Lineaments of Coming Night

Part II

Thomas admired Alberta’s green bodice between bites of the fresh melon. His eyes only casually skimmed the soft grey fur that crept up from the V of her blouse and along the rather delicate necklace that lay at the nape of her neck. She too was eating of the melon, a tender cantaloupe from Lorland, though her manner was less certain than his own. It was not the first time that they had broken their fast together. In the month since Alberta Alteranoth had changed into an Assingh, they had seen each other once if not twice a week. She always came dressed in a lovely gown of blue or green, though at present she only had two of each. Thomas would have to see that amended.

Alberta still lived with Sir Egland and his squire. Though she was no longer quite so insistent about doing all of the chores from what he had heard. Although she no longer felt out of place in being a woman – in fact it was wholly natural for her now – she was still having difficulty adjusting to being an Assingh. Alberta hailed from the Steppe, as did the Assingh. But while Alberta had grown up amongst the horse clans, the Assingh were the over-large donkeys favoured by the Magyars, wandering nomads that were hated by the horse clans. And so, after healing from the trauma of the first insult the curses had done to her, she was struck with yet another.

But to Thomas’s eyes, her equine form was nothing short of ravishingly captivating. He found that when she was in his presence, he could not take his eyes from her body. The Duke of Metamor would long study the way the dress came down to around her fetlocks, the hem swirling like velvet about her. Every bit of cloth accentuated her grace, and even the long ears that protruded from either side of her tiara only seemed another aspect of her beauty. He longed to run his fingers along those ears and whisper sweet nothings into them.

Lifting the cantaloupe to his supple lips once more, he took another bite down to the rind and let out an ecstatic sigh. “Ah, have you ever tasted anything so full of life, Alberta?” he asked after swallowing.

She sniffed with wide nostrils at her half-eaten piece and offered him a fretting smile. “Aye, Thomas, but ne’er since I changed.”

Hearing her say his name made him smile only the wider. The morning had dawned with a pleasant warmth that was common this time of the year. The Summer Solstice festival had already been underway for a few days, and today was scheduled to be the last. The celebrations and contests were likely already beginning, but Thomas would not put in an appearance until the final joust in a couple hours. Until then, he could enjoy a morning free of matters of state.

And there had been far too many of those of late. Tensions in the Southern Midlands had only continued to grow in the wake of the feud between the Duprés and the Guilfords. And rumours abounded of Questioners roaming the lands, cleaning towns of the Lothanasi. Not to mention that there was a Pyralian noble and black clad stranger that had been travelling through those lands, though who they were they still could not discover.

But what was most tiresome was the presence of his vassals in the Northern Midlands all here at Metamor. It had been Thomas who insisted that they come, as there were matters of war to be discussed. Even so, he found their company irksome, almost as much as he was sure they felt coming to Metamor had been. What talks they’d had so far had been barely sufficient to even scratch the surface of his reason for bringing them here. They each felt the need to make their own grievances known seeking the support of Metamor in this or that matter. Thomas had begun to wonder if he was ever going to be able to accomplish anything at all.

Today he would though. He smiled to Alberta, who returned the gesture, her equine face a revelation to him. Yes, Thomas felt sure, that today he would make some progress with these irksome vassals.

“Thou hast barely said aught to me, Thomas,” Alberta opined after finishing off the meat of the melon. She began to eat the rind as well. “Dost thy mind seek other company?”

Thomas blinked and shook his head, tail swishing distractedly behind him. “Nay, my Alberta, nay. There is much I have been thinking about, but I want to enjoy this morning with you. It saddens me to know that in a few hours it must come to an end regardless. My vassals from the South have so little time that they can afford to be here at Metamor, I must not waste any of it. But I needed to see you. Thank you for accepting my invitation on such short notice.”

Her ears folded backwards along the spiked black mane. A silver tiara rested behind those ears, fixed in place by the rough mane. “I wast honoured to receive thy summons, Thomas. I couldst not hath stayed abed in any place. Sir Egland hath too much excitement to keep still this morn.”

Thomas chuckled lightly, biting off half the rind himself. “Yes, he is in the final joust today, isn’t he? I’m sorry that you could not enter the lists, Dame Alberta.”

Sir Egland had helped her relearn to ride Povunoth after her change. At first she had been clumsy, but now when Thomas saw her on horseback, she was so facile that he could have sworn she’d been born that way. Even so, in so short a time, she could never have trained a squire sufficiently, even if she had possessed one. Sir Egland was optimistic that one of the Followers would seek the knight hood and Dame Alteranoth could take them on as a squire, but so far none had come forward.

