Never Again a Man - Part III

The grounds about the Verdane manor were cluttered with various men-at-arms, bearing different surcoats. Several bore the sky-blue colour with unicorn that marked them as the soldiers of du Tournemire. But it was not among them that the Marquis walked. With hands folded behind his back, he strode across the open courtyard between the manor and the trees, surveying the men of the other houses that had come out to relieve some tension.

There were two other houses there, as Duke Verdane had said. Another bore a blue livery as well, though a darker, more marine blue, bearing an issuant osprey upon their chests. The second and slightly larger group was dressed in light green garments, the colour like fresh rising corn stalks, with a ram’s head in silhouette. Vigoureux, who walked behind him, informed him that they were soldiers of the houses Guilford and Dupré respectively. The Marquis found this information only mildly useful, as the inspection of their men was not his real purpose in venturing out amongst the grounds.

He’d spent the entire morning walking through as much of the manor as he possibly could. The Duke’s guards prevented him from entering the East wing, which was likely where the Duke himself stayed, but he’d been able to traverse most of the West wing. And everywhere he walked, he let himself feel the flow of the magic all about him.

In the world, there were many sorts of places that could come to power. There were reasons for each of them, but most relied upon the natural resources in the area. Some, like Kelewair, came to power simply because they were in a location that laid along many trade routes, as well as their abundant supply of lumber and wool. Others, like Marigund, became powerful because they lay upon a nexus of magical lines. And some, like Metamor Keep, because of both.

But in all places, whether they were upon a nexus or no, possessed the flow of magic. It was like a silken sheen that crossed trough everything, a curtain of indeterminate length, weaving its way about the world in patters than could only locally be understood. Some compared this flow of magic to a river, one that flowed in both directions. The ripples in the river could be seen a good deal away if they were strong enough. But all rivers had eddies, pools that were closed off from the rest of the flow. And so it was with magic.

The manor itself, at least, the West Wing, possessed no eddies in the magic. But perhaps there was something outside that could prove useful. And so, the Marquis moved about outside, allowing himself to be vulnerable to the flow of magic. He was not concerned by it however, as he doubted there would be any who would wish him ill, any who could even attack him that is. But even so, so far, he found no eddies, and that was beginning to grate on him.

It was when he passed nearby the soldiers of the House Dupré that he noticed something strange. One of the men fighting bore mail far more ornamented than any mere soldier would possess, no matter how high in rank or esteem. His face was youthful, though experienced, and he beat hard at his opponents, offering them no respite until they stepped out of the ring.

But it was not until the Marquis saw the gold lining the collar of his ring mail that he was certain this was Lord Dupré himself. The noble’s grey eyes caught the Marquis’s own and he narrowed them. “Are you that Pyralian noble who I’m told arrived last night?” His voice was brusque, though curious.

“I am,” the Marquis replied, taking a few paces closer to the man and his ring of guards. “I hope it does not bother you to have me observing your prowess with sword. You are Lord Dupré?”

Dupré nodded at that, sheathing his sword across his back. “Aye. I am Lord William Dupré of Mallow Horn. And you?” He extended his hand politely after removing the mailed glove.

Taking it, he smiled with the corners of his lips. “Marquis Camille du Tournemire. I am Pyralian, so in that you have heard rightly.”

“Where is Tournemire?” William asked, still holding the Marquis’s hand in a firm grip. His hand was sweaty, creased with a bit of oil as well, though the fingers still bore the refinement befitting a noble.

“Along the Southern coast of Pyralis, on the western shores of the Splitting Sea.”

William’s smile was amused. “Heading north to escape the heat, eh?”

“No,” the Marquis replied, his smile growing slightly, “although that pleasant circumstance will be appreciated.” He let his smile fade slightly. “And you are here for what purpose, Lord Dupré?”

“For now I do what all true men should, wield a sword.” He tightened his grip substantially then, but the Marquis did not grimace at the sudden pain. “Tell me, Camille, would you care to cross blades with me?”

His smile completely gone now, the Marquis shook his head. “Neither am I dressed for it, nor am I a man who has found it necessary to train as extensively as I have seen that you have. The battle would surely be one sided.”

