't feel particularly noble during that period in my life. Besides, many members of the Hassen family had physical jobs. We are not a family of great riches and hard work is hardly anything to be ashamed of."

"That is a very enlightened attitude."

"Had I lived another life, I might not feel that way." Wheeler met the Stewart's eyes but couldn't discern anything to tell him what kind of impression he was making. That the interview was continuing was a good sign, of course. "I don't have many illusions left, my good Steward, except that I deserve to be happy and accepted for what I am."

Thalberg nodded, seemingly aware that Wheeler was trying to imply he was already as cursed as they were, and directed Wheeler to tell of the jobs he had had over the years. Hours passed away and food was brought and, while Wheeler was quite happy telling the censored tales of his youth, he wondered how much the Steward already knew about him. He glossed over the time spent with Lord Chang and his years with the Merchant Dramm. With Dramm, his official job title had been caravan boss, and if the caravan had been a ship, he would have been the Quartermaster. He glossed over the caravan's destruction and his sacrifice that Dramm might escape. Dramm had forbidden him to speak of the merchant's cowardice, and only a master of Eastern Magics would ever be able to pull the events from his lips.

Wheeler paused for a moment to remember those nights with poor Dramm. Dramm was the only one who ever insisted that Wheeler take a whip to him. Those nights were the only time he'd ever felt someone's honest trust outside of Os-Vi-Khai. Those were the only times he'd even marginally felt in control. Dramm had been the man he'd been trained to serve. The man Chang almost didn't give Wheeler to.

To this day, holding a whip frightened him in ways he did not understand. The whip had been a gift from Dramm. He'd sworn never to part with, yet now it was hidden under his bed, along with his sword and dirk. He was a free man now. Wheeler knew he didn't have to abide by old promises made while he was a slave, but his heart sank slightly with guilt for a moment.

"How many men did you have under you?" Thalberg prodded and he started.

It took him a moment to realize that Thalberg meant the caravan crew. "About 15, plus some swordarms we'd hire as was called for."

Thalberg nodded and poured some water for Wheeler and himself, nodding as he did so. "You do tell an excellent tale, Wheeler. Can you write?"

Wheeler nodded. "I had some schooling before I was stolen away and Dramm insisted I be able to create and read maps, plus keep a written inventory. I can speak, by the way, several languages very well and know enough of almost every other language to start a bar fight."

Thalberg laughed a bit at that one, or perhaps it was just a burp. It was hard to tell with the reptile morph. "That must serve you well." The reptile tossed the water back and made drinking with a snout look easy. Wheeler wondered if he would have been able to do that once the change hit him. He sipped at his water, a bit guilty that he still had the lips to do so properly. "Tell me," the alligator continued, "have you considered joining our Writers' Guild? You could easily carve yourself a place there, I should think."

Wheeler suddenly saw red and was surprised when he heard a chair overturn. It took a moment to realize that it had been his chair hitting the floor and that he was standing over the alligator, glowering.

"How dare you!" It was true that he had glossed over some details that wasn't any of the alligator's business, but he would not have his life dismissed merely because it was a bit complicated. "How dare you? I've come here to meet my cousin and I am to be judged by the likes of you? I'm sorry if my life doesn't suit you, but it is my life and not yours to judge. Tell my cousin not to call on me until he is ready to meet me himself.

Wheeler stalked out the door and Thalberg's eyes followed him. After a moment, he said, "What an odd man."

What did you just do?

Wheeler pushed his way through the streets of Metamor, his breath misting before him. Today, was going to be a cold day... not really a surprise considering they were on a mountain. But Wheeler's wardrobe had been purchased with warmer weather in mind. By winter time, he doubted he'd fit in anything he'd brought with him. Just his luck if winter should decide to come early this year. His lack of forethought didn't bother him nearly as much as his outburst to the alligator had. That had been very stupid of him.

When are you going to grow up?

Last night's attack, of course, had gotten to him and his nerves were shot. The tough man act was always his fall back in stressful situations, and Wheeler's normal anxiety around the alligator just made things that much worse. Lizards and bugs did that to him.

