"Tis not fair!" Gil sulked upon the walls of the Keep as the two guards the lion-morph and his fellow Avonney had replaced walked off to enjoy the rest of their day.
"Why, merry, tis a fair, and thus thy discontent," Rose rejoined, her laugh echoing off the stones.
"Aye, for being posted where we'll have no fare!" grumbled the lion-morph, apparently unaffected by his friend's good cheer.
"Think'st thou only of vittles?" Rose remonstrated.
"Nay! For think I, too, of drink," exulted Gil, "or rather drink not drunk." He added the last with a dejected look.
Rose cast aside her own gaze, "And more's the pity, that I give thee." Since she had found another from her small homeland, she had enjoyed tormenting him; and she was tired of being confused with Steppelanders and their uncouth speech - couldn't these people tell the difference? But then, the Common tongue was so corrupted here, anyway, that it was hardly unexpected.
"An' thou wouldst, I'd be grateful," Gil jabbed, a hint of playfulness returning to his voice that brought rose out of her own morose state.
"But thou art already," Rose noted, and moved a fair-skinned hand to remove the stray hair that had fallen into her eyes.
Gil frowned, "Already what?"
"A great fool!" cried Rose
Gil's frown turned into a scowl, "Wherefore dost thou injure me so?"
"'Woe is me! Woe is me!' Thou dost prattle like a student before his lessons, whilst his peers do gallavant amongst the fields." Rose laughed briefly, "But soft, gentle friend, lay aside your complaints and stand this watch through the festivities with me, for should we shirk our duties it must therefore mean we have but placed our miseries upon another's back. Do this, and I promise you a nectar as sweet as you have ever tasted!"
"I will hold thee to thy word!" Gil threatened.
Rose laughed, "T'would be worth it, an' t'would keep mine ears safe from thy lamentations." She gestured out over the walls on which they stood and where they could already see preparations being made below. "Against that time cometh, thy and I shall upon this wall sit, whence we may partake of such festivities as can be seen."
The two friends looked out from the wall to where the other Keepers were preparing for the Harvest Festival. In Euper and in the Keep, carts laden with vegetables, newly picked in the fields, crammed narrow alleyways, while garlands were strewn about streets and mantles. The smell of baking pies and pastries drifted through the streets, and men, women, and children were weaving their way deftly through the preparations. Everything was abustle with activity.
A badly-soldered tin cup bounced off the wall next to the door just as Alexis opened it, and the fox-bat plucked the crumpled ruin out of the air as it fell, bobbling the still-hot metal back and forth between her claws before setting the cup on a workbench. "Drift, you're been working on these for three days straight," she said, shaking her right hand as if to cool it. "I really think you need to take a break."
Drift set his soldering tool down and massaged his temples, his hands trembling
slightly from fatigue. "Ugh. And I thought building the still was hard
work. I need smaller fingers to work on these cups: all this fine work is giving
me a headache, and I still have the etching to do." He stripped off a pair
of protective gloves and slapped them down on the bench, and then ran his fingers
through his thick white mane with a frustrated sigh. "I could really use
the time to practice for the talent show, too, but I need to get these done
before tomorrow. Gotta finish paying Xavier back for his help with the spice
"You have good friends," Alexis said as she ran her fingers over the stack of cups that were already finished, an artful pyramid occupying most of another workbench. "Still, it looks like you're doing okay so far, enough to take a break for an hour or two. C'mon, take a walk with me. We need to pick up your new clothes anyway." She smiled, stepped in close and stretched up to wrap her arms around his neck. "And your performing outfit," she added with a sly wink and a kiss.
"I still can't believe you talked me into wearing that." Drift shook his head ruefully and then kissed her back, setting the tool down on his workbench so he could wrap his own arms around her waist. "Where on earth did you find that book?" He nuzzled her cheek, inwardly amazed at how comfortable he felt he'd become with Alexis' forwardness over the past few months. Barely a month ago, he would have burst into a flaming blush from having Alexis this close, feeling this good and smelling this nice. He still blushed even now (he wasn't sure he'd ever train himself out of that), but more in appreciation and flattery than embarrassment. Though with that reaction under control, he was left wondering what his clever and mischievous beloved would try next.
Alexis smiled and loosed her arms from around his neck, slipping her right
hand into his left and gently pulling him toward the door. "That would
be telling. Now come on… we need to make sure everything fits right."
When he still hesitated, she promised, "I'll help you out when we get back.
I have smaller hands than you do, and I learn fast."
Wolfram and Xavier sat at a table on a balcony overlooking Metamor's market street, eating lunch. "Nice place, Xav," Wolfram said around a mouthful of food. "And your landlord is a fine cook."
