The two Keepers who sat at the bar were not the most boisterous pair in the entirety of the Deaf Mule, nor were they the most silent. Both parties were female, both attired in simple apparel of blouses and skirts, and both were drinking some of Donny's fine coffee from simple ceramic mugs. Neither party was fully aware of the amount of coffee they had consumed by that point, but if they put thought to it they would only know that it was a good deal.
The skunk on the left blamed her companion for this, as Jessica possessed an almost unnatural love of coffee. Kayla sipped some more at her cooling mug as she listened to the child-woman beside her drone on about how an old friend of theirs, Lynne, was rumoured to be having an affair with an equine soldier named Gant, one of Lord Thomas' personal guards. Kayla hadn't spoken to the woman almost since the change, and half smiled as Jessica began to outline possible pitfalls for the couple.
The reason both Kayla and her friend were dressed rather plainly was that they had just gotten off work. Kayla was glad that she had worn an older blouse and skirt, as Phil had had her rooting through the dusty file archives in the basement in an effort to settle some matter in his running of Lorland. It seemed that some wealthy noble had died only to have a slew of "legitimate" offspring show up to claim his fortune. And so, Phil needed some help deciding which was real and which was not. And sadly enough, the files seemed to indicate more real that not! Which had all led to the discussion of Lynne and her own affairs.
"Oh, while you were out, we had a visitor in today," Jessica said. "You remember the countess Clover, don't you?"
Kayla had to think of that one a moment. "Yes, I believe I do. What was she in for?"
"Don't know," Jessica admitted with a shrug. "But what I hear is different."
"You're a regular rumour mill tonight," Kayla said with a laugh.
"I wouldn't say that. More that I just 'happen' to overhear certain things. One of the advantages of being me; even around here, people think that children don't pay any attention. So do you want to hear this or not?"
"Of course I do!" said Kayla, trying to hide her boredom with the subject behind a light laugh. Why did almost all female discussion invariably degenerate into talking about men?
Jessica smiled conspiratorially. "Good. I heard that they set the date for the wedding. Its going to occur shortly after the Autumn Equinox festival."
"I heard they already did that, and it was going to happen during the festival, as part of the closing ceremonies."
"And you call me a rumour monger," Jessica teased, grinning with her particular brand of childlike innocence. "Yes, I heard that as well, but apparently he has convinced her to wait for after, keeping the ceremony private and small. His rabbit instincts and all, you know."
"Ah, makes sense," the skunk said, nodding. Jessica opened her mouth to add more, or perhaps switch to another subject but never got the chance. A loud smack caused both women, and most of the patrons of the Mule, to turn their heads in the direction of a couple near the hearth. There was a woman in red dress yelling at a bearded man in a dark blue overcoat with a face almost as red as the woman's dress. What she was yelling about as she stood over him wasn't the clearest, but he did seem to be making an effort to apologize for whatever had earned him the slap. It was a wasted effort, as the woman in red turned and stormed out of the Mule. The level of conversation was quick to pick back up after the door had thumped shut.
Jessica watched her friend still looking out over the crowd while Kayla sipped at her drink. "It's been a while since we were here together, hasn't it Kayla?"
Nodding, the skunk perked up her ears to accentuate her agreement. "Aye. Too long."
Picking at a lock of stray hair, Jessica pondered. "Let's see... It was a few years ago, that much I remember. It was you and I and Sylvia. We had just come from seeing a performance of some theatre troupe, a tragedy that I can't remember the name of."
"Memory Lane," Kayla automatically prompted.
"Right, yes. I was with Andy Cox, you were with..." Jessica's eyes went wide. "Geeze, you were still with John Glass! Now I remember, that was almost six years ago!"
Kayla leaned a cheek against her paw, propping the arm up on the bar. She half closed her eyes and stuck the tip of her tongue out between her teeth. "Ug, don't remind me any more. I can't believe I spent time with that man."
