Excerpted from the journal entries of Jacob T Fox
January 27th, 708CR.
It was cold, glorious winter. All around was a thick covering of snow and ice, the wind howled like a dire wolf in the noon time, and above the storm clouds were gathering for another blasting. I was in bliss. Most would consider me insane and I most likely am, but my thick fur and my spirit of adventure called for days like these. A mist of heavy white rushed out from every breath, but I felt as if I was born for this storm, as if a hidden destiny was waiting for me. When I changed to my present form no one knew what I was.
My muzzle was shaped like a fox's, but the coloration of my fur was unlike anything seen. I was neither red nor gray. Most at first glance would see me as black, but upon closer inspection, my fur is a deep royal blue. It would lighten in the summer, unfortunately not enough to make the summers bearable, but I am a bit of an unknown. Not even the great wisdom of the Keep, at least their books, knew what I had become. Sad, but most don't notice. Most are too busy surviving in our little town.
I hadn't been this happy in a while, but I see the misery of those who aren't built for the cold. They bundle into a coat of fur and hide in their homes, hoping for a quick snow with a very warm spring. Last winter was a warm adventure for me in which I nearly drowned in a pool of mud that seeped into my father's home. I doubt that will happen again. Around the base of my home now is a lining of stones stacked tightly so nothing can get in. That was far from my mind, for this is a time of celebration. It’s wintertime.
Walking down from my home and around the bakery— which was closed— and an inn— which was shut tighter than the purse of the local noble— was The Tavern's Hearth. I saw a light and knew someone had to be emptying the shelves of Myra Tavernsmith's pub. Quickly, my hand reached for the door and to my surprise only Myra was in. It was not even time to eat dinner and the room was empty. Looking up from her counter, Myra was shocked to see me.
"Jacob, only a fool would be out in this weather," she said with no offer of an apology.
I placed my satchel of badger hide down next to the closest table and raised my hands to the air. "I am a fool, I do not doubt that but where is everyone? I would expect at least Terrance Waters here, that swine's life blood is ale."
"It’s Christmas time, Jacob. Everyone is either in the Keep with Father Hough, the Lightbringers, or home with their family."
I nodded, understanding that this was a time for both faiths to be celebrating, but my heart had lost faith a long time ago, and those who I would celebrate with are gone to those gods I no longer believed in. Dropping down my snow covered hood, I sat at the counter and looked straight at the woman who once was a womanizer who spend more time looking after his many loves than his family bar.
"Why aren't you with the others in the Keep?"
"I could ask the same of you," I said, with a raised eyebrow.
"My family is in the back room, enjoying a turkey dinner I personally hunted with my son."
I smiled at the sight of Myra, a seductive brown haired woman who once was a man, hunting with her equine son.
"How is Alan today?"
She placed her hands on her hips and Myra's slight smirk turned into a frown. "Don't avoid my question, Jacob. Why are you here?"
"What family do I have? I was a son, now I am nothing. My father lies in a mass grave for the martyrs of the Three Gates War, my mother is dead along side him. The religion I humbly served stabbed my mother and I in the back, leaving us for dead. I am alone. My friends are my family now, but they celebrate with those I hold a great deal of discontent with."
Myra turned her eyes to a far distant place in the air. "You could join my family…"
"No. I was just going to play outside, but now my memories are calling for me."
"Then let me give you a gift."
She gingerly pushed off the counter and grasped at an old jug. Myra's small hands removed the cork and she took a whiff of the concoction.
"Jacob, this is an old wine. I am somewhat afraid what it may taste like, but it is very special, and it should ease any pain your heart may have."
I laughed and the permeating scent that came from her bottle was that of lilacs and myrrh. If the smell was any hint of the taste, then I was in for a treat.
"Thank you Myra." I smiled but I knew it was a snarl and looked down to hide it. "You may have given me what I needed this holiday."
I wiped the decades of dust off the brim, and I still could almost feel the scent that's how strong it was. In the background was the chatter of Myra's family. Alan talked about tracking the trails, looking for a meal this night, being lucky to find the large tom in a cruel winter. Myra's wife, Troy, laughing with him in his goose like laugh. I watched the joy from the crack opening of the back room door. I didn't know if I had sighed or not, but Myra saw me watching.
"Please, Jacob, join us."
Without looking, I nodded and walked around the counter and entered, shutting the door behind me. At least I wasn't alone today.
12/24 – 3pm
Rickkter managed to catch the fox as he was going between groups of friends and pull him over to a quiet corner. Considering the jovial mood that Misha was in with the party, that took some doing, but Rickkter eventually managed to do it. Of course Rickkter was adamant at finding out WHY Misha had done it.
“Well, I just wanted to thank you for inviting Kayla and myself here. I can tell you it’s been a very long time since either of us were invited anywhere.”
