Lots - Part VIII

The storm abated sometime after midnight, but the ground was thickly saturated by the downpour. The streets were filled with mud come the morning, and so most elected to stay in doors until the afternoon sun had dried the mud. There was a weightiness to the very air as the dawn gave way to the morning. Few were even willing to open their shutters to welcome the springtime air, as if they felt that at any moment the rain might return, or something else even less pleasant may come through.

Even the merchants were not willing to brave such a soggy morning. There were a few of course who were out in the marketplace, hoping to attract the rare Keeper whose business brought them out onto the streets whether they willed it or not. Amongst them, was a strange dealer from the South who sold nothing but decks of cards. Few paid him any notice though.

For which he was very glad.

Sir Egland waited until shortly before noon before he dared brave the streets. Sir Saulius and he had traded stories in the morning hours, while Intoran listened with rapt attention to their tales of knighthood. But the morning slipped away and soon, the mud had caked enough that his hooves did not slide as he set them upon the stonework. The letter they’d received from the poor messenger in the morning had informed them that Dame Bryonoth’s transformation had completed itself, and they were all eager to see what sort of equine she had become.

What surprised Egland the most was the way in which Sir Saulius seemed to withdraw at the mention of Alberta and her transformation. Egland considered it a strange blessing that Alberta would become equine. There was so much horse in her blood, it struck him as amazing that she did not become one the first time. Nothing would have been kinder or more appropriate. But at least now the error was being partially rectified.

Still, he would have thought that this would have delighted Saulius. Yet the rat grew reticent, withdrawing the nearer they came to the Keep itself. When at last they passed beneath the vibrant colours of the Ivy Causeway, that tangle of vines and flowers glistening still from the rainfall, the rat stopped speaking altogether. Egland could only wonder if perhaps Saulius was thinking back to his own transformation. The rat had spent several years hiding in the cellars filled with shame at his new form. It was only the constant companionship of the other rats in the cellars and in particular Charles Matthias that had shown the knight that he could still be proud and serve with honour.

In fact, Egland realized, smiling as he looked over at his companion, until he had gone to Glen Avery to train Matthias, he still did live in the cellars with his other rats. They were brothers in a way that Egland could understand. United by years of being the only friends that the others had, they would remain friends to the very end of their days. And Saulius had made a point of visiting with them for several hours each day, even though he was here at Metamor as Egland’s invited guest.

Egland realized then with a bit of shame that he had never even met any of Saulius’s fellow rats, apart from Matthias, and that had been brief and not under the best of circumstances. He wondered how his friend would take it if he asked to meet them. Would he be offended or shamed at introducing a group of rats to the knight? Or would he be delighted anew at having another show interest in he and his fellow rats? It was a question he could only ponder as they made their way to the infirmary.

Healer Coe was waiting for them with a round wash basin. “If you’ve been tracking in the mud, do wash your hooves and paws before going any further,” the raccoon ordered with a stern gaze. Judging by the puddles on the stone around the basin, they were not the first ones to arrive.

“You said that Alberta has finished changing?” Egland asked, as he dipped his cloven hooves into the basin. He had thought the mud had been dry, but the water misted with dirt as he gave each hoof a shake. He put one hand on the wall to steady himself as he cleaned them off.

“Yes, though she still hasn’t risen. She’ll need to have new clothes made, as none of her old ones will fit anymore. I laid out a simple smock that’s roughly her size that she can use for now.”

Saulius nodded his head as he rubbed his toes together, cleaning out the dirt that had collected between them. “‘Twas kind of thee, good Healer. Might we see her?”

“Of course. Once your clean.”

They waited for Intoran to clean his hooves. He slipped and nearly fell at one point, but Egland helped him stay standing as he doused his hooves in the basin. When the oryx had rinsed his hooves to the raccoon’s satisfaction, they walked down the hallway with a strange sort of reluctance. Egland felt his heart trembling in his chest, and he was not quite certain why.

He reached for the door though, and opened it, stepping through when the others appeared uninterested in doing so. But Saulius and Intoran followed him in, their eyes just like his own gravitating towards the sleeping form of Alberta Bryonoth.