William snorted, a satisfied sneer crossing his lips. “Are you a craven then?”

Slowly the corners of the Marquis’s lips began once more to curl. Behind him, he felt the nervous presence of his Steward, and the irate smouldering of his Castellan. But further back was the simple ambivalence of his chief tool, his King of Swords. The King of Swords was a black card. The spades were the other black suit, and it was long a tradition to shuffle the spades in after the swords, to symbolize the forging of peace from conflict.

Marquis Camille du Tournemire shuffled the swords last.

“Not so craven as to challenge an unarmoured man barely half your size to battle.” The sneer upon Lord Dupré’s face turned to vile, and a few of the soldiers reached for their swords. But the noble was no fool, and motioned them still with a single cut of his still bare hand, the same hand the Marquis had shook a moment before. “If you truly wish to fight, allow me the opportunity to select a champion who will stand in my stead.”

There was venom in the Lord of Mallow Horn’s eyes. But to save his own face, he could hardly refuse the Marquis request, and every single person standing upon that field knew it. Some of the blue liveried men bearing the issuant osprey had also begun to take a notice, watching from a respectable distance. Certainly, eyes in the windows of the manor also observed the scene, some more curious than others. Though he had told the Duke that he wished to travel in secret, the Marquis did not care who would whisper of this meeting. The cards spoke far louder.

“Name your champion then,” William finally acquiesced, hands held before him, arms framing the image of the ram’s head within his mail shirt. His eyes glanced across to Sir Autrefois who stood taller than him still. There was a wariness there, but a determination that regardless, he would win, as his pride was at stake.

The Marquis nodded, his smile amicable once more. “Perhaps a wager between us, to make the sport more invigorating?”

William’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “What sort of wager?”

“Oh, nothing of true consequence, merely another diversion between us. Let us promise each other another bout.”

“With the winner deciding what manner of match?” William asked, a sudden spark of interest plain on his face.


“And if I should win, you would face me with sword even should I ask for that? Not a champion, but you yourself?”

The Marquis nodded his head. “Should you win, I will face you myself however you desire. Are we agreed then?”

William raised one finger and shook his head. “Not yet. Who will be your champion first, and then I shall agree? Until I know what this fight shall be, I will not agree to another.”

“Nor would any expect you to,” he said, smiling, for he knew he’d just won. He turned to one side and stared back, finding the presence he’d known had been there all along. Dressed in his normal black tunic and breeches was his King of Swords. “This man will be my champion. Sir Autrefois, please give Zagrosek your sword.”

Lord Dupré was quite surprised at the selection of the black-clad man, and he regarded him curiously for a moment. Zagrosek too the sword from the castellan, his face disinterested. He turned it about in his hands distastefully though skilfully, despite it being too large for his moderate frame. He set the point just before the ground as if it were an epee, standing at the ready as still as a statue.

With a smile certain of victory, Lord Dupré nodded to the Marquis. “I accept your wager then. Make a circle. Let the bravo and I fight.” He slipped the mailed glove back over his hand, and grinned. With a heavy swing, he drew the broadsword from behind his back, clutching the pommel tightly in both hands.

The Marquis and his other men backed away from Zagrosek. As always, he felt for the flow of the magic about him. He could tell that the Sondecki was using his powers subtly, as there was a charge upon the air, as if lightning had just struck. There was a sense of unease amongst the men of Mallow Horn, their faces regarding the black clad man with trepidation. Zagrosek bore only the sword and his clothes while William was in a full set of chain mail. How could this be a fair fight unless there was something more to the man in black?

The two combatants stared at each other for several moments. Zagrosek held his sword aloft in a manner that appeared quite uncomfortable, while Lord Dupré clutched his in both hands, standing with legs wide apart. “Will you come at me then?” William asked, his voice gruff. But the black clad man made no move, merely watching him, his body composed. Sensing that Zagrosek was waiting for him to make the first move, William struck, a swing to the let that would have cleaved halfway through him if it struck. But Zagrosek swept up his own blade, with a flick of his wrist, the clash of blades against each other a thin sheen that made each man flinch.

