Lots - Part IX
e was nervous. There was no denying that familiar uncertainty, the way his tail and ears twitched, or the rapidity with which he seemed to chew. Sir Egland just could not help but worry about what they would find when they entered Alberta’s room. When they received the message saying that she had woken, they had immediately set out to see her. The whole time they waited, Sir Saulius had remained quiet, lost in his own thoughts. Even now the rat refused to say anything, only narrowing his eyes and nodding from time to time when Egland asked him anything.
Intoran was also quiet, and he stayed on the opposite side of Sir Egland from the rat. This did not surprise Egland considering the sharp words he’d had for the rat earlier. Restraining his tongue seemed to be a lesson he was going to have to work on next. He wished to hear his squire speak after all, but not in a way that impugned his friends either.
Even so, the silence of the walk unnerved him, and only added to his nervous tension. So it was some relief when they arrived at the Healer’s and he could hear voices coming from Alberta’s room. Coe was tending to another patient, and one of his assistants just waved them past. Egland was the first to the door, but he could not quite believe what he saw when he stepped through.
Bryonoth was standing upon hooves, a bit unsteadily, but still standing. She was dressed in the white smocks that loosely fit her, but at least protected her modesty. Even so, at the behest of the two individuals there with her, she had lifted the shirt so that the taller of the two, a human teenager, could wrap a bit of marked cord around her belly. The shorter of the two, a male child, was busy asking what her measurements were, even as he walked around, surveying her from different angles with a critical eye.
They were a vaguely familiar pair, but it was their activity, and the small bundle of lady’s dresses piled on the bed to one side that revealed their identity. This was Tobias Langar the Duke’s tailor and his apprentice.
“Ts’amut!” Albera’s voice said in recognition as he walked through the door. Both her ears were upraised. And while she did not sound as if she were ready to throw herself from the parapet in shame, there was little resignation in her tones either.
“Yisaada,” Egland said, nodding his head, looking her up and down. “I am relieved to see you awake.” He glanced at the dresses in confusion. They were an array of deep saffron blues, brilliant emeralds, daffodil yellows, and even soft lavenders. They looked to have been finely made, with frills and tresses, and even a few inlaid jewels. “Are you trying on dresses?” Even after four months of seeing Bryonoth as a woman, he could not imagine her in such female finery.
She nodded, a slight smile upon her muzzle, though it was restrained. “Thomas hath invited me to dine with him this evening.”
“And Lady Alberta needs suitable attire before she is to sup with his grace,” Tobias said officiously. He sounded stuffy, and rubbed his nose with the back of one wrist repeatedly as he kept track of his notes. He’d drawn a small diagram on the bit of vellum in his hands, and numbers and figures were traced around it. “I need you to slide down your trousers so we can measure your tail. I’ll turn around if you need me.”
Sir Egland blinked and did so as well, not to mention Intoran and Saulius, though only Saulius appeared to be visibly blushing. The elk took a deep breath and asked, “Lady Alberta?”
“‘Tis what his grace hath called me,” she replied, though there was a tremble in her voice.
“Three inches below the waistline,” the young man said. “And milady’s tail is two and a half inches around at the base.”
“Good,” Tobias said, scribbling upon his vellum. “You may pull your trousers up once more, my Lady.” Egland waited to hear the familiar rasp of clothing against flesh before turning back around.
“I hope that it was not too much of a shock for you when you woke, Yisaada,” he said at last, meeting her eyes. He could see in them the answer though. They were pits, and there was an emptiness there, as if she had crawled as deep within herself as possible.
“The letter that Healer Coe didst send saith that thou dost suffer from thy shape,” Saulius added, his own voice grave. “I dost understand, for thou knowest that thou art an Assingh.”
Alberta quailed for a moment, and nodded. “Aye. I hath been shamed.”
“There is no shame,” Tobias snorted, as if the whole matter were ridiculous to him. “You have been invited to dine with Duke Thomas. He’s shown you a greater honour than he’s ever given me. Now lift your hoof. You might want to sit against the bed for this.”
Alberta did as the tailor instructed, one of her hoof-like hands resting atop the bundle of finery. She held out her right hoof, while the apprentice laid the cord against her pastern. “He hath, aye. But ‘twill not unmake this.”
“But you are equine,” Egland pointed out, smiling to her, though he could muster little real joy in it.
“Aye, I art equine. But the lowliest equine of all.” The misery in her voice ached at his heart, but not just because of her misery. His own was multiplied in it.