It took only a moments inspection for Egland to recognize the form. The muzzle was covered in grey fur, apart from the nose which was lighter in colour, though still gray. Her mane was short and black, the hairs thick and straight. Her ears were long, covered also in that gray fur, though the tip were darker. As was a band across her shoulders, though the fur around it was the same shade of gray as on her muzzle. The rest of her body lay beneath the sheet, but there was nothing else that he needed to see to know what had become of his Yisaada.

“A donkey,” he said, feeling both surprised, and somewhat stunned.

“Nae,” Saulius said, a bit of bile in his voice. “‘Tis not a donkey that she hast become,” he added, the bile resolving into regret and fear. “She art too large to be a donkey, and there art things about her that speak not of the Ass. She hast become an Assingh.”

“An Assingh?” Intoran asked, blinking. “She looks like a donkey to me.”

Saulius nodded, breathing out a heavy sigh. “Aye, for the Assingh wast bred from the donkey. They art a beast used by Magyars to haul their wagons. A beast ill-regarded by the horse tribes of the Steppe. A beast that Alberta wilt have no love for. I hath feared this. The curse has treated her most foully yet again.” The rat seemed to glare at something that was not in the room. “The curse hath no love for men of the Steppe.”

Intoran frowned visibly then and narrowed his eyes, “But you are happy now, Sir Saulius.”

“Aye, now, after many years of shame,” the rat replied, not looking at the elk’s squire, but instead letting his eyes settle once more on the equine head of Alberta. One of the long ears flicked to the side, as if she were dreaming.

“Maybe those years were good for you,” Intoran added, rather impertinently, Egland thought. “Would you have been able to show Alberta the compassion and support she’ll need when she wakes up like this if you had become some creature that you admired?”

Saulius spun about, squaring his shoulders, spine going rigid, fingers flexing, then balling into irritated fists as he glared up at the squire who stood almost twice his height and almost triple his weight, if not more. “Hold thy tongue! Thou dost impugn my honour!”

Egland put a hand on the oryx’s shoulder and pushed him back. “Not here, Intoran. You should not speak so to your betters.”

At least Intoran had the grace to look apologetic, the elk thought. He could tell that Intoran felt no remorse at what he had said. But it had been rude. “Forgive me, Sir Saulius. I spoke poorly. I never meant to impugn your honour. You have far more than I.”

The rat considered the words, took a deep breath, and nodded. “I forgive thee, lad.” He let out a long sigh then, and his entire posture seemed to deflate. “I needest time to think. I wilt leave thee be. Thou wilt need to comfort her, for she wilt not like what she sees when she dost arise. An Assingh is a beast of the Steppe that is used only by craven thieves.” The rat lowered his head then, whiskers drooping, tail as well, and left through the door without another word. Egland watched him go, feeling his own anger begin to melt.

“You should not have spoken like that to him.”

Intoran grunted, a very beast-like sound. “Maybe not. But there are reasons that things happen, Sir Egland. A curse can be a blessing too.”

The elk nodded slowly at that and glanced back at the equine form of Alberta laying in the bed. “That is true, Intoran. That is true.”

The air stirred in a familiar way. It was a slight tugging, one that drew at his fur. Most especially his tail, as it would lash back and forth wildly in the moment when one chosen would near the marketplace. With fleet paws, he swept to the wide opening in the Belfry, staring down the fathoms to the earth below. His golden eyes spotted the figure and his muzzle creased in a grin.

Bending forward into the open air, he held out his paws to circle the figure. She needed guidance after all. But his smile stopped when he discerned that she was not alone. The other was not one who called out to him, but he recognized him nevertheless. A thrill of alarm filled him, and he nearly toppled into the air.

This could not be, he knew. He clapped his paws together then, willing words into the very air. He waited one moment, and then did so again. And again.

Even though the noon day sun had dried most of the earth, the marketplace was still only sparsely populated. A few had come to his stall and glanced over his cards, and he’d sold a deck or two, but none of them had been worthy of drawing out his special deck. That remained hidden beneath his counter top as it always did, safely ensconced in the mahogany case.