“Perhaps I shalt next year,” she mused softly, though there was a doubt in her voice. Thomas had seen the joy in her eyes when she was riding, but he wondered how much of the joy of knighthood remained with her. Had that part of her soul been torn apart too by that evil mage Zagrosek? Her love for horses certainly remained unaffected, but what of the more martial aspects? That had yet to be tested.

Thomas nodded slowly after finishing off the rind. It was the last in their pleasant meal, which meant the time had come to think of other things. The joust was in an hour, and after that, he had an unpleasant meeting with his vassals to consider. Just a bit more time with this lovely equine lady was what he truly wanted. But perhaps there was a way.

“My lady Alteranoth, now that you have broken fast with me, would you do me the additional honour of joining me in my booth to watch the last joust of this Festival?” Thomas felt his heart fluttering up into his throat. Ah, how could her mere presence do this to him? He was like a teenager all over again!

Albeta smiled, and seemed to blush in her ears. Hazel eyes brimmed with a pleased joy. “I wouldst be honoured to attend with thee, my Thomas. I thank thee.”

“Nae, Alberta, the honour is solely mine.” Thomas felt as if every sinew in his body was going to burst into a cascade of spontaneous poetry. “For though I am Duke, the eyes of all will go to thee and thy beauty. I will be magnified by thy radiance, my lady. It is thee who gives honour to others. I thank you!”

Her blush only deepened, but she could not help but smile. She lowered her eyes, hoof-like hands trembling a bit over her plate. “I art...” she began to say reflexively. He was tired of hearing those words.

“Thou art beautiful, Alberta,” Thomas assured her, reaching across the table and clasping one of those hands in his own. He rubbed a hoof-like nail against the back of her hand, disturbing the soft grey pelt there slightly. He drew that hand forward and planted his lips against it, soft and supple, they quickly brushed the hairs back into place. “And don’t ever say otherwise.”

Alberta looked slightly ashamed, but only for a moment. “Thank you, Thomas,” she said after collecting her stammering voice. “Thou art a handsome stallion.”

“Even when I am not Toumoth?” he asked feeling whimsy beginning to overtake him.

“I like hearing thy voice,” she admitted after a moment’s uncertainty. “Thou hath a nice voice when thou wert Toumoth as well.”

At that Thomas laughed. The compulsion that had been brought on by the magical halter was long gone from his mind, but still he remembered those days when he’d desired nothing more than to be her horse. He could still feel the touch of the curry against his hide, or the comb through his mane and tail. Though he could not feel the nails themselves that had been driven into his hooves, he still bore the scars of them, a reminder of what he had nearly become.

And in the days when he’d been her horse, she had called him Toumoth, which had been the Flatlander name closest to Thomas. He still felt a strange affinity for it now, though Alberta had been reluctant to even speak it. He understood though. She did not want to take even a single step down that path again.

“Then it is settled,” Thomas said, returning her hand. “My carriage will convey us to the tourney in an hour. Until then, it is but you and I and the marvellous view from my windows. Would you care to sit in the sun, my lady?”

His flesh trembled once again when she nodded. She smiled, her big teeth visible beneath her thick lips. Ah, he knew right then with a pleased sigh that he could die that very moment and be content.

The halls of Metamor were astir with the visiting dignitaries from the rest of the Northern Midlands, as well as with revellers that were only now awaking from the latest Long House bash. Though the men from the still human lands under Duke Thomas’s control were a bit wary of so many animal people wandering about, they had each loosened somewhat in the few days they had been here. It was hard to remain stiff-necked in the presence of a celebration, and not even the most intolerant could not help but bear a smile from time to time.

So it was a trial for those who were not allowed to participate. The six guards of Ambassador Yonson were some of those whose faces were dour with the denial of a day of rest. Their master had work for them, though it would not be terribly difficult. He had informed them of such last night before letting them loose for their own revelries, but now that the morning had come, it was time to earn their day’s bread.

They were dressed in the blue livery bearing the unicorn heraldry of the du Tournemire household. Yonson however bore his purple robe declaring him to be a mage. His golden eyes shined brightly in his face, large like two brilliant discs. A confidant smile was upon his lips, and he moved with a fluid grace born from years of practice.

They reached a circular section of the Keep facing a wide doorway, beyond which a set of circular stairs wound upwards. The room was not overly large. Benches lined the opposing walls, and their were four brands burning in sconces at each point of the compass. Above the portal leading to the stairwell was a placard with the picture of a bell and rope.