But the rat shook his head, his long tail curling around his foot paws. “Nay.” There was age in those words. “I didst once think that there wast nothing lowlier than a rat. But I wast wrong. ‘Tis not what we look like that dost bring honour or shame. ‘Tis what we dost do with who we art that dost. I didst hide for years because I wast made a rat, and I brought shame on myself for it. But when I accepted that I couldst still gain honour, I found it. I hath the regard of all the knights of Metamor. I hath brought honour on myself, on all rats, and to my home, the Steppe. Thou canst do so as well. Thou art living honour to the Steppe.”
Egland studied the rat for a moment, surprised at the words. Maybe his squire had been right in what he’d said earlier to the rat. Be that as it may, it mattered not. He simply could not be sure just where his friend meant to go with those words.
“He has the right of it, milady,” Tobias said into his vellum. “Now, stand up again. Merrill, hold those gowns before her one at a time please. I want to see them each.”
Alberta stood, but otherwise ignored the tailor and his apprentice. She held out her arms at the young man Merrill’s direction, and waited while he lifted first the lavender dress, and then the daffodil dress for the tailor’s inspection. Egland stared, looking at the way her hoof-like hand appeared to stick out from the sleeve, her new equine head protruding from the collar, and the long, ropey tail flicked back and forth around the frilled skirt. Where in that was the one he called ‘Ts’amut’ for all those years?
“But I art an Assingh!” Alberta protested, maintaining her composure, but only just. “How dost that bring honour to the Steppe?”
Saulius smiled warmly up at her. He had to look quite a ways up, but there was nothing but pride and respect in those eyes. “Thou speakest of being an Assingh as a curse. ‘Tis not a curse, but a gift for thee. The Assingh may be the beast used by tricksters, but ‘tis a beast that makes its home in the Steppe.”
“The horse dost as well,” Alberta said, her ears folding back along her mane.
“Aye,” Saulius nodded. “We hath fine horses, but so dost every land. All the lands of this world hath horses. Only the Steppe hast the Assingh. Lowly it may be, and lowly may the nations of this world think of the Steppe. But thee art of the Steppe. And all who see thee, wilt know it. All who see thee as thou dost dine with his grace wilt know that the Duke of Metamor hast chosen to honour one of the Steppe. Hast chosen to honour the Steppe. ‘Tis not easy for we of the horseclans of the Steppe to see, but ‘tis true.”
The rat paused then, his tail tightening about his feet in a measure of regret. “Metamor hast made thee anew, Lady Alberta. Thou hast a new life ahead of thee, if thou wouldst claim it.”
Alberta frowned visibly, even as the apprentice continued to hold the dresses in front of her. Egland felt incapable of watching, but he would not let himself turn away from his friend. She needed him now after all, even if she was not the same friend he had known all those years at Yesulam. Metamor had indeed made her anew. “Erick is right, Yisaada. You do bring great honour to the Steppe this way. Do not despair, and do not hide. You will only bring shame if you do. But I will never see you as shameful. I have seen you win honour before. You will do it again.”
“Aye,” Alberta said, swallowing a bit, glancing downwards at the blue saffron that was held before her. “Wilt thee be at this much longer?”
Tobias shook his head, tapping the end of his quill at the bottom of the vellum. “No, I have all that I need. I have a great deal of work to do, but I will have a gown ready for you, milady. I will have it brought here an hour before you are to dine.”
“Thank ye,” Alberta said, nodding her head as dignified as she could.
“Come, Merrill,” Tobias slipped the quill and vellum inside his tunic even as the apprentice grabbed the bundle of clothes in his arms as best he could and followed the child out.
Intoran stepped to the side to let them both through, and called, “Be careful,” to the apprentice as he navigated the bulky dresses through the door.
Alberta slumped back down on the bed, her face downcast, though for the first time a bit of resignation shown through. “‘Tis my fate to be thus unto the end of my days,”
“Is that so horrible a fate, Yisaada?” Egland asked, sitting next to her. “When I arrived here in Metamor, I thought everyone I knew had been dead. Only Bishop Vinsah and Kashin the Yeshuel survived, but neither were any comfort to me. Kashin left to avenge the Patriarch, and Vinsah was in a coma for months. I was all alone here, and I lost my hands to the curse. I thought that even my music had been taken away from me.”
She looked up at the elk then, her dark brown eyes meeting him with a question. There was a wonder in those eyes, asking him how he could still hope.
“I met another who showed me how to play again. With his help, I found that I could stand on my hooves just as well as my feet. I resolved to be a knight for Metamor in service to the Ecclesia. Intoran came to be my squire. I now have a home here, and a life that I do not wish to give up. And it has only been seven months since we were together in the Patriarch’s service. In so short a time, I have found my place, my honour, and my worth again. None of that needs to be denied to you either, Yisaada.”
Alberta nodded slowly then, looking once to Intoran, her eyes narrowing slightly, and then over to the rat. “But thou art men,” she said at last. “‘Tis easier for thee to gain honour.”