Someone had gotten the fox’s attention and he had not been looking directly at Rickkter, but the raccoon’s statement made his head snap around. “Rick, I can’t believe you said that. Hell, after the Longs themselves, and Andre and Jenn, you two were the next logical choices! George was more of an after thought, actually, and I’m surprised he showed, though I think he just came for the free booze. He’s not usually one for parties.”
“So you thought of the mercenaries after your own men, eh? Just like a typical commander,” Rickkter snorted. For a moment Misha appeared wounded by the comment and was going to respond, but then he noticed Rick’s smile.
The scout laughed along with the mage before clasping his friend around the shoulders. “After all we’ve been though, all we’ve done for each other, how could you not be here? You are my friend and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Rickkter smiled and thanked him. “And now that this silly serious business is over,” continued Misha, “let us find our ladies and a table. They should be bringing out the main course any time now.”
“Ah, most excellent. What will be the main course?”
“For my friends and comrades? Everything.”
The raccoon only smiled, his long tail sweeping out behind him as the two of them went in search of an otter, a skunk, and then a table of fine seats.
Their ladies were part of a whole gaggle of women and Rickkter let Misha venture in to retrieve the two they were seeking. They silently coordinated their attack so that they snuck up on their ladies from the rear, taking them into their arms at the same instant. Both female mustelids squealed and cringed at the same instant, laughing and wriggling in the arms of their respective lovers. Kayla turned her head around, leaning up to give Rick lick on his chin as she smiled.
“And what is it that you two want, sneaking up on a pair of ladies like that, hmm?” Caroline murred as she and Misha rubbed noses.
“Only that we miss you and want to spend a meal in their company. So what do you say? Will you have us?”
“What do you think, Kayla?” asked the otter, inclining her head to where the skunk was captured in Rick’s embrace. She had turned around and was nuzzling her raccoon. “Do we really want to spend anymore time with these two?”
Kayla ran the side of her muzzle along the thick fur of Rickkter’s right cheek ruff. “Well, they did say there would be free food involved. I think we could tolerate them for an hour or so for that.”
Giggling, Caroline turned back and kissed her fox. “Alright you rogues, lead onwards.”
Wrapping one arm around the shoulders of the otter, Misha called out to the rest of the Hall, “Attention everyone! Dinner will be served shortly, so find yourselves some chairs and tables or you’ll be eating off the floor! For those of you who've been to more than one of these, you know that's not an idle threat!”
The crowd of the Long Hall broke into cheers and applause as all present headed for the tables. In spite of Misha’s threats there was more than enough to go around. When everyone was settled groups of servers came out to take the specific orders and dispense wines or other beverages to whomever wanted them. Rickkter chose a fine red wine for his table, settling back to enjoy it as the rest requested certain dishes to suit their specific palettes. He gazed over the rest of the people in the hall, reveling in the whole atmosphere of the room.
“They were right, Misha. This is a wonderful party.”
“Yes, Rick, it certainly is. But there is one thing I have to do.”
Misha stood up at his table raising his glass and knife with him. He waited a few moments to see if anyone would notice, then rapped the glass with the knife, the peals rigging throughout the Long Hall. Everyone quickly dropped into silence.
Misha let it hang a few moments. “I want to take this occasion now to depart from the usual festive nature of these gatherings and say a few serious words to all of you.
“As you all know, the Long Scouts have existed now for four years under my command. In that time everyone here has run countless missions against the enemy to the north. We’ve killed his forces, ruined his supply lines, devastated his outposts, and did everything in our power to make the lives of our enemies as miserable as we possibly could.
“It’s a hard job we do, and often a thankless one. Most people at Metamor don’t know the specifics of our jobs; only that we are elite warriors who run missions more difficult than anyone else.” He paused and swirled the wine in his glass. “We’ve done a hell of a job, haven’t we? I don’t think there isn’t one of you here that doesn’t have a price on their head for their efforts.
“Looking out over the faces I see present here tonight, I can’t help but remember some of the adventures we’ve had, all of the good times and some of the bad as well. I see some of the original members of the Longs; Meredith, Laura, Lisa and Georgette. And I see those who have been recruited into our ranks only recently, namely Matt, Finbar, and my own Caroline.” The fox looked down at the otter in the blue dress to his side as he rubbed the bulb of his glass with one finger. His eyes picked out the subtle hints of residual damage left from her horrific ordeal from a few months ago. He blinked away the forming tears and turned to the audience once more. “And I see those who have fought alongside us to keep all of Metamor valley and the Midlands safe from the terror to the north.” He gestured to Rickkter and George, each of whom acknowledged in turn with a nod.
