Libraries - Part I

Jessica was circling through the sky in the middle of September when she saw the wagon emerge from the wooded road to Lorland, and start upon the rise to Metamor Keep. She'd been circling through the air a lot this last week, usually alone, though once or twice Weyden had accompanied her. Wessex's sudden departure that day had left the hawk uneasy. The note that had returned from Lorland then next day, indicating that Wessex would be there for several days more, had worried her more. After what she had seen him do the morning of his egress, had made those dreams and nightmares he had spoken of in hushed whispers after extracting vows of her silence become truly real for her.

When flying, she found that for a brief time, she could escape those worries, and enter into a different world. Up above the battlements, towers, hutches, and homes she could truly be alone without fear of anyone. Not only did her wings free her from earthly bounds, but it also freed her from every worry that she drenched her life in. The boy magician was her mentor, and now the only one in her life that could be a father to her. Wessex was a hard teacher, but he loved his students more than anything else.

Banking on one wing to peer closer at the hide-covered wagon, she gazed down into the raised seat. Though she was at least ten times higher in the air than the largest tower at the Keep, she could see them as clearly as she could if they were only a few ells away. It was Rupert, Prince Phil's simian aide. These days, his Highness never went anywhere without the Great Ape, and so she knew the rabbit was nestled inside the wagon, somewhere out of sight. With a quickening of her heart, Jessica reasoned that Wessex could be there too.

Spiralling back towards the Keep itself, Jessica tried to compose her thoughts. In the week since Wessex had gone to Lorland, she had watched that wall where the Symphony had been drawn carefully. No perturbations marred its surface, and no mysterious castings were to be seen on it though. In fact, it appeared to be just like any other portion of the Keep, completely innocuous. The only unsettling aspect it possessed was its presence. Given the Keep's tendency to move halls about as needed, its existence was a reminder of what had once been there, and was still locked in place.

The remainder of Wessex's students were unaware of the dire circumstances surrounding that passageway. Her master had informed her to tell them that he had a bit of magical business to take care of at Lorland, some unexpected incident that had cropped up and needed his attention. They were not to worry, he would be back in good time. And so they had continued to practice their arts, at least the ones that he allowed them to practice without his personal supervision. Jessica could not bring herself to bear the façade of calm though. So instead, she flew.

The weather had certainly been nice for it this last week. The first chill of Autumn had filled the air, but with her thick feathers, she'd hardly noticed. The trees though were beginning to change colours. Bright yellows and pinpricks of red could be seen among the hundreds of shades of green, though to the north, the firs and pines maintained their supply of needles. Though she was not so perceptive as the mammals, the scents of many of the Keepers coming into season was also filling the air, not to mention the native fauna. Excitement for the upcoming Autumnal Equinox Festival was also present. However, Jessica did not share the sentiments of her fellow Metamorians, at least not until she had seen that wagon.

Gliding through the crisp air, Jessica slowly began circling back in to the Keep proper, her eyes always straying to that wagon as it made its way towards the gates. It was making good time, and the hawk figured that she would be able to return to Wessex's apartment at least a good five minutes before the boy was able to reach there. That would give her enough time to make sure that everything was in order in the wizard's rooms.

Her thoughts were a jumble of various chores that might be needed, to all the things she wanted to ask him when she first saw him. Hopefully, none of the other students would be in the workshop, that way they could speak freely of matters dark. Had Wessex been able to find solace from those nightmares at Lorland? Had they grown more fearsome when he returned to that nexus of evil influence Loriod had brought? Too many questions, and not enough answers, Jessica realized. It was entirely possible that even if he did reveal all that he knew to her that she would still have many doubts left.

When her claws finally skidded across the stonework of the tower she knew was closest to Wessex's rooms, her mind snapped back to the world around her. As always, the euphoria of flight ebbed from her spirit as she rested her wings against her back, gravity once more dictating the course of her path. The lone guard overlooking the parapet nodded to her, his ermine coat shimmering in the early afternoon sun. She squaked an abrupt reply, her wingtips jittering the last of the flight out. Then, after the soldier turned to watch the horizon once more, the jagged line of mountains resplendent in the late Summer atmosphere, Jessica climbed down the wide staircase, hopping along on her talons till she was inside the castle proper.

