Parlay - Part VI
orning came far too soon as far as the rat was concerned. His bed was warm and the air had a sweet scent upon it, but he could enjoy none of it for the ache in his head was simply too great. It was a throbbing pain that pounded upon him like a kettledrum. For Charles, this was hardly unfamiliar. And as the dim recollection of his activities the earlier eve began to seep back through the cracks of his consciousness, he knew that he probably deserved to feel as awful as he did.
Despite this, it did not take him long to realize that he was alone in his bed. The strident sounds of footsteps came to him, and still with eyes clenched shut, he pushed himself up against his headboard, opening his muzzle for the foul concoction that he knew was his destiny. He could already smell its acrid fumes turning his stomach, and his tongue pulled back, wishing not to have to suffer so.
But the froth was poured down his throat, burning and staining his tongue with its rancid flavour. He scrunched his face up, whiskers gone flat against his cheeks, tongue trying to wipe itself clean against his massive incisors. It did nothing then to remove the hangover that still clutched at his mind, but at the very least he was completely awake now. The pounding within his skull would subside after a time.
He heard the footsteps back up to give him space. He blinked a few times, light pouring into his abused eyes. He shut them again as a new painful sensation struck him, but soon that too abated. A pleasant voice cajoled him, a trilling laughter upon her breath. He smiled lightly at that, and leaned forward to plant kiss upon his wife’s muzzle where he knew it would be, even as he tried once more to open his eyes.
To his great surprise, his muzzle did not quite reach her face, but landed upon her breast. He found that strange, but nuzzled there a moment, before she took a sudden step back, nearly toppling the poor rat from the bed. He leaned back, the pain in his head still firm, but not so bad as he could not see her now. He blinked again, but not because the light was bothering him. But because Baerle was standing there holding the cup, and bearing a very twisted smile upon her muzzle.
“Baerle?” Charles said at last, staring in disbelief at the opossum.
She rubbed at her chest where he’d nuzzled her and attempted to kiss her only a moment before. Her smile was pleasant, but there was another quality to it that he could not quite identify. Pained perhaps? “Expecting Kimberly?” He nodded dumbly. “She was not feeling well this morning, and is visiting with Jo and Lady Avery.” Baerle’s eyes fixed on him, noting the way his ears were lifted high, whiskers sticking straight out. “She asked me to watch over you and to help you get over last night.”
Charles groaned then, the throbbing in his head less, but still painful. He did not want to think just how many times he’d tried to do something with Kimberly, and ended up doing it to Baerle instead in the last few days. Kimberly would probably laugh if she heard about it, at how silly her husband was. But what did Baerle think of it? She seemed to be enjoying it, or did she?
“Is Kimberly all right?” he finally managed to ask, rubbing at his forehead with one paw, avoiding her gaze as studiously as he could.
“I think so, she was just feeling a little queasy this morning. She should be back soon.” Baerle looked down at him, still holding the cup in one paw. Her whiskers twitched ever so slightly. “And how are you feeling?”
“Awful,” Charles said woefully. “Could you bring me something to wash this awful taste from my mouth? Kimberly keeps some fruit juice for that.”
Baerle clicked her teeth. “Now, don’t try to pull one over on me, Charles. Kimberly told me exactly how to get you back to your old self again.”
He let out a long sigh, still rubbing at his forehead and eyes. “Why not? It won’t do me any harm.”
The opossum laughed lightly then, sitting down on the edge of the bed just beyond where his foot paws raised the quilt. She just stared at him curiously, waiting for him to answer his own question. At last, after much mulling, the rat spoke again, his voice sardonic, “Trying to convince me not to drink, is that it? Make me suffer even worse after I drink, and offer me no respite?”
She nodded. “Something like that.”
Charles grumbled and frowned at her. “Why do you women have to be interlopers in a man’s enjoyment of his cups? There’s no harm in it.”
“No, you only act stupid, and make a complete fool of yourself. Not to mention your breath is most foul afterward.” Despite this, the opossum was still smiling at him as she lectured him.
Shifting his foot paws so that they were not so close to her, he continued to scowl. “There are many things that we men do not particularly enjoy that women do, but you don’t see us trying to change you.”
Baerle sat up straighter then, her ears lifting along either side of her head. Her long tail curled and then laid out along the quilt. “Oh really? What about me don’t you like?”
