The Many Adventures of Silver the Cat
Written by Lady Erina of Renais Court, retyped for your pleasure by Meelu the Bold
The (real) Third Chapter:
"Vegetarian Courses for Special Visitors," or,
"Silver the Cat Uncovers the Obvious."
"Oh, Silver! No!"
Seth felt a slim, deft hand reach out with spectacular swiftness and snatch him by the neck, lifting him up a few feet. His first instinct was to fight back. He had claws now, whereas his attacker only had a set of closely trimmed fingernails.
Stop! commanded the inner Natasha. Her delicate features would have been contorted into a rare scowl, had she not existed solely in his mind at this point in time. She may have even hit him, again. Seth had not known that clerics were trained to subdue the more energetic of the wounded. Not many people did.
"Bad," Eirika chastised, slapping his ears sharply. "Bad cat."
Besides, all five hells would freeze over and crack before he scratched a bit of Eirika. His ears rang deafeningly, but he gritted his teeth and took it like . . . well, a cat. The Tail whipped, mirroring his displeasure.
"No, she's—Eirika, let me go!" Seth pleaded, eyes fixed on the point where Miss Clara had been. Eirika did the opposite and held him tighter. His ears flattened to his head and before he knew it, he was hissing.
"No," Eirika said, striking him once more across the ears. "Don't. There's blood there!"
There was blood everywhere around the door, and it pooled directly beneath the painted sword of L'Arina. Seth ceased to complain, although walking though a little bit of blood wouldn't have fazed him in the slightest. Would Eirika know what the marking signified? Ephraim stepped closer, horrified. That was a silly question. Of course. As a personal sort-of secretary to the King and a close friend of the Pontifex's besides that, Eirika would be familiar with that emblem, as well as dozens of others.
"Eirika, do you think . . .?" he said, catching her eye. She bit her lip, glancing back at the gruesome message.
Just whose blood is that? the monster shifted uncomfortably. Inner Natasha gulped and gripped her rosary. Seth narrowed his eyes, ignoring the fact that he could picture the three of them, individually, in a corner of his mind.
Eirika sucked in a breath and switched to command mode. "I want the guardsmen to make note of this! Someone fetch Nolan and then get this cleaned up! Obviously, we are being frightened. Brother, I would suggest some measures to be taken now that our murderer is brazen enough to announce himself."
"Yes, of course, milady," a maid said hurriedly. It was Janna.
"Wait," Eirika commanded. Seth looked up at her. No matter how many times he had to tilt his head to even see part of her face, he would never get used to it. Being small grated his nerves like nothing else. "I don't want anyone to go anywhere alone. Take Miss Emmie with you. Our murderer has not shown any preferences to targets."
Janna nodded and Emmie took her arm, nervously eyeing the late Duchess' door. A murmur ran through the crowd, a mixed bag of nobility and servants, with one or two pages and a knight thrown in for good measure. A worried expression crossed the King's face and everyone followed suit.
Eirika clapped. "Go on! Back to your duties . . . spread the word. Miss Rosay, take Miss Gwendolyn and Miss Bessie and alert Miss Clara that she has level three emergency powers. I want all the maidservants of every tier assembled in the kitchen and paired off into buddies. I want no girl alone."
"And that goes for council members and nobility, too," Ephraim spoke up, unwilling to let Eirika take over completely. "No one is to be alone. You all have a pageboy or something, right? Where is Sir Nolan?"
The panic of the situation set in, and, like human beings, everyone began to talk at once. Eirika gripped Seth's fur tightly as Ephraim half-leapt over the bloodstains to stand by her side. He placed a hand on her shoulder, glancing over his shoulder.
"Sister, do you . . .?" Ephraim trailed off. He needn't finish for her to understand, Seth thought. I wish that Alisabeth and I were that close.
You always know exactly what name she'll call you next, the monster offered helpfully. That's got to mean something.
"Yes, it's the very same. I—I wonder, though, why a killer would choose Rausten's sword as their insignia—" Eirika cut herself off, seeing Ephraim's distraught face.
"Pontifex Mansel," Ephraim whispered. Eirika raised an eyebrow, confused. Seth shared her opinion.
A heavy voice called across the hall, followed by heavier footfalls and then a cloud of smaller ones. All heads turned and Ephraim's explanation would have to wait. Emmie and Janna had returned with Sir Nolan, a black haired, blue armored man with lines deeply etched into his serious face. The sword at his side carried two bands of rank. Franz and Amelia trailed after him, bearing a sword and a lance, respectively.
"Your Majesty," Nolan bowed. Ephraim faced him.
"Nolan," Ephraim said, grimly. "We've got quite a bit of planning to do."
Franz and Amelia took it upon themselves to clear out the bystanders, skillfully appointing them to groups by rank. Seth watched as they worked, only half-listening to Ephraim and Nolan plot out the best path of action, rooting out the murderer, questioning possible witnesses, tightening security, etc. Nolan was a reliable man to have in times of crisis, Seth noted, committing the fact to memory. If only he hadn't been wasted in the north when the Grads had attacked . . . Amelia, too, had definitely been a sound addition to the knights of Renais based in the Castle. It was too bad his friend Cormag had not decided to swear his loyalty to the Knights of Renais, although he did own a woodworking shop in a village just a few miles south of Palgo. Seth had even lent him a little money to get started.
But watching Amelia function so perfectly with Franz . . . just how many hours were spent becoming so fine-tuned? Another mystery to look into. Ephraim entrusted further investigation to Nolan, and instructed him to raise alerts amongst the guardsmen and knights stationed in the castle. When the subject of Seth came up, Ephraim shrugged.
"Don't worry," the King assured Sir Nolan with an emphatic nod. "The General has sent word and I'm more than certain that he'll be more than happy to explain one or two errors of judgment on his part."
Why he would abandon his horse, why he suddenly shed himself of clothing and weaponry in the middle of a public road, why he couldn't tell anyone about this sooner . . . the list went on and on. Seth cringed. Eirika may deserve the truth, but if he was going to keep his job, he would need to come up with a more suitable explanation than, "Er, I was turned into a cat." At least the King seemed to be on his side with this, which was nice.
Or you could go into carpentry, the monster suggested cheerily. You've always been very good at hitting things. I'm sure Cormag would be happy to take you on.
For the love of the Gods, just shut up, Seth shot back angrily.
Don't take the name of the Gods in vain, inner Natasha warned sternly. Seth could feel both the monster and the drillmaster slowly inch away. This particular demon seemed to be more like brutal, violent Natasha.
Eirika's hand on his neck brought him back to reality. She scratched his ears absently, and he leaned into it, despite both himself and the current situation. Ephraim heaved a sigh, looked into his sister's eyes and set his jaw.
"Come with me."
Eirika took her brother's hand, cradling Seth with only one arm. Seth had to crane his head all the way around to see where they were headed, the downside of being held up the comfortable way, with his paws resting on her shoulder. From the looks of it, Ephraim was leading them further into the Royal wing, towards the study. Ah, the study. The minute he had hands again, after arresting the villain currently running loose, he would rope Forde, Kyle and Franz, maybe even Amelia, and they would clean out the monstrous mess festering in Ephraim's workspace. It couldn't be healthy.
"Brother, why would they . . . ? Rausten is no enemy . . ." Eirika trailed off unhappily. Ephraim nodded sharply, swallowing hard as he unlocked the door and flinging it open.
He darted to a bookshelf, leaving Eirika to enter alone. She set Seth down on the ground and closed the door behind her, peering at her brother questioningly.
"Brother?" she asked.
