This is the transcription of posts from ten different contestants in an offsite forum. One by one, they'll be eliminated until only the winner remains. Your vote counts! Please join us by clicking "The Emperor's Decree II" from our user page.
Chapter 97. The Highway Man Went Riding
"Not the face!"
Seth ducked out of the way of a fox's punch, only to walk into a ferret's footpaw that was, unfortunately, aimed at his stomach. Doubled over, gasping for breath, the former fox's second punch found its mark on the side of Seth's face. As he went down, he could hear the jingle of coins changing paws.
"What's all this, then?" The shout froze the three fighters in their various positions for a moment, then they all collapsed on top of each other on the floor.
Seated high atop a bunk, overlooking everything, Keinruf waved the tattered remains of a red scarf and blew a high, piercing note on a whistle somebeast had carved for him.
Seth struggled out from beneath the ferret and fox, and looked up into the inquisitive gaze of Captain Jericho.
The weasel eyed him coldly. "Would you like to tell me what happened?" he asked, crossing his arms.
"They," Seth panted, gesturing at the other two, "maliciously attacked me! I had nothing to do with the instigation of this!"
Jericho blinked and then turned to the rest of the Southern soldiers gathered in the room.
"Would anybeast else like to tell me what happened?"
"We fell down?" the ferret suggested.
Jericho threw his arms wide. "Anybeast at all?"
A rat sitting on the bunk below Keinruf snorted.
"The Prince there actually ain't exaggerating too much," he said. "Those two made a bet that they could thrash the one who helped bring down the palace at Amarone, and they ain't doing too bad."
The weasel captain nodded his thanks. "Thank you Private Stanley, that'll be all. Lieutenant Devonshire, may I inquire as to why you're down here instead of in your cabin?"
Seth glared at Keinruf. "I'm here because that fiend thought it'd be fun to come down and play."
Jericho glanced at Keinruf who blinked at him innocently. "Well Lieutenant, you seem to have found him, so may I suggest you take him and return above deck?"
Muttering, Seth picked himself up and hauled Keinruf off the bunk before retreating with bad grace.
The weasel captain glared at the remaining soldiers, and then winked at the ferret who winked back.
"So, who won?" asked Jericho.
The ferret grinned at him. "We did. Pay up!"
Seth stood at the top of the gangplank and looked down at the bustle of the port. Sailors carrying heavy loads of equipment scurried about while street vendors tried to out-yell each other in the praise of their various wares. Scattered here and there were bright flashes of color as females moved along the walk.
Beside him, Keinruf held on tightly to his paw, the kit's other paw stuck in his mouth, staring with wide eyes at the hustle and bustle.
Seth looked down at his son and then threw his arm wide.
"Well, what do you think?"
Keinruf slowly looked up at him and took his paw out of his mouth.
Seth's jaw dropped. "What?" he managed.
Keinruf pointed at a handful of brightly dressed females standing at the end of the gangplank. One of them waved at him and blew a kiss.
"Keinruf," Seth said, "don't ever let my mother hear you say that."
Keinruf stuck his paw back in his mouth and trailed behind Seth, struggling to keep up as they moved down onto the street.
"So yer back, Devonshire? Looks like they mussed up yer pretty face a wee bit."
Seth found himself snout-to-snout with a pretty weaselmaid, her plunging neckline a dangerous declaration to any sailor worth his salt.
"Hello, Rissa, business going well?"
"I'm Vicky. She's Rissa."
The weasel pointed to a marten lass who winked at him and swished her tail.
"Who's the kit?"
He turned back to Vicky who was looking at Keinruf.
"Em," he said. "He's mine."
"'S that so." She looked back up at him. "Sadie know?"
"I don't know, I haven't told her yet."
Vicky laughed and stepped out of his way. "Well then, me Lord, I suggest you go tell her. If I'm not mistaken, she's got a treat for you too."
Seth sighed and ran a paw through his headfur. "Thanks, Vicky, you're a real pal."
She smiled. "Anything to help an old customer. Now get out of here."
"Sadie still lives over on Glass Street, right?"
The weasel shrugged. "Best go see for yourself."
Seth rolled his eyes and moved past the lasses who were already turning their attention on the rest of the soldiers disembarking from the ship.
Seth breathed in deeply. He was home.
He turned down Court Street and almost got run over by a badger pulling a wagon piled high with turnips. Making rude gestures and shouting obscenities at the retreating cart, he pulled Keinruf to a slightly safer side of the street and continued on his way.
The houses were shabbier here, some little more than shacks. Ragged kits ran about with sticks, pretending to be soldiers, fighting their little battles around rickety fence lines and using mud as missiles. One such hit the back of Seth's head. He whirled. A young wildcat gave him a grin of apology.
"Sorry, guv! Best get out of Macy's firing line. She tends to get carried away."
Seth opened his mouth to say something about the penalty for striking a lord, and then caught sight of his reflection in a window.
While Wazzock had been very kind in smuggling them out of the country, with food and drink enough for a dozen ships, the rat hadn't really given much thought to clothes. Seth found he looked rather worse than the few adults out on the streets this morning. Most of them at least had patches over their torn shirts and trousers.
