Keeping the Lamp Lit - Part IX

It was inevitable that I should make my way directly to Loriod's lands once again. I hate unfinished business in any event, and this way I could keep my eyes open for more clues while having a legitimate cover story in place. And besides, I wanted to meet the parents of the young man from Metamor who wished to become my Guild brother. It was not often that I was offered the chance to hook two fish with one line, as the old saying goes, so I could hardly afford to pass up the opporitunity.

Rupert borrowed one of Thomas's work wagons again- I simply hate being so presumptuous as to use a coach, even if being closed in does make me feel more secure. The horses made short work of the trip, and presently I found myself outside a clean and neat thatch hut. A rather attractive young woman came out to investigate our clatter, and curtsied deeply upon seeing me. She did this gracefully and easily, especially considering that by the very nature of things she must have until the Battle of the Three Gates been a man. And yet, while the other peasants of Loriod's little fiefdom had seemed utterly spiritless, there was fire in this woman's eyes. Her curtsy was polite, and there was genuine respect in it. But not a shred of servility.

I rather liked her already.

"Ma'am," I acknowledged her with equal politeness. "Only in Royal ceremonies do I accept bows and curtsies, and only then for the sake of tradition. Please, treat me like anyone else. Or worse than that- Rupert here does."

Rupert confirmed this with a grunt, and the woman smiled as she stood back up. "I had heard of your preferences.... Sir. But under Lord Loriod, appearances are to be maintained at all costs."

Not a word could be interpreted as insolent, but her tone of voice said it all. "Yes, I understand all too well. And I will not object to your placating Loriod if we meet again in public. But we are alone now, and my name is Phil." I extended a paw, handshake fashion.

She took it delicately, trying to suppress a delighted smile. The facial display wasn't due to the prospect of shaking hands with royalty, I knew, but rather because of the fact that I was cute as could be with my paw out like that and my ears erect. It worked every time to put females at ease, even formerly male females. "I am Josephina," she replied, trying to be dignified despite the circumstances. It didn't work, and eventually she gave up and scratched my ears most delightfully. I responded by getting up on my toes and sniffing at her face, and she laughed uproariously. I was enjoying myself too - it was nice to meet ordinary people of the type I myself remained at heart, who were utterly unimpressed with royal status. Presently my bodyguard and I were sitting inside at her table as she bustled about getting us both some fresh vegetables and Rupert some tea. I had to pass on the possibly overstimulating beverage, but it smelled delicious and the gorilla made sure he let me know through his facial expressions and gestures what I was missing.

After a long pleasant discussion of unimportant things, we got down to business.

"Joesephina, I suppose you know where your boy Horatio is."

She was unsurprised. "Yes, I do. And why he is there."

"Do you approve?"

She looked uncomfortable for a moment, then replied. "Phil, I am a veteran of the Three Gates, just as you are. You had to realize this, of course."

"Yes, I know what the Curse has done to you. But I had not realized you were once a soldier."

"I still AM a soldier!" she bristled, then went on more calmly. "Are you still an Admiral? If not, why are you here, cowardly rabbit?"

"Touch‚!" I replied, instantly regretting my error. "I DO apologize. But your cooking, your clean well-decorated house, all of these things make me think you have embraced the feminine quite thoroughly."

She nodded. "Apology accepted, from one with your problems. We are much alike in that regard."

"How so?" I asked. "Because of the Curse, Thomas has many female soldiers..."

"That's just it!" she interrupted angrily. "Duke Thomas has many female warriors indeed! But Loriod does not..."

And then I began to understand. "You mean..."

"My husband is a wonderful man, and a fine river otter as well. But I am his PROPERTY, under Loriod's rule. And I once was Captain of Alvarez Loriod's guard! But Altera will have nothing to do with me as a mere woman, though she was herself raised one.

I winced, about the only facial expression the Curse had left me. "I am so sorry," I explained. "I never knew..."

But she was all worked up now. "Sure, you have that excuse with Loriod. It's probably true that you never knew- we are not encouraged to mix with the other Keepers. But what of your own homeland? How are the women treated there?"