"Thank you, Wolfram," the black leopard replied, mopping his lips
with a napkin. "Sharing a lunch is the least I can do for a business partner.
Once Drift finishes the last of the cup caps, we'll be ready for the Festival."
The irony of their partnership, and their friendship, was not lost on him: two
people of such different backgrounds, a coarse farmer's son and a refined nobleman's
son, working together for mutual benefit.
And occasional mutual amusement. Xavier leaned toward the railing, craning his neck slightly to peer down the street. "Is that Drift I see coming out of the tailor's shop?"
Wolfram leaned over, too, and his eyes widened as a familiar fox-bat followed after the samoyed, a smile on her face, and both started to head their way. "Wow. Alexis finally talked him into getting some new clothes," he said, and the ram's hand closed on the handle of a large pitcher nearby. "Poor Drift," he continued, watching over the railing. "Deep in his cups all day and now Alexis springs clothes shopping on him."
Xavier ignored the drinking insinuation with no more than a roll of his eyes. "Wolfram, despite what you seem to believe, a steady romance is not a bad thing. Besides, I've heard a lot of good things about Farnham's. Rumor has it he's been working with a mage or two on some designs for taurshifters."
The ram shook his head, still watching the pair walk closer. "You couldn't pay me to do that."
"Do what?" the leopard-man replied with a wry smirk. "Go clothes shopping with a steady girlfriend? Have a steady girlfriend in the first place?"
"Taur shift." Wolfram lifted the pitcher into position when he deemed Drift and Alexis close enough. "And that other stuff, too, of course."
Xavier glanced over the rail and then back at Wolfram. "Are you planning what I think you're planning?"
The ram smiled mischievously. "Of course. Gotta break the new outfit in, y'know." When Xavier laughed, Wolfram yelled, "'Ware below!" and tossed the contents over the balcony rail.
His aim was perfect, and Drift's outraged yell from below was priceless. "Wolfram, you're a dead man!!"
The ram held the glass pitcher in view over the balcony edge and laughed. "It's only water!"
Drift set down the wrapped bundle he was carrying (thankfully, the wrapping was waterproof) and shook the water from his fur while Alexis shrieked and hid behind an upraised wing. The samoyed then glared up at the ram, ears flat as he wrung water from his handsome brown vest and trousers. Grinding bared teeth for several moments, he growled things better left unheard before jabbing a finger in the ram's direction and shouting back, "You're still a dead man!"
While Wolfram tried to talk Drift out of assault and battery on a grand scale, Xavier watched Alexis out of the corner of his eye. The bat Keeper was… confusing. She'd acted pleased when she'd heard that Xavier had helped Drift out of that bind with the spice merchant, but something had rung just slightly false to the leopard's sharp ears. A hint of reserve. Still, she was normally quite pleasant to be around and Drift absolutely adored her. A little jealous streak was a small fault to overlook, and it had been Drift who'd approached him for help and not the other way around.
That was another thing that confused him: with how hard Drift worked, why did he need the loan? Xavier knew it wasn't that building Drift was having built down in Euper that was tying up the samoyed's funds: Brightleaf's financing of that venture was common knowledge. But if not that, then what?
Drift shook his fist at Wolfram, picking the bundle back up with the other hand. "Just you wait, Wolfram!" he yelled. "I'll get you yet!"
Wolfram laughed in response. "You've been saying that for three months
"And yet, here I am," Wolfram continued as if he hadn't heard, standing and spreading his arms wide, "never successfully pranked, still the master!"
Padraic Cul Dethain was enjoying the festival. He always loved the fall festival, celebrating the successful gathering of the harvest. Hs family had always been closely involved with the festivities since the dim past when it was held around the old column known as the Stone Sentry. Nowadays the festival had lost much of its religious nature and had simply become a time to relax and celebrate.
In the past, he would have been helping his family with the festivities or the preparations for the rituals. But Misha had been very specific that Padraic was to be in Long House on Saturday morning, a full hour before dawn.
Stepping through the doorway into Long House did not lead him into the grand, main hall. Instead, the rabbit found himself in Misha's office. The room already contained all the Long Scouts.
"How long have you been with the Long Scouts?" Misha asked in an oddly calm tone.
"Since the Yule attack," Padraic answered. It was an odd question since Misha had been there where the rabbit had first joined.
"That's true," Caroline answered. "And he has done very well since then. His skill with a bow is fantastic and there is no doubting his courage."
"He is a fine tracker," Danielle commented.
"And he does well with a sword," Finbar added.
"But he is sadly lacking one thing," Arla corrected.
"Oh yes!" Kershaw said in agreement.
They had slowly moved forward and were crowded around the rabbit. "What?" he asked disturbed as much by their actions as by their words.
