Lots - Part V

How is she, Brian?” Sir Egland asked as the Healer let them into the main rooms. At least half-a-dozen doors led off from the main meeting area where Healer Coe saw his patients. Two of the doors led to hallways with several more quarters set off them, and another was Coe’s private rooms, but aside from that, Egland knew little else. He’d been in one of those little rooms himself for a time after the Patriarch’s death and his own injuries. His new legs were so different from the ones that had been crushed beneath Galadan’s body that he scarcely thought of them as the same legs.

“She’s resting, but two hours ago she underwent another change.” The raccoon glanced over the three figures that had come. Saulius had asked to come see her after they had talked for a time, and Intoran had insisted on coming too. Egland had no desire to argue with either of them, and so off they went.

“Another change?” Egland asked, feeling te fur on the back of his neck lifting. His tail involuntarily flicked upwards. He hated it when it did that.

“Yes,” Coe continued, gesturing for them to follow him down the hallway towards her chambers. “Her changes come in short bursts. Very painful burst to judge from her screaming. But I think we can safely say in general what she is becoming.”

“What pray tell might that be?” Saulius asked as he followed along, standing side by side with te elk knight. Intoran trailed a few paces after them, being only a squire.

“I’ll show you,” Coe replied, opening the door and ushering them inside.

Egland looked immediately for the bedside. There was still a bit of light coming in through the window, so her face was clear while the rest of her remained beneath the bedsheets. But the face that lay upon the pillow was not the face of Alberta Bryonoth at all. The entire shape of her head had changed, as if her face was beginning to melt and slide down across her neck. Her ears had glided up further along her head, already longer, and completely covered now, both inside and out, in short brown fur. Her hair, once long, had shortened some, the individual hairs stiffening and thickening. Her lips had darkened, and were nearly black, while her nose had flattened out until only the flared nostrils remained. The bridge of her nose was thick and heavy, and fur was beginning to show along it as well.

But the visage was mistakable to none of them, and there was an almost dry chuckling that escaped one of them, though Egland wasn’t sure who. “An equine,” he said at last, looking over to where Coe stood with arms crossed near the bedside. “She’s becoming equine.”

“Yes. Her toes have merged into hooves, and she’s already lost her little finger now. I know she also has about six inches worth of tail, and there is fur in patches over her whole body. But the face is all you really need to see to know.”

Saulius was looking at her the most critically of any of them. Despite that, the Steppe born knight’s eyes were seemingly far away. As if looking at her equine shaped head had taken him to another time and place. “Hast she woken?”

“Not that I have seen,” Coe replied, his voice dry. “The only time that she has been awake is when she’s been changing so far as I can tell. If she’s been awake at any other time, she has done nothing but lie in this bed.”

“How much longer until she’s finished changing?” Intoran asked as he stood close by to Egland.

“Another day or two at most I expect. It looks about half completed to me.”

Egland sighed and stepped to the bedside, his hooves clattering against the masonry beneath him. He rested one hand upon the bedsheets, right over where her arm would be. “Well, at least it will be equine. That much will please her. Before she changed the first time, she said she’d wanted to be a horse. Well, he’d said.”

Saulius bore a grim expression as he peered at her form. He took a deep breath, but did not break his gaze. “When I didst come to Metamor, I didst hope to be a horse as well. It wast many years ere I learned that there is honour in being a rat too. I hath my squire, and Sir Maugnard to thank for that. I shouldst visit him this eve.”

“Who?” Intoran asked, a strange note of alarm in his voice.

“Sir Andre Maugnard. I didst joust against him in the last tourney.”

“You’ve met Sir Maugnard,” Egland reminded the oryx. “Remember? The wolverine? His wife Jenn is a wolverine too.”

“Ah!” Intoran replied a smile breaking over his muzzle. “Didn’t I accidentally slight his faith too?”

“Yes,” Egland nodded, chuckling lightly, though the mirth was forced. “And that’s why you haven’t seen him in a while. He’ll forgive you eventually. Wolverine’s are prickly but they don’t hold grudges.”

“I wilt partake of thy hospitality tomorrow evening, and every evening until Dame Alberta shouldst wake. But tonight I must call upon my old friend and knight.” He took one last look at Alberta and her altered features, and then nodded to the elk. “I bid thee good evening, Sir Egland. Intoran.”

“Good evening, Sir Saulius,” Egland replied, as did the oryx. Coe said nothing, but watched the rat leave and shut the door behind him. The raccoon looked back at the sleeping form with arms crossed.

Egland let his hoof-like hand comb through her hair once, and then he brushed the back of his hand over her forming muzzle. She stirred only slightly, but her eyes remained shut. Sighing, the elk turned and nodded to Intoran. “We should be going as well.”