Yonson turned just before the doorway and held up his paws. “I need you to wait here and prevent anyone from disturbing me. The spells I will be casting are complicated, and I need time to make sure that they take hold. I have two companions that will be joining me, and you will let them through when they arrive.”

“Who are they?” Weyden asked in a squawk. Unlike the others, he bore only a blue vest, as his hawk body prevented him from wearing anything more cumbersome. Around his neck hung the Dokorath pendant that Jessica had given him a little over a month ago to symbolize his new found dedication to the Lothanasi god of war. The other guards often joked about him joining the pagans, and he returned the favour by asking why they weren’t doing so as well.

“A man and a woman. They will identify themselves as being in the Marquis’s service. You may remember them in fact, though I do not think you have met them more than once.”

“So they are not cursed as are we?” Maud asked. She was the only one of their number to be struck by the gender curse, but whatever agony that had caused her was no longer apparent. In fact, Weyden had seen her and the giraffe Larssen in a state of unseemly undress once a few weeks back. Given enough time, people could adapt to anything he supposed.

“No,” Yonson replied, his smiling eyes meeting her briefly. “No, they have not been cursed. But I need their help in this casting. Though it is just a simple thing, they will aid me in a way no others can. But only those two are you to allow through. I have been given permission for the exclusive use of the Belfry this day by Duke Thomas, and none may interfere without my permission. Do you understand?”

“Of course, Ambassador,” Weyden said, standing a bit taller. Larssen was carrying the block of wood that he would need to use as a perch so that he would remain comfortable standing in one place for a long time. But for a few minutes he could easily tolerate scrapping his talons against the masonry. “We will let none pass except the two you have instructed us to let through.”

“Excellent! Thank you. It has been a strange year for us since we came here to Metamor. Let us hope the years to come are not so momentous.” There was a light chuckle from the guards at that. “But no matter what happens, I don’t think we will ever have to worry about Metamor becoming mundane.” His muzzle parted in a clever smile, and then he lowered his eyes distractedly. There was a strange sort of weariness that crossed his face for a moment.

“Remember your duty. With luck, I shall be finished before sunset.” And then Yonson turned and began to climb the stairs beyond.

Weyden watched him go for a moment, and then lifted one wing. “Put my perch there if you would, Larssen.” The giraffe nodded. Their companion had gained a full two feet of height after his change and now towered above them all. Thankfully, the ceilings were high enough that he rarely had to duck his head.

When the log had been placed down next to the wall on the right side of the doorway, Weyden stepped on top of it, his talons digging in deep. It was a far more natural position for his legs. Just one of the many changes the Keep had made in him. It had been hard at first, but he’d had a good teacher in Jessica. Now, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Even as the other guards moved into position about the room, settling in for a long day of nothing, Weyden contented himself with pleasant thoughts of what he and his hawk might do afterwards.

“James!” the excited squirrel called out across the Deaf Mule. The donkey morph looked up from where he sat by himself eating a meal of stewed carrots. The squirrel that was calling out to him was decidedly familiar, though it surprised him greatly that he’d been recognized.

At first, James had suspected something that in retrospect seemed impossible. He had thought that somebody he’d known back before he’d followed Matthias out to Glen Avery had recognized him and was glad to see him. When he’d lived at Metamor, he’d been an assistant to one of the merchants selling various meats and sausages in the marketplace. Those few who had known him well were killed in the assault, and the rest who might have recognized him were likely upset that the meat they sold was not always fresh.

He should have known though that he was not the only one from the Glen to have come to Metamor to enjoy the festival. The squirrel was none other than Lord Brian Avery. He was dressed in the garb of a merchant though, which explained the donkey’s confusion. However, he pondered why the Lord of the Glen would bother hiding his identity. It was not as if he were well known in Metamor anyway. He came here perhaps two or three times a year at most.

“Lord Avery,” James said as the squirrel fought his way between two crowded tables. His ears were lifted completely and he smiled some. “I didn’t recognize you.”

“And don’t,” Avery said with a dour expression on his face. He squeezed in next to James, drawing his seat so close that he nearly crushed his heavy tail between them. But he deftly managed to manoeuver it around the back of the chair in time. “I wasn’t planning on coming here this year.”

James frowned a bit and shifted in his seat to make a little more room for his sworn liege. “I... I did not know. I thought you might have come to see Charles in the tourney like me.”

Lord Avery smirked slightly, his long tail lashing back and forth. A few Keepers behind them laughed at some joke of their own and nearly toppled back into that tail. “He has done well. I hope he is not seriously thinking of becoming a knight. We don’t have much use for them at the Glen.”

