Lessons with Val

by Michael Olson

May, 707 CR

The man spat on the ground as he left, the projectile landing just shy of the guard’s hoof. The equine sentinel endured it stoically, as there was not much else to be done. The newly freed prisoner grinned smugly and strode into the sunshine and fresh air.

It had been a tough sentence of four whole hours, but at least the snot-nosed kid who had talked back to him would be thinking about that broken nose for the next couple months. The fellas had been right, as long as you didn’t go too far, these Keepers were pushovers on the last day.

He went to the stable where he found a proper kind of horse waiting for him. Hoisting himself into the saddle he spurred the beast forward, eager to make up some lost time and maybe get some food before the campfires that would await had burned too low.

After getting assurance from the authorities that his man would be released before too long, the caravan master had started the slow wagons rolling early, expecting the wayward guard to be able to catch up by the first night’s camp.

That guard now made his way down to and through the gates, cheerfully careless in his riding as he enjoyed the last acts of power. The people nearly knocked aside by his horse would shake their fists and shout at him, but he knew there was absolutely nothing they could do to him. He was untouchable, or so he thought.

The caravan guard had been on the road for a few hours and was expecting to catch up to his companions at any time when he came across an old man standing in the middle of the road, leaning on a twisted walking stick. Expecting the pedestrian to yield to oncoming horse muscle, the guard paid the figure no heed until it became obvious the aged individual was daft.

“Get out of the way!” the rider shouted ahead. The warning caused no change in the placid expression of one it was directed at. Cursing he tried to guide the horse around to the side, but instead the beast began to skid to a halt as an unseen force pulled back firmly on its reins.

“Get off the horse,” the old man commanded. The caravan guard was baffled by the steed’s behavior and spurred it angrily, heels digging deeply into the equine flanks and pointedly ignoring the insane coot’s order.

Suddenly, an invisible fist slammed into him, tipping him off the horse with the buckles of his saddle mysteriously undone. “I truly dislike such acts as a rule,” the silver-haired individual said in a grandfatherly voice, while the guard picked himself up, “but you have successfully made this case an exception.”

The stunned man finally found his feet and drew his sword with a rasp, looking about wildly for what had hit him. The old man made gesture and spoke a strange word and the blade twitched with a life of its own. The wielder recoiled from the weapon, as if it had bit him, and the freed length of metal floated over to the aged person’s feet and was allowed to fall to the earth. Confronted by the obvious magic, the caravan guard just trembled and stared with open mouth at the wizard.

“Much better,” the old man said, and then they were both suddenly gone, leaving only a riderless horse and an unstained sword.

The three met silently at the Gate, conveying the results by their mutual silence. Ever since Martin had disappeared a week ago, they’d been tagging along with as many of the southbound patrols as possible. Jacob had never thought of Martin as wilderness savvy, but apparently he was capable of leaving only a subtle trail. Not that he was considered a big enough priority to warrant the services of Long Scouts or someone of similar tracking ability. Or even of anyone who could be classified as good, as Sam would often complain.

There was a particular poignancy to the depression of the day’s failures, as they each knew it had been their last outing. The Chief had only given them a week off for such hopeless actions, pointing out that if something hadn’t turned up by then, the boy had likely made it so far south that evidence of what had happened to him would never be found, or he had gone to ground somewhere else. It was a persuasive argument, but not one that offered any solace to the heart.

The weariness of having been on patrol all day, combined with the weariness of the soul, left them in no mood to receive a summons. Life, however, frequently disregards such things, and a messenger intercepted them shortly after their return.

The young coyote carried no written missive, but simply told them, “Chief Sumerin wants to see you two.” His furred fingers pointed at Sam and Benlin.

“Not me?” Jacob inquired.

The messenger shrugged and said, “Not that I know of.”

“What does he want to see us for?” Sam asked. With Benlin along, it couldn’t be anything personal or related to her rank. The exclusion of the squad’s reptile seemed odd.

“Didn’t say,” the canine said plainly with a shake of his head. At a nod from Sam, the youth darted off to handle his next errand.

“We can’t be in trouble,” Sam mumbled pulling both hands across her face, as if she would wipe away the exhaustion. “We just got back.”