"You have to be initiated," Misha said in a soft tone that the rabbit understood to mean trouble.
"It's a time honored tradition that George invented recently," the fox explained. "It's sort of your last test."
"Test? What test sir?"
"A test of your honor and sense of humor. Think before you act."
"Don't worry," Finbar said cheerfully. "It'll wash off with water."
It was still at least an hour before dawn but already the festival grounds were starting to see activity. Some of the people about were getting ready for the coming days festivities. Others were revelers still out celebrating from the evening before. All were greeted by a strange sight moving quickly through festival stalls. At first glance the figure might have been one of rabbit Keepers that called Metamor home. But this male was colored a deep purple with the ears, paws and hands a bright pink. He had bells on his ears and bright pink bows on his hands and paws. His sole clothing was a strategically placed bow that barely covered. The figure paid no attention to the stares and startled gasps that came with his passing and moved as quickly and quietly as possible.
Padraic was angry. Angry at Misha and the others for such a silly and humiliating trick. It was bad enough being dyed such embarrassing colors but left in the busiest part of the Keep was truly humiliating. Why had they humiliated him like this? All the months of friendship and loyalty had been repaid with this humiliation. He was so wrapped up in his anger that he failed to see the fountain and the person seated there.
"Not even a hello for your baby brother?" a voice said from the fountain.
He came to a sharp halt and turned to it's source. There seated on the edge of the fountain was a brown hyena morph keeper dressed in the brown robes of a Lightbringer acolyte. The Keepers brownish, gray fur offset the brown of the robes he was wearing.
"Well I've seen you in some strange situations but never quite like this."
"This is humiliating!" he said through clenched teeth.
"Why? It's not like being naked really bothered you when you were swimming in the river last year with those girls."
"I wasn't dyed purple and pink," he countered. "And how did you know I would be here?"
"Misha told me."
"To make my embarrassment complete?" Padraic growled.
"You still don't understand why he did this do you?" the hyena asked shaking his head.
"NO!" the rabbit snarled.
Philip leaned towards his brother. "What was the last thing Misha said to you?"
He said this was a test of my sense of humor," the rabbit replied.
The hyena shook his head. "No, that's not all he said."
"Don't treat me like child!" he countered harshly.
"I will treat you like a child for as long as you ACT like one," his brother responded pointing a finger accusingly at him. "Now relax and tell me what was the last thing Misha said to you?"
That made Padraic pause and think. "It's a test of your honor and sense of humor, was his exact words." He was quiet for a moment then he turned and looked into the water of the fountain. The rabbit calmly stuck his hand into the water and pulled it out. When he removed his hand from the water the pink dye was gone!
Without hesitating the rabbit climbed into the fountain and dropped completely under the water for a moment. The water was ice cold and chilled him to the bone but it felt good and refreshing. He noted first that gone was the hated coloring and he was back to his normal coloring. Padraic was relieved even if he was still wearing only a large bow.
"Before the Yule George and Misha came to me and asked me all about you," his brother explained. "Misha asked about your skills and your temper and about your likes and dislikes. George asked only one question, 'Will he let his honor get in the way of doing what needs to be done? Will he let his honor overwhelm his common sense?"
"Remember when you first changed?" the acolyte asked. "You were upset for a week that you were a simple rabbit and not something ferocious like a wolf! But you adjusted to it. Be honest. If I hadn't spoken to you just now Padraic you would have walked right past this fountain and probably STILL be purple and pink."
"And mad." Padraic nodded slowly and sat down next to his brother. He hugged the hyena tightly. "Thank you. My anger and my pride always seem to get the better of me."
"Thank Misha, he's the one who asked me to sit here and talk to you. He was worried about how you would take their joke."
"Misha was worried?"
"He has his own problems with anger that have gotten him into trouble more then once."
The rabbit shook his head. "I never knew. The other Longs are always telling stories about his wild days but I never really believed them. Well. Not all the stories."
"Misha had some very wild days before Caroline toned him down. I don't know how he managed to survive them. And if you feel embarrassed now you should have Misha tell you what George did to him!"
Padraic leaned closer, "What did he do?"
Philip pushed the rabbit back a little. "I can't tell you. Misha made me promise."
The rabbit shook his own head making the bells he was wearing tinkle lightly. "You can't tease me like that and then not tell me."
"You will have to get Misha to tell you," Philip answered. "Something that embarrassing shouldn't be shared lightly. And are you going to take off the bells?" Philip asked pointing to the bells attached to the ends of Padraic's ears.
Padraic shook his head making the bells tinkle softly. "No. I like the sound of them!"
Philip patted his brother on the shoulder. "You stay here and dry off brother and I'll see you tomorrow evening for dinner. "Amanda is looking forward to see you again."