“But what I don’t see are, what I would give almost anything to see, are the faces of those who we’ve lost over the years.” His gaze lowered to the tabletop. His tongue darted out to lick his nose as he tried to quell his roiling emotions. Misha knew this was going to be hard to say but he vowed to honor his friends this night. “We all remember Craig Latoner, his laughter, his smiles, how we could call on him for any quick favor. Craig was a great warrior, a true Long, and I am honored to have served beside him. His presence is sorely missed around Long House, although his family is here with us tonight. May the prayers of all of us go with them tonight to see them safely through the coming year.”
The room was dead silent as all the keepers waited for him to continue. “This has been our worst year so far, with the death of Craig as a result of the specific targeting of Long Scouts by Nasoj’s forces. But having a price on our heads is the greatest compliment Nasoj could pay us! It means we're doing our job!” By that point Misha was almost shouting. Pausing a moment to collect himself, he continued in his normal voice. “But it could easily have been far worse than that. Were it not for the efforts of newcomers Murikeer and Rickkter we would be without the company of Joy Wanderer and my own love, Caroline Hardy. They have my eternal gratitude for those actions,” he said inclining his glass in Rickkter’s direction and toward the skunk seated some distance away. Rick returned the subdued gesture as Muri inclined his head slightly and smiled.
Misha surveyed the room once more, his tongue darting out to lick his nose. “Thank you all for listening to me ramble on here.” He raised his glass up high to the room. “This has been the greatest pride of my life, commanding the finest group of warriors I’ve ever seen anywhere. A toast, then; to our fallen comrades. May their memories never be forgotten.” Bowing his head, he toasted the ensemble of keepers.
“May they never be forgotten,” was the resounding chorus that rose from the throats of all assembled in the hall that day before drinks were downed.
“Thank you,” whispered the fox before taking his seat.
12/24 – 5pm
The dinner in the Long Hall had been a long, loud, and leisurely affair. The wines, ales and spirits had been flowing freely the whole time and there had been several toasts drunk throughout to various causes, most of them revolving around the idea of Nasoj’s head on a pike. The food, which had been prepared in a top fashion by the kitchens at the Keep was enjoyed by all and reflected the diversity of Metamor’s inhabitants. First had been a course of salads and greenery for the herbivores in attendance and any omnivores who wished to indulge. Rickkter, Kayla, and Carol had all taken part, though Misha declined in favor of what was to come. This was followed by a course of meats, something that the majority in attendance took part in. Kayla tended to fancy the fowl and selected a dish of thrushes in wine sauce. Rickkter tried loin of boar smothered in plum sauce while Misha helped himself to roast pork with a stuffing of bread, honey, red wine and bay. Caroline dined on breaded veal cutlet in a rich cream sauce with broccoli on the side, something the raccoon learned Misha despised. Rickkter and Carol also split a dish of broiled salmon steaks in a light coating of lemon juice and spices. Both thought that was a most divine course, though neither Kayla nor Misha would go that far. After they had all eaten their fill, along with the rest of the Hall, the desserts were wheeled out. These were all succulent treats, many consisting of ingredients preserved in the Keep’s cellars for just such an occasion. After much debate, the table settled on pears cooked in cinnamon, honey and wine in a light sauce thickened with a few egg yolks. Unlike the fish, no one at the table could argue with the excellence of them. All four of the animal morphs feasted upon the sweet, almost melting fruits with their thick, dripping sauce. Both couples also enjoyed the pleasure of feeding it to their partners and were all left sucking the sweetness out of the fur on their paws and off their muzzles long after the plates had been removed.
While the food had been served and consumed the minstrels had continued to play in the background, adding a pleasant atmosphere to the Hall for the diners. However, playing is hard work and so the musicians took the time after dinner, when conversation was at its height and the people would be too stuffed to return to the dance floor, to get something to eat for themselves. What they did not expect, however, was the loud disappointment of the Scouts at the loss of their music. Misha solved that with a suggestion from Rickkter, namely that any of those present with musical talent should go up on stage and replace the performers. There were several in the audience who had done so, and now a band consisting of Carol on flute, Rickkter with violin, and the girlfriends of Ralls and Jotham on pan pipes and mandolin now playing for the once more dancing audience of Keepers. The pipes and flute lent the pieces a very light, almost mystic air to them with Rick’s violin tending to dominate. The players also favored their audience with several shorter pieces not intended for dance. One was a rather intricate duet between Rickkter on one end of the stage and Carol on the other. The piece was one they had practiced together before, the most striking parts occurring when the two instruments came into a eerie, haunting harmony. Caroline then showed off how far she had become by engaging Jotham’s girlfriend Paula in a much faster, livelier piece with the mandolin. The crowd wildly applauded both pieces upon completion, their admiration gaining a reluctant bow from a very shy otter. The musicians then returned to the usual pieces.
The last dance came to an end with the slow hum of the violin bow drawing across the string. The multitude of keepers stopped their dancing to turn and applaud the impromptu band that had replaced the main help on stage. All the musicians rose and bowed several times to the roaring applause of the crowd before relinquishing their instruments to the actual band members once more.