"As I recall, he was rather handsome."
"Hey, you know why I went out with that filth. So what if I had to work to keep his hands off me, I managed to squeeze several weeks worth of food out of him. Though you wouldn't believe how hard it was at times to keep him off me. Ugh! The man is an insufferable swine," Kayla pronounced once and for all, her hackles rising and her tail bushing out.
Jessica meekly agreed on that. John Glass, formally Joanna Glass, had been known to bed pretty much anyone with a pulse and something hard between their legs. (And it was rumoured that pulse was optional in some cases). When she had been changed to a man during the Battle of the Gates, it hadn't done anything to change her disposition. Afterwards, he made it his goal to try and sleep with as many of the animal morphs at Metamor as he could, as a sort of perverse personal goal. Oddly enough, he was quite successful, often due to praying on insecurities of the recently transformed women. If it had not been for the fact that Kayla was familiar with his behaviour since before the change, she might have fallen for some of his smooth lies and flattering words. But she had been taught to use her head, a rarity with the crowd she used to be part of, and had managed to wile favours from the would-be seducer. In the end, he had left her for easier pray. Last Kayla had heard, he had moved to the southern rim, but had still not found a female skunk to bed.
Jessica looked away, clearly embarrassed over forgetting about Glass. Kayla let her stew, brooding over the past herself. God, she had hated what she had done then, but it was what she needed to do to survive. Or at least what she had to do before swallowing her pride and acquiring her current job. For several minutes the two friends just sat upon their stools, quietly sipping at their coffees.
"You know, I found this one little shop, they have the most exquisite fabric!" Jessica piped up, clearly having overcome her previous gaffe. "Come next pay day, I'm going down there and buying myself enough for a whole new dress. You might want to consider doing something like that yourself, Kayla."
The skunkette looked down, letting out a small snort, her whiskers bristling out. "Now what reason would I have for doing that?" she asked in a sheepish voice.
"Oh, I can think of at least two reasons," Jessica shot back. Kayla's eyes slid around to look at her friend, the skunk's ears moving around as well. "And those would be?"
"You know perfectly well," Jessica admonished with a child-like grin. "That raccoon and skunk that you've been spending so much time with, silly. We've been discussing other people's relationships, but you haven't said a word about your own all night."
"Probably because they don't exist," Kayla maintained.
Her friend giggled. "Not from what I've heard. Nor from what I've seen. How about starting with Rickkter? You two have certainly been spending a lot of time together this last little while."
Kayla glared over at her friend, her eyes narrowing a little and her tail bushing involuntarily. "What about Rick?"
Jessica would have spoke, but she was taking a sip of her coffee. She quickly managed to choke that down. "Well," gulp, "simple. Rick is probably the first man you've had any interest in in years. How can I not find that interesting?"
"You mean, how could anyone like him feel anything but pity for someone like me."
"No, no, it's not that way at all," Jessica assured her with a shake of her head. "I've told you that your form isn't something to be ashamed of many times before. Most animals and humans around here are used to strong musks."
"Yeah, which is why all the other skunks have had the sense not to live here. And you know damned well, Jessica, that I wouldn't be here if I had a choice."
The woman-child sighed and nodded. "Yes, I know, Kayla. But I've still seen the way you two act around each other, and I've known you long enough to know when you're happy."
"It's just the way he looks at me. The way he's always looked at me. From the first time that we met, before he had changed, he never looked at me with contempt."
"Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that he hadn't changed yet and could have still transformed into a skunk?" inquired Jessica as she sipped at her mug.
"No, it wasn't that. I once asked him what he would have done were he to become like me, and he said he had never given it much thought after the fact." While Jessica seemed satisfied with the answer, Kayla reflected further on that discussion with Rickkter. It was true what he said, she had just not mentioned how much courage she had needed to work up in order to ask that nor how beautiful she found his form. The ears and the long whiskers, both were so expressive. Most of all she loved the eyes and mask. The black of the mask forced her to look harder to see his eyes, thereby allowing her to read more of his emotion from them. There were times when she envied what he had been given. Of course, Kayla said none of this to her friend.