“Well,” James said, glancing about the familiar tap room of the Deaf Mule. It had been a long time since he’d been here. Even when he’d lived at Metamor he’d not come here too often, being unable to afford the cost of a meal and a drink by himself. Now, he had enough money working for Jurmas, Lars, and Charles, that he was able to indulge once in a while. “He has said that he wants to move back to Metamor and raise his family there too.”

Lord Avery snorted. “We shall see about that. They aren’t going anywhere while they have young children, I know that much.”

“That’s what Kimberly said,” James replied.

“And well they shouldn’t,” Lord Avery groused, looking about the room suspiciously with shifty eyes. “I understand Charles wants his children not to gawk when they see a city. But I thought there was more of the woods in him than the city. I wonder if I was wrong.”

“I don’t think you are wrong,” James said at last. “I grew up here at Metamor, and was very uncertain about moving to Glen Avery at first. But now I’m very glad I did. I can’t really think of a time when I’ve been happier... milord.”

Avery gave him a withering glance. “None of that now. But thank you. I am glad that you have found life in our woods so enjoyable. I think you will be a fine warrior one day. Angus says that you are progressing well with the long sword.”

James patted the scabbard buckled at his side. He smiled, letting some of his pride show. “So why are you here? You said you didn’t want to come this year.”

“I was summoned by the Duke. I wish I could say more, James, but there really isn’t much to say so far. The lords of the rest of the Northern Midlands are here as well, so absolutely nothing is being accomplished. I think they should all be marched to the Glen and dangled by their ankles for a few minutes. That should get some sense into them.”

James was quite surprised by the vehemence in the squirrel’s voice. He didn’t really know any of the other lords even by reputation, so just assumed that they had to be very stupid people to incense the squirrel so.

“Sorry,” Brian said and shook his head. “I am down here, as you might have wondered, to escape that for a time. I need to return after the tourney ends, and I am not looking forward to that. Would you mind some company to cheer our friend Matthias on?” The Lord of the Glen lifted his eyes and chittered ever so slightly as a grin came over his muzzle.

Looking into those dark, but oddly bright eyes, James could not help welcome the company. “Of course. It’ll be nice to have somebody I know there with me.”

“We have to go soon if we want to be able to sit close enough to see what happens.”

James tapped his plate with the fork clutched in his hoof-like fingers. “Do you mind if I finish eating first?” So saying he stuffed a hunk of carrot between his teeth and began to chew quickly.

The squirrel waved his paws in the air before him, leaning back in his seat, using his long fluffy tail as a cushion. “By all means! Eat!” He laughed then, though his voice was lost in the din of the Deaf Mule’s crowded taproom.

The main road that followed the river north through the valley towards Metamor was travelled daily. Many days there were only a few wagons at most making the long journey up the valley to Metamor. Many were merchants from the southern end of the valley, all already cursed like those at the Keep. Produce from the farms at Lorland, unrefined ores and stone from the mines, or even the occasional bit of lumber – though the timber crews usually focussed their attention on the thicker and older forests to the North of the Keep.

But during the festivals, there were always many who set out on the road to Metamor. And with so many filling the streets of Metamor, the merchants would come, braver and bolder in this time, knowing that they would return home with bags laden with gold, or at least silver. Some came to Metamor during the festivals out of curiosity, to see the city of animal men for themselves, and to learn whether there really were any demons or not. And there were always some that would make a journey for reasons so inscrutable they could never have explained them in time before the curse made them an involuntary resident.

Sharing the road, people and wagons did their best not to mind each other. Some few met upon the road and talked of where they had come from and the business they had in Metamor. But many simply ignored their fellow travellers, thoughts only on what they intended to do in that strange cursed city. Some, in keeping with the festival dressed themselves in bold bright colours, so that even the most disinterested would not fail to notice them as their carriages brought them to that city. Others preferred clothes that while less garish, were still quite elegant and festive. But many lacked the means to look more than ordinary, and so wore plain clothes on their voyage. Few were cloaked fully in black to hide their features.

But there were two figures who walked along that road with slow solemn determination. Their purpose was their own, and they did not speak to any they shared the road with. Side by side they walked, though from time to time, the male did rest one arm across the female’s shoulders. A curious merchant at one point glanced back at them as he made his way up the road, and saw tight faces beneath their black cowls. The woman’s was also clearly scarred. The merchant, feeling a terrible sense of unease, made his journey to Metamor all the faster.