The rabbit nodded. "Thank you," he said and waved good bye to his brother. "You'll be at the ceremony tonight?"
"Of course! I would never miss something this important. Also Amanda is eager to finally go to one of Misha's famous parties! Be sure to ask Misha what happened to him at his initiation. It was truly hilarious!" the hyena called as he walked out of sight.
Padraic was squeezing the last of the water from his ears when the rabbit realized he was not alone.
The young woman was standing some ten feet from the fountain and had a large jar in her hands and an even bigger smile on her face. Her long, black hair was tied behind her in a pony tail.
"What are you looking at?" Padraic asked angrily.
"Something out of a dream," she answered and smiled.
"You don't seem upset at seeing a rabbit walking naked through town, wearing only a bright pink bow," Padraic commented.
"I live in a castle with walls and halls that move about like leaves in a winter storm," she answered. "My mother now looks like my little sister. My older sister was once my older brother, my younger brother is a type of bear we still haven't identified yet and my father is now an opossum. And I am supposed to be startled by something as mundane as a person wearing a pink bow?"
Padraic gave a little laugh. "I hadn't thought of it that way. At least they gave me the bow."
She laughed. "Last year I saw a rat. He was dyed all pink and didn't even have a bow."
"So they really did humiliate Matthias that way."
"Not humiliate him. They were just having some harmless fun." She countered.
"Harmless? Being left naked and pink is humiliating!" Padraic countered.
"Had they wanted to really humiliate you they would have left you here in the middle of the day when this place is crowded with people," she explained.
Padraic didn't have an answer for that. He hadn't considered that possibility.
"How much does that bow of your cost?" she asked suddenly breaking the rabbits chain of thought.
"It's not for sale," he answered angrily and a little distracted.
She leaned closer till their faces with almost touching. "But you haven't even heard my price." She kissed him tenderly on the muzzle.
"Is that the price or just a part of it?" he asked and returned the kiss with one of his own.
"My house is nearby," she said softly. "We have some clothes you could borrow."
"I would be in your debt, my fair lady," Padraic answered.
"You're one of Misha's people aren't you?" she asked suddenly.
"How did you know?" he asked, surprised.
"We tend to find at least one person like you here when Misha has one of his famous parties."
"I'm not the first?" the rabbit asked surprised.
"Oh no! Not the first and certainly not the strangest! You should have seen what they did to Misha!"
From a doorway nearby, hidden is shadows and unseen by the rabbit Finbar and Georgette watched Padraic. "He just scored?" Finbar asked amazed. "Naked and wearing bells and bows he winds up with a beautiful woman."
Georgette shrugged her shoulders. "Well this is a harvest and FERTILITY festival."
"Kendrick! Kendrick! Wake up! Wake up!"
The delighted shouts of his little sister reverberated in his mind, banishing the sweet dreams that had finally settled in Kendrick's mind. He stirred, glared down his snout at the ray of sunlight slanting through the narrow window, and then at the beaming face of his little sisters, Sofie and Emma. Emma bounced up and down beside his bed, face brimming with the eagerness only a child of five could muster. Only slightly moderated, Sofie at ten bore that winning smile which he knew would undo his will in the end.
"The sun's still up," he grumbled, slumping his head back down on the pillow. "Wake me up when it sets."
"It's dawn, Kendrick!" Emma squealed. "You have to get up! The festival! Momma said you'd take us."
He groaned, and rolled over in bed, careful that his heavy scales wouldn't catch on the sheets and tear them. "Fine, fine!" He looked them over with one eye. Though the curse had impaired his vision, making distant objects blurry and colors harder to discern, he would always recognize his little sisters. Emma's cheeks round, curls of dark hair framing delicate ears and chocolate eyes, all were so familiar. And Sofie, with her longer, lighter hair surrounding a freckled face, masked a devious mind.
"How late were you up last night?" Sofie asked with that superior tone only a child her age can manage.
"Fine, fine, I'm getting up! Where's Father?"
"Waiting for you," Sofie replied.
He nodded and slipped one arm from under the covers. He waved long claws at them. "Go on, I'll be down as soon as I'm dressed. And you get dressed too! You cannot go to the festival like that!"
Both girls smiled, giggled, and ran off.
Kendrick sighed and blinked several times. He glanced at two beds on the other side of the room. Both were empty and made; the twins must be up already.
He shrugged off the covers, uncurled his long tail and eased himself off the mattress. It had lumps, something his old bed hadn't. But he'd grown used to them in the nine months since the Lutins burned their old home.
In his small dresser, he picked out a nice looking woolen shirt and breeches. The breeches had a third leg for his long tail, but because of his hard scales, they had to be buttoned up the entire length. This particular hardship he'd grown used to in the four years since his change struck. Despite the size of his claws, his fingers nimbly fastened the buttons over his tail, and then over his chest. He looked himself over in a small hand mirror, smiled a toothless grin, and left the bedroom.
