Never Again a Man - Part VI

Message for you, Master Brightleaf,” Kee called to the fox from the far side of the bath hall. Misha knew it was the coyote even though the room was filled with steam from the heated bath. How the coyote knew he was in there he could only imagine.

“Wait there,” Misha called out, and then swam with powerful strokes, the steaming water flowing through his fur, washing the soap free. The grime that had managed to get within the fur and underneath his claws form his trek northward was blissfully gone. He had just returned the previous evening from a venture to inspect the Giant’s Dike with Arla and Jotham. On their way back they’d stopped at the Glen to share a few stories and drinks with their fellow Long Charles and his very pregnant wife Lady Kimberly. The poor woman had barely been able to stand up on her own, and yet she had almost a full month left before Lady Avery thought the children would be born. How would she look by then?

The Dike itself had been as he’d hoped with the watchtowers rebuilt and manned. Another was being built a few miles north of the Valley’s mouth, but it still had far to go. A quiet May would be needed before it could be finished. But for now, Misha looked forward to spending a quiet day with his clockwork contraptions and a lovely evening with Caroline. But of course, somebody was sending him a message.

Misha reached the edge of the pool and pulled himself up over the lip, the steam rising all about to cast the room in a pleasant white fog. The blue tiling that surrounded the edge was wet from where other bathers had dried themselves off, or at least attempted to. Misha had a few charms that would help dry his fur, though he’d be brushing it for a good hour to keep it straight afterwards. But fur got dirtier far quicker than skin, and he couldn’t stand it after a few weeks.

Strange at that, considering when he was in the field, no amount of grime ever bothered him. But when he returned to Metamor, it was nice to be clean again. With another shrug, he pulled his towel around his waist, tail pulled close between his legs, and he approached the coyote who’d dutifully waited by the entranceway. Kee was dressed in simple blue tunic and breeches, and his dusty fur was a bit dishevelled. He held a small wax sealed scroll in one paw, one dark claw idly fingering at the edge of the scroll itself.

“Good morning, Kee,” Misha said with a laugh. “It’s still morning right?”

The coyote grinned a bit, his ears lifting a bit in mirth. “Aye, it is still morning. I was told that you were to read this message immediately.” He held out the scroll then, rolling it about in his open paw.

Misha nodded, reached down and picked up his second towel, and began to rub his paw fur until the pads and fur were as dry as he could make them. He tossed the small towel across his shoulder, and then took the parchment, noting that the seal was that of the Steward’s. After the curses had been laid down seven years ago, he’d taken an alligator’s head for his own seal to reflect his new form. It was not often that Misha had the pleasure of any official word from Thalberg, and certainly none that needed his immediate attention. Curious, he broke the seal and drew open the scroll.

Only to discover that Thalberg needed the fox in his quarters by ten o’clock that morning. Misha frowned and tore the message in two, then four. “Thank you, Kee.”

“Of course, Master Brightleaf,” Kee nodded, before turning about and setting off at a reasonable jog down the corridor. Misha did not watch him go, but turned about and grabbed the rest of his things – his soaps and clothes – and carried them in a bundle under one arm back up the stairs towards the Long House. If the Long House itself had any baths, he hadn’t been able to find them yet, so had to make do with the communal baths in the Keep. But of course, that meant that the guards chuckled as he passed them by.

Even his fellow Longs were surprised to see him moving briskly through the main hall with only the towel about his waist.

“Never you mind!” Misha snapped at Kershaw as the red panda just stared slack-jawed even after the rest had politely turned their heads.