Even so, few noticed those two as they walked along the road, the brilliant spires of Metamor rising not too far now in the North. The sun shone at their backs, standing above the eastern peaks. The mountains shimmered in the sun’s light, the snow-topped summits glimmering like spikes of pearl. The air was fresh and vibrant, green leaves sprouting in a vast profusion of life from every tree. The sky was a clear blue, with only a few wispy mare’s tails lingering far above. Warmth suffused the road, a comforting one that let travellers feel as if they were subtly being stroked like a cat.

The two strangers continued on their way, eyes ever focussed upon the towers of Metamor that crested the line of trees like upthrust daggers. They walked with an unerring sense of purpose. Occasionally, one of them would lift their head and gaze at the tallest tower of Metamor. Their eyes would linger for a moment, and then they would return to following the road.

They would be there soon enough.

The Dancing Seahorse Inn was a modest to well-to-do establishment that flanked the cliff-side walls of the city. From out the wide terraced windows Marquis Camille du Tournemire could see the rocky beaches and the long wharfs that housed a considerable number of galleons of the Whalish Navy. The rooms they were given were some of the finest, the walls bright in hue and decorated with vibrant frescoes, mostly of sea vessels astride a peaceful sea, though one of them was in the midst of a battle launching a brilliant ball of yellow flame at a dark enemy. An array of recently upholstered couches framed the main windows over looking the sea, with a stone table set before them. There was a platter of fresh fruit on the table. Vases of freshly picked flowers sat upon pillars around the room.

As they were overlooking the cliff-side walls, they could not see any activity in the streets of Whales. But they were afforded a good view of the wharf-side district. Merchant carts were moving along that broad avenue, and already numerous stalls had been set up enticing the returning or visiting sailors with a bit of pleasure before they returned to the sea’s celibate embrace. Of the sailors who enjoyed such company, it was more often than not men from other nations. There were rules about such behaviour for men serving in the Whalish Navy after all. Though they were less strictly enforced in ports away from the Isle itself.

But the most activity was to be found, as one might expect, at the wharves themselves. Already in the single hour that the Marquis had been reclining on the couch upon the veranda overlooking the cliffs and sea, three vessels had left port and sailed out into the open sea. One of them had sailed to the west, but the other two had gone east. He had quickly lost sight of them. A fourth ship was being readied, the last few crates being lowered by a rather irate foreman into the hold. Sailors were perched in the rigging, going over each knot one last time before they unfurled the sails. There was a steady wind coming down out of the city. None of them had yet needed their oars to leave the bay.

Of the fruit provided, the Marquis had selected a pomegranate, and was idly eating the juicy insides while he scanned the wharves with one eye. The other was intent upon the cards displayed before him on the stone table. He had arranged his deck face up. He knew better than to meddle with them so soon after leaving the seas, but it was safe enough to watch them. Strange forces were at work, and he could see them in those simple surfaces and intricate faces.

Each of his cards, apart from the aces, featured a pictograph of one person, usually in a telling pose. The poses changed from time to time, depending on the nature of the individual displayed. Some of the characters displayed were lifeless, and only vaguely resembled the person they were supposed to emulate. But some were lifelike. In fact, some of them were so real, they threatened to step out of the card and onto the table.

The Marquis smiled, and continued eating his pomegranate. The flavour was succulent and cool. Events were developing in his cards. The suit of Hearts especially interested him. Apart from three cards, all of them had gathered into a clump with three of the high ranking Swords. Only the King, Five and Four of Hearts were elsewhere in the pile. The Four, featuring a child wizard, had darkened at every edge, the inky blackness creeping and poisoning the entire figure. That one was already out of play.

The Five displayed a Sondecki of the black with his hands outstretched. He was a broad man with big bones and determined face. Yet he was sitting closer to the King of Coins than any of the other hearts. The King of Coins was a familiar man dressed standing before a red brick building, the silhouette of a wolf’s head along that wall. He had moved, but in a way that was subtle. This bothered him only slightly.

The King of Hearts though had moved so far away from the rest of the cards that it was nearly out of play as well. The figure upon it was dressed in a dark cowl, though he had pearly white skin and very angular features beneath his smooth, almost alien façade. The Marquis did not know who it depicted, a fact that concerned him. Still, he knew that the card’s identity would be revealed in time, and so was patient.

Of the other suits, many of the cards in the suit of Spades had diverged into two different piles. To his consternation, two of the cards had managed to slide themselves beneath others. He was loath to move them, because he knew that could alter what he saw, especially when they were still so temperamental. But he knew that both the King and Ten of Spades were hiding themselves. He had not been able to see the King in some time, but now that the Ten had also obscured itself, he could not help but ponder why this was so. He suspected it had something to do with the old seer depicted in the Queen. He had dealt with her on the voyage, though he could sense she was still curious. But she was not groping, and had for days not even touched the cards. She would regret it severely if she ever touched them again.