Caroline linked her arm through Rickkter’s as they headed off to rejoin their respective loves. Kayla had spent most of the personal dances with Misha, though Kershaw did manage to entice her for a few of them. Now the female skunk and the fox were calmly standing to the side of the dance floor awaiting the return of their musicians to their sides.
“That was truly, truly wonderful,” said Misha as Carol came up to him. He took her head in his paws, cradling her cheeks in his palms and began to bestow loving licks on either side of her muzzle before pulling her into a tight hug. “You were really great, love! I told you that you’d do fine up there and you really did. Such applause doesn’t lie!”
Caroline had a wide, open muzzled smile on her face where she leaned over Misha’s shoulder and hugged him back. “Thank you, love. I was so nervous at first, but you were right, I managed to settle into it soon enough.”
“See, I told you all that practice would pay off,” said Rick from where he and Kayla embraced.
“You were good too, love,” Kayla told Rick.
He turned and rubbed his nose against hers, resting it there and looking into her eyes. “You really think so?”
“No doubt in my mind.” His long whiskers were tickling her own and making her smile. “Though personally, I think that the only reason you were up there was to be with all those lovely young females.” She winked at him.
That made everyone in the group laugh and earned her a lick on the nose from Rick. “Now why would I want that when I have the most beautiful one in the whole valley right here in my arms?”
Kayla folded her ears down, tucked her lush tail between her legs and blushed furiously.
“Oh, come on,” Rickkter admonished, hugging her close. “You know you are, at least to me. And I think this dance is coming to an end, so how about we all go and join the rest of the crowd?”
Misha and Carol were both in favor of that as well.
Then the music changed to a slower dance by the time the two couples had reached the floor. Rickkter and Kayla embraced each other as Misha and his love did the same. The skunk wrapped her arms around the raccoon’s waist and laid her head on his shoulder. He did likewise, with one arm around her waist to lead, the other up between her shoulders to stroke the fur there. Kayla knew that Rickkter favored dresses with low backs like she had for that very reason, and it was a good thing that such were quite the fashion amongst animal morphs. Kayla snuggled against his chest, as the music played, enjoying how he lovingly caressed her fur, and purring quite happily. She lay against him, eyes closed, trusting him to guide her.
“You know, I think that holding a purring skunk against one's chest has to be one of the most pleasant sensations in the world,” Rickkter observed after several minutes.
Kayla smiled, not wanting to give Rick reason to stop stroking her scruff. “Only one?” she burred deeply. “What would some of the others be?”
Rickkter placed his muzzle next to her ear and whispered a few of them.
Kayla barked a few sharp laughs and pulled back a little, grinning widely. She moved one paw out from behind and tapped it on his nose. “You are utterly, utterly, incorrigible,” she pronounced to his broadly smiling face. But all the same, she knew her own eyes were shining as much as his at the thought.
“That I am,” he said and licked her finger.
“Whatever am I going to do with you,” she wondered as they spun around, her muzzle hanging open in a smirk.
“Well, I don’t know about you intend for me, but I was thinking of doing this with you,” the raccoon said as he reached up and began to scritch the skunk behind her black ears.
Kayla responded immediately, leaning her head back against his paw and trilling loudly. When she spoke it was in a husky burr. “Um, yes that would be good for starters.”
Rickkter just chucked and hugged her close again, feeling her deeply satisfied rumbling in his chest. “Well, it’s the least I can do for the lady I love.” He kissed the top of her head and gave them another spin, causing their tails to fly up a moment. “And you make such wonderful sounds, too.”
All Kayla could do was continue to purr as he resumed caressing the striped fur of her back. “I love you so much, too, Rick,” she burred. “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
He gave her another kiss and whispered, “You too, love.”
And the band played on.
12/24 – 6pm
The dancing had finally worn Rickkter out after about a half hour or so of it, and he and Kayla had retired to the crowd, Kayla acquiring a glass of chilled white wine while Rick took a mazer of fresh ale, and going off to mingle with the crowds. Kayla decided to see if she could find Caroline while Rick went in search of the fox. He found Misha on a balcony overlooking Long Hall.
Misha was looking over the room, sort of nodding back and forth as he leaned on his arms for support. “What are you thinking about?” asked Rick.
“Entertainment. Need entertainment.”
Rick pointed over to the band using his mug. “We’ve already got that.”
“Nope. Not what I meant.” The fox was still rocking back and forth.
“So what did you mean?”
The raccoon blinked a few times then looked carefully at the fox. “Hedgehog bowling?”
“Bowling? With hedgehogs?”