“You were once a man too, Bryonoth,” Egland said softly — hopefully.
“Wast I? ‘Tis strange to think so.”
Sir Albert Bryonoth wast the name that thee used to bear,” Sir Saulius said at last. “The man he wast and the woman now sitting before me art the same person. Wouldst thee deny it?”
Alberta blinked and shook her head. “I know what thee sayest is true. But, I do not feel like that man.” She looked at Egland, sympathy writ in her face. “I know it pains thee Ts’amut. I am sorry that thou hast lost thy brother.”
“Thou art my Yisaada,” Egland said, feeling a lump welling in his throat. “I have not... lost you.”
“But I am not Albert Bryonoth, not truly.” Her gaze trailed back down across her hooves, and she tensed. “He wouldst not feel the way that I do.”
Saulius nodded slowly. “Then why continue to bear his name?” The rat went on before she could reply. “What dost Bryonoth mean, in the olden tongue of our land? Bryene-oth perhaps? Bryene’s guardian?”
“Bryene?” Intoran asked, his voice still quiet.
“She wast the olden name for Artela, goddess of the wilds.”
“And of horses,” Saulius nodded. “Thou still wishest to fulfill that name, to live it truly?”
Alberta nodded. “‘Tis what I was born to, aye.”
“Then take that as thy name. Artelanoth.”
She shook her head. “But I am a Follower.”
“Aye, and there art many Followers who bear names that speak of older ways. Nor wilt thee show dishonour to the Steppe. We hath long adopted the names of the West for the gods in our home as thee knows.”
Alberta lowered her muzzle and looked at the knight with intent eyes. “Dost thou still hold to the old ways then, Sir Saulius?”
The rat lowered his own gaze, shuffling his feet upon the floor. His whiskers drooped, ears folding down some. “In mine own way,” he murmured quietly. “‘Tis my one gift that I can give thee, my lady. Egland hath given his brotherhood, Thomas hath given... what his grace hast to give. I give thee a name that thou canst embrace and live. It is small, but it is all I hath.”
Alberta shuddered for a moment, and looked back at Egland. “Ts’amut. I...”
“It is your choice, Yisaada.” Egland said, though he could scarcely believe the words that tumbled from his lips. “It is Metamor. It changes us all, and gives us new lives. New meaning. And sometimes, new names. I remain Sir Yacoub Egland. Though I am an elk, and I remain in service to the Ecclesia, I am much the same man I was seven months ago. Wiser perhaps, but the same. Others have changed far more than I, you amongst them. Whatever you think necessary to help you bring honour to yourself and to the Steppe, you should do it. You will always be my Yisaada.”
Her thick lips moved slowly, as if she were trying to draw the idea to her teeth so she could chew upon it. And then, her flesh shivered, the white tunic bunching at her arms and sides. “I wilt take that name. ‘Tis both the same, and new. And ‘tis what I am.” She smiled lightly, though the pain beneath it was still visible. “Thank ye both.”
Sir Saulius smiled and bowed. “It is our honour, Lady Alberta Artelanoth.”
“Aye. The honour is ours, Yisaada.” He drew her in for a quick hug, felt her return the gesture, her changed arms warm, but strangely uncomfortable just then. He kept back the tears he could feel lurking behind his eyes. “You need time to think, and so do I. If it will not bother you, I think we shall leave now.”
For a moment she looked surprised, both her ears lifting upwards, but then they settled back down again and she nodded. “Aye, I must think too, Ts’amut.”
“Until later then, my lady.” The word was a dagger to him.
The sun was nearing the Dragon mountains once again. Dusk would not be far off. The evening sky was clear, the storm that had come yesterday had finally gone. The mugginess had also burned off in the afternoon, but it was slowly being replaced by a mountain cool. Even so, it had been a poor day for merchants in general. Few had come to the marketplace, and even those that did bought little more than what they needed.
And for the one merchant, sitting in his booth with his two servants, it had been a very poor day indeed. He’d had to hide instead of claiming the hawk as he’d hoped to do. He would find another opportunity, but he did not like the delay. He was not a man given to enjoying patience. When it was his choice, he could wait out the crumbling of mountains. But if thrust upon him, it gnawed and nettled him with no surcease.
But then, just when he thought the last day of his sojourn at Metamor could bring him no good news, he felt the familiar tug of the air. It pressed at him, whispering its sweet words. He smiled then, and stood a bit taller behind the counter, as his last quarry came down the street.
He was a queer fellow. With russet brown fur, a long tail, wide heavy-set hips, and feet nearly longer than his arms, he hopped more than walked down the street. There were also several bruises purpling on the side of his face and ears, as if he’d been in a brawl recently. The creature turned as the merchant knew he would. Slowly, that creature came whether he wished it or not to his booth.