The rat could not help but blink and stutter a moment as he stared at her defiant posture. He’d never quite seen her like that before, and somehow, he realized there was no good answer to this one. Nevertheless, he was not the sort who backed down from any sort of challenge, even if he had little to gamble with. “When you ask questions like that.”
It took a moment before those words truly sunk within her. Her ears lowered once more, a blush creeping up along her muzzle. For those who were blessed to be a mix of man and animal, such expressions were often a mixture of whiskers lowering, eyes narrowing, twitching of a smile at the corners of their muzzle., as well as a reddening in their ears. Baerle showed all of those just then.
“Do you realize this is the first time we’ve had more than a few minutes alone together since the siege?” she asked after a long pause, her eyes turning towards the wall, and the thin tapestry that covered the inside of the door to the main room. Charles nodded absently as he let his paws fall to his sides, holding the covers up over his chest still. There were only a few lamps lit within his bedroom, but it was sufficient for him to see all that he needed, one of the advantages of being a rat. The headache had subsided a great deal by then, now just a dull ache in the back of his mind.
“Yes,” he said. “And this time you aren’t going to keep me cooped up in my bed.”
“Oh no?” she asked, smiling at him, though her blush still filled her ears.
“I’m not mortally wounded this time.”
“True, but what would Kimberly say if you got out of bed in front of me with nothing on?” She spoke almost hopefully, or was it, regretfully?
Charles narrowed his eyes. “Then you can either step outside for a moment, or you can close your eyes and I will trust you not to open them. Either way, I am getting out of this bed.” She nodded and then closed her eyes, resting her paws in her lap as she sat on the end of the bed.
His throat was still sore from the concoction forced down it, but for the moment he ignored that. He pushed aside the quilts, and slipped from his bed. Kimberly and he would often walk about in the early hours in only their fur, at least until they were ready to rejoin the world. But today there would still be plenty of celebrating going on. The dance was that evening after all, and he was not likely to miss that.
Even as he considered what state of dress he would be in for the dance, he had to suppress a laugh. Here he was worried about Baerle seeing him nude, when she would get to see just that at the dance anyway. Even so, there was something different about what would happen at the dance, and having her alone in his bedroom. The latter felt very odd to him.
It took Charles only a few minutes to slip on a shirt, vest, and breeches. He choose green colours as was his wont. When he turned about he found that the opossum was still sitting there primly with her eyes closed. “You can open them now,” he called, rubbing once more at his head, working the last of the hangover from it. How he wanted something sweet to drink though.
She did so, although she did not immediately look at him. Instead, almost in a rush, she picked up the cup that had held his baleful draught, and left the room, leaving the door propped open with the tapestry. Charles blinked in surprise at this, and followed her out.
The main hall was a little chilly, but a fire had been kindled in the hearth. The wooden floor beneath his toes was warm of course, as it always was. But the chill in the air assured him that winter’s touch still lingered in the Northern lands. Baerle had already disappeared within the kitchen, but he wasn’t looking for her. His eyes fell upon the clock on the mantlepiece and he gaped.
“It’s past ten o’clock!”
The opossum’s voice rang out from the kitchen, “If you wanted to get up earlier, then maybe you shouldn’t have had so much Caribou.”
Charles grimaced and then tried to remember why he had drunk so much of the bruin brewer’s special concoction. It did not take long for him to remember the annoying Kankoran and their little unspoken contest. There were other faint images as well, of them walking paw to shoulder, but those seemed too far-fetched to be real. He hoped that he won, but he couldn’t remember that either.
He stepped over to one of the couches and slid down within it. Although he could hear no sounds from the kitchen anymore, he knew that Baerle was still within it. What was she doing in there? “What happened last night? When I was drinking I mean. Was there anybody else drinking still with me when I finished?”
“When you passed out? Oh, just the raccoon that came from Metamor.”
He winced at that. “What was he doing then, when I passed out, I mean?”
Baerle’s tone was curious. “Oh you two were trying to help each other over to the vat to get more Caribou. You both collapsed and passed out right there too. The Longs helped drag you both to your rooms after that.”
Well, Charles thought ruefully, at least Rickkter passed out at the same time. Neither of them winning was better than Rickkter winning. Although he was sure that the raccoon felt much the same way about him.
“Have the festivities begun again?” he called out.
“Yes, mostly games and sport. But some are just as slow to rise as you have been. I don’t think we are missing much.” She came out of the kitchen then, holding her paws behind her and over her tail. She glided over to a seat on the far side of the living room, and sat down, lifting her tail behind her to curl over the back. Charles felt strangely disappointed that she chose to sit so far away, but he made no move to get closer.