I started to answer that they were treated quite well, and by comparison it would have been the absolute truth. But in fact, had not all my applicants to the Guild that very afternoon been male, despite what I had learned of female fighters at Metamor? So after a pause I answered truthfully. "Better than here, better than in most of the world. None are property. But certain things are denied them."

She looked searchingly into my eyes. "You know, I had heard that you were born a peasant, and now I believe it. You speak plainly, like us, and do not try to hide in double meanings. If in your homeland a commoner can rise to your rank, it is no wonder that my daughter seeks her fortune there."

I'm afraid I spluttered. "Your..."

"Yes," she said matter-of-factly, "My daughter. The curse IS still active, you know. Once she reached puberty, it was inevitable that one of the Three Changes would come upon her. She considered a change of gender the least fearsome, and grew up hoping it would be so. Do you have a problem with this?"

After that which had gone before, what could I say? But I am afraid my voice was still a bit rough from spluttering. "No, no problem at all!" I managed to croak.

Then Joesephine smiled, and scratched my ears again. "At least you are honest. Most of the nobility is utterly useless."

Having my ears stroked by someone I like has an effect on me much like that of alcohol. It makes me reckless at the same time it loosens my tongue, and I often say things I regret. But these words I never would. "The world is changing fast, Joesephina. Changes like those happening here at Metamor cannot help but spread. I'll make you a deal. The Academy is a tough place, and deliberately so. Write your daughter and tell her to let no one know for now what her past is. If I didn't guess after living here at Metamor all these years, then no one back in Whales is very likely to figure it out either. And after all, she IS now in truth a male. Let her keep her secret until she has distinguished herself beyond reproach, as I am sure she will with the mother she had and the background information I saw on her today, THEN, let her tell the world the truth from a position of strength. And this truth will make the people of Whales and the rest of the world alike ask themselves questions that they never would have otherwise. I'll help you two change the world- it seems to be in my job description lately. But indulge me by doing it slowly."

With that Joesephina hugged me across the table, and more than a couple tears soaked into my fur. After a very long time, I broke the silence. "Tell me, is the river otter you mentioned Horatio's birth mother?"

"No, she died in childbirth. And her Stepmother was Loriod's Lady-In-Waiting before the Battle. She did not survive her Change."

"I am very sorry. Not surviving at all was most unusual."

"Almost unheard of, you mean. I think Marguerite may have been the only fatality. When Loriod took over, he declared that everyone with a new gender must live the role to the fullest, that it was the hand of destiny at work. I was married against my will, and told to keep house and keep house well or else. My husband is a decent sort, and has come to love me in his own way. But he was simpleminded from birth, and only the Curse makes him able to work productively. At least he provides well, and he truly tries to be a loving husband. He was devoted to Horatia, in fact. But..."

And then the tears came for real, bitter and quintessentially female tears of a life without hope. I wondered how many women in how many lands lived with so many broken dreams, and cried alone in their pain even as I sat and tried to comfort the one suffering woman before me.

Even Rupert looked moved. Clearly, more needed to be done here.

When this spell had passed, Joesephina apologized profusely for my mussed fur. "Phil, I am so sorry!" she exclaimed, her eyes still red and cheeks still moist.

"Never mind! It's OK, Rupert will fix it later. Now, how else can I help you?"

"What... What do you mean?"

"It goes with being a Crown Prince. Noblesse Oblige and all that rot. I don't care if you used to be ten feet tall and had smelly feet, you are now a damsel in severe distress and I am required to come to your aid. Tradition, you know."

She smiled. "Phil, I couldn't leave my husband. I HAVE come to love him, and couldn't stand to hurt him. He is so gentle really, and so terribly vulnerable. And Loriod will never let him go."

"Whyever not?"

"He is His Lordship's fish keeper."

This was interesting. "Fish keeper?"

"Yes. Loriod keeps ornamental fish ponds all around the estate. Have you noticed them?"

"Yes. The ponds are quite beautiful, in fact. I have to admit, I never even gave a thought to the hard labor that it must take to maintain them."

Joesephine sighed. "Yes, he works on them from sunup to sundown every day of the year except during the Midsummer festival. And Loriod works him then too, when the slightest flaw comes to his attention. If it weren't that Barney gets to eat the surplus fish population, we couldn't begin to make ends meet even so. The taxes are horrible! Not at all like the old days."