It had always been a risk bringing that to Metamor, but he had little choice in the matter. The deck itself radiated magic clearly enough for a journeyman mage anywhere in the valley to notice it if they were looking in the right direction. But the case, the case cloaked that and kept it completely hidden except for those brief moments when he needed to use it. Those moments were full of peril, but they were always quick, and even those who saw it, would never remember that they had.

When he’d originally set out on this journey, he had expected the hyacinth that had been planted in the gardens would be sufficient to mask his activities. But with it destroyed, he had to move far more carefully than he liked. He had considered sending his Castellan after the two buffoons who had set the garden on fire, but knew it to be a petty and pointless gesture. If it had been an accident, then there was no point. If it had not been, but had been a clever ploy, then it would rouse suspicion. It was better simply to do nothing.

And so he waited for those he needed to come. The air would thicken when he felt them, and he knew their approach as a subtle whispering in his ear. So he could not help but smile when he felt that rush of sensation come over him again. But there was an urgency to the words that filled the air that was certainly not normal. He listened intently, though it took several times before he understood them to their full extent. And at that moment, he felt a rush of panic as well.

“We need to close up, now,” he announced, grabbing the decks of cards he had set on the countertop and stacking hem underneath. “Now!”

Though his Castellan was quick to begin drawing the boards back over the counter, his Steward was confused. “Why? What’s happened?”

“One of my quarry is coming, but another who knows us. Who would recognize us the moment he saw us. We cannot risk it.”

Nodding, his Steward began to close off the other side, but the questions were still upon his lips. “But the rat knew you too.”

“I needed the rat,” he replied, acid in his voice. He should not have to explain himself to his servants. “This one I do not. I need the woman, but perhaps there will be another time. For now, I cannot take her. If we are recognized, then all we have worked for will be lost. Now seal up this booth!” His words were harsh, but he kept them to a soft whisper.

His Steward nodded one more time, and worked frantically, drawing the wooden cover over the counter. His Castellan latched it shut then, and the three of them stood in both silence and darkness, waiting.

The air was muggier than Jessica liked for flying, and so Weyden and she walked as best they could through the town. While their feet had become the talons of a hawk, their legs in this form were still long enough to make walking practical, even if it was sometimes uncomfortable. Occasionally, Jessica would use a pair of sandals that Wessex had fashioned for her, but she had to keep her talons completely straight to wear them, and after a few hours they would get stiff, which made perching well nigh impossible.

“It was nice of Yonson to let you have today off as well,” Jessica said after a few moments of walking quietly through the damp city streets. The mud had mostly dried, but there were patches which lingered in the shadows that were still moist.

“He’s been taking some samples,” Weyden explained with a nod of his head. The Dokorath pendant seemed to glint in the noonday sun. “He barely needs us except for ceremony anyway. And when he does any sort of magic, he prefers to be left alone.”

Weyden turned and nudged the side of her head with his beak. “Not that I mind. It just means more time to spend with you.”

She returned the nudge with her beak and laughed. “And Maud, Larssen and the others? Do they mind?”

He shrugged his wings a bit. “Not truly. Most of a soldier’s life is waiting anyway. There are few places as interesting to wait as Metamor.”

Jessica nodded, but could not help recall some of what Raven had said to her. “Will you one day have to go back home? When the ambassador leaves that is?”

Looking back into his eyes, she could see the surprise in them. “I suppose we might have to journey back to Pyralis from time to time, but unless things change in the South, I doubt we’d ever be able to serve anywhere but here. Yonson’s never spoken about leaving though, so I guess we won’t be for some time yet.”

Jessica felt relieved at that, and slipped her wing underneath his. He cracked his beak in a grin and wrapped is own more around her. He looked up sharply then and stopped. “Now that was odd.”

“What?” Jessica turned her gaze to where he stared. They were standing down the street a good distance from the marketplace, but of course, it was perfectly crisp and clear to them at that distance. There were few shopkeepers out, but none that struck her as startling. Most were still closed, a few having even left their closed booths by the street.