“I believe there remains only one avenue of obtaining information,” Benlin observed.

“I’ll see you guys after we all get some rest, and you can tell me about it then,” Jacob stated. Any more potent curiosity he might have possessed died under the weight of the day’s disappointments and the prospect of suffocating his sorrows with sleep in a comfortable bed.

They parted ways at the first hall in the Keep, and Ben and Sam couldn’t keep down a bit of envy as Jacob left for respite and they continued on toward an uncertain meeting with the Chief. The door painted with a shield and lantern was before them soon enough, and a simple knock earned them admittance.

Andrea was waiting inside as usual, sitting in his ‘serious position’ behind the desk with straight back and grim expression. “Take a seat, you two,” he said. When they had done as instructed, he continued, “I suppose you remember the incident with Benlin’s former mentor in the spring.”

Sam suppressed a shudder as the porcine shrieks of the man the wizard had been interested in recapturing echoed in her memory. Benlin, on the other hand, closed his eyes and battled anew a bubbling stew of emotions he had felt upon learning that his master was still alive, and the things that s/he was trying to accomplish.

The reactions were ‘yes’ enough for the Watch officer, as he continued, “We believe he has been responsible for a string of disappearances stretching all the way back to the winter before last. Most of them were criminals that we had scheduled for execution or long sentences and had not yet been taken to the dungeons. We’d assumed, until your report on Expedite, that it had been a case of miraculous escapes. I’ve had people go over the cells again and again, each time coming up with nothing. It was as if prisoners were vanishing into the thin air, I was told. It looks like those reports were more accurate than we could have guessed.”

“Has the problem with the Euper cells been addressed?” Benlin asked. “I don’t believe anything so foolproof as the dungeon’s wards can be set up, but there should be some magical precautions we can take.”

“We had something set up within a few days of your encounter with him,” Andrea said, “For a while one of the Keep’s mages even gave us hope that we could trap Expedite on his next visit.”

“And the trap failed?” Sam asked.

“And he never came back,” the Chief corrected, “The spell is still set up waiting for someone to teleport into the jail, and no one has been abducted from there since. Somehow he managed to figure out we were on to him.” The large black-haired man fell silent for a moment, as if contemplating the implications of his own statement. He shook the ideas off, probably for later consideration, and returned to his explanation, “By solving one problem we’ve created an even bigger one. He’s turned to other sources of victims. Lone caravan guards and merchants released for crimes too petty to warrant a Cursing have been disappearing on their way back south.”

“And they are asking for added protection?” Sam guessed.

“No, they think we are lying about releasing people, that we kill them or hold them despite the Curse.” The Chief offered a bitter smile, “Ironically, its done wonders toward reducing the number of crimes committed by visitors to the Keep. Unfortunately, that is not nearly enough to compensate for the trade we will end up losing from the outrage over our supposed new policies.”

“Danged traders are used to being treated like kings just because we need them and they know it,” Sam groused. The comment brought a brief smile to Andrea’s face, but the expression was quickly subsumed by a return to seriousness.

“We do need them, however, and that has lead people above me to conclude we need to take more active measures in dealing with Expedite,” the Chief said, with a new tightness to his voice. “I’ve argued that investigation within the valley would eventually provide us with information, but I’ve been overruled. The intelligence agency has proposed a plan that has earned more favor.” He let out slow sigh as he recalled the meetings that had brought him to this point. She’d lost her temper more than once, and probably cost herself a bit of respect in the eyes of Metamor’s upper echelons of power. “They feel that if there are no clues here in the valley, then perhaps there might be some to be found outside it, in the Midlands.”

“I’m not sure I like where this is heading, Chief,” Sam admitted with a grimace.

“That’s probably the most sensible feeling you can have,” the man said, “but that doesn’t change the fact that I’ve been ordered to send you and Benlin to conduct an investigation beyond the valley.” The actual words had been spoken and now lay leadenly upon in the air.

“Why us?” Sam demanded to know.

“Because you’ve seen Expedite in person. You stand a chance of recognizing him.”

“Andrea, you can’t ask us to do this. You know what it will be like out there,” the woman said, suddenly angry.

“Like here, except ten times worse. It was the reason I fought so hard against this plan, but my hands are tied now,” the police chief said.

