The Many Adventures of Silver the Cat
As written by Lady Erina of Renais Court
The First Chapter:
"Monogrammed Mugs for Organizational Purposes," or
"Silver the Cat Goes Through Hell."
Disclaimer: This story was retyped for you amusement and pleasure by Meelu the Bold. She does not own Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones nor does she claim to. She does not even own the plot device of Lady Erina. Fire Emblem belongs to the good people at Intelligent Systems and whatnot. Meelu the Bold is merely borrowing them, and promises to bring them back dry-cleaned.
"Why don't you just leave me alone?"
"I will once I'm sure you can be serious for once in your life!"
"Go away! Scat! Skedaddle!"
"You almost got killed, Forde! And you know why?"
Hoofbeats are loud. Rhythmic. And even if one wants whisper an argument behind a superior officer's back, it's damn near impossible to remain unheard and still understand each other properly. Kyle snarled darkly as Forde rolled his eyes carelessly. Although General Seth couldn't see them, exactly, he could picture the scene clearly, in perfect crystalline detail.
"You're not my mother," Forde muttered crossly. "It was a lull in the battle! There was no one around for miles!"
"There was a skirmish raging on fifty feet away from you!" Kyle burst out, finally raising his voice to above-hoofbeat level.
"Sir Kyle, Sir Forde, this is neither the time nor place for such an argument," Seth called behind him, not bothering to turn. His voice sounded deceptively patient and impassive. "I know for certain that Sir Jaugh is looking for soldiers to help him clear out the south swamps. Perhaps you two would like to volunteer?"
Under normal circumstances, Kyle and Forde would have recognized the threat to be empty. Both knights were dependable and highly skilled, when one really needed them to be, and often times, Seth wondered what he'd do without two such invaluable officers. But the recruits and green cavaliers behind them sagged with exhaustion, the soldiers had been walking for days, the handful of qualified knights, including the bickering pair, had been worn out to the bone, with one very put-upon supply convoy behind them all, and nobody really wanted to challenge the man in charge, lest he finally snap and lop off an ear. Or a head. So, Kyle and Forde clamped shut their mouths and stared studiously at the King's Road ahead of them, occasionally glancing at the rolling hills in the distance, the ones blanketed in grass and livestock.
Zni'toli bandits, that'd been the name of the ragtag tribe of cutthroats. After the invasion, the war and the initial year of restoration, when the firm hand of King Ephraim II forced the swaggering highwaymen and robbers to their knees with stringent, routine patrols and punishments, most bandits either flat out left Renais all together, or holed up in the eastern ranges. The problem was that it was impossible to get to Jehanna through the mountains, so the eastern bandits could either starve or come back to haunt Renais.
And there was the new border to think about. For the first time, since the crowning of King Siegfried I, the first monarch of Renais, they had a border on the sea, taken from the former Empire of Grado. Said border extended for a few thousand miles southwest, and included the infamous fortress, Rigwald. The newly founded republic of Gradia did not have a taste for defending such a vast territory. Many people thought that the loss of land was just, considering the devastation at the hands of the former Empire; Seth was beginning to think it was just a lot of work. And there were bandits there, too. The only good thing that came from tacking on this addition to the Royal Map hanging in the King's study was that the people were already so integrated it was actually more convenient for the Grads to become Renaitians.
One bad season turns into five hard years, or so his brother-in-law, a farmer, often said.
But with the Zni'toli scourge put down and the borders all secured, thanks to many late nights of allocating and distributing the recovering army, the Silver Knight and the remaining squads were heading, happily, home to Castle Renais and the capital city.
"General, sir?" Forde piped up, interrupting his long, thoughtless reverie.
"The sign back there, the one that said 'Castle Renais, twenty miles along the King's Road?'"
"What about it?" Seth craned his head momentarily to look back at the signs Ephraim ordered to be posted on interval along all the main highways.
"Er . . . the Painters' Guild messed the signs up, sir," Forde said in an uncomfortably tiny voice.
"One misspelling isn't going to end the world, Forde," Seth replied calmly, keeping his eyes focused on the horizon. To tell the truth, he hadn't even noticed the error.
"Well, that's true, sir, but . . . they've all been like that," the knight tugged at his collar nervously behind Seth's back. Kyle grimaced. "We've been traveling down the King's Rood for the last three hundred miles."
Castle Renais lay nestled in the jagged hillside with the city below it. At the moment, the setting sun crowned the ramparts with majestic halo that Seth normally took the time to admire, while attempting to navigate through the busy, half-rebuilt streets. A gaggle of architects in the square struggled to reassemble a toppled statue of King Siegfried, the replacement statue having just been finished.
Of course, no one could just get to Castle Renais without incident. Or incidents, as it were.
Seth heard a crash, a woman's voice cuss brutally, and a young man cry out unexpectedly, followed by a chorus of "oh, Albar!" His heart sank.
Half of the boys had gotten stuck behind a fruit vendor's cart that suddenly rolled into another vendor's booth and two other carts. Albar, the boy in question, a curious combination of reckless, fearless melee warrior and shy, almost completely withdrawn civilian, froze up completely. His typically calm bay chose then to start bucking, sending Albar tumbling to the ground, scrambling out of the way. Two or three of the more competent riders managed to skirt out of the way and the rest escaped errant hooves out of sheer luck. Luck ended there, though, as the horse kicked one of the three carts. Fruit and wares scattered, and at least five thick-armed women were down on hands and knees to retrieve everything, clogging up the procession of knights and soldiers and horses.
"What were you thinking Albar?" shouted the majority of the young men behind him. Forde dismounted immediately and without any hesitation, reached out to calm the frantic bay. Perhaps it the rapidity of the effect was because Forde was so laidback himself; but whatever the cause, the horse soon became placid and rideable again.
"That's a good horsie," those nearby heard him murmur, stroking the bay's nose affectionately.
"Settle down, everyone," Seth commanded over the ruckus. Either he was invisible, or he was being ignored. Neither was acceptable "That's an order!"
The dozen young cavaliers, nothing like the dependable, upbeat young Franz, all stared at him attentively. Even Albar paid him close heed, and he was probably in great pain at this moment. Sliding easily from the back of his legendary black warhorse, Seth passed the reins to his current squire, a solidly skilled young man of seventeen years. Jake, if Seth remembered his name correctly.
"Is he alright?" Seth asked, picking his way around the carts. He addressed a more senior knight riding with the younger squires and junior knights. Sir Calvith, he remembered instantly, an armor knight.
"Can you stand, boy . . .?" Calvith asked gruffly, moving quickly in heavy armor to check on him. Albar groaned, and nodded timidly, as if speaking two words would break the ground beneath him. He demonstrated. Other than a nasty fall and what would become the most uncomfortable bruise ever, Albar was in no ill condition. "He's fine, sir. No permanent damage."
"You were very lucky," Seth admonished. Albar flushed and looked deeply ashamed. "Falls like that have killed sturdier men."
Albar mumbled something.
"What was that? I couldn't quite catch it," Seth leaned forward. Was Albar being shy again or was his hearing going?
"Speak up, boy!" Calvith punched the boy's shoulder, which only made him cringe.
"The . . . booth broke my fall, sir . . ." Albar mumbled a little more loudly. He gestured weakly to the cracked vendor's booth behind him. Seth took a deep breath before speaking again.
"Alright, then," Seth said, glancing at the chaos. "Let's get this cleared up."
Just as he said that, vicious looking trio of women approached Seth from the other side, led by the sort of woman who was commonly mistaken for a viper.
"Who's in charge here?" she snapped. Seth thought for a moment that she had fangs, too. "I just lost a whole day's profits to this little twit."
"Me, too!" one of the thicker women intoned. The second grunted in agreement.
"I am," Seth said, patient despite the stress. "What do you ladies need?"
Seth let her take a second or two to recognize him as the Silver Knight; red hair, really shocking red hair like his, wasn't the garden variety in central Renais, except in the village of Palgo, where his own family resided. Viper Woman narrowed her eyes and set her jaw as soon as she set eyes on the triple pointed crest of the Crown.
"We demand compensation," she declared boldly.
"A reasonable demand," Seth said guardedly. He gauged Viper Woman's reaction carefully. "How much do you think is necessary to cover damages incurred?"
"Fifty gold," Viper Woman said immediately. "Each."
Seth controlled the urge to choke at the number. He shook his head. "That's too much. From what I see, the only really crippling thing would be the booth my knight inadvertently destroyed, and that's but a table and baskets. Twenty-five each, with an extra five to the lady whose booth no longer stands."
"Forty-five each, with the five going to me," Viper Woman jerked a bony thumb to her chest. "That was my stand.
Ah. No wonder she was so infuriated.
"That's absurd. Thirty each," Seth insisted, staring the woman down. He kept his features neutral.
"Forty-five," Viper Woman shot back, crossing her arms. Suddenly, a young woman's shriek cut across the busy main street.
"THIEF! OH, THIEF!"
Seth's head instinctively snapped to the source of the noise. Viper Woman and her cronies instantly reached for the money pouch at their belts. A slim, pretty woman was screaming her head off on the other side of the barricade of fruit-and-vegetable carts.
Said man had already bolted on the trail of what appeared to be a pint-sized thief, little more than a child. A watchman blew a whistle while Kyle outran the culprit in a few strides of his horse, wheeling in front of him in the most intimidating fashion. Two more watchmen came running from around a corner of a warehouse. Kyle took over easily. Seth turned back to Viper Woman, who was now nervously eyeing the space around her.
"Thirty or nothing," he said, cutting off whatever she was going to say. Seth stared her down with the sort of expression he wore while cutting through brigands. Grudgingly, Viper Woman realized defeat and accepted the still quite generous offer.
Seth picked his way back to his horse and dug in the saddlebags for the leather-bound logbook he kept, ripping a sheet out carefully. He scribbled the amount in near-illegible handwriting—calligraphy had never been a strong suit of his—and then signed his name underneath. He passed it to Viper Woman, and then wondered if she could read it.
"Just give that to the castle clerk whenever you find it convenient," he instructed, making a conscious effort to help this hellish woman. "If you run into any trouble, you can tell them to take it to me. I'll vouch for you. Alright, Madam . . .?"
"Allisen," Viper Woman muttered, who seemed unimpressed.
"They should give you the right amount," Seth assured her. Allisen raised an eyebrow skeptically, but folded the paper carefully and placed it in her apron pocket. Heaving a sigh, Seth turned to get his men in order. Most of the vendors had their carts in order now. Forde had already seen Albar to his bay, and was waiting patiently for Seth. Everyone was present, except . . .
"I can't tell you how grateful I am!" gushed the maiden enthusiastically, leaning a little too closely for poor Kyle's comfort. She had a hold of his hand and was stroking the metal of his gauntlet quite seductively.
Seth stifled the urge to laugh and donned a very stern face as he strode towards the two.
"Madam, if you would please relinquish your hold on my knight," he began, tempted to extend his words. Forde was snickering loudly in the background. "You must have other duties to attend to."
The young woman's eyes widened momentarily, but she dropped Kyle's hands, much to the cavalier's relief. She ducked away, murmuring, "Yes, sir, of course, sir," all while blushing madly.