He would not have minded had Caroline seen him that way, but naturally, she was not in the hall just then. Misha ignored them as he went back into his chambers and tossed his clothes to one side. Whatever it was that Thalberg wanted him for, he would have to prepare quickly. There was a bit of bread and cheese sitting on one shelf, and he munched upon that while he brushed out his fur as best he could. The combs he used had enchantments forged by his sister that would warm his fur as well. As the myriad hands in all the clock faces about his workshop began to near ten, his fur was mostly dry and back in shape, and Misha had donned a green tunic with the black foxhead symbol with axe and bow for the Longs upon the lapel. Finishing off the last of the cheese, he sipped a bit of wine, and then wiped his muzzle clean upon his towel and nodded. He was ready.

This time, his fellow Longs smiled but did not stare as he passed them by. He spoke briefly with Kershaw, telling the red panda where he’d be, and then left Long House yet again. Misha always felt a pang of regret when he left that amazing hall that the Keep had provided for the Longs. After the assault that winter, it had become even more dear to him. It had been their refuge, their place to strike back against the invaders. Truly, it had been saved for a time when it was needed. Perhaps they still did not yet know its full purpose.

It did not take him long to reach Thalberg’s quarters. He was surprised to discover that four members of the royal guard, and not just two, were standing outside the large oak doorway. They nodded to Misha and opened the door. They had clearly been told to allow him entrance. Misha recognized a few faces from the defence of the Long House and smiled to each of them, greeting them briefly before stepping through the doorway. He was even more surprised to see who was already assembled. Thalberg stood beside his large desk, dressed in scarlet robes. Malisa reclined in the chaise lounge at the side of the wall, while two perches had been set out on the other side of the room, and upon them stood Andwyn and Jessica.

George leaned one shoulder against the wall, and the jackal nodded as Misha stepped through. “Enjoy your bath?”

Misha smiled. “Yes, I did, thank you.” He then turned to Thalberg, nodding once to Malisa first. “Your message said to be here at ten o’clock, Thalberg. It is nearly ten now. Is there anyone else we can expect?”

Thalberg grunted then, yellow eyes narrowing slightly. “Welcome to my chambers, Misha Brightleaf. You may sit down if you like. I have brought chairs enough for all.” He indicated the three unused chairs that took up the remainder of the room, forming a small semicircle with the two perches for the winged Keepers and the lounge upon which Malisa sat.

“Who are we waiting for then?” Misha asked as he took one of the seats. They were both upholstered with a red velvet damask. Against his newly dried fur it was quite soft and comfortable.

“Rickkter,” George said, a very slight smile upon his jaw. “He left the Keep early this morning to attend to some business in town, so the message got to him later than any of us.”

“Speaking of which, I believe he is coming now,” Andwyn said, small eyes very nearly shut against the warm light that illuminated the Steward’s chambers. A mirror had been set up in the doorway to his sleeping chambers, and it sent a wide ray of light into the room. Conspicuously, Andwyn’s perch had been set outside that beam, but he still squinted.

And then, as the bat had predicted, they all heard the soft footfalls of the raccoon, and then the oak door opened, and in stepped the battle mage. Rickkter bore an unpleasant moue as he looked about, obviously unhappy to have been drug away from whatever venture had gained his interest that morning.

“Welcome, Rickkter,” Thalberg said at last. The raccoon nodded to the Steward, noted both the bat and Malisa, as well as the other Keepers there, but did not betray any surprise. He nodded to Misha and George as well before resting his paws on the back of one of the chairs.

“So,” Misha called out before any one else could speak. He wanted to spend his day tinkering with his clocks, or perhaps Madog if he could get the automaton’s acquiescence, but he suspected that probably wasn’t going to happen now. “Why did you summon us, Steward Thalberg?”

Thalberg did not speak immediately, pausing to make sure that all were looking to him. His voice, when he finally did speak, was grave and quite tense. “What I am about to tell you must remain within the strictest confidence. You will know why shortly. You have all been selected by Andwyn, Malisa, and myself because we believe that not only are you capable of what we will ask, but you can be completely trusted with this too. Do you all understand?”

Misha nodded his head, as did Jessica. George crossed his arms and tapped one paw upon the ground, while Rickkter cracked his knuckles. “We will once you tell us,” the raccoon replied brusquely.