As she'd hoped, the workshop was empty and dark. With a short incantation, she lit the braziers along each wall of the apartments. The wicks flashed with a bright spark, and then settled into a lazy glow. In Wessex's absence, Jessica had taken the initiative to have the floors swept, and the furniture dusted and inspected for any damage. His bed sheets were all washed anew, though some of the more grievously stained had to be burned. She was thankful that none of them had been from his inheritance, as she could not have afforded to replace them.

She came into his personal bedchambers, and gazed idly into the flickering scarlet candle set upon the ivory stanchion. Leaning against the damask lounge, she draped one wing over the smooth velvet, rubbing her short claws-tips across its surface. It was the closest she could come to holding anything in her hands anymore. Though her long black talons served remarkably well in that capacity, they were no substitute for what she had lost. Yet Wessex, her mentor, who had lost all of his family, had done his best to help her focus her powers in a new direction, one that she could use with her avian form. He had always been a source of strength for her, and it wasn't until now that it dawned upon her how she had come to depend on that.

Turning away from the light, she wished her thoughts would turn as well. At least now she also had Weyden, a fellow hawk who had become a good friend in such a short time. He could make her laugh as he tried to get his new body to work right. She suspected that he deliberately messed up because he knew she thought it was funny. But in the end, Jessica found that she liked that he did that for her. Just the other day, they'd flown together up over the plains south of Metamor and he'd attempted to snatch a small rodent from a field of freshly harvested grain. Instead of snatching the critter in his talons, he'd plowed into the ground right before it. Weyden had not hurt himself too terribly, though the bruises along his thighs showed beneath the chartreuse feathers. They'd flown back to the Keep, laughing the whole way, the soldier in Yonson's service making light of his inexperience the entire trip.

The sound of voices in the hallway outside broke her from her pleasant reverie, and she stumbled out into the passage, her talons scraping at the masonry beneath her. Rupert was standing beneath the main transom carrying a loud of richly decorated garments, while Wessex and Phil were chatting just inside the sitting room doorway. They noticed the hawk immediately.

"Ah, Jessica! I'm glad to see you," Wessex smiled, his dimples beaming. "I wondered who'd lit all the candles. How long have you been waiting here?"

"Just a few minutes," she sain in a shrill cry. Of course, they were all used to her voice now. "I saw your wagon approaching the Keep, so wanted to have everything ready for you when you returned, master."

"Thank you, it looks like you had the place cleaned as well!" Wessex noted, wiping his thumb across a small decorative table resting against the wall.

"I thought you might like to have it clean for you. I didn't know when you were coming back."

Phil waggled his ears in delight as he gazed across the well-kept rooms. "You do make your teacher proud, Jessica."

"Thank you, your Highness." She was not much around nobility, though most at Metamor did not flaunt it as in other countries. It was awfully hard to feel proud of your bloodline when you were part animal.

"Phil, please," the rabbit asked, his eyes bright, obviously not offended, but a little unsettled, by the title.

Rupert held out the garments to the boy questioningly, and Wessex gave a short report, as if he had just recalled something very important. "Oh, put those in the workshop for now. I'll find a place for them later. Thank you!"

"What are those?" Jessica asked as she watched the great ape amble past her and into the room with the large slate floor.

Phil gave Wessex a quick look, so quick, the hawk barely noticed it. But, being an avian, those quick motions were obvious to her. Wessex smiled brightly and shook his head, "Part of what I was doing at Lorland. I'm just tying up a few loose ends, that's all."

Phil then hopped back towards the door. "I ought to check in on my duties. I'm sure my desk is piled with Writer's Guild business by now!"

"Thank you again for all your help, Phil!" Wessex waved his small hand towards the rabbit, who returned the gesture as best he could with his paw, and then hopped out the door, the great ape silently following along behind. Wessex breathed a sigh of relief, and then slowly closed the door to his apartments, the thick oak barely making a sound as the lock clicked into place.

"Are you all right, master? You were gone for a week, and you never sent word."

Wessex nodded slightly, motioning for her to join him in the sitting room. Though she could not sit in the finely upholstered satin chairs he kept here, the boy pulled out a small ottoman that she could perch on. The fabric had been torn from the crossbeams when Nasoj's army razed the ard'Kapler manor at Mycransburg seven years ago, so the wizard used it for those who would unintentionally destroy his finer collections.

Jessica knew it was meant to make her feel more comfortable, and so hopped upon the single solid crossbeam, holding to it tightly in her talons, the black of her claws digging into the furnished wood. Wessex reached into the mahogany cabinet between two of the bookcases, offset by a brightly flickering brazier betwixt them. Drawing out a pitcher fashioned from subdued faience clay, he poured a tap of milk into a small glass. "I see you purchased me some more milk."