Forde chose this moment to appear with Kyle's horse, Griochnebobb, grinning like a damn fool.
"Good Gods, Kyle! Flirting with sweet, innocent maidens," the blonde knight teased cheerfully. "What ever would your wife say?"
"Shut up," Kyle grumbled, snatching Grikey's reins. Lute had named the horse on the conditions that Kyle would name the as-of-yet-unborn baby. As Seth walked back to his own mount and Jake, he allowed himself a tired chuckle. Kyle's unexpected bride served as a source for much humor on the road, although out of habit, Seth made sure it stayed mostly tame and discreetly allowed him a little time every so often to break away and visit her.
He was only a little surprised when, a few streets away, on the outskirts of town, a nun of exceptional fire suddenly appeared in their path. This was the sort of day he'd been having, anyway. Seth suddenly felt inexplicably angry with the nun, as if she was deliberately obstructing the way just to aggravate him.
"I need to say a few words, General," she said, shaking a finger to emphasize her point.
". . . say them to your Gods," Seth suggested as kindly as he could, and wove around the indignant woman, as did the men following him. Her mouth wobbled, as if she was surprised that the Silver Knight, famous for listening to the plights of the citizen, had just brushed her off with a few strained words.
And now, he felt guilty, but the nun had disappeared already, probably to announce that the real General Seth had been kidnapped and replaced by a bad-tempered old man. Everyone behind him remained eerily silent about the exchange.
At long last, the weary men trudged up the winding, upward road to the gates of Castle Renais. The sky was quite dark now, with only the slimmest sliver of moon in the sky, and torches were being lit. Just inside the gate, Seth could see the guardsmen preparing close the gates, revealing the massive triple pointed crest painted there.
"I'm surprised they're still functional," Forde said offhandedly. Unlike most comments he made of that nature, this one was completely serious.
"Yes," Seth agreed heartily, relieved to be finally allowed to rest. The tense edge every man behind him had been keeping fled. "It is a miracle."
As the soldiers filed through under the suspended portcullis, Seth lingered behind to count heads. Amelia—Dame Amelia, he corrected himself, she was a knight of Renais now—scrunched around the men and the horses and jogged straight to him, taking care not to startle the more skittish of animals. Saluting sharply, Amelia began her rapidfire report. Her job as personal aide to King Ephraim meant a lot of running around and delivering messages.
"General Seth, you're back at last! The King needs to see you right away, there're all sorts of rumors floating around. Sir Garcia also wants to see you as soon as the King's done, something about mice in the barracks and re-drawing the budget for the new Navy and—" her voice cut off as Seth raised a hand, although her mouth hung open still. She waited for him to sift through all the new information and formulate a reply.
"Tell King Ephraim that I will be with him shortly," he said firmly. Really, what he wanted now was to sit down and maybe try to wash the grime and blood from his clothes and person. "And I'll see to Sir Garcia as soon as possible. But first, I need see to Johnny."
Seth patted the neck of his old black warhorse, partner of ten arduous years. Johnny flicked his ears at his name, and Seth smiled. One of them, at least, had a full night of sleep to look forward to. Was it normal to envy one's own horse?
Amelia darted back under the gate as Seth followed on Johnny. He gave the signal to lower the gate again as he dismounted, preferring to stand after five straight days of riding. The soldiers formed ranks in the courtyard, waiting for dismissal. With a few words of encouragement and an order to Albar to see the cleric in charge of the infirmary, he dismissed them all. Most, he knew, would be given jobs around the castle, or shuttled off to the lesser-manned stations along the border or where ever else Renais perennially needed her soldiers.
A Navy . . . Seth griped, realizing he knew very little about ships, having been born to a once landlocked country. He would have to study up a little before discussing anything at length with Garcia. He'd wait until Kyle was done occupying Lute's time, though, before demanding anything of the King's Librarian.
Johnny followed obediently behind him, waiting to be fed and groomed. Even if it meant that he went to sleep exhausted each night (or early morning), one good thing about being General was it meant that his horse got cared for first. Even so, he pointed the stableboy in the directions of the other mounted knight of superior rank and dismissed Jake entirely. Today, he would prefer to put off meeting with King Ephraim in favor of settling Johnny in for the night.
As he exited the stable a while later, the deep voice of a joyful, tall woman only three years younger than he called across the courtyard. "Seth!"
Seth turned around to face the exuberant redheaded woman, trying very hard not to look guilty.
"Good evening, Elsie," Seth greeted his little sister weakly. She bounded toward him, punching his arm playfully. Elspeth was the only sister of his so far to have taken up knighthood. Female knights, while not unheard of, were rather rare anyway.
"Don't give me that! How long has it been since you've been home?" Elspeth demanded. In the dim, faded torch- and sunlight, he could see a shadowy scar line her throat, disappearing in to her high collar. "Mum's worried sick, you know. And Beth is going nuts. She's going to have a baby!"
"What's that?" Seth asked, pointing to her scar. It unnerved him. As a child, he'd spent most of his time not studying history and swordplay and chivalry making sure that wild little Elsie survived to adulthood. Why on earth was she trying to undo all of that hard work?
"Hmm? Oh, this? I got this in the war, remember? Nearly got me," Elspeth shrugged carelessly. Why was she always such a child? "Unexpected axe knocked me right off my horse. Beth wants you to be the godfather."
"What?" Seth repeated dumbly.
"I told you, an axe. One of the dinky spinning ones. Hurt like all hell, it really did, but I was lucky the bastard had no real arm for it—"
"No, the other part," he clarified. Elspeth's mouth made an o.
"Bethy's having another baby," she said, slowly enunciating the words. "She wants to name you godfather."
"What? Why?" Seth asked incredulously. Alisabeth, the younger sister closest to him in age, had never been particularly fond of her only brother. He rather believed that she begrudged him for being the eldest.
"Because," Elspeth shrugged. "Only the Gods know what goes on in Bethy's head. Just try to be home soon. She's eight and a half months along already; the baby will be due any week now. Please? I'm heading home tomorrow morning. I can announce your visit, you'll have a bed ready and everything, please please please, Sethy? I'll even ask Mum to make that wretched spicy curry dish!"
Seth drew in a breath to say no. King Ephraim needed him in this time of restoration; there was still so much work to do, he was utterly swamped already, Mum had dozens of other mouths to feed, there was no time, no way, no . . .
"Of course I'll be there," he found himself saying with a smile. "Let's hope for another boy, alright? I don't like being all alone."
Elsie snickered. "Whatever!" Then, in a rare moment of actual affection from his sister, she hugged him, armor and all. "Thank you. It really means a lot to us. All of us."
Seth sighed, and hoped the King only needed him to draw up plans.
After seeing his sister to her room, Seth navigated his way to the King's study, which Ephraim had inherited from the late King Fado, rest his soul. He knocked to announce himself, and then just opened the door. Ephraim was his King, but before that he'd been somewhat of the younger brother that Seth never had.
"Milord?" Seth called, cracking open the door and poking his head through.
"Oh, Seth!" said a familiar man's voice. Apparently, he was the one buried in paperwork. A terrible fate for someone so rooted in action as King Ephraim. "Come in. I'm over here."
"I can't see you, milord," Seth said. He shut the door behind him and ventured into the study.
A wide window on the other side of the room revealed Renais City, lighting up for the night. Pushed up against a wall were two—not one, but two—mahogany desks, one heaped with haphazardly lain documents of varying importance and one very neatly and sparsely arranged, probably for penning things. It definitely didn't belong to the King. Ephraim sat on the floor between the two, squinting at the paper in his hand. The room was warmly lit by a multitude of candles nailed in fixtures on the walls and the building fire on the far end of the room.
Seth almost didn't notice the scullery girl at the fireplace, although she was blushing just as madly as the maiden in the City, the one who cornered Kyle. The only difference between the two women was that at least she was trying to stifle her giggles. Seth didn't think too much of her—she looked exactly like every other servant in the castle, with long blondish hair tucked up into a bun and a plain blue dress with the crest printed on her sleeve.
"Good evening, sir," she curtseyed meekly, looking ready to burst out into peals of giggles. "Good night, milord. Good night, sir."
He acknowledged her respectfully, and waited until she left to sit down across from Ephraim, directly on the floor. It must be much freer on the rug, Seth supposed. The crown restrained Ephraim far more than the young man would have liked.
"When did that move in here?" he asked, pointing to the neat desk.
"Mm? Oh, that. That's Eirika's. She's got prettier handwriting than me or Tal—my normal secretary, he's out on errands right now, I think—but she refuses to use my desk," Ephraim summarized off-handedly, signing his name at the bottom of the document with a distinct lack of a flourishes. The King turned up his head to grin at Seth, who bowed respectfully. "Says it's a pigsty. I'm not allowed to touch hers."
"Dame Amelia said you needed to speak with me about something, milord? She mentioned rumors," Seth leaned forward, sitting Jehan-style with his legs crossed.
"Yes," Ephraim said, removing the reading glasses from the bridge of his nose. Not many people knew that the King was farsighted or that even fifteen minutes of light reading made him complain of sore eyes. "In a few days, I'm going to be traveling to Rausten with an entourage of at the very least ten other prominent noblemen; yes, I know, that's a huge number, although I am trying to squelch it down. I'm thinking of issuing a limit on servants and luggage. Not only will it cut down on costs and security, it would definitely discourage some of them from going . . . Eirika will be staying to look after things . . ."
"Rausten?" Seth asked, suddenly feeling like he was sinking in quicksand.
"Yes. We'll be staying for a few weeks while I discuss . . . important concerns . . . with Pontifex L'Arachel," Ephraim lowered his voice subtly. He avoided meeting Seth's eyes, which told the General that important concerns had a lot more to do with magic and ancient lore than with trade routes and current relations. "I need some witnesses and of course, a trustworthy head of security for travel. I have Sir Nolan and his assistant, Sir Franz, as my chief guardsmen here, but one of them will have to stay to manage the castle."
"I see," Seth resisted the fourth or fifth urge to heave a sigh today. Elspeth would have his head, since Beth was probably too incapacitated to do anything other than sit and cheer her sister on as she throttled him. Seth would have to wake up early and tell her the bad news before she left or mum's spicy curry would be eating through the table by the time he actually arrived. "Very well, your Majesty."
"Are you sure?" Ephraim asked, suddenly. "You look tired, Seth. Do you want to take a few days off to rest up?"
Say yes, the greedy little monster in his head said in a slinky, low voice. And then disappear for a few weeks. Go home. You've done your share of work. You've done years worth your share of work. Go home. See your sisters. Isn't this Alisabeth's third child? Her oldest must be almost eight now. Bethy doesn't really hate you. You haven't seen your parents in ages. They're worried about you. Go home. Go home. Say yes. Say yes.
"I'm fine, milord. Long rides make anyone weary," Seth said calmly. "A night's rest will be enough to refresh me."
"Ah," Ephraim said simply, nodded. He reached out and clapped a hand on Seth's shoulder. "I don't know what I'd do without you, Seth."
"Thank you, your Majesty," Seth nodded, wondering what sort of mess he'd just entrenched himself in.
"Alright then. Go get some sleep," Ephraim said, stacking the documents he was looking at and tossing them in a corner. "We'll see to preparations first thing in the morning then. Good night, Seth."