And then the swords swung freely. Lord Dupré wailed against the black clad man, his blows coming form all directions. But each was met by Zagrosek’s blade, each deflected as if they had been poor shots of an amateur, something which the Lord of Mallow Horn was clearly not. The dawning frustration was plain on his face though, and he swing harder, trying to find any opening with Zagrosek’s shield of blade.

But Zagrosek himself never struck out, he merely defended himself against the noble. This had the men of Mallow Horn whispering to each other as they watched, each uncertain how any man who would not attack could ever hope to win. Surely their lord would finally get in a shot and it would all be over. They merely had to wait for it.

Even William himself noticed it, and after Zagrosek danced away from a blow, and stood once more with sword outstretched, he asked in a gruff voice, “Do you even know how to do anything but defend? Or did your teacher die before he got that far?”

A curious frown began to cross Zagrosek’s lips. “If you wish me to attack, I will.” His voice, something they had never heard before, was as warm as ice. And then, he leapt forward, his sword coming up from below to slice at Dupré’s middle. The lord lifted his sword to block, and then moved in to attack, but saw that he had to ward off another blow as Zagrosek’s sword skimmed along the edge of his blade towards his right arm. And then another, as the blade came again from his left, and then from above, and then from his right. Lord Dupré found that he could do nothing but defend now, for Zagrosek was pushing him into a hole.

And then, the blade tip snuck through his own defences, pressing against his middle, though not penetrating. “Do you yield?” Zagrosek asked in that same uncaring tone.

Dupré knocked the blade away with a mailed hand and snarled, “Never!” He thrust again in the moment of distraction, nearly grazing his blade along the man’s arm, but Zagrosek’s sword was there again. And that was his only attack, for once again, Zagrosek began to spin his sword about in his hand, moving it from hand to hand as he drove the tip in from each direction. Lord Dupré felt real fear then that he might not be able to win this fight. Who was this man?

When the blade tip then came around, pressed against his side, Zagrosek asked again, “Do you yield?”

This time, Dupré reached out and grabbed the pommel of Zagrosek’s blade, and yanked him off balance. Only, it was not Zagrosek who tumbled over, but William himself as the man pulled back. He rolled across the ground behind the black clad man, trying to lift his sword up once more, but Zagrosek’s blade was there, the tip resting beneath his chin. “Do you yield?” At the sullen violent stare from William’s eyes, Zagrosek added, “I have killed you three times already, Lord Dupré. So far, you have been able to get up. Be wary. Should I kill you too many more, you may not get up. A cat has nine lives it is said. How many do you?”

There was a visible commotion amongst the soldiers at that, some seeing it as a direct threat on their lord’s life. But Lord Dupré waved them aside with his fist. “I yield then,” he announced, to the dismay of his men. Many began to give Zagrosek vile stares, but they were careful to guard them. Zagrosek held out the sword, and Sir Autrefois came forward to reclaim his blade. He then held out a hand and helped Lord Dupré to his feet. Dupré considered briefly sinking a dagger into the man’s gullet, but let it remain merely a fancy. Perhaps another day he would get that chance.

“Well,” the Marquis said, his own smile small but present. “It seems that my champion has won.”

“Yes,” William intoned, voice filled with annoyance. “You can have your own bout, Camille. But you never said when. I will honour my promise to you after the matter between Lord Guilford and myself has been settled in my favour.”

The Marquis’s eyebrow raised at that. “It must be a marvellous thing indeed to be so certain.”

“Hah! It is indeed. Good day to you, Camille.” And with that, the lord of Mallow Horn stalked off back towards the manor, his soldiers in tow.

Unconcerned, the Marquis resumed feeling the flow of magic. His own retainers followed closely and wordlessly behind.

Duke Thomas did not linger long in the audience chambers after Father Hough’s hasty departure. His own generally serene mood shattered by the priest’s request, he’d excused himself as best he could, refusing the concerned entreaties of his steward. Thankfully, Thalberg had not pressed him, and had been understanding when Thomas had told him that he would be retiring early for the evening.