Their new home had two stories and a rudimentary cellar, situated as always in the merchant's district of Metamor. Bedrooms sat on the second floor, apart from the one room dedicated to the servants, which his father, regardless of how much the winter assault had set them back, would employ. The stairs led down into the main hall, where most of his family waited, talking boisterously in the case of his little sisters, industriously in the case of his parents, and the twins saying nothing at all. Life as usual these days.
"Good, Kendrick, you're up," his father said in a firm voice, which
coming from the mouth of somebody that couldn't even grow facial hair –
not that he could either, but that was different – had always felt odd,
no matter how many years now it had been the case.
His youthful father held aloft a few papers in his hand and rose from his desk. "I wanted to thank you for minding our booth in the festival yesterday. I've looked over these sale orders, and I must say you've done a fine job representing the family. However, I still think you can drive a higher price for our specialties."
Kendrick nodded and hunched forward; a more comfortable posture than standing up straight. "Some of the foreign merchants were selling at a loss to steal our customers. I didn't want to lose the sale."
His father frowned and nodded. "I'll see to the booth today. Take your brothers and sisters around the festival. I expect you to keep watch over them."
"Why not me?" Barrick, one of the twins, asked. The twins were only two years younger than Kendrick, but thanks to the vagaries of the curse, stood taller than him, Barrick by two feet, and probably three in another year or two. The couch he sat upon groaned when the brown bear rose to his feet. "I can keep an eye on them better than Kendrick."
Their father narrowed his eyes. "With age comes responsibility, Barrick. You will listen and you will help your older brother."
Kendrick grinned at the bear and waved one clawed paw. "You can carry Emma and Sofie when they tire of walking."
Barrick gave him a mean bear stare, but a moment later they both laughed. Brigitt, Barrick's twin sister who now looked so handsome a man that all the girls in the merchant district fought over who would marry him – never mind the fact that a third of them would share Brigitt's fate in changing genders in a few years – shook his head and patted his twin on the side. Though they spoke to others all the time, they almost never had to say anything to each other. Kendrick envied their closeness, but knew he'd never feel anything like that again until he had a wife of his own. He wondered what woman would want to be with so odd looking a creature as he, but he was sure his parents would make arrangements soon enough. Especially now that he was the eldest son.
His father held out a small pouch of inexpensive leather. "Here are a few coins. You may buy some sweets while you are out, but nothing extravagant."
Kendrick took it and carefully hooked it over his belt loop. "Yes, Father. I am responsible."
His father offered him a tight smile of approval. "I know you will be. Now hurry along. I have to be at our booth in half an hour, and cannot afford to be late."
Kendrick nodded and waved to his siblings. "Let's go! It's festival time!" The twins followed him, while his two little sisters cheered and ran after him. He laughed and pushed his way out the front door, the tip of his long tail curling up.
While many of the Festival events were taking place in the fields outside of Euper, Kendrick felt immense relief that, as was traditional, much of it took place in the Killing Fields. Walking the length of the city within the walls was hard enough on his legs, let alone Emma. But unlike Emma, he would never ask his younger brother to carry him. He had a bit more pride than that.
More importantly, he knew that as the eldest son, it was his responsibility to uphold the family name, and one day, take over his father's accounts. One day, Kendrick Urseil would be known as the best cloth merchant in Metamor. He could not be seen as a young man riding on his brother's shoulders, lest his competitors and customers take him for a fop.
By the time they had traversed the stone streets of Metamor and passed beneath the gatehouse, he had managed to catch his stride. His arms yearned to lower to the ground and help him make his way, but he wouldn't be seen walking on all fours either. It was bad enough being such a strange beast, but here at Metamor that was no cause for alarm. Still, he sometimes wondered why he couldn't have become a bear like Barrick, or even a wolf like Rodrick had.
Kendrick turned his thoughts away from his elder brother and back to the festival.
Beyond the gatehouse sheds and storehouses had been erected to house the many
goods needed to rebuild Metamor after the fires had destroyed several sections
of the city. Even nine months after the attack, they were still full, as so
much work had yet to be done.
Beyond these lay the many booths and fields where the games were held. So soon after dawn, many of them were waiting to be opened, but there were many around which clustered Keepers of all shapes and sizes. Upon the air drifted rich scents of food and the sound of laughter. Kendrick smiled and rubbed his claws together in eager delight. He enjoyed the responsibility of selling their wares yesterday, but today he would enjoy the pleasures that came after months of hard work.
And he would do it with his family in tow, which was far more pleasant than his sleep-deprived brain had been willing to admit only a half-hour ago!