It wasn't until he was actually out among the Keepers that he remembered the high regard these people had for their writers. He'd been so close to winning Thalberg over, he knew that now. The printed word was their number one export, and one could make a living here telling tales of their youth as easily as one could telling tales of Holy Quests. Wheeler was ready to just kick himself.

After an hour or so of aimless wandering, he calmed down enough to realize that he was being stared at. Of course, his shirt was still covered with some blood and then there were his eyes, black with blood. Coe said that it would fade over time by itself, but for now they were attracting some unwanted attention. Nothing he could do about it now, unless he was willing to pluck them out and find out how long they would take to grow back.

He had cleaner, if not warmer clothes back at the Deaf Mule. He should at least look decent. If word got out that the Duke's cousin was a slob, he was sure the Steward would hold that against him, too. And well he should. After all, who would want you as a relative, anyway?

On the way towards the Deaf Mule, Wheeler found himself at the Duke's stables. By accident or by design of his subconisous, he did not know. He saw few horses, as if the stable was half empty. Perhaps they were out for a foxhunt or something. He looked for his rat, for he was quite certain it had been his rat who had saved him. Who else cared for him in this cold place?

He saw several children working the stalls, some of whom might well be over his own age and a woman he guessed as having been a man at one point in her life by the way she swaggered about. There was only one fur covered being in view, and that one was horse morph.

He found himself watching this young horse morph carefully as the lad tossed back a handful of grain when he thought nobody was looking. Wheeler wondered what the real horses made of him. Did he smell like one of them? Did he understand the things they said? He wondered what Chang would make of him if he saw a specimen this beautiful.

Suddenly, the woman appeared out of the shadows silently and whacked the horse morph behind his head a second after he swallowed the grain. Just as any craftsman would do with a naughty apprentice. This was apparently the stable master. His ears went flat back as she gave him a tongue lashing Terrence would have been proud of. The lad's eyes went wide but he smiled gleefully as soon as the woman's back was turned towards him. Unaware of being watched, the horse morph's lips rolled back, giving a very horsy and toothy smile.

The stallion morph was a dark brown pony and pretty young, if his teeth were any indication. His coat of body hair was thick, but nowhere as thick as that of the ponies from Wales that caravan had used for the cooking wagon. His arms and legs had thick black socks that ended at the elbows and just above the hocks. He wore breeches of blue denim that rode low on his brown hips, which apparently was to allow his docked tail some freedom without going through the fuss of cutting a hole in the garment. The knees were caked with mud and straw. The horse morph went shirtless, revealing muscles of human shape and design beneath a shiny coat of brown horsehair. The hands weren't hoof like, the way the Duke's were said to be, but his short thick fingers with thick brown fingernails seemed marginally human. His black mane had been tied into a series of little knots around twists of leather straps, as if loose hair was a complete annoyance to him.

When their eyes met, Wheeler found himself staring into a deep dark pool... of a brown so dark as to be black.

It took Wheeler another second to realize that the horse morph was now watching him watching him. He felt his face flush and he looked away. The young horse morph, however, did not look away when Wheeler looked back up. He stood rock solid and stared back at the unchanged man. Wheeler was surprised to note that not a single muscle moved on the stablehand. A real horse always seemed to be in motion, a muscle twitch here and there even when otherwise motionless. Not this creature. Wheeler had his full attention and that frightened him.

Then the horse morph took a step to the side, as if afraid of spooking the horse he was feeding... but Wheeler realized that he was the one the horse morph was afraid of spooking. The horse morph was going to walk over to him and ask him something along the lines of what are you looking at? Wheeler would try to act coy and cute, and end up insulting the stallion with his brash desires. Then the stablehand would punch him, hard. He would wake up looking into the healer raccoon's face, because when the horse morph did move, Wheeler could see the cords of muscles even beneath the coat of glossy horse hair.

When are you going to stop being a victim, Grey?

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