If the alligator took Rickkter’s manner the wrong way, he did not show it. Instead, he nodded his long jaw and continued. “In the last few months, the manner of Duke Thomas has changed drastically. Why, we did not know until last night. Some of you know that during the assault his grace was kidnapped by then Sir Bryonoth, the one knight we could not find after the Patriarch’s murder. The kidnapping was accomplished by the use of a magical halter that forced Duke Thomas into a full horse form, and put him completely under Bryonoth’s control. Thanks to the valiant efforts of Sir Saulius and Sir Egland, Bryonoth was stopped, and Thomas rescued and returned to his normal form. Bishop Vinsah performed an exorcism upon Bryonoth, removing the evil spirit that lay within him. We thought that was the end of the story, but unfortunately, it has taken a turn for the worse.

“In the last couple months, the Duke has frequently retired to his chambers early. At first I believed this merely to be strain. But now we know that he has been leaving his chambers shortly before nightfall to meet with somebody in secret. He goes down to the vault, retrieves the halter, and then goes to meet with another where he puts on the haler willingly and is then treated like a common horse for the night. He even carts onions about town. And the person who does this to him is Dame Bryonoth.”

The silence that followed Thalberg’s pronouncement lasted nearly a minute. Each moved their muzzles, but could find no words to perform. Misha himself was stunned, though after thinking on it for a moment, knew that it all fit. Thomas had been acting strangely lately, weak-willed, making decisions that did not seem reasonable. The very thought though of letting himself be treated like a common animal horrified the fox. What could have made Thomas sink to that?

“He has been acting odd lately,” Misha finally managed to say, glancing briefly at the rest of them. Slow nods of assent came from the rest, though Rickkter seemed unhappy still.

“What do you intend to do about it then?” Rickkter asked at last, arms crossed.

“We will catch him in the act,” Thalberg announced, nodding to Andwyn. “We know that Thomas will be meeting Bryonoth again tonight. We know when and where it will take place. But we don’t know what capabilities Bryonoth has at her disposal. If she is still using the halter to warp the Duke’s mind, she may have other magical powers we have not yet seen. That is why you two have been called here, Rickkter, Jessica.”

“Why me?” Jessica asked then, her voice strained, squawking. “I’m only a journeyman, and that not even a year. I know we have other accomplished mages.”

“Yes, we do. And their skills will be called upon as well. But for this, I want you there. Bryonoth was taken by the same man that Wessex sought. You alone here at Metamor know the most about that man. If Bryonoth has other weapons of magical nature you would stand the best chance of recognizing them.”

Rickkter raised an eyebrow at that, but did not object. George stood straight then, eyes narrowed. “And what would you have of Misha and I?”

“I need you George to choose men under your command to guard the stables while we capture Duke Thomas and Bryonoth, men who will not ask questions and will tell no stories. They will also need to watch over both of them afterwards, at least until our mages can break whatever enchantments have been placed over them both.”

“I can do that,” George replied. “I know exactly the men I will give this job.”

“We will also need you there to subdue Bryonoth. I do not want her hurt, as she may be the key to unlocking the spell that has been placed upon Thomas.”

“Are you sure a spell has been placed upon him?” Rickkter asked drily.

Thalberg very nearly snarled at the battle mage. “I have known him for the whole of his life. He is not the sort of man to let another master him so easily. And he certainly would not lie to Malisa and I about something of this magnitude. His entire personality has changed, and he is going off more and more at night. There is no doubt in my mind that he is under some geas. Something is compelling him to want to be a normal horse more and more.”

“Then,” Rickkter pointed out, “wouldn’t Thomas react violently to us trying to break him from that? Won’t he fight back?”