It had not taken him long to return to his private chambers. He made sure his guard understood to allow no one entrance, as he did not think he could deal with any visitors. Not after listening to the priest. The very thought of the priest’s words made his flesh shiver again. He had to hold his hands to his head to get it to stop.

Sitting upon the side of his bed, Thomas did his best to calm himself down. His meal sat heavily in his stomach, though he knew that would pass. But the images that filled his mind, the flashing desultory images of hooves stamping upon the boy priest’s face to running down that interloper Egland, or to seeing Povunoth sold to a farmer down South, would not go away.

He knew he could do none of those things. Father Hough and Sir Egland meant well, even if they were wrong about what must be done. And he could never ask Dame Bryonoth to give up Povunoth, the horse she’d brought from the clan of her family all the way from the Steppe. That sort of attachment was not one he ever had the heart to break, no matter how he wished she would spend her attention on him instead.

All the while, he could not help but ponder what had been upon his mind all that day already. Dame Bryonoth had told him last night that if he only willed it, he would never have to go back. What had she meant? He did not allow himself to speculate though. He wanted her to tell him what it was, and she would do so that very night! The thought of her hand upon his hide, currying him, fitting him once more for shoes made him smile, the tension leaving him as he did.

Laying back upon his bed, the soft velvet caressing him, he wished it were her brushes and combs, her fingers even that were bringing him such comfort. With Bryonoth, he simply had to be, no more. She would take care of all the rest. Comforted by such thoughts, the Duke of Metamor lay upon his bed, eyes closed, remembering all the pleasant things he’d felt that last night, and the many that had come before it.

His hands began to rub at each other, feeling the slight perturbations in his hoof-like nails. There were small notches that had not completely filled in when he’d changed back to his half-human form last night. They were the marks of having worn horseshoes. Upon the hooves he bore for feet they were more pronounced. Were it not for a slight change in the size of those hooves when he shifted, Dame Bryonoth could likely have left those two in. Smiling, he reached down and felt along those holes, half imagining that he still bore the shoe there. But of course, all he felt was his solid hooves, with the holes hammered into each.

His ears turned then, as there was the sound of voices at his doorway. Sighing, he lay spread-eagled upon his bed, wishing that whoever it was would leave him alone. It was clear that his guards were doing as instructed, preventing whoever sought entry from disturbing him. At least there was that.

But then the voices stopped, and there was a pounding upon his door. “Father,” Malisa’s voice called through the door. “May I come in?”

Thomas sighed a bit and pulled himself from his bed. He straightened his tunic and strode to the door. He could not refuse his adopted daughter entry. And as she was also now his Prime Minister, there could indeed be a very good reason for her needing to see them, a crisis perhaps. He did not want to have to deal with those, but for the nonce, he had little choice.

He opened the door to find Malisa dressed in her usual tunic and breeches, much like a man might. She had never truly accepted being female, and he never had pressured her too. Though he cared for her a great deal, he was not truly her father and that would always be between them.

“Welcome, Malisa,” Thomas said, smiling to her. “Please come in.”

“Thank you,” Malisa nodded her head and smiled in return, stepping through the room. Her eyes narrowed when she caught a glimpse at the dishevelled state of his bed, but did not say anything. “Perhaps we should share some wine, I thought we might talk for a bit.”

Thomas nodded at that, wishing now that he had not let her in. But what was done was done, he’d have to live with it. “Yes, wine would be good.” She went to his cupboard to fetch a bottle and a couple goblets while he sat down in his cushioned chair. She took a seat along one corner, setting the goblets down. She poured but a finger’s width of the bubbly yellow libation within each cup, but it was only to begin.

“What is on your mind?” Thomas asked, cradling his goblet between his fingers, though he did not sip from it.

Malisa took a deep breath, her face quite solid though weary from her duties. “Several things, but mostly one thing really. I am concerned with the rebuilding of relations to the South, a task that has been complicated on an almost daily basis. After the assault this winter, many of the southern baronies are becoming more independent minded. It doesn’t help that Kelewair is trying to woo their fealty with promises of favourable trade. Their access to ores is limited thankfully, which has kept them from forsaking their fealty to Metamor so far. But after we called the banners to repel the attack, many have begun to chafe under that fealty.”