"Good night, milord," he returned, not allowing himself to sound as completely worn out as he felt. Standing, he crossed the bedraggled study in a few strides and exited as quietly as possible. He hadn't taken three steps when he stopped again.
"Sir Seth," said a woman's voice, much different than Elsie's boisterously loud speech. Ah. Another complication.
"Princess Eirika," Seth turned around, digging deep into his reserves of personal willpower to keep a neutral expression. "Good evening, Eirika."
"Good evening," she smiled angelically.
Between the time he'd last seen her and now, Eirika had somehow procured a rose-colored dress which fell to her ankle. The trim on all the hems was white silk and the bodice bore a white crest embroidered across her midriff. So her lady's maids had finally won the bitter war that had been raging since the Princess had been roughly nine years old. On her left hand she wore a silver ring set with a blue-colored jewel.
Momentarily, Seth wondered if it would be appropriate to comment. Eirika never failed to glow radiantly whenever he set eyes on her, but he knew that she felt awkward in full dresses and corsets, even one so simple. Beth, obsessed with noble fashion, had made things far more torturous and complex. Some even bore a striking resemblance to interrogation implements lying in boxes in the Castle dungeons, especially the ones Seth thought twice about even looking at.
"It is good to see you again," she continued after a brief silence. Her smile broadened as she stepped forward, pleased to see that he wasn't declining her attention. "Have you completed your inspection of the border defenses?"
"Yes, milady," he said, bowing as she drew nearer. "To the best of my ability, we have garrisons stationed in most of the forts along the edges of Renais, including the new border, and men patrolling routinely. If you like, I could detail the specifics for you on a map—"
"That's quite alright," Eirika assured him. "I was just wondering if you would like to walk with me a little. To talk?"
One advantage of being completely busy all the time was that it took his mind away from other, internal dilemmas. If his personal life proved to be too unwieldy, like at this very instant, he could just dive into the protective fortress of Extreme Preoccupation. The little monster of personal wishes said yes, Princess, that would be lovely, what do you want to talk about? And of course, he already knew. It was an impending subject, barreling at them both at a terrifying speed.
"To tell the truth, Princess," he began after a moment's pause. Yes, tell the truth. That would be a stunning change of pace. "I'm a little exhausted."
Her face fell, slightly. The formality was a slip; he was used to calling her by her title than by her given name. "Ah. Well, tomorrow maybe?"
"I'll set aside some time in the afternoon," Seth promised, swallowing the words he wanted to say. "I'll find you, Eirika. You have my word."
Eirika nodded absently. "Alright. I'll see you then, Seth. Good night."
She closed the distance between them briefly, and Seth leaned forward so she wouldn't have to jump to kiss him good night. Eirika took his hands and squeezed lightly, as if she really would prefer not to let go. Her kiss was light and affectionate and she smiled as she pulled away.
"I'll be waiting," she said warmly, still noticeably disappointed that he didn't want to talk now. For someone so honest, she could inspire guilt and self-loathing like no one else. Eirika disappeared around a corner, and Seth turned to go the other way, although he resided somewhere in the same wing of the Castle.
A swift, efficient patrol around the main hallways. That would help clear his head, and organize his thoughts. There was no doubt in his mind that Eirika, the woman he loved above all else, wanted badly to talk about the impending wedding. She had every right to be curious about the details.
None of which he had found time to work out, Seth griped. After announcing his love for her at least three times—once to her, once to Ephraim, and then once, on accident, to Forde, who promptly spread the word as fast as he possibly could—Eirika and the rest of Renais naturally expected a proposal. The only real fiasco there was trying to find a ring, something Franz and Forde, the culprits behind the public announcement of his relationship to the Princess, had miraculously pulled from seemingly thin air.
The other complications, too, in the relationship, aside from the eventual-veering-precariously-into-never marriage date, stemmed from things he could not control. No matter how much Eirika swore it didn't matter to her, he was at least nine or ten years her senior, a noticeably large gap. Seth had seen other marriages with gaps in age between partners, and neither party seemed very happy as time went on. Beside that, he left the Castle frequently and for long trips, and she would not always be able to come with him, if ever. Eirika deserved far more care and attention, he thought as he turned into a slightly lesser used corridor, than he would possibly be able to give her without completely resigning from his duties and no matter how rundown he felt, that would never happen.
But Forde had pressed the ring in his hand that night, and Eirika had contrived to somehow be in the gardens at one o'clock in the morning, fully dressed and alert with her rapier at her side. Framed by the flowers on one side and starlight on the other, there had really only been one course of action he could possibly have taken. Seth wouldn't change that moment for all the fish in Frelia.
Almost immediately after asking the all-important question, though, Ephraim had desperately needed someone to see to the radical Grado-loyal insurgency in Serafew and all plans that would've been made then had been brushed to the wayside. After the rebels there had been put down, bandits were sighting sneaking in and Seth spent the better part of the year trying to strengthen the border, followed by the hunting down of the Zni'toli, along with three other bands of robbers of various levels of efficiency and cruelty prior to that. Seth saw a mouse, a brown and fat one, scuttle into a crack in the wall. Didn't the King keep a cat around here somewhere? Cats were by far the laziest creatures he'd ever come across, including Forde and the whining vassal of Pontifex L'Arachel.
If someone asked the blasted little monster in his head what it thought about the whole situation, it would lay the blame on Seth, squarely, and would laugh as the manifestation of his guilty conscience hunted him at close-range and a Brave lance. For some odd, inexplicable reason, his conscience looked very much like his drillmaster from nearly twenty years ago, with the lazy eye and everything.
Was it normal to personify his thoughts?
Seth halted halfway through the corridor leading around to the kitchens, which adjoined conveniently with the Greater Hall, where feasts and formal events were held, and only slightly less conveniently with the Lesser Hall, which was where the King and his family and close aides normally took meals. He scanned the surroundings, searching for the source of the noise. Typical cold stone walls, floors stained with spilt food, an effigy of Saint Vidar stuffed into a niche in the wall, the fat and jolly patron of cooks and good food . . . ah-ha.
Seth recognized the noise, specifically, as tittering. A snatch of blue skirt appeared momentarily around a corner of a branching hall. Raising an eyebrow, Seth merely ignored the two—it sounded like two—maids, turning around completely while deceptively looking out the edges his peripheral vision. The blonde girl from Ephraim's study peeked from out behind her spying place, and then pulled back, revealing the face of another, not-quite-so-comely girl with mucky green hair harshly pulled back somehow.
Not sure whether to be concerned or flattered, Seth kept walking until he could no longer hear either woman.
He passed other servants and knights, along with the occasional, odd noble, all going about their business. They greeted him, some warmly, some formally. One man, a particularly stressed looking scribe, rushed past him in a flurry with but a spare, "Evening!"
That must be Tal, Seth thought to himself as he entered the throne room from the crosswise entrance that the servants used when they were being sneaky. The throne sat alone and unoccupied on its dais. The seat of the Renaitian monarchy, along with the room it swelled up to fill, waited for its King to arrive in the coming morning to listen to the complaints of the citizenry.
"It's a pitiful, unrewarding life, through and through."
Seth tensed suddenly, his hands forming fists, remembering when someone other than the King had sat on that throne. His mouth set in a tight line, picturing Orson again—completely mad with a combination of grief and lust and obsession.
What had he said? Not Orson. Himself. What had he said in return, to refute that statement so powerfully in his own mind? What had given him the strength to drive his sword home and not to sigh and say, "Yes, that's it, you're exactly right?" A deep sense of shame flooded him. When had serving the King become such an unwanted chore? That wasn't right. That wasn't what he believed in. He truly believed in King Ephraim and Princess Eirika and would die to see their ideals realized.
Orson's ghost leered at him.
"General," said a feminine voice. Seth jumped and spun around. It was just Lute, with her peculiar expression of utter superiority and faded blue dressing gown. Her belly protruded slightly, and she was unconsciously folding her hands over the middle.
"Madam Lute?" he replied, shakily.
"I have discussed this matter at length with Kyle, and we both agreed that you should know," Lute said, fluidly ignoring him. Her voice echoed and bounced in the high-ceilinged room, across the paintings of Gods and heroes. She drew herself up to her full height, which wasn't very much at all. "I have had a vision of the dead."
Perfect. Just perfect.
"A vision of what, Lute . . .?" Seth asked dubiously, pretending he hadn't witnessed the haunting of another sort of ghost.
"Of the dead, sir. Quite clearly," she said, her face and tone both of the sincerest nature. "Of my grandmother. Not long ago. Just yesterday, in fact."
Seth found it difficult to respond in actual words. "Of your grandmother."
"Yes," Lute nodded, deadpanning. "She was knitting booties. For the baby, sir."
"Ah," Seth took a deep breath and urged every part of him to at least look as if he believed her. "Well, that's very kind of her. If you'll excuse me, Madam Lute . . . I'd like to finish up my patrol and get to bed. I'm sure your husband is missing you."
"Visions of the dead are bad luck," Lute called after him, unmoving and solemn. "They only appear when circumstance warrants a visit. This bodes ill, sir."
"Then let's hope for the best, Madam Lute," he said over his shoulder, already slipping through the narrow door off to the side. Perhaps he would skip the rest and just go to sleep. Although it was relatively early, Seth suddenly felt immeasurably tired. "Congratulations to you and Kyle, by the way."
When there was no answer, Seth twisted to look behind him, one hand on the door. Lute vanished from the center of the elaborate tiled floor. If only he could do that, too.
Orson leered at him again, once more enthroned in the seat of King Ephraim. Monica—not the corpse, but the beautiful, vivacious woman he remembered having met once or twice—lingered near her husband in a white, lacy dress. Some grand, evangelical light haloed her golden hair, worn loosely over her bare shoulders. The two of them held court in the way that Ephraim and Eirika did; with those bearing complaints and suggestions ordered in their arrivals, never rank.
After listening to distressed man or woman, Monica descended the dais with a pristine white lily to give the citizen, for their trouble. But when he approached them, Monica did not move for her silver basket of flowers. The mix-and-match army from the War of the Stones waited behind him.
Waited for him to say something. Orson leaned forward, reaching for his sword.
Seth awoke with the light of the sun, groggily wondering why the hour before dawn was so bright.
He snapped awake as he realized that Elsie rose hours prior, and, in all likelihood, rode now on the King's Rood, believing that he would be following close behind. Seth mentally cursed, hoping that Forde would be the one to point out the Painters' Guild's glaring errors, being on the verge of acceptance into their ranks anyway. Right, Forde was resigning as a knight . . . Hastily dressing—completely forgoing his armor—Seth all but ran to the stables, nearly colliding into Eirika, his fiancée.
"Seth! I'm sor—"
"No time," he managed, gently shoving her to the side. Guilt racked him instantly. Apologize later, said the drillmaster conscience, or else.
Shut up, thought Seth. Just shut up.
"Jake! Jake, get my horse! Now!"
By the time the sun climbed to its noon vantage, Seth worried that he would ride all the way to Palgo to get to Elsie. Perhaps she had taken the Windy Road instead, which was a roundabout way to go, but less traveled. Seth bit his lip, scanning the horizon for anything Elsie-shaped.