Ephraim pulled down three or four books before finding the one he was looking for, a thick maroon volume. Marching to his desk, he swept all the paperwork away with his arm and cracked the tome open. Working up his courage, Seth took a running start and, amazingly enough, leapt up onto the high desk. At last, some of that catlike grace was coming to him! Ephraim ignored him, and Eirika frowned, but made no move to sweep him away too. Inside the book, stuffed between the pages, were dozens of folded papers.
The King flipped to the earlier pages and began unfolding them, looking for something in particular. When the sheet was not what he was seeking, Ephraim tossed it to the side. Seth peeked onto one half-unfolded page; he did not recognize the looping handwriting inside. All of the papers smelled like old, expensive perfume.
"Here," Ephraim said finally. He handed a paper to Eirika, who accepted it hesitantly. She swallowed, and, thankfully, began reading it aloud.
"Dearest Ephraim," Eirika read slowly. Her brother began pacing nervously. Seth could sense that this was a very big secret Ephraim had been hiding for sometime now. Secrets and intrigue seemed to pop out of the woodwork now that he was the innocent, uncomprehending cat and not the General. "A most sorrowful tragedy has occurred, as you have no doubt already received word of through my official messengers. I cannot tell you of how mournfully distraught I am, for no words for my great pain have been conceived of yet. Only now I have contrived to pen this letter, the one small comfort I have been granted in the last fortnight, and even doing so grieves me, for all I can imagine now is standing in your strong arms . . . Ephraim, what's this?"
Ephraim threw up his arms and spun on his heel, pacing swiftly. Seth kept his eyes on Ephraim's face, watching his expressions. "Just keep reading."
"Ah . . ." Eirika murmured, reading silently now. Seth wished he could see over her shoulder again. The Princess wasn't even that tall! He could—and had—pick her up and sling her over his shoulder and then run. Being this small was ridiculous. Her eyebrows rose in alarm. "This . . . this is from L'Arachel!"
"Keep reading," Ephraim urged. Eirika nodded.
"Uncle's death is a stinging, twisting blow that has left me most hungry for vengeance. My love, if only you were here to see such contemptuous cowardice," Eirika continued, probably not from where she left off. She's talking about the late Pontifex, Seth thought to himself. He froze upon hearing the words 'my love,' and snapped his gaze onto a very flustered Ephraim. "The foul assassin that took my Uncle's life used the very same symbol of our great theocracy, desecrated with a gruesome slash—marked in his blood upon the wall. Upon beholding this picture of revulsion . . . oh, Brother . . . you don't mean to say that . . ."
Ephraim ran a hand through his hair and nodded weakly. Eirika's eyes widened. A connection between the death of Duchess Dasyan and Pontifex Mansel only complicated matters. Clearly, the targets were the twins of Renais themselves. The assassin of royalty was unlikely to stoop so low as petty dukes and duchesses on purpose.
They're not the only twins in Renais, the monster corrected off-handedly. Seth disregarded it, but briefly, a mental picture of Kathleen and Colleen, two more of his seemingly infinite sisters, appeared behind his eyes. Twins, exactly identical redheaded girls, born shortly after Seth left for Renais City for the first time, all of which meant they got into more trouble than the King and his sister ever dreamt of. The two of them wrote him a letter a month, usually asking for money. There was a whole unopened stack waiting in his room, amongst many other things he'd been neglecting. Perhaps he was being hypocritical in his assessment of Ephraim's study.
"There's more," Ephraim said gravely, flipping through the pages to find more letters. "Ara and I—"
"You call her Ara?" Eirika interjected quickly. Ephraim ignored her briefly.
"We've been corresponding for the last year now," he explained, biting his lip, and reddening, slightly. "I . . . er . . . Ara's just easier to write, I suppose . . ."
Eirika folded her arms crossly. "You thought you could keep this a secret? From me?"
Ephraim looked at her desperately, sinking his shoulders hopelessly. His sister shook her head knowingly and rounded the desk between them to take his hands. She leaned in close to embrace him.
"You can't hide anything from me, Ephraim. I'm your sister. Your older sister," Eirika said reassuringly. "And L'Arachel is my friend, too. She confides in me, you know, although . . ."
"By four minutes," Ephraim argued half-heartedly, putting a hand on her hair and holding her close as well. Seth stared politely at the book all the letters were tucked away in. Kinge Siegfried: The Biograffie, by Sir Wilhelm of Gir'andhan. Seth remembered reading it as a part of his mother's dame school curriculum. It was dry as dust, but eventually he did learn to read. But, ye Gods, the endless mandatory mundane reports he had to write at the end of the year were far more interesting than Sir Wilhelm's bloody Biograffie. "Ara—L'Arachel told you about . . . y'know, me and her . . . ?"
Eirika leaned back and favored her brother with a rare, self-satisfied smirk. "I told you. You can't hide anything from me, dearest Ephraim."
The color drained from the King's face. "You . . . mean . . . you know about the, uh . . ."
"Relax," Eirika sighed, her demeanor becoming less and less playful as she broke away and turned to reexamine the letter. "'Ara' hinted at a secret lover for months now in all of her letters. I just didn't think it would be you . . . And I didn't know about this symbol. What does it mean, brother?"
Behind his sister's back, beyond her notice, Ephraim's shoulders loosened noticeably. He heaved a silent sigh, witnessed only by Seth, who attempted to raise an eyebrow.
"And, before I let you off the hook, yes, I do know about the Pegasus knight with the rope in the stable."
Ephraim immediately went rigid, eyes as wide as a pair of Mogalls facing down an Aura spell and a vicious Bishop. Seth almost choked. What happened, exactly, behind his back? On second thought, he preferred not to know. He glanced back at Eirika, who showed no signs of smug superiority as Bethy would, had she known some embarrassing secret about her brother. She waved the letter in the air, trying to get them back on track.
"Right, the symbol," Ephraim bit his lip. "I ordered some discreet investigations from some more . . . private enterprises."
Eirika raised an eyebrow. Seth mentally praised her for her thoughtfulness, since he could not.
"Er . . . my spies," Ephraim said, uncomfortably. Eirika frowned but did not comment. "They call themselves the Blade of Rausten. Not my spies, the . . . the assassins. They've been harassing the Raus royalty for years, but it seems they've ceased their activity there and moved on to Renais."
"Why?" Eirika and Seth asked at the same time. Eirika put on a small smile and stroked her cat's neck.
"They aren't like the other underground groups in Rausten," Ephraim sighed, turning his back to approach the hearth. He stared into the cold, empty pit, unused during the day and Seth couldn't help but wonder if he was hiding something. Eirika joined him, placing a comforting hand on his arm. "They're . . . unscrupulous. And they've been known to take jobs from other organizations that are . . . dangerous or cruel or downright insane. The Black Owl is notorious for it."
"The Black Owl?" Eirika raised an eyebrow.
"The Blade's leader," Ephraim rubbed his chin. "We've received so much conflicting information about him that we don't know if he's a man or a woman. He's a skilled assassin, we're sure of that, and it was by his hand that Pontifex Mansel died."
Seth sighed, examining the biography idly. The King and his sister were being hunted by a set of maniac, royalty-hating lunatics with no apparent motives and he was also a cat. An ugly cat. He batted aimlessly at the pages with a thumbless paw, opening to the most recent addition. It was only a narrow scrap of parchment, unadorned. In what he now knew was the Pontifex's swirling font, were two words: I accept!
"Silver! Don't disturb Brother's clandestine love letters," Eirika scolded, prying him away from the enigmatic note. She turned around to face Ephraim just in time to see him flush red.