“Why aren’t you out there having a good time?” Charles asked, feeling much better, though he still wished that he could wash his throat down with something sweet.
Baerle shrugged slightly. “Kimberly asked me to make sure you had your medicine.”
“And you have,” he said, exaggerating his grimace. “Nothing stopping you from having a good time with the other Glenners now.”
Her ears lifted slightly. “Do you want me to leave?”
Very quietly, Charles said, “No.”
Neither of them spoke for some time after that. Both sat on opposite ends of the living room, their eyes meeting only occasionally and briefly. Charles let his eyes wander to the small round windows set along the wall with the door, noting the thick walls of the tree roots that blocked most of his view. But he could see some of the streamers and the faint passing of Glenners.
Baerle let her eyes dwell on the wall separating them from the kitchen. Set against it was a bookcase containing many of the tomes that the rat had picked up in his years, as well as some of his own endeavours during his years as a Headmaster of the Writer’s Guild. Flanking it on either side were embroidered murals that Kimberly had made herself back when they had lived in Metamor.
At long last, Charles could bear the silence no more and turned to face the opossum once more. “What has been keeping you busy this last month? It has been as long since I think we last spoke.”
She nodded at that after a moment, her eyes meeting his. “I still scout for the Glen, and watch guard when needed. I keep Kimberly company much of the time.”
Charles nodded. “She’s told me about your chats. She thinks a great deal of you, Baerle. Thank you for doing that for her.” When he’d first heard of the opossum’s conversations with his wife, he was dubious and unsure. But now, the words were genuine.
“Your wife is one of the nicest people I know. She keeps me company as much as I keep her. You are very lucky to have her.” Charles wondered if there was any bitterness in her voice, but he could hear none.
“Thank you, Baerle.” He smiled slightly to her, but then an uncomfortable moue took over his face. He took a deep breath, and then in unsteady tones, added, “I am sorry I did not tell you about her when we first met. I never meant to hurt you.”
“I know,” she said, her eyes now distant. Neither of them spoke for a moment. Charles felt as if there was more he had to say, but the words would not come to him. The opossum though was able to find her voice. Her eyes grew more focussed, and her gaze kept him steady. “Why didn’t you?”
The rat sighed then, sinking further into his chair. He half hoped that Kimberly would return then to spare him the need to answer that question. Yet the door stayed shut, and he had to speak. “I don’t know. I wasn’t really thinking about it. There was just so much happening, it was hard to keep everything straight.” His eyes fell then and he looked at his paws in his lap. “You were a companion to me in a time when I needed one. I liked your attention.”
She smiled a bit then, and then blushed in her ears some, looking away from him. She rose from her seat, and strode over to the hearth, placing another log on the crackling blaze. Charles watched her curiously, wondering if he should have instead kept his tongue silent. How he wished he knew what she was thinking, yet he did not dare ask. “Do you still?” she asked, though her back remained to him as she stood before the hearth.
The rat smiled slightly, “Yes. Except when you poured that concoction down my throat. I could have lived without that.”
“And been miserable too,” she said, one of her ears twitching in apparent mirth.
“Most likely, yes. But my throat would feel better,” Charles continued to smile, but it waned slightly as she did not respond. She kneeled down and placed another log on the fire and then closed the sluice to keep anything from spilling out onto the brick inlay. Finally, the rat rose from his own seat, and took a few steps towards her. The sound of his toe claws against the wooded floor turned her head.
Baerle’s own smile was tight, as if held in place with string. “I could not have done except what your wife asked me to do.”
Charles scanned her side once, dark eyes taking in her form, dressed as it was in warm woolen breeches and jerkin. “Did she ask you to do anything else?”
Her eyes slid away from him and down to the floor. “Merely to keep you company until she returns.”
Slowly, he nodded and smiled wider. With a sweep of one arm, he gestured towards one of the longer couches. “Perhaps we shall sit down then?” She smiled at that, and turned, taking a seat at the far end of the couch. Charles took the other end, crossing his paws over his lap, his foot paws crossed at the ankles. “Was there anything you wished to do this last day of the festival?”
