Burning Time

by Lurking Wolf

November 24, 707 CR

Thomas walked quickly and resolutely through the halls, making for his study. He was still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes as he walked, but he did not slow down, even as he took another turn in the hall. Kyia apparently either wanted him to be late, or was obliging and giving him some time so that he could straighten himself before appearing before his subjects, but it was taking him longer to find the room today.

Finally, though, he reached the meeting area. Guards flanked the door, one at either side, standing straight already as Thomas approached. If possible, they stood straighter as they saw him round the bend, not letting their stances slouch even slightly until the horse lord had passed through the open door.

One of the guards closed the door behind him, cutting him off from the two of them, as well as the personal entourage that always followed the Duke when he went anywhere. He had grown used to this happening every time he entered such a meeting in a rush, so he paid it no mind.

Oddly, of the people that were normally summoned to counsel the Duke in these matters, two were present, and neither was the one who had sent the summons to the meeting. He was aware that Malisa would be unable to attend, but at least his military advisors should all be present. Thomas looked around again, but Misha and George were the only ones in the room. They stood up from their seats around the table as he entered and paid him his due respect.

"Where's Andwyn?" Thomas asked, somewhat out of breath as he looked between his two head military advisors. The fox and the jackal exchanged glances before Misha responded for both of them.

"I don't know. Knowing him, he'll probably take a few minutes to show up, probably have a meal and some wine while we wait…"

The Duke snorted derisively. He could not at the moment think of anything to say in the bat's defense. He had an odd habit of making even the simplest of things needlessly complicated. Being late to a meeting that he himself called was rarely considered good form.

Of course, the Duke of Metamor could do little at the moment to either help or hinder Andwyn's arrival. He slumped down into the chair that was provided for him at the head of the table at the center of the meeting room, rubbing one side of his face with his hand.

Andwyn finally did show up, in about as much of a huff as Thomas had ever seen him in. As he noticed that all other parties had already arrived, he was quick to make sure he was the first to speak.

"My apologies for being late. It seems Kyia wanted me to receive a bit of an update in my information before I delivered it to you. She had me wandering her halls for several minutes before running into a messenger who was bringing me updated information. I assure you, I was not late by choice."

"As long as the information is good, I won't hold it against you," Thomas responded. He regarded the spy master quietly as he approached the table. The bat seemed to be trying to find a proper way to put the information, which was something that Thomas felt to be totally out of character for the bat. He was always calm and decisive, even in the most dangerous of situations.

"I believe that there might be a new threat to your security, my liege," Andwyn finally said. "My spies tell me that a man has entered the city that I have been watching with interest for years, a man best known for being a prime suspect in the assassinations of no less than five well-known public figures, and has been publicly convicted of at least three other assassinations. His infamy has waned of late, but you may still have heard of him: Vincent Lois."

"I haven't heard of the man, no," Thomas responded. He glanced over towards Misha and George. The fox was already looking over at the scoutmaster, who seemed to be thinking the name over.

"Vincent Lois…" George mused quietly to himself. "I believe we may have crossed paths once or twice. Let's see… If this is the man I remember, he would be tall, dark hair, always carrying the same pair of daggers as his only melee weapons. Would that fit the man you're talking about?"

"Likely the same," Andwyn agreed, nodding. "He also has a trio of scars that run between his eyes, arcing just over his left eye. I wouldn't wonder that you haven't mentioned it, though; he received those scars some time after his last assassination of note, probably back… six or seven years ago now."

"So he has not been active lately, then?" Thomas asked, breaking in before George could speak up again. "At least that much is good."

"Not active as an assassin, true," Andwyn confirmed. "However, he hasn't exactly let his daggers rust in that time. Since his latest assassination, he labeled himself a bounty hunter and started taking jobs hunting down pests of particular note from the Giantdowns that managed to slip through our patrols. He personally led the group, so his blades have certainly been well used in these few years."

"Reckless," George noted. "That does sound like the man I knew. He's an extremely talented fighter, after his own style. He's not a ring fighter; I know I could beat him in a ring easily, but you'll never restrict him that far in a real-life situation. He's far too quick, and knows very well when he's outmatched. My prior encounter with him, I was actually assigned fifty of my employer's best, and told to wait right outside his room. Apparently news had leaked to him of Lois being given a decent amount to ensure his death. I carried out my assignment to the letter, but eventually my employer had to leave his quarters to deal with matters of state."

"He didn't last long, I assume?" Misha asked.

"Poison dart to the back of his neck, even though we had formed a box around him. Lois must have escaped in the ensuing panic. Afterwards, there were only forty-nine left in my group, and we found a body stuffed into a chest in the armory. To the best of our knowledge, he had killed one of them before we began our assignment, taken his uniform, and waited for a good shot."