“Welcome good Keeper! Perhaps I can interest you in a deck of cards. It can help you pass those lonely hours of waiting, or perhaps bring a bit of coin to your pocket.”
The creature looked him up and down, glanced at the cards and sighed. “I do this because I must. You have more decks than these.”
The merchant narrowed his gaze, pondering what the creature might mean. Could it know? Which one was this? “Yes, I have more decks than just these. Let me show you my finest. You do have discriminating taste.”
The creature snorted and rolled his eyes. “I’m not here for your paltry banter. You know who I am, and I know who you are, so let us end this charade. Do what you came to do and be done with it.”
The merchant felt stung then, even as his hand gripped the mahogany case. “I don’t quite know what you mean, good sir. I am merely a merchant hawking his wares. My wares are cards.”
The Keeper glared. “Let me be blunt then. I made sure the hyacinth was burned.”
The Marquis flinched, but then regained his composure. “I see.” He set the mahogany case on the counter top. He lifted the lid and showed the Keeper his deck of cards. “Then you know what the top card is, don’t you? Felikaush.”
“Yes, I do.” The Keeper reached forward and flipped the top card over, never once even looking at it. “The Priest of Hearts.”
And he was right. The Marquis felt the thrill of power come over him once more, and a bit of himself felt at the kangaroo’s mind, gripping it and twisting it to his needs. “Come closer then, fill yourself in the shadow of this night.” Obediently, the kangaroo leaned forward, the damning stare that had once filled those eyes subsumed by meek obeisance.
“Gauntlet,” the Marquis asked. His Steward Sir Autrefois took the metal gauntlet that lay behind the booth and handed it the Marquis. With a swift flick of his wrist, the Marquis smacked the back of the gauntlet against the kangaroo’s muzzle. “Another bruise for your collection. Now begone and do not remember any of this.”
The Priest of Hearts lay upturned still on the counter even as the kangaroo stumbled away, blood dripping from his cheek where the gauntlet had cut him. The Marquis breathed heavily for several seconds, still gripping that gauntlet in whitening fingers. After several seconds in which the sky reddened, he dropped the gauntlet and put away his cards.
“What now?” His Steward Vigoureux asked then.
“Now,” the Marquis Camille du Tournemire declared, the heat still in his voice, “we are ready to leave. We are done with this place.” And, he thought to himself, feeling his own calm and reassurance return, they had claimed almost everything they had come for. He smiled.
His two servants could only nod and do as they were bid.
It first came to him as a long exhalation. The tension that had once occupied the air dissipated with each new breeze. Some great spectral spirit had been holding back its breath, but now, with exquisite delicacy had let each bit of air back into the world. A Spring freshness lingered there, hints of blossoms and leaves rising above the musky stale scent of the city. The air coming down from the mountains was cold, and for a few seconds, his breath misted into the air, curling upwards a few inches, dissipating before it had even risen above the tufts on his ears.
The power, the need, it had all gone. Feeling almost disappointed that it had come to an end, the figure leaned out once more from the Belfry, tail lifted, and gazed with probing eyes at the gambled and thatched roofs of the city. Lamps were lit in many windows, bright yellow eyes that watched their neighbours with unremitting suspicion. Words drifted up from those homes, the streets filling with people, as if the coming dusk had summoned them. The mud was dry, the storm’s touch had gone. Now was the hour of celebration.
He smiled slightly, though there was little humour upon the thick lines of his muzzle. Large, wide eyes continued their watchful inspection, noting the way that people passed to and fro. Their colours were so well blended that they seemed a living thing unto itself, moving back and forth, stretching out pseudopods in every direction, some larger than others. In places they would cluster, spinning endlessly until one would break away and the whole disperse. And all the while, darkness continued to fall, even as the lamplighters begat a trail of yellow orbs in their wake leaving the city a mesh of interwoven lines and curves.
His eyes crossed to the wide marketplace at long last, watching as they began to close down for the night. Some left their booths standing, as they would return in the morning. Others were clearly finished with Metamor, as they disassembled their booths so that they would be ready to leave in the morning. One merchant in particular, the one he had a keen eye for, the one whom he spoke with, was amongst those who were readying to leave. In fact, his booth converted into a wagon. When the larger of the three men returned with horses, they hitched them and rolled away towards the city gates. They were leaving.
The figure crouched low for a moment, his long tail curling up over his head. He rested his paws upon the edge of the tower, leaning out over the drop off. The spires and minarets below reached up to him, their slate roofs dark but for the prickling of yellow light at their edges where the lights of the city framed them. He rather liked the view from the Belfry. There was no higher point that could be reached in Metamor, unless one could fly. But none who could would look in Metamor’s bell tower.
