Keeping the Lamp Lit - Part V

Loriod stood at the balcony that his husband had flung himself off of over six years ago. Watching the rabbit leave, his mind replayed their conversation. He'd never known that Phil was such an idiot, and at the same time so easily manipulated. The bunny HAD asked a few unsettling questions. But what could such a silly animal do to hurt him?

The voices could think of many things. They seemed quite irate with his lack of concern for the obstreperous grass-eater's inquiries. Loriod had not revealed anything, nor did he see why it would matter anyway. "Because Phil knows more than he is letting on!" was of course the voice's urgent response.

However, the voices were not the ones destined for greatness. They were just messengers. The spirits would always be on his side. And Phil was clearly a harmless fool- in fact, stroking his ears had proven rather pleasant...

Stepping back away from the balcony that had marked his elevation to the Lordship of this realm, he turned to see Macaban waiting on bended knee in the hall. The donkey's ears flopped down along the sides of his muzzle as he leaned forward respectfully.

"What is it, my faithful servant?" Loriod asked, sensing a bit of urgency in the creature's posture.

"My Lord, I have just heard that word has been sent from His Highness Prince Phil's office to the Holy See in Ellcaran. I thought you might like to know. Rumor has it that the subject of the dispatch is the rat Matthias, My Lord." Macaban did not look up, but kept his head bowed in submission.

Loriod blinked. "That is where that Catholic priest lives, Ellcaran. What is his name?"

"Father Hough, My Lord." Macaban supplied.

"Ah yes, Father Hough." Loriod looked back out the wide doors to the balcony, and at the forests and sprawling countryside upon the raised plateau. The voices seemed quiet eager to hear this information, and at the behest of their whispers, a sudden plan began to form in his mind. "Notify me what comes of this. I am taking quite an interest in this priest."

"Yes, My Lord."

"Good! Fetch me my censor, then. I wish to commune with the power again as the voices have taught me." He had no worries about talking to Macaban about these things- the donkey was conditioned to follow certain commands without thinking about them. This was another aspect of the wonderful magic the voices had revealed to him. Sitting back and inhaling the fragrant fumes emanating from his Demon-engraved censor, Loriod had a pleasant thought. When all was in its proper place, Phil might make a most amusing pet. Just before the fumes took him away entirely, he idly pictured Phil in a gilded cage just to the right of his throne, where his ears could be scratched easily whenever Loriod wished. Of course, Phil's voice would have to be dealt with so that he could no longer ask annoying questions, but once that was taken care of , well...

The voice seemed quite enthralled at the prospect, and more surprisingly still they approved of Loriod's plan, already underway, to make this a reality. In fact, Loriod thought dimly as his mind degenerated into blissful mush, they seemed rather shocked that they hadn't thought of it themselves.

Father Hough walked along the row of pews, seeing a few errant peasants in smocks and their cleanest rags kneeling in them. Their lips murmured prayers, and their heads were bowed down in submission. Hough waited a few moments to see if he was needed by any, yet none noticed his noiseless presence. Offering quiet prayers for their own well-being, he returned to his office behind the confessional and beyond the statues and pillars. The figures of religious icons stood staring down compassionately from ornate stained glass windows set along either wall of the cathedral. The light from the sun came cascading down in scintillating colors across the believers. It was a breathtaking sight, one that Hough never tired of.

His office was drab by comparison. Shelves of books transcribed by many pens from the ancient works lined his walls. He had a Bible laid out before him on the desk, written in the mother tongue of the church, and turned to the Psalms. He always liked to peruse them each afternoon, for they were the greatest poetry he had ever seen. They were the spirit of God's people, their cries of joy, anguish, and suffering. They were remarks of adulation and comfort. He traced one finger gently over the pages, his eyes scanning the text.

A clatter of hooves in the courtyard startled him only for a moment. He turned away from the window over looking the gardens and back to his studying. A few moments later, a sharp report sounded at his door. Somebody was knocking. "Who is it?" He called out, his eyes still gazing longingly at the text.

"It is Lothar. A letter just arrived for you, Father." The young voice called out through the wood.

"Come in, my son." Lothar was ten years his junior, but already very willing to serve. He was sometimes impetuous, and often times too eager in his ways. Yet he would grow into loving service in time. Hough had already decided to appoint him his successor to the Ellcaran diocese if his request for a church to be established in Metamor was ever granted.

So it came as no surprise to him to see that the letter had been dispatched from Metamor Keep. "Is it from the Keepers, Father?"

Hough smiled warmly. "Yes, it is from our friends to the north, my son."

"Father, may I ask a question."

"Of course you may."

"Is it true what they say about the Keepers? Are they really animals and children?" Lothar was obviously quite disturbed by the very notion of such a transformative change. Hough was not completely comfortable with it himself, but if that was where God led him, he would go willingly.

"And some have changed genders as well," Hough pointed out. "All of them have changed bodies in some way. It is a terrible evil that was cast upon them. Yet it is much the same as a person who looses an arm in battle. They can still serve the Lord faithfully. It would be wrong for us not to serve them as well as our regular parishioners."