Jessica chuckled to herself. "Either way, you really caught a fascinating one this time Kayla. From what I've read about him, most consider him weird, arrogant, a rogue, and more than a little dangerous. There is no doubt that he's powerful, it's just that no one trusts him," she concluded before sipping more of her coffee. "With the exception of Misha."
Kayla turned in her seat to face he friend, resting one arm on the bar. "And you know that's crap. You may have read about Rick, but I've actually spent time with him. It's like he's two different people," she explained, gesturing with her paws. "The one in the reports is Rickkter the warrior. If you get to know him when he's not out there, you'd see that he's different. He is considerate, he is interesting. He likes to listen to what I have to tell him at least as much as his own stories. Hell, he's one of the few people who make me laugh.." Rick was also one of the few people who actually touched her, something Kayla valued greatly in their relationship. "Yes, Rick has a hard side to him, but if you look past that you'd see a completely different person."
Jessica had a smug grin on her face as she turned away from the skunk. Kayla had told her exactly what she wanted to hear. "Well, I suppose." She brightened. "But you're not the only one with a new man on the line. You know that young copyist, Sereletic? The one with the bright red hair? Well, just last week, he and I..."
Kayla hardly heard a word of what Jessica said, her thoughts being turned inwards as she reminisced over her old love affairs. There was no doubt that her relationship with Rick WAS different from the rest of them, if not in its very nature, at least in personality. Of course mages were intelligent, that was a given, but she had still never met anyone even remotely like him before.
The skunk's small, round, black ears perked up at the shouts over in one part of the bar. Whatever was going on over there would probably draw the attention of much of the Mule and provide a good cover to avoid Jessica's questions. When Kayla turned to look, she saw that it was Shamgar and two friends she vaguely recalled as being named Blake and Achin.
A smile came to her lips and her ample tail swished against the side of the bar. Kayla had heard of this contest before. The principle was simple; Shamgar's reputation was renowned for the fact that no one had ever made him spill a drop from the tankard he now perched on his broad head. Jessica had told her a few of the more amusing attempts to get the rhino to let go the one handed grip he kept to steady his ale.
Jessica's monolog was a faint buzz in Kayla's ear as she watched a well muscled red fox take up position in front of the rhino. She saw both him and Shamgar tense up, wincing as the fox unleashed a powerful blow at the rhino' s gut. The meaty thud of when the fox's fist hit produced audible groans from most of the crowd, though all the rhino did was grunt and move back several inches. Not a drop of foam spilled past the top of the tankard.
The Deaf Mule broke out into sporadic applause, Shamgar and the fox giving them quick waves before the fox departed. Shamgar drained his ale, then slammed the clay tankard on the table so hard it shattered. That was his signal for issuing public challenge, something he did in a loud and booming voice.
It was answered by a comically accented voice several tables over.
Kayla watched as Rickkter stood up from his own table and strode over to the little group on the other side of the Mule. She watched him haggle with Blake and Achin over the bet before putting his money down in the already substantial pot. It had been accumulating for several months and a great many contestants. But Shamgar remained undefeated. He accepted another ale from Blake and put it on his head
Of course Shamgar had never faced anyone like Rickkter.
The raccoon gave his opponent a good survey, carefully sizing him up. He even went so far as to use his paws to straighten up the larger morph and adjust his head to a better angle. Some distant part of Kayla's mind realized that Jessica had finally realized her words were falling on deaf ears and had stopped talking. Instead she, too, watched the raccoon draw back in preparation to hit the rhino in the gut. But then Rick hesitated. He stepped forward to adjust Shamgar's stance once more before repositioning himself to strike. The front of Kayla's muzzle curled up when she saw him hesitate again. No question that he was planning something this time.