"I see."

"So you can understand that we have to stay here. But thanks for caring. Your the only noble I've ever met that cared."

"The Duke would care, too. If you ever met him you would know this. But circumstances stay his hand. I am beginning to think I may have more freedom of action myself, though."

At this, Joesephina looked baffled.

"Does your husband... Barney?"

She nodded.

"Barney, then. Does Barney tend the aquariums as well?"

"Yes, of course. Why?"

"A hunch, mainly. Will he be home soon?"

"Not long after dark."

"Can I talk to him?"

She shrugged. "I don't see why not. Care to stay for dinner?"

"That would be very nice." Rupert grunted at this, so I turned to him and explained. "Friend, this is VERY important, and well worth the slight risk of traveling at night to get home. I am Crown Prince, but a soldier has other duties as well.

He shook his head, ape-fashion. My guard didn't like it, but he knew of the other duties I was referring to, and just from being around me was well aware of their importance. Rupert might be a 600 lb. gorilla, but that didn't mean he was dumb. Quite the opposite was the case, I knew, much as he liked to ham his anthropoid nature up. No further objections were raised.

I exercised some more in the little clearing out front to while away the couple hours I had to wait, as Joesephina asked frequent dietary questions about apes and bunnies through the open door. Since Barney fed on the job, he and Joesephina normally ate separate meals anyway. So the three of us dined off the only two plates she owned, her sense of hospitality requiring that Rupert and I go first. Nothing could have made Loriod's economic misrule more apparent to me than the way the bustling housewife blushed when explaining why she must perforce wait her turn. The food would have been delicious, were it not flavored with embarrassment and poverty.

Barney arrived home just before his wife finished eating. I had intended to meet him outside to lessen the shock I had been assured he would experience, but had not realized that he would silently swim home up the largish creek out back. Therefore, all I had time to do before the door opened was rise quickly out of my chair.

"Lord o' Mercy!" he said, eyes wide and staring as he tried to take in who was in his humble home. "What in tarn..." Then, he recognized me. The change was instantaneous. Immediately he began offering Loriod-style "respect".

The otter-man prostrated himself face down on the dirt floor, trembling. "Your Highness! I never knowed it was you. Please, My Lord... No, Your Highness! Please, Your Highness! Have mercy! I can't see too good in the dark no more...." And he began to weep in abject fear. Clearly, he had learned well what to expect next.

Good Lord! How many poor creatures like this were there in this sorry little fiefdom? And for that matter, how many outside the Duke's realm and my own nation? Almost the whole rest of the world was run in a more-or-less extreme version of Loriod's style. What crimes had the "noble" rulers of the various lands committed to merit such fawning? Simple Barney, just doing as he had been taught, should have been a slap in the face to any "noble" anywhere. Why did it seem like only Thomas and Tenomides and I could feel the pain?

Immediately I got down on all fours beside the sobbing man, and rubbed gently up against him. This was a mark of how disturbing the spectacle had proven to be for me- instinctively I had reacted as a rabbit. It wasn't until I noticed that this strategy wasn't working that I realized what I had done. More and more often of late under stress I had behaved in a lapine fashion. I would have to watch that...

When I got up I noticed Rupert hadn't missed my little slip either. He was wearing the blank face that he always used to try to hide the fact that he was really worried...

But I recovered nicely, and laid on my belly head to head with the poor fellow. "Barney?" I asked as gently as I could. "Are you OK?"

"Please, Your Highness, Please! Mercy!" he sobbed.

"Barney, I promise you will not be hurt. Not now, and not ever again. By Loriod, or any other noble. By my Guild and my Duty, I swear it."

By then, he had ME crying. "Barney, I have just decided that a fishpond is exactly what I need to help me relax. Can you tell me about fishponds?"

A question he was comfortable with penetrated where assurances could not. "I know fish, Your Highness," he finally squeaked out.

"Good!" I said with enthusiasm. "Come sit next to me on the porch, and tell me all about fish!"

He was very reluctant, of course- the man was terrified out of his wits. But his wife helped him along, and Rupert clowned, and I tried to be as gentle and rabbitlike as possible, which in my case is very rabbitlike indeed. And eventually we got Barney talking.