Like most things in his apartments, the cabinets were enchanted to keep all food and drink within them fresh for several months. Being a child, Wessex usually only drank milk or juices. At least, that was all Jessica ever saw him partake. "I thought you might like to have your wares restocked when you returned."

He grinned slightly, and then an unsettling moue overtook his features, and remained there. "Would you care for something?"

"No thank you, I'm not thirsty." In truth, Jessica found most beverages distasteful now. A bit of ale or mead was about all she could stomach anymore.

The boy nodded then, and sat down in the opposite chair, his legs dangling from the high seat as they always did. He set the small cup of milk on one of his knees, balancing it idly, as if his spirit had fled his body and was wandering some unknown plane. She let out a shrill squeal, catching his attention. The glass almost tumbled from his leg to the ground, but his art was quick, clutching it in mid air, and floating it back to his hand after a moment. Evocative magic was not the boy's specialty, but no true magician would be without rudimentary knowledge of other practices.

"I've been worried for you, master. And I'm worried now. What happened at Lorland?" Jessica asked again, her wingtips twitching in agitation.

Wessex sighed, and then sipped at his milk. "I think I know what is happening to me, Jessica. After that night, and seeing that Symphony, I knew that this was more than just my inability to cope with Dorson's death. These nightmares have been orchestrated by outside forces, intent on the ruin of all that is decent. Loriod was just a pawn in a much larger game. I too, have become a pawn, one that the forces determined to plunge us into chaos have set their eyes upon.

"Up until that night, I had let them push me, guiding me where they wanted me to go. I did not even know I was being manipulated. Not any more though. Now I am going to push back, I will not let myself be a tool for their design. That is why I went to Lorland. My only clues to unravelling this mystery were there. I know Zagrosek has something to do with this; he is the one I saw in that room, and in the tower of Loriod's castle. He's in my dreams now, and they have led me back to that dĉmon-infested room. I need to follow him to the truth, he has to have left a trail somewhere that I can find and use to my advantage. Aside from myself, the only person I knew he had contact with was Loriod.

"Things are a bit more serious than I had expected though, and for reasons which must remain secret for now, I'll be returning to Lorland in a few weeks. I brought back with me some of Loriod's garments so that I might cast an augury on them. If that fat pig met with Zagrosek in any of these garments, I'll be able to discern the entirety of their meeting. It's my only hope to find some way to stop these dreams."

Jessica leaned forward a bit, her talons tightening about the crossbeam. "I can help you with that, master. You know I am skilled in the arts of divination."

The boy shook his head, "No, I am afraid that they might have a way of discovering my search. If you are involved, they might be able to invade your dreams too, I cannot risk that."

"But Loriod must have hundreds of garments! An augury takes quite some time to perform by oneself. You'll be searching through all of winter!" Jessica objected, her squealing voice carrying out the door.

Wessex sipped at the milk again and simply shrugged his small shoulders. "It's the only way." He licked his lips thoughtfully for a moment and then sighed. "There is one other thing too, I know you will not like to hear it."

"What is that?"

"When I was at Lorland, I never had those dreams. I was under watch and guard all the time, but there was no need, as I slept peacefully each night. Whoever is giving me these dreams must be able to only reach me if I am in his radius of influence. That means, they are here at the Keep already, or have some focus at the Keep."

"Matthias?" Jessica asked, remembering that the other spectral figure in his nightmares had been the rat. She had never known him personally, though the gossip about the former scribe was rather astounding. All within the last six months he'd assaulted the Duke, been sent on a mission to the far northern coasts, helped win the Battle of Nuln, and was now a scout of some kind. Yet his presence in the dreams alongside Zagrosek was enough reason for her to distrust the rodent.

"I believe so, yes," Wessex nodded, finishing off the last of his milk and setting the tumbler upon the side table. "He knew that I was searching him out, discovering things about him that he'd rather left unknown. I think he is responsible for this, at least in part."

"But you've come back to Metamor now. Won't you start having these dreams again?' Jessica queried, finally realizing the import of what he wasn't saying.

"I believe so, yes. That is why I've worked out an arrangement with Prince Phil to have me sequestered in the dungeons while I sleep. The cells there are proof against most magic, so even if I do have these nightmares, I doubt that I could escape to cause any harm. Word's been sent to Roscoe, and they'll be cleaning one cell up for me this evening."