She swirled her wine in her goblet a bit. “After the curses, they did not leave because they did not feel personally threatened I suppose. But after calling the banners...” she paused and took a sip from the wine, a sip that turned into a long draught.

Thomas sipped his own then, his voice low. “They fear that I may call them again, and this time, for more than a few days. They fear that by remaining loyal to Metamor, the curse may take them too.”

“Aye,” Malisa nodded. “That is what they fear. That is why they are willing to even entertain entreaties from Kelewair. Giftum has been the worst, but they have always played both sides, but now Komley and Sorin have done so as well. We cannot afford to become so isolated. Nasoj is not our only enemy. They all need to know that Metamor will endure and continue to protect their interests. We need both men and money, and one other thing.”

Thomas finished off the wine in his goblet and set it upon the table. “What of Joy’s Legacy? Once we are able to mine the mithril there we should have money enough.”

Malisa nodded. “Yes, though we have kept it fairly quiet to prevent foreign ears from seeking to undermine us more quickly. But to put the crews into place to produce any wealth from the mine will take a long time in secret. To move more quickly would risk exposure, and in our weakened state, it is a terrible risk.”

“But once it flows, we will be strong again. And with the wealth that mithril will bring, we could hire the men we need,” Thomas mused. While certainly what Malisa said was serious, he was thankful that so far, there was little to it that did not require any weighty decisions on his part.

“Truly. But we should not depend solely upon that hope. Trade with some of the northern cities is coming back, but slowly. It is not enough, though it will help for the moment. But even if we are to solve these problems, there is always one other issue that hangs over our heads and cannot be solved by mithril.”

Thomas poured himself some more wine then. It’s taste was comforting, the warmth filling him, as if he were being massaged form the inside. “And what is this other issue?”

Malisa sighed then, meeting his gaze, her eyes full of sympathy. “Your succession.”

Thomas nearly spilled the wine. “My what?”

“Your succession, father. We both know that I cannot succeed you. Had I been born to a noble house, perhaps the other lords would accept my adoption. But I was born common. For all of your charities in elevating me to this station, the lords South of the Valley will never accept me, and even some of the Lords in the valley may take umbrage at my becoming a Duchess after you pass on. They will accept me as Prime Minister, but they will never accept me as anything more. Without a true legitimate heir, what will happen when you die?”

The horse lord sat quietly, his hoof-like hands clutching at the goblet tightly. “I could always appoint a successor from amongst the Lords.”

“But who?” Malisa asked. “Lord Barnhardt? Lord Avery? Both are probably the finest men you could select, but both would have a fight on their hands. Can you not imagine Giftum receiving aid from Kelewair in the form of soldiers, taking control of the Northern Midlands in the ensuing chaos? Once the Baron has control, he’d appoint himself Duke, and then swear fealty to Kelewair, totally dissolving the power of Metamor. And with the curse still active, you know Duke Verdane would turn this city into a penal outpost. Can you not see this happening should you die?”

Thomas took a deep breath. “I thought that Duke Verdane was an ardent Follower. Why would he support Jaran Calephas who is an ardent Lothanasi?” Although Jaran was the younger brother of Garadan Calephas, the despicable ruler of Arabarb, he did not share his elder brother’s zeal for debauchery in any form. His relationship with Metamor was also aided by the fact that Jaran had been responsible for deposing his brother once Garadan’s collusion with Nasoj revealed, as well as his sins, at which point he’d been excommunicated by the Lothanasi.

“Verdane is more interested in his own power than that of the Ecclesia’s,” Malisa reminded gently. “And yes, Jaran does not have the same soul for treachery that his father, and certainly his brother had, but his chief concern has always been for Giftum. If he thinks that he can secure Giftum as the premier power in the Northern Midlands, he will.”

“So you feel I need an heir to prevent that,” Thomas said, the words stinging his tongue. This was not the first time some one had brought this matter up wit him. Thalberg had often spoken with him about arranging a marriage between himself and some noble lady, a daughter of one of the Lords to the South usually. But each time, Thomas had demurred, or the nobles to the South wouldn’t allow their daughter to wed a horse, no matter how powerful the horse.