"They are not clandestine," he argued fruitlessly.
"You don't even know what that means," Eirika accused, scratching 'Silver's' neck affectionately.
I accept what?
The door flew open, revealing a panting pageboy. He rushed inside, kneeling apologetically to the King. Seth looked on the poor boy with the usual mixture of pity, nostalgia and unforgiving harshness.
"Your Majesty! Princess Tana of Frelia has just landed in the courtyard!"
"What?" Ephraim asked, gaping.
"In the courtyard, your Majesty, very nearly on top of Sir For—"
"I heard that part! Why?"
The page stood up nervously, bouncing on his toes. Seth swore inwardly.
Oh! Inner Natasha exclaimed, horribly scandalized. The drillmaster conscience, who'd remained quiet so far, chose now to speak up.
I'm going to give you such a whooping, he promised darkly. Cussing in front of ladies . . .
"She's not real," Seth argued futilely.
"Quiet, Silver," Eirika murmured, rushing after her brother, leaving the door to the study wide open.
Tana's Achaeus was a magnificent creature, with clean, sharp wings and a white coat that defied all the horse sense in the world. As the Princess herself would be quick to remind anyone, though, Pegasi were not horses, but creatures of more mythic and magical background than, "well, Buck, we caught this one poking about the primordial hay, let's give domestication a go around."
The Princess herself was a ratty, disheveled mess. Eirika nearly flew to her dear friend's side and immediately cried aloud, "Tana! What in the name of the Gods has possessed you now—?"
She appeared to be covered in green, sticky blood and now it was on Seth's fur. He recognized it as revenant goo. Once splattered with it, one tended not to forget the horrid stink that accompanied it. The Frelian princess's clothing was thoroughly tattered and she wasn't wearing her customary gold jewelry. In fact, Seth didn't see any sort of royal emblem upon her, which struck him as odd. She was both a Princess and a knight of the realm, with meant that the Frelian Emblem should be etched or painted or sewn on somewhere.
"Ran into a revenant nest above Tricta," Tana explained, naming a border town shared by Renais and Frelia. "I took a detour and helped some mercenaries rout them. My name there was Turner and—"
"Tana!" Eirika repeated furiously. Seth glanced up to see the color rise in her cheeks. Righteous indignation was a specialty of hers, second only to the Pontifex L'Arachel.
"Tana!" King Ephraim echoed, more bewildered than angry.
"Your Majesty," Tana replied briskly, curtsying as was appropriate. Thank the Gods for some sort of preservation of the status quo.
"Tana, what are you doing here?" Ephraim demanded. Any head that was not already focused on the center of the courtyard where Tana had landed turned at that moment.
"Ephy, I need place to lie low for a while," Tana hissed, pulling the twins (and Seth) closer in. About ten Miss What's-Her-Name kitchen girls suddenly had chores to do on the other side of the yard and sidled closer to hear. "'Turner' got too popular."
Ephraim drew back, slightly stunned. Not even Eirika used Ephraim's old nickname anymore. The King's sister answered for him.
"Of course! Stay as long as you need, you can borrow some things from my wardrobe," Eirika said. She reached out and put a hand on Tana's ooze covered shoulder plate, unflinchingly. Her hand drifted down to clasp Tana's and pulled her inward. "Let's get you cleaned up, and then you'll fill me in on the details. Brother! See to Achaeus!"
"What? Why me?" Ephraim asked, uncharacteristically dumbfounded. Eirika did not reply, favoring Tana over her brother.
She pulled the other Princess through the arched doorway leading to the Great Hall's protective antechamber, reconstructed at long last.
"You couldn't have come at a worse time," Eirika griped. "We've an assassin in the halls."
"I didn't know," Tana muttered in her defense. She picked off bits of a dried patch on her thick battle skirt. "Actually, I came to see your husband."
Eirika scowled. "We're not married yet."
Tana stopped dead on the checker-tile floor of the side corridor, arms akimbo. Seth cringed, recovering from the jostling of being carried in only one arm.
"He's been very busy," Eirika said. The excuse sounded weaker and weaker each time he heard it repeated, despite the fact that it was the truth. Tana snorted unbecomingly.
"Hmph," Tana said darkly, crossing her arms. She looked murderous. "He's an idiot, then, and now I need to beat him. But first we must talk. Where is the numbskull?"
That was uncalled for, Seth thought sullenly.
Eirika walked onwards, sighing loudly. "He's not here. He's with his sister and her family."
And the rest of them, too, the monster finished for her.
Tana caught up with her friend, nearly sputtering. "What? Why isn't he here?"
"Christening ceremony for his niece," Eirika explained tiredly. "Although . . ."
"Nothing," Eirika said, nuzzling her 'cat's' ears.
They passed a pair of chatting knights, who bowed respectfully as the two Princesses crossed into the upper wings of nobility.
"Can't you take me to him?" Tana pleaded.
"No! I can't leave my brother at a time like this, Tana," Eirika said, sternly. "There is an assassin in the halls, Tana, and he's already killed my friend Freya. There is sufficient proof that it is my brother and I that the assassin means to kill."
"Of course, I'm sorry," Tana amended, putting a hand to her temples. Her eyes narrowed. "Why isn't General Seth here, then? Isn't his job to protect you?"
"His job is to command the military," Eirika defended. "Protecting me is extra. Besides, I have Silver. Get the door."
She held up Seth for Tana to see. Tana grinned and scratched 'Silver's' ears before reaching for the doorknob of Eirika's rooms to let them in.
"He's been through a war, has he?" Tana joked. She closed the door behind them.
"Looks like it," Eirika confessed, setting him down on the carpet. She pulled strands of red fur from her clothes. "Or as Brother says, through a hurricane. A kitchen girl found him, but she couldn't keep him."
Tana laughed, collapsing in a chair. "That's sweet of you, Eiri."
Seth had never once in his life heard anyone call the Princess of Renais "Eiri," not even her brother Ephraim. Tana transcended rules of propriety effortlessly and no one ever seemed to care. It had taken many letters with crossed-out titles before Seth even began to think of not using the word "Princess" to address his bride-to-be.
Eirika sat across from Tana, leaning forward onto her palms, her lips pursed in a thoughtful expression.
"Why do you need to see him?" Eirika asked, finally. Seth planned to pay special attention to the answer. This was a form of eavesdropping, yes, but it concerned him.
The road to the fourth Hell is paved with justifications, said inner Natasha sternly.
Amen to that, Sister! cheered a new, flamboyantly cheerful voice. Seth froze. What are you thinking at, sugar?
I'm going to ignore them, Seth decided. I am not hearing things. I am perfectly sane. This is not a sign of things to come.
Yeah, sugar, just keep telling yourself that.
"I'm in love with him, Eiri! I can't get him out of my head!"
What? all of the voices in Seth's head chorused. Somewhere between deciding to pay attention and his inner dialogue, Seth had lost track of the conversation outside of his head.
"Alright, alright. I understand, Tee," Eirika said, clasping Tana's hands between her own. "I know what it's like. I don't know if Seth knows anything about him, though."
"Nonsense, Cormag mentioned several times how he talked to the General about after the war," Tana insisted. Everything clicked and started making sense again.
If Seth had not been transformed, he would have had the dilemma of whether or not to tell Princess Tana ("Tee?" Where had that come from? Did everyone have nicknames these days? And why didn't he know?) of his friend Cormag's whereabouts, who wanted nothing more to live his life in peace and incognito. Even if Eirika took her fellow Princess' side and royally ordered him to reveal Cormag . . .