Jessica gauged by the curious expression in Wessex's eyes that he'd expected her to be horrified by this. In truth, she could not imagine being locked someplace where she could not see the sun and the sky. Of course, she was a bird now, and so she was rather biassed. What concerned her more was that it sounded like Wessex had confided in another. "Does Prince Phil know? Does he know what you've told me?"

The boy nodded again, taking a deep breath. "I had no choice but to tell him. He knows that I've told another, but he does not know who. I trust Phil implicitly. I cannot believe he would be in league with Zagrosek and Matthias." Wessex peered thoughtfully past the hawk for a moment, towards the far workshop which was just visible outside the doorway. "Do the others suspect?"

"Your other students?" Jessica asked in surprise. "No, they took you at your word when you said you had to tie up a few loose ends."

"Good, the less people know about this right now the better. There will come a time when all must know, but not until we can be sure of what we suspect. Right now, Jessica, I simply need you to confide in. I also need you to keep track of my day to day affairs when I visit Lorland. Speaking of which, did anything happen here at the Keep that I should know about?"

Fluttering her wings in an avian shrug, Jessica gripped the crossbeams a bit tighter. "Nothing much has been happening, it has been a relatively quiet week. Rickkter did come by to borrow that book you promised him. He returned it a couple days ago with his own notes scribbled out in a bundle of papers. I've left the papers on your desk, and I returned the book to your shelves."

"He did? Excellent, that is also part of my investigations." Wessex slid from the chair, and put the cup back in the cabinet. Then, the boy wandered out the door and over to his private chambers. Jessica hopped form her perch, and followed after him, not comfortable with leaving the boy alone yet.

Wessex was untying the leather thong that Rickkter had used to secure the bundle of parchment with the same enthusiasm a child had when he was opening a wrapped gift on a holiday. Once undone, the boy's hands worked over the thin sheets, tracing out the script, and grinning recklessly. "Oh, this shall be most helpful! I must thank him next chance I have to see him."

"I'm sure he feels the same way about your notes on Nasoj's curse," Jessica added, standing in the doorway watching her master caper about in delight.

"Oh, no doubt, no doubt!" Wessex turned to his bookshelf and reached for the tome he had lent the raccoon. His eyes then lost their glitter, and his brow furrowed in puzzlement. For a moment he just stood there staring staring, the smile fading into that familiar moue. He waved his fingers before the open bookcase, as if trying to wipe away a cobweb.

"Is something wrong, master?"

"Yes, the spells I placed over the bookcase have been tampered with." Wessex reached in and drew out each of his volumes, one by one, glancing at them and flipping through them. Once done, he set each aside, and moved to the next. When he finally picked up the book that Jessica had let Rickkter take, he stopped, and examined it in even greater detail.

"What is it, master?" Jessica asked again, the concern rushing back through her breast.

"There is something wrong with this book, but I do not know what." He turned to face her, looking through her with those pale eyes. "Find Habakkuk, and bring him here. I need to talk to him immediately."

Jessica pressed her tongue against the inside of her beak, so used to the solid shell that she didn't even think about it anymore. "What's happened?"

"I don't know, but I want to find out." Wessex laid the book on his desk, and then began reshelving the others. "Find Zhypar and bring him here as soon as you can."

"Yes, master. Please be careful, I worry for you."

Wessex smiled to her, a fatherly grin that she had grown fond of. "Do not worry, Jessica, we'll figure this out. No nightmare will stop me."

The hawk simply nodded, her tail feathers twitching slightly with her agitation. And then, she turned on her talons, and did her best to walk gracefully from the room. She was not wholly successful, but she managed. A part of her worried that she may have done something wrong in loaning the book to Rickkter, even though his instructions to her had been to permit the raccoon to borrow the tome. The other part feared that this too was an emanation of her master's ghoulish night-time haunts, an aspect that he'd been too afraid to disclose to a simple student.

Her walk through the many halls of the Keep was conducted in silence. She did not know the kangaroo well, but she knew that he was the new Head of the Writer's Guild, so decided to try there first. They were in an old barracks, ransacked in Nasoj's first attack on the Keep, and had been refurbished to support the scribes when Matthias had arrived and set it up. She'd never before had occasion to visit the building with its finely wrought eaves and scroll-work designed uniquely in the Keep. Letters found their way into the design, as did calligraphy and bookish art. Most could not decipher them from the rest of the moulding, but Jessica was trained in seeing symbols in otherwise meaningless drawings, and so had no difficulty in spotting them.