The innocence of the question finally aided Baerle in finding her tongue once more, and they spent several long minutes simply talking of matters of the Glen and the newly arrived Spring. Neither of them had ever been in Glen Avery for the Spring Festival, and so neither was completely sure what to expect from it. Several times Charles expressed his eagerness for the taur dance that was to be set that evening. Like most of the other Glenners had been, Baerle was quite amazed that such a amalgam of forms could be obtained, though she did not wish to be taught how. In fact, she had appeared quite embarrassed when he told her that he could teach her how to do so. When he realized what that entailed, he was thoroughly embarrassed as well.
As they talked freely, their faces were limned by the firelight, casting them in warm colours. In her face then, Charles saw much the same mischievous and free spirit that she’d displayed during their trek to the ravine back during the assault. While she did not flirt with him now as she did then, her spirit was alive once more, not held back as it had ever since she’d found out about Kimberly.
And it was not too long before Kimberly herself returned, bearing a small wicker basket on one arm, her pregnancy obvious under her woolen dress. She smiled as she saw them both sitting upon the couch. Charles stood when he saw her, and crossed over to the doorway to embrace her. She smiled back, and they kissed quickly. And then she laughed. “Your breath is awful. Baerle gave you your medicine, didn’t she.”
“Just as callously as you, my sweet,” Charles said, though there was no hint of recrimination in his voice, merely a hint of jovial mischief.
She smiled to him and then looked over his shoulder at Baerle who had also stood up by then, though she remained several ells back. “I trust he was well-behaved?”
The opossum returned the motherly smile then. “He did not give me any trouble. He was a good little boy.”
“Boy?” Charles asked in some surprise at that point, giving the opossum a bemused look. “Since when did I become a boy?”
Kimberly stepped past him, patting him on the cheek ruff with one paw. “Oh, all men with wine are little boys.” She blew him a kiss then and laughed a pleasant sound that abated her husband’s annoyance somewhat.
“Baerle told me that you were feeling ill this morning?” Charles asked, taking the wicker basket form her and setting it down on one of the tables. She lowered herself into one of the seats and nodded.
“Just queasy. I do not think the Caribou sat as well with me as it did with you.” She patted her belly once then and smiled. “But no harm was done, and I’m feeling much better now.”
“Is there anything I can get for you?” Charles asked, rubbing his paws together.
“Some tea would be nice, thank you.” Her smile made him feel several inches taller.
Baerle however interrupted them before they could do anything else. “Now that you are back, Kimberly, I think I will go to the commons and join in one of the games. I will see you both there soon I hope.”
“You will,” Kimberly said, shifting about in her seat. Kimberly and Baerle hugged each other quickly, although the rat did not get up from her seat. Charles watched them, stopped halfway to the kitchen entrance. He smiled to the opossum as well, warmly and openly for the first time in a while. And then he and Kimberly were alone once more in their home.
“Tea!” the rat declared, resuming his trek to the kitchen. Just before he turned the corner, he saw the contented smile on his wife’s muzzle as she stroked one paw along her belly.
“Thank you, your grace, for permitting me this audience with you,” Marquis Camille du Tournemire said as he bent to one knee before the Bishop. Bishop Hockmann smiled even as his spectacles slipped down his nose another finger’s breadth. With a sweep of one arm, he gestured the Marquis to sit across from him in the meeting room. The bubbling of the fountain was serene, and the morning sun cast a swath of light against one wall.
“I am always pleased to welcome such distinguished guests as yourself, Monseigneur,” The Bishop took his own seat, smiling widely, pressing his spectacles once more up to his eyes with a single finger. “To what do I owe the honour of your visit?”
Dressed as he was in his typical sky blue doublet and hose, The Marquis carried with him only a jewelled mahogany case which he placed upon the stand next to the book shelves. He then lifted his hose and slowly took his seat. “It has been a few years since we last had a chance to speak. I am merely on my way through Breckaris, and wished to see you once again.”
One of Hockmann’s eyelids raised slightly, as if he thought the explanation far simpler than reality. Nevertheless, his smile remained and he leaned back in his chair, listening for a moment to the gurgling waters of his fountain. “It has been quite some time hasn’t it, Monseigneur? Would you care for something to drink?”
The Marquis shook his head. “I thank you, your grace. That is a kind offer, but I must decline. It is far too early in the morning for me.”
“Perhaps tea then?”
He let a pleased smile spread over his features, long nose lifting back a bit. “Yes, that will do nicely. Thank you, your grace. I would have a bit of warmed milk mixed with mine if it would not be too much trouble.”