Thanking Lune for the first time that she'd turned him into a cat, Seth heaved a sigh and shuttled the thought off to the side.
"Hm," Eirika said, casting her glance aside, suspiciously. "I think . . . I think we're going to have to do a little hunting. C'mon, let's find Miss Clara."
"Who's Miss Clara?" Tana asked, standing up.
"My head maid," Eirika shrugged, following suit. Incurably curious (and a smidge concerned for his own privacy) Seth followed them out the door. He could now quite skillfully dodge the feet of both women and not run into walls. After one regrettable mistake, Seth decided to keep his eyes focused solely on the heels of Eirika's shoes. Both Princesses preferred very short skirts worn in the Pegasus knight fashion.
You need to stop stressing, babe, said the flamboyant voice, airily. Seth couldn't put his finger on the source of this particular manifestation. Perhaps if he could figure out where the hell they all came from . . .
Like I said! You are sooooo tense, the voice shrugged. For some reason, Seth had a strong mental image of someone wearing ugly, chunky heeled boots in unnatural colors. Besides, it's just a pussy.
Seth very nearly had a heart attack.
"Eiri, is your cat alright?"
"Mm? Silver? Are you alright?"
"I'm fine," Seth croaked, forgetting for a moment that they couldn't understand him.
I'm going to pretend you don't exist, Seth thought vehemently. I'm going to pretend none of you exist and then maybe you'll all go away.
Ignoring your problems ain't solving them, sugar, the new voice advised solemnly. The slight lisp made it hard for Seth to take it theriouthly. Er, seriously.
Miss Clara rounded the corner ahead of them. She was not wearing either the sword of L'Arina charm or her black gloves. Seth noticed that her fingernails were filed to elegant points, an odd thing for a maid to do. They looked a little like claws.
"Miss Clara!" Eirika hailed. The woman in question took a single step forward and curtsied.
"Princess Eirika," she replied reverently. She curtsied again to "Tee" without batting an eye. "Princess Tana."
"Miss Clara, have the girls been paired off as necessary?" Eirika asked initially. She crossed her arms, listening sternly.
"Yes, milady," Miss Clara said. "But there will be a shortage of workers for a while."
"I'll inform the nobility that we are now engaging a restricted system until the killer is routed. In the meantime, would you be as kind as to prepare the royal bath for myself and Princess Tana? As you can see, she's worse for wear," "Eiri" asked, grinning slightly. "Tee" harrumphed. The nicknames weren't working for him, he decided. Besides, there was no force in all of Magvel that would convince him to call his bride by "Eiri." It sounded vaguely like an exotic disease. Miss Clara chuckled mechanically, and immediately Seth got chills down his spine.
You've caught the Eiri, the monster joked smugly. C'mon, that was clever! Disease, chills? Ugh, my genius is wasted on you.
I thought it was funny, said inner Natasha kindly.
Quiet! Seth pleaded. This was it. This was how people went insane. They were turned into cats and started hearing voices and then were locked up in the asylums in rooms without corners or pointy objects.
"Of course, Princess. I will see to it immediately," Miss Clara replied respectfully. A light sparked in the Princess' eye.
"Oh, and do you have the master keys on you?"
Master keys? Seth had probably known that there was a set of keys carried by higher staff that opened all castle doors, but it had not occurred to him until now that Miss Clara carried them. The woman in black nodded, pulling a set of keys from what seemed to be nowhere. Why was an obviously suspicious person able to unlock every door in the castle, including the King's? Seth would have grimaced. He wished he could discreetly order a background check on her. A little extra information could easily decide a war.
Eirika drew away and thanked Miss Clara genuinely, then smiled at Tana—A.K.A. "Tee"—and took her hand, adopting a determined stride towards the room that Seth supposedly occupied once or twice a year. Quickly, Seth wondered exactly how often Cormag wrote to him.
Eirika unlocked the rather plain door placed at the end of a hall. Seth had not been a welcome addition to the nobility's wing, despite overwhelming qualifications, and at that time, a skinny not-quite-twenty-year-old General was content to stuff himself in the farthest, smallest, most nondescript corner he could. Seth glanced over his shoulder and around the Tail; Miss Clara was gone.
"Oh, ye Gods," Eirika exclaimed. Seth looked away as soon as he set eyes on it. Late at night, when he had been half blind with weariness, it had not seemed quite so . . . attacked.
Hypocrisy, yes? the monster prodded playfully.
"So, do you think we should start with the pile of letters on the desk or the pile of letters on the floor?" Tana asked. She crossed her arms. Seth didn't trust himself to look up, but he could clearly sense her amusement without seeing her face. "Or the ones stuffed under the bed?"
Despite remarkable plainness and only one real function, his room was a mess, strongly resembling Ephraim's own study. The two or three major pieces of furniture were arranged in a circle; a bed for sleeping, a desk for sleeping and also perhaps doing some work and a small chest of drawers to stuff things in, and, if in desperate need, he could pull out the boxes and construct a makeshift bed, also for sleeping. The letters made up everything else. Perhaps the second tier kitchen girls and pageboys had just taken to tossing them in through the door, which was always unlocked. The General had very little to steal and other than his armor and the odd weapon that would end up propped against a wall, too heavy for the average twelve-year-old anyway, nothing of value.
"I'll take the bed," Eirika said decisively, sighing loudly. "I'll need to have a talk with the General the instant he returns. Not that I haven't said that before."
"Alright then. That makes two of us," Tana snickered. The Frelian Princess knelt into a pile of letter that looked like they came from home. She tore one open with practiced ease. "This is from . . . Kotie and Callie?"
There should be a law that says mail isn't to be rummaged through and read, Seth griped inwardly.
Eirika crouched next to Tana, looking over her shoulder.
"Kathie and Collie," she corrected. "It's an a and an o. Just like Seth's handwriting . . . Dearest brother, we're collecting up on that bet you made with us when we were seven . . . Collie can fit an entire baked potato in her mouth in one go and we figure that with ten years of interest you owe us at least 856g . . . we had Marietta do the math . . . Please pay up soon, love and devotion, your darling sisters, Kathie & Collie."
Seth remembered that. He'd been home briefly after being promoted to captain, to share the news. At that time, Colleen had been obsessed fitting objects in her mouth and Seth had playfully wagered about twelve gold pieces (all he had on him at the time) that she couldn't fit a whole potato in her mouth at once. At the time, she had not been able to, and Seth, being a good elder brother, gracefully neglected to collect on the debt. He wondered what sort of interest they were using.
"I didn't know the General had sisters," Tana commented off-handedly. "Or any family at all."
"Neither did I," Eirika mumbled. She reached for a second letter and cracked the seal. "He gets an awful lot of mail."
"Don't you?" Tana asked, tossing envelopes that didn't look like they belonged to Cormag over her shoulder into messier heaps.
"Well, yes, but I'm a Princess. How many people write to Seth . . . oh."
Seth looked up. Yes, it was one of those. Every so often, one of those letters would pop up and he'd innocently open it, read the contents and instantly be scandalized. Tana leaned over Eirika's shoulder, read a few lines and slapped a hand to her mouth.
"Oh my," she stifled an unbecoming snort. "Where do these women get their nerve?"
Eirika's already taut expression twisted into a wrier grin. "Not a woman," she said, pointing towards the bottom of the page. Tana howled with laughter as Seth hung his head.
I wonder if he's cute, mused the newest voice.
Shutting you out, Seth repeated firmly.
"Shut up, shut up, let's find something of Cormag in this mess," Eirika said, swatting her bosom friend on the arm.