Thalberg sighed and nodded, the sudden anger melting from him again, though he remained tense. “Yes, I believe he will. He fought against Sir Egland when he was first kidnapped, but then it had been at Bryonoth’s command. If the halter is upon him, we can expect it to be no different. You may have to subdue the Duke of Metamor as well. Do you understand that? You my have to raise your paw against the very Duke you have sworn fealty to.”

It was Misha who spoke first then, his voice firm. “I have pledged my fealty to Metamor and the House of Hassan. If to serve Metamor, I must prevent my lord from doing something foolish, I will do so.”

“As will I,” George put in.

“And I,” Jessica said, her voice still squawking.

Rickkter nodded. “I make my own way in the world, but this is my home too. I will do what is necessary to help.”

“Good,” Thalberg said, taking a step forward. He gestured one scaled hand to the bat. “Andwyn will arrange for the transport of both back into the Keep after you’ve subdued them. From there, they will fall under the provinces of the mages, so that the spells around them might be broken.”

“This must be kept secret,” Misha declared then. There was a firm conviction in his voice now that they were all committed. “But people will still whisper and ask questions.”

“There have been many already asking questions,” Andwyn pointed out. The hawk Jessica appeared distinctly uncomfortable perched next to the Chief of Metamor’s Spies. “It is why we know what we do.”

“But if up till now,” the fox went on, “Thomas has still been Duke. He’s still been seen. What happens after we subdue him? We need somebody to stand in for him so that he won’t be missed.”

Thalberg gestured to Malisa. “Prime Minister Malisa will be assuming responsibility until Duke Thomas has been freed from these enchantments. Should anybody ask, we will simply say that he is not quite feeling himself and needs rest to recover.”

“That is what we have decided and I have agreed to,” Malisa said, her voice a delicate counterpoint to the Steward’s gruff ostinato.

“That will be accepted for a little while, but not for as long as it may take to break the enchantment,” Misha replied.

“Misha’s right,” Rickkter interjected, his words firm. “If Thomas is in hiding for too long, word will get to the South, and some folks there may think it more than that. They may think he died and we are trying to hide it.”

“And Thomas has no heir,” Malisa finished for the raccoon, her own eyes lost in the memory of something, but Misha could not see what. He knew that Malisa had been adopted by Thomas years before, but it was not something that anyone talked about.

“Right,” Rickkter went on. “Some of them may up and decide they don’t need to pay their taxes anymore, or even swear fealty anymore. Metamor cannot afford to take that chance.”

Thalberg nodded slowly. His yellow eyes narrowed at the company suspiciously “I agree about that. And that is why we are going to have the mages working very hard to break this enchantment. Rickkter, I know you will enjoy the challenge the halter will present. If we need to, we can even bring in outside assistance.”

“Like who?” Rickkter asked, obviously dubious.

Thalberg turned then to Misha, his crocodilian jaws seeming to smile. “Misha. Your sister Elizabeth is a powerful mage is she not.”

The fox shook his head though. “She is powerful, but I’m afraid if we brought her in on this, it’s possible all of Marigund would know. At least, the guild. And if word leaked out, it would leak far and wide. And Marigund is far closer to Kelewair than we are.”

“But surely,” Andwyn jumped in, “she can act without the oversight of the guild.”

“To come here to study this halter, she would need the permission of the guild,” Misha pointed out. “And to get that, we would have to tell the rest of the guild, which defeats our entire purpose.”

“Perhaps,” the bat mused thoughtfully. He opened his eyes wide enough to cast a meaningful glance at the hawk to his left, a smile curling his lips. “But perhaps there is a way to gain the assistance of a mage like your sister. I understand she is assisting Jessica here in her continued magical studies. If the halter were brought to her as merely one more object in the course of that study?” His smile widened. “Surely she could be prevailed upon to maintain the secrecy of that at least, and the guild need never know, as the permission has already been granted.”