The Marquis closed his eyes for a moment and let the scent of the salt air fill him. He remembered that the Ten had once belonged to a squire, but that his attire had changed the last time he had seen him. Apparently he had switched sides in whatever conflict was taking place far to the east, for he now dressed in the multi-coloured garb that so dominated the suit of Spades. An odd occurrence. When he returned to the mainland, he would have to study the cards more to understand why.

A hard rapping on the wide doorway brought his eyes open. “Your grace?” Vigoureux’s voice called out from the other side. “There is a messenger from his highness here to see you.”

The Marquis set the pomegranate to one side and then swept the cards back into his hand. He tilted back the mahogany case, and carefully lowered the deck into its soft confines. With a whispering touch, he lowered the lid shut and then latched it in place. He took another deep breath, feeling the brine fill his lungs like pinpricks of energy. “Let him in.”

The doorway opened, but the Marquis did not yet turn his head. He could hear two pairs of boots step through, but one was the familiar plodding gait of his Steward. The other was crisper, and had a bit of the swagger he’d grown used to hearing from the sailors. This man had once served in the Whalish Navy.

“Your grace,” the man said in a hard voice that managed at the same time to be as smooth as silk. It was an interesting blend. The accent was deeply Whalish, with its hard corners but fluid vowels. When they spoke the image of a storm tossed vessel came to view, hard men adrift in the ever changing sea.

The Marquis turned his head, but did not rise. The man was older, his hair graying, and his cheeks were pitted from the lashing of the ocean. But his body was taut with muscle, and his stance was unshakable. “My name is Pythoreas, Commodore of the Navy, and now Councilor to the King. I am here at the behest of his highness, Prince Phillip. You have requested an audience with his highness, yet he regrets to inform you that he is very busy with matters of state and has sent me in his place. What may we do for you, your grace?”

The Marquis did rise then, and gestured at the chair opposite his own place on the couch. “I am grateful that you have come so quickly, Pythoreas. Please sit, this will but take a moment.”

Pythoreas nodded gratefully and in three long strides had reached the chair. He sat down with his back perfectly straight. Camille idly wondered how long it had been since this man had served in the Navy. He had lost none of the discipline. “I am however,” the Marquis said as he took his own seat once more, “disappointed that my request for an audience was denied. What I have to say is of critical importance to the safety of all naval vessels, not only of my own kingdom, but also of Whales.”

“Whatever you have to say, I will make sure that his highness hears of it.”

“Ah, but when shall he hear of it?” He smiled ever so slightly. “Though I am merely a Marquis, and far below in station your Prince Phillip and King Tenomides, I do know that a message delivered to a servant, no matter how accomplished that servant may be, often will arrive later than the bearer of the message would like.”

If Pythoreas was offended by the suggested lack of timeliness, he did not show it.“I can assure you, your grace, I will make sure that any message you wish to send reaches his highness before the sun has set this day.”

The Marquis nodded, and looked out across the sea. He gestured with the wave of his left hand at the wharves. “When do you launch the most vessels, Pythoreas? At morning or in the evening?”

“The morning,” Pythoreas replied immediately. “It is always easier to sail during the daylight, especially when you need to follow the coastline.”

“And if I bear a message as urgent as I say, when would his highness be more capable of sending messages to other ships in the fleet? Now, or towards evening.”

Pythoreas frowned at that. “If your message is so important, than I will interrupt his highness to pass it along as soon as we are finished here.”

But the Marquis only smiled to his companion. “My message is so important, that I will only give it to his highness himself.”

“I suppose you intend to be obdurate in this?” Pythoreas asked, obviously unhappy now.

“That is the case, yes.” He allowed his smile to fade. “I know you do not wish to interrupt his highness out of respect and duty. You are to be commended for it, Pythoreas. But what I know can wait for no man. Please, convey me straightaway to his highness. I do not exaggerate when I say that all of the world may hang in the balance.”

Pythoreas pondered for a moment, and then nodded. He rose back to his feet, and gestured towards the door. “I have a litter waiting, if you would like to ride back to the castle with me.”

“That would suit me nicely, thank you. I would like my men to accompany me.”

“Of course, your grace. Follow me.”

Marquis Camille du Tournemire followed without another word after the Commodore. Sir Autrefois was waiting outside in the hall, and walked at his side. His Steward ran back into the room and filled a small bag with a few things, including the mahogany case. He hoped that he would not need it, but he did not believe in taking chances.

