Getting Settled

by Tatsushu

Early in the morning upon the stone walls of Metamor Keep two figures met, each wrapped in thick cloaks to protect themselves from the chill morning air. The sound of their footfalls echoed ever so slightly off of the chilled stones, and a metallic jingle gave warning of their maille shirts. Though neither carried the polearms of their office, both wore helms of similar design, and the Keep's arms were blazoned on the left breast of their standard issue cloaks.

"Morning Rose," Offered the first, a lion-morph standing about 6 feet tall, "How go things with you?"

"As they want, my dear Gil." replied the feline's feminine partner, "And yourself?"

"For me they go as they won't; or at least as they shouldn't." answered Gil, proceeding to pull a sheet of parchment from the folds of this cloak. It crackled in disgust at being unwrapped so early in the chill air, but Gil paid it no mind.

"And what meaning has that, my fur-covered friend?" Rose inquired in a tone too light for the heavy morning chill.

"That I cannot for the life of me figure out the wherefore of these cursed corridors." said Gil, shaking the parchment in frustration.

"Don't you mean the 'where to'?" Rose asked with a knowing grin. This was not the first time this parchment had been so waved.

"Wherefore they go where to." countered Gil, sidling up to his partner in conversation and pointing to the parchment, "You'll remember that just last week I had finished my rounds and returned to the guardhouse, where upon I then proceeded to fill out the standard report. Upon concluding I then took up pen once more to add the following to the map I have been laboring upon in my free time." Gil pointed to the map with one claw, indicating the corridor he was discussing.

"Aye, I remember such scribblings," nodded Rose, "And I also remember telling you that such a labor was futile."

"But it makes no sense!" cried Gil, "I have tread the circumference ten times on four different days and the measurements remain the same."

Rose nodded, "As it did last time you treaded this measure."

Gil continued, "However, beyond all laws we know, I find yesterday that my map has a flaw, a section of wall that I had not seen that paces out at 15 paces long. I am no great wizard, wise in the ways of the world and its workings, but should not an additional 15 paces require, in return, a decrease of space elsewhere? Or should it not signify a change in the overall volume? I find nothing!"

"Yes, you do find noting; for your own notings are what you find." Rose pointed to the map, "You have these two hallways here marked—why?"

"Because that is where they are." quoth Gil.

"And if I were to tell you I took that same hall just the other day and came out here?" Rose pointed to another section of the map.

"I would then say you had gotten yourself quite turned around." Gil stated, eyeing his friend with some suspicions as to his mental health, "For every person knows that you cannot go from one place to another without passing through or around the area between them."

"And there's the answer to your riddle." remarked Rose, "For she isn't a 'person,' though most certainly a lady. And when you figure that out, your problems will be solved." Rose inclined her head, "If you don't mind, I am going to take my leave of you now. My shift starts in less than half an hour's time, and I must take measures to prepare." She added with a wink.

With that, Rose left the still befuddled Gil, who sat there for some time gazing up at the spires of the lady that watched over them all.

Meanwhile, in the bowels of said lady, three heavily robed figures strode down a dimly lit hall, their silk raiment rustling only slightly along the stone floors. Their feet hidden, they seemed to almost glide along the corridor as they talked amongst themselves in their own musical language.

"Someone else has traveled here from the East?" asked Ye, his voice filled with inquiry, "It is strange that I found no hint of this in the portents of the stars. Are you sure he is from our homeland?"

"I do not know." replied Desuka honestly, "But he apparently caused quite a stir when he first came. There were rumors that he could reverse the spell of this place." Desuka gestured at the Keep surrounding them with one large, black paw.

"Why would they want to reverse the spell?" asked Mong Ho, "Do they not gain wisdom from their change?"

Ye replied, "You must remember that they were forced into this situation, and most did not succumb willingly to the magic of this place."

"True," agreed Desuka, "And for many it has been a traumatic experience, to have their reality yanked from beneath them. I hope it is not so with this one as well. We should remember not to inquire too deeply, despite our own curiosities." Desuka paused briefly in his speaking to open a non-descript wooden door at his side. Although he had been confused at first, the panda was now quite pleased with the way the Keep seemed to know where he wanted to go. He found it served him greatly in finding the Duke whenever he went looking for him.

