RIDER: A Metamor Keep Story

Story by Greyflank on SoFurry

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#2 of Metamor Keep

This story is from my early days in Metamor Keep. I think it was written around 2000. I didn't keep such good records and reception to the story was rather mixed and a portion of the other writers saw me as a pornographer. They didn't mind homosexual sex, but they were rather used to the trope of men struggling with the new identity or self-image or swapped out parts with no other mental change.

The idea that sexually confused and conflicted people outside of the Keep seemed to rather bother them.

Or maybe it was just my writing style.

I have come to the conclusion that my idea of what amounts to PG-13 is different with them than say film or publishing in general.

The caravan made it to Metamor Keep with little fuss and a great many tall tales told along the way. They were all true, of course, to some extent. However, as with every trip to the cursed Keep, a conspiracy formed amongst the guards to keep the "new kid" in the dark. Partly because they needed all the hands they could get and the idea of risking being transformed into a child, a woman, or even a freakish animal thing was worse than dying in a Lutin or goblin attack to most adventure-starved teens. Partly because the other caravan guards got a kick out of seeing the face of the new kid the first time the Amazonian long scouts stepped out from the underbrush or the first time a creature out of their worst nightmare would wave happily in their direction and perhaps offer them a tankard of ale.

This was Grey Wheeler's first tour of duty with this caravan, but it had been a number of years since anyone would have been able to think of him as a "new kid." His blonde hair was more white and grey than yellow, His face was lined, scarred, and told of a hard life of travels and adventures. His jade green eyes hid under a heavy brow which made them seem dark and brooding. His shoulders were broad and his body muscular.

He wore his own weapons on his brown leather belt. These included a black leather whip, a sword rarely seen this far west, and a dirk taken from a dead Whales seaman. He wore clothing that was much too light for the fall weather in the mountain pass, but either chose to ignore the weather or it made no difference to him. As they entered Lutin territory, Grey began dressing in light leather armour suitable for the close hand-to-hand combat the little green devils were fond off. He seemed as comfortable in the armor as he was without.

Each morning, he would go off on his own for several minutes to perform certain rituals. The merchants insisted he be followed after the third day of the passage. The informal spy came back laughing that Wheeler stripped, washed himself and then dressed while chanting something that sounded like a song. The spy also spoke of a tattoo on the new guard's chest, a series of three seemingly mystic symbols. The trailboss was satisfied that Wheeler wasn't going to sell them to the Lutins, so left it at that. However, Wheeler's fellow guards were not so generous. When asking after the tattoo's meaning, the questioners often find themselves the object of Wheeler's intense scrutiny as he seemed to measure and weigh the value of that person's existence. More than one person believed they could feel waves of fury peeling of Wheeler when caught in his stony stare

Breaking camp just before dawn, Paul Aldersen, the official "new kid" on this journey stopped him as he made up his bedroll. At first, Wheeler thought he'd ask about the tattoo and was annoyed. It would be nice if he could have made the trip without anyone prying into his personal life. Instead, the kid asked about the Keep.

They had a few minutes before the caravan was ready to move on. He was relatively ready to move out and it was a little cruel to let someone wander into Metamor Keep without warning. The way he had ended up in Os-Var-Khai.

Wheeler sat on his bedroll and told the short version of the Keep. He'd done his research before coming on this trip. In fact, it was the Keep's curse that had dragged him halfway across the world. "The Keep," he began, "is cursed."

The kid nodded.

Wheeler scowled at him, if only to save his reputation. Like many seafarers, Wheeler knew how to tell a tale extremely well. He liked telling them and young Paul seemed to be a good listener, despite being in the latter half of his impatient teen years. However, he had learned in recent years to keep some distance between himself and other men and if he told too many tales, especially if he had a drink in his hand, he would reveal too much of himself.

Nobody wanted that.

"Almost a decade ago," Wheeler picked up again after a beat, "there was a huge battle. Your average forces of light and forces of darkness thing. Now, the villain of the piece, a man known as Nasdaq, I believe, was NOT only evil but had a wicked sense of humour. Using a modified transformation curse, Nasdaq turned one third of the Keepers into children. They will never grow up, never have children of their own, but they will remember what it was like to be grown up, too. And, even a decade later, if you stay in the Keep too long, you could become a child, too."

"That's not so, bad," Paul said.

Wheeler shrugged and looked at the young man pointedly. "When did people start treating you seriously? Few weeks ago? Last month?"

"Last year," the young guard said a little defensively. "Right after I left the farm and headed out on my own."

"Good for you," Wheeler said happily. "Now, imagine somebody took that away from you. Suddenly, people are treating you like they did five or six years ago. Not so good now, is it?"