“Jacob has seen Expedite too. Is he being extended an ‘invitation’ also?” Sam asked bitterly.

“Actually yes, though given the circumstances he actually gets a choice in the matter,” Andrea answered. Benlin and Sam would endure humiliating, condescending treatment down south, but Jacob would be forced to live like an animal if he went along.

“I am hoping you two go along with this willingly,” Andrea said, seizing control of the conversation once more. He sighed mentally with self-disgust as he baited them by saying, “Though your mission is to find Expedite, this might also be a chance to find out what happened to Martin.” He saw the sudden change in expression in both their faces as they latched onto the idea, and decided that there were times when he absolutely hated being involved in the chain of command.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” he cautioned hypocritically, knowing that the words he said no longer had any affect on their decision, “the odds that you’ll find out anything about him are slim.” With a bit more genuine feeling, conveying as much hope as he dared allow himself, he added, “But I’m sure you two will do your best to beat the odds on that.”

“When do we leave?” Sam asked, anticipation having fully replaced dread by that time.

“Within the week,” Andrea answered. “A network of potential contacts is still being set up for you, but it should be done soon.”

“How long should we expect to be out there?” the woman asked with an eye toward what kind of things would need to be packed.

“Until you find something or forget what Expedite looks like,” the Watch chief answered grimly.

Jacob didn’t get any asleep immediately that night either, despite what Benlin and Sam thought, though the passages did carry him swiftly to his room. His hand closed around the handle of the now familiar door and opened it. Before he could enter, however, a small form dashed past his feet and into the chamber. He’d felt the brush of fur against his legs and seen a blur of red, but that was all. The Watcher recovered from his surprise and quickly entered his room just in time to see a white tipped-tail vanish beneath his sheets as the creature climbed its way into his bed.

The gecko had just begun to take a cautious step toward the furniture when the small lump rapidly expanded out from its center. A pair of pointed ears and a flowing red mane popped past the lip of the sheet as the figure stood up on his bed, the covering wrapped like a makeshift cloak around its shoulders and held shut by a pair of claw-tipped fingers. “Tffa!” the female fox morph declared exuberantly around an envelope clutched in her muzzle. As if she just realizing something was wrong she plucked the object from her mouth and announced again, “Tada!”

“Who…” Jacob began, staring at the unexpected sight.

“Eyes up here, please” she instructed tilting her nose up slightly to indicate her face. “Eyes up here!” she repeated more authoritatively when she failed to detect any shift of the gecko’s gaze away from the ample bosom being concealed only by the sheet and her fur. Jacob finally got the hint and shook his head as if clearing his mind, though the action looked odd with his eternally open eyes.

“Men!” the vixen proclaimed with a vexed sigh, legs folding up under her and initiating a short fall into a sitting position on the bed. “I used to be one, you know,” she said as an aside.

“I’m sor- wait, really?” the lizard asked as he tried to recover his mental balance.

“Only the gods know for sure,” the vulpine answered in a sing-song voice followed by a mischievous fanged grin.

“What are you doing in my room?” Jacob managed to ask at last.

“I’ve come to make you a very special offer,” she said with a small smile. Her ears thrust forward a moment later and she glared at him, proclaiming, “What a dirty mind you have!”

“I wasn’t-” the young man began to argue, but his protests were dismissed with an imperious wave of the woman’s paw.

“The offer I was referring to is a chance to serve king and country,” the fox replied affecting a flatland accent. “There art a mission being planned to hunt for a knave by the name of Expedite. Thy companions are even now being briefed on it by the noble Andrea Sumerin, now nicknamed throughout the intelligence agency as ‘She who is to be feared and avoided at all costs’.” Glancing down the length of her nose she confided, “Not an easy distinction to earn amongst my associates, let me assure you.”

“You work for the intelligence agency, then?” Jacob asked, crossing his arms incredulously.

“I just as much said so,” the woman affirmed. “And before you get around to disbelieving me, you may consult this.” She extended the arm holding the gilt envelope, offering the missive to him.

Jacob took it tentatively. The wax had been impressed with seal of Metamor, and gold glittered along the edges of the creamy paper. Feeling almost sacrilegious, he sundered the lock and opened the container. His eyes ran along the contents for a moment before he announced, “It’s just gibberish.”