Rickkter blinked a few more times and looked out over the room, raising his drink to his lips. When the amber liquid finally reached his mouth, he wound up drinking a little more than he intended. Eventually he emptied the mazer and resumed his study of the hall. His tongue darted out to lick his nose. Misha still hadn’t changed position, and seemed to be exhibiting the repetitive characteristics of a child’s wind-up toy. “We have any here?”
“Yup. One. Norman. We all call him Spiny Norman.” Misha pointed into the midst of the crowd. “Right there, next to his friend Monty.”
The raccoon’s pink tongue flicked out once more to lick his nose. “Sounds good, let’s do it.”
Misha’s voice rang off the walls and high stone ceiling. “HEY NORM!” And Rickkter could swear, even from the distance he was away, and even through the veil of alcohol, that he could see the hedgehog smile. Why, when he must have known what was coming, Rick couldn’t say. All that he knew what that as soon as he saw the look on Misha’s face, Norman grinned a grin of a man who knows what’s coming and cares not a wit. Oh, this was going to be a fun party! But then something occurred to him.
“Um, Misha? How do you bowl with hedgehogs?”
The red fox stopped his decent down the stairs. He cocked his head to one side a moment before waving a charcoal colored hand in a dismissive manner. “No idea.”
“Um, so what are you going to do about that?”
“Don’t know. Probably make it up as we go. It’s what we usually do in these situations.”
“That little saying wouldn’t have any bearing on the bean dip, would it Misha?”
The fox just gave his masked friend a very ugly look.
Rickkter grinned. Yes, this party was finally starting to get fun.
When Misha’s voice had rung out over the hall, it had snapped Kayla out of her absorption in the discussion of a small group of female scouts. They had all been laughing and giggling over their visiting families and all the crazy antics that went on this time of year. Kayla managed to distract them long enough to say she had to leave them to get a new drink. Laura, Carol, Lisa and a few others bid her well before she left, quickly making her way to the exit to Long Hall. Whatever Misha was setting up over near the far wall was drawing a crowd and no one noticed her slipping out.
From the Long House it was only a quick walk to her room. There, she retrieved the long, slim, black velvet bag and headed up several stories to the library. Just as Muri had promised, it was still open. Cutter almost always had something special going for the kids. This year he had staked out a prime spot in the center library lounge and was reading to a rather large group of children. Their joyous laughter indicated how much they were enjoying both his tale and the antics of his impromptu acting. Whatever the story the sword fight was from, of which he was performing both sides, she couldn’t make out over the giggling and howling laughter.
Kayla turned around and went off down one of the aisles in search of someplace a little quieter, a little more private. The spot that she found was in one corner, near a smaller group of children. They were ringed around a young woman, probably their governess, on a stool who was reading them Christmas tales from a thick tome on her knees. Kayla found a spot in a padded chair just beyond the small group and curled her lush tail over her knees before leaning back and listening to some of them. They were the same ones that she recalled from her own childhood.
She was lost in the narration of Beggar's Rhyme, recalling hearing it perched upon her grandfather’s knee, when she felt the hand on her shoulder. Looking up was almost like looking into a mirror, yet the differences between the face looking down at her and her own were stark.
His eyes were the most arresting feature upon his animalistic visage, though there was nothing about them that was different than any of the other animorphs at Metamor. They had become dark with his change, losing distinct iris and cornea that Kayla herself yet retained in her pale blue eyes. It was the intensity within those eyes, the way they seemed to make the person they fell upon feel as if they were his only consideration. He smiled down at her, never once glancing toward the storyteller and her coterie of giggling children. His muzzle, as well, was more animalistic than her own. Her face was not truly human by far, but there was a mobility and expressiveness to it that gave those she met the impression that there was still a woman under the black and white fur of her muzzle. Muri's face, though, was almost entirely that of a skunk. Tapered, triangular, and quite chiseled in appearance under the short fur.
She, like any other animorph, had whiskers, but they were short and straight, almost feline in nature whereas his were much longer, drooping slightly toward the tips. They twitched, angling about to a degree hers were unable to copy as his emotions played themselves out across his muzzle. His ears were much like her own, though, not overly large and rounded, positioned high upon his head. At the moment they were pricked alertly toward her as his whiskers angled back, the corners of his muzzle pulled back in a warm smile. Those ears, she had noticed, were much like his eyes. Only the occasional swivel from one or the other revealed that his senses were alert to things occurring beyond the attentive regard given by his eyes.
"I'm glad you came," the male skunk said, his voice a rolling churr trapped half way between man and animal, but still easily understandable. His strong hand tightened slightly upon her shoulder as his smile deepened, whiskers angling forward slightly. "How about we go someplace a little more private?" he inquired quietly, one twitch of his ear pointing her attention back to the story circle. Kayla smiled back, chuckling softly, as she had almost totally forgotten them.
She stood, Muri's hand falling away from her shoulder, and brushed the light fabric of her dress smooth. "Okay, Muri, I'll follow you," she said, her voice almost as perfectly smooth as it had ever been before her own change. Her voice had not changed a great deal, for which she had been grateful in the earliest days afterwards. Her voice and eyes had saved her sanity back in those dark and traumatic days, telling her each time she spoke or looked in a mirror that there was still a human in the animal she had become. Muri turned slightly and moved down one of the narrow aisles between tall shelves of books. Kayla picked up the black case from beside her chair and moved to follow him. He was wearing the same white silk that he had shown her in the Long House, but she could tell by the way his split cloak stirred the dust that this was the reality rather than the illusion she had seen earlier. Against that unrelieved white his tail seemed like a skulking shadow hovering along behind him.
Their tails held the greatest similarity between them, being of almost the same length and mobility, though they carried them differently. Kayla carried hers up close to her back, the upper curve brushing the back of her shoulders half the time. Not only was that the instinctive pose that had come with her change, it was also a protective way of holding it. Doors, feet, and passers-by tended to cause problems if she carried her tail the way Muri did. His was also arched upward, but only slightly, its use for him obviously one of balance as he held it more directly out behind him.
She had already seen that he was far more nimble than she with his tail that way, but she had to know that he'd gotten it trapped in doors more than a few times. Chuckling to herself as they made their way down the shadowed aisle of books, she found her eyes examining his physique. His physique was not nearly as human as her own had become, his shoulders not nearly as square as Rick's. He seemed more animal than human, sometimes, in his appearance. Kayla knew skunks, by nature, were plantigrade just as she was, but Muri's legs were digitgrade, and sharply so, like many of the other animorphs of Metamor. How that had come about she had no idea, and she rather suspected that Muri did not know either. For all that he had the long shanks and narrow footprint of long digitgrade legs, he was a good hand shorter than she, though much broader.
She had to smile as he led her down first one aisle then up a flight of stairs, down another aisle, to the far end of the library proper. Here, where the sunlight from the open center of the library had a difficult time reaching, mage lights set into the ceiling provided the illumination necessary to keep from kicking unseen objects and for reading the titles of the innumerable tomes. They also eliminated the potential fire hazard of burning candles, which would be a disaster in a place like this.
After a few quiet moments walking through the silence of the library, though, dim gray sunlight once more began to return, filtering down the narrow aisles as he led her out into a small solarium set with several vacant chairs and empty tables. She had seen these very windows from the outside before, but had never had the chance to witness the marvelous view the provided from the inside. There was a narrow parapet beyond the sealed, smooth glass windows, which looked down upon Laracin's courtyard. The intelligent tree was naught more than towering bundle of twigs with the winter, his branches covered with a heavy blanket of snow.
A cold wind whistled beyond those windows, the hint of much worse weather to come. The last waning light of the day cast a muted, gray glow about the solarium as Muri moved over and touched each of the glass panels for a brief moment. Soon after he did the chill radiating in through that glass faded, allowing the soothing warmth of the library to reach their far, private corner.
Smiling, Kayla moved over to sit in one of the large, padded armchairs and sat down. The chair, by its look, had been built decades before the change had come to Metamor, but had been modified at some point since to have a tailhole. The modification ruined the handsome lines of the aged chair, but made it a great deal more comfortable to sit in. Muri, on the other hand, did not sit in the other chair. He stood by the windows, staring down at Laracin for a few silent moments.
"So are you going to wish me a happy holidays, Muri?" she finally asked brightly as she laid her package upon the small round table between the chairs. A couple of thin, ancient books were laid on the table as well, detailing various subjects their absent owners had been interested in. Muri turned from the windows and nodded with a warm smile, though his eyes seemed oddly distracted.
"Oh," he chuckled with a small shake of his head. "I’m sorry. Happy Holidays Kayla." He sketched a bow. "It's just been so long— "
"- since I've had anyone to celebrate this with... Now, all of a sudden, I have you and Rick, Dream, Charles, and Lady Kimberly, and… so many to share the time with." He ran a hand across his head, his ears folding back briefly. "And Llyn as well." He sighed, shrugging one shoulder. "I wish she liked you better, Kayla. She's really a good person."
Kayla held up a hand, forestalling any further explanation. "I know, Muri, I know. You don't have to make excuses for her. If she has a problem with us being together, even for this small celebration, you should talk to her about it."
Muri nodded with a small, seemingly frustrated laugh. "I have, believe me, many times." He raised his eyes to meet Kayla's own blue gaze. "She's just jealous, Kay, because you're a skunk, and she thinks you are far more beautiful than she is."
"What?" Kayla gasped, her jaw hanging open a moment. Muri merely nodded as he moved over to stand behind the other chair.
"Yes, you come across with a far more feminine beauty than she does, at least in her own opinion." His attention wandered for a moment. "Though perhaps what I do for her today will change a few things." His distant thoughts focused once more as his eyes came back to Kayla. "I, though, find both of you beautiful, regardless." He bowed his head slightly to her with a smile. "But that is neither here nor there."
Kayla was momentarily taken aback by that admission, for she had never really considered herself beautiful since the change, despite all that Rickkter kept telling her she was. Before the change she had been, though, and was courted by many suitors for that beauty. What she had become since, a skunk, a social anathema, had cost her what vanity she had once possessed. Only the recent attentions of Rick, and Muri, had allowed her to begin feeling… truly a woman once more, and less a ghost. "Thank you." was all she could say for a moment as Muri watched her with his dark, arresting gaze.
"That aside, though, I daresay… with so many things occurring, and so many to celebrate with, I am quite wonderfully overwhelmed." He moved around to sit on the arm of his chair, his tail curving loosely around his hips to drape down across the front of the chair. "Speaking of other loves, where is that raccoon of yours?"
Kayla's bright laughter echoed into the silence of the stacks as she smiled. "Oh, he's still back at Misha's big party." She chortled. "I thought it would be a good time to escape when they started the hedgehog bowling." She winced slightly at the idea, one ear folding over. "You left before that started?”
“Long before, I’m afraid. Llyn is still preparing for Hough’s mass, and despite how good the evening was, I did feel a little crowded.”
"Still?" Kayla asked, bringing a soft chuckle from Muri.
"New dress and all… she does not want me to see it until she's ready."
Kayla nodded with a smile, self consciously smoothing out her own dress. It was not new, but she had only had perhaps one or two other opportunities to wear it in the past. "Ah, I would like to see how she looks in something other than leather leggings with a sword on her hip." She said as she shifted slightly in the deep embrace of her chair. "So, shall we do this now, before she summons you?"
Muri glanced down at the long velvet case laid across the table with a sheepish smile, "Well, uh, yes." His voice dropped an octave as he glanced back up, whiskers angled back against his muzzle. "Who goes first?"
"I guess I will," the skunkette volunteered after favoring the socially ungainly male skunk with a cheerful laugh. She picked up the velvet case and turned it in her hands, offering him the end. He took it gingerly with one hand, his eyebrows raising as he felt the shifting of the contents. Once he had a good grip on it, he felt around the long, slender lengths within the heavy fabric for a few moments, as if trying to discover what it was before opening the drawstrings at the end of the case. "You can open it." Kayla giggled warmly, causing Muri’s fur to rise and fall at the collar of his shirt, his ears flattening back in a brief moment of embarrassment.
The knotted end of the case was a simple task for his nimble fingers. Kayla idly noticed that he had trimmed his claws at some point, and had them polished to a high gloss. He raised the velvet and let one of the slender shafts within slip out into his hand. She suppressed a giggle at the way his eye ridges shot up his forehead, his ears coming up as he drew the separate shafts into the light.
It was, at first, quite a quandary to him. The detailed carving at the butt of the thick shaft and the brass fitting at the narrower end with a threaded hole in the center not immediately clicking home. "A staff?" he quarried as he examined the end of the second length. The other piece had a screw set into a brass fitting, continuing the taper of the thicker piece.
“No, not quite.”
"Just two pieces of wood, then?" he asked in jest, his brows furrowed and a confused frown crossing his muzzle. That is just what they were, two lengths of stout imported bountifruit wood from Phil's homeland.
Kayla laughed at that one. "Not quite," she said, her voice light with mirth as she watched the male skunk's confusion working itself out. Her tail swished about her ankles as she leaned forward, resting her arms on the edge of the table. "Look at it a little differently; it's not a weapon."
Muri's muzzle formed a grimace and he nodded, assembling the two lengths of pale wood. "Oh!" he gasped in surprise as his eyes traveled up the length of the entire shaft of the assembled product. "A pool cue!" His eyes widened at the sight as he turned the shaft horizontally and looked down its length. "This is a wonderful surprise, and it's balanced perfectly for me!" He looked up at her, his eyes bright with his elation. "How, by all the gods, did you know I used a seventeen ounce cue?"
Kayla laughed. "I asked Copernicus."
Muri held it close with one hand as he stood from his perch on the arm of his chair and crossed over to give her a strong, warm hug with his free arm. "It's absolutely marvelous."
Kayla returned the hug, her tail switching out from around the legs of her chair to pressed against the sides of his long pawshanks, "I am glad you like it, Muri," she murred softly into the warm fur of his shoulder.
Grudgingly, he broke the hug and retreated, leaning the shaft in the corner of his chair as he walked over to a large shelf stacked haphazardly with several thick, dusty tomes. Setting several aside, he lifted out a wooden case from where he had apparently cached it for this occasion and carried it over, setting it on the table before her. "I fear what I have created for you cannot compare," he churred, his voice a husky rasp. He sat back on the arm of his chair and picked up the cue again, running his fingers along the length of smoothly polished wood. He had no idea what manner of wood it was, either, for the grain was far too dense and wavy to be any wood he knew.
Kayla stood from her seat and looked the case over. She knew almost immediately what it was, for she had seen many, many such similar cases in her many years. This one was highly reminiscent of the one her grandfather always used with her. Alas, that set had been lost in a fire during the Battle of the Three Gates. She unfastened the clasps, which she was rather surprised to find were made out of polished silver steel rather than brass or bronze. Opening the case, she laid it flat, her eyebrows rising at the carefully wrought stone surface.
"You created this?" she whispered as she ran the tips of her fingers across the polished stone chessboard. The dark squares were of inlaid garnet, or solid garnet where he was able to find a piece large enough, and polished to a mirror shine. The pale squares were of milky quartz. Both minerals were difficult to find, but quite common in the mountains surrounding Metamor.
The male skunk smiled and nodded. "Open it."
Kayla blinked, looking back down at the board. She had assumed by its thickness that it was designed to hold a set of chess pieces, but had not realized that it already held them. She grasped the satin tab on the closest side of the board and lifted, the hinged chessboard folding upward in the center to reveal a set of intricately wrought chess pieces of a pale rose quartz. "You made these, too??" she gasped. She stared at the pieces nestled in the gray velvet lining of the case. There was something naggingly familiar about them, and she couldn’t figure it out until she lifted out the king.
It was Duke Thomas!
"How?" she squeaked as he found herself looking into the chiseled quartz visage of the Lord of Metamor Keep. Muri leaned across and turned one hand to her, palm up, flexing his fingers so that his polished claws caught the muted light from beyond the windows. She furrowed her eyebrows at his hand, then looked up at him.
"I can work stone, Kay." He smiled, his voice soft and quiet. "I've been working on these for a little over a month now, while studying the books you see around you."
Kayla was struck speechless, the detailed working of the stone not the work of a master artist, but highly skilled nonetheless, fashioned by his claws and nothing else. It was almost too much to believe. Looking down at the translucent rosy stone figures she could only chuff in surprise. Muri reached over and picked out the queen, holding it up into the light and smiling.
It was herself.
The King's bishop was Raven herself, the queen's bishop Hough. The knights were Saulius and Andre, with the king’s rook being Misha and Rickkter her own. Kayla turned the board to open the opposite side, finding herself looking upon an enemy horde carved from dark black granite. The King and Queen were human mages she could not identify, the bishops heavily robed clerics. The knights were Lutins on dire wolves, while the rooks were giants. The pawns of the enemy horde were Lutin regulars, no two alike, while the pawns for the allies were various kneeling representations of Keep denizens.
"This is…" She placed one hand over her breast as she gingerly placed the king back in its nest, Muri doing likewise with the queen, the representation of herself. "I don't have the words, Muri, I just don't," she whispered as she looked back up to meet his gaze.
She then surprised the male skunk by wrapping her arms around his neck and pulling him to her in a tight embrace. He actually let out a brief animalistic squeak of surprise when her body collided with his. More to his surprise was the fact that his own arms slipped around her mid back to return the hug as she nuzzled into the soft fur of his neck.
"Thank you so much for being a friend, Muri," she said, her voice muffled into the side of his neck. "You don't know how much that has meant to me. Thank you so very much."
Muri blinked, taking a few seconds to form an answer. The tender embrace had been about the last thing he had expected from Kayla. “Well... you’re welcome, Kay. But if truth be told, I should be thanking you. You were one of the first people here to accept me.”
Pulling back a little, Kayla looked up at the male skunk with those vibrant, still human, blue eyes of hers. “Naturally. We skunks have to stick together, you know.” And then she did the most shocking thing yet.
She kissed him.
It wasn’t a large kiss, nor a passionate one; it was a small kiss, her lips pressed against the side of his muzzle and her tongue drawing up in an affectionate lick. Yet the... intimacy of the whole action absolutely stunned him. When the skunkette fully pulled away from him he was unable to resist. He bowed his head and shuddered as she ran her paw along the fur of his cheek and jaw line, his arms slowly dropping.
“Well, I think we both need to get back to our prospective loves, Muri. Thank you so much for your gift. I’ll find someplace special for it as soon as I have the time.”
“And I’ll... I’ll be sure to make use of yours at the first opportunity.” He smiled, his black lips raising to show most of his teeth, as he tried to quell the quaver in his voice. “Who knows? I may even beat Cope with this.”
Kayla turned back to him, her lush striped tail swishing against her skirt. “Then I wish you the best of luck. You’ll need it.” They both shared in the laughter. “And the best to you and your mink. I know she doesn’t like me, but I know what she means to you. Merry Christmas, Muri.