Paul's face darkened. Obviously five or six years ago had not been a fond time in the boy's mind.

"And, that's just the tip of the ice berg, there's also..."

"What? The tip of what?"

Wheeler smiled and decided not to try to explain the floating magic ice islands of the Northern Seas to a kid fresh off the farm. "It's just a saying, it means, there's worse things yet." Wheeler added glibly. He should have cuffed the kid for interrupting, but he didn't have the heart for it. "One third of the people Nasdaq cursed became woman."

Paul smiled ruefully. "Ok, now I know you're joking. I mean, one third of any village is going to be about 1/3 woman and 1/3 children. It's just simple math, really."

Wheeler smiled, "The men became woman and the woman became men. Or, leastwise, about 1/3 of each sex switched sex. For some, switching sex was worse than being a child forever. And there ain't no such thing as simple math."

"I could see that," Paul said with a voice that implied he was going to play along. "How did that Nasdock decide which men he'd turn into woman and which woman to turn into men?"

Wheeler wished he had a smoking pipe to hit the boy over the head with. First Mate Terrence always seemed to get a measure of satisfaction out of that that Wheeler never quite understood until now.

Instead, he got up off his bedroll and started walking towards the horse he'd been assigned for the last leg of the journey. He wasn't going to ride it; it had sprained a hock and Wheeler's job was to keep it moving, gently, until they reached the Keep where it could be doctored. "He didn't decide, it was random," he called over his shoulder as he strolled off, "I think. In any case, it was pretty traumatic for those involved."

Paul trotted behind him a few steps, "Yeah, I guess so, but it doesn't seem like much of a curse."

Wheeler fixed the horse's rigging, checked the bridle, and adjusted it properly and quickly. One would never know he was a sailor most of his life from the way he handled the tack. He owed that to his time on Os-Var-Khai and his time crossing the flatlands with Dramm. "Oh, it gets worse," he added darkly, "One third got changed into twisted animal forms."

That actually made the boy's eyes light up. "Really? What kind of animals?"

"Dog. Cats. Cows. Dragons. Normal animals mostly, but a few exotic ones like Kangaroos and Griffins."

Paul thought about that and then smiled broadly. "Well, that's not so bad. If I became a dog, I could lick mi-"

Suddenly, Wheeler grabbed the boy and slammed him against a nearby tree. The horse let out a startled whinny and the other guards suddenly were all holding their swords in the direction of Paul's startled cry, but when they saw it was two off their own, they all held off to see what would happen. There had actually been a betting pool over which "new kid" was going to snap first, so a lot was riding on what Wheeler was going to do next.

"That is not funny," Wheeler said tightly. He wasn't the biggest man on the caravan, but he came across as the most dangerous. It was an affectation he had cultivated over the years. "I have family up there, in the Keep."

To the boy's credit, he did not immediately back down. "Let go of me!" he challenged in a brave but not too steady voice. When Wheeler glared at him silently Paul spit at his feet. "You got family up there and you don't want know what kind of perverts they had to become, do you?"

"You think because they're different, that makes them perverts?"

"If they weren't all perverts, they'd have killed themselves long ago."

Wheeler bounced the lad into the tree and then smiled. "The world's a big place, boy," he said in a voice that held equal measures of fact and threat in it, "And, if I were you, I would not say anything against the Keepers until you are far, far away from here."

"Why not? You gonna beat me up, big man? That won't change a thing, they'll all still be animal suckers!"

Wheeler sighed. "The Keepers you call perverts have been following us since this time, yesterday."

With that, Wheeler spun the lad around quickly and held his head so that he could see what he had seen fleetingly a few minutes prior. In the woods, about 20 feet in, behind tress was a four-foot tall otter twisted into the shape of a man. He was naked and his body fur pained in shades of green, but most of the camouflage painted had dried and caked off near the creatures underarms and knees. A small bit of white showed suddenly when the creature's eyes went wide as he realized he'd been spotted. Then it was gone, replaced by a small green otter, which disappeared into the underbrush with liquid ease.

If long scout's eyes hadn't gone wide, Wheeler doubted Paul would have even seen it at all.

Wheeler let Paul go and the boy took two quick steps away the big guard. "You're all crazy," the boy yelled. "Crazy."

"Hey, Paul," Wheeler called out, stopping the boy in his tracks. He got a dirty look from the new kid.

"Watch your step. Some of the Keepers were turned into snakes, and they don't like being called perverts."

To his credit, Paul did not look down as he stormed off. Nor did he look to the left or right as the entire caravan exploded into laughter.