Rickkter chuckled under his breath at that and shook his head. Jessica looked slightly upset at the bat’s suggestion, but could only shift from talon to talon upon her perch. George continued to lean against the wall with his arms crossed. To Misha, the bat’s manipulation was irksome. For a moment he wished that Phil were still at Metamor, because Phil would never try to do something like that. And then he corrected himself, knowing full well that Phil would do whatever it took to get the job done, just as Andwyn here did. It just did not seem as bad coming from a cute bunny instead of an ugly fruit bat.

“She is my sister,” Misha said at last. “I will think on that. But we should not pin our hopes on others, we must rely on those sworn first to Metamor. And we should not rush them. I think it wise if we have another stand in for the Duke.”

“There are not enough horse morphs within Metamor to find one that could possibly stand-in for Duke Thomas,” Thalberg pointed out.

“They don’t need to look like the Duke. We can use an illusion to make them look and sound like the Duke,” Misha replied.

“Murikeer could have done that,” Rickkter suggested, though there was a trace of something else in his voice. Something unpleasant. “Had he not left.”

“Were that Murikeer were still here,” Malisa lamented. “He was exceptionally gifted with illusions in a way that I and others can only envy.”

Rickkter nodded, eyes narrowing. “Yes, he was gifted, but that does not mean the rest of us are incapable. I certainly can craft an illusion that will be good for some things. With the aid of other mages here at Metamor, the illusion can easily rival the skunk’s best.”

“Very well,” Malisa said, offering a firm nod to the raccoon. “But we would need someone who could stand in for Thomas convincingly, even with an illusion. And somebody who could keep a secret. None of us would do, as we would be missed as well.”

“An actor or storyteller,” Rickkter suggested. “Either would suit your needs.”

“Storytellers tell stories,” Andwyn pointed out, his voice lecturing. “And actors love to boast of their roles. I doubt we could trust either to keep the secret of what they will have done.”

The raccoon eyes narrowed then. “Don’t speak to me like that, bat. Most of the Keepers here love this land too much to jeopardize it by waging their tongues.”

The bat spread his wings in a conciliatory manner. “Forgive me for my speech. But I think you are wrong. The secret they may keep guarded, but what happens when they let that guard down, when they slip too far into the cups? Know you of any actors who could still hold their tongues?”

“There’s a minstrel about town, once by the name of Dream, but he changed that after the winter attack. Perhaps he?” Misha offered as he glanced over toward the Master of Secrets.

“Malger Sutt? The master of sensates?” Andwyn rasped with a twitch of his wings, the sudden harshness in his voice touched with sounds that forced many ears to back in distress. “I hardly see why you might think that.”

“I’ve had a few occasions to judge him. While he seems a gregarious sort, he has a sense of many secrets unspoken about him. What would one more be to him?” Misha shrugged.

The bat shifted on his perch and cast the master of the Longs an exasperated glance, “One such secret being that he is a daedra follower? He revealed himself to be a follower of Nocturna to the Lightbrigher shortly after the attack was thrown back.”

Misha’s eyes went wide and he winced at that news. Ever since her return the previous autumn with the skunk, her new love, in tow she had seldom been seen in the company of the bard. So it was that Misha had not seen the foppish troubadour long enough to speak. He only learned of the name change when he was introduced at a tavern he was performing in. At the time he had thought to ask about it but never found the time.

Rick threw up a hand and growled at the bickering, “It matters little where his faith lies, he’s no longer at Metamor. He left with Malger this spring on whatever fool's errand the skunk had.”

Thalberg grunted then and crossed his arms, the folds of his red robes bunching at his arms, the hem lifting to reveal the thick clawed feet he trod upon. “This decision must be given some thought. Malisa, Andwyn and I will decide later today who can be approached about taking Thomas’s place. If it takes us an extra day to find a suitable man, that is fine. Duke Thomas not being seen for one day will not arouse any suspicion.”

“So what of us now?” George asked, the jackal’s voice clear and hard.