There was a second entrance to the Dancing Seahorse that allowed the patrons with the proper key to leave without passing through the common room. It fed out onto the main street, a narrow thoroughfare only a short distance from the main road through the city of Whales. A two horse carriage was waiting outside, the driver a young chap also of straight back and strong physique.

“Titus, we’ll be returning to the castle straightaway,” Pythoreas said, even as he opened the carriage doors for the Pyralians. The Marquis smiled warmly as he stepped inside. The interior was not posh, though it was comfortable.

“Yes, Commodore,” the boy said with the familiar crisp Whalish accent.

Soon, all four of them were inside the wagon. Vigoureux set the small bag between his legs when he sat down, reclining as if he had worked a full day’s labour. Sir Autrefois sat at the Marquis’s left just as straight backed as Pythoreas. The two soldiers stared at each other for a moment, clearly inspecting each other respectfully.

No sooner had the carriage door been shut they heard the crack of the driver’s whip, and they began their bumpy though cozy ascent through the streets of Whales. After a moment, they turned onto the main road, and they could hear the clamour of voices over the grinding of the wheels and the clopping of horseshoes on cobblestones.

None of the Pyralians spoke, so it was up to Pythoreas, after a minute’s silence, to begin their conversation anew. “The ship you disembarked from this morning. Was it not returning from the Sea of Stars?”

“Yes. It put into port in Sutthaivasse a week ago. We three boarded then.”

“The journey from Tournemire to Sutthaivasse is a long one over land.”

“But through pleasant country,” Camille countered. “Tell me, Commodore, have you ever set foot in my country?”

Pythoreas nodded, a bit of pride slipping into his eyes. “I have been to many of its seaside cities during my years with the Navy.”

“Ah, but have you ventured through the many fields and forests it has to offer? Have you gone beyond the touch of the sea? The land changes when you leave the sea behind, and the people change with it.” The Marquis turned his eyes out the side of the carriage. Many of the homes possessed open windows and doorways. The air was warm here at Whales. “It is really quite beautiful.”

Pythoreas shrugged his shoulders. “I never liked the taste of air if there wasn’t brine in it.”

“Spoken like a true sailor,” The Marquis nodded his head in approval, and then resumed his idle inspection of the city. The homes were modest, most of them set back from the main street a short distance. A few indolent souls had climbed atop their roofs and were laying in the light of the morning sun like lizards basking themselves on rocks.

If Pythoreas had anything more he wished to ask, he did his best not to give that impression. It took ten minutes before they reached the castle itself, and those ten minutes were spent in silent communion with the road. They grew accustomed to its bumps and pits. Even the clopping of the horse’s hooves became nothing more than a counterpoint to their jostling.

The castle itself was not a terribly ostentatious conglomeration of towers as Metamor was. It was built primarily for defence, and the numerous turrets and battlements were a testament to that. Along the cliff-side ramparts, he could see the edge of the Whalish trebuchets, though these did not spit rocks, but a fire that burned and crawled over flesh and water alike. The outer bailey was long and narrow, and they rode through it quietly. Long notches marred the wall, behind which archers undoubtedly waited. The inner bailey was an expansive courtyard on the other side of the ramparts, the ground grassy in patches, though mostly rock.

The castle compound was a minute’s ride across the courtyard. There was a stables and livery off to one side, and the Marquis could see a score of soldiers practising their swordsmanship in one corner. A few glanced at the wagon, but most paid it no mind. On the other side, and extensive garden had been grown, and there were several pools in which exotic fish swam.

The castle overlooking the city was made up of several wide, squat towers, as well as two larger ones that rose up in the rear. Beyond the castle was the first mount of Whales, though it dropped sharply away on all sides, to a lower lying fields and hills. Forests could be seen in the distance, with tall straight trees that nevertheless looked to be retreating ever so slowly from the castle.

The carriage pulled to a stop in front of wide doors that had been secured open. Two soldiers flanked either side. Wide white columns supported the porte cochère, which was only moderately decorative. “Here we are, your grace,” Commodore Pythoreas announced. He rose from his seat, and opened the carriage door, holding it open for the others. Marquis Camille du Tournemire stepped out first, smiling widely as he stood before the castle finally. The guards all saluted upon seeing the old sailor and he was quick to salute them back.

“This way,” Pythoreas announced, guiding them into the main hall. It was not highly decorative. Where in the northern lands tapestries were common, here frescoes lined the walls and the vaulted ceilings. Most were nautical in origin, though one or two depicted some scene from the Lothanasi mythology.