"And now Lois is here," Andwyn said, looking towards Thomas. "What my spies have told me is that he intends to stay here in Metamor, to settle here in the Valley. I am not sure whether or not such is his actual intent, but recent events make me uneasy about his presence."

"He's an assassin! The fact that he is present at all should be ample cause for unease!" Thomas asserted, pounding one hooflike hand on the table for emphasis. The nature of his hand made it especially effective; the echoes took a few moments to die down.

George was the first to respond. "As I see it, moving to the Valley would not be an altogether surprising move for Lois. As I remember, he was not too much younger than I am. If he has not yet reached his forties, they are not long in the coming. By this time, regardless of how well he has taken care of himself, his old wounds will have started weighing on him. A man like him is used to gambling with his life; to gamble with his body is hardly much of a stretch."

"We can't discount his having ulterior motives just because his alibi is believable, however," Misha spoke up. "He might be looking for a chance to make an attack before the Curse takes him, and then escape beyond the boundary. He might even try to carry out any such mission just before or after the Curse takes him, and then assume a new identity once his form has changed."

Thomas sighed and leaned back in his seat. He then turned to Andwyn. "You said that you had been delayed by Kyia so that you received updated information before you came here. What is the nature of that information?"

"Lois has been in the keep for a few days now," Andwyn explained. "My men have been observing him to see if he would make any suspicious moves, until just last night, he left his room through the window and went running across the rooftops. My men lost him; Lois is very accomplished at finding paths, even on so strange a terrain as the roofs of the lower keep."

The Duke sat up straighter. "He's been here for a few days? Why have you delayed so long in calling a meeting, then?"

"I think it's rather obvious," George cut in before the bat could say anything. Thomas saw the smirk at the edge of his muzzle a moment too late to stop the cutting comment from coming past the scout master's muzzle. "He didn't think it was necessary to inform you that he invited an old friend over to stay for a while."

Andwyn turned a glare on the jackal, but refrained from commenting, instead turning back and responding to the question that the Duke had posed to him. "Sir, I thought it best not to trouble you with his presence. I have had spies assigned to him since long before he entered the walls."

"If he's anywhere near as dangerous as George suggests, that isn't even close to enough," Thomas insisted. "If he can penetrate a group of fifty men to kill a target, he can give your spies the slip without even thinking about it. He could have moved against me while your men were still scrambling back to inform you that he was out running rooftops somewhere. He could have gone after Alberta…"

"Rest assured, my liege, I have my spies set up a watch over her as soon as they realized that he had escaped our surveillance. She is safe."

"Then why were you so desperate to call this meeting? I know you Andwyn, you have an uncanny knack to be completely unmoved in even some of the worst circumstances. You say that you decided not to tell me until there was a suspicious move. What move did the man make that made it worth your while to finally report his presence?"

"Lois uses the rooftops as vantage points from which to gather information for his assassinations," Andwyn offered. "Few people would dare try to follow his paths; a false step could be fatal. Also, few of his targets are inclined to look up when they believe there is nothing to see."

The Duke took a quick glance at the ceiling, but saw nothing out of place, so settled back to looking at his spy master.

"At any rate, this assassin is here now," he said. "We need to deal with him somehow. Any suggestions?"

"It is not generally our practice to turn people away from the Keep, especially not so soon after this past winter," Misha observed, his tail twitching thoughtfully. "We need all the additional manpower we can get. Lois may be a threat, but if he is in earnest about settling here permanently, there may be a way to turn his skills to our advantage."

"That would be an advantage bought at great personal risk," George cautioned. "Even if he isn't after you now, he's never one to give up an opportunity for action."

"Perhaps we could move him somewhere farther away, for safekeeping as it were," Andwyn suggested. "Somewhere without rooftops for him to escape on…"

"You don't suppose an assassin like Lois would know when he was being shelved?" George snorted incredulously. "He'd be back at our doorstep in a heartbeat, demanding reassignment if we were lucky, taking revenge if not."

Thomas sighed and slumped in his chair. "This is all wonderfully brilliant. We have a man in the Keep that might be after my life, and we can't send him away because he might decide to kill me, of all things. Is there any possible scenario where he might not try to kill someone?"

"Unlikely, it is his employment," George noted.

"Since it's pretty well decided that he's going to be after someone, we had best be ready," Misha commented.

"I'm not going to lock myself away in the face of danger, especially when we have no idea whether it is real or imagined!" Thomas insisted. "There has to be some other way."

"As long as you stay in the inner keep, Kyia should be able to make sure that Lois doesn't show up," Andwyn suggested.

"I can't restrict myself to just the inner keep, either," the Duke insisted, giving the bat a particularly nasty glare. "There has to be something more… proactive that we can do to make sure that he doesn't cause us any trouble."