Crisp, bright sunlight assaulted the trio as they stepped out onto the cobblestones of the courtyard, the wall of the Keep rising beside them. Turning to his left, Desuka began down a small path, his two compatriots following him.

"You do know where we are going?" Inquired Ye, a bit cautiously, inflecting that of course he would never doubt his dichromatic friend, but...

"No." answered Desuka in plain words.

His companions stopped and stared. "'No'?" asked Mong Ho, "You mean we are just randomly wandering through the Keep? Did not the Duke give you directions?"

Desuka scratched his head, "Yes. I do not know where we are, but I do know where we need to be. It's a new apartment that sprung up recently. It was clear that it was intended for our visitor, or so I was told." Desuka shrugged, "So I just figured I would head that way."

"So you do know the way?" asked Ye, eyeing his furry companion with a doubting look.

"No," drew out Desuka, "But the Keep does." He patted the nearby wall and then turned back towards the way he had been following and continued on. Behind him a hen and a lizard turned to look at each other, shrugged, then followed after their lumbering guide.

Ryuo sat calmly, watching the pebble he had placed on the railing and staring through it into the infinite beyond. His mind was blank, and his breath was slow and steady. To anyone looking it would have appeared he was asleep, sitting as a stone still statue upon the bamboo mat beneath him. For him, however, the world was completely and utterly open, and with perfect awareness he took the time afforded him to just be.

It was with a jolt that he was wrenched from this state of enlightened perception as the small door on the garden wall creaked open. His 'self' flooded back, detaching itself from the universe, and with unthinking reflex his right hand grabbed for his sword, his left hand already poised to cock it from its secure sheath.

The door slowly opened a bit more, and three beings stepped through. The first Ryuo recognized as a panda from the black and white markings. He had heard of them, but never had he had the experience of seeing one in person before. Of course, this one was dressed in robes similar to the islands south of his homeland, and followed by a hen and a small child-like lizard, all of whom walked on two legs.

As they approached the small porch on which Ryuo was seated they bowed low to the ground—much further, in fact, than Ryuo would have thought protocol called for in such a situation. There was hardly room on the small path, little more than two meters in length and one meter wide, for the three obsequious courtiers. Their colorful robes spilled out into the carefully groomed rock garden that Ryuo had found and tended outside this small apartment in which he had been quartered.

Ryuo bowed from where he was seated, carefully placing out his left hand, then his right, and then lowering himself down not quite all the way to the ground. As he rose he deftly brushed back the long sleeves of his hitatare, a large-sleeved overrobe, and drew out a small fan from his belt sash, which he mindlessly waved as the three visitors picked themselves up and began speaking in the language of their homeland.

"Greetings, fellow wanderer along the path of life," began the panda, "I am Wasoko Desuka, and this is Mong Ho and Ye. We come from the land of Os-Var-Khai and now act as ambassadors and servants to Duke Hassan of Metamor Keep, sent to greet you and welcome you to the Keep." Desuka then paused, giving Ryuo a chance to introduce himself.

"I am called Musashinari Ryuo, from the village of Yamacho." Ryuo offered as way of explanation. There was more he wished to express, but their language couldn't truly express the specialized social stratification of his homeland. As it was he had to wonder whether these well-dressed individuals were truly court nobles, as their robes suggested, or servants—as their overly low bow had seemed to indicate. If it was the latter then this must be a truly great land indeed, to lavish such luxuries upon the lower classes.

"Welcome, Ryuo." Desuka bowed, "You sound as though you hail from the lands north of our Enlightened Empire, perhaps why the inhabitants here believed you may have hailed from our own land. I would hate to trouble you so much as to ask why you have come, however..." Desuka indirectly inquired.

"I have come because I needed to." Ryuo answered.

"I see," said Desuka, although he still did not entirely understand, "So you plan to return to your homeland, then?" Desuka put little confidence in the veracity of such a statement; the Keep rarely provided quarters such as these to passing visitors.