With the cat out of the bag, the last few hours to the Keep were filled with a great deal of mirth at Paul's expense. As the tales and jokes about the Keep flew back and forth, Paul looked ready to bolt at any minute. If there were any Lutins in the woods that day either the Keepers took care of them or the laughter drove them away.

On the return trip, they would be enough Lutins for everyone, but Wheeler would not be there to battle at their side.

For the mysterious and brooding man, this journey was strictly a one way trip. Tales of sex-switching, age reversal, and -- most dehumanizing of all -- becoming an animal, only strengthened the graying man's resolve. The curse of the Keep, he had decided months ago, would be a bitter blessing for him.

Grey Wheeler was distantly related to Duke Thomas. So distantly, in fact, Wheeler had to commission a scrivener to re-create missing documents that would prove such a thing. Grey was prepared to work about the Keep and perform whatever services were needed in order to stay, even if it was scrubbing floors in the dungeons, but he did harbour no small hope that his far-removed cousin would find a more fitting position for him. Advisor, perhaps...

It wasn't that Wheeler was without useful talents, but those talents would be far removed from any use Thomas might have for him. On the sea, he'd been a cabin boy and had become quite skilled in defending himself... and of avenging himself quietly later, if his defense proved wanting. In the Far East, Wheeler picked up several different techniques involving the business of extracting data and the pleasures one might receive during that extraction. By the time he got to Yesulum, he had learned how to turn his looks to his advantage and discovered that some men did not need the excuse of a long ocean voyage to desire him or to be desired by him. But those were talents not in ready demand in Thomas' court by all reports.

It had been a good 29 years the Gods had given him, but his pride ate after him. Early in his life, men had forced themselves on him and he had had no choice. He could forgive himself that. His trip to the Far East, meant to strengthen his mind and body so as never to become a victim again, instead increased his appetite for the erotic extremes of pain. That he could not completely forgive himself. His attempt to convert to the church ended with his sponsor's excommunication for sex crimes. He and Dramm had been lucky to leave with their lives.

As his 30th birthday approached, and his shameful sexual desires as strong as ever, Wheeler had himself with very few options. One involved castration; that held no appeal for him. Another option was a lifetime of exacting self-control and purposeful denial. Experience had shown Wheeler that he lacked the willingness and resolve to do either.

The Curse of Metamor Keep... It was his last chance for freedom, even if it meant never leaving its walls for the rest of his life.

Clay Potter was the younger son of the Metamor tinkers, Henrik and Josie Potter. When the curse hit, Clay had been but 10 years old. His older brother, Tin, had been eleven and his younger brother, Whicker, barely 7. There were spared the curse due to their ages, but the parents were not so lucky. Henrik became a white tiger morph and Josie became a white wolf. Henrik lost much of his dexterity with the change and became bitter. Josie picked up the slack, but not without complaint.

The boys knew and dreaded that they, too, would follow and be changed. For the next year, it hung over them like an unwelcome ghost.

They were, in all other ways, a normal family.

And, as happens in some families, some developed faster than others.

At fifteen, Tin became Tina, becoming neither wolf nor tiger as expected, and Tin/Tina was inconsolable for weeks. The Potter house was in an uproar.

Clay, who had been tortured by his older brother over years, was at first grateful for his brothers downfall and ragged him mercilessly for days. One day, however, something in Clay broke when he saw his brother, now sister, in such a state that he/she was flaying his/her own skin with hir new nails. Something turned in him at the pain he saw and he stepped forward and put a calming hand on his brother's skin and kept gently stroking until his sister fell into a deep and steady slumber.

That night, Clay dreamed of his brother's painful transformation and had his first wet dream.

A little more than a year later, the baby changed. There were rules on when transformations would take place but with each passing year, more and more exceptions seemed to take place. Eleven wasn't the youngest anyone changed, but it was rare. Whicker became a huge orange and black tiger morph and Clay suddenly found himself a stranger in his own family.

Where Clay had been the favourite of both parents since he proved extremely skilled in the medium of his namesake, he now felt completely neglected. Mother's new favourite was Tina, a daughter she never had, but now really did. Father's new favourite was Wicker, who made him forget his dull, clumsy fingers as his son dragged him out of the damn pottery shop and back into the world. After three years of living under Henrik's depression, it was good to see his tiger-father laughing and clapping his paws heartily. For awhile, everyone was happy.

Clay expected to become a wolf, like his mother, or even another tiger like his brother and father had within a year of Tina's "arrival." It didn't happen and the year after that, Clay remained unchanged.