“Yes, I do,” Malisa poured herself more wine then. “You know it as well, father. You are still young, you have many years left to your rule, or so we hope. But illness can strike, or an accident, or even an assassin. You were very nearly killed during the assault, and then you were abducted for a time. If you have an heir, several in fact, then the power of Metamor is assured for another generation.”

Thomas could only nod and sip at his wine. He’d always known this would happen eventually. Before the fall of the curses, it had not seemed as bad, simply part of being a noble. But now that he had become a horse, he dreaded the thought of sharing his bed. If Thalberg had his way, he would wed one of the noble daughters at the southern end of his demesnes, a woman who had learned to fear and hate the curse and those afflicted. She would hate him for bringing the curse down upon her, and she would be the one he had to spend the rest of his life with. How could he want that?

“Besides,” Malisa said at last, offering him a reassuring look. “You need the companionship. The strain of your role has worn on you, we have all seen it. You spend more time alone in these rooms than ever before. You have become so worn by it that you would even shout at a priest.” Thomas tensed at that, remembering once again his meeting with Father Hough. “A wife could relieve you of that, some one who could bear the burdens with you. It doesn’t just have to be to breed an heir, father. It can be for your happiness too.”

“How?” Thomas asked then, bitterness beginning to seep into his voice. “How could it be for my happiness? Whoever I wed would hate me for bringing them to Metamor, and cursing them. They would lie with me, I half an animal. It would make them feel filthy, and they would hate me for it. No comfort would I find there. No relief, only more agony. And what if she became a man? Would I then dissolve the arrangements after it is too late for them? Or a child so young they cannot bear a child? What shall I do for them to make recompense?”

Malisa frowned, nodding all the while he spoke. “I do not think that they dissolving an engagement if they should become a man would be considered too dire an insult. In fact, the family may thank you for it for providing them with a new son. And if they become a child too young to bear children, some other arrangement could be made, some recompense given. All of this could be worked out in advance to an engagement, father. And if Murikeer’s vein of mithril is even half as bountiful as he claimed and our surveys have suggested, what family will not be willing to take that risk?”

“But won’t they still hate me, even if it does work out?” Thomas asked, clutching the goblet so tight he was sure it would break. But it was made of firmer material and held together.

“Perhaps for a time. But if you woo them, even hate can melt. You would have to show them that despite appearing like a horse, you are still a man inside, a kind and gentle man who is capable of a great deal of love. Yes, it may be hard at first, but it doesn’t have to be forever.”

Thomas did not speak, merely sipping at his wine. These were the concerns he had no wish to deal with. Why did he have to have such responsibility? Why must he be saddled with it? Why couldn’t another take it from him, and let him just be?

Seeing that the horse lord was musing on these things, Malisa continued. “Once you have an heir, and Metamor’s position is reestablished, we can find other ways to tie the southern lands to us, to keep their fealty strong. I suggest we renew the practice of wards. Bring up their children here in the valley amongst the various lords. It would do them well to learn to love their cursed fellows to the North, though let them return to their own lands before the curse would take them. After a generation of that, your own heir would find it far easier to rule than you, and the whole of the Northern Midlands would be the stronger for it. Perhaps we could even bring Starven or Politzen to swear fealty to you, or your heir in that time.”

“You bring,” Thomas finally said, his voice tired, “some interesting possibilities to light. Would it not be easier for me to wed someone already cursed?”

Malisa nodded. “Yes, it would. But your ties with the noble houses so cursed are already strong.”

“They were not so strong with the house of Loriod,” Thomas pointed out.

“Loriod was a power hungry fool. Clever perhaps, but a fool. We are better off without him.”

“True, but how many amongst the lords are like Loriod even in a small part?” Thomas asked, though not sure why. “Why should I have to wed with any of them?”

“That is not something we can deal with at this time. We must do the best with what we have.” Malisa finished her goblet, but did not pour herself any more.

Thomas let out a long sigh and finished his own. “I will think on this, but I do not know when I can give you an answer. Was there anything else you had on your mind, Malisa?”