Pythoreas led them up several flights of stairs and into narrower halls. There was a soft carpeting along the floor, muffling their footsteps. It seemed to lead them to the end of a long hallway and the large brass door at its end. Guards stood at either side who nodded to the Commodore instead of saluting. “Is his highness within?” Pythoreas asked.

“With Lothanas Lycias,” one of them, the older of the two, replied. Both were still in their teens.

Pythoreas lifted the large knocker and struck it against the door three times. The door did not creak as it was opened a moment later by a large simian dressed in the orange of the Marines. He stared at Pythoreas in surprise, but his brow furrowed as he scrutinized the three men behind him.

“Rupert, forgive this intrusion,” the Commodore said, holding out his hands to forestall any argument. “But his grace, the Marquis Camille du Tournemire, has news of grave importance that his highness should hear immediately.”

Rupert held out one hand, motioning for them to wait. He closed the door behind him and in the silence of the warmly lit hall, they waited. A moment later the door opened widely, the great ape holding it back, his face no longer quite so suspicious.

The Marquis had been mildly surprised to see somebody cursed in the manner of Metamor here at Whales, but on reflection, he knew that he should not have. He had heard of this ape before after all. And of course, Phil was a white rabbit.

The room beyond the door was a solar, with sky windows opened to the morning air in the ceiling above. The southern wall opened onto a broad balcony overlooking the sea. The tang of salt permeated the air. Soft cushions lined a wide circular depression in the centre of the room. Frescoes lined the walls, these being strangely serene depictions of the Whalish countryside and ships in calm seas. A wooden chair with claw marks rent into the sides was set in the middle of the depression, and in that seat sat the Prince of Whales. Across from him amongst the cushions was an older man in white clerical robes.

“Your highness, I present his grace, the Marquis Camille du Tournemire.” Pythoreas stepped out of the way and gestured behind him.

The Marquis strode forward, smiling warmly to the large rabbit that stood upon the chair. “It is a great honour to meet you, your highness. And to be received so quickly. I apologize for interrupting your schedule, but what I have to say cannot wait.”

The rabbit’s ears shifted slightly. “Do come in, Marquis. I am afraid that I can only see you for a few minutes now. Perhaps in a few days I will have time to talk with you at greater length. So do please state what news you bring and we shall see about a longer audience.” There was no malice in the tone. He did seem harried and a bit out of breath, but this did not surprise him.

The Marquis nodded, standing at the edge of the depression. He smiled amicably down at the Lothanas who regarded him with that warm fellowship that priests often mastered. “I believe what I have to say will be of interest to you as well, Lothanas. I am glad that you are already here.”

Lycias beckoned him closer. “Please sit while you speak, Marquis. You have journeyed long to speak with his Highness. Do so while you are comfortable.”

He glanced once to the rabbit, who nodded in welcome. “Thank you. Your graciousness exceeds your reputation.” The Marquis’s manner lost some of its joviality then. “I wish that I could enjoy it under less trying times. I fear we may all become a little less hospitable in the days ahead.”

He came around the edge of the depression and then took a seat a short distance from the Lothanas. Together, the three of them, Tournemire, Lycias, and Prince Phil, formed the edges of a perfect triangle. “Your Highness, your Eminence, I am afraid that the danger that is presently stirring is partly my own fault. I do not believe that you will know of what I speak, Lothanas, but I feel sure that you shall, your Highness.”

One of Phil’s ears lowered then. “Please, I eschew titles when I can. When you are here in this solar, it is just Phil.” His feet dug into the chair as he sat on his haunches. Where other Metamorians were more or less humanoid, even if resembling an animal, Phil was shaped more like a rabbit, though of unusually large size.

“Very well, Phil. You will know of what I speak. So too should your aid. The news I bring has to do with a certain golden censer. Bedecked with jewels, and having nine sides to its base, each face featuring a strange symbol. Into the sides are carved pictures of demons raping innocents. And this censer cannot be controlled, for it is a force of evil beyond description. You saw this censer, did you not?”

Phil’s eyes had widened from the first word, and had only grown in size with each passing syllable. His ears were completely erect, and his body had stiffened. A look of wild panic filled those eyes, but the prince fought it bravely. Finally, his voice mastered, he called out, “Rupert, clear my schedule for the remainder of the day. Lycias, I apologize, but we must continue our discussion later.”

“If you do not mind, I would like to hear of this too,” the Lothanas asked.

“And you should,” Marquis Camille du Tournemire agreed. His voice was grave as he continued. “I fear that whether you want to or not, very soon we will all hear of it.”

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