"The water's the thing!" he explained with the first enthusiasm he had shown all evening. "Everything's in the water. Keep it just right, and you'll have healthy fish for sure, Your Highness!"

"The food's not important?" I asked. Despite myself, I was getting interested.

"Naw, not really. Koi are stupid, and they'll eat anything. Stupid fish, they are. The whole secret's the water."

"What about goldfish?" I asked innocently. "I like goldfish."

Barney looked like he'd been hit. His lower lip began to tremble again.

"Now, now!" I said hurriedly. "I didn't mean to scare you. I'm sorry."

The otter man looked across at me suspiciously. "You didn't know they're sick?"

"Sick?" I asked innocently, crossing my forepaws behind my back. "I don't even know what you are talking about."

"My Lord Loriod keeps goldfish, Your Highness. He's had 'em for several years. Thinks they're made of gold, you know." With that, Barney pointed his index finger at the side of his head and rotated it in an age-old gesture. It was amazing how quickly he'd come to trust me. Must have been the cute nose...

"Anyhows, they've been in far too small a tank for a long time, but Macaban kept telling me His Lordship don't want me transferring them over, that he insisted on doing that job himself. So's I just changed the water a lot- the water's the most important thing, ya see- and kept on telling Macaban that something needed to be done soon. Especially since the water was warm all the time. Goldfish don't like it none too warm."

I nodded absently. Something was ringing an alarm somewhere in my head.

"So's one day I come in and the water's all cold. Now that would be a good thing, y'see, but the water is very, very important. You have to make sure it cools down real slow like, or the fish get the "puffs", as I call it."

"The "puffs"?"

"Yep. The fish get real big bellies, and pretty soon they start to float. The poor things fight that, naturally enough, and work themselves to death trying to stay under. Two of My Lord's precious goldfish are just starting to puff...." And he covered his face with his webbed hands and began to sob again.

This poor human being was weeping over the prospect of what would happen to him when fish worth a few coppers at best died through no fault of his own. It was incredible, how distorted things became around Loriod! "I promise you, there will be no trouble for you from this. Do you hear me?"

He nodded, and I heard Joesephine suck in her breath. Only now was she beginning to understand what I planned. I just hoped she would back my play. "All right then. The water got cold suddenly, you say, and this was bad?"

He nodded again, still hiding his face. "The water is so important..." His voice was still trembling.

"Yes, I understand now that it is VERY important." Though Barney was far more important, if he but could realize it. Even if Loriod didn't. "I would never want to do that to my goldfish! Do you have any idea what went wrong?"

Barney finally took his hands down and looked me in the eye. He was truly mystified. "I dunno, Your Highness. Really I don't. I watched that water so close, it being the most important thing and all that. They were His Lordship's favorite fish, you knows. But the only thing that changed was that some kind of red rock got taken out. I never would have paid it no heed, naturally- water's a lot more important than rocks! But Macaban thought I'd stolen it, and came out and searched my house and everything."

"Macaban himself?"

"Yes, Your Highness. Macaban hisself."

For an aquarium decoration, Macaban had journeyed all the way out here and searched a home? "Did the rock ever turn up anywhere?"

"I dunno, Your Highness. He just sorta forgot about it, seemed like. And I didn't figger on remindin' him!"

My mind raced. "Can you describe the rock to me?"

"Just a rock. Pretty shade of red, though."

A red rock. Hmm....

A red rock that heated a whole aquarium for a period of years, so that the temperature dropped enough to sicken fish upon it's removal. A red rock valuable enough that when it had gone missing, Macaban himself had taken an interest.

Was it's value why Loriod had insisted on moving the fish into a new tank himself? Or was it something else?

The alarm bells were getting louder and louder as Barney innocently moved on to a lilypad die-off in a pond Loriod rarely visited, and how the fish-keeper had changed the water again and again, but I was no longer listening despite my polite nods. I could literally feel the pieces coming together...

A pyrock! Loriod had kept a pyrock in his fishtank, where any casual eyes would dismiss it as a decorative trifle. And he had used it to burn his own coach!

But why? What had been destroyed besides his own rather valuable if tacky property? My mind raced through the thickets of information on well-worn trails, doubling and trebling back to find new openings in the brambles. And then I had it!