The fox’s ears perked up in surprise, and then drooped down behind her head. “What? They told me you could read.” The tone was almost plaintive, like a child who had just lost a game.

“I can. But this,” Jacob said turning the paper around for her to see, “is just gibberish.”

The vulpine snatched the letter out of his hand and scanned it, her expression turning to agitation. The paper did, in fact, contain a series of jumbled letters and symbols that would look like so many random scrawlings to someone who read Common. “I am going to kill Marcy when I see her again,” the Vixen grumbled tearing up the paper and tossing it into the fireplace. Jacob watched aghast as the flames curled around the paper and gold reducing them to naught but ash and heat. “I ask her to write a letter for me and she encodes the dang thing.”

“Well, how about this then,” she said recovering. “My name is Valencia. Or at least as far as you need be concerned it is. For the purposes of the tonight you can assume everything I say is just the spouting of a madwoman, and then in the morning, or whenever it is you get up, you can confirm it all with that battleaxe of a Chief you have. Fair enough?”

That had been what Jacob had planned on doing anyway, so he gave her a nod to continue. She quickly filled him in on the details of the problems Expedite was causing, and the harm that could be done to the Keep. “That’s where you and your friends come in,” she finished, pointing at Jacob.

“Why wasn’t I briefed with the others then?” the reptile asked, assimilating the information he’d just been given.

“That’s where I come in,” Valencia explained with a smile. “As you no doubt realize, the only way you are leaving this valley safely is on all fours. I don’t know how much time you spend in your animal form, but there are a few more subtleties to actually passing for an animal in the outside world. I’ll be giving you a crash course in the art form.”

Jacob stood still for a moment under the import of what was being asked of him. It was a lot to absorb all at once. He’d been at Metamor for less than a year, and already he had come to appreciate the ability to walk the streets openly, to be accepted as a normal person again. He hadn’t fully realized how tough his years being Cursed in New Bethyl had been until then. And now he was being asked to embrace something worse, to be not a freakish cloaked figure sticking to his family’s farm, but to become nothing more than an actual beast. In an almost surprised tone, speaking as much to himself as to his visitor, he admitted, “I’ve never spent any time in my animal form.”

The vixen raised her furry brow at the remark and then commented, “Well it would seem the place to start then.” Rising from the bed she said, “You’ll probably be more comfortable if I leave, given the doubts in my identity.” She strode carefree before the fire, and advised him, “The first lesson, by the way, is to overcome the fear of being naked in front of others.” She held the sheet stretched out in front of her, the dancing flames behind her casting a shapely silhouette through the fabric, and then released it.

She shrunk as fast as the sheet fell so that by the time it hit the ground, and anything but her head was visible, there was only a perfectly normal fox sitting on the ground. The animal cast a mock glare at him that seemed to accuse him of being a pervert, then opened her mouth in a pointy toothed grin and dashed back out of the still open door into the halls once more.

Jacob walked over and picked up the cloth from the floor and then collapsed in his bed. He intended to get a good couple hours sleep before he tried anything, but even as tired as he had been, it was some time before slumber was able to come.

The following day the chief confirmed everything that Valencia had said, but Jacob had pretty much known that would be the case. It had all been too plausible to be an outright lie.

Normally he would be beginning his shift soon, but in light of the recent developments Andrea had given him and the others a reprieve from duty. Sam and Benlin were busy using much of the time wrapping up their limited affairs and making other necessary preparations, and Jacob, well, he had problems of his own to deal with.

He shut the door to his room and slid the block of wood into its dead bolt sleeve. The only people likely to come calling were his squad mates, but still it added a feeling of safety. When he’d asked around awkwardly earlier in the evening, others had recommended trying his first change in a place where he felt very safe. On a whim that left him feeling quite ridiculous, he checked under the bed and desk carefully for any stray animals that might have inconceivably found their way into his room.

Finding nothing, he moved next to his bed and disrobed, dropping cloak, breeches and shirt to the floor. Another piece of advice he had gotten from morphs of both large and small species was to make sure not to attempt it with his clothes on. The horror stories of choking and smothering pieces of apparel had made the rounds of the Deaf Mule for several minutes after that.