“She’ll be all right,” Intoran said, offering his master a smile. Egland returned it and nodded slowly. As long as she was becoming a horse, he had no doubt that his squire was right. Just let it be a horse, he prayed quietly to himself.

The two hawks were perched upon a thick log they’d braced against the tower crenellations when Raven found them at last. After meeting with Egland, she’d returned to the temple to take her meal. Shortly after a few words of instruction with the acolytes and another couple hours pondering what she’d heard from the Patildor knight, she’d received the note from Jessica.

It was always a delight to hear from the hawk. She was one of the most promising magicians that had been born in the Valley in years, and to see her blossoming in those arts as well as the faith was a delight to the priestess. But now the hawk had asked to speak with her about Alberta, and had invited her up to the tower where she was spending the afternoon.

Normally, Raven would be put off by the effrontery shown by asking her to come to them. But some, like Jessica, were afforded more leeway because they always gave their all when Raven called upon them. If ever she should ask the hawk to risk her life to defend Metamor, she would do it without hesitation.

But Raven was surprised to see two hawks instead of one perched there before the crenellations looking out over the city. They were not in the highest tower to be sure – the Belfry was still twenty or thirty feet above them – but they were higher up than the wolf liked. “Jessica,” she called, and the two hawks turned their heads. “Weyden,” she said, nodding to the second. There could be no doubt as to who it was. The two were almost inseparable.

“Lothanasa,” Weyden called out in a delighted and reverent voice. She found the Ambassador’s Captain to be a pleasant fellow, who was quite earnest in his desire to become a Lothanasi. She could see that he was wearing a medallion to Dokorath now, the ram horned helmet was unmistakable. It was fitting for a guard, but she could not help wondering how much trouble that caused him amongst the Ambassador’s other guards, all of whom were still Patildor.

“Lothanasa,” Jessica said, her screeching voice still managing to convey delight. “I’m glad you could come. Is it not lovely from up here?”

“Yes, it is,” Raven nodded as she stood several feet from the edge. “Do you both come here often?”

“Oh,” Weyden said, his beak parting in an avian grin, “We try to spend a little time together up here from time to time. I happened to run into Jessica here as she was coming up, and so we came together.”

Raven smiled a bit, blue eyes pointedly studying Weyden. “I see you’ve a new medallion there.”

Weyden’s grin widened, and Jessica’s eyes beamed with pride. “Yes! To Dokorath. Jessica had it made for me and gave it to me as a birthday present a few days ago.” He turned to look at her, and brushed his beak across her own in what must have passed for a kiss between them.

“Weyden, you know I’m glad to have you join our faith. But I must ask. How does Ambassador Yonson and the guards under your command feel about this? Surely they do not like you abandoning the Patildor.”

Weyden’s feathers ruffled some and he cast golden eyes upon Jessica, but her own were full of confidence in him. It was a look that Raven had seen many times before. The two were completely in love with each other, and nothing could tear them apart. No wonder Weyden had been so willing to convert, to what must have seemed to him at first, a pagan religion. He would have given anything up for her. It was strange how men would do anything for love. A brief flash of a certain minstrel lupine came to her mind just then, and the priestess shook her head to dislodge it.

“Well,” the hawk began, as if he had prepared for the answer, but lost the speech and was now trying to call it back from memory. “None of them has ever really been the type to think anybody not a Patildor as a foul being. Otherwise Yonson wouldn’t have selected them for his guards. And Yonson’s a fairly cosmopolitan sort. He is religious in so far as he believes, but his beliefs are for himself. He’s not too worried about what anybody else believes, as long as it doesn’t prevent them from doing their job.

“Besides,” Weyden added, as one of his wings circled behind Jessica and pulled her closer to him. “Not a one of them can blame me. Jessica is the most divine creature on Earth, Lothanasa. And if she is Lothanasi, then I had better be too, cause the divine know better about what’s going on in Heaven.” He nuzzled her beak to beak once more, and Raven had to admit a bit of amusement at his reasoning.

“Well, I’m very glad to see you two so happy together. But I need to speak to Jessica alone for now.”

Weyden bobbed his head. “Of course, Lothanasa!” He set one talon on the edge of the crenellation and beak nuzzled Jessica one last time. “I’ll see you later tonight.” He then leapt off the side of the tower, spreading his wings as he fell. Raven felt her heart thrum in panic for a moment before his wings caught the air and he swooped back up out of his dive. Only at Metamor, she reassured herself before turning to the other hawk.

“So, Misha asked you to speak to his sister about all of this?”

Jessica shifted about on the log and nodded, golden eyes never leaving the wolf. Their stillness had been unsettling six years ago when they had all been adjusting to the curse. But now it was just another part of who Jessica was. “Well, Rickkter asked Misha to ask me to do this. I only know that something’s happened to Dame Bryonoth, but I don’t know what.”