Nothing, except for a human shaped lump huddled on the side of the road in the distance. Seth was tempted to just turn around and head back to the Castle; but he remembered the indignant nun from yesterday, and his hasty dismissal of Princess Eirika still stung. Just because it was a bad week didn't lessen the importance of his duty to the people of Renais, admonished the drillmaster. Seth urged his horse forward to attend to the dark lump.
"Hello?" he called as he came within earshot, approaching the black-cloaked figure slumped in the grass, now only a few yards away. Seth dismounted and led Johnny the rest of the way. "Are you hurt, traveler?"
The lump struggled for a moment and then a puffy-cheeked, elderly woman emerged from the hood, looking up at him critically with one eye, head turned like a fish. Her hair was parted several times into thick cords and tied with a multitude of ribbons. The woman's taste was questionably, strewn with occult pendants and dried plants and . . . dead lizards. In her knotted, bejeweled hands were two knitting needles, with a pair of obscenely long blue rectangle stuffed all on one side. Grass surrounded her on all sides, seemingly growing through her. Trick of the sun, Seth thought, shading his eyes. The effect didn't go away.
"Boy," she replied, raising her chin further as she switched eyes. Her skin crinkled across her face, appearing to be bone dry. Even her voice crackled with the frailty of aged, stiff paper.
It had been almost ten years since someone had last called him 'boy' and that had been his father. No one else was nearby.
"Madam, if you're alright, I'll—"
"Lune," she snapped, scrunching her brittle, pointy nose. Her mouth kept moving long after she stopped speaking and the way she stared at him with only one eye unnerved him.
"Excuse me, madam?"
"My name is Lune," she said. She straightened her back so she wasn't so hunched over. Within the space of a blink, Lune snatched his hand, bringing her face close to examine his palm with the opposite eye she had been using just a second ago.
"Er," Seth stammered, awkwardly thrown off balance by her unearthly speed. "Madam Lune . . ."
"Quiet, boy," she barked. A chipped, freakishly long fingernail traced the lines that crisscrossed his hand. "Reasonable lifespan, nothing special. Great achievements at a young age, slight inclination for insanity . . . you are here."
Lune jabbed the center of his hand. A wispy white eyebrow, looped by a ring, rose quizzically. "Much has changed, suddenly. You find yourself overwhelmed. You seek answers. Solutions."
Seth gently detached her from his wrist, pulling away. The old woman—Lune—made his skin creep, somehow. Her touch chilled him to his bones. Although Lune seemed displeased, she did not seem to let his hesitance bother her overmuch.
"I'm right, aren't I," she bristled irritably. Lune hardly paused for him to reply. "Of course I'm right. I'm a sage of immeasurable wisdom. I haven't been incorrect for over seventy years."
"That's quite an—" Seth began politely, but was cut off.
"Achievement? You know achievements quite well, don't you? But you no longer take pride in them. Why not?" Lune asked. She stared upwards, deep into his eyes. Seth realized she now stood, although she possessed no great height. He had not seen her stand. She continued speaking in his hesitation. "Your accomplishments are too numerous. And you are expected to achieve even more. Why not? You are the legendary Silver Knight. It is as much a part of you as your spine."
Lune's speckled, milky violet eyes remained unmoving as she pursed her lips and scrunched her nose. Despite her ludicrous appearance, her diagnosis was uncannily accurate. What sort of magician was Lune, that she could divine thoughts and motives so perfectly?
"You," she said solemnly. "Need a vacation."
A nutter, Seth thought incredulously. This woman is a nutter. For once, both he and his monster agreed whole-heartedly with each other.
"I'll keep that in mind," he murmured, stifling yet another sigh and stepping back to lead Johnny to the road. A vacation was the last thing on his to-do list
"Yes, but not in body," Lune remarked enigmatically, in her clouded voice. "You need a vacation, but you cannot have one. There is great danger lurking in the halls of your home. A human danger that cannot be discovered nor thwarted while you yourself are human."
Seth turned to look at her and caught sight of her eyes. Both flickered between deep lilac and the blue-white light of powerful magic. His hand flew instinctively to his sword. Lune watched him, unblinkingly, like a cat.
"But don't worry. I rather liked changing shapes," Lune told him soothingly. At least, it sounded like she was trying to soothe. The overall blandness of her voice, which had been quite sharp, frightened him considerably. Not much these days did that. "Ah, yes. That'll do."
She said something else afterwards, but Seth found he either hadn't heard it, or he forgot it instantly. The world stopped, having suddenly gone on a hiatus without notifying him at all. Lune was the only other existing creature at that moment and she scared the shit out of him.
Then Magvel started to move again, while at the same time, he sunk. Physically freefalling while his feet were firmly on the ground, except now, not so much on the ground as suspended by something tall and unstable. Johnny, a warhorse trained to be unflappable in the most stressful of situations, reared and panicked, suddenly free to do so. The hand holding the reins disappeared under a wave of billowing black.
The sinking sensation faded soon enough, replaced by something more objectionable—extreme, mind-numbing pain. No thought. No monster. No King, no wedding, no family.
Just searing pain.
He lay in the soft grass, surrounded by black on all sides. Seth shuddered momentarily before a mighty thump sent a bolt of fear ricocheting through him again and he struggled valiantly against the oppressive black, breaking free and shooting through the grass in a great leap. He skidded to a stop, tumbling forward on hands and knees. A pitch black nightmare stomped and thrashed not so far away and every muscle in his body tensed, ready for flight.
The nightmare was Johnny. Somehow, Johnny had become several hundred hands taller. Something thrashed violently behind him. Something red, shockingly so. Johnny stampeded away in some direction. Lune must have ignored the stallion, because she was hovering over Seth, also far taller than she should have been.
He spun around just in time to see a new appendage. Seth cried out in a mixture of horror and disbelief.
A pair of bony hands grabbed him roughly around the middle, slipping up under his arms—or rather, forelegs.
"Relax," Lune said, looking him sternly in the eye, awkwardly spinning him to face her. "You'll learn to enjoy it. The tingling sensation is a bit disorienting, I know."
"That was not a tingling anything!" Seth roared back in protest. It came out as a shrieking, elongated yowl. "Turn me back! RIGHT NOW!"
He clawed at her wrists and buried his teeth solidly in Lune's spindly fingers. She sniffed, dumping him on the ground. Her hands and forearms remained unmarked, as if he hadn't been sinking his now very sharp front teeth into her paper thin wrists. It wasn't like he could draw sword anymore.
"You'll be grateful to me when nearly certain death is avoided," Lune said knowledgeably, placing her skinny old hands on her hips. Before he could realize it, Seth hissed at her angrily. "Just you wait. In the meantime, try to enjoy being a cat. I loved it when I was your age."
She squinted down at him and then blew out, like the flame of a candle.
Somewhere in his head, the monster reappeared and this time it was toting Lute, a few months pregnant and ominously serious. They only appear when circumstance warrants a visit, she had said. What possessed him to think so little of her words, when he'd seen proof of all manner of otherworldly creatures and beings? If there was truly a Demon King, what said that ghosts were only stories? It certainly explained Lune's peculiarity. Lute took after her almost perfectly.
"There's no way," he said aloud, shaking badly.
Standing on four feet felt clumsy, but there was no way he could balance on two and manage the tail. The tail lashed about wildly, catching bits of grass in its red fur. The sun shone too bright for his eyes.
"There's no way," Seth repeated. He listened carefully to himself speak. A meow—with undertones of his own voice. Alright.
This was most definitely a dream. He was having the world's craziest dream, brought on by stress, overwork and assigning names and faces to his own thoughts. All of yesterday was a dream, too, Seth speculated, dizzy with a sort of frozen, wide-eyed shock. And all the rest of my life too. I'll wake up years younger. This'll be an amazing story to tell Bethy and Elsie and Marietta and whoever else was born by then, because I have no idea how much of this life has been a dream. Eirika probably won't even be alive yet. I think I'll be the black sheep of the family and go into carpentry or some boring profession like that. I'm sure Father won't estrange me entirely.
Get a hold of yourself, said the monster.
Seth closed his eyes and counted to three, letting himself calm down sufficiently. This was no dream, but he would handle it as the most capable knight in Renais. King Fado had trusted him enough to give him that position at such a young age because he had known that Seth could not only handle it, but he was more qualified than senior knights. King Ephraim trusted him now enough to place his life and the life of his sister in his hands, and the lives of his knights and his civilians.
When Seth opened his eyes, he was still low to the ground, balancing precariously on all fours, but the Tail had ceased its thrashing. Good. He was calm now. Carefully, Seth managed a sitting position, loosening the muscles that had been tensed. He breathed as deeply as he could.
The ghost of Lune warned him of a human danger in his home. Did that mean Palgo? Was his family in mortal danger?
No, snapped the monster. Think. What's your home? Or, rather, who is your home?
Seth didn't even take a second to bring up the image of Princess Eirika. She was synonymous with home, and her home was Castle Renais. Lune spoke strangely, but not in riddles; she appeared just now, on the roadside in the middle of nowhere, to warn him of Eirika's impending death. Despite the current circumstance, a familiar, steely resolve arose within him. No one would touch either the King or the Princess while he was serving. And although Seth was now a member of the domesticated cat family, he did not remember resigning from his service to King Ephraim. Lune changed his shape, but not anything else.
Preparing himself, Seth attempted to stand again and promptly failed.
No worries, the monster said cheerfully. You have the entire trip home to practice walking.
Seth straightened his front legs and, wobbling, drew in his back legs so he was sitting again. He then stood; rising as he normally would, only fighting the urge to stand vertically. Experimentally, Seth lifted a paw and took one very hesitant step forward, lurching awkwardly. He followed it with an equally clumsy step of his back foot—no, no, better use the opposite, Seth corrected rapidly. Like alternating hands and feet as a human being, only all on the ground.
Feeling slightly more empowered by his newfound ability to walk, Seth took a few more successful steps, making sure not to get too overconfident. How many times had he told that to Franz?
Fairly sure that he could trot at a reasonable pace and not fall over in a heap, Seth padded out of the grass and onto the road. The Tail swished once in the air behind him, operating on its own agenda. Somehow, the distance between here and Castle Renais seemed less daunting when he had been man-sized. The thought of Eirika—and the King, of course—in peril pushed him onward. It would be a very long walk on stubby little cat legs, but it was his duty.
If it was odd to see a housecat approaching the Castle gates at a steady, determined, rather plodding pace, no one seemed to comment. Seth grimaced as he saw the two guards there, lackadaisically standing watch. Late afternoon usually meant high-traffic in and out of the Castle, but fate itself had contrived that today's businesses would slow to an almost snail-like tread.
It was a longshot, but Seth planned on walking in the front door.
Holding his head and the Tail high, Seth padded along the wide stone bridge in a quick gait, hoping to beat the guards before they took too much notice of him.
"Slow down, there, fella," the first helmeted guard said sternly, reaching out to grab Seth by the scruff of the neck with his free hand. The other held the standard lance assigned to guardsmen.
"Whazzat!" the second gasped, shaking awake and blinking in the still-strong sun. Sleeping on duty, Seth thought disapprovingly. No wonder danger found its way in, with security this lax. He would have a word with Nolan, once he was normal again. If he was ever normal again; Lune had not been very definitive on that particular point.