He crawled into the bed and sat there at the center for several minutes trying to think of anything else he had forgotten to do. With a sigh, and mounting sense of dread he realized that there was nothing left to stall with. Fear of the unknown churned inside of him. Would it feel as awful as the original Cursing had? Would he still be himself in his mind? Would he get stuck, unable to figure out how to change back? A calmer part of his mind just ignored the questions, letting them bounce off a wall of rationale like flies off a windowpane. People morphed in the Keep every day, many of them even enjoying it as recreation.

When he reached a state of equilibrium and the anxiety no longer surged forth in powerful waves, but had rather settled into a soft background buzz, he began. His will stretched out and bid the change happen. His body obeyed the command so readily that he almost surprised himself into stopping. It felt like having a wash of warm water pour over him, running in circles around his limbs, torso and head. Instead of distorting the room in rippling patterns, though, as water might, everything continued to become magnified while he watched.

It was over quickly, the room stopped growing and the sensations vanished. Everything was ok for a brief moment before he tried to move. As soon as he twitched a muscle, however, he found himself falling out the sitting position and onto his back, flailing for balance. He found himself instinctively able to thrash and right himself, though none of the motions were ones he’d have considered using had he found himself in similar predicament in his morphic form. It was as if his body knew how it should be used, Jacob found pleasantly. It was something he’d been told to expect, but discovering the reality of it was comforting.

He scampered experimentally along the length of the vast plateau that his bed had become, just to acclimate himself to the motion. The entire gait felt both unusual and natural at the same time. His body told him that it was all perfectly normal even though the sensations accompanying it were like nothing he had felt before, moving so swiftly while low to the ground.

So far so good, he thought to himself, coming to a stop atop the pillows. The entire experience was disorienting, but it didn’t strike him as bad. Was it really something he’d be willing to do for months on end, though?

It wasn’t a question he could answer yet, but he suspected time would tell him more. Until then, he looked about to see what else he should attempt. Spying the nearby vertical plane of his headboard, he crawled over and experimentally touched it with…hmm… he wasn’t quite sure what to call his forward appendages anymore. Were they hands, feet, paws? They didn’t feel all that much different from when he was in morphic form; just a few slight differences in the way his ‘wrist’ moved.

He shrugged off the questions, deciding that the answers didn’t really matter. He anchored his grip to the surface in the inexplicable way made possible by the Curse and began to pull himself upward. The climb was fairly effortless, easier than he was used to because his feet seemed positioned better to grip the wood and support his weight more evenly.

Reaching the top gave him an even better view of the small chamber he called home. Perched atop the slat of wood, he was reminded of his excursions to the tops of Metamor’s towers. It was possible to see everything from the peaks of those spires. He found them exceedingly peaceful, and especially liked to make the trips so as to catch a view of sunrise or sunset. The magic of the Curse had now transformed his room into a similar land, though it was a poor substitute for the beauty of his adopted homeland.

His desk sat a few feet away, covered with the scant belongings he found the inclination to use on a daily basis. He could see his inkwell and quill, sitting next to the freshly written letter to his family that he had laid out that evening.

The lizard crawled to the edge of the headboard and was confronted with the gaping maw that had been crafted from the gap between his bed and the desk. He could dimly see the outline of the flagstones that made up his floor amidst the shadow. It was his first encounter with an increased sense of mortality. Though surely a gecko could survive a fall from the headboard to the floor, his human sense of proportions told him he was staring into a drop that would surely splatter his insides across the landscape.

It was a moot point anyway, as he didn’t plan on falling. The tiny reptile scurried along the wall and then dropped to the battered desk. The paper lay not far away, covered in markings that were now nearly as large as his hand. He found it was difficult to read more than a word or two on a line without having to shift position because of his new size.

Magnified as they were, he could clearly see the crude character of the lines that had marked his penmanship since the Curse. Still, they were quite a bit better than when he had first come to Metamor, he judged in objective appraisal.

Suddenly, an unexpected raw, rubbing sort of sound intruded on the crackle of the fire and whipped his head around toward the door. A thin strip of blacked metal with serrated teeth had been slipped inside the crack of his door and was cutting through the dead bolt that held his door shut with repeated dragging motions.