Tana took a moment or five to recover. "Oh . . ." she gasped, wiping tears from her eyes. "Oh. That's just funny . . . the poor man! Right, right."
Eirika sifted through more garbage and one or two hundred letters from various family members, some of which had only just learned to write. (Although one couldn't tell from his niece Judy's ledger perfect handwriting. Judy was Alisabeth's second daughter and could put as much venom in her three-letter words as Bethy could an entire forty page essay on his many failings as a man.)
The minutes passed. Seth amused himself by going over a letter that Tana had carelessly tossed aside. It was from his mother, about three and a half years ago, desperately wondering his opinion on marriage and if one would happen to him soon, because really there was this adorable girl, not really a girl, more like twenty-two, an old maid really, but there was nothing wrong with her if you could ignore her teensy problem with the color orange, and she was really quite pretty and very sweet and would he be coming home for Yulte? Mum rambled, even in ink.
"We're not finding anything," Tana complained. She threw what looked like several letters from Sister Marietta, his actual sister in the clergy, against the wall.
Eirika frowned, and sighed. "I think I'll get Seth an inbox for a wedding gift."
Tana giggled. "Wait, does he have a diary or something? We could read through that!"
I have a log, Seth thought idly. But that's not really very personal. Or very detailed.
"Seth avoids writing anything for as long as he can," Eirika said dryly. "And even then, it's in shorthand. I sincerely believe he has a grudge against the written word."
"That bad?" Tana asked, furrowing her brow. The zombie goo had crusted onto her hair and clothing now, and she looked thoroughly bedraggled. "He always seemed quite eloquent to me."
"Only when he's speaking," Eirika remarked darkly, rising to her feet. "C'mon. The bath must be ready by now . . . you stink, Tee."
Tana snorted, deviously jostling her companion as she stood. Eirika shoved back, playfully. When not fighting wars, the Princess seemed . . . less focused and more freed. No, that wasn't true either . . . when she wasn't with him, that was when she changed. The Eirika that Seth knew and the Eirika that Tana knew were almost completely different women. Even with her brother or with her friends among the knights, Forde, Kyle and the newly fused Franzamelia, Eirika laughed and teased in a way she had never acted with him. Why?
Why was he the different one?
Seth slipped through the door just before Tana shut it behind her. He lingered a safe distance behind the two Princesses, glancing at the back of Eirika's head from time to time. Tana and King Ephraim were exactly Eirika's age; Forde and Kyle a little bit old and Franz not far behind. Prince Innes was only a little less than a year their senior . . . Pontifex L'Arachel was actually two whole years younger . . . He was the outlier.
Ten years ago, Seth realized, totally, as he subconsciously followed Eirika and Tana to the upper baths, I was a man and Eirika was still being cared for by her nursemaid. She was only a year or so older than Colleen and Kathleen—and he thought of them as children! The thought had preoccupied him for some time, but now, now he could see the difference, it was real and obstructive. Am I forcing her into this, without her knowing? I'm the one who's supposed to know what he's doing—if I don't, how can she? Is she too young? Am I too old?
The voices in his head fell unhelpfully silent.
"Are cats allowed in the baths, Eiri?" Tana's chipper voice broke his reverie like a stone through a case of crystal knickknacks.
"I honestly couldn't say," Eirika replied thoughtfully. Seth looked around; he recognized the route. They passed a bored looking guard who instantly straightened up and saluted vigorously.
You can't watch a maid bathe, boy, much less two, the drillmaster warned sternly.
I have no intent to, Seth thought back, defending himself. The best way to handle the voices, it seemed, was to reply. Until he could banish them, and as long as he didn't say anything out loud, he would be fine.
See, sugar, that wasn't so hard, the . . . . new voice congratulated.
May as well, Seth gave in. What are you?
Call me . . . Sethina.
The image in the back of his head was terrifying and wouldn't leave.
Like me . . . if I was a woman, right? he ventured nervously.
Sure, if that's how you want to think about it. Sethina did not seem overly concerned with his . . . um, her host's reaction to her presence.
The other voices shuffled, uncomfortably silent. Why wasn't he at home even in his own mind? And why were half his voices female?
Look at your family, the monster suggested.
Tana and Eirika nodded to the guardswoman, a rather unmemorable ice blue haired woman who was probably named Amy or Ally, briefly checking to see if she had gotten the message circulating through the castle. She nodded affirmatively, giving both Princesses their dues. Tana still had the sword of a Falcoknight strapped to her waist and Eirika, thanks to many, many, relentless hours of calculated wheedling and pleading with Seth over the course of the war, had basic (but effective) command of unarmed self defense. ("Teach me advanced sword technique" had somehow become tantamount to "teach me everything you know," never mind how glad he was now that he had given in.)
But now, at this moment, Seth had a serious dilemma to resolve. The drillmaster was absolutely correct; this was the women's bath and there was no way he be able go in there and live with himself afterward . . .
The rule only applies to human men, sugar, Sethina pointed out. And you don't hafta look, if it bothers you. Stand guard or some shit.
You can't be serious, the drillmaster argued, outraged. Drop and give me twenty!
Just then, Miss Clara exited silently. The guardswoman shrunk away as subtly as she could. Seth glanced back a moment at the baths to see Tana's navy blue hair disappear around a corner. He took off after Miss Clara, relieved that his decision had been made for him. Now it was time to collect some intelligence on this—and there was no other word for it—creepy woman. If she noticed him, she did not show signs of it. She did not acknowledge him. Miss Clara seemed entirely unconcerned that there was a mangy red cat following her.
Miss Clara made her rounds, doing surprisingly staff-like tasks, without any breaks. Her movements were brisk and robotic, as if she thought that any unnecessary action was absolutely disgusting. When another maid—a friendly young lady that Seth vaguely remembered as the woman who delivered food to him when he forgot that most people ate at a table at previously denoted times—greeted her, Miss Clara simply refused to respond, passing by silently.
Miss Clara's hair swung as she walked, like a whiplike pendulum. It was jetty black like her clothes, and her nose, Seth saw as she stooped to pick up a crumpled scrap of loose paper in the hall, was hawkish in profile. To him, she looked to be at least thirty—a strange age for a woman to be unmarried, in his opinion.
She glanced down at him, coolly. For a moment Seth wondered if she had some sort of enchantment-sensing gift, like the sage Saleh from Caer Pelyn had had—now he would have been handy to have around right now. Quite suddenly, Miss Clara's black-as-night boot appeared out of nowhere and sent him sprawling away from her and onto his back.
"Shoo, cat," Miss Clara barked.
Get that bitch! Sethina ordered enthusiastically.
"Miss Clara!" two voices chimed. Emmie and Janna skidded to a halt, comically colliding into a wall. They jostled around for a few moments, untangling body parts and then stood at firm attention.
"Bad news!" Emmie huffed. "The Duke Renlang of Terscaita has arrived!"
"What?" Miss Clara said, taken by surprise.
Taken by surprise. It was astounding, in Seth's opinion.
"I heard you. Why? Did not we send—"
"Um," Janna mumbled. "Messenger Jarl has been in this daze since he got back from Palgo. They must not have received King Ephraim's letter of postponement."
"They?" Miss Clara raised an eyebrow.
"The Duke . . . brought his family, ma'am," Janna admitted. She shifted nervously, wringing her apron. Emmie was trembling.
"Ah . . . Prepare rooms for them, I suppose," Miss Clara ordered, massaging her temples. "Will Duchess Nanise and Lady Rizia be taking their own rooms?"
"From the looks of it, the Duke and Duchess will opt to share," Emmie said, meekly. "And the ambassador wants his tea now and we can't handle it."