“I thought I saw something, someone. My mind must be playing tricks on me though.” He shook his head, and then smiled once more to her. “I guess it was nothing. Now, why are you suddenly so worried about me leaving, hmmm?”

She pressed closer to him and whispered sweetly, “I can’t imagine.”

It took her a long while to realize that she was no longer dreaming. She lay on her side in a strange bed, face staring down the length of a pillow and something else. There was a grey something in the bottom of her vision, but she could not quite tell what it was. The air was filled with scents, strangely more potent than she was used to. The air smelled of fresh fallen rain, as well as a bit of tang from a thunderstorm. The fragrance of an oil lamp also curled about her nostrils. But most prominently was the familiar earthy musk of an equine.

Alberta tried to shift in bed, pondering how she came to be there, but her muscles felt stiff, sore, and strangely wrong. Regardless, she put her hands at her side, and pushed herself into a sitting position. The grey something that blocked her lower field of vision moved with her, as if it were her own nose.

A startling thought came to her then, as well as a memory of exquisite pain. Blinking once, she glanced down, and saw her form covered by linen sheets. Lifting her hands, she saw that they were not as they once were. Her arms were covered in a light grey fur, and her hands only held two fingers and a thumb, the nail as hard as a horse’s hoof. They even looked like the hoof of a horse.

“What?” her voice quavered, but what she heard was not the light voice she was used to. It was still light and feminine, but there was a bestial roll to it, an almost unconscious whickering. Gripping the sheet in those malformed hands, she thrust it back, and stared in confusion at what lay before her. Her legs were bent in the wrong places for a woman, but the right places for a mare. Her feet were now hooves, and between her legs, the soft grey fur covered all the places it was meant to. And there lay a long rope-like tail, a thick gray tuft filling the last five to six inches.

Not a mare then. A jennet. Alberta let out a cry of horror. A jennet! Her hands reached to her face, felt across the equine snout, and then up inch by terrible inch as they met fur, and then those long asinine ears. “Why?”, she cried out, unable to choke back the sudden sobs that escaped her thick, supple lips.

A clatter arose form the hallway, and the door burst open, a startled raccoon staring at her. “Calm down, Alberta!” he said in what must have been a soothing churr. “You’ve finished changing. There’s nothing to fear.”

“I hath become an ass!” she quailed, balling those hoof-like hands into fists, no longer caring that she had exposed her entire body. There was no shame that she could not now face that would be worse.

Coe shook his head slightly, stepping over and picking up a pile of linen garments. “Not a donkey, lass, but an Assingh. Or so says Sir Saulius when he saw you a few hours ago.”

Alberta opened her eyes wider. An Assingh? A foul beast of the thieving Magyars? She flinched and crumpled, resting her new ridiculous head in her hands. Now there was no greater shame.

“Here are some clothes, Alberta,” the raccoon said, setting them beside her on the bed. “I will have food brought when you are ready.” He looked at her, though she only wished she could cover up all that she had become. Why must the Keep be so cruel?

“You may leave whenever you are ready, but I think you should wait for a while. You are unused to this new form and should take your first steps slowly.” The raccoon healer waited for a moment, watching her, but Alberta could say nothing. She had nothing left to say but tears. Her family would be ashamed of her, as would all the Steppe-born.

“I will leave you to dress yourself,” Coe announced then, stepping back towards the door. “Do not despair. The curse rarely gives us what we want.” The raccoon waited a moment longer, but then silently closed the door. She could hear the ticking of his claws against the stone as he walked back down the hallway.

Alberta could only tremble. How could she ever look any in the eye again like this?

“Malisa,” Thomas said with a wide grin as he invited his adopted daughter and now Prime Minister into his quarters. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your company? Have you had anything to eat? I just supped, but I could have my page bring you something.”

“Thank you, your grace,” Malisa replied, smiling warmly. She was dressed in a sky blue doublet and hose, one that hid all her feminine features apart from the longer hair and gentle face. “But I have just eaten as well. I thought you might like to hear the news I bring first.”

“Well come in then, and sit.” Thomas gestured, even as the page held the door open. “I have been reading over the latest reports again, and my eyes grow tired of paper.”