“Now,” Thalberg continued, “we plan. We cannot do anything until Bryonoth has taken him within the stables. Once that is done, we will need to act. Andwyn will be inside to watch, a witness should it come to that. The rest of us must remain outside. George, your men will have to move into place as we go in. Te transportation to bring them both within the castle will be arranged by me, but where it is to wait, we must decide that. Also, it is now that we must decide in what manner we shall go inside. That is what we must now do.”

Each nodded slowly but solemnly. Misha leaned forward then, swallowing deeply, wondering idly when that day of rest would ever come.

“You’ll have to wait out here,” Sir Egland said, unbuckling his sword and handing it to his squire Intoran. The oryx took the broadsword in his heavy fingers and nodded to the knight. While Intoran was dressed in Ecclesia green tunic and breeches befitting a squire, Egland himself was dressed in a suit of ring mail with a green tabard.

“I hope things went well,” Intoran offered as he held the sword, and Egland smiled. The elk yearned to touch his squire’s face then, to caress the soft smooth fur, but knew better than to do so publically. Especially not at the door to the Ecclesia chapel. Instead he nodded his head and stepped through the wide doors. Father Hough and several of his acolytes were busy putting candles and censers from the morning service away. The weekday services were not even half again as large as Sunday services, but they were still held and attended.

“Good morning, Father,” Sir Egland called, waving and jingling as he tromped up the aisle.

“Ah, Sir Egland,” Father Hough replied, a smile stretching across his cherubic face. He gestured with one hand to the door at the side that led to his quarters. “Please wait for me in there.”

Sir Egland nodded his cervine head and did as instructed. He gently took a seat, half afraid he might break it weighing as much as he did with his mail on. But he should have known better. There were Keepers far larger than he who had say within that chair before, and still it stood.

Hough entered only a few moments later, wiping his hands together, a nervous look replacing the smile he’d borne only moments ago. “I suppose you’ve come to ask how my meeting with the Duke went yesterday?”

“Yes,” Sir Egland nodded, feeling quite uncomfortable suddenly. “I had thought you would have sent word immediately, Father.”

“I would have,” the priest began, but then shivered and shook his head firmly. “But I couldn’t. I’m sorry, my son. I just couldn’t face you then.”

Sir Egland leaned forward a bit, his ring mail jingling. “What’s wrong, Father?”

The boy clutched the arm of his own chair to steady himself. His eyes were shut tight, face creased in a very adult manner. “The Duke did not grant your wish, Sir Egland. He will not help you, at least not like that.”

“He won’t?” Sir Egland felt the words like a dagger thrust into his heart. If not even Thomas would help, what then could be done for his sister Bryonoth? “Did his grace say why?”

Hough took a deep breath. There seemed to be some agony deeper merely than the disappointment of foul news. “That if Bryonoth is happy selling onions, then she shall continue to do so.”

Sir Egland could only blink. “He said that?” He sat dumbstruck as Hough nodded slowly. “And what of a tourney? Did he say no to that as well, Father?”

“I never asked,” Hough admitted then, his body trembling anew. “I’m sorry my son.”

Standing, Sir Egland nodded. “It is all right, Father. I suppose his grace is still angry with her. I should have known better. Thank you for your help, Father.”

Father Hough nodded then, regaining his composure somewhat. He turned from the side of the chair, but still his hands gripped the front of his alb tightly, twisting the fabric. “I could try again if you wish. To ask at least for the tourney.”

“No, Father. I should ask that. Thank you, Father.” He knelt then before the boyish priest, until he felt the touch of a small hand upon the side of his neck. “I must go now.”


“To train my squire Intoran in the ways of knighthood. He will be learning about the tourney fields this week.”

Hough nodded then and patted him fully on the neck. “I wish you both well then. Go with Eli’s grace, child.”

Sir Egland nodded and rose back to his hooves. “And with you, Father.” He turned and left the priest’s chambers. The boy was still unsettled by something, but it was not the knight’s place to ask what. Instead, he made his way back to the main doors where Intoran stood waiting, holding his sword aloft. Egland took it with a slight smile and buckled at his waist once more.