The same could not be said of the Potter family. Wicker became wild and uncontrollable, as his tiger body matured much too quickly to their mother's taste. Henrik seemed to worship the very ground his youngest walked on, as if in awe of the boy. Josie and Tina spent a good deal of time trying to fix messes that Wicker and Henrik created. Worse, because of the tiger morphs' worsening reputations, business began to falter.

Clay picked up the slack and took over the business. His friends continued to change and he did not. In a city of cursed beings, the unchanged boy felt like a complete freak. He happily threw himself into the business of taking care of his family and was hardly seen out of the shop. He was not hiding, but he just wasn't ready to venture forth much, either.

In time, Wicker started calling himself Wicked and things went from bad to worse. As bad and as strong as Wicker thought he was there were still those who could readily hand him his tail in a street fight. There was also the strength of numbers to reckon with. Wicker had to discover these things the hard way. Clay nursed his little brother the three days his wounds from that lesson healed while Henrik prowled the streets in a futile attempt at vengeance. No one thanked him, but Clay had to admit, nursing Wicker back to health made him feel good. Taking care of the family became his job.

Those were dark days, that last year or so before Clay was transformed. Tina started dated and moved out to open her own tinker shop, leaving Josie depressed. Clay tried to comfort her as best he could, but she seemed unreachable.

Spurned yet again, Clay redoubled his efforts to create art. He took up sketching Keepers as they would look if the curse had not touched them. People would tell him how lucky he was that the curse was ignoring him. He shut out everyone except Laracin, who was a great listener and needed to have books read to him, but even his time with the silvimorph became rare.

He begged his parents to take him to Pascal, to give him the elixir that would make the curse take him, but they denied him, pointing to Saroth as an example to what might happen if the curse was toyed with. He suspected they did not want to pay the fee, which irked Clay since he was the breadwinner in the family. A fact that got him slapped when brought up.

Alone, ignored and hiding in his room, Clay would sometimes claw at his own skin, trying to find the form hidden from him. When his own nails failed to do the job, Clay began using broken pottery shards to slice into his skin, until his father discovered him one night.

Wordlessly, Henrik took him in his arms and told him that he understood. That the world was a hard place and that world was full of two kinds of people; the people who hurt and the people who got hurt. Predator and prey. That the time would come when he would have to choose or the decision would be made for him. Clay fell asleep as his father licked his wounds clean, comforted but not understanding what his tiger father meant.

It was the last time Henrik ever held him.

Clay Potter was seventeen when the curse claimed him. Soon afterwards, he found himself homeless.

Wheeler was not surprised his letter hadn't reached his noble cousin... mail to the Keep was a chancy business unless one had a trusted courier at one's disposal, but, he was somewhat put off by the stonewalling he got from the Steward. It was some sort of dragon thing, and while Wheeler had been fully prepared to deal with buxom woman acting like men and men covered in fur and not much else, the formally dressed lizard completely unnerved him.

"The Duke can not possibly see you today," the Steward said, his long jaws somehow flexing eloquently over the words. "You should leave and return in two weeks. I am sure I can clear a spot on his calendar at that time."

All of Wheeler's perfectly practiced words had failed him. He had begged and whored for the money needed to cross the continent and meet up with the caravan. He risked Lutin attack the three days prior to arriving at the Keep and, by abandoning the Caravan, he had forfeited his sword-arm fee. Now, he was being dismissed? He refused to believe it.

"I understand the Duke is a busy man," he sputtered, "I didn't expect to see him right this moment." Which was something of a lie. Rumor had it that Duke Thomas was something of a recluse (as was understandable, considering the curse), so he had expected to see the Duke after a reasonable amount of time. An hour's wait, at least, to be impressed with how busy the King of the Pass was. But not this.

"And, yet," Thalberg said with a trace of dry wit in his voice, "you seem surprised."

"Would you at least tell him I am here?" He glared at the Steward, as if by glowering he could hide the way his voice broke.

"I will be sure to mention it," the courtier said. "When I see him next."

"Dammit, NO!" Wheeler yelled to his own surprise, but he refused to back off now that the gauntlet had been thrown down. "I don't care if he's having a seance with the Pontiff's frigging ghost! How hard can it be just to let him know his frigging cousin is here IF he wants to see me!?"

Thalberg answered him with silence. The sounds of two Amazonian guards moving in unison to either side of him, filled the silence.

"Actually," Thalberg said coolly, "I'd be very surprised if he hadn't heard you himself just now." The alligator got up from his seat, his tail slapping the floor angrily several times, but there was no other indication of the Steward's anger. That worried Wheeler. "If you insist on staying until there is an opening in the Duke's schedule, you may do so at the Deaf Mule. But, Mr. Wheeler, I would not hold out much hope of seeing Duke Thomas before the curse strikes you."