The four of them sat back for a while. Misha glanced at George for a moment, but George just shrugged and went back to his own thoughts.

Andwyn, as usual, gave very little sign as to whether he was getting anywhere or not. Thomas took one glance at him, and then went back to his own thoughts. There was just so little that it seemed they had available to them. Andwyn and George seemed quite convinced of the man's talents. Beyond trying to find him again and kill him while his back was turned, there seemed like nothing that they would consider advisable. If they didn't come up with something else soon, he might have to order just that…

"Ah…" Andywn started, then stopped abruptly, glancing around the table quickly. His beady eyes didn't stay in any one place for too long, but it seemed like he was trying to make sure that he had everyone's attention. Finally, he continued. "I think I may have happened upon a possible solution."

"Well, spit it out," George demanded. "It isn't like you have much competition at the moment."

Andwyn shot him a dirty look, but turned to Thomas to continue. "As I see it, our main problem at the moment is that we're guessing wildly at why he might be here. We really don't know if he has any plans to harm you at all, so we are forced into a wild circle of possibilities which may or may not end up affecting what we really need to deal with. I'd say the best way to solve our problems is to find out what his motives really are."

"That would make things easier, but accomplishing that objective brings up its own list of problems," Thomas said. "What assassin in his right mind would outright state his intent to kill a monarch if asked?"

"Given the right circumstances, Lois has done similar things before," Andwyn replied. "He has been known to take the same job for multiple employers before. His first assassination of note was accomplished by much the same method. The common people of a small city in the Midlands were being weighed on heavily by their lord, who seemed to have little better to do with their money than fill his own coffers. Lois took it upon himself to organize the protests against the ruler, then took the assignment to kill the man. At the same time, however, he used the riots of the townspeople to convince the lord's guards that things would be better with the man gone. He eventually was able to convince them to hire him to kill their ruler as well. All he really had to do was walk straight through the doors into the throne room and kill the man; by the time he had finished his sabotage of the ruler, there was no man who would stand for him, and Lois walked away with two payoffs."

Thomas nodded slowly. "I see. So, you think we should send someone to hire Lois against me so we can gauge his reaction?"

"Not just anyone, sire," the bat said, smiling a very unsettling smile. The rest of the group present drew back slightly, even though two of them were predators themselves. "I suggest that I go and perform this task. Lois is a master of conversation; he finds out what people really want by carefully directing the path of dialogue wherever he wants. If we sent someone else, they would need to be thoroughly proven against Lois' tactics, and it would take time to do so. As spy master, this sort of thing is well within my skills, and I am willing to take the assignment if you so wish."

Thomas was somewhat unsettled by the idea, but he managed to keep his expressions neutral. Andwyn had been held at arm's length for much of his time as spy master. Very few people trusted a man who had so many eyes and ears hidden in the shadows. Throughout his service, however, Andwyn had never tried to harm his sovereign. In several instances, he had been the first to offer assistance in sticky situations such as this one was proving to be. He had never failed where success was possible, and that in itself brought Thomas some measure of confidence. Between that fact, and the fact that the bat's assessment of the situation had been so accurate, Thomas felt that the bat was the only one that could be trusted for the task, reluctant though he was to entirely justify his motives.

"I see no other acceptable alternative," the horse lord said at length. "I put this matter in your capable hands, Andwyn." Thomas quickly turned his gaze on Misha and George, both of which seemed less than pleased by the decision. His meaningful look was all they needed to accept his reasoning, although neither submitted willingly. "Bring me whatever information you find," Thomas continued towards Andwyn. "If you see valid reason to suspect his motives, take him into custody immediately. Good luck."

"Thank you for your confidence, my liege," Andwyn said, giving a nod that was his closest approximation of a bow. Thomas momentarily winced at the formal title, but didn't correct his spy master. "I will perform my duty tonight, if all goes well. If he has not yet returned to his room by then, I will send men to warn you."

Thomas nodded. "Very well. With luck, he may have no intentions on my life. With slightly more, you won't give him any ideas." Thomas looked meaningfully at Andwyn, but the bat didn't flinch. "If there is nothing more to discuss, I suggest that we all return to our responsibilities."

Thomas stood, and the others followed him. The Duke of Metamor wasn't quite certain what his responsibilities would entail for the rest of the day, but now that this inconvenient business was finished for the moment, he meant to start it by finally breaking his fast.

Lois' day had been rather bland. He had gotten himself reacquainted with the Deaf Mule, but only briefly. Although the connection was still present, he had felt too out of place to really settle into a conversation with any of the inhabitants. This concerned him; he knew that he was likely to be cautious after his encounter with the fox in the library, but it wasn't just that. As he sat in a chair off to the side in the Mule, whenever he spoke, he felt himself trying to direct the flow of conversation his own way, as he so often did when trying to get as much information about a possible job as he could.