"And here we are!" Kendrick declared, spreading his arms wide. Emma skipped along the stone road, eyes wide and bright. Sofie came right behind her, trying to keep their little sister from bumping into anyone. Barrick and Brigitt followed, looking more like parents keeping a watch on wayward children than his younger siblings.
Immediately, Emma ran toward one of the closed booths. Brightly colored streamers dangled from the front, but there was no one behind the counter. "Emma, that one isn't open yet! Let's find something to eat first."
"Okay," Emma pouted, but she followed her older brother as they made their way past numerous stalls. Some were games that he knew his sisters would love to play, and he made a mental note to come back this way after they'd found something to eat. Others promised to be shows with puppets, magical tricks, and perhaps even feats of contortion that would amaze even a ferret Keeper. There were several small stages set up in larger pavilions at which traveling troupes would present short plays. Some of them even employed Metamorian actors in morph and animal roles. Kendrick fondly remembered one he'd seen the year before where they'd brought Barrick on stage and made him pretend to be a trained bear. It took a few months, but even Barrick could laugh about it now.
And it was his brother the bear who identified the best source of food for them. He pointed one arm down a road between a row of booths. "I smell fresh bread down there." Brigitt lifted his face and sniffed and nodded in agreement.
Kendrick sniffed and indeed, somebody was selling fresh bread down that way. Although not what his body would most want, he knew better than to make anyone watch him eat his favorite meal. He didn't blame them; before he'd changed, he preferred squishing bugs to digesting them. Putting on his best smile, he led his brothers and sisters down the avenue, noting that there were several other places to buy food, but none of them were open yet. He could smell fruits and last night's cooked vegetables, as well as salted meats, and meats much too rare for even humans to consume. And of course, the faint aroma of mead and ale lingered in the air, as well as the heady vapors of foreign teas and coffees brought in by merchants from Sathmore, the Outer Midlands, and even Pyralis.
The bread shop proved to be the booth of the Keep's baker, Master Gregor. Only it wasn't the oversized rodent behind the counter, but his tabby cat apprentice Brennar. A few soldiers finished their purchase and greedily munched away on loaves baked with meats and cheese when they arrived.
"Good morning, Brennar," Kendrick announced with neighborly aplomb. "How has business been?"
The cat smiled, and leaned closer to the counter. "Very good! We sold all of our wares yesterday, and so we've been up for hours preparing today's tasty treats! I heard that your father had you running your stall yesterday."
"Yes I did. And now today we're here to buy some bread to break our fast! What do you have this morning?"
Brennar showed them the variety of pastries and wraps that they'd baked since well before dawn. Emma and Sofie wanted nearly every one, but Kendrick insisted that they only choose one. The girls finally settled on a pair of fruit tarts that the tabby assured him would sate them for at least a few hours. Barrick selected a loaf filled with meat and cheese like the soldiers had eaten, while Brigitt had a half loaf of the same. Kendrick bought two small loaves, one with meat and one with fruit.
"Since you're Keepers," Brennar said in a whisper, "it's only two silvers for that. Gregor has me charging every one else a little extra when I can."
"Good business sense," Brigitt replied as he took a bite. "Father
says the same thing."
Kendrick tore little bits from his loaves and shot out his long tongue to swallow them. It wasn't long before he was cleaning the crumbs from his hefty claws. Emma laughed as she watched him eat.
"Can we go play some games now?" Sofie asked, and then she and Emma jumped up and down crying, "Please! Please! Please!" Kendrick frowned at the ten-year old Sofie; she should know better than to act so childish. In another few years, if she was still female, their parents would select a good husband for her. She needed to learn to grow up and soon.
But it was the festival, and so he let it slide. "All right, let's go. I think things are starting to open up now." He waved once to Brennar, and the tabby smiled, orange tail flicking behind him. "Hope you get a chance to wander around too."
"Oh I will this afternoon. You all have fun!"
As Kendrick hurried after his two sisters, Barrick and Brigitt sharing a private laugh, he yelled back, "Oh we will!"
"Look, it's Melanie!" Emma gestured wildly. Kendrick and the others followed their little sister's finger and they beheld the young woman seated before a parchment canvas, a bucket of charcoal at her side. In a line were four stools and Keepers all making hideous expressions.
"I'd say she's doing portraits," Brigitt suggested. "Look, there she's drawing." And indeed, gripping a small charcoal lump, the beautiful woman quickly sketched out lines in every direction. As they watched, a face began to emerge where once there had been chaos. Kendrick rattled his claws in amusement as the boar morph with a finger up one nostril ended up immortalized on the parchment.