“Not at all,” Bishop Hockmann said. He then called out to one of his guards, and let them know what was desired. They in turn passed the request on to the next pair, and they in turn passed it to their companions. Eventually the news would reach a servant, and the tea would be prepared. “While we are waiting,” Hockmann continued, gesturing once to the mahogany case that was perched upon his stand, “perhaps you could tell me what it is that you have brought. A gift?”
The Marquis shook his head. “Sadly no, your grace. Although you are free to look inside.” He smiled invitingly then, even as the speckled Bishop took the case in his hands, noting the finely carved unicorn worked into the wood, eyes a bright blue sapphire twinkling in the sunlight. The mane and tail were flecked with gold inlay, the hooves with silver. Along the outer edges of the case were inlaid various jewels, a small diamond pavé at each corner.
His eyes wide, the Bishop looked back to the Marquis. “This is exquisite.” His voice was hushed and awed.
“As is what lays inside.” The Marquis smiled, lacing his fingers before him. “Go ahead and open it, your grace. I wish to show you what I have made.”
“If indeed you have made what lay within, I could not let such a mystery remain unexplored.” He let a small laugh sound and then lifted the golden latch, revealing a soft leather interior dyed the same sky blue as the Marquis’s doublet. Nestled within lay a deck of cards, upon whose back each lay the insignia of the du Tournemire family, the white unicorn standing in a field of grass.
The Marquis listened as the gurgling fountain began to slosh at its sides, water spilling out of the basin. “If you would, your grace, do me the honour of playing a simple game with me. Use my cards for what they were made.”
But the Bishop, to his surprise, shook his head. “I am sorry, Monseigneur. But I am not permitted to do such things.” He began to close the mahogany case even as he spoke.
“I do apologize if I have offended you, your grace,” the Marquis said quickly, lowering his head. “I merely was enthusiastic. For cards have been a life long pursuit of mine. And this particular deck I have crafted after only many years of hard work. At the very least, it would please me if you would examine the top card.”
The Bishop began to smile once more. “Very well,” Hockmann said, opening the case once more, and with delicate features, lifted the card and turned it over. On the face was the stylized heart, sparkling in the sunlight. The figure in the centre was of a white robed priest, this one of slight paunch, long nose, with a pair of spectacles sliding down them. With a light laugh, the bishop exclaimed, “Why tis me!”
“Indeed,” the Marquis smiled. “Please, by all means examine the card.” Hockmann nodded and lifted it up to the light, staring at it through his own spectacles, touching its surface with his hands, rubbing across them in curious delight. Smiling as well, the Marquis leaned back and let the sound of dribbling water tantalize his ears.
As Hockmann handled the card that was his own representation, he asked several questions about its construction. With a soft pleased tone, the craftsman answered each question. “But like all things in which a man has poured so much of himself,” du Tournemire finally said after some time, “they gain a life of their own, a personality that we can see. The cards are more than just items to gamble with, your grace. Tell me what you see in the face.”
“I see myself,” Hockmann replied, his own words simple. His eyes could not be brought back from the card, as if they were hooked upon it. “My garments feel as if cloth.”
“My face feels as if flesh,” the Bishop intoned, his fingers running across his visage upon that card.
“And it feels,” here the Bishop paused, his breath caught upon the air. His whole body began to tremble, even as the Marquis could feel the water rushing at the edge of the basin, the fountain spraying at an odd angle, as if it were being bent by the very winds. “It feels warm with life.”
“But what does it mean?”
He smiled then, and stood up, taking the mahogany case back from the Bishop, and plucking the card from his fingers. With a quick motion he slipped it back in its home, sealing the case once more. “It means,” he said, leaning down to stare at the priest through his spectacles, “that you are as much mine as that card.”
Hockmann nodded then, a content grin spreading across his features. “Yes, Monseigneur. It does mean that.”
The Marquis smiled then, and patted him on the shoulder. “Now, you received a message yesterday from a man clad in black, did you not?”
“Yes I did.”
“Now, you planned to send a letter to Yesulam asking for them to verify that order. You will no longer send any such message. The order was real, and by the Summer Solstice, you will have your forces ready to march on Sathmore.”
Hockmann nodded then, smiling, pleased to do his master’s bidding. “Yes, Monseigneur. All will be ready as you wish it. Thank you for letting me do this for you.”
“Thank you for having me.” The Marquis sat back down in his seat, and smiled as if he were speaking to an old friend. “Shall we have that tea now?”
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