Reflexively he crawled to the edge of the desk and then down to cling to the underside of its surface. For several moments he watched as dust fell in a sandy shower to his floor, and then both it and the sound ceased as the intruder finished his work. Jacob listened to the sound of the not quite silent hinges on his door and clung steady in his upside-down position as he saw a pair of legs stride into view.

They stopped in front of his desk, as if uncannily homing in on the gecko. For a long minute the figure just stood there. Jacob noted the custom boots and slightly unusual bend to the legs that signaled the person was one of Metamor’s own, affected by the same Curse he was.

A mote of anger blossomed in the reptile’s heart as he realized the interloper was probably reading the letter laid out on his desk. It was not just the sanctity of his room that had been violated now, but also thoughts and well-wishes intended for his family.

Apparently finished, the legs carried their owner further into the room. Jacob crawled quickly down to the floor in the middle of the area under his desk, seizing the opportunity. He willed himself back to morphic form, finding the action just as easy as the initial transformation had been. The sensations of the magic working in reverse went largely unappreciated as he focused on the situation at hand.

He rapidly filled up the space beneath the piece of furniture, his tail spilling out beyond it. He crawled out from beneath nimbly, and rose to his feet, rushing toward where the figure stood. It still had its back to him, and he noted a bushy red tail as he completed the first of three running steps that separated him from his opponent. As his foot descended for the second he saw the pointed ears twitch in his direction, revealing that he had been detected, but it was too late for either of the pair to do anything about it. He sprung off with the final step, arms reaching forward to grab and pin his target, who was only just beginning to turn.

In a blur of motion that was difficult to follow, Jacob found himself being pulled over the figure’s bent shoulder, carried by his own momentum and slammed into the stone floor beyond. The pain hadn’t even had a chance to fully spread throughout his back before the darkened handsaw was pressed against his throat, ready to end his life with what would doubtlessly be a very painful cut.

And then it was withdrawn with a sigh of disgust. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?” the accented voice of Valencia asked, venting unspent adrenaline through the frustration in her voice. The fox withdrew the tool and stood up, distancing herself from her victim.

“What the hell are you doing breaking into my room?” the reptile demanded, gritting against the pain of the impact as he picked himself up off the ground.

“I don’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about,” the vixen declared, secreting the handsaw behind her back with an air persecution. After meeting Jacob’s glare for a moment and seeing that no smile would be forth-coming, she admitted with an arm-spread shrug, “I was coming to continue our business, and when I discovered the door barred, I thought I’d make a flashy entrance.” She crossed her arms and then brought one hand to her chin in appraising fashion and announced, “By the way, I notice you’ve learned lesson one rather quickly.”

“The perverts always do,” she confided confidentially.

Suddenly reminded of his nudity Jacob stalked past the vulpine, and stepped back into his breeches. “Ye may not wish to do that,” she said.

“It’s one of the few things I’m sure of at the moment,” Jacob said working his tail through the slit in the back.

“Well I only bring it up because I think you’ll be changing form again in a few moments,” she said.

“And what makes you think that?” Jacob responded pulling tightly on the drawstrings and facing the woman once more.

“Well, unless you’ve decided that you aren’t going to accept the assignment, your training begins today. There ain’t much time before your party ‘s due to leave, you know.”

Jacob stood still, a green-scaled statue aside from the rise and fall of his chest. After several moments he felt distanced enough from the recent events to think clearly again. “I’ve not decided, yet,” he answered, “but I suppose that I can do that after the training, right?”

“Aye, that’s the spirit!” Valencia replied cheerfully; though she put a hand to the side of her muzzle and did the confiding routine again, adding in hushed voice, “Though if you refuse afterward, I’ll have to kill you.”

Jacob sighed, though there was no longer any genuine agitation lingering behind it. He spread his arms and let them fall against his side, asking, “Where do we begin?”

“With a night on the town!” she proclaimed. “So off with the pants.” She waited expectantly while the gecko fixed her with a dubious look. After a moment with an impatient frown she asked, “Well?”

“How about a little privacy?” Jacob returned.

With a sigh and a click of her tongue, she said, “If I have to teach you every lesson twice, we aren’t going to get anywhere in a week. But since I did knock the stuffing out of you, I’ll give you this first one free.” Assuming a look of extreme beneficence, she closed her eyes and turned around.