Kayla barked out laughing when the clay tankard shattered on the tavern floor. From the look of things, Rickkter was laughing just has hard as she, as he dodged around with his muzzle hanging open in a perpetual laugh. Shamgar, on the other hand, was trudging around, roaring at the raccoon as Blake and Achin hung onto him and tried to hold him back. Apparently old Shamgar didn't much like being kissed by a raccoon.
What happened was that when Rickkter stepped forth that last time and taken Shamgar's head in his paws, he had leaned up and gave the rhino a good lick right on the snout. That startled Shamgar so badly that he reared back, dropping his precious drink in the process. Whether that, the lost money, or the wet kiss was the reason for him chasing the rollicking ‘coon around the Mule was a still matter of some debate.
At least it all seemed to end well, with Rickkter stopping Shamgar by snatching a full tankard from a server and offering it to him. The rhino, his companions still in tow, accepted the offer quickly, laughing it up with the rest of the bar before clasping Rick on the back. The resounding applause, whistles, and stomping from the rest of the patrons, as well as one or two calls asking how the rhinoceros tasted, earned them a smile and quick wave from Rick as he and Shamgar went back to divvy up the money.
Kayla couldn't help notice that when Rick looked in her direction, he offered her a quick wink. She just folded her lush monochromatic tail around a stool leg and flushed.
"Oh, my you DO like him," came a high pitched voice to the skunk's left. Kayla looked up at the positively beaming face of the girl next to her. "And the feeling is certainly mutual."
"Looks Jessica, can we talk about something else?" said Kayla, her voice containing an anger she didn't expect it to.
"Okay, Kayla, whatever you want." The young woman took a sip of her coffee. "So tell me about Muri."
The skunk let out an irritated growl and turned away from her friend, fluffing her thick tail at Jessica.
"Well, you said you wanted to talk about someone different, and I don't thi nk you can argue that Muri and Rickkter are about as different as one can get."
Kayla sighed, relenting and turning back to the bar to gaze into the depths of her half finished drink. When the skunk opened her muzzle a few centimeters, Jessica figured that she was finally about to open up, only to have Kayla close her muzzle and begin stirring her coffee with one black-furred finger. She snorted, chuckled to herself.
"Well, you are right about that, Jessica. About the only thing that Rick and Mur have in common is their magic, even more so since they've started teaching each other."
"I thought it was Rickkter teaching Muri."
"Well, it's more of a partnership. Each knows something that the other doesn't which they then teach." She sipped at her drink. "It's just that Rick knows a lot more."
"Hee hee hee, I'll bet. So how else? What's this other skunk like?"
"Younger, for starters. Do you know that he was out in those woods almost since he changed at thirteen years, spending four years trying to survive?" Jessica hadn't heard, apparently, so Kayla was obliged to explain how Muri had been caught in the spells during the original casting of the Battle of the Three Gates and how the spell had been dormant until he reached maturity. She only glossed over what happened to cause him to hide in the Watchwoods for the last two years of his life. "Most of my time with him has been spent trying to get him accustomed to being in a human world again. He' s still a little shy, but good company."
Jessica grinned and shook her hair back over her shoulders. "No, I think the most surprising thing about Muri is that Joy dumped Dream for him. Who would have thought that she'd let a catch like Dream go over some backwater hermit. And a skunk to boot!"
"Hey! Be nice to the skunks," Kayla growled, favouring his friend with a playful scowl and a swish of her tail. "Besides, what I can't really believe is that she left Dream for a mage."
Humming loudly, Jessica bulged her eyes slightly and nodded as she sipped at her drink. "Yes, I remember that one time about three years ago, when some of the Longs had that training session up in at Mycransburg with the mages there. Misha had to personally order her to partner up with that one sorceress. I don't think I've seen a Follower as opposed to magic as she was. How did she ever end up with a skunk like Muri?"
"I assure you, I have no idea. All I know is that he loves her back just as much. In fact, she's the only female he's ever loved."