It took several minutes, but the woman finished the sketch and stretched her
arms. "There, Cedric, your portrait has been done. You by far had the weirdest
The other three Keepers shifted about and groaned in disappointment, while the boar morph struggled to dislodge his finger from his nose. "Fank you, Belagy!" One of his friends helped him yank his arm free, and he started to bleed.
Melanie shook her head, even as the other Keepers laughed at the boar's foolishness. Emma and Sofie both giggled. Kendrick pulled his handkerchief free and offered it to the much taller boar. "I think you will need this."
The boar grasped it and held it over his snout. With his other hand he took his portrait. "Now keep your head tilted forward," Brigitt suggested, stepping before him and angling the boar's head down. "Otherwise the bleeding won't stop."
The boar's little eyes goggled at them, but he did as instructed, gurgling as the blood ran down his face. His friend helped him to the ground on the far side of the street, keeping his hard won prize safe.
"Well, do I have some more participants?" Melanie asked. Kendrick knew her because their fathers had been friends. Melanie lost both her parents in the Winter Assault, but as she had joined the artisans two years prior, she had already established her independence. "It's one copper to try. I just need four volunteers."
"Kendrick! I wanna play!" Emma bounced up and down. "Can I please?"
"Of course!" Kendrick replied. "How about you, Sofie?"
"Thank you, Kendrick!" the older girl replied. Kendrick glanced at Barrick and Brigitt, and the bear grumbled but nodded. But Brigitt did not.
"You should play, Kendrick."
"Yeah, Kendrick!" Emma bounced on one of the stools, eyes bright. "You should play!"
Kendrick turned to Melanie and asked, "How do you choose which one to draw?"
The woman smiled. "This is a contest to see who can make the weirdest face. Whoever makes the most interesting face, I will draw their portrait in charcoal."
Kendrick laughed and nodded. "Sure, I'll participate." While Emma and Sofie cheered, and Barrick rolled his eyes, Kendrick climbed up onto the final stool, his long tail curling around one of the legs. He rested his paws and their huge claws on his knees and asked, "So, when do we start, and how long do we need to hold it?"
"We can start as soon as you pay your coppers," Melanie said with
an amused grin.
Kendrick tossed the money pouch to Brigitt who counted out the coppers. Melanie slipped them into her pouch and smiled, rolling a bit of charcoal in her dirty but slender fingers. "All right now, show me your weirdest face."
Emma shot her head forward, baring her gap-toothed smile, lips stretched as far back as they would go. She pushed up her nose with one finger to imitate a pig snout, and opened her eyes wide, letting one of her eyes twitch back and forth.
Sofie covered her face with her hands, pulling down on her cheeks so that the bones showed. Her lips curled down, and she let a bit of drool drip off her tongue which she stuck between her teeth.
Barrick didn't sit on the stool for fear of breaking it. He plumped down on his rump in front of the chair, and stuck the chair legs over his head, and pretended to bite one of the braces. He tangled his arms inside the chair, until he appeared to be one very confused bear.
Kendrick stuck his tongue out — all four feet of it. He turned his tongue in circles, curled it around his neck, and coiled it in a pile like a snake on top of his head. Normally he didn't like to do these sorts of gymnastics — as they hurt — but he did pay good money to embarrass himself, so he may as well go all the way.
Melanie studied them all for a moment, and then began to draw. Brigitt came
and watched from behind as the artist flashed the charcoal over the parchment.
The young man looked between his siblings and the picture, a grin slowly coming
to his face.
What was easy for the first thirty seconds became a pain after two minutes, and an agony after four. Kendrick curled and uncurled his plated tail over the chair leg, his foot claws rattling together, while his hand claws dug at the wood of his seat, tearing out large gouges. Emma and Sofie also struggled to keep their faces; only Barrick seemed to have no trouble.
Kendrick felt his tongue drying on his head, and it stung. He had to fight to keep from zipping it back inside his throat. He breathed heavily, eyes watering from the exertion. He really hoped Melanie exceeded herself, because this picture better be worth the agony!
Finally, after what seemed an interminable wait, Melanie leaned back and grinned. "There, it is done." Brigitt nearly doubled over laughing. Emma and Sofie hopped down from their stools and rushed over to see what the artist had done. Kendrick gagged and unwrapped his tongue from his head and neck. He gasped and panted as he slid it back inside, so dry it felt like it was cracking.
"Oh Kendrick!" Emma squealed. "You look funny!"
"Figured you'd win," Barrick grunted good-naturedly as he tried to disentangle himself from the stool. Brigitt came over and helped him get his head back out.
Kendrick stumbled over to where his little sisters giggled. He groaned as he saw what he'd looked like — a complete idiot who'd hanged himself. His eyes bulged out of his triangular head, and the tongue around his throat looked like rope. "Water!" he gasped, even as he took his winnings.