“What did he say?” Intoran asked, eyes wide.

“Later. Let me think on it,” Egland said, his voice low. He would tell his squire of course, but not there. And perhaps, he would speak with Bryonoth again. Yes, he must. That evening, at the stables. He could wait no longer, he’d waited too long already.

Du Tournemire was returning from his meal with the Lord Guilford when Zagrosek strode once more into his presence. He knew the Sondecki was coming, he could feel it upon the very air for several minutes before his visage even came into view. It was a crisp crackling sensation, like bone dry berries shattering in the chill, or an ice-locked lake cracking wherever he put his feet. Of course, it was this way with all the Marquis’s servants. Even then he could feel them distant, balls of tightly wound energy simply waiting for his hand to reach out and unfurl them.

“Your grace,” Zagrosek said with a bow of his head. “I need to speak with you alone.”

The Marquis was accompanied by his two family retainers, his castellan Sir Autrefois and his steward Vigoureux. With a wave of his hand he dismissed them both. The two men each disappeared in opposite directions without a word, keeping careful watch that no idle eyes would be able to observe their master’s discussion.

“What is it?” the Marquis asked in a quiet voice once both were out of earshot.

Zagrosek leaned closer, a slight smile teasing the ends of his lips. “I have just received word from Bryonoth. She plans to take the Duke tonight.”

“Already? Very well. Inform me if she is successful.”

The black clad man’s faint smile vanished. “She lacks the magical strength to do this on her own.” He paused a moment, as if he were summoning the courage to finish the thought. “I will need to be there myself to complete this.”

“Then go.” The Marquis only then appeared interested in the topic. “Are you sure that they will not be able to undo these enchantments?”

“Once the spell has become part of the Duke’s essence, it becomes necessary for any who wishes to undo it to have the Duke’s cooperation. But the spell’s very nature will make him resist any such attempt. To reverse it would be an act of legend.”

“Good. Go now. It will take you all day to reach Metamor.”

Zagrosek nodded then and backed away. His smile had returned once more. He glanced in either direction down the long brick hall, but it was only the two of them within it. The hall of course was decorated with several alcoves in which suits of armour or statues of granite and marble stood. And those alcoves were full of shadows. The Sondecki stepped within those dark spaces, and the Marquis felt a slight rush of air. He smiled then, and continued on his way.

It was already midafternoon by the time that Misha finally returned to his cozy chambers in Long House. The meeting with Thalberg had become quite detailed, with several plans suggested, refined, and then dismissed for a new approach. None seemed quite satisfactory, but how could any of them be he realized, when they just were not certain of how things really would be.

As the fox stepped within, he called out, “Nena Tofshu!” A small stone set atop one of the workshelves began to glow brightly, bringing the rest of the room into warm brilliance. Satisfied, the fox let his weariness take hold.

A large stuffed chair and ottoman atop which several metal gears had been sorted into piles stood against the far wall next to the unlit fireplace. The fox collapsed within it, propping his legs upon the ottoman, the little gears clinking together as his weight shifted the cushion about. That morning they had been in a confused pile on his workshop table, and he’d moved them to his ottoman before heading off for his bath to remind himself to organize them that afternoon. He nudged one of the larger gears with his foot paw, small black claws and pads running along the hard metal, tilting it up to catch the shimmering light from his stone. He’d organize them later.

In the end, they’d decided to go with Rickkter’s suggestion of subterfuge. Misha did not like it, but it was no worse than any other suggestion offered. But now they merely had to wait until after dinner. Until then, he was to give no indication of what was going to happen, or what had been happening. It made his stomach churn.