The answer seemed to catch briefly in Ryuo's throat. "Regrettably, that is something I cannot do." Ryuo said, bowing his head slightly at the memories of smoke and charcoal, "No, my path is not yet the way home—or at least not the way back to my land."

"Then perhaps it lies here with us." Desuka suggested, "I have been authorized to extend to you an invitation to stay with us here at the Keep. We have heard that you are a warrior, and the Keep can use all the help it can receive. Do you know of our purpose here?"

"No, only that your mages are said to be some of the best in the western lands-even better in some areas than the magic-workers of my own homeland." Ryuo replied, truthfully. He hadn't really seen much of a military presence; but then again, he hadn't been anywhere other than a few rooms while conscious.

"Hmmm, then maybe it would be best if you let us teach you something about the Keep."

Desuka proceeded to explain to Ryuo about Nasoj and his minions—the Lutins, the giants, etc. Ryuo sat and nodded as he listened, missing a few words here and there, but understanding the gist of what was being said. Though his face remained calm and steady, inside he felt something boiling inside, and he recognized it as hope. Here was a place he could start again, in service to a warrior lord and a chance to remove the putrid stain from his honor. Here was one more chance to prove to the gods and himself that he had a reason to live.

Of course, it would be among people who were—or once were—human. He had given that some thought in his brief time here. The kitsune of his homeland were rarely welcomed into human civilization, and with good cause. Most of his cousins were tricksters and ne'er-do-wells, without the purpose and calling of the Inari. Unfortunately, they were a stigma not easily separated from his own people, but perhaps they were not known of in this land.

Still, Ryuo decided, it was best not to give any more information than was necessary. He had already lost one home, and did not wish to be forced out of another.

Ryuo broke from his reverie to hear Desuka describing the end of some great battle in the Keep's history. "...which changed us all." Desuka finished.

"Of course." Ryuo added, not wanting to sound inattentive.

The reply caught Desuka in a brief state of puzzlement, but the look flew quickly from his face. "So do you wish to stay and help us in our fight?" the panda asked.

"I would be honored to be allowed to present my humble petition for acceptance to the lord Duke." answered Ryuo, formally.

"Then it shall be arranged. I have discussed this briefly with Thalberg in expectation of your response, I hope that does not seem too forward. Meanwhile, the Duke has instructed me to take as long as necessary to make you familiar with the etiquette of the court."

Somewhere in the Keep, the Duke was enjoying an afternoon of peaceful relaxation in the library. Thalberg sat at a nearby table making notes for the running of the Keep, and occasionally interrupting the Duke's recreation for a signature or quick decision on some matter of state.

"You know, with everything happening around here I feel like I'm missing something somehow. I guess I just haven't had a good rest in a while." The Duke commented to Thalberg, putting down the book he had been reading. He sighed and rubbed his temples gently as he continued, "And to think I almost spent the whole day in a lecture on Eastern imperial court ceremony."

Thalberg put down the quill he was using and looked up, "If you don't mind my asking, how did you get those three out of your fur for the day."

"Actually, it was quite simple, and really fairly practical." Duke Thomas remarked, "Since they are the only ones we know that can speak to that new arrival—what's his name...?"

"Ro, I believe, was what the chirurgeon said."

"Yes, that's it. Anyway, I asked them to explain our situation to him."

"Your Excellency, cannot Rickkter also speak with him?" Thalberg nudged.

A whimsical smile seemed to spread across the Duke's face. "Oh yes, I must have forgotten about that." He gave a knowing wink to his steward and turned back to the book he had been reading. "I must say, though, I do hope he does agree to stay. Not that many of us here have much of a choice, but I hear that he might be a fair hand with the sword."

"An understatement if Misha's account was to be believed—could you take a look at this and double check it for me, your Excellency—though the language barrier may prove a problem."

"True enough," the Duke said, putting down the book once more and taking the reams of parchment he was offered, "But we can definitely use every hand we can get." Duke Thomas paused as he quickly scanned through the pages, nodding as he handed them back to the steward, "If he decides to stay we should probably send him to George the Patrol Master to get rostered up. As for the language problem, let's wait until we get a report back from the Os-Var-Khaians; we still don't know enough about him to make too many decisions at this point."