"It's me," Seth tried saying, futilely. It came out a weak meow, which was frustrating but not unexpected. "The General."
"Just a mangy ole cat," the First Guard shrugged. Seth used all possible willpower not to claw the man to death. Being suspended by the skin of one's neck hurt, but he was better than that.
"Oh, Gods, keep it away from me," the Second Guard cringed, curling his lip. "I'm deadly allergic."
Problematic, said the monster. But not impossible.
"Alright then, kitty. Out you go," the First Guard said, tossing Seth roughly.
Whoever said cats always landed on their feet had never met Seth the cat. He landed with a brutal thump on the dusty bridge, knocking up a small cloud. The First Guard laughed, clearly amused. Seth groaned inwardly, clambering to his feet. Nothing broke in the fall, thank his lucky stars, although an old sore spot on his belly pained him. So Lune's spell had not changed that damned scar. Shakily, Seth darted back down the road before the Guards decided that the ruddy little cat hanging around warranted a good smack.
Heaving another sigh—amazingly enough, cats could sigh—Seth hid himself in the grass and watched the two patiently, only yards away from the open gate. The Tail whipped the stalks of grass in frustration. He looked up at the ramparts fixatedly, following the blocky lines up to the flag fluttering limply in the windless day.
What about the other entrances? Mostly inaccessible to anything without opposable thumbs or at least five feet of height. Seth was at the mercy of those damned guards. Perhaps when the shift changed, he could slip between them. Oooh—no, probably not. Seth was not that great of a runner on four feet. He was not that lucky.
Some people would argue that being turned into a cat is pretty unlucky, too. That would be the voice of the monster, which seemed to be developing its own shadowy agenda in his mind. Lune mentioned an inclination for insanity, hadn't she, when she read his palm. Perhaps it surfaced when he was severely put upon—but no, there had been no mind-monster in the flight from Renais or the battles against countless, real monsters. That felt like a long time ago.
Perhaps he was just going flat out nuts. It would certainly complement the rest of this dratted day splendidly.
The soft, gentle voice of a man drifted up the hill and Seth turned to look down at Artur, bearing a load of staves and healing salves. Lute followed him closely, arguing intently and using an old, worthless Mend staff as a cane. He'd never been so happy to see Kyle's nutty little wife. With some effort, Seth bolted towards her.
". . . you oughtn't follow me to the city, anymore," Artur huffed, pausing to rest. "It's got to be bad for the baby."
"The baby is the progeny of Kyle and myself. I should assume he is hardier than you," Lute said, matter-of-factly. "And besides, chapter 5 of The Mirackle of Life, Men and Women, page 298, paragraph eight, says that I must exercise myself frequently to keep the child healthy. Accompanying you to the healing houses every other day is ideal."
"Yes, but what if you get sick, Lute?" Artur replied, giving her a distraught look. Lute's logic often defied most other people's by completely ignoring them. "Oh—hello kitty."
"I need your help, Lute," Seth called out, although it was again an elongated meow. "Your grandmother appeared before me and she turned me into a cat. You've got to change me back!"
Lute looked down at him, intrigued. Did she understand him? The young librarian squinted at him, leaning closer.
". . . Felis catus," she stated finally. "The domesticated housecat."
"Yes, that's right," Artur sighed, hefting the staves to one shoulder. "Poor thing. It looks like it's been through an ordeal."
You have no idea, the monster commented dryly.
"Lute!" Seth tried again. He was beginning to understand the full depth of his predicament, although magic had never been a strong suit of his. "Can you understand me, Lute?"
"Cats keep rodents at bay," Lute mused. "Something has been chewing at the pages in the lower shelves of Block 9R. I think I could use a cat."
"No, I suppose not," Seth said, disappointed slightly. Lute reached down and scooped him up, holding him like a doll.
He stretched uncomfortably, mewling loudly. The Tail swished back and forth like an angry pendulum.
"Er, Lute? You may want to support the bottom half too, or it might slip and claw you," Artur suggested. Seth could have kissed him.
"Ah, like this?" she said, juggling the staff and Seth in her arms.
"Yes, that's much better," Seth said, more for his benefit than Lute's. Artur smiled softly.
"Yes. This kitty's a talker, isn't he?" Artur chuckled gently.
Lute regarded Seth in her arms with a raised eyebrow, not overly impressed with the scarred old tomcat that he made. Lute's coloring was decidedly darker than Lune's, and her features far more smooth and clear. And she looked out from both eyes.
"He's not saying anything at all," Lute frowned. Artur sighed.
"Let's go, Lute."
Seth stared at the First Guard victoriously as he passed the man, relatively safe in Lute's thin arms. Her long, unevenly shorn hair tickled his nose uncomfortably. Artur murmured a farewell as they parted, he to return the staves to Sister Nella in the infirmary and she to her library. Or . . . no . . . this was not the way to the library.
Lute kicked on a door in the wing of the Castle where higher-end staff worked. The last librarian perused the shelves of the Renais Royal Library over eighty years ago. Seth supposed that King Ephraim wanted to keep Lute on.
The door opened to reveal Kyle in plainclothes. It didn't look right, although Seth imagined that he looked just as silly out of uniform and armor.
"Lute? Is there any particular reason you have a cat with you?" Kyle asked, furrowing his brow. Lute both stood on tiptoe and jumped a little bit to kiss her husband's cheek. Seth noted that she managed to maintain her expression of superiority while also mixing in affection and warmth. The effect was something like a lizard singing opera in a feather cap. He did not know where that particular simile had come from.
"Cats kill mice and book-chewing rodents," she replied brusquely, squeezing around his bulk in the doorframe. "But first . . ."
Lute dumped both Seth and the Mend staff unceremoniously on the ground. The staff managed to hit him on the way down. Seth did not trust himself to dash out the door without getting the Tail shut in the door Kyle was still holding. Lute crossed the room to get some object that Seth could not see for being small and close to the ground.
"First what, Lute?" Kyle said wryly. He raised an eyebrow and leaned against the space in the open door.
"Do you suppose cats have the bone structure for wings?" she said. Her hands steepled as she sat down on the floor next to her new 'cat.' Seth gulped. No, Lune's brood was not helping at all. Apparently, Lute's tastes leaned towards wanton experimentation and destruction. There weren't enough fish in the bay of Frelia to make him stay here, especially now that Lute's fingers glowed bluish with magic.
Before anyone could answer her, Seth made a break for the door, scrambling at top speed, cat limbs flailing. Kyle slammed the door shut, but only caught the very tip of the Tail's fur and Seth figured that he could live without it. The servants in the halls cried out unhappily as a red blur whizzed past their feet, single-mindedly determined to get as far from Lute has it could
Seth learned all the halls in Renais Castle at a young age, as a page carrying notes and running errands for the nobles, knights and older squires. However, no matter how tiny he had been at ten years old, it was incomparable to viewing the corridors as a cat. Everything appeared infuriatingly similar. He was completely lost, but that was alright as long as he didn't stop running. The ground was thoroughly filthy.
Careening around an unfamiliar corner, Seth lost his balance. The Tail whipped, trying to right him by itself. Seth tumbled headfirst into an entirely unexpected wall with a loud thwack and a meow.
"Oh, kitty!" gasped a nearby girl's voice. Seth could not place her for the stars in his eyes.
"Owww . . ." he groaned. Yet another totally pathetic mewl.
"Janna, Janna, come quick! The poor kitty bopped its head!" the girl's voice chimed. Like knives sliding against each other, Seth thought darkly. His head hurt.
"What kitty?" another voice, deeper and more mature. Janna emerged from an adjacent hall, carrying a bucket of something. Her greenish brown hair was restrained across her scalp in a tight bun, decorated with a bit of lace and beads.
"This poor baby. Oh, come here kitty, let Emmie take care of you," Emmie cooed. Practiced arms wrapped around him and lifted him off the ground.
"Ye Gods, he looks like he's gone through hell," Janna commented, frowning. Seth took a mild offense at that. What business did she have, commenting on his appearance as a cat? "It is a he, right?"
Emmie lifted him up to check. Seth felt strongly violated. Emmie looked familiar, as did her green haired friend.
"Yep, it's a boy," Emmie said affirmatively. She tucked Seth over her shoulder and carried him single-handedly, using her opposite to lift her previously abandoned bucket. "I think he looks adorable."
"Cookie will kill him and put him in the stew, y'know that, right?" Janna said dryly. They were both maidservants, in the same nearly identical blue dress and apron.
Emmie gasped. "He wouldn't!"
"You bet," Janna said. She grinned maliciously at Seth as she petted his head quickly. She began walking down the hall again, swinging the bucket idly. "You're gonna be dinner for the Royals tonight, ruddy."
Emmie tightened her grip on Seth protectively, following her friend.
"Don't call him that," Emmie said. She sounded like she was the sort of person who broke out into tears or giggles all the time, just like his sister Mirna. Today must be a 'tears' day. "Cookie wouldn't cook him. He's too sweet."
"What, ruddy?" Janna replied, scrunching her nose. "Cookie hates cats, Em."
"He keeps Socksie."
Socksie must be the other cat, Seth thought to himself. Perhaps he could get some help from her.
"She's only for the rats. He'd cook her too, if he could get away with it. You've only been workin' for a few months, or you would've known that," Janna shrugged, splashing a bit of water on the floor. "Oooh—that's a tom, ain't it? Cookie'll hate that too. Imagine if it and Socksie have kittens?"
"Cookie won't kill him," Emmie said firmly. "I'm going to keep him myself. The King raised my salary a little for tending the fires in the Royal rooms so good and keeping up with my work in the kitchen and I do errandy things for him when Tal is hiding from him."
She tilted her head downward and Seth looked to see a bunch of keys at her apron belt. A bright light of recognition figuratively blinded Seth. This Emmie was the girl from Ephraim's study! He didn't know why it took him so long to remember her, other than she was wearing her hair down.
"Fine, fine, but you better keep him from having kittens with Socksie," Janna suggested. "Why don't you fix him?"
The scar from Valter's lance had carried over into cat form. Seth tried very hard not to think about what Janna was suggesting.
"No, that's cruel!" Emmie gasped, clutching Seth tighter. He relaxed a little. "I'll just keep him away from her, that's all. Besides, he's too good for her, aren't you, Silver?"
Janna snorted, and then snapped her head attentively to her friend. "Wait, what did you call him?"
"What did you call me?" Seth asked incredulously, maneuvering so he could see her face.
"Silver," Emmie sniffed, bundling Seth closer again. "That's his name."
"Why?" Janna raised an eyebrow.
Anyone who wasn't blind could see that he was most obviously a red-furred cat. He supposed it came from his own red hair, although he briefly wondered if that meant that Lune turned lilac when she changed shapes. A purple cat. That was the type of thing that went into gypsy freakshows.
Meanwhile, Emmie seemed to be blushing bright red to match her new pet. "After the . . . y'know, the General. The Silver Knight and all? Silver's red like he is . . ."
"Wha—ha! Ye Gods, woman, two glimpses and you're obsessed!" Janna nearly dropped her bucket of water on the floor, stopping dead to bend over and laugh.
"It was three," Emmie insisted, flushed entirely pink. "I saw him this morning, too."