Misha had no taste for political intrigue. Though born to a noble family in Marigund, he’d left it many years ago for the life of a warrior and scout. Things were much simpler when life and death were merely either side of an axe blade. Not once had he regretted his decision; even when he’d first become the fox morph seven years ago it had never occurred to him what his life might be like if he hadn’t left Marigund. Though he’d allowed his brother to attempt to reverse the curse, he now identified more with the fox form and the foxtaur form than he did his old human self.

But this matter with Duke Thomas was intrigue that he could not shy away from. Though he would not be responsible for the deception that would follow, he would still be involved. For as long as he lived, he would have to carry with him whatever it was that he would see that night. His liege as a common beast of burden, yearning to be that? The very notion of it made him shudder. He kicked at the metal gears and several of them went flying, only to bounce with metallic clinks from the stone wall and floor, rolling about until they finally settled, rattling to the floor.

One of them rolled right down the cracks in the masonry, and his grey eyes followed it, until it bounced off of a metallic paw and fell on its side. Misha blinked and turned his head further, and there was Madog, sitting on his haunches, gazing at him with curious blue eyes.

“Poppa?” There was something immensely concerned in the tone.

“Ah, Madog,” Misha said, smiling a bit. He was always delighted to see the automaton. He’d spent the better part of a year rebuilding the creature, aided by Jon, Smithson, Cutter, and so many others. But it had bene his paws that had done most of the work. And it was his leaf symbol that had been imprinted upon the creature’s interior. Madog would always look up to him.

“Something’s wrong,” the automaton said then, leaning his muzzle forward, ears erect as if he were listening for something. “Poppa not happy.”

If there was anyone he could talk to, it was Madog. Many times the automaton would chase after a metal ball as enthusiastically as any dog. Other times, it would speak of things in a way that no man could fathom. There was little harm in speaking to the Madog of what troubled him.

“Well, there are things bothering me, Madog. I have to do something tonight that I do not like one bit.”

“Oh, what are you doing?” There was a sudden enthusiasm in Madog’s voice, his tail was wagging back and forth now.

“I’ll be helping the Duke out. He’s been having some problems that we need to fix.”

Madog rose to all fours, tail still wagging. He barked. “Can I come, Poppa?”

Misha was about to shake his head, but then laughed. He leaned over in the chair and patted the mechanical fox upon the head. “Sure. Just as long as you promise to behave and do as your told.”

“I promise!” Madog yipped excitedly. “I promise!” He pirouetted in a circle a few times before looking back to the Long Scout. “Wanna play?”

Laughing, Misha climbed from his seat, glad to have the automaton’s companionship in those few hours before dusk.

It had taken all of Thomas’s effort to keep his hands form shaking as he had penned the words. The proclamation was to be his very last, he knew, for tonight Bryonoth would make him a horse forever. Just the mere thought of becoming Toumoth for the rest of his days made his long tail sway back and forth, his flesh trembling with nervous anticipation. His blood pounded, his whole body exulting in the very notion of being her horse.

But until then, he was still the Duke of Metamor. And as such, he had many responsibilities. What his daughter Malisa had said was certainly true. Metamor needed a leader, and one of noble blood, for the southern fiefs to remain loyal. In the end, Thomas had finally written down the names of the lords in the valley and selected one blindly. He’d then written the proclamation, measuring each word carefully. He would have to leave it for Thalberg or Malisa to find after Dame Bryonoth made him her horse. If they saw it before, they might attempt to stop him. Once it was irrevocable, they’d have no choice but to do as he wished.

Leaning back, he read over it once more. Once he was certain that it was just how he wanted it, he affixed the ducal seal upon the bottom and signed it. Letting out a sigh of relief, he laid the proclamation upon his desk where it would eventually be found. Standing, he crossed his chambers to the windowsill and stared out across Metamor. It would no longer be his land after tonight. He’d be but one more animal that lived upon the land. Compared to the majesty of the valley, life in a stable seemed far better.

Thomas smiled then, and just stared dreamily out the window as he waited for the dusk.

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