Slowly, he straightened, his tail lowering to settle languidly behind his legs. He’d cut a hole into his robe to accommodate that appendage, and now the folds of his robe nestled over his foot paws. He ran one paw across the front to smooth the purple fabric. His work for a time was finished. There would be more to do here in the Belfry later. For now he merely had to watch in other ways.
Turning, he stepped back from the edge of the belfry and walked towards the western end. He pressed his paw against the magical plaque, putting the walls of force in place. Now any who came to the Belfry would be unable to fall to their death. It was a safety measure that he approved of.
He paused before descending the stairs. He smiled and stared at the one other object that occupied the Belfry apart from the massive brass bells. He lifted his paw and traced one finger along the top of the bowl at its apex. There was a charge there, and he could feel his fur stand on end as he traced his finger along its course. The bowl had an indentation in the bottom, fashioned for a nine-sided figure. He smiled, noting its brilliant sheen, that seemed to draw in even the most feeble of light and magnify it.
And then he turned, letting his claws slide free of the censer’s rim. Still smiling, he began to descend the stairs, leaving the object to thrum softly in the silence of the night. The bells shifted ever so slightly in the small chill wind.
“Your grace?” the questing voice of his crocodilian steward called out into the Duke’s dining chambers. Thalberg had been vehement that any formal dinner between he and a woman not be held in his personal quarters, as the gesture would seem far too forward. It had been one small concession that Thomas had made to his friend, even after the long litanies of objections that the horse lord had no desire to hear at the time. In fact, he hadn’t seen his steward since informing him of the dinner arrangements. The day had turned to evening, and he expected Alberta to arrive shortly.
“Yes Thalberg,” Thomas called out from where he sat. The room he selected was not too overwhelming, modest for a Duke’s standards. Still, an intricate chandelier of southland glass hung from the high ceiling. The many gleaming crystals glowed with steady brightness, infused with magics by the creator of the beauteous object. No torches flickered or smoked in sconces along the tapestried walls, and only two slender tapers stood upon the table under the soft, evening-like glow of the antique hovering above, like a fanciful boat of glass floating above Thomas' head.
The walls were draped with decorative tapestries, depicting the mountains on either side of the valley, and pictures of people at the Keep defending it from invaders. Some of them were recent enough to show a few of those defenders in the shape of animal-men. The room was rectangular in design, with a wide hearth at one end, the fire burning warmly inside. A Kelewair rug lay before the hearth, a display of geometric shapes blending into the form of flowers and trees. And standing just at the edge of the rug was the high chair that Thomas took for his own.
The table was mahogany, though only long enough to seat eight guests. The tablecloth was laced with golden thread, and an artistic blending of the Hassan horse heraldry – he’d always found that terribly ironic after the curse changed him – and the fields and flowers of the valley. Only two settings had been placed, the plates fashioned from ivory, while the goblets were glass coloured slightly red at the base. Thomas sat behind his own setting, while the other was set at the opposite end of the table as was the custom for two.
The alligator stood dressed in his red robes at the far end of the table, arms crossed behind him. “Your grace, I must protest this once again. Why would you wish to dine with her?”
Thomas sighed. “Thalberg, do not try to stop this. This is my choice.”
“But why?” There was a pleading look in those yellow eyes, one that simply could not fathom what he was doing. But Thomas could never stay angry with them forever. Thalberg had only ever sought to protect him. There were just some things that he could not do.
“Thalberg, please, listen to me when I speak. I know you fear that she has cast some sort of spell over me again. I told you to speak with Raven about that, for Raven can assure you that no such thing has occurred. But, she has cast a spell of another sort over me, one that I have no desire to ignore.”
The horse lord took a deep breath and kept his eyes firmly fixed upon the yellow crocodilian orbs of his steward. “Thalberg, I think I am in love with her.”
The Steward stood for a moment, his arms shooting out from his sides in surprise, his long jaw falling open almost comically. “In love with her?!? Thomas, how can you? She is not of noble birth! She is from the Steppes. You can gain no alliances through her. You can bring Metamor no standing. In fact, you may insult some of the very people we wish to ally with if you woo this knight. Do you realize what you are doing?”
“Yes, I do, Thalberg.” Thomas replied, his voice suddenly fierce. An ire had grown in him, and the alligator was testing it. “I’m making a choice of my own accord. I am not merely doing something that I was asked to do. I am acting of my own accord, choosing whom to woo and when. Nor would I be the first to do so. Yes, it may cause whispers, but I think you may find the other noble houses will be more relieved than offended. How many would be willing to risk their daughters to the curse just to bed a horse? How many would view it as sick? We have other means of making alliances, Thalberg, than having a noble sell her daughter to me to breed with like some farmyard stud.”