It took Seth a moment to register that they were talking about him. That was an entirely unexpected twist in the conversation. Suddenly, it became very uncomfortable to be riding on Emmie's shoulder, so close to her. Janna cackled uncontrollably.
"Oh . . . stop it, Janna," the blonde maid said irritably. "It's not that funny. Here, you take my pail. I need to hide Silver somewhere so Cookie doesn't find him."
"What?" Janna stopper her laughter mid-snort. "Aw, why do I have to do it?"
"'Cause you laughed at me, that's why. And I'm not the new girl anymore," Emmie retorted sharply, snubbing her button nose at Janna, who stuck out her tongue in return. "You'll have to pick on Creepy Clara now."
"Eesh, she's so weird. You pick on her. I always feel like I hafta watch my back around that freak," Janna muttered, taking Emmie's bucket easily. Emmie seemed not to have the strength that most kitchen girls had. "But you do realize you have a snowball's chance in Hell with that man, right, Em? I mean, you're competing with damned Princess. They're engaged to be married, you know."
"For the last year, Aria in the accounts said. If they were going to get married, they would've already," Emmie shrugged, turning off into another direction. A stab of guilt hit Seth in the familiar sore spot of his eternally pending marriage. It hurt to know that even the servants thought it would never happen. "Let me have my fantasies, Jan, and I won't say a word about you and your fancying Sir Garcia."
Ooh, did not need to hear that, cringed both the monster and he. Janna was closer in age to Ross than the aging warrior. The mental images were disturbing.
Janna flushed almost indiscernibly in the dim light of the windowless hall and hurried away, swinging two pails instead of her one. Emmie peered down the hall, presumably checking for any witnesses to her adoption of Silver the cat. When the way was clear, Emmie hastily snuck across the floor in determined steps.
Janna and Emmie made for an odd pair of friends. Emmie, while not exactly fat, was admittedly very plump, and extremely fair, which contrasted with Janna's dark coloring and hazardously sharp figure.
But despite being like a small, buttery little Mogall, Emmie was surprisingly nimble. She dashed along the furthest, most disused halls of the Castle until they arrived at a mostly empty storeroom. Like most rooms, it was undefined and insignificant in every way. A few bags of flour were stuffed in a corner along with some dried goods. Emmie knelt and allowed Seth the most comfortable landing he'd had all day.
"Here you go, Silver. I'll be back with some scraps and some water after supper," she said, scratching his ears.
May as well act like a cat, the monster suggested. Seth tried a purr, valiantly. It came out sort of gravelly, like a ticklish rumble in his throat. He sneezed. The Tail snapped like a whip.
"Teehee," Emmie grinned, continuing to pet him absently. "I know, it's dusty. I'll move you into my room, once I make a deal with all the girls. I'm sure they'll love you, Silver. Gods know the actual General is popular enough! Janna makes fun of me, but I know I'm not the only one."
Being a cat certainly allowed for a unique perspective on how the staff of the Castle viewed him. As a rule, Seth normally did not notice the kitchen girls. It was their job not to be. Apparently, that rule did not work both ways.
"Oh . . . I bet Cookie and Creepy Clara will be missing me about now," Emmie sighed, twitching her pouty lips. "I'll be back soon, Silver. Don't piss on anything."
Yes, ma'am, the monster saluted sharply. Seth wished he could figure out how to hit a figment of his imagination.
Seth briefly entertained the thought of dashing out the door while it was still open, but Emmie filled the door almost entirely, like yeast in a pan. She closed it soundly behind her.
Great job thwarting human danger, the cruel little monster snickered evilly. Locked in a storeroom while King Ephraim is brutally murdered at his own desk. Yes. Absolutely superb.
Shut your . . . shut up, Seth replied inwardly, unsure whether or not to assign a mouth to the monster as well as its own identity. It might never shut up, then.
Instead of considering the phenomena of inner demons and the mouths thereof, Seth turned his attention on the door. It was shut tight, and although probably not locked, he lacked the proper appendages to twist the handle. Perhaps if he jumped and caught hold of the seam between the doorknob and the door . . . he would dangle from the knob, unable to pull. Brilliant.
Frustrated, Seth extended his claws and scratched mightily at the wood. It made a thunderous, screeching noise and dug thick grooves into the grain. It was all very satisfying, even though this certainly counted as vandalism of Royal property. He would atone for it later, he promised the drillmaster, sincerely as he could.
When clawing at the door proved boring, Seth examined his new prison, pacing its length, and then width. Then diagonally, both ways. Several times in all directions. Roughly an hour passed and Seth had walked all over the storeroom floor, knocked down an old jar of spice and broken it, and rolled it all over the floor.
Waiting in a room for Emmie, his new owner, to return, was inescapably dull. Seth spent most of his time these days attending to every sort of problem that could arise. Staying still in the corner of a room on top of a bag of flour did not sit well with him at all.
Think of it as a vacation, the monster commented, lazily. Why don't you think about happier things? You're not going anywhere very soon.
Happier things. Seth settled into the softest part of the flour bag and closed his eyes. I wonder if Bethy's going to have a boy. Everyone in Seth's family, except for twelve-year-old, pinkheaded Mirna (wait, fifteen years old, now) had red hair, so it was a safe bet Alisabeth's little baby would be redheaded as well.
Eirika needs to go to Palgo, he decided, drifting off. Mum'll love her. So will the littlest ones and all five of the nieces. Eirika is good with children . . .
Seth awoke much later as the door swung open. Emmie snuck in, carefully balancing a bowl of water and a little cloth full of something that smelled like meat. She kicked the door shut and set the bowl on the floor. Suddenly, Seth realized how thirsty he really was.
He hopped from the little mound of flour bags and trotted over to the bowl before facing the dilemma of drinking. Cats licked water to drink it, right? Bethy had a cat once, when they'd been little, maybe six or seven. Seth leaned forward and flicked his tongue at the water. He took to it instinctually and began gulping great quantities of water.
Emmie giggled and scratched his neck affectionately, sitting down on the floor next to him.
"You were thirsty! Teehee," she cooed, finding a spot behind his ears that made him stop shoveling water into his mouth momentarily and lean toward her hand. "Like that, hm? Hee. Sorry I took so long, Silver, creepy ole Clara held me up with some extra chores for the Princess."
Emmie sighed and made a face. "It's disgusting. She's only worked here in the Castle a few weeks and already, she's administrative head, top-tier, direct subordinate to the Head. I worked my fingers off to make second-tier kitchen girl, y'know! Started out as a fourth-tier grunt, that's no fun at all. Creepy Clara's just a freak workaholic, I suppose. Y'know, we do absolutely everything around here, us kitchen maids, and I never hear one measly thank you. But it pays well! I can almost ignore the misnomer of 'kitchen girl.' Gods know we're everywhere else, too!"
Seth looked up at her. Emmie's round face smiled merrily, despite her complaining. She was a veritable chatterbox, but a kind one. She snapped the fingers of her other hand, her eyes brightening.
"Oh, I almost forgot, Silver! I brought you some tablescraps. It's not very much, but you're kinda skinny anyway," she chattered, untying the cloth bundle deftly. Within the checkered folds were two chunks of cold chicken. Seth shifted his attention from the water to the meat, instantly hungry. That was right; he hadn't had a bite to eat all day.
"Thank you," he said instantly, prodded by the drillmaster conscience. It wasn't like Emmie knew what he was saying, but it never killed anyone to be polite. He wolfed the chicken done, minding the bones. There were none; Emmie was smarter than she looked.
"I promise you'll be better off soon, Silver," Emmie told him, standing up and dusting the white from her dress. "Just you wait. See you tomorrow! It's pretty late as is . . . Janna will absolutely throttle me if I wake her up again. She's my bedmate, y'know. Good night, Silver."
Emmie disappeared while Seth was still eating. It must be very late, for her to be moving so quietly. Despite being on the porky side, Emmie didn't make much noise. That was probably a product of invisible service to the crown. King Ephraim was always spectacularly busy, although with everything and not just the military. So why did Lune change him into a cat and not the King?
Because the King's the one in danger, the monster clarified smugly. Hiding him would be helpful. Magic, by definition, is as disagreeable as a toddler with sweets.
Damn it, the greedy little monster was steadily becoming his personal advisor. This did not bode well for his sanity.
"Is there anyone out there who can understand me?" he called through the door. Silence received him. Seth did not feel surprised and gave up for the night. He paced a little more, and to his great shame, piddled in the corner, before climbing up onto the flour bag and settling in for the night. The Tail tapped idly on the burlap, as bored as he was.
The Silver Knight, now Silver the Cat, eventual fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. On the other end of the Castle, the life of a noblewoman suddenly came to an abrupt halt.
The door burst open rudely, and at first Seth thought that it was Emmie again, in a panicked rush that seemed to start the second before dawn. No such luck.
A little man with a turned up nose scampered—yes, that was a distinctive scamper—into the storeroom, completely focused.
"Where is it?" he scowled, scanning the room. Like a berserker centering on the target of his Killer Axe, the mousy man's dark pinprick eyes widened at the sight of a jar shattered on the ground.
Now, that's an inclination for insanity. Seth was too paralyzed to tack on any tags to the monster's now very familiar voice. The man's funny nose twitched, and locked on to a particular corner.
"What in the name . . ." the tiny man began to shake. Seth found the strength to stand and perhaps slip out behind him while he was still distracted, but the man snapped his head in the direction of the movement. His mouth opened and closed, like a fish.
"What," he breathed, resembling the specter of Death very closely. "Are you doing here, cat?"
Ah. This must be Cookie. Along with knowing when to fight, Seth had been extensively trained on when to flee. Avidly watching out for the walls, he bolted through the door at high speeds—it became easier the more time he spent as a cat to slip around people. Cookie raged after him.
Seth wove through the halls and rounded a sharp corner into carpeted territory. The layout of Castle Renais twisted in on itself continually. Seth guessed that he was close to the more formal rooms, although right now, he wasn't sure of anything. Being small totally wrecked the mental map he had of the interior of the Castle, but as long as he kept running—Seth plowed through a congregation forming outside the chambers of what looked like a visiting noble.
A woman shrieked, followed by several more. A crowd of maids cluttering the hallway.
"Oh dear Gods!"
"What's going on now!"
"It's another murder!"
"No, it's a cat!"
Cookie dived through his own staff, wrenching Seth from the ground, by the scruff of the neck. It was really getting old, being grabbed by the scruff of the neck.
"Now I've got you, you little fiend—"
"What's going on here?"
That last voice was the voice of another woman, but this time, it carried a combination of command, regality, and sweet familiarity. The Princess stood with her arms crossed, wearing her typical white skirt and red jacket, looking much more like the woman Seth fell in love with, only angrier. She had her arms crossed over her chest. Cookie cowered.
"Milady, I'm just taking care of a menace," Cookie insisted, bowing respectfully to Princess Eirika. A squeak from the crowd captured the attention of both Cookie and Eirika. Emmie emerged from between two much thinner girls, badly out of breath. Her hands dripped with water.
"He's not a menace!" cried Emmie, dashing forward and reaching out to rescue Seth. "He's my cat and he's sweet!"
All eyes focused on Seth, not quite seeing what apparently Emmie saw. He stopped hissing at Cookie.