She stepped through the door, smiled politely to the page, and then sat down at the small table next to the Duke’s desk. Thomas leaned back into his chair, the cushions already contoured properly from the hours he’d spent that morning there. “Now, what is this good news that you bring?”

“Well,” Malisa spread her hands over her hose, straightening it out as she sat. “We’ve received no news from the Southern Midlands yet, but we did get a bird back this morning from Midtown. Lord Geoffrey Donel has accepted your invitation to attend the Summer Solstice festivities. He regrets to inform you that his knights cannot participate in the tourney, but he and his family will attend.”

“Did he say why his knights will not joust?” Thomas asked. It was indeed good news to hear form Midtown. They were the first, but hopefully in the next week the rest would respond too. There was much that had to be discussed.

Malisa grimaced sardonically. “I got the impression from his letter that he is still upset that a regiment of his knights decided to stay in Metamor after the assault was thrown back.”

“Ah, well, one can hardly blame him. Perhaps we can lend him a regiment of our own. All men of course. That may mollify him.”

“Perhaps, but we should discuss that amongst ourselves first.”

“Naturally. It was just a thought.” Thomas nodded and smiled. “Even so, the first has agreed to come. Good. Have Thalberg make arrangements for him and his family. Now...”

Thomas was interrupted by a sharp burst of knocking at his door. The page opened the door, and a breathless Kee stood outside, holding a small letter in one paw. “Message for you, your grace!” the coyote announced.

“Thank you, Kee,” Thomas said, and waited for the page to bring it to him. “Who sent it?”

“Healer Coe,” Keep replied. “Begging your leave, your grace, but I have other messages still.”

“Of course, attend to them,” Thomas waved one hand, while with his other he motioned for the page to bring him the message. He felt quite impatient suddenly. When the letter came into his hands, he broke the seal and scanned the few words as quickly as he could. “She’s awake. I’m going to go see her.”

Malisa stood as he did, though her face was unreadable just then. “Is there anything else you would like me to attend?”

“No,” Thomas said as he shook his head. The room suddenly felt stifling to him. He could only think of the newly equine Bryonoth, and how he wished to be at her side in these first moments of waking to her new form. “No, Malisa, I think that will be all. Thank you for this news.”

She bowed her head and quietly withdrew. Thomas waited only a few seconds after she had left his chambers before he left as well, his long legs carrying him swiftly down the hall as he strode heedless of the much shorter strides of the guards running in his wake trying to keep up. The tapestries and vases and other ornaments that Malqure was so fond of littering the halls with sped past in a blur. His hooves skidded on the cold, smooth stone of a stairwell and he charged down two steps at a time, not pausing at the bottom of the stair as he regained his balance. The guards running behind called desperately for him to wait, their armour clattering loudly as they half fell down the dimly lit stairwell behind him, but he did not slow or even turn an ear back. Duke Thomas Hassan was not to be slowed for any reason.

It took only a minute, maybe two before he was opening the wide, oaken doorway into the infirmary. Coe looked up, no surprise on his procyonid features. "Ah, your grace. I only sent your message a few minutes ago. Dame Bryonoth woke only a few minutes before that. She is still in shock though, she has not begun to understand her change as yet."

"I must see her," Thomas declared. He turned to the two guards who caught up, panting heavily from face and muzzle as they reached the door, spears clutched tightly in hands and paws. "You two wait here, there is no danger for me here." They both nodded quickly enough, their expressions dubious as they glanced at each other and took up position outside the door. Thomas paid no more attention to them or the raccoon busy scribing several more notes at his desk. The Healer obviously understood the horse lord's need.

Thomas took a deep breath as he reached the door, pausing before the undecorated wooden portal as he fought down the rapid surge of his lungs and heart. He could feel a sense of excitement racing through his muscles. There was a tenseness there, but it was a tension that brought him more energy. He knocked once, but no answer greeted the hollow wooden thunking other than a quiet, disconsolate sobbing. Thomas' ears twitched uneasily as he frowned, then reached down to the bolt and drew it back, and then slowly opened the door. Sitting upon the far edge of the bed was the donkey-like equine morph that Bryonoth had become. Her legs were splayed in front of her, hooves pressing into the bed. Her tail was thrust behind her, and one pillow shoved over the top of the tuft. Her upper chest was bent over her thighs, arms cradling her strong equine head.