Lothar nodded grimly. "I know, Father. I just fear for you. I'm afraid that you will go there and become trapped and unable to escape before you are changed as well."

Hough patted the young priest-in-training upon his shoulder. "You have nothing to fear, my son. If that is the Lord's will, then that is His will." He had not told Lothar of his request, because he did not want the young man worrying for him. There was nothing to worry about. Well, there was one thing. Hough did not want to become a woman. The thought horrified him, because it would disqualify him from serving the Lord as a priest as he so dearly loved doing.

Lothar sighed and stepped back to let Hough read the letter. Hough scanned it for a few moments and then set it down. He cupped his chin in one hand and peered blankly out past the dark robed man towards the shelves of books. Lothar glanced at him, wondering what could bring such a demeanor over his teacher. Hough peered up, and spoke softly. "Prepare me a coach. I will be leaving for Metamor Keep this evening."

Lothar did not question his instructions, but glumly stepped out the door and was gone. Hough grimaced, staring down at the letter again. "Charles, what have you gotten yourself into this time?" Pushing the letter aside, he returned to reading the Psalms, hoping to find ones appropriate.

It was going on toward evening when I arrived at the library. This was one of my favorite places in all of Metamor after all, a place where I often escaped the pressures of day to day life. And I considered Fox Cutter, the head librarian, to be a good friend as well. He couldn't help his scent, but otherwise he was one of the most non-threatening individuals in all of Metamor. And since the Battle of the Three Gates, non-threatening had become a priority for me...

It was my intention to research everything I could on Charles' s magic and the Southlands in general. But it was not to be. Fox was clearly heartbroken as he explained.

"Accidents happen, I know, even to books. But still, some of these were just irreplaceable..."

"And you say that you have nothing more on the subject? What happened?"

"It was terrible. The books were burned." Shaking his head sadly, the fox-morph continued. "Books should NEVER be burned. They don't hurt anyone."

I sympathized. Once I had been forced to send a whole cargo ship full of books to the bottom of the sea. They were being smuggled into a kingdom that considered knowledge a luxury to be taxed at a high rate. The Fleet had been hired because the higher the tariffs went, the more smuggling went on. The King figured that we could turn a profit for him, even though our prices were high. But instead the smugglers just grew more ingenious and richer, while I had been forced to destroy that which I loved most. It's a crazy world, sometimes. "What a tragedy!" I replied, sincerely.

"Yes," he replied mournfully. "But still, it could have been worse. Loriod or Macaban might have been killed, you know. Or even some of the horses."

"Loriod?" I spluttered. Everywhere I went his name seemed to be coming up. "What does Loriod have to do with this?"

Fox seemed taken aback. "Why, the books were in his carriage, of course."

"In his carriage?" Sometimes I am not too quick on the uptake, I fear.

"Yes, of course!" the fox-man explained. "I didn't want to let him take them out of the building at all, but he claimed it was his right as a noble. So I demanded a ridiculous deposit, which he seemed almost eager to pay."

"How big a deposit are we talking about here?"

"Fifteen pieces of gold."

I winced. That was a large sum of money, more than enough to meet my living expenses for a year. Or more likely two. "Has he been back to complain about losing his gold?"

"No. He didn't even return in person to tell me the books were lost. Macaban told me."

"Hmm. " And with that I thanked Fox and left. Without the books that might have told me so much of what I needed to know, but with answers to disturbing questions beginning to take form in my little harebrain...

Questions that I would never have thought to ask, even just a week before.

The next couple days went by in a blur. Thomas and I had a friendly dinner that evening, deliberately speaking only of the happy times we profoundly hoped would be part of our futures. And that night I slept soundly, dreaming dreams of a time when I no longer had to be "His Highness", but could go back to being plain old Phil...

In the morning, I woke up feral. That happens to me sometimes, even today. It is part of why I sleep in a cage. Fortunately I am pretty happy as a bunny rabbit. In fact, I am considerably happier that way than I am as a part-human most of the time. I get LOTS of attention from worried healers and friends who remember all too well that I once spent years mentally as a true lapine. And as the hours go by they become more and more frantic, waving familiar things under my short muzzle in the hope that they will spark a memory. But it never works- I return when the bunny in me is ready to let me return, and no sooner. Which, this time, was a day and a night.

Why Thomas or Tenomides puts me in charge of anything important, I'll never know. Can you imagine anything more ridiculous than your Crown Prince or Chief of Intelligence spending a whole day in the middle of a crisis trying to dig a hole in the bottom of his cage? But it's exactly what I did, mostly...

Not that everyone minds. Rupert tells me I am MUCH easier to get along with as a bunny.

I don't get too embarrassed any more, though. I've been living with this reality far too long and far too intensely for that. Instead, I welcomed the relaxing effect that feral living always seems to have on me, and caught up on what I had missed over breakfast. No sense complaining about that which you cannot change, after all.

Not that I missed much, this time at least. Commander Ptomamus of His Majesty's Courier Vessel 'Arrow' had gotten in late last night, and as ordered had reported immediately. He was put up in quarters befitting his rank, and even now was probably cooling his heels and beginning to worry lest my "illness" delay him so long that the Curse would take effect.