She found the main doors open, two large oaken beasts with brass knockers that appeared to have be mostly unused. Gripping the handle in her talons, she hopped back on one foot, drawing the door outward just enough so she could sneak a wing beneath the crack. Opening a door inwards had never been a problem for her new form, but outwards had always required a deftness that she sometimes lacked. Even after seven years, she'd fall on her tail feathers every so often after refusing another's help in opening a door.

In this instance though, she was successful, and slipped into the silent chambers. Brazier's lined the walls at regular intervals, only a few ells apart. A long two-pronged table sat in the centre of the room, long since discoloured by ink stains from overzealous scribes. The sent of parchment and various inks filled the room, even more so than the odours of her fellow Keepers. The entire area felt so dead, she was afraid that she'd come when no one was about.

Just as Jessica was about to turn and leave, a small piping voice from one far wall called, "Can I help you?"

Her golden eyes glinted in the dappled light, and saw a small rat with curly hair standing in a low doorway. There was a fresh quill clutched between the fingers of one paw, and in the other was a small shaft of wood that appeared to have been extensively gnawed upon. She found her beak opening in delight at the sight of a tasty morsel, but her human nature quickly closed those sharp-edged curves.

"I am looking for Habakkuk," she said, trying to sound as harmless as possible. "Is he about?"

The rat shook his head, obviously a little nervous under the watchful gaze of her golden eyes. "He was invited to an early afternoon dinner with Ambassador Yonson. I think you'll find him in the Ambassador's quarters."

The news delighted Jessica as it would give her an excuse to stop by and see Weyden. "Thank you, uh."

"Tallis," the rat supplied.

"Thank you, Tallis," she echoed, bobbing her head, turning those penetrating orbs from the rat's body. She saw out of the corner of her eye his body's tension ebb in relief. Relations at the Keep certainly were more interesting after the curse, she had to grant that. Leaving the Writer's Guild was much easier than entering, and soon, she was out in the bright sunlight again. Pumping her wings, she launched herself into the air, and began to climb back towards the castle proper.

Yonson's apartments were near one of the spire towers in the lower Keep. So Jessica made her way to the battlements, landed after only minute of pumping her wings and gliding, and after a brief nod to the guard, descended the stairs, plunging herself into the half-light of the castle's interior. It only took her a minute of walking across the stone work along the side of the hall - she was afraid to walk on the carpets for fear her talons might scar them - to reach the entrance to the Ambassador's rooms.

Weyden and Maud were standing outside the main doorway, a finely hewn oak structure decorated with cedar panelling depicting the crest of the unicorn. Maud had been a man before the curse, but appeared to be enjoying the feminine side of things, as her frame was not as conservative as many of the women at Metamor chose to keep it. Even so, Jessica found her affable company at times.

Her attention however was not on the female, but on the red-banded hawk who turned a large golden-ember eye towards her, his beak cracking open in a great avian grin. His uniform had been modified to support his wings and tail feathers. He had no need of weapons now, as he could not employ any, his beak and talons served well enough. Weyden did not step towards her, but remained at his post beside the closed entrance, though he did call to her, and unfurl his wings in delight.

"Jessica! What a pleasant surprise."

Her eyes glittered at the sight of him, while Maud gave her a playful wink. "I'm on an errand for my master, Wessex. Is Habakkuk in there?"

"The scribe? Yes, he came by an hour ago, and they've been chattering ever since. I don't imagine that it will last much longer though, as Yonson has to meet with the Duke by the fourth watch. Would you like to wait here, with me?" The last had been spoken hopefully, with an earnestness in his voice that calmed her, and brought out her own bird-grin.

"Yes, that would be nice," she replied, her other worries vanishing.

Weyden turned to Maud, though only slightly, gazing at the other guard with one eye. "Do you mind watching this for a moment. I'm going to talk with Jessica down at the end of the Hall for a bit."

Maud flashed Jessica her mischievous grin. Truly, Jessica could not tell that Maud had not always been a woman, for she exemplified it so well! "Of course, I rather doubt that a raging horde will set siege on our charge's quarters in the next few minutes. Of course if they did, I don't think you'd hear them." And she winked at the two hawks before resuming her post.