"Alberta," Thomas breathed, his voice nearly impossible to find. "By Artela I am glad that you are well."

One of Bryonoth's ears lifted then, and her sobbing abated momentarily with a hiccupping choke. She blinked her eyes, deep and amazingly brown, and looked at him fully. "Your grace?" she asked, voice raising in a breathless, broken tenor before she gulped in a breath. Thomas could see her hide twitching as it trembled.

He smiled warmly and before he knew it he found that he had come to sit beside her on the dishevelled bed. She had not bothered to dress herself and he could not help but notice, but if she did observe his momentarily startled realization, she gave no hint of it. There was shame in her face, but it did not seem to be about her nakedness. Easing himself gently down on the edge of the already overloaded bed he gathered up the dishevelled coverlet and used the corner to dab a leaking tear from beneath one large brown eye. "Please, call me Thomas." Gentle and easy, his voice was more composed than he felt in his breast. One of her shaking hands came up to grasp the sheet, drawing it reflexively about herself. "If there is any person in the world it pains me to hear call me 'your grace', it is you, Alberta. You alone should never call me that. You never did before, when I was your beautiful Toumoth. And now it is you that have become beautiful, but I am merely Thomas. Your Thomas."

"Thomas?" she asked then, before lowering her eyes one more, sobbing anew. A heavy gout of breath came through her lungs, and it sounded like a bray. That only made her sob all the more. "I hath no beauty."

Thomas grabbed one of her arms gently, his fingers not closing so easily around her forearm as they had when they had danced. It seemed so very long ago, that all to brief dance. Gently he drew her fingers away form her face. "No, Alberta. You do have beauty. You are the most beautiful creature I have ever laid my eyes upon. I've never seen another like you." He smiled as he captured that hand, folding his thick hoof-like fingers around her own. He ran one thick finger around her left ear. It folded down, but the shame still filled her eyes.

"But I art an Assingh!" Alberta protested, her voice deeper in many ways than it had been before, but still so weak with her strange sorrow, yet strangely pure, unfailing. "I hath become a beast of burden."

He did not say anything at first. He merely continued to stroke his fingers across the side of her neck, and even across the thick black mane flecked with silvered tips that she now bore. He could feel a thrill as his flesh touched her own. It was so smooth and warm, short coat so light and strangely smooth, like silk, so very different from his own coarseness, the feel of her coat somehow right to him. "What is an Assingh, Alberta? I was never a great master of the many horse breeds when I was younger, that is not one I ever learned of. Are they all as beautiful as you've become? All I can see is that you are a lovely equine, one filled with grace and beauty."

"Dost not lie," she said, turning her eyes away from him again. "An Assingh is the lowliest of all the Steppe's equines, haulers of wagons. There art no other so ill-regarded. 'Tis the greatest shame to ride an Assingh, and nae greater insult there be than to say, 'Assingh bastard'. I hath been shamed."

Thomas frowned, and then wrapped his arms about her back, pulling her close. She returned the gesture, her own arms encircling his back out of reflex to keep her balance. The sheet spilled down into her lap. "Then, my lady, you and I are now of the same sort. I bear the load of hauling my Kingdom through these perilous times. I have become a beast of burden, no noble destrier for a knight." He admonished softly, his voice a deep, quiet nickker. They held each other for several long moments in silence broken only by her ragged breathing and hushed voices beyond the closed door. Thomas gently stroked his thumbs across her back, feeling the way the fur moved across her flesh. It was warm and soft, but not as coarse as most equines that he knew of. He had felt the similar silken texture of coat once, on a southern charger during a journey in his youth, and had found it strange and pleasant. He had forgotten that in the long years since, until now. She was taller than him now, but he felt no concern of that. Holding her as he did felt right, as if she perfectly fit within the circle of his arms. Maybe he did love her.