Hmm. I would have to take that possibility into account when writing future orders. No need to have someone go through the Change just because I was playing hare for a few days...

When he finally did formally report to me it was very awkward for us both. This was my first return to matters military in many years. Immediately I discovered that I cannot physically acknowledge a salute anymore, as my forelimbs are just not that flexible. And protocol required that he hold his "brace" until I returned it. "At ease," I finally tried to bark in my old pattern, but now my voice came out not as a harsh rasp but much rather like a child's.

The Commander couldn't help but stare, of course. Everyone does, but the effect must be even greater on a young man who studied from textbooks that featured my battles prominently. The stories about me told of a humane but hard bitten man, I knew, one who was remorseless in the pursuit of victory because he so hated the idea of defeat. To see me as I now was, small and helpless and cute, with a chew toy left over from my feral episode yesterday still sitting in my sleeping cage must have been quite a mental adjustment. It was not easy for me, either. Truly, I was not the same man I had once been. I kept trying to explain that to Tenomides, even if I did still hate losing. But somehow he just couldn't see...

But Ptomamus could. Shock was written all over his features for just a few seconds, until he regained control of himself.

"Captain," I began- anyone in command of a vessel is politely addressed as "Captain" even if their substantive rank is different- "Do you have rats in your ship?"

He thought I'd lost my mind, it was quite clear. "No, Sir."

This was too much. "Son, I have commanded 13 vessels. And inspected I don't know how many hundreds. Each and every one has had rats."

The officer gulped. His mind was telling him one thing about me, from his school days and the endless Fleet bull sessions. But his eyes were telling him something else entirely. "Sir. Truly, I do not have rats in my ship. I paid a great deal of money out of my own pocket for a magical talisman."

I considered. It WAS possible, after all. "Why on Earth would you do that?"

"Rats make me ill, Sir. I sneeze when I am around them."

At this, I rocked my ears. What irony! Then, I explained to the Commander what ear-rocking was, and why I did it. Before long, Ptomamus opened up and we were talking easily about events familiar to us both, him through his studies and me from actually having been there. Which was much easier and more effective than the officer-reporting thing, even if the memories were mostly unpleasant for me. It was something I filed away for future reference. Professional military officers just have a hard time reporting to a pure-white blue-eyed bunny rabbit that physically cannot return a salute...

I turned the topic away from the famous course-change that made my career, though in truth I still did not understand why people thought so highly of it, to more current topics. "Commander, have you held your posting long?"

"Three years, sir. Before that I was First Officer of the 'Iros'."

That impressed me. The captured flagship of my enemy of old was still kept in service for reasons of prestige, I knew. And to be First Officer was a posting of honor. Clearly, Ptomamus was a man with a future in the Fleet, and well-regarded. "Have you undertaken any important diplomatic missions?"

"Only routine courier missions, I am afraid, Sir."

Hmm. This bespoke well of him too. A lesser man might have tried to embroider what I knew to be a humdrum job. "Any intelligence missions?"

At that he stiffened. "Sir... Is this room secure?"

That was all the answer I needed. If he had been trusted for such before by his superiors officers, that was enough for me. "Yes, but I don't need to know details. I have such a mission for you. One of great importance."

He waited for orders, silent.

"I have an agent I need put ashore in downtown Arabarb. Right in the heart of Enemy territory. As cover, I am prepared to openly order you to convey a message under a flag of truce to our Enemy requesting the re-opening of diplomatic relations." This was a safe ruse- Whales would welcome the return of peace and trade, on the off-chance the offer was taken seriously. Which was unlikely in any event. "This agent is more valuable to Whales and Metamor than half the Fleet, Commander. Your ship and crew are to be considered entirely expendable at need."

I studied the officer as the words sank in. He blanched just a bit, which was exactly the reaction I sought. It meant he really understood, emotionally as well as intellectually, what might be required of him.

"The agent will not communicate with you in any way about the nature of his mission. You simply do not need to know. But you must extract him at all costs. At ALL costs, Captain."

This time he simply nodded. Which was good. I must have been sounding at least a little like an Admiral again. "Local conditions will dictate the means used to establish a rendezvous. You must work that out with the agent in question. But he is to be granted extreme discretion in his methods. Matthias is... an unusual person."

"Sir, may I ask a question?"

"Consider informality between us to be a standing order until revoked, son. I want you to ask questions to your heart's content."

"Yes, sir. I am just wondering something. What has all this to do with the presence of rats aboard my ship?"

I rocked my ears again. "Everything. I am afraid I am about to cost you a considerable sum of money. Your anti-rat talisman will have to be canceled out, and a population of rats deliberately brought aboard."

"But... Why?"

"Haven't been around the Keep very long, have you? Our agent is a full-morph Norway rat." I would keep Matthias's form shifting ability secret if I could. Keeping secrets was becoming a habit. "And he's going to travel in your pocket and your cabin, as needed, to maintain secrecy. He will get ashore by running down one of your mooring lines, like any other rat. I only hope one of the healers here can take care of your sneezing..."

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