This realization had left him in a bit of a funk. The free atmosphere of the Deaf Mule had always invited him to be more open, more free with his speech, but the people with which he had spoken those many years before were nowhere to be found, and he found that striking up a conversation in such a familiar venue felt wrong to him now.

It angered him somewhat, and confused him even more. His anger was due to the fact that the that openness of conversation and familiarity with the tavern's inhabitants had been one of the things that he had so missed about the Keep. That it was now, at least for the moment, lost to him gave him no end of questions. Would he ever regain that familiarity? Was it even worth his trouble to live in the Keep and suffer its Curse if so much of what he had called home was lost? Could he bear to change forms to stay in a Keep that no longer carried the joy of that time so many years ago?

Lois entered his room quietly. He had come back a little later than was his custom, more because he had been walking slowly than by design of any sort. He lit a lantern just inside the door then carried it to the table where his journal sat. It didn't cast much light, but it would be enough to write by.

When he set the lantern down on the table, however, he noted that there was another lantern there. He quietly chided himself. He had left it there the night before, just before he had gone to the rooftop to think. He stood and took the extinguished lantern with him and hung it up beside the door.

"Hello, Lois."

Lois suppressed the twitch of motion that would have brought him full circle with both daggers in hand. His opponent was behind him and had the tactical advantage provided by surprise and readiness. If he was a true threat, he would have made his move without announcing his intentions.

Sniffing as if in dismissal, Lois turned and moved smoothly over to the table, eliminating all sign of fear from his steps. He sat down at the table, opened his journal, and had his quill pen dipped and held ready in his hand before he said anything in response.

"Good evening, to what do I owe the pleasure of a spy in my room?" Lois asked.

"To your talents, Lois," the voice responded. It was closer; whoever it was had followed him.

"To my talents?" Lois responded. He scratched out the date on the journal page in front of him, then moved his pen down and took his time thinking of his first words. "I have many talents, true, but to which set do I owe the visit? My skills as a bounty hunter, scholar, negotiator…" Lois shrugged as he came up with an extra to throw in. "Money lender perhaps?"

"No, Lois, none of your better advertised employments," the person responded. Lois was reasonably certain that the voice was male now, although his knowledge of the Keep kept other possibilities in view. "I am speaking of your skills as an assassin," the voice clarified.

"You have need of an assassin?" Lois asked, raising an eyebrow even though the person behind him couldn't see it. "By the look of things, you have most of the skills yourself."

A strange, chirping chuckle came from behind him. "My skills have already run their course," he stated once he was done laughing. "In my current position, using those skills in any manner that might be traceable might be harmful to what prestige I have managed to build in the Keep."

Lois nodded slightly, thinking. He made it a point to know the chain of command in most cities, and Metamor was no exception. He had managed to eliminate a good many of the upper echelon as possibilities for who was currently interrogating him. That had left a good many less powerful people, far more than Lois could ever hope to weed through, but the last declaration helped whittle it down just a little more.

"Not an inconsiderable amount of power, either," Lois ventured finally, writing a few more letters on the page in front of him. He found his thoughts on paper were somewhat fragmented, but it gave him the appearance of nonchalance while he tried to identify the lurker.

"You can understand, then, how I cannot allow my skills to be used for anything beyond what would seem permissible within my line of work." The person took Lois' comment in stride, which was not what the assassin had hoped for, but his comment had been helpful in its own right.

"So, you look for someone who has just arrived at the Keep for some reason, and do not resort to using someone already present," Lois noted.

"No one present in the Keep possesses your peculiar genius for the art, Lois," the person responded. "Also, the Curse is a wonderful thing in the hands of a man like you. You would not need to run. Simply strike before the Curse takes hold and then hide until your form has changed entirely. You could assume an entirely new identity at the end of the job, and no one would be the wiser."

"Except, of course, for you."

"Such service comes with its benefits. Even if I did find out how you had been changed, or where you had gone into hiding, it would profit me nothing to reveal the truth."

"Except, of course, the elimination of the one person who could finger you as my client, Andwyn," Lois declared. He turned in his chair and locked eyes with the bat, who now stood just a few steps away. The bat smirked, seemingly satisfied by Lois' actions.

"You never fail to impress, Lois," the spy chief commented.

Lois ignored his comment and went back to the question at hand. "So, you want me to kill someone. Who?"

"My lord, the Duke," Andwyn said, taking some volume from his voice in case of eavesdroppers.

Lois snorted and turned back to his page. "You're shameless, Andwyn. No change from when I was here those many years ago, although possibly in a body better suited for your shadowy deeds."

Andwyn shrugged off the comment. "I did not come here for a meeting of the mutual admiration guild," he noted. "I'm here on business, and you of all people should know to respect that by now."