"Of course." Thalberg replied. "And while we are on the subject of language I took the liberty of having this letter translated for you, if you would like to look at it."

"Not now Thalberg," Duke Thomas declined, picking up the book he was reading, "The story's just gotten started. I'm sure it can wait for a little while longer."

Ryuo sat in the small room considering what he had been told. Apparently the three had varying opinions on just how the ceremony was going to take place, but the panda—Desuka?—had finally made a decision, invoking the name of Duke Hassan as the final authority on the matter.

Thinking of the Duke comforted Ryuo in a small way, even though he had not met him. The authority of such a personage was like a rock that he could grasp in this otherwise hectic place. Apparently, there were only two 'classes' of citizens, and even then they were considered equal in the eyes of the law. Ryuo wondered at this seeming perversion of natural law, but said nothing.

With a sigh, Ryuo sat before the wall, the alcove before him empty. Slowly, he softened his vision, clearing his mind and expanding his spirit, or 'ki', out into the universe. A deep, nasal inhale accompanied the expansion, followed by a slow exhale. As the thoughts fled his mind, the entire room seemed to come into focus; every scent and sound seemed clear and distinct, and since his mind grasped on to no one detail, he could feel the entirety of the room around him.

And it was alive.

It was not the life force of a person, but something deeper. It was the life that inhabits all things from the smallest stone to the greatest mountain. In the stillness of the room was motion, and noises in its quietest silence. Every mat, every weave, every fiber was filled with its own individual life. It was a kind of presence that most people took for granted as they went about their daily lives. The kind that you feel only occasionally, in those moments of stillness when your mind stops worrying about anything and just exists in the moment.

But there was something else as well. At once a part of the surroundings and apart from them, it was another entity, almost human, or maybe more.

Ryuo came out of his trance rapidly, suddenly aware of a physical presence behind him, and wondering just how long they had been there. Not many people could sneak up on him while he was meditating.

"Greetings, Musashinari Ryuo." chimed a voice behind him in his native tongue. It rang like silver bells in his ears, and was as soft as a spring breeze. However, it carried the authority of stone, and the energy of a blazing inferno. Ryuo had only heard such a voice once before, in his early childhood.

Slowly, he turned, not quite sure what to expect.

The woman standing behind him was a thin wisp of a human figure, dressed in unassuming robes that seemed to be made of the thinnest silk. Her delicate features seemed fragile, but her stone-gray eyes bespoke a strength that could weather the strongest gales.

"Lady," Ryuo said in his most honorable voice. He bowed low to the ground before the woman, revealing in its depth his suspicions about this woman who appeared out of nowhere and spoke his native tongue flawlessly.

"I am Kyia." She told him, "And you are Musashinari Ryuo of the Inari clan of Yamacho, from the East—you may rise, I'm not one to be worshiped; I wish for those around me to be comfortable."

Ryuo slowly, cautiously rose to face the presence before him.

"I know of your loss," Kyia went on to say, her dulcet tones dropping to a more somber pitch, "And now you have come here. Many have come before you, all with their own wants, desires, and needs. I think I know your need, but I cannot fulfill it. I am not a god to be worshipped, nor a demon to be feared."

"Great lady," Ryuo began, "I have already failed in my duties once, and I cannot ask for a second chance. However, without a purpose I am nothing but a cherry blossom upon the wind, slowly falling to the ground. Without a master, I have no honor."

"I do not require your service," Kyia replied, "But my children do. If you seek a master, seek out Thomas Hassan. If you must devote yourself to service, devote yourself to him and to the people of Metamor; they need your service more than I." As she spoke her last words, they seemed to echo in the room. Her form slowly grew less substantial, fading slowly into the architecture, until only the faint ghost of her voice retained silent vigil over the still room.

Filtering through elaborate stained glass windows set high in the ceiling, the light of the pre-noon sun illuminated the Keep's main audience chamber. Duke Thomas sat up on the dais trying hard to keep his own frustration from showing. He should have known better than to give those three any leeway at all with the introductions. As it was they had scripted the entire proceedings: what to say, and even what to wear. The last part was where Thomas had drawn the line—he was going to have some control over this ceremony, darn it!