“Well, the curse is claiming her again,” Raven said, still watching the swooping hawk some distance away now with one eye. “And we are trying to figure out why. We want to know if Elizabeth can provide any further insight.”

“I will speak to her. Just tell me everything I should tell her and I will meet with her tomorrow.” She turned her head sideways, and her chest seemed to expand. It was hard sometimes not seeing her as the bird she so looked like. “I already promised I’d spend the evening with Weyden.”

Raven saw the look of longing in those golden eyes and nodded. “Has he proposed to you yet?”

“No,” she replied wistfully. “But I know it can’t be much longer off.”

“His fealty is to the Ambassador first, Jessica.”

“I know,” there was an audible sigh, but there was hope in it still. “But the curses have made him as much a Metamorian as the rest of us, Lothanasa.”

“If there is any time a man will give up his country is if a woman asks him,” Raven said softly. “But to more immediate matters, you wanted to speak to Elizabeth. Very well, here is what you shall tell her.”

Jessica turned her gaze back once more and listened intently to the wolf as she recounted what Rickkter and she had discovered already. In the distance a hawk soared.

The day had grown late, and the sun had already passed beyond the Dragon range to the West. Still, there was light in the air, though it was more burnished brass than gentle lake. Already the lamplighters were beginning their evening rounds walking the streets of Metamor with their poles and setting brands ablaze in the lampposts that lined the streets. And while the streets were filled with as many people as was normal during the day, the crowds were different. In the day, children often played in the streets while merchants and errands runners went about their business. Now, revellers had come out, men and women seeking the peaceful cool air of early evening, and perhaps a bit of brew as well at one of the many taverns.

For Rickkter and Kayla, the revelry in the town had come to an end. They walked arm in arm, savouring the feel of full bellies after their meal together in the tavern. They had chosen an hour when it was still mostly diners. The crowd that sought drink rather than food had only begun to drift in when they had finished their delicious meal. Rickkter smiled as he thought of the fried duck that they had supped upon. The orange sauce was still tantalizing his tongue. It had been well worth the money paid.

“That was lovely,” Kayla said as she leaned her head back into his arm. He pulled her closer, smiling slightly. He could feel the hairs on her tail, held high behind her, brushing across the fur of his arm. It was an exciting sensation.

“Yes,” he said, his good humour unassailable. They were making their way back to the Keep itself, and in that ember sky, he saw it’s outline before him nearly glowing in the last hour of twilight. He felt a sudden impulse to prolong their walk, so that they might enjoy that colourful sky some more. It seemed a good idea to him, and so he guided her down one more street. They’d pass through the marketplace. Maybe there would be something nice there he could buy for her. You never knew what oddity’s foreign merchants might be selling.

“I thought you wanted to get back?” Kayla asked him as she looked around.

“Oh, we’ll get back. It’s such a nice night though. I’m in no hurry for it to end.”

Her smile was broad, and he could lose himself in it. “Neither am I. Thank you, Rick.”

“Thank you, Kayla.” He leaned over and brushed his muzzle against hers. Damn, he felt good.

If he was expecting to find much in the marketplace though, it was rather a disappointment. Half of the merchants had already given up for the day, and most of the other half were merely selling mundane items, such as cloth or fruits from the South. There was one merchant who was beginning to put away his wares who still had a few jade carvings that were adequately rendered. He’d seen far finer carvings in the halls of Emperors to the South. They stood for a few minutes there before moving on, though neither of them saw anything they truly liked.

It wasn’t until they reached the end of the marketplace that they saw a booth with anything interesting in it. There were three men standing at the booth, and older man with a paunch, a taller man who was clearly a soldier, and the merchant himself. With a long nose and an almost condescending air, the merchant spread his rather well kept hands across a deck of cards. The man glided a single finger over the cards, turning them over before them. Rickkter had to admit that it was a well done trick. Still, he felt something at the back of his neck bothering him, but he could not quite tell what.

“So you sell cards?” Rickkter asked, running one claw gently along the back of the sample deck. He felt as if he should do it again, and did so.

“Not just cards,” the merchant said, grinning and glancing between them both. “I sell entertainment. A deck of cards has the power to speed time, to fill those empty hours with merriment. A deck of cards can make a rich man poor, and a poor man rich. A deck of cards can be a power that few recognize.” His smile grew wider then. “Perhaps you two would be interested in a pair?”

Kayla picked up one of the cards and smiled to Rickkter. “They are nicely made.”

“They’re pretty standard. I’ve seen better,” the raccoon snorted dismissively. He took the card from her paw, examined it himself for a moment, and then deposited it back on the table. “Thank you, sir, but we are not interested.”