Lois nodded, deep in thought. "Me of all people…" he mumbled. "If I didn't know your methods and motives so well, I would call that a veiled threat, but I've been acquainted with you long enough to know that is as close as you ever come to removing that veil."

Andwyn gave a strange sigh, which seemed to naturally lace itself with a quiet whistle. "I want this job done, Lois. I want a yes or no answer, not this drawn out nonsense. It profits neither of us at the current juncture."

Lois nodded, still thinking. "I'm still curious as to why you don't do it yourself, honestly," he commented. He turned his head around so he could read the bat's body language. He hoped it was still near enough to the human version that the signs would remain obvious. "After all, your inner circle is still the only ones who know what really happened to Lord Thomas IV. A very nice trick, being willing to wait for a slow acting poison to kill him so that it could be disguised as lengthy illness."

Andwyn's posture changed noticeably. "I did no such thing!" he insisted in a hissing voice.

Lois smiled. "Check and mate, Andwyn. Tell me, did the Duke put you up to this, or did you come up with the idea?"

"No such thing! I seek the death of the Duke of Metamor, and I have come prepared to pay for it."

"Andwyn, no one who is truly serious about such a thing would deny the credit for such a high-profile kill, especially not with the shock you showed when I suggested it," Lois answered. "You seek answers, to know whether I am here to kill your liege. Your plan has failed, but I will not send you back to your master without the things you came for."

Andwyn seemed to have deflated a little, but he responded nonetheless. "What is it?" he asked after a moment of silence.

"Tell Lord Thomas that I seek residence here. Tell him that I am willing to be placed in prison until the Curse holds me if that will ease his fears, and tell him that, as soon as the Curse takes me, I wish to swear myself into his service."

Andwyn nodded. He seemed satisfied enough, but grudgingly so. As Lois remained quiet, he started to turn and head for the window to leave.

"And Andwyn?" Lois called after him. The bat just looked up at the man's smug, smiling face. "I've been retired now for long enough to know that I don't want to go back. You can tell the Duke that too, if you like."

Andwyn nodded, then flapped his wings and disappeared through the window.

Lois watched him go in silence before turning to continue his journal for the day.

Andwyn was in no mood to deal with any more troubles when he left Lois' room, but he felt it was his duty to return with his report to Lord Thomas. On his way, he tried to think of some way he could skip around the information about Lois drawing him into a word trap, the very same method that he had been sent to prevent in any other messenger. No matter how Andwyn minced words in his head, though, he always returned to the one certainty; he needed to tell Thomas everything. It would hardly be possible to explain why he didn't fear Lois' threat anymore if he didn't.

It didn't take Andwyn long at all to reach Thomas' apartments. Between his physical ability to fly, and the keeps ability to reshape at a whim, he was there far faster than reality should have allowed. He was long since used to this, however, and so dropped to the floor, against his usual instinct to cling to the ceiling, and was quickly recognized and announced by the Duke's guards.

The Duke was sitting at his desk when his spy master entered. He looked weary, but there was no doubt in Andwyn's mind that sleep had not been on his liege's own mind for a good while. He still wore most of the garb that he used on those occasions when he heard the townsfolk's complaints, and it was still relatively orderly, showing that the Duke had not attempted to catch any rest since doing so early in the afternoon.

"Good news, my liege," Andwyn said as he entered. Thomas leaned forward to listen, but didn't move to interrupt. "I believe that Lois is here with no intentions on your life, and that it would take extreme circumstances to force him to change that opinion."

Thomas looked relieved, but still wasn't satisfied. "What have you found that makes you suspect this?" he asked.

Andwyn sighed, then started the arduous task of retelling his visit with Lois in as much detail as his memory could recall, including the humiliating loss of the battle of wits, and the special message that Lois had sent along to Thomas.

"And what makes you trust this?" Thomas said. "It seems to me that he had fully defeated you by that time, and knew exactly what you would want to hear. How do you know that he did not tell you what you wanted to hear?" Thomas was obviously somewhat annoyed that Andwyn seemed so quick to trust this man without true cause.

"First, Lois doesn't care about whether or not his target knows he is coming," Andwyn explained. "In the past, he has intentionally given hints of his intentions in preparation for a job. Fear is one of his greatest weapons, and if someone suspects that they are going to die soon, their actions will become less founded on reality, and more on Lois' preferred battlefield: the mind."

Andwyn waited a moment for this fact to settle in before going on to the next reason. "Then again, I know better than to think you would be satisfied with what an assassin tells you. Perhaps you will be put more at ease when you learn what Lois chronicled for us in his own records over these past few weeks."