There was nothing to be done about it now, and in all truth the three had been working with good intentions. 'Oh well,' he silently nickered to himself, 'I'll just have Thalberg invite him to dinner or something, and maybe then I can get a better idea of who this new arrival is. In the meantime...'

The Duke's thoughts were cut off mid-sentence by the sound of trumpets and heralds calling for the opening of the court of Duke Thomas Hassan of Metamor Keep.

Outside the elaborate gold-leaf doors that gave entrance to the Duke's throne room, Ryuo waited with Mong Ho and the large lizard of a steward, Thalberg. Suddenly the sound of trumpets blasted through the corridor, setting every hair on Ryuo's head on end, and one hand instinctively went to his sword.

The steward gave Ryuo an icy glare; he had apparently been against allowing the foreign fox any weapons, let alone a full sword. The discussion between Mong Ho and Thalberg had been a heated one, and for a moment it had almost appeared as though the scaled steward was going to be having chicken for lunch, although Mong Ho had shown no signs of backing down. Eventually, the steward agreed under the condition that the sword be tied into the scabbard to prevent its use.

Ryuo now felt as though he was exposed, without his sword being quickly available, but he pushed those thoughts aside, trusting in the goodwill of these foreigners. After a short while of waiting outside the doors, Thalberg finally nodded to the two in a signal to enter. Cautiously, Ryuo approached the doors, and pushed them open.

The throne room was filled with a throng of men and women, most having come to see the exotic new arrival at the keep. A low murmur filled the room and as Ryuo strode as calmly as possible towards the central dais. He felt the eyes of everyone present watching him as he strode towards his equine Excellency. The gazes from the gathered crowd were sharp and penetrating, but Ryuo used them to prop himself up. He walked forward with back and eyes straight, not glancing to either side as he strode to his position before the pillow that had been laid out before the dais.

Seated on a throne in the center of the room, raised above all others, was the equine-featured personage that Ryuo assumed was Duke Hassan. Behind him, the black and white form of Desuka waited patiently to translate the upcoming ceremony.

Despite an air of nervous anxiety that seemed to hang around him, the Duke sat calmly upon his throne. His features seemed drawn with faint lines of worry, but at the same time he exuded a vibrant aura that lent courage to those nearby. Ryuo felt comforted by his assurance, which was like a rock in this strange place. Taking in his surroundings without moving his eyes, Ryuo noticed that the Duke seemed almost as much a part of the Keep as the stones in the floor—maybe even more so.

Carefully, Ryuo lowered himself, touching first the left knee, and then the right. Placing his hands before him in a triangular shape he bowed low before the Duke, lowering his head to a properly respectful level. As he slowly rose back to a seated position he saw that the Duke had risen from his chair, and Desuka had moved to the side between the two of them to act as a translator.

"Ryuo, as lord and liege of these lands, I welcome you to Metamor Keep." the Duke said through the panda, "I have been informed by my humble servants that you wish to remain with us here, and to help in the defense of these lands."

Ryuo only nodded. He noticed that the translation seemed shorter than the original message, but thought little of it.

"Will you pledge to us your sword in service of the Keep?" asked the Duke.

Ryuo faltered for a moment, thinking back to the night before. "I give to the Keep my sword and the life that wields it. Both are in your hands." As Desuka finished translating, Ryuo took the sword and scabbard from its place in his obi, which was tied around his waist in the style proper for court attendance, and lifted it with both hands up to the Duke, who reached for it himself.

Although his hooves made the matter of holding the slick scabbard more difficult than it would have been for more human hands, Duke Thomas was able to hold the covered blade delicately as he continued.

"We accept your blade, and the life that wields it. Rise, Musashinari Ryuo, and take back the sword and use it with honor in service to the Keep." Ryuo rose as he was told and took the sword, inclining his head forward as he did so. Carefully he backed away from the dais, and bowed at the waist. The Duke returned the bow, lower than was normal, which forced Ryuo to drop a few inches more. Duke Hassan then sat back down, and Ryuo saw his audience was ended. He stepped backwards until he was no longer directly in front of the Duke, and then turned and headed out the door.

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