"Two years alone in the woods with nothing but his paws would do that to a man," Jessica observed as she waved Donny over to request a refill. "But how does Llyn feel about Muri spending time with you."
"Uh, she hates me."
Jessica tried to stifle a laugh.
"No, I'm quite serious; she does hate me. Muri's tried to explain how we're only friends, but she still sees me as some kind of threat. Muri says that she's starting to accept the fact that he and I get together to spend some time with each other and that he needs the company of his own species. Still, I've seen the looks she gives me when he's not around. Hatred, no question."
"Sad, really. Seems to accept no ones views but her own." Kayla grunted.
"So I take it that you can accept a friendship between a man and a woman?"
"Around here that's natural, one man getting changed to female while his friend remains male. Happens all the time." Kayla sipped at her coffee.
"That's not what I meant and you know it."
"Okay, fine," Kayla burred in a mildly perturbed voice, leaning over in Jessica's direction. "I never had a problem with men and women being just friends. Just as long as it didn't go beyond that."
"Sort of like Rick seeing Pascal, hun?"
Kayla snorted. "Rick has odd tastes as it is."
"And I'd guess you'd know about that."
"Relax, relax, I was only teasing you." said Jessica as she patted her friend on the shoulder. She looked up and over at her friend, bestowing a light grin upon the skunk. "Wow, two men interested in you at once. I'm kind of envious, Kay. Bet you'd never though this would happen."
Kayla chuckled, looking down at her coffee. She thought about what Jessica had said and tilted her head to the side, expressing a small wine. "In all honesty, I never expected to find anyone like either of them. Bryce from Glen Avery was the closest I though I'd ever get again. For so long it's just been you and Myra and the rest at The Tavern's Heath."
"And now you have one male that dotes on you and another who's captivated you. I've seen how Muri acts around you. He goes out of his way to do all kinds of little things for you, especially when you take him out. Alec and I have seen you two around at some of the other eating places in town. He's not Rick, but close," she added with a wink.
"Yeah, and do you know how long it took me to get him down there the first time? He is so... paranoid of human beings." Kayla sighed. "In many ways, that's the most frustrating part about him. He is intelligent, deep, wonderful to be with. It's a shame he's not older. I never even suspected he was seventeen until he told me." She sighed. "It's like one moment he seems so insightful and intelligent, the next he seems so naive and frightened, almost like a child."
"Quite an interesting pair they make, don't they?"
"That they do," Kayla agreed with a chuckle and a small smile. She upended the cheap ceramic cup, licking out to get the rest of the coffee. Carefully setting it down, she turned out towards the loud, rowdy crowd that filled the Deaf Mule.
"So... what are you going to do about them?"
Kayla sighed, looking out over the milling throngs of boisterous and happy people. "I'll tell you what I'm going to do; I'm going to sleep on it. And then I'm going to let things play themselves out."
"Sure that's wise?" Jessica wanted to know.
Kayla wined, rolled her eyes in thought. "Perhaps not. But... what other choice do I have? This is too unreal to me. The last thing I want to do is try and disturb it, perhaps having the whole thing go up in smoke and be right back were I started."
Jessica reached over and hugged her poor friend around the shoulders. "Hey, don't talk like that Kayla. I've known you for years, and they'd be complete oafs if they didn't see how wonderful you really are."
"You think so?"
"Yeah!" She snugged the skunk again. "Feel better now, girl?"
Kayla smirked, her tail swishing against the wood of the bar. "I suppose so."
"Ah, good. You should be enjoying their attention, not worrying about what they'll think of you later." The child-woman returned to her drink. "Besides, you should never try and figure out men. It's a sure way to drive yourself insane." Jessica sipped. "I tried it once. Bad idea."
Kayla laughed and turned back to the bar. "Probably right. Now, what was it you were saying about you and Sereletic and a horse harness, I think you said it was?"