“No, father, that was all.” She rose from her seat slowly. “I will give you some privacy to think on this. But please, think on this.” She gripped the neck of the wine bottle and took both goblets in her other hand. Thomas nodded slowly to her, offering her a slight smile. She returned it, and then put the wine bottle and goblets back in their cupboard. “Would you like me to ask to have your dinner brought up here?”

“Yes,” Thomas said, forcing himself to rise from his seat. “Thank you, Malisa,” he nodded his long head, trying to still the trembling that was beginning to return to his flesh.

Malisa returned the nod, hers deeper, and then left once more, closing the door quietly on her way out. The horse lord remained standing for several moments, waiting until he was sure that she was gone, and that the guards were once more merely standing at their posts. He then stiffly walked back to his bed and flung himself atop it, pressing his face into the pillows, body shivering with agony. He didn’t want this, any of it! His only wish then was to turn the hours by faster so that he could be with Dame Bryonoth all the sooner. She could soothe him. She was the only one who could.

Instead, Thomas had to wait for the rest of the day. Face pressed into the pillows, the Duke of Metamor cried, sobbing with his whole body.

“Have you heard?” Thalberg asked as Andwyn hopped within the Steward’s chambers. The bat morph’s large ridged ears were focussed upon him, small red eyes half close din the warm light of the alligator’s office. Butt he Steward needed the light and the warmth for his own comfort. This meeting had been hastily arranged, and was clearly not something either of them wanted.

“That the Duke shouted at Father Hough for suggesting that Dame Bryonoth’s punishment be lifted?” the bat asked, his tone strangely injured. “Yes, I have heard that. Was there some tidbit that I am not likely to be privy to?”

Thalberg’s crocodilian jaws managed a frown. He sat back down at his desk, sweeping his red robes behind him with one arm. “That is clearly enough. I have not seen him act that way to other petitioners. Nor have any of his decisions of late come as swiftly and as forcefully. This was spoken with absolute conviction.”

Andwyn’s wingtips fluttered as he took a few more steps within the room. He seemed to be trying to find someplace he could comfortably dangle from. Thalberg would have to remember to erect a beam for the Intelligence Head’s use in the future. Assuming they both weren’t put to death for treason.

“Isn’t it good that he has demonstrated some of his old character again?” Andwyn asked, though there did not seem to be the level of confidence in his voice that Thalberg might have expected.

“If it had been his old character, then yes. But it was not. This was a different sort of conviction, a different sort of élan. This was not the Thomas that I have known for the whole of his life.”

The bat morph appeared to consider that, his face as unreadable as the Steward’s to most. “So what would you have of me?”

Thalberg leaned forward, long green paws pressing into the table. “The matter that precipitated this burst was a request about Dame Bryonoth. You know as well as I that Thomas sought her ought at the Knight’s Ball to dance with her. Have you discovered anything in your watching of Thomas that would connect him to her?”

“Do you think they share a secret rendezvous then? Are they lovers?”

“I don’t know,” Thalberg admitted, his voice gravely and growling.

“Would it even be a terrible thing if they were?” the bat ventured.

But Thalberg cut that thought off with a gruff snap of his jaws. “I do not think they are lovers. There is some element to this that we do not yet know. You need to find it out and soon. Thomas retired to his rooms early tonight, so you will undoubtedly discover where he is going.”

“I will watch. Is there anything else I should look for?”

Thalberg thought for a moment. “Is there anyone you can trust to keep an eye on Bryonoth? A discreet one that will be able to keep silent if our fears are true?”

This left the bat to pondering for several moments. His red eyes did not meet the Steward’s, but were drawn inwards. His leathery wings curled about his body, while the short legs dug at the carpeting beneath. Finally, he nodded. “Yes, I have somebody in mind. I shall speak with them immediately. What reason should I give?”

“Whatever you deem appropriate,” Thalberg said, his voice heavy. “Let us solve this mystery soon. I can bear little more of it.”

“And let us hope it does not end in treachery,” Andwyn cautioned, before bowing his head and taking his leave of the Steward. The alligator could only sit within his chair, long tail behind him beneath the red robes, and ponder.

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