Melanie patted him carefully on his back. "Well, Kendrick, I know quite a few people who would love to see what else you can do with that tongue."
That was more than enough for him to know! He waved to her, and stumbled away, his family following after him. The girls laughed in delight the whole time.
"Hey! Get up!"
"Up! Wake up already! If we don't get moving, the only place we'll have left to put up a stand is the trash midden!"
A sleep-muddled voice whined, "Quit shakin' me, Wuffram," and a white-furred hand swatted in the general direction of the annoyance.
"Get up," the ram Keeper threatened, his voice lowered mischievously, "or I'll tell Alexis the song you made up about her."
"What?" Drift jerked his head from under the pillow, rolling from his side to his back. His eyes jolted open, and then back shut again as the samoyed threw an arm across them, shielding his eyes against the light streaming through the window over the bed. "Owww…"
"I'll even sing it for her. Better than you did the other night, I might add. Has anyone told you how badly off-key you sing?"
"I was drunk!"
"Do you really think that will matter to 'she of the bountiful eyes and the deep brown br-'"
"Gah! I'm up! I'm up!" Drift started to sit up, groaned, and lay back down again.
"Blackmailer. You'll get yours."
"Don't grumble, Drift," Wolfram said, grinning. "It refreshes my memory." His grin widened at the gesture with which Drift replied. "C'mon. We have to go get Xavier. Hurry. You can brush that awful bed-fur while we walk."
"Can it wait until later? I was up half the night finishing the last of the cups, and I just got to sleep."
"No! It took me three minutes to wake you this time! Man, you sleep heavy! Have a bit too much 'celebrating' after finishing all those cups, did you?"
Drift rolled over and buried his head under the pillow again rather than answer that. "Can you go find him and come back?"
"Hell, no. I'm not falling for that trick twice. You'll barricade the door again. Now, UP!" With that, Wolfram seized the covers and yanked… and then froze, startled, the blanket hanging in his hands. "Um…"
Drift's tail tucked tight against the bed as he pulled his head from under the pillow and glared daggers at the ram. "You are so lucky I rolled over when I did. Give it back, and go wait in the other room so I can get dressed."
Xavier sat in his favorite spot in the hedge maze, meditating, and his rapier lay across his lap, charging. Four smaller rods sat beside him, already finished, each one smooth except for a textured grip. He twitched an ear when he heard Wolfram approach.
"A little late for 'morning', isn't it?" he said, and opened his eyes. "What's the matter with Doggy?"
Drift grumbled, rubbing his eyes and yawning sleepily.
"Aw, he was just up a little too late. Did you know he sleeps without any-"
Drift punched the ram on the shoulder and growled.
Wolfram laughed, and amended, "Any women to keep him warm at night?"
The corner of Xavier's mouth twitched in a hint of a smile. "It would not surprise me." He rose to his feet and shook out the cloak he'd been sitting on before settling it over his shoulders. "Very well. Shall we make one last test of the brew before getting our stand ready? I did us the favor of reserving a spot near the stage. We should have excellent business there."
"You can do that?" Wolfram asked as the trio started for the maze exit, Xavier giving directions as he walked with an unhurried pace. "I thought it was first come, first served."
"Yes, it is. I was there before dawn with two hired hands to claim the spot and set up the stand. Turn right ahead. No, Wolfram, that's left. Turn right."
"I knew that."
Ten minutes later, the ram, the samoyed, and the black leopard stood around an odd collection of pipes and pans in Wolfram's room over the Deaf Mule. Wolfram picked up a cup and turned a valve, filling the cup with a clear liquid from a long section of pipe. He smiled, sipped from the cup, coughed, and wheezed, "Wow." He passed it to Xavier.
Xavier sipped, his face scrunched up, and he also wheezed, "Wow." It was all he had the air for.
Drift took the cup from Xavier and finished it off. His eyes started watering, and the samoyed set the cup down on the table to steady himself. He took a long, deep breath, and echoed the previous two right down to the reverent tone of the wheeze. "Wow."
Xavier mopped his eyes with a handkerchief. "That is a most potent brew, Wolfram. It should sell nicely this weekend. Between corn from my lands, your knowledge, and Drift's building skills, I'd call this a promising venture." Handshakes went around the table as the trio started filling bottles.
Drift paused suddenly, just thumping a cork into place. "Wolfram, how did you get into my room this morning? I know I locked the door last night."
The black ram laughed. "You only realized that now? You really do wake up slow!" Wolfram laughed harder when a thrown cork bounced off his curled horns. "Alright, I'll give you a hint. It helps to know who to bribe. You go pick up the caps and bring them down to the booth. We'll finish this up and meet you there."