Walking among the Keepers, Wheeler experienced the oddest mix of disgust and excitement and desire. The mix of emotions ate at his resolve. It was as if he had returned to Os-Var-Khai, the Far East island where men became animals in the pursuit of science and magic knowledge, and other forms of enlightenment.

And, yet, it was not. No salt air mingled here with the many musks of its citizens. The market did not murmur, as it did in Os-Var-Khai; it screamed. The range of sounds drove him to distraction. There wind wasn't scented with jasmine and orange blossoms. Kitchen smells weren't thick spiced with ginger, garlic, and cumin.

If he had riches, he would have left minutes after his meeting with Thalgard the Steward. If one was rich enough, even the most perverse pleasures could be tolerated. If he had even the slightest bit of wealth, he would have squandered it all in chartering a boat to Os-Var-Khai just to throw himself at Chang's feet and beg forgiveness.

But Grey Wheeler was not a rich man, even though he spent the last few years in rich trappings. Hiring himself as a guard to help the caravan past the Lutins was the only way he'd been able to make the journey here. The trip had been without incident or attack and for that he was grateful. Of course, had they'd been attacked, Wheeler would have had at least a tale of bravery to impress the Stewart with.

He counted the coins in his purse, disappointed that they had not multiplied since his last count. In any other city, Wheeler knew his body could get him whatever he desired if he found the right person to foot the bill. But not here. Wheeler was not sure he could bring himself to give his trust to some furred creature or to some child vainly trying to recapture what he/she/it had lost. Some woman, perhaps, who used to be a man...that was an experience he was willing to pay for. He had only enough coins to spend three days here before he had to decide to stay or return on the next caravan out of the Keep.

Two things happened that day to strengthen his resolve to stay.

The first was a rat-like creature that caught his eyes as it slinked in the shadows. It was reaching for a apple to steal when it noticed Wheeler staring at it and froze, almost blending in perfectly with the shadows. Almost, but it's blue eyes told the man it had not vanished. Something stirred Wheeler and he casually brought a finger up to his lips, and held it there until the creature blinked slowly once.

Wheeler engaged the green grocer in conversation and took great pains to walk the chubby lizard man to the end of his stand away from the rat creature. He purchased a plump tomato and got to hear a bit of local colour. As the green grocer pointed out directions to the Deaf Mule with his green arm, Wheeler saw a furry brown hand snatch two apples into the shadows. His mission accomplished, he felt a surge of pride.

The second thing to strengthen his resolve to stay happened on his way to the Deaf Mule.

He came around a corner and noticed two wolves on the other side of the street walking in his general direction. One was a grey wolf; a real wolf: NOT a morph. It was tied, via a harness, to a tether that was held by the other wolf. That wolf was a buxom young wolf morph and her green skirt showed off her figure to great effect. Wheeler watched her take a few steps in the crowded market place, noting that she walked a little like a guy, but he suspected he was imagining that. Wheeler was surprised to see a morph with a pet to begin with. For some reason he had thought the curse would make them shun animals altogether. Obviously, that was poor logic on his part.

A strong looking man came around another the corner and nearly bumped into the pair. He was flustered, and apologized profusely, but Wheeler wasn't paying much attention until he heard the man ask the normal wolf if he'd written any more poems lately. The four footed wolf whined and looked up to the two footed wolf as if to ask for permission to speak. Wheeler nearly stopped in his tracks, but had the presence of mind to only slow and stop at the next stand and try to watch without appearing to watch. The female wolfmorph rubbed the male wolf's head and instead answered for him. "No, Helen, he hasn't. Don't know if he ever will again, but Christopher seems hopeful."

For one brief moment, he saw himself at the end of that leash, forced to obey the will of his "master." He knew he was going to stay. Wheeler suspected he would hate himself for it later, but he knew he was going to stay.

His first night within the Keep, Wheeler had the strangest dreams. He dreamed of finding a man who used to be a woman and that everyone who saw him with this man knew his lover to be a woman and it was all right. He dreamed of dressing in silk from head to toe and walking on a moonlit shoreline, leaning on the strong arm of Dramm. He dreamed the only laughter to be heard was from circling gulls above. He dreamed of the rat creature and those blue eyes glaring at him from behind the apple stand, commanding him to distract the grocer while the eyes stole him blind. He dreamed of the rat-creature pouncing him and then sharing an apple with him because he had earned it.

Fear and pleasure haunted his dreams as he was compelled to do more for the rat creature... compelled because the rat creature commanded him to... compelled because he wanted to please his master... compelled because that's simply the way things were done.

He dreamed of becoming a woman and walking the streets, of the men she could