"Right, I'll see to him. At least someone's on time," Miss Clara muttered cryptically.
That should have meant something. An ambassador had not been mentioned before now. He had not even known that a foreign politician had been scrounged from the other nations to send here. Seth, however, had been stopped cold at the mention of "Duchess" Nanise. The name was familiar. The title was not.
"Go. See to it that the Duke is suitably distracted while a temporary room is prepared. Miss Rosay needs a proving," Miss Clara ordered. Janna and Emmie nodded, dashing off again. Seth made a split decision, following the pair. The pit in his stomach deepened and he hoped that it was not so. He hoped it wasn't so.
Seth trotted along in between Emmie and Janna, almost running. Emmie noticed him first, and when he looked up at her, she was smiling. Janna, though, was too preoccupied to see him.
The two maids took a series of shortcuts that Seth had not known even existed. As they emerged in the audience chamber, occupied by various courtiers and, of course, King Ephraim, rapidly conversing with a frazzled looking aide, Seth resolved to have both girls map out their routes for him on blueprints. No wonder there were always servants hanging around—they could cross the castle in mere seconds.
The Duke in question was off to the east side of the hall, flanked by two women—one was smaller, and resembled him closely, with sea-green hair and a slender face. Duke Renlang appeared to be at least forty, with a peaceful expression and composure. The armor he wore was real, complete with a nasty scar in the painted dark violet metal. A bow was slung on the girl's back, and a quiver at her waist, testifying against complete defenselessness. The second woman, though, couldn't have been more startlingly different than any other lady there if they had tried. She was naturally tall, with long fingers coiled around the sword at her waist. Her dress was as rich as the younger girl's, although the slit up the side revealed thigh-high boots. Her forehead was high and sloped into a sharp pointed nose.
It had been three or four years since Seth had seen Nanise, but he remembered the way she coiled her long crimson hair on her head, like a small crown on her head. She was talking happily with the Duke—clearly her husband—who was twice her age.
The fur on his back prickled. That was his sister the old man touched at night! If he had been normal shaped, he would have marched over there and demanded an answer. Or hit him. Very suddenly, though, Seth's second favorite emotional state—hypocrisy—reared its ugly hea—
NO NO NO he was NOT giving hypocrisy its own entity! NO. There needed to be a sign outside his head, premises full, no new voices allowed.
Geez, psycho, Sethina commented.
I'm just being careful, Seth replied defensively. I'm already going insane. I don't need to go any further.
Nonetheless, the memory came. Really, it had been Eirika's fault, although admittedly he hadn't been trying very hard to deflect her. She was very pretty and when a beautiful woman kisses you in a dark, empty hall, one just doesn't push her away. Against a wall, maybe, but not away. There may have not even been a wall involved—the memory was fuzzy on the specifics, mostly because he hadn't really been paying attention to the specifics, unless the Princess counted as one large specific altogether.
Seth did remember, in great clarity, being bodily attacked by the King, who had appeared around the corner just in time to witness a little bit more of an impassioned move. (At that point in time, Seth's hand may have actually been up Eirika's skirt yet, although Gods forbid he ever admit it.) Much yelling and screaming later, the mess was sorted out, but only now, gazing on the face of Nanise's husband, did Seth realize why King Ephraim, a normally rational man who thought of him as both a trusted advisor and a brother, would be driven to attack anything that had any sort of sexual intention on his sister.
Because he really wanted to shake this man down. Intimidate him a little. Assert the hierarchy of importance. Anything.
Seth's narrow fury was jarred when a pair of chubby hands reached down and picked him up. Emmie cradled him idly, waiting for an opening. Servants must time their crossings to be as obscure as possible, Seth thought off-handedly. Humiliation set in, at about this time. This Duke Renlang was twice Nani's age, true, with what looked like a grown daughter—but he himself was half again his intended's age.
See, this is a classic case of an alpha-male complex, Sethina griped.
Nah, the monster disagreed vocally. What we got here is an older brother complex.
I have no complexes except for the one that makes me hear you all, Seth stated. If you have any advice for that one, feel free to comment and leave.
Ha! Sethina said triumphantly catching him. Hell no.
It was worth trying.
The implications of Nani's unfortunate arrival surfaced as the initial shock, outrage and surge of over-protectiveness subsided. Nani had only trained for knighthood, but never achieved it. Now he saw why.
He supposed that the letter inviting him to the wedding, and the letter asking him why he hadn't been there, were sitting abandoned in his room somewhere.
The crowd began to jostle, Emmie along with them. The last time he'd been in this expansive hall had been . . . three nights ago, he estimated, when Lute had told him of her vision. Only three days as a cat? It felt much longer. So much had happened since then! Seth began to get worried; how long would Lune leave him as a cat? How long would it take for the assassin to achieve his (or her) goals?
. . . how long would he be a cat?
Emmie and Janna curtsied rather abruptly, jarring Seth. He was getting used to such rough handling. At close range, Nani looked pleasantly amused, with her arm curled around that of her much older husband. She was laughing at the end of something, perhaps a witty comment or a joke. Nani has always been the best actress in the family, Seth thought suspiciously.
Duke Renlang, though, he had to admit was the sturdy sort of man that Seth himself admired, resembling the bearing of General Duessel. His daughter—a lass far too old to be twenty-year-old Nani's natural daughter—had good posture as well, and looked to be reasonably intelligent.
"Preparations are being made, milady," Emmie chirped, bobbing again. Seth felt sick. "Your arrival was just so sudden, we hadn't anything prepared . . ."
"Yes, we know now," Renlang chuckled. "I suppose that we were too anxious to accompany the king to Rausten that we did not stop to think."
"Nonsense, Ren. You're never wrong," Nani said playfully. "My brother would call it miscommunication. I was looking forward to introducing you in person too . . . I suppose that we'll just have to go home to do that, now, seeing as this whole digression is his fault."
Bad, Seth thought. This is bad. Nani could ruin everything if she goes home.
Worry about that later, the monster advised.
Emmie and Janna looked at each other nervously, obviously out of context.
"Then you will be leaving right away, milord, or . . .?" Janna trailed off.
"Hm. Rizia?" Renlang turned to face the other young woman, his daughter. Now that he thought about it, Seth saw a vague resemblance to the royal family—unsurprising, really. Most of the nobility was related in some way. "Are you up for another trip?"
"Oh, of course, father," Rizia said. Her voice cracked on a note of hesitation. Her mask slipped, revealing a very fatigued girl pretending to be as hardy as her stepmother.
Nani picked up on it right away. "Ren, don't you think this is a good opportunity to speak with Princess Eirika?"
"The Princess?" Renlang raised an eyebrow.
"My brother's bride, Ren," Nani reminded him, subtly elbowing him in the ribs. "Remember the letter from Elsie? He's marrying Princess Eirika. I always knew that he would do well if he stopped obsessing over his duty long enough to try."
Thank you, Nanise, Seth thought, nonplussed. Everyone seemed to think that was all he was about, work and fighting in defense of the crown. There was a tremendous amount of responsibility involved—no one really understood quite how much, except perhaps Ephraim, who assigned it all. What was wrong with devoting your life to a cause?
Behind them all, the crowd began to diminish as the courtiers departed for a very late midday meal—no one ate until the king ate, and he could go for half a day without food and not suffer any negative consequences. Seth glanced at an empty throne.
"Milord? Milady?" Janna quipped, hopelessly awaiting a definitive answer. Her freckles scrunched together on her face.
"We can stay a night or two, can't we, Ren?" Nani said, her voice laced with the low tones of coercion.