"We've already got a Castle cat," Cookie snapped, shaking him roughly. "We don't need a second. And he pissed in my spice room!"
"B-but—" Emmie's distress stirred the crowd as her large, round green eyes filled with tears. Her pudgy fingers reached out for her cat hesitantly.
"The cat or your job, looks like to me," Cookie threatened. Eirika coughed, to remind him who would decide that. She took a few steps forward, head held high.
"What's his name, miss?" Eirika asked, prying Seth from Cookie and holding him gently.
"Um . . . Silver . . ." Emmie responded in a small voice, turning a little pink. Other girls behind her tittered softly. The cat in question was clearly red. Emmie cleared her throat a little. "Like the knight, milady. I thought it would be cute."
Something about the name 'Silver' struck Eirika's fancy. She smiled broadly, examining 'Silver's' face carefully.
"Ah, I see," she said amusedly. "I wonder what Sir Seth would think of that, having a cat named after him."
"I'd think it a little too forward, actually," Seth replied, already resigned to the fact that no one could understand him at all. He leaned on Eirika's shoulder, trying to endear himself. She smelled of fragrant soap.
Eirika laughed, and stroked his neck. "He is sweet. Miss Emmie, is it? Why don't I keep Silver for you? He'll stay in the Castle, and no one will lose their jobs, is that clear?"
The last bit stung Cookie bitterly, Seth could see from his vantage, but he swallowed his pride and bowed.
"Of course, milady," Cookie griped, masking his displeasure.
"Oh, thank you, milady!" Emmie gushed gratefully, bobbing up and down madly. "You don't know how much this means to me!"
"It is my job and my honor to serve the citizens of Renais," Eirika replied graciously, petting the mangy red fur on his back. Seth sighed as he realized he was covered in flour. "Including cats. Now, please, disperse. The Royal guardsmen are investigating this matter thoroughly and we would deeply appreciate it if the staff would carry on with their duties. A death is a tragedy, but we must continue with our work."
"What happened?" Seth asked Eirika, perfectly aware all she heard was a meow.
Slowly, Cookie and the fleet of maidservants disappeared into the woodwork, Eirika watching their every move. A dark, dour looking woman approached Eirika with a solemn expression. Her black hair was pulled back as severely as Janna's, only devoid entirely of decoration.
That must be her, the monster quivered. This woman even scared Seth's thoughts. Creepy Clara.
"Milady, will you be breakfasting with the King?" she asked, completely deadpan.
"No, I don't believe so. Send my brother my regrets. I have other things to attend to this morning," Eirika replied, as soberly as Creepy Clara. "Thank you, Miss Clara."
Creepy Clara—Miss Clara, Seth corrected himself. He would remain as respectful of Miss Clara as he was of all the citizens of Renais.
"Yes, milady. I'll see to it straight away," Cree—Miss Clara bowed. Not a curtsey. Despite being entirely frightening, Miss Clara radiated a sense of total control and capability. The heels of Miss Clara's black boots clicked on the floor as the carpet ran out.
Double checking to make sure no one would sneak up on her. Eirika took a breath and ventured into the rooms, underneath the painted door.
On the wall, Seth recognized the crest of Dasyan, a dukedom within Renais known for its textiles. This must be the room of the Duchess Dasyan. The Dasyans were another glaring example of an age gap gone sour—the Duchess was probably fifteen to twenty years younger than her aging husband. The Duchess spent her time in Castle Renais as a representative on the Royal Council, away from her ancient spouse. Not that it matter much more to her.
Eirika bit her lip as she approached the cooled corpse of a young woman around Seth's age and her own height, with long sea green hair spilt across the rich Dasyanian rug. The Duchess Dasyan lay motionless, the front of her brocade dress stained rusty red with her own blood, from a brutal gash across the side of her neck and a stab to the chest
A dagger, Seth thought glumly. Perhaps two. Definitely skilled work, like the silencing skills of an assassin. This murderer was nothing to be trifled with.
"Oh, no," Eirika murmured, setting 'Silver' down on the ground. Eirika leaned over and prized a scrap of paper from the Duchess' stiffened hand. "Oh, Freya . . ."
Seth stared sadly at the young Duchess. He had not known that Eirika had been friends with this woman, although he could understand why; Eirika and the Duchess Freya were the only two women on the Royal Council, now that he thought about it. There were no women at all on the Citizen Council. Now, there was only one woman for both Councils to share.
Eirika held the sliver of paper to her breast, saying a silent prayer. "I'll deliver this for you, Freya. Vincent deserves to have this last note."
She tucked it into the top of her boot, securely, and collected Seth. Why did no one believe he could walk on his own four feet? Duchess Freya's murder took the edge off of his problems, however. This woman was dead. And although her death could have been simple court intrigue (that Eirika knew about! When had she taken to gossip?), Seth believed that this had more to do with Lune's warning of human danger, or, more probably, a dangerous human.
Why on Magvel had the murderer chosen Duchess Freya? And what was the connection between her and King Ephraim's peril? Seth scooted up Eirika's shoulder, looking through her aqua curtain of hair to see that the fine rug beneath Duchess Freya of Dasyan's corpse remained pristine, despite the noblewoman's abrupt, bloody end.
A young knight, about twenty or so, approached the Princess respectfully as she exited Freya's residence in the Castle. He was flanked by two other men, one wearing the robes of a doctor or a healing priest.
"We'll take it from here, milady," he said, bowing quickly. "Please be wary. We cannot assume that the Duchess of Dasyan was the villain's only intended target. The Knights of Renais will catch this fiend, no doubt about it, milady, but until then, Sir Nolan asks you not to put yourself in a risky situation."
"Of course, Sir Rigan," Eirika agreed. Seth meowed his disbelief. That was the tone Eirika used when she wasn't inclined to following directions. Rigan believed her, gullible fool, and entered the door to where Freya's corpse lay. Seth secretly blamed Ephraim and his recklessness for corrupting the naturally honest Princess.
Tired of being held, Seth struggled against Eirika's grasp, taking special care not to claw her. Eirika frowned, alone to do so.
"Alright, alright, I'll put you down," she said, displeased. Seth leapt to the ground, landing clumsily and wobbling as he straightened his legs. The Tail held itself high.
Seth watched her intently. I'm going to follow you on foot, he thought, trying to beam his thoughts into her head, since talking proved in vain. She rolled her eyes and started down the hall. He followed her a few steps before Eirika twirled around.
"I'm going to follow you," he said.
"Meow," Eirika heard.
Eirika turned her back again and took a single step. Seth copied her. The Princess tilted her head over her shoulder to see. She took another step. So did he. She dropped to her knees, leaning to his level, her eyes shining with amazement.
"You're clever, too!" Eirika gasped. "Look at you! It's . . . uncanny! You can probably understand everything I'm saying, can't you, Silver?"
"Yes," Seth said, relieved. Eirika half understood him; he should have known he could always rely on her. Even if a talking cat was a little absurd, she could believe that he was 'clever' enough to understand her.
"You are special," Eirika smiled half-heartedly, her bewilderment fading as she scratched his neck. "Come along then. I've got to deliver this and then find Sir Franz for our little rendezvous. Freya was so looking forward . . ."
Eirika trailed off, wistfully. Her blue eyes welled with tears and Seth, more than ever, wished he was not a cat. Scarcely a moment later, she stood up again, sniffing determinedly.
"Let's go, Silver," she said, confident that her new pet would understand her every word.
Sir Vincent must have already heard the news, because when Eirika and 'Silver' appeared in the garden, tucked in the far corner underneath a trellis. He looked to be a poorer, unlanded knight, and now his appearance was more bedraggled than he would be normally.
He accepted the letter gratefully, and Eirika put a comforting hand on his shoulder.
"She was about to go give it to you," Eirika said soothingly. "Freya loved you more than anything. She had it in her hand when she was found."
"That's just it," Vincent murmured, bags under his eyes. "I didn't come for her like I promised, milady. I . . . if I had . . ."
"I cannot heal the pain you must be enduring right now," Eirika said, taking the bereft man's hands. "But I can assure you that her killer will be found."
"I give you my word as well," Seth swore, sitting in the dirt between the beds of purple, star-shaped flowers. Vincent gazed down at the red cat, deep circles beneath his eyes.
"Your words bring me comfort, Princess," he choked. Eirika nodded and released her grip to grant him some privacy to grieve for his dead lover. Seth followed closely alongside the heels his own, keeping a watchful eye out for suspicious behavior as the Princess passed.
The Castle was become more and more familiar from his perspective, and he could now watch over Princess Eirika with considerable ease. Even if he couldn't protect her, it steadied his nerves to know where she was. Eirika, as it was, did not seem to feel she was in any danger.
She stopped in front of a window, looking in. The gardens were spacious and many rooms in the Castle boasted rooms looking into the flowers. It was not the same garden Seth remembered; that had been burned and wrecked under Orson's brief, anarchic rule.
The Princess furrowed her brow and glanced around. What sort of mischief was she engaging in now?
Seth followed her eyes to a remote, rather scorched looking door. It swung open, slowly. A blond head poked out.
Franz. What on Magvel was going on here?
"Sir Franz?" Eirika called, in a low voice.
"Here, milady," Franz said. Instead of his usual upbeat attitude, Franz seemed heavily concerned.
"Franz, I don't have the next bit ready just yet," Eirika said conspiratorially. She tiptoed closer to him to whisper, behind the large bush Tana had sent as a gift from Frelia. Frelian winter roses, they were called, pink and cloying, and they only bloomed in the cold. The plant was monstrously huge.
"That's, that's alright, milady," Franz bit his lip. Seth tilted his head, realizing that Franz was now a full few inches taller than Eirika. He'd outgrow Forde at this rate. "Milady, have you seen the General?"
Eirika shook her head and absently fingered the ring on her hand. "No, not since yesterday morning. He promised to speak with me, too, but I haven't caught a glimpse of him since then. Is he very busy?"
"That's hard to say, milady," Franz grimaced. "He didn't report to the King, either, and Ephraim is getting worried. I asked around, and—"
Of course, Seth thought, staring uncomfortably at the ground. I vanished. It's a wonder they're only noticing now. King Ephraim must furious.
Or extremely worried, the monster said. The Tail began to wave from side to side.
"What do you mean?" Eirika interrupted. Every part of her locked onto Franz's every word, awaiting an explanation.
"Er," Franz scratched the back of his neck, a nervous habit. He glanced around the Frelian rosebush to see if anyone was within earshot and then leaned in to whisper, "He took off for some sort of emergency yesterday morning and hasn't been back since. We're not alerting anyone just yet, because Dame Elspeth left the same day—"
Another pang of guilt bit at him, generously provided by the drillmaster conscience. Seth did not often mention his family. Most knights were sons, and in some cases, daughters, of other knights who had died in combat. The subject of family was often sore, as it was for Forde and Franz, who had nothing. Some people knew of the Silver Knight's partially noble family in Palgo, and a handful more knew Elsie, since the familial resemblance showed strongly. Eirika knew of neither Palgo or Elsie, and it he was largely to blame.
"Dame Elspeth? Oh . . . doesn't Sir Seth talk about his sisters?" Franz asked, raising a curious eyebrow.