With a mere nod at the wildcat, he dragged Keinruf away from a ferret lad who was trying to steal his scarf, and continued down the road.
"Wenches," said Keinruf.
Seth cuffed him. "I told you not to say that."
The little marten snapped at him. "No muvver."
A familiar looking yard appeared at the end of the street, and something in Seth's chest moved a little faster than usual.
"Pray to whatever fate you like best that you're wrong about that." He muttered to Keinruf and quickened his pace.
The yard in question was full of glass bottles half-buried in the ground. Reds, greens, blues, and browns. Sadie had always wanted flowers, he remembered. But flowers were expensive to buy, and if you could get them to grow in the grime of Glass Street's shabby yards, then somebeast was most likely going to mistake them for salad and eat them before they had a chance to bloom properly. Seth stared at the glass bottles while Keinruf peered around curiously. Then, Seth looked up at the little house.
Another window had been broken since he'd last been here, and it looked like Todd had stuffed it with old rags to keep the chill of winter at bay. The door still hung crookedly in its frame – there was a hinge loose. Seth had told Todd to fix it.
Seth swallowed. He was stalling. He knew he was stalling.
Taking a deep breath, he took a step towards the door, then another, and another. And… he was standing in front of it.
Seth reached out to push the door open, then paused. No, he couldn't do that. Slowly, he reached up and knocked.
For a long moment there was silence, and then something inside let out a shrill cry and began screaming. Through the thin walls he heard pawsteps, a curse, then:
"Todd, I told you not to pick her up! No! Put her down! That's right, go see who's at the door."
Seth's pulse quickened still more. He knew that voice.
Now there were pawsteps coming towards him. There was a heavy scraping sound as Todd dragged the door open. Seth stared at him. He looked exactly like he had the last time Seth'd been here – torn shirt, neatly patched, too-big trousers tied up at his waist, his headfur neatly combed to hide the long scar on his forehead.
"Is Sadie here?"
Todd blinked at him curiously.
"Who's you are?" he asked.
Seth swallowed. "Er… I'm an old friend… please is Sadie here?"
"Who is it Todd?" a voice called from another room. "Tell them to go away. I have no time today for sewing!"
Todd turned and yelled back. "I dunno. He's a tramp, I think. All beat up! 'S got mud on hisself."
There was the sound of muttering and then… then…
She was there. But she wasn't…
Seth stared at her.
She shooed Todd back inside and stood in the doorway, holding a tightly wrapped bundle in her arms.
"Yes? Who're you?"
Seth felt like he'd been slapped.
"I'm… I'm…" He stopped. "I missed you."
She blinked at him. He stood still while she stared at his face, her eyes taking in every detail: jagged scars, bruises, torn ear, ragged clothes, torn shirt, noble's medallion still hanging around his neck.
He wasn't ever exactly sure what happened next, only that he could feel Sadie's arms around him, could feel her pressed up against him, her warm breath hot on his neck, and then her lips when he kissed her in a way he'd never done before.
Then, the bundle she'd been holding that had gotten trapped between them, squeaked.
Seth jerked back. "What is that?"
Sadie was crying, and laughing, and trying to hold onto him and the bundle, all at the same time.
"It's yours," she managed after a moment.
Sadie pushed the bundle into his arms and pulled back a fold of cloth. A marten baby blinked sleepy eyes at him, and yawned.
Seth almost dropped it.
"Sit down," Sadie said, rescuing the kit. "Here, come inside, come in… Who's he?"
Seth looked up to see her pointing at Keinruf who was standing forlornly on the bottom step and staring up at her.
"Em," said Seth, "Em…. Em… Sadie?"
Sadie turned to look at him.
"Seth, who is he?"
Seth swallowed. "He's mine too," he muttered.
There was a long silence.
"What's his name?"
Seth risked a glance at her. She had a pensive look on her face.
"How old is he?"
"Two. Three in a few months I think."
"Where's his mother?"
Seth took a deep breath. "She's dead."
"Wenches?" said Keinruf.
"Cute little bugger."
"Only sometimes," Seth growled.
"I think… I think you'd both better come inside," Sadie said finally. "And I want you to tell me everything. You hungry, Keinruf?"
The kit nodded.
"Todd," Sadie called, as she led the way in, "Put last night's porridge on the fire and go down to the bakers and pick up a loaf of bread."
Seth followed her, remembering previous visits to the house. There was a new smell to it now, and it was dirtier than he remembered. She took him to the tiny kitchen and set the bundle down in a rough cradle…. next to two other bundles.
Seth licked his lips. "They aren't…"
Sadie nodded. "They are."
"Is that all?"
"As far as I know."
Seth sank down on a bench next to the table, and stared at them. Keinruf took a closer look, standing on tip paw, and peering over the side.
"What are they?" Seth asked.
"Two boys and a girl," Sadie said. "None of them have names yet. I was waiting for you."
Seth swallowed. "You got my letters?"