Thalberg actually flinched at those words, his jaw agape again. “Your grace! I...”
But Thomas felt like he could not back down from this, even though he wished to apologize for his vehemence. But if he did, he knew that he would lose on this account. “It means that to me. She almost made me a horse in body. You want to do the same with me for political alliance. That will not be. I have made this decision, Thalberg. You can either be my friend and stand with me in it, or you can fight me and force me to do something I wish not to do.”
The alligator managed to close his mouth finally, his eyes never wavering, though they did seem to flow through various conflicting emotions in a matter of seconds. “Your grace, I am truly sorry that I ever suggested you should marry for politics. That was terribly impolite of me. Please forgive your humble servant.” Thalberg fell to one knee then, lowering his massive jaws. The long green tail lay out straight from underneath the red robes behind him. “I will not stand between you and she, if it is she that you love, your grace.”
Thomas rose from his seat then, and stepped over to his Steward. A smile creased his muzzle. Yes, he was Duke. But this man was also his friend. He leaned down and held out his hoof-like hand. “Come, Thalberg. Stand. You are forgiven.”
The alligator lifted his head, looked briefly at the hand, and then clasped it with his green, scaly own. “Thank you, your grace.” Thomas gave him a pull, and the alligator returned to his feet. There was still a bit of shame in Thalberg’s eyes.
“Is our meal ready?”
“Yes. I have servants waiting outside with the first course now. It will be brought in as soon as she arrives.”
“Her name is Lady Alberta,” Thomas pointed out, though his tone was kindly, with no hint of reproach.
“Of course, your grace. When Lady Alberta arrives I will have the first course brought in.”
No sooner had Thalberg finished speaking than one of the guards at the doors on the far side of the room opened the door and called out, “The Lady Alberta Artelanoth!”
Thomas blinked at that, his tail flicking from side to side. He would have to ask her why the change of name, but later perhaps. For now he felt his heart trembling, as he watched her slowly come through the doorway. She was dressed in a warm green brocade, the dress slender around her middle, and blossoming out around her legs. Frills lined the dress in lines going down to the hem. The corset accentuated her breasts, while the blouse cut a lovely V across her front. An emerald necklace lay atop the exposed grey fur just above her breasts. A small diadem lay atop her brow, the silver metal curling around behind her ears to keep it in place. A small uncertain smile graced her equine lips.
Thomas extended his arms wide, gesturing for her to come forward. “You look stunning, my dear. No night sky could eclipse the wonder I feel at beholding you now.” She blushed slightly in her ears as she stepped a bit uneasily forward. “Please, come and sit to sup with me, my lady.”
“I wouldst be honoured to, Thomas,” Alberta said in reply. Thalberg went to see to the first course, while Thomas drew out the chair for her. He took her hand in his own and glided her gently into the seat. She smelled clean, though there was an earthy musk about her that filled him with delight. She met his gaze as she sat down, and her smile widened.
“The honour is mine, Lady Alberta Alteranoth.” Thomas said, his own smile unrestrained. “And the pleasure too.”
The strings of the viola thrummed and sang as he brushed the horsehair bow across them. His bowing was harsh and quick, and the strings responded in kind, squealing in angry tones their discordant melody. His fingers were not looking for any particular tune, but seeking out whatever new note struck his fancy just then. He would follow a C with an F Sharp, or an A with an E Flat, and sometimes he would even makes leaps of a major seventh. There was little in his mood for beautiful contours. He wanted, and needed dissonance.
Sir Saulius had not come back with them, electing instead to join his fellow rats in the cellars for the evening. Whether it was because he recognized Egland’s need for privacy, or he himself was in need of the company of peers the elk could not say. Regardless, after what the Steppe-born knight had said to his Yisaada, he was glad of his absence. It was not that he thought the rat wrong or impertinent. The truth merely hurt worse than any insult ever could.
Alberta may still be a knight, and may still be capable of serving as such. But now, she was also a lady. She was so far removed from the person he once thought he knew, that it seemed to him that his long time friend, upon whom he’d once even had a brief infatuation, was now dead.
Just thinking it made the tears begin to well from his eyes. He bleated out a sob and the viola slipped from his shoulder and slid down his chest. His fingers still curled around its neck, so the base settled down into his lap softly. His two fingers and thumb curled more tightly about the neck and bow, and he shut his eyes, trying to staunch that flow. But they just kept coming.
“Yacoub?” the oryx’s voice called out from the other room. He heard the stamping of hooves as his squire rushed into the room, alarm in his voice. “Are you all right?”
