Copernicus slumped into a seat in the corner of the bar, letting the tension ooze from his tired limbs. He had tried his best to seem genial and high spirited and show the best side of the place to Michael but all along he had been stressed at the thought that he had condemned the boy to a life here against his will. He could have perhaps been consoled if the fate had been one of age or gender, but any animal transformee was fated to live out their days at the Keep. True, Michael seemed not too disheartened, but a light furring of the nape of the neck was a lot different from what might develop over the next few days.
Donny stirred him from his self-reflection by setting a large mug of ale down on the table. Cope looked up at the large bovine in thanks, Donny raising his eyebrows in question. The lizard just shook his head slowly, and Donny, knowing when it was best to leave well alone, loped off to clean a few tankards.
Cope stared despondently into the bubbles of his ale, contemplating the hoard of Lutins he knew lay just beyond it.
"So what's eating you, Lizard Lips? You look like you just sold your mother for a pint of Donny's best."
Copernicus nearly leap out of his skin, not impossible, given his reptilian status. He knew the voice of course, he just wished she wouldn't do that.
"I wish you wouldn't do that, Quiz."
"Sneak up on me."
"Who's sneakin'? It's a bar, not like you can't see me come in from where you're sitting."
Cope smiled despite himself, the one person who could cheer him up in his current state was Quiz and she knew it. She just had a knack for spotting someone in need of cheering up and cheering them up, whether they liked it or not.
"So? What uisn eating you? Besides the fleas."
"I do unotn have fleas."
"Not what I heard."
"It's all around the market."
"The flea market, naturally."
Cope groaned and smacked his forehead. "I walked into that."
"Yeah, but I set you up. But admit I got your mind off whatever it was."
"True." He seemed to become slightly despondent again.
"Want to talk about it?" Quiz's tone became more serious.
"No. But it's a fair bet I will anyway, knowing you."
"Yep, so you might as well give in to my power!" Her attempt at a menacing laugh was more sexy than anything else. "It's about that new guy isn't it?"
"Nothing gets past you does it?"
"Not if I can help it, and on the whole I can. A girl in my line of work has to keep her eyes peeled."
"Forgive me, I thought you were a humble messenger?"
"My dear Copernicus, you are of course totally correct, but if I happen to overhear a few tasty morsels on the way, then who am I to waste such information?"
"I suppose." He managed a vague grin. Despite all efforts to the contrary he was feeling much better already. Normally, she would be an insufferable flirt and he would be left teased and drooling, but tonight it was different, she was providing genuine companionship and maybe what he needed most, even though he had not realised it, an ear to listen.
"So the way I hear it," she began, "is that this fine young soldier has joined us after being abandoned by his fellow troopers."
"That's not quite how it happened." Copernicus knew, of course, that she knew the whole story, she always did, but she would wind it round from a different angle and control the whole thing, and he was powerless to stop it.
"Oh? Do tell."
"Well, they were ambushed by a hoard of Lutins -"
"A hoard? Really?"
"Er, yes, I think there were quite a few."
"I see. And so there was a big fight then?"
"Um, yes. They lost a couple of men. I was -"
"Um, I was supposed to be going to help, but I was ambushed."
"No, only five or six."
"And of course you polished those off in no time."
"No. I'm not really a fighter. They held me up. Michael was injured and so he's here. It's my fault."
"I see." Cope thought he could see the semblance of a grin forming around the corners of her mouth, although he couldn't think of anything funny. "So, what you're saying is, that if you'd overcome this small group of ambushers, you, a poor fighter, and gone on to the main battle, then young Michael wouldn't be with us now. Because, of course, you'd have made such a huge difference in the melee of battle."
"Er." Put like that it did sound a little foolish.
"Well, I, um, -"
"You suddenly realise that you're being a tad self-indulgent and that nothing you might have done a week ago would have had the slightest impact on the boy being here."
Despite all his efforts of self-pity and self-loathing, she was totally right and she knew she was and he couldn't hate her for it because, firstly, he felt a whole lot better than he had an hour ago, secondly, she was much too attractive to be mad at, and thirdly, she was gone.
He stared around the bar in wonder. How udidn she do that? For the
first time he noticed her empty glass sitting on the table, though he'd
never noticed Donny bring it over, nor seen her drink from it. You weren't
safe in your own bed. Chance'd be a fine thing. He grinned and drained his
mug, feeling much better, but slightly annoyed at the same time, having
been totally outplayed on the emotional highway.
Next morning he gave Michael an extra hour to sleep in. Things usually started getting going at Dawn in the Keep, but Cope felt that it was a little cruel to drag the boy out of bed so early on his first real day. Let him settle in first.
The lizard was surprised to find his charge already up and dressed and looking slightly more hairy than the previous night.
"Hi, Cope. I'm starting to feel like an ape man."
"No, not ape. Not quite sure what yet, but I'm fairly sure it's not ape." Michael grinned. He seemed to be taking the whole thing pretty well, so far at least.
"Breakfast?" Offered Copernicus.
"Er, actually, I've already eaten."
The lizard man raised what passed as eyebrows at this. "Already? But it's barely six a.m.!"
"Well, er, this woman brought me breakfast in bed, it was great, she never said a word, but umann was she hot! I mean, er, she was extremely attractive." His cheeks seemed to redden slightly and he turned away.
Cope grinned. "Let me guess, you never heard her come in and she had long black hair and scales."
Michael looked confused for a second and Cope wondered if he could possibly be wrong. "Yeah, except no scales. She looked human enough. But she had uthen most enormous, er..." He trailed off looking embarrassed again.
A smirk formed across lizard features. "Ah, she gave you a rare treat, full human form, a sight for sore eyes indeed."
"Human form? I'd just assumed she was a gendermorph, like er, that girl in the bar, Jenn?"
"Yeah, Jenn. And you're right to a certain extent, but it's a little more complicated than that. Quiz is a gendermorph and an animal morph, a snake in fact."
"But I thought you said -"
"I did, but there are exceptions to every rule, are there not? Quiz is unique at the Keep in being the only person to be caught by two of Nasoj's spells. You see, Quiz is court messenger, or so she'd have you believe. On the fateful day, she had the misfortune to be carrying a message between the groups in the three gateways at just the wrong moment. The combination of the two spells had some weird effects, and so she's also the only one here not to have the spells lessened by our own wizards. They simply couldn't unravel enough of the mess to risk it."
"But didn't you say that the groups were virtually immobilised in one way or another? Either by being fully animal or, er, otherwise."
"I did. But the effect of the two spells made things a little different for Quiz. She can take any form between full human woman and full snake. Though she normally chooses something snake like towards the human end. The more human she is the more exaggerated her figure becomes, she gave you a rare glimpse this morning, but I'd wager you didn't see the full possible extent." Copernicus waited while the young boy's mind tried to take that in. He wagered that his experience of women was close to nil and such things as Quiz were destined to rot an innocent's mind. But then she rotted his mind too, and he was far from innocent. He smiled at the thought.
"And that thing where she just appears and disappears without warning? That was an offshoot of the spell too?"
"Oh, no. She could do that before. Damn annoying, but not quite as sexy." He grinned at the youngster's bewildered stare. "She's fast. That's the secret. You haven't seen anything move so fast in all your life. Maybe not for any lengthy distance, but across a room, around a corner. You have no hope."
The newcomer was looking more bemused by the second. "Don't worry, Michael. There are some real characters in this place and I'm sure you'll get to know them all. Just remember to watch your back!"