"Yes, papa, can't we?" Rizia pleaded, twisting her fingers. Her eyes grew large and watery.
". . ." the Duke sighed. "I suppose a night wouldn't hurt too much. But we cannot stay away from our lands too long without need, understand?"
Seth felt a presence on his head; glancing up, he realized that it was Emmie, idly scratching behind his ears.
"Very well, milord, miladies," Janna bobbed. Emmie quickly copied her. "Um, I think that lunch is being served in the Lesser Hall. If milord would follow me . . ."
Janna and Emmie broke off as Janna led the Duke and Seth's sister to the Lesser Hall. Nani could handle herself, he hoped. And she would be informed about the killer eventually. Maybe even before she was killed. That would be ideal.
Seth did not know where Emmie was going, and struggling did not appeal to him in the least. The Great Hall seemed to have numerous entrances and exits that he did not know about, which did not do anything to help his anxiety. The exit Emmie took seemed to be well-used though, a door strategically opening from a mosaic of an actual door. It slid back and aside, confirming the long legacy of magical architecture that had gone into Castle Renais. It was part of the reason the Castle had actually survived the invasion.
He added "updating the map of castle hanging in room" to his to-do-once-human-again list.
The passage Emmie took him through was dark, but she seemed to know where she was going. The passage opened up into a small doorway leading into another, larger corridor. The walls here were bare, like everywhere else that the nobles didn't see. There were no windows, but Seth could see the light from one around a corner; Emmie turned right and then into a wing of the castle that Seth had never seen ever, in his entire life.
It was lit by hanging grate-lamps, a common sight in the deeper castle locations. Women of Emmie's station milled about, sewing or chatting or sleeping or all three at once—which confounded Seth, especially. One read a book aloud to a few others gathered around her. Emmie bent over to let Seth jump down, which he did eagerly.
"Emmie, is that the kitty that got you in trouble with the cook?" a brown haired woman asked, apparently mending a hole in a brocade dress.
"Yeah," Emmie admitted, flushing. She nearly flew across the room to a little wood stove and the cupboards next to it. "Did anyone just finish using a good china set? Drake the Fake wants tea."
"Mm, I think Cisara just washed the gardenia pattern," a sewing maid supplied. She seemed utterly disinterested in both gardenias and china sets, totally absorbed in what looked like something that someone had worn during the war while being blasted with an Elfire at the same time. Remarkably, it looked like Kyle's uniform.
This must be the maids' common room, much like how the mess hall was for knights. Inwardly, Seth wondered how all these girls could be so indolent right now—wasn't there always work to do?
"Thanks, Wellgunde," Emmie replied back, swinging open a cupboard door and standing on tiptoe to get at the top shelf. Just as Wellgunde described, a mostly washed set of gardenia-patterned china.
"No problem. Is that the infamous 'Silver the Cat' that has our cookie in an uproar?" Wellgunde asked, snickering amusedly.
"Yes," Emmie flushed.
"Hmm, why is he called Silver again?" a baggy-eyed young woman said, tilting her head curiously. Like the other women, she was perched on a wooden stool, save for the two on the ragged couch and another lying on a bed in the corner, arm over her eyes.
"Oh, look at it, Cera! His fur? Isn't that the exact same shade as Sir Seth's hair?" yet another young woman said, bursting into laughter over her novel. "Honestly, you have no imagination."
I'm not hearing this, Seth convinced himself.
Cera stuck out her tongue. "Go back to your Erina-novel, Leia."
"You're so innocent," Leia jibed. She was one of the women curled comfortably on a couch cushion, leather-bound book in her lap. Leia grinned mischievously from behind her book. "Do you think it's the same color all over?"
"On the man?" Cera asked, clearly confused.
I am not hearing this, Seth repeated loudly within his own head.
"No, Cera, on the cat," said the other woman on the couch, who had been listening to Leia read aloud. "Of course the man! I'll bet anything that he's got the fire down below."
"Sure, we'll just ask the Princess when she finds out," Leia snorted, kicking her couch-companion. "If she ever finds out."
"Tsk. If I were her, I'd be researching that subject as soon as I could," Wellgunde rejoined playfully, gesturing with her needle. Leia cackled sharply.
Poor baggy-eyed Cera flushed maroon. Seth would have joined her, had he that capability. It was enough that his ears were now burning. By now, most of the room was in laughter. It was a facet of the castle staff that most thought didn't exist, including him. Seth had never heard a woman, not even Tethys and her negotiable reputation, tell a crude joke. Apparently, he had not been listening to the right women.
Emmie had been giggling as well, although she valiantly pretended not to. Seth felt somewhat betrayed. She did something more that Seth couldn't see from his vantage, and he concentrated on that to detract from his great and all-consuming embarrassment at the hands of bawdy kitchen maids. It was probably something normal, like arranging it on a tray, probably pulled from the same cupboard. Seth hated being small. In fact, now that he thought on it, he had hated being small even when he had been a child, especially that one wretched year that Alisabeth had been just two inches taller than him. It had been very nice coming home after being knighted and finding that he had gained a foot on her.
The look on her face was the best part, the monster snickered. Oh, but right after being able to reach things on high shelves and hold them over her head.
How do you know about that? Seth wondered briefly, but was distracted as Emmie suddenly disappeared from sight. Glad to get away from the giggling common room, he turned to follow her out the door and through the hall to the kitchen, where she picked up some tea from a frazzled looking third-tier girl with very nice shoes. Seth had found that he'd been paying more attention to shoes since they had started to kick him. As a man, he had never paid much attention to any shoes other than the ones on his own feet. But now? Now, shoes were deadly.
Emmie took another shortcut under an archway that probably shouldn't have existed but did. Seth remembered briefly, as she kicked (apparently it counted as knocking) a door that looked to lead into a suite in the castle.
A hooded young man answered it and bowed her in. A vassal, Seth guessed. From the lump in his jacket, Seth guessed that he was carrying a small knife there and another pair in his boots, judging from the make and shape of the lad's footwear. And . . . oh, stilettos hidden in the young man's long, dark sleeves.
Impressive, Sethina applauded.
At a square table draped in a dark cloth, a druid sat observing something Seth could not see. He held a deck of some sort of occult cards in his hands, though, that Seth could see clearly. The man himself was violet haired, as were most Grads—Gradians, now, Seth supposed, and Grad-Renaitians.
"Your tea, milord," Emmie curtsied gracefully. She waited until the ambassador indicated a patch of table to put her tray upon. Her wait was in vain; the ambassador seemed to have gotten it into his head that Emmie did not exist. He reached for the cup and poured the tea himself, taking a sip and then returning it to the tray. Seth disliked the man immediately.
"Lord Drake?" Emmie hazarded. The young man with the hidden knives and a hood drew one such blade and held it to Emmie's arm. She gasped.
"Do not disturb his Excellency," he warned in a gravelly voice. Seth looked up, trying to catch a glimpse of the young man's face. All he could see was the shadow of a mouth and nose. However, from his angle—Seth's eyes widened. Dangling from a dark chain was a charm—a miniature broadsword no different from Miss Clara's.
What in the name of St. Latona . . . ?
"Oh, Casimir," Lord Drake drawled. His voice made Seth's fur crawl along his back. "Stop that, this instant. Put that over there and be gone."
Emmie set the tray on a spot on the table that was apparently vacant. When Casimir did not replace his knife into his jacket, Seth began to hiss. Lord Drake narrowed his eyes at the small creature at Emmie's feet, and moved a pearl white hand to cover his face, in disgust. Lord Drake looked to be around Seth's own age, and wore his hair as many old Grad aristocrats did, long and in his eyes.