Egland shook his head, finally, with his squire present, finding the strength to quell his tears. “Nay. I am not all right.”
“It’s Alberta, isn’t it?” Intoran asked, laying a gentle hand on Egland’s broad, tense shoulder. Seeing the lost look in Egland’s face, he nodded slowly. “I knew it was hurting you more than you could say. You’ve been in agony ever since she returned from the dungeons a month ago. Whatever happened to her there took some essential part of her away. That part of her spirit that was male, at least, that made her identify herself that way even as the woman she became. You just didn’t recognize what was left as your Ts’amut. And now, you cannot find anything left of that friend you knew. Is that it?”
Egland nodded his head, tightening his grip on the viola and bow. “It’s not fair! He never did anything wrong! Why did this have to happen to him? If he’d been killed with the other knights that night, it would be one thing. I thought he had been for nearly three months before he returned, programmed by that... that... villain. And then he had to become a woman. A woman!!! Oh sweet Eli, why couldn’t he have become a horse, or some other noble animal then? Things may have gone differently, even if he still had done what he’d done. At least he’d have still been my Ts’amut.”
Intoran took the viola from his grip and set it in its case as gently as he could. Egland did not fight him but let the oryx claim the instrument. Quietly Intoran closed the case, even as the elk continued to sigh heavily, his explosion past. Once done, he bent down on his knees beside the seat his hands grasping Egland’s own, eyes looking up slightly into the dark mesh of brown fur that surrounded the elk’s neck.
“And then when he’d become a woman now? Or would he no longer ever remember being human, and have become a complete animal when you took him from the dungeons? What then? Your friend would be even more completely changed than she is now. Is that the lot you wish for her?”
“No. But every time I look at her, I cannot help but think of the brother I once knew, the one who the curse and that villain have unmade. No, Albert is not dead. He’s just become Alberta... Artelanoth! Artelanoth! Did Saulius mean to take every bit of the old away from me?”
Intoran shook his head. “No. Sir Saulius thought that you might be able to accept Alberta for who she now is more easily if her name were different. The gift was as much for you as it was for her. She still calls you Ts’amut, Yacoub. She still cares a great deal for you and thinks of you as her brother. I think you need to let go and stop trying to force her to be Sir Albert Bryonoth. That’s not who she is anymore, and you hurt her by making her pretend to be him.”
“But that’s who he was! That is who my brother – my sister – is!”
The oryx sighed, lowering his head slightly so that the long horns gently brushed across Egland’s tunic. He lifted them again and looked the knight squarely in the eye. “Who she was. Her spirit was damaged in that dungeon, and new material grew in its place. You heard the Lothanasa. If the same thing happened to me, I would naturally be changed. Our spirits grow from a lifetime of experience. If you take some part away, it will regrow based on new experiences. You may remember the old, but it won’t have changed that you are still you. That same core will exist, but the way it expresses itself will have changed.”
Egland frowned as he listened, not willing to look his squire in the eye. The words were true, he knew them to be true, but he did not like them. There were so many possibilities in the world after all. If only they could go back to that one moment, back when the Patriarch’s camp was being attacked, and change things. If they could make the outcome different, then this would never need happen. Albert and he could still be brothers.
But then he felt Intoran’s hand tighten around his own and he looked at his squire. But how would he change things? Would he save the Patriarch and the rest as well? They would return to Yesulam then, and he never would have known Intoran, Saulius, Malger, or the rest. Or would he have saved Bryonoth from Zagrosek’s clutches, and let the rest of his old friends have died? And would they have even been happy staying at Metamor too so he could enjoy both his old and new friends? Wasn’t that simply being selfish?
“But why did it have to be this way?” he finally asked, his voice unnaturally quiet, a crushed thing, weighed down by chains of unremitting grief.
“Why? I don’t know,” Intoran replied, his face tightening into a grimace. “We all have our own lots in life. Some of these lots we draw, others are drawn for us.” He swept one hand slowly across Egland's lap, fingers an inch above his thighs as if the top of a table, fanning out an unseen deck of cards. “It’s like a hand of cards. You may not like them, but you still have to play with them. So too is it with this. Bryonoth’s lot in life has led him here, to become Lady Alberta Alteranoth. Would he have chosen that path if he’d known of it? I dare say he would not have. But regardless, that’s what has happened. My lot in life has brought me here, and for much of it, it has been a painful journey, with lessons that I spent years refusing to learn. I’d begun to give up hope of ever finding another who would love me the way I loved them. But not anymore.