“Perhaps not in this deck,” the merchant said, the smile never leaving his face. “It is fairly standard, meant only for those who have no taste in fine things. Maybe I have something else which might interest you. Something far finer than this. I have been making cards all of my life, and my skills are worth more than one glance..” A thoughtful moue graced his lips for a moment and then he raised one finger. “I have an idea. To show you that I am no mere apprentice, let me show you my finest deck. It is not for sale I warn you, but so that you know that I am a master at my craft.”

“All right,” Rickkter said, smiling lightly. “Let’s see what you have.” He could not shake that uneasy feeling though.

The merchant reached under neath the counter and pulled out a mahogany case. There appeared to be some sort of heraldry on the top, but the man had his fingers splayed across it so Rickkter could not make it out. “This is my magnum opus,” the merchant declared with pride. “You may touch of course.” He opened the case and set it before them. The cards were nestled in a cushioned interior, and they were larger than most normal playing cards. More like a diviner’s deck, Rickkter mused to himself.

The back of the cards were obviously colourful, but in the low light of the evening, he couldn’t quite make out the picture. Kayla on the other hand was quite struck by their obvious beauty and reached out for them. Still unsure of why he felt so unsettled, Rickkter peered at the cards with his magic sight, and nearly fell backwards as he did so. “Kayla, no!” he cried out. He could see the soldier leap over the counter top in that instant, even as Kayla touched the card and turned it over.

Before the blaze of light forced him to shut tight his eyes lest they burn in their sockets, he caught a glimpse of the Eight of Hearts. The figure that graced the card was none other than the skunk standing beside him, Kayla herself.

Hands grabbed him from behind and shoved him into the countertop, even as he tried to blink the blinding light from him. His head felt foggy and he found himself struggling to even remember basic incantations in that moment. The soldier who had grabbed him was far stronger than he supposed, and his surprisingly weakened muscles could barely resist. The man dragged his arm out over the countertop, his paw hovering just over the deck of cards. He could feel the air beneath his palm as if he were holding his paw directly over a fire pit.

“Just pick up the top card, Rickkter,” the merchant’s voice said. “Pick it up now.” Rickkter gritted his teeth, even as he tried to blink some sight back into his eyes. He had to clear his mind and figure out what in all the Hells was happening. Who was this merchant, and why the Hell did he want Rickkter and Kayla to touch that deck? And what was that deck too? The way magical force had wound around it, like a cobra waiting to strike, he could not recall ever seeing before.

“Here, let me help you,” the merchant said, turning the next card over and holding it just an inch from his paw. “Touch, and neither of you will die.”

Rickkter snarled then, and kicked back his leg at the soldier’s groin. His foot paw hit soft flesh hard, and he could hear the man grunt, but his stance remained as firm as before.

“Very well,” the merchant said, resignation in his voice. “You leave me no choice.” Rickkter flashed open his eyes then, afraid that Kayla would be struck down by some unseen force. But instead, the merchant was simply bringing the card into his paw. Rickkter felt the fire burning, could feel the world tilting underneath his paws.

In that one instant before his flesh touched the card, he saw what was upon it. The figure was of a raccoon, a very familiar one, bearing a katana sword. It was himself, he knew. But the last thought he had before that blaze of magic annihilated every thought in his mind was one of indignation. The Two of Hearts? The Two!

“Oh, my head,” Rickkter moaned as he pushed himself up from the terrazzo. Kayla was at his side, rubbing her elbows. “What happened?”

“We fell,” Kayla replied. She frowned. “It was my fault I think. That stone there is loose.”

Rickkter peered at it even as he rubbed his head. He must have hit his head hard, because he couldn’t quite remember doing so. “Is your arm okay?”

“Just a bruise, I’ll be fine,” Kayla stood up and held out her paws. She was wearing the sunburst pewter bracelet he’d bought for her at the Summer festivities almost a year gone. “Come on. We still have a lot of evening left.”

The raccoon grinned then, that much he knew he could remember. That and the lovely duck they’d just supped upon. He gripped her paw in his own, and then they were both back on their foot paws and heading for the Keep again.

“Ah,” Rickkter mused, even though his head still ached, and he felt strangely uncomfortable about something, but he couldn’t say quite what. “This has been a lovely evening.”

Kayla shook her head. “No, dear. This will be a lovely evening.”

The raccoon grinned. “I stand corrected.” He leaned in and nibbled gently at her neck. She laughed and pushed his head away.

“Oh stop that!”

“But you like it so much!”

“Not here, silly!”

Rickkter grinned and poked her snout with one claw. “Few have ever dared to call me silly.”

“Well, it’s about time somebody did then.”

“I guess so,” Rickkter said, grinning coquettishly again as they walked arm in arm back towards the Keep.

The merchant smiled as he watched the couple walk off. “That is four. And all for today. Prepare the wagon for travel tomorrow. We must have those two before we leave.”

“But we’ve not had them all here yet,” the older man with distended belly pointed out.

“We will come back,” the merchant said, his smile ever present. “We will come back.”

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