Weyden either did not notice the jab, or else he ignored it, for he walked over to Jessica, gently placing his wing against her back, and guiding her down the hall, his head leaned low, almost conspiratorially. "You're looking rather lovely this afternoon, Jessica. Surely the brightest point of my day. You seem happier too."

Jessica could not help but lower her wingtips in a blush at the compliment. "Yes, Wessex is back from his trip to Lorland."

"Safely, I hope?"

"Oh yes, he's quite well, and looking better than he has been in the last month." Now why had she gone and said that?

"Sounds like the rest did him good then," Weyden continued, and she nodded quickly. "But I suppose he's going to need your services more though. I will miss your pretty face."

At that hint, she shook her tail feathers, and let out an excited whisper. "Oh, no, he won't need me for his current studies. So I'll probably have even more time to myself. But you're always here waiting on Yonson, so I suppose it won't matter much."

Weyden wrapped his wing around her even tighter, the full length of his luxuriant feathers encircling her. It was like being hugged by a large warm quilt. "We can work it out. The others are willing to give me a little bit of slack every now and then, and I don't think Yonson himself is all too worried about security anymore."

Jessica felt the excitement bubble up in her chest again. "So, will you be able to come with me to the Lothanasi services tomorrow at the temple?"

Weyden looked slightly abashed, an expression only somebody who knew him well or another avian could detect. "Yes, I will be there, as promised." Jessica, being born and raised in Metamor, had attended the Lothanasi temple regularly every month, usually on the feast days. Weyden, coming from Pyralis, was naturally a Patildor, but had expressed interest in her faith, and so she'd offered to take him to the temple at the next gathering.

She nudged him with her hip, letting out a avian chuckle. It sounded more like a screech, but they both knew it was one given in amusement. "I think you will like it. I've always enjoyed giving thanks to the gods for what we have. Good fortune has smiled on us, for the most part."

The Captain of Yonson's guard glanced down her red chest, full of feathers, curiously. Jessica found clothes to be stifling, and so never wore any unless a casting required it. Weyden only wore the blue surcoat to mark him as servant of the Ambassador, nothing below that. "Do you mean the curses?" She nodded once, and then felt the tip of his sharp beak rush through the feathers on the side of her head coyly, "I never though it a curse myself."

She pushed him away with her wingtip, giggling in merriment at his playfulness. Weyden appeared abashed, and hopped on his talons across to her, and wrapped her once more in his wing, though this time not so closely. "So, which god do you honour this month?"

"Wvelkim, he's the god of the seas," she replied, enjoying the touch of his feathers. "We don't do much for him here at Metamor and that isn't even till the end of the month, but at least it will give you an idea about what we do. You missed the Day of Admission, it was a grand celebration! Meria hin'Dana became a priestess finally. It's good to have more than one Lothanasi priest at the Keep again."

It was clear from the way Weyden cringed slightly at the term "priestess" that his Patildor upbringing still dictated the way he thought. Jessica secretly hoped to change that, though she could not admit it to herself. "Not used to a woman serving as the path between people and the gods?"

Weyden shook his head, "In the Ecclesia it is expressly forbidden."

"The Patildor priest, Father Hough, could have become a woman you know." For some reason, she derived a great deal of pleasure from teasing him like this.

Once more, a mischievous grin spread across his face, the beak opening a bit as he did so. "Maybe Yahshua was with him and insured he would stay a man."

"And maybe Kammoloth decided to show mercy upon an earnest man who had been hurt worse than many," Jessica returned tartly, scratching at the masonry with her claws.

Weyden gazed at her, his mouth still hanging open in that bird-grin, his narrow tongue pressing against the end of his beak. Those golden eyes bore deep into her own for that moment, before he looked away. "Maybe," was all he said.

Jessica found herself involuntarily pressing closer to him, wishing his company, afraid that she had offended him somehow. "Do you still want to come to the temple with me tomorrow evening?" she asked in a quiet voice.

He turned back to face her, rubbing the end of his beak across her own. It was a smooth gesture, one given before she could pull back. "More than ever, my lovely hawk." There was a bit of that assertiveness that she'd seen in him the first day they'd met. He turned her back around, and they began to walk to the Ambassador's apartments. Maud was idly examining the unicorn banner that hung over the transom, while motioning with one hand for them to return. At that moment, Jessica felt a bit dismayed at having to fulfill her master's request.

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