Sadie nodded to a box where Seth could see familiar-looking papers peeking out over the rim.
"I got them. Most of them were blacked out, except for the last few ones."
Seth was silent a moment as Todd clomped in, carrying a loaf of bread. He set it on the table, and then went to join Keinruf staring at the kits.
"Todd still have that job I got him?"
Sadie gave her brother a thoughtful look and shook her head. "No, they fired him after you left. He built that cradle. He's very proud of it."
"He likes it."
"Why didn't you tell me you were having kits?"
Sadie glanced at Keinruf. "Why didn't you tell me you had one yourself?"
Seth sighed and rubbed his eyes. "Where would you like me to start?"
"At the beginning."
So he started at the beginning. He told her about the trip over to the Imperium. He told her about Rotclaw and getting transferred into Steep's regiment. About the attack on Bully Harbour where the rest of his squad had gotten burned to death or drowned in the icy waters, or cut down by Gloria Ruston's soldiers. He talked about the bird, Pip, who had papers saying that he wasn't allowed to be eaten. How Pip and Steep saved his life.
He told her about getting captured... and rescued. About slowly unraveling the secret of the war, how it was only a trick for power. He talked about the time Keinruf was delivered to him in the middle of the night, and how Steep and Pip and he had gone out and gotten drunk so that he wouldn't have to remember Alissa. He told her about Alissa and why she had died.
The march to Amarone, where he had rescued Steep and gotten his ribs broken. The arrow Pip ripped out of his ear. The attack on the palace where Keinruf almost gave them away and had to be bribed with chestnuts he never got. The death of the leading general of the Southern Army. Spending the night in the cellar where he told Alissa's story to Steep when he got so drunk he didn't know who she was. Discovering the weapon that the entire war had been about. Steep's death. Blowing up the palace while his own army was still trapped inside of it.
He talked about the march back to Bully Harbour, and how Pip had died. The card game he'd played for his life... and lost. And finally, he told her about the rescue mission Captain Pike had launched, and the trip back home.
Through it all, she was silent, her pretty head resting on thin paws. Seth studied her face while he talked. She was thinner, with dark circles under her eyes. Her dress was faded and the pretty ribbons she had used to decorate it with were gone.
When he had finished, she was silent awhile still, and then she licked her lips.
"So, the war was just a pretense? And thousands of beasts died for a cause that did not exist?"
Seth said nothing.
"Did you love Steep?"
Seth looked at his paws. "Yes," he said finally.
"Not like I love you!"
She laughed. "I didn't think so. Do you love me, Seth?"
"I love you, too."
* * *
William Devonshire was reading in his study when the door opened. He didn't bother putting his book down.
"So, you're still alive, then."
Seth stepped inside and shut the door behind him.
"It would appear so."
William put down his book.
"That's what mother said."
"Oh? Did she also tell you that the entire mission of the Southern Army failed largely with the help of your personal involvement?"
Seth let his eyes roam the bookshelves. "She failed to mention that, I'm afraid."
William snapped his book shut.
"So, that's it, then? You fail your country, and have no remorse other then, 'she failed to mention that'."
Seth reached down, pulled the medallion off of his neck, and tossed it onto his father's desk.
"What's that for?"
"I suggest you open it," Seth said, going to the window and staring out.
William picked it up and unclasped the hook holding it shut on the side. The front opened up to reveal the contents.
"Dust," he said dryly. "You brought me dust."
"It isn't dust." Seth said, still staring out the window. "It's the weapon of the Imperium. I thought it was rather pointless for Captain Steep to die for nothing."
For a long moment, there was silence.
"Who else knows about this?" William asked.
Seth shrugged and inspected his claws. "No one. If I were you, I'd destroy it."
William poured the powder into an envelope and sealed it. "I can't do that. My obligations are clear."
Seth nodded. "I'm getting married."
William studied his son. "I thought your time in that barbaric northern country would have cleared your head."
"It did," Seth said. "The wedding is on Sunday."
"I don't want a big fuss."
"Your mother will be appalled."
"Isn't she always."
"How many kits does she have?"
"How do you know about Keinruf?"
William picked up a letter and waved it at Seth.
"Fredrick Wright sent word to me. He thought there were a few details I might be interested in. You've certainly been around a bit."
Seth shrugged. "I'm bringing Sadie here."
"I can't say I'm surprised."
"Mother will object."
"I think your mother and I can make arrangements for new housing. This powder won't exactly put us out of favor with the Emperor."
"You're pleased then?"
William stood up and moved to stand next to his son, both of them staring out the window to the city below them.
"She will never fit in with our circles, Seth, and you have four bastard kits that will never be quite accepted no matter where they go. Your mother is going to raise the dead with her fits, but she'll defend you to all those starched females she calls her friends. I'm going to raise your allowance to suit your family, but you're going to find that your gaming tables and late night cabarets are a thing of the past. Are you pleased?"
Seth turned to look at his father.
"At least I won't be bored."
William gave his son the medallion and watched as he slipped it back over his head.
"No, Seth," he said, with just a hint of a smile playing around his mouth. "You will never be bored."