"No, he's never mentioned his family, ever," Eirika said, a trace of betrayal in her voice. Franz broke a smile, despite the seriousness of his nature. Seth suspected that he was trying to alleviate some of the trouble he'd just landed for his superior.
"Oh, well, he's got like . . . twenty of them, milady," Franz played off, waving a hand clumsily. Franz would never be very good at making things up. "Um . . . according to rumors, you know."
Not twenty, Seth thought defensively. In the cool morning shade of the garden, Eirika's face set itself in resolve. He would be in for trouble.
"Well, I must ask after them, then," Eirika decided, finally. "It is most likely a pressing family matter that urged him to leave so suddenly."
Franz nodded. "Yeah, of course."
"Something like that," Seth admitted. Once one started, it was hard to break the habit of talking to oneself.
The young knight noticed the cat at Eirika's feet and grinned. He knelt and held out his hand, presumably for Seth to sniff. He humored Franz. May as well act like a real cat. An extremely clever, but otherwise real, cat. Satisfied, Franz reached out and petted him roughly along the neck.
"And who's this little guy?" Franz inquired, rubbing the spot behind Seth's ears that everyone seemed to find. He attempted another purr.
"My new cat, apparently," Eirika placed a hand on her hip, amused. "I rescued him from the Royal chef. He belonged to a girl working here, but she couldn't keep him."
"Ah," Franz chuckled, climbing to his feet again. "What's his name?"
Franz took another glance at Seth and adopted a skeptical look.
"Like Sir Seth," Eirika said, pointing to her head, smiling wryly. "You know, red hair, the Silver Knight . . .?"
"Oh! Oh, I get it now. Ha. Dunno if he'd like that too much. Alright, Princess, if you don't have anything for me, I'll just take my leave, milady," Franz bowed. Eirika laughed brightly.
"Alright then, my secret courier," she said lightly. "I promise, next week. It'll be finished by next week. I only need to conclude some things."
"Of course, milady," Franz said, sincerely, as he turned to leave through the same door. "Take your time, milady."
Eirika laughed and reached to slap his shoulder playfully, and again, instructed him to be less formal. Seth could only wonder what they were alluding to.
Being a cat at Eirika's heels allowed him a new perspective on her daily life, something he knew almost nothing about. Seth knew that the Princess served on the Royal Council as the King's representative when the King was not present, but he had not known that she had taken up the post as Head of the Castle.
Eirika controlled everything in the Castle, from the cleaning rounds to the menus, which explained the ironclad influence she'd held over Cookie and the girls, especially Miss Clara. Seth supposed that it kept her occupied and feeling useful when her brother didn't need her to speak on his behalf or write up letters to important noblemen and women. Eirika always needed to feel useful, since the war, and perhaps even before then. His relationship with the Princess prior to her father's death had always been formal and detached, whereas Fado had acted almost as a second father to him and Ephraim like a brother.
She had a knack for management, too. Seth wondered if she would have the same gift for arranging noncombatants and supply routes, and if it would be too much to impose on her for advice, once they were married.
Good, the monster approved, clapping in the back. You've acknowledged that it will, actually, happen. That's a first step.
Despite that she had lost a close friend just hours before, Eirika lay sprawled out on her window seat facing the Great River that supplied the city and the Castle with water, scribbling away in a notebook labeled 'Staff & Finance' along the spine. Seth curled up at her feet, having thoroughly inspected her rooms for anything suspicious, pretending that this wasn't the first time he'd ever seen the interior of her chambers. He never knew that she kept houseplants in all the rooms, five or six, placed by windows.
To the dismay of many, including Eirika, the sunny morning had taken a cloudy turn. She leaned up against a small mountain of pillows, appearing small against the dark sky.
"Where do these clouds come from, Silver?" she had asked absently, before bending to scratch his ears.
A knock on the door made them both jump, and Eirika rapidly stuffed 'Staff & Finances' under a lavender pillow. Seth would have raised an eyebrow if cats had eyebrows.
"Please come in, it's open," she called, pretending to be avidly involved in petting her cat.
The door opened to reveal the dark, stoic figure of Miss Clara. In her arms, she held a sheaf of paperwork. Around her neck hung a curious emblem on a thin chain, a miniature silver broadsword no longer than two knuckles of a finger, framed by Miss Clara's modest black dress. Seth took notice immediately, wondering what sort of significance the necklace held. It certainly looked suspicious. The Tail set itself to thrashing across the white, floral cushion.
"Oh, Silver—don't, she's a friend," Eirika slapped him softly. Seth realized he'd been hissing at Miss Clara without knowing it.
"No, I am used to it, Princess Eirika," Miss Clara said in her monotone voice. "Your brother requests that you transcribe these letters onto the ordinary stationery and these laws into the official Royal papers. He would also ask you to proof the spelling. He could not find Scribe Tal at all this morning."
"Hm, perhaps he's hiding with the General," Eirika commented, jokingly. Seth's gaze remained fixated on Miss Clara as the Princess crossed the room to accept Ephraim's paperwork. His mind didn't even register Eirika's dry humor, not even the monster. There was something he just couldn't place about Miss Clara.
"I would not know, milady," Miss Clara bowed, rigidly formal. Her face did not even wrinkle to laugh at the joke of a noble, as most would. "Shall I search the Castle for him, as well?"
"No, but alert me if you chance to see him," Eirika replied, disappearing into a doorway. That room was her own private study, far smaller than Ephraim's official one. He'd examined the desk, being careful not to knock anything down. She kept it neat and organized, as well.
Miss Clara nodded. "Yes, milady." Miss Clara's dark green eyes stared straight at Eirika's back the way that arrows flew. While he consciously restrained himself from hissing again, Seth watched her unwaveringly. Slowly, like a black basilisk, Miss Clara turned her head to match gazes with the red cat sitting as rigid as she, challenging him. Perhaps Miss Clara was more intuitive than anyone else in Castle Renais. She certainly didn't blink.
"Miss Clara, I don't think I'll be joining Ephraim for dinner, either," Eirika called from the other room. "Could you make sure he knows? And check the stores of ink and tell me if we have any more of that lovely Hargassi blue."
"Yes, milady," Miss Clara repeated dully, like a solemn parrot. Both she and Seth broke their staring contest to attentively watch as Eirika re-entered the room, empty-handed.
Eirika rattled off a few more directions to Miss Clara, most of which seemed oddly mundane for such a uniquely terrifying woman. Moreover, Eirika did not seem to find Miss Clara strange in the slightest. Was this Eirika's inherent gullibility at work? Seth could remember several occasions when the Princess had been fooled by her trusting nature, to great loss.
"I will see to it, milady," Miss Clara bowed, at last preparing to leave. She paused. "May I say one last thing, Princess?"
Eirika said some word of consent. Seth was too preoccupied to listen, tracking Miss Clara's every move.
"Sir Nolan, the Head of Security, wishes you to remain in your bedchambers tonight and not to wander, as you are inclined to. He feels there is sufficient reason to believe that Duchess Freya of Dasyan was not murdered in her room," Miss Clara reported, in the most words she'd said all together at once.
"Is that so?" Eirika asked, intently interested. "What evidence leads him to that conclusion?"
There was no blood beneath her, Seth thought vaguely.
"The wounds and the surroundings did not match. Two hours past, a knight reported that there were signs of a struggle and blood in the gaps between the tiles in one of the minor garden terraces," the woman in black continued. For a moment, a flicker of some indefinable expression crossed her face. "It is my belief that she was murdered there and then dragged to her rooms in the Castle. The villain probably returned to wash the tiles himself, but did a poor job. I would estimate that the Duchess Dasyan was murdered between the hours of one and three, when there are the fewest witnesses awake."
How? Seth thought.
"Why?" asked Eirika, most likely baffled at the thought of anyone taking human life for any unjust reason in a time of peace.
"Without sounding too forward, milady," Miss Clara said, choppily turning to leave the Princess on her own. "Duchess Freya did look very much like you from behind. In the dark of a moonless night, I would assume that you, milady, and the Duchess would have been very nearly indistinguishable. Will milady be taking her supper in her room?"
"Yes, I think so, Miss Clara," Eirika said smoothly, her brow furrowed in thought. "Thank you."
Miss Clara closed the door reverently. Seth's ears twitched as he heard her soft footfalls on the rug until the noise faded. Eirika waited a few seconds, before bowing her head and her hair curtained her face.
"Eirika?" Seth called. "Eirika, are you alright?"
The Princess choked a sob and fell to her knees at the padded window seat. She wrapped her arms around his small body and wept into his fur. Lacking hands, Seth nudged her with his nose. It was close.
"Oh, Silver," she sobbed quietly, peeling strands of hair from her wet cheeks. Her face was streaked with tears, although her eyes had not reddened just yet. "I . . . I can never protect my friends. L-Lyon and Freya . . . and I, maybe I could have prevented Freya's, maybe . . ."
"No," Seth said into her hair, softly. Even though all she heard would be cat meows, he would still try to comfort the woman he loved. "No maybes, they won't help, milady."
He felt like running through a few maybes himself, though. Maybe if he had been free of the storeroom, maybe if he hadn't been a cat . . . Eirika sniffled, and stroked his back, grateful to her cat that at least seemed to understand she was sad. Eirika climbed into the comfort her assorted pillows, not even removing 'Staff & Finances.' She curled up, tucking her legs up so she was a ball. Seth hesitated, unsure of where the lines of propriety were drawn in this situation. Eirika lifted her face and wiped a stream of tears away.
"Here, kitty, kitty," she mumbled, stretching out her arms to him. He rushed to her, nestling into her embrace and comforting her as only an affectionate cat could. Cat were not overly concerned with propriety.
They stayed that way for a long while, with Seth's head resting reassuringly on her shoulder, waiting for the tears to dry and the hiccups to stop. Raindrops sprinkled on the glass next to them, and then turned into a heavy fall. And despite the grim circumstance, Seth found that he could not remember a time that they had been so close for so long, without one of them bleeding from a grievous wound.
Eirika breathed delicately, lulled asleep by her tears and the rain and a warm, little body next to her. Seth kept himself awake, standing watch. Tonight, as the majority of the Castle slept, he would go hunting for an assassin. Perhaps there was an advantage to being a cat; no assassin would expect to be wary of a household pet, especially one so stringy. Maybe Lune wasn't quite the total nutter she made herself out to be.
Eirika jolted, and sent Seth sprawling. The door smacked the wall, violently flung open. She swung from her curled position to an alert one, discreetly wiping all traces of her cry. Standing at the door was young Sir Franz, assistant to the Head of Security, accompanied by Dame Amelia, who held in her hands . . . oh, no . . .
"Milady, Sir Seth's horse returned just now, riderless, and—"
Amelia pushed the sheathed silver sword out in front of her and Franz, her face a mask of panic. Emblazoned scabbard was the silver crest of Palgo and three metal bands of rank.
"Sir Magas and his party found this returning on the King's Road," she blurted out. "His boots, weapons, uniform, everything—the General has vanished, milady! King Ephraim fears the worst!"
This chapter is dedicated to my dear friend and gossiper-in-crime, Taylor, and the real Johnny. May all your romance novels have ten-page sex scenes, Taylor.