Fox's books! About MattRat's homeland! The only sources of hard information had been destroyed in the blaze...

All of this centered around Loriod and my friend. All of it.

Clearly, it was only the tip of the iceberg.

I let poor Barney ramble on, the smallness of the life a cruel nature and crueler Loriod had left to him becoming clearer with every repetition of how important the water was. Without interrupting, I met first Rupert's eye, then Joesephine's. When I had the attention of both, I nodded meaningfully towards the wagon. Joesephine covered her mouth in shock at first, but subconsciously she must have known all along. Rupert simply nodded, and slipped inside to begin packing. Eventually, Joesephine quietly followed.

Barney could never be expected to keep quiet about my visit, of course, any more than he could fail to emphasize the importance of good water to fish. The future he faced under Loriod was bleak indeed. And of course I intended to keep my word. This man would never be brutalized or exploited again. It would be full dark by the time we left, and Rupert could scout ahead. I expected to get the civilians out clean, without being detected at all. And if we were, I doubted Loriod's royalty-worshipping guards would dare stop me in the absence of clear orders to the contrary. Bowing and scraping and saying "My Lord" too much does terrible things to a man's initiative. Besides, if I had to play the part of an offended, self important Crown Prince for a few minutes to save the lives of these two, it would be well worth it.

One of the virtues of poverty is that moving is a quick and easy thing. In just a few minutes Josephine carried the first load out, and set it on the wagon. Rupert had followed with a far-larger second package before Barney caught on. "What..." he began, looking at me with a betrayed and fearful look on his musteline features.

"It's OK!" I said. Then just to make the words sink in I repeated myself. "It's absolutely OK. Remember I said I wanted a fishpond?"

He nodded, still not comprehending.

"Well, then. Who around here knows fish like you do? Or water?"

"No one. But..."

"But what? I am truly sorry about the house. Would, say, 20 gold pieces cover your loss?" Joesephina gasped at the figure. Two would have been a generous offer, including the furnishings.

"Well..." The otter-morph looked to his wife for guidance, as I was sure he had done many times before.

"Honey," she explained gently. "What will happen to you when Loriod's goldfish die?"

His face fell, and he looked desperately around the little clearing. But until his eyes met mine, there was no escape to be found.

"Well, then," he said finally. Then, after a pause. "You say you like goldfish?"

Actually, I HAD found the little creatures rather engaging. Silently, I nodded.

"And you know they're not really made of gold, right?"

I nodded again.

"Well then," he repeated himself. "Looks like you've got yourself a fishkeeper, Your Highness. How's the water in The Keep?"

"Oh, just fine!" I explained. "But I am afraid you don't understand."

That brought both husband and wife to a screeching halt.

"I want my fishpond built on the grounds of the Fleet Academy, in Whales. Where I can relax when I become King. And remember that people are more important than fish."

"Whales?" asked Joesephina incredulously. "Whales? That's hundreds of miles from here!"

"True enough. But if you leave tonight, as I plan, you can be there in no time at all."

"But... But..."

"But what? Or don't you want to be near your only child?"

And with that all argument ended. Joesephina hugged me again, so hard I had to wriggle out of the embrace, and Barney stuttered a bit about being grateful.

The ride back to Metamor was carried out in silence, due to the possibility of pursuit. As I expected, Joesephina was well able to handle the reins, and Barney was content to sit and be still at his wife's urging. Immediately upon arrival I roused the standby guard, and wrote a letter explaining all to Tenomides. Twenty pieces of gold were brought out by Rupert and I put my seal to Horatio's Academy application at the very last second, while the impromptu caravan waited restlessly. By dawn, this family would be beyond Loriod's reach, and Thomas would have to answer for none of it to his fellow nobles. He wouldn't even know.

When Rupert finally came to put me in my cage for the night, he was acting very strangely. There was something wrong, but I just couldn't put my finger on what. Finally I out and out asked him if all was well, but he just nodded absently. Then, when all was ready for sleep he paused by the last lit candle holder and pondered for a moment.

Whereupon he bowed deeply and respectfully to me, something he'd never, ever done before. And before I could react to this totally unexpected display, he had blown out the tiny flame and vanished into the darkness.

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