Leaning his head up, his nostrils met the base of her ear, and he blew gently across the fur there. "Alberta, there is no shame in being what you are. You are still Alberta, and I still wish to be with you."

Her voice quavered, and stuttered uncertainly. "Thee wishes to be with me?"

"Aye, I do," Thomas said, smiling, knowing how true the words were. "You will always be beautiful in my eyes."

"Thank you, your grace."

"Thomas." The equine lord of Metamor smiled as he admonished, meeting her dark eyes with his own.

"Thomas." He fancied that there was a tiny twitch at the corners of her thick equine lips, almost a smile, he felt. She leaned back some, parting from the embrace. There were no more tears in her eyes, but the shame was still there. Thomas hurt as he saw it, wishing there were some way he could break it.

"And I think dinner would be a good way to begin." He nodded even as he spoke. Thalberg would have to know of it, but he no longer cared to keep this a secret. It would be more dangerous if it were a secret, as he had discovered. This he would keep in the open. "Yes, a fine dinner for a fine lady," he smiled widely to her. "With me." It felt like an epiphany, it broke over him so suddenly, so swiftly. A decision made for once without any veils of political or social calculations running in subtle currents beneath. There was no fog in that decision, it was as clear as the sky in the coldest winter dawn.

Alberta's eyes widened in surprise then, her ears standing up. "Dinner? But I art a lowly beast. Thou shouldst not shame thyself with my presence."

Thomas shook his head slowly, "We are here, the entirety of us, beasts of one sort or another, my fine lady. I am the beast you see, Thomas the horse. I no longer feel the touch of that which brought you to me, and me to you, but you saw me as just Thomas, Toumoth, then. Please, I am still Thomas, to you, even with the crest of Metamor on my brow." He took a long breath. "I would be shamed to be without it, my lady." Thomas declared, feeling the heat in his blood. His heart pounded now, and never before had he felt so certain of anything. "Tonight, I would prefer, or tomorrow if you do not feel able for this eve, we will sup together. You will need to learn what foods your new body will accept. What better person to learn from than a fellow equine like me? But first, I think we must find clothes suitable for a lady such as yourself." He spoke with clarity of thought and purpose, his mind rapidly gathering together those things that he would need, those things he would have to do, and those who would need to be told.

"I art no lady," Alberta objected with a shake of her head. "Thou dost show honour poorly."

"Nae, Alberta. I see beauty where it truly lies. And thou hast the soul of a proud and noble lady." His grin broadened. "And while I think your entire body is beautiful, and I would not mind looking at it for many hours yet, a lady needs proper clothing, especially when she comes to dinner with a proper lord."

Alberta blushed then at the mention of her state of dress, self-consciously drawing the sheet from her lap back up to her strong equine throat. She pointed at the pile of linens that were sitting at the end of the bed. "Coe hath given me those to wear."

Thomas regarded them, and nudged them with one hand. "Suitable for modesty's sake, but not for dinner. I will have my tailor meet you within the hour, if you please. He is a fine gentlefellow, his daughter is also a horse. Walish Hyrkenan, one of the miniature breeds if my poor understanding of horses is clear, and he will take your measurements. A suitable raiment will be found for you very soon, suitable for being at my table this evening." His hooves clicked as he stood from the bed and turned to face her. "You will dine with me, won't you?"

Her face was still filled with the shame of her new shape, but it had lessened considerably. "Aye, I will sup with thee, Thomas, as you desire."

Thomas frowned slightly. "As I, my lady? What of your own desire?"

Alberta looked down at the rumpled sheet covering her from neck to knee. "I dost feel most ashamed of mineself, Thomas, for I hath become the least of all beasts." The muscles of her strong jaw twitched and clenched and after a moment she slowly looked up. "But aye, yes, I dost desire to share thy table this, and aught, eve."

He felt a surge of relief then and smiled broadly. "Good. I will send for the tailor immediately. Until this evening, Lady Alberta," Thomas bowed low, and kissed the back of her hand with his huge lips. She blushed again at that, something that made Thomas smile all the wider.

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