“And you, Yacoub.” Intoran lifted his hand and cupped Egland’s chin. “You have a lot in life too. You’ve seen places I have only heard stories about, and you found your calling life far earlier than I did myself. But for all that, you’ve had your sorrows too, those moments that make you consider all that you are and ask yourself what is most important to you. You are at one of those moments again. And I think you suffer worse than Alberta does. Her wounds will heal more quickly than your own. You have to ask yourself whether having her the way you remember her or seeing her find her own happiness is more important to you. I think you know what the answer is too, you just don’t like it.”
Egland stared back into the Oryx's dark, deep gaze and smiled wanly. Thomas had named Intoran his squire, but they had been more than that for some time before the Duke's proclamation on a frozen Yuletide eve. He blinked at that gentle gaze and felt himself shiver anew as other memories of that night crashed through his troubled mind. “It is not fair!”
“When is it? Do you think it is fair to take an innocent who feels they are in love and use them for your own pleasure, forcing them to do things that make them more and more uncomfortable? Is that fair? No, it is not. But it happens. Is it fair that a poor man who has done nothing wrong dies starving in the street while the creditors who have stolen everything this man owns dine in luxury? No, it’s not fair. There is a lot in life that is not fair, Yacoub. Don’t the Canticles even state that bad things happen to good people? How many make the mistake of thinking that if only they had done this better or been a more moral person this evil would not have befallen them? Do not do the same, please!”
“Intoran, I am not making such a mistake,” Egland rasped, even as he felt the hoof-like nails of his squire’s hand stroke across his chin. “I just... hate losing my Ts’amut.”
“Love her as your sister, and you will not have lost him. She still remembers all those times you two shared. In time, she will understand and absorb those memories more fully. Perhaps even then some of her old personality will come back. Don’t force her though. And if they do not, do not hate her for it.” Intoran scooted forward a bit, his look changed from one of counselling to pleading. “Please, Yacoub. You are a better man than that! She trusts you deeply. Do not violate that trust. I have seen it, and felt it too often. I could not bear to see you do the same to another. Not you.”
Egland discovered that he was weeping again. He reached out with his own arms then, slipped them beneath Intoran’s shoulders, and pulled the oryx up, forcing him into an embrace. Intoran slipped into that embrace easily, and the two of them held each other for some moments. He could hear the oryx’s own subtle sobbing as he gripped his back, their necks resting against each other. His own antlers rubbed up against the spiralling horns of his squire. He breathed in deeply, tasting the air, and then let the breath blow past his lips slowly as he exhaled.
He began to count the ticking of the clock on the mantle as they held each other. Intoran said nothing, just holding him as he leaned forward in his seat. The position was awkward, but neither moved to change it. Egland measured his breathing to the ticks of the clock so that each new breath was one tick longer than the last. He could feel the tension and anxiety in his body slowly ebbing. The trembling in his fur abated bit by bit, until he was as still as the chair itself. In fact, he grew so calm, that the chiming of the ninth hour by the clock did not startle him.
It startled Intoran though, who shifted a bit and tried to turn his head, only to bump his horn against the elk’s antlers. He mumbled an apology, and then turned the other way, backing up from the embrace. “Are you all right, Yacoub?”
Egland nodded slowly then, staring up into the caring eyes of his squire. “Aye. I cannot deny that you are right. I have a great deal I must come to accept, but I must accept it. That is the lot I have been dealt, for now at least.” Raising a hand, he touched Intoran’s lips lightly with the tips of his thick fingers. Nimble enough, now, after Malger’s gentle tutelage, to bow a delicate tune upon his viola or feel ever so lightly the warm breath of his squire, friend, lover. “You are wise, Intoran, my Solace. Far wiser than I in my pride ever gave you credit for.”
He felt Intoran’s lips draw in a soft smile under the light touch of his blunt, hoof-like fingers, and they parted slightly as if he would offer a reply, but nothing was forthcoming. After some moments he ducked his head slightly, Egland’s fingers sliding up across the smooth pad of his nose and bridge of his broad muzzle. After some moments he slowly shifted back onto his hocks and stood. “Is there anything I can get you to eat, Song? It’s getting rather late.”
“Yes,” the elk replied, a smile of his own emerging. Song and Solace. Their names for each other. They only used them at their most tender.
“What should I prepare?”
“Whatever you like,” Egland nodded, resting back in his chair and letting his upraised hand settle into his lap. “I trust you, Solace.” He let his head rest back against the spine of his chair and sank slowly into it with a heavy, slow breath. He looked up as Intoran started to turn. “Lend me your wisdom, Intoran, when my path strays. You see some things more clearly than I.”
The oryx’s smile widened, he bowed his head, and then departed for the kitchen. Very quickly, he could hear the clatter of a pot and the shoving of logs into the stove.
Closing his eyes, Egland just breathed the air, waiting for the scent of dinner to stir him.
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