Wondering which sin he was atoning for to have brought on this situation, Jacob began to untie the knot he had created only a few moments earlier. He had only just finished and was starting to let them fall when the vulpine whirled around again forcing him to make a hasty grab at the garment.

“Oh, I forgot, I have a gift from the Intelligence Agency to show you, first,” she said while bending down and retrieving something from the other side of Jacob’s bed. She set the object down on the mattress ceremonially, and showed it to him. “The latest in comfort,” she declared in reference to the cage she had just revealed.

It was a wooden affair with numerous narrow bars curving down in a bell shape. A few sticks had been affixed at various heights, giving it the air of something intended for small birds.

“Is this another joke?” Jacob asked, arching his brow.

“’Fraid not, me boyo,” she answered sympathetically. In a straight tone she said, “Until you decide to call it quits or leave with the mission in a week, you are going to spend every moment as a lizard. This will be your home during that time.”

Jacob stared at the device and the added level of reality it conveyed. This wasn’t going to be some kind of odd job he did and then returned home from afterward; it was going to be a lifestyle. He took a step toward the bed and, with the hand that wasn’t holding up his pants, ran a finger along the grained surface of one of the bars.

“Its not so bad really, from what some of my colleagues have told me. Supposedly adds a real sense of safety,” Valencia offered in consolation. “Given that your species is so small and fragile, the Agency thought it would be a good idea to issue you one. One of the perches lets you quickly open the door from the inside, and it’s even been designed to break apart from the inside if you ever really need to change in a hurry.” She asked, “So, are you still up for it?”

“I guess so,” Jacob said, though his voice held no enthusiasm for the prospect.

“Good, then get changed and let’s go, the night is wearing.” When she just stood there, waiting expectantly, Jacob made a spinning motion with his finger in admonishment. With a childish frown the fox did an obedient about face.

“You know, I’ve always wondered what lizard tasted like,” she teased with an audible lick of her chops.

“It’s a little bland,” Jacob answered honestly, with a hint of restored amusement, as he let the breeches fall to the ground and willed himself to change.

It didn’t take long to get him situated in the cage, and then they were off. Valencia whisked them through the hall, with a destination already in mind, apparently. Jacob found the ride in the cage smooth enough, and suspected the vixen was taking extra care not to jostle him too much on his first voyage.

It was harder to tell where they were at his new size, though perhaps that was as much a quality of living at Metamor Keep as the altered perspective. Regardless, by the time he figured out where they were going it was too late to do anything about it. The bars of his cage offered him a striped view of a heavy, familiar, wooden door, and looming far above his head was the weathered sign that proclaimed the building’s identity. The Deaf Mule.

Could it have been mere chance that had led his keeper there, or was she playing another one of her insane mind games. The gecko shifted uneasily on his four feet, suddenly very conscious of the extra pair he had in contact with the ground. He knew people there. He wasn’t sure he was comfortable appearing like he was in front of people who knew him.

The door opened under the impetus of Valencia’s hand and she carried them inside. Jacob found himself just clinging tensely to the center of the cage floor, like someone holding on for dear life. That was the extent of what he could do to avoid notice, trapped in an empty cage as he was. His dark eyes looked nervously out across the room, in search of faces that might recognize him.

The vixen in charge of his fate weaved her way nimbly through the obstacle course of tables, tails, and people, parrying catcalls and flirtatious greetings with haughty glares or a teasing smile seemingly at whim.

Suddenly the chaos was gone, as she carried them into a bubble of odd calm and shadow that seemed to keep at bay even the riotous sound filling the rest of the building. On a crowded evening for the Deaf Mule, the table miraculously managed to have only a single occupant. Valencia set the cage on the table and plunked herself down in one of the empty chairs. Reaching her hand boldly across the table, she said “Hullo, guvner. Name’s Talia, howdyado?”

Looking at the man seated across from her, Jacob couldn’t say for certain that the shadow wasn’t actually radiating out from him. He was dressed in black from head to toe. The brown eyes set amid the mask of dark fur had flashed with wariness upon their arrival, but now seemed to take on an amused cast mirrored by the slight smirk creeping across his muzzle.