"Get that disgusting creature away from me, Casimir," he ordered, as casually as he sipped tea. Only the grimace on his face implied any emotion.
Casimir made as though he would slit Seth's neck, until Emmie gasped.
"Oh, no, he's m—the Princess's cat, she'll be dreadfully upset!" Emmie begged, quickly. Her hands found Casimir's forearm and pushed it gently into his chest. Lord Drake frowned.
"Leave me, then," Lord Drake demanded lazily. Emmie curtsied again, and almost ran out of the room. Seth followed closely to her heels, taking one last glance at Casimir's chest, where the little charm lay underneath his heavy cloak and jacket.
What was the connection there?
Johnny had seen nothing, nor had any of the other horses. The only new things they had to report were of the Duke Renlang's horses, not interesting in the slightest. He followed Eirika for the rest of the day, patiently watching (and listening) as she explained to Tana her newfound passions of domestic organization and novel-writing. Tana had been thrilled with the last one and had promptly bought most of Eirika's library—five whole books under her pseudonym, which Seth had not gotten a close look at.
Also, he'd tagged along for her dinner—mostly for the scraps, but to watch over her as well. The Lesser Hall was still cavernous—such was the make of Castle Renais. But here the dinner table was always set up in here, since the King would most often eat in this room. Eirika took her place at his side—Tana occupied the space next to her. At Eirika's request, Seth found out, Nanise and her family sat at the left of the King.
"Milady, I cannot say how pleased I am to hear that my brother has actually decided to marry," Nanise said, smiling her impenetrable I'm-so-impossible-to-figure-out smile that she used when she was teasing someone. Only Seth seemed to recognize it as such, though. "I thought our family line would never continue."
"Surely he has a brother?" Eirika asked, laughing. Seth sat on her lap, as inconspicuously as he could, playing the part of a pet cat interested solely in food.
"Oh, no, milady," Nanise shook her head. "He's our sole hope. Unless our Dame Elspeth can scare a man into taking up her name upon marriage."
"It can't be so bad to have our name, can it, Nani? Er, lady mother," Rizia said, correcting her informality hurriedly. Her voice was light, like a small bird afraid to perch.
"No titles are allowed at my table," Ephraim said off-handedly, as if he were used to reminding people of it. He reached to hack off a bit of chicken for his plate.
"Teehee," Tana chirped, airily as ever. Seth noticed a mysterious absence of her over-abundant hair for the first time—all that was left was a thin pair of pigtails coiled around the back of her head in a bun. She'd borrowed a more formal, white and pink dress from Eirika—the two girls had the good fortune of being of similar build. "I always liked that about you, Ephraim."
Eirika laughed, curling her fingers around Seth's neck. "What of your other sisters? Tell me more of my fiancé's family. I've heard nearly nothing of it."
"Hm," Nanise weighed the question. "Seth probably hasn't mentioned pig-ball, has he? It's an old family tradition of ours."
"Pig-ball?" Eirika echoed. Seth closed his eyes.
Oh, Gods, no.
"Yes," Nani grinned broadly. Even Renlang looked amused. Nanise, although the closest Seth's family had come to pure and perfect nobility, had a rough streak comparable to Ephraim's. "We—all of us except father and the littlest ones—divided into teams. I was usually on Alisabeth's team—she's a year younger than Seth. Dame Elspeth was the other captain. We had this inflated pig's bladder that the teams have to carry to their enemies' posts. It was great fun in the autumn, when there were these great big piles of leaves to jump into . . . Seth, obviously, was the best. He always won, too."
"What team is he on?" Eirika asked, fascinated.
Nani shrugged. "His own. Absolutely merciless. But he hasn't played in years. I'm looking forward to going home and challenging him. See if he's gotten soft in his old age!"
Unlikely, the monster smirked, confidently.
Damn, thought Seth. He held in his panic with practiced ease. Nani would go to Palgo and ruin everything. He had to stop her.
You'll think of something, inner Natasha reassured him. I have faith.
Thank you, Seth replied dutifully.
"La—Nani, father, would it be alright if I, ah," Rizia unsuccessfully tried to hide her yawn. "If I went back to the guest chamber, now?"
"Of course," Renlang said, for the first time that night. He smiled at his daughter. The King nodded his head as well, wishing the girl a good night.
Nani seemed to be the answer to Eirika's prayers. By the end of evening, Eirika knew as much about Seth's childhood and family as Nani could fit into one evening. Seth was getting ready to kill her, if the assassin didn't do it by mistake. Even worse, though, was that Eirika seemed to think that every terribly embarrassing story was funnier than the last one. By the look in Eirika's eye, Seth guessed that he would have a lot to answer for when Lune turned him back.
If she turned him back.
Finally, Ephraim decided to finish up some last minute things and then go to bed. The rest of the table rose with him, since a meal was done when the King was done. Eirika bid a good night to Nanise and Renlang, and followed her brother and Tana. Seth leapt away before she could get it in her head to carry him. He had a little business to attend to.
Unfortunately, he had no idea where to go to find her. Seth followed a kitchen girl—he recognized her as Rosay and was immediately pleased with himself for remembering the face and name of someone he'd normally ignore—through the shortcuts which were rapidly becoming more and more familiar. In no time, he'd be able to navigate through Castle Renais at lightning speed. Or as close as he could come on stubby little cat legs. Tonight, he thought vaguely, he would stalk Miss Clara—track her moves.
This train of thought was thrown off track.
"Seth, is it?"
He turned his head in the direction of Caramia's disdainful voice. She was sitting in a nook formed by a lost stone in the wall, scrunched up. Her eyes glowed yellow in the shadows, sucking up what light there was to be had from the hanging grates and torches.
"Yes?" Seth replied guardedly.
"You're . . . hunting some sort of . . . 'assassin,' yes?" she asked. She said the word as if she was unfamiliar with the term.
"Yes, that's true," Seth said, curious as where she was going with this. "Where did you hear that?"
"The horses were talking and a mouse heard," Caramia said succinctly. "He tried to use it to pique my interest long enough for him to negotiate freedom. No go."
Caramia licked her chops. Seth shuddered.
"I'll be frank, Caramia, what's your interest in this?" Seth asked forthright. "I'm not going—"
"Forget it, handsome," Caramia said flippantly. "I was just desperate for a male. It's been a while. But we're wasting time. I found something that might help."
"What is it?"
"Mm . . ." she squirmed out of the nook. "It's best if you come see."
Seth followed her, the Tail held high. It was funny. He'd nearly forgotten about the Tail until he saw Caramia's. Looking up, Seth could see banners on the walls, now, Renaitian banners. In ten minutes, they were on carpet.
"Where are you leading me?" Seth demanded after some time. Most of the nobility was now milling about in their parlors or chambers and the kitchen girls must have been still cleaning up the Lesser Hall. It seemed very empty in the Royal Wing.
"Not far," Caramia chimed. "Here, round this corner."
Caramia trotted ahead to look and then sat down, patiently waiting for Seth. He caught up with her in seconds.
A young woman half-lay, half-sat against a wall, her teal-colored hair strewn across her face and shoulders. She was very still and her head was bowed, although Seth could see her shock-white skin through her wisps of bangs. Her arms clutched her belly, and though she wore red, the red seemed too dark across her arms and breast. Like . . .
"Ye Gods!" he gasped, realizing who lay dying on the floor. "Rizia!"
This chapter is dedicated to therealAnna. May you find a guy who is both a math nerd and 5'10".