Andwyn flicked out a small cylindrical case from its hiding place somewhere in his strange suit of clothing. He opened the scroll case and tapped it lightly until the contents slid out and unrolled partially on the table. "These are pages, copied from the journal of Vincent Lois," Andwyn said, taking some pride in the small bit of redemption. "He left it on the table when he left to run, and I did a bit of reading during the wait. It seems that he is as much in search of a home as many of the other refugees we have received this past year, if for slightly different reasons."

Thomas looked over the pieces of parchment, noting the tight curls of the letter and the fine calligraphy that the assassin used. He had not been aware that this man had an education, but the quality of his writing looked almost like that of nobility.

"I suppose you think Lois will not note the absence of a few pages of his journal?" Thomas asked as he scanned the contents.

"I did not take the originals, sir," Andwyn assured him. "I used a new concoction that Pascal brewed up recently. When placed on a paper and pressed against another page, it will make an exact duplicate of the original."

Thomas nodded slightly in approval, thick brow rising slightly as he read over a particularly interesting section of the page. "Very good, Andwyn," he said at length. "I trust your judgment in this. Still, I would like to be able to be more certain of his loyalty before giving him any sort of confidence."

Andwyn nodded. "I have thought similar things myself," he admitted. "As I see it, though, if you want to see his dedication, send him on a far northern patrol where he will be likely to see some action."

Thomas looked up from the page for a moment. "I thought we had discussed that. It was determined that Lois would see it as being sent away."

"That was determined in the case of us stationing him to the north for a long period of time. He would know immediately that you were trying to be rid of him. Send him far north on a long patrol, not a station, and he would be far more likely to think of it as a challenge, and if appearances hold, an opportunity to demonstrate loyalty."

Thomas nodded, dark brow furrowed as he thought. "Very well. I assume you would advise this action to be taken as soon as possible?"

"After the Curse takes him," Andwyn replied. As Thomas began to ask, Andwyn clarified. "Lois is likely to take it as a challenge, but it is not certain that he will. If he does react against it, we need to know what he looks like so that he can be tracked."

The possibility of failure made Thomas' expression sour some, but he still nodded. "Very well, then. Tell George to prepare an able patrol group for a journey up north, and explain what we have discussed here. With luck, he won't like it, but he won't come up here to argue the point himself, either."

Andwyn chuckled slightly. "With luck, Lois is completely earnest," he added. "He is not the sort of man that you find seeking to swear his loyalty very often. He has a presence, an undeniable self-assuredness that would work simply beautifully in any negotiation situation. When it comes down to any one person and Lois over a negotiating table, Lois never loses."

"Keep that in mind, Andwyn," the Duke cautioned. "Where we are now, and where we may yet go with this man may essentially put him at a negotiating table with us. I don't want him to walk away with more than we can stand to give."

Andwyn nodded. "Understood, sir. I'll make sure that we can afford to give whatever we offer, if it comes to that. With luck, all he will need is a home…"

"With luck, Andwyn. I just hope luck is with us in this case." The horse lord coughed to clear his throat, looking at the bat with tired eyes. "Get some rest, Andwyn. I think we both could use it after a day like today."

"Yes, sir. My spies will be watching Lois; we'll make sure he stays where we can find him." Andwyn hopped out the door on his claws and sighed. It had been a long day, even for his usually nocturnal body. Perhaps he could take a few hours to sleep off the day without wrecking his sleep pattern entirely…

November 25, 707 CR

Lois moved quietly through each part of his warm-up routine, more contemplatively than usual. He moved slowly, but no less skillfully as he switched back and forth between differed styles, a guard he had set for himself to make sure that he would be able to switch rapidly between those styles. It served him well; his mind was elsewhere at the moment, thinking over what had happened the night before.

He had outthought Andwyn the night before, but the fact that the spy had been able to sneak up in him at all was troubling. Truly, he could have been dead before he even realized that there was anyone there. He had been off his guard, something that never happened before he began his self-imposed retirement.

He didn't want to think about the implications. He thought that it was obvious what the main implication was: he had been away from the assassin's trade for too long. He had been entirely honest last night; he knew he didn't want to go back, but he also had no intention of hanging up his blades anytime soon.

He sighed and dove into a faster section of his routine, trying to focus on his breathing to distract from his wayward thoughts. He had no real success, as he inevitably came back to the pressing question at hand. How was he going to recover his well-schooled, cautious manner? He could rail on himself for the time being to keep his mind focused, but it always took real, present danger to keep his mind sharp, and that was something that he was currently short on.

Something finally distracted him, and he spun around into a solid defensive position, facing the person who had stood behind him. The boy who stood behind him was far from being a threat, but Lois allowed him a pause to make sure that he wasn't trying anything. After a moment of awkward silence, Lois stepped back to show that he meant no harm.

"Who are you?" Lois was the first of the two to ask, but he had a while to wait before the boy recovered enough of his breath to say anything.