“For the moment, well,” the raccoon replied reaching out and clasping the offered hand. “I’m Alfonse, pleased to meet you.” Valencia tensed so slightly and so briefly that the moment was missed by Jacob entirely, the reaction hidden to all but a professional.

“Pleased ta meetcha, pleased ta meetcha!” she declared grasping and pumping his hand with both of hers. “Crowded night, awhat?”

“Yes. So tell me, ‘Talia’, what brings you here tonight?”

“Here to spend a bit of coin and live a bit of life,” she replied, turning in her seat in search of a waiter or barmaid. “Had a good day at market and I mean to celebrate it afore I head back home.”

“Do you live in the Keep? ” the grey-furred man asked before taking a sip from his drink.

“No, I live way down near the mouth of the Valley. I trade with some o’ the caravans down there that don’t want to get any closer to the Keep than they have to. They don’t have to get close the Curse, the Cursed don’t have to get close to them, an’ I get fed. It’s a good deal for all. How about yourself? What’s your lot in life Mr. Alfonse?

“Me?” The figure asked. “I’m a farmer. I grow turnips.” Jacob could see the eyes practically glow with laughter now, though the rest of the face merely held a mild smile.

Valencia finally managed to flag down one of the passing workers. “Two mugs of ale for me an’ Alfonse here!” she declared. The barmaid looked dubiously in the raccoon’s direction, confused at the appellation but after receiving a nod from him she shrugged and went to retrieve the items.

Jacob sat, or stood rather, and listened as they continued to exchange information about their fictional lives. It was a duel of lies that would have seemed like nothing but two people having a pleasant conversation if not for the stranger’s light sarcasm and the fact that he knew Valencia hadn’t said a true word yet. They talked of friends and family, of their Cursing stories, of their hopes and their dreams; all of it a big farce rolling off the tips of their tongues.

Valencia took a hearty draught from the drinks that had long since arrived, buying valuable seconds of thought to shore up a weak spot in her story. They had been pressing each other more and more, each trying to trip the other up on some inconsistency. She had questioned his sword and clothes. He’d explained it away by killing off his father. He wore black in mourning and with slightly watery eyes he had revealed that the sword was a treasured keepsake from the departed man’s mercenary days. In turn he had put the fire to her by asking the details of a trade she did not practice.

Setting her mug back down firmly the vixen managed to provide a list items that wouldn’t have stood out too much amongst the collection of goods likely to be coming into Metamor’s markets at that time of year. She gave herself a handsome profit, gouging both caravans and Keepers well at both ends, put more tactfully to her audience of course. In fact she decided and revealed that the only item she hadn’t been able to unload was the gecko that sat on the table. She thought she saw Jacob start as she included him in the fabrication, but hoped that her opponent hadn’t thought anything of the motion. All and all, she thought things were shaping up nicely, that she’d finally managed to patch her tale up enough that it wasn’t taking on water.

Then she caught the hint of a very small smile on the raccoon’s muzzle, barely even enough to say she saw it for certain. If it had been there, it had been very different than the bemused ones he’d let out so far. If it had existed it had been a smile of a hunter about to dig into its prey. “Well it seems your day is about to get even luckier,” he said. “How much do you want for him?”

If Valenica had been drinking, she would have spat out her ale. As it was she let her genuine surprise flow seamlessly into her character’s. Having already said she’d been trying to sell Jacob, she couldn’t simply backpedal out of it. She did some quick math and said, “Five gold pieces,” naming an outlandishly high price for something like a pet lizard. When he reached into his purse and withdrew the requested sum she realized she’d been backed into a corner. “That’s quite a lot of money for a farmer to be carrying around,” she observed, stalling for time.

“An inheritance from my late father,” the stranger stated remorsefully. “He was a reptile morph, and in my grief I find your little friend reminds me of him.”

That was it then, game, set, match. She stood up and grabbed the cage and exhaled in a rapid mouthful, “I’msorrybutIreallycan’ttakeadvantageofyouandIhavetogonow,goodbye!” before darting away from the table in as hasty a retreat as she could manage with the crowds.

“I love to win,” the raccoon said, smiling then the smile of predator after the hunt, and raised his mug in toast to his victory as the fox fled.

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