"Wow," was the first thing out of his mouth. Immediately realizing how stupid this made him look, he shook his head in an attempt to collect his thoughts. "I—I'm Paul," he finally responded.

Vincent Lois grinned slightly at the boy, dropping both daggers into their positions at either side of his body. He took a deep breath before speaking. He finally made the choice to try to make another acquaintance. After his first encounter, he had not been so thoroughly put off that he didn't want to talk to the strange-colored fox again, but it had been unsettling. He hoped that this boy would be much more… normal.

"My name is Vincent Lois," the assassin finally said. "You apparently have never seen my style of combat before; that was hardly my best stuff, or my most flashy." Lois generally didn't advertise his skills, but he felt reasonably certain that this boy was simply curious because he thought it looked good, and had no real cares about what it was generally used to do.

The boy seemed sheepish now that he realized that he had been found out. He had hoped perhaps that the man wouldn't have noticed how closely he was watching the moves he used; now he found that not only had he been found out, but he had been entranced by something that Lois didn't even consider very impressive.

Before he could try to work his way out of the hole he had made for himself, however, someone else approached from behind, causing Paul to turn around. The person wasn't looking at him; instead he was looking at Lois with an odd smile on his muzzle.

Lois gave a curt nod to the new arrival. He was significantly shorter than the assassin; Lois was tall, true, but the man was almost a full foot under Lois' impressive height at five and a half feet. He was some sort of cat morph, with long whiskers and tall, pointed ears covered in tan fur spotted in darker colors all around his face. It was undeniably the face of a predator, and even at his disadvantage of height, he wielded his vicious look effectively.

The assassin, however, remained stubbornly unfazed by the strange, deep eyes that watched him. Instead, he returned the predator's smile with one of his own, resting his left wrist nonchalantly against the hilt of one of his daggers.

"To what do I owe the pleasure?" Lois asked after a few moments of silence passed between the two. He kept his most sincere smile on his face, although he also made a point to keep his hand on his dagger at all times as well. The cat seemed intent on staring right through him, though, so Lois spoke again. "Whatever species you have become gets my fullest marks for its predator's eyes," he commented.

The cat widened his smile, showing quite a few of his impressive teeth. "You simply owe it to my interest in unique combat styles," he responded. Despite vicious appearances, his voice sounded quite calm, and oddly free of any rumble to give evidence to changed vocal chords. "As for my form, it is a northern cat that lives in the area of the Keep. They call it a lynx."

Lois nodded. "A student of combat, then?" he asked, filing the latter information away without comment.

"More of an enthusiast," the cat replied waving a paw dismissively. "The greatest reason that I remain simply an enthusiast is that I lack the skills necessary to become anything more. I am a fighter in my own right, but I do not adapt my own style well." He gave a chagrined grin before continuing. "I like studying other styles simply because I cannot use them myself. It allows me the opportunity to continue wondering at things, even here at Metamor."

Lois couldn't keep from laughing outright at this, and even the lynx gave a chuckle. Paul, however, had made a marked retreat from the cat that had stood beside him a moment before and only managed to chuckle weakly at the conversation not meant for him. He felt uncomfortable, and even a bit downhearted at the fact that his own conversation had been so abruptly interrupted. He didn't have the courage to try to cut back in, though, so he simply watched the two new acquaintances as they spoke.

"Well, if you would like an opportunity to wonder, I have not had a good sparring session in a good while," Lois said, putting slight emphasis on implying his superiority.

The other man chuckled and carefully removed his sword from his scabbard. It was a broadsword, ornate enough so it was obvious that it was not from the Keep's armory, but simple enough that it showed that its owner was not one who relied on excessive flare in fighting. The cat held it loosely in one hand and lazily wove it around his body, showing considerable skill.

"I have no appointments for the day, so I don't suppose facing you for a while will do me much harm," the lynx said. "If you are short on time at all, though, you might want to clear your schedule for an unexpected visit to the healer's."

Lois grinned and stepped away towards the sparring circles to one side. At this time of the morning few of them were in use, so he easily found one with no one else fighting around it. He stepped into the circle, drawing his daggers one at a time as he did so.

"I must warn you," he said. "I did not bring any practice blades with me, and I have nothing with which to cover the edges of my blades. If you trust me, I promise to not do any more damage than your healer's can fix within a few days' time."

The cat snorted in a feline chuckle. "I trust you with your sharp blades if you trust me with mine," he responded. "I make no promises though; with luck, you'll recover from whatever I do to you before Yule arrives."

Lois waved a finger at his opponent reprovingly. "It may be a skill to be able to strike your enemy," he said, "but it takes even greater skill for a warrior to miss his opponent when he wants to."

"Now you're not making any sense," the cat said, smiling viciously and stepping into the circle with Lois. "Whoever said anything about me wanting to miss you?"

Paul had already begun to feel better after being so rudely interrupted before. The two men had begun to circle around each other, and the boy finally concluded that a good fight was better than an awkward conversation anyway. Since so few people were there to watch, Paul easily found a vantage point from which he could see the fight in detail.

Neither opponent had so much as tested the other yet; both seemed intent on finding a better position solely by using footwork. Every now and then one or the other would step into an advantageous position to gauge the other's reaction, but each of these attempts was dealt with through positioning and stance shifts.

After a few minutes of this, Lois finally spoke up. "So, are you ready yet?"

The cat grinned. "I've been waiting for you," he responded.

Lois faked a look of shock. "Well, then, we've been wasting time." He continued circling for a little bit, but he seemed to be widening his circle, giving his opponent a much wider berth. The cat noticed, but taking a half-step in was his first, and last, mistake of the battle.

Lois closed the rest of the distance between the two before the cat could even react, and the scream that he let loose in advance of the attack sent the cat into a panicked paroxysm. The lynx was on the ground before he could even recover, pinned with one arm beneath him and his sword almost a foot from his face, too far to be reached with Lois' knee pressing his arm down.

The two daggers that Lois held were each pressed against the cat's neck, shaving off strands of fur for every second he rested them there.

"Yield?" Lois asked simply.

The cat could hardly control his stuttering enough to give him an intelligible response.

Lois grinned and stood, letting his opponent scramble back to his feet and take his sword back. The cat stood there for a few moments, replaying the scene in his head, trying to figure out how he had been caught so totally off guard by Lois' scrambling attack. His fur, although it had been well-groomed before, was now a mess of hairs standing on end in no particular order.

The assassin himself finally broke the silence that followed. "By the way, I don't think that the two of us have been properly introduced," he commented. "My name is Vincent Lois." He held out a hand for them man to take, and the feline fighter shook it weakly.

"Alex," he responded.

"Well then, Alex, I really have little else to do with myself today. If you're interested in trying a few more times, I would certainly welcome the challenge."

Alex nodded, but he was, for the moment, too busy recovering from a near heart attack to seriously consider meeting Lois again for a few minutes. He obviously had no intentions of letting the opportunity get past him, though. He had to make sure that his opponent didn't get the last word, especially in such a humiliatingly short fight as this first one had been.

Once Alex had learned how to avoid a nervous breakdown when Lois' launched his attack at him, he was rewarded by a quick switch from intimidation and strength to flexibility and mobility by his opponent. When he learned to counter that, Lois switched back to strength with a few variations to keep his opponent guessing. Every time Alex stepped into the ring, he stepped back out after facing a different attack strategy.

This didn't always translate into victory for the human. Every now and then Alex would work by Lois' defenses, but it rarely happened more than once without Lois making the necessary adjustments to defeat Alex's strategy at the very next opportunity.

Their last fight, however, ended far differently from the others.

Lois had long since stopped using the raw intimidation tactics on his opponent, and so the duels they had were now more focused on trying to be the last one standing than on trying to end the fight as quickly as possible. This was the third straight battle where the fight lasted longer than ten minutes, and Lois had started working closer and closer to Alex, showing remarkable reaction time by still blocking each attack in such close quarters. Suddenly, however, one of his daggers slipped right as he was about to block another close strike, and he barely had time to flinch to the side as the sword came straight for him.

"Hold! Hold!" Lois yelled, dropping to his knees on the ground. He panted slowly and reached for the pain in his back. He already knew what he would find there before he reached back, but touching the wound just confirmed his suspicions.

"I'm going to need a healer," he announced quietly, slowly standing to his feet. He could feel the wound slowly bleeding under his light clothing, and he knew that there would be a bright red blotch on the side of his shirt.

Alex grabbed him by the shoulder. "Hold on, make sure you're going to be all right before you go anywhere," he advised. Lois winced and grabbed at the cat's hand.

"I'm not planning on going anywhere, except to find somewhere to sit," Lois said hoarsely, pulling the paw off of his shoulder. He was doing remarkably well with the pain, but Alex could see that it was bugging him. He had enough difficulty concentrating that he even stumbled as he walked, something absolutely foreign to the powerful, agile man that he had just been fighting.

"Someone get a healer over here!" Alex announced.

Paul was already off at a run before Alex even finished his sentence.

Lois finally arrived at a stone bench where he had left his things. By this point he was shivering; the weather had been cold ever since the cold snap just a few days before Lois had arrived, but now he began to feel it more than ever. He felt it so much that he draped his coat over his shoulder without even trying to do anything about his wound. Still, shock kept him from getting any relief, and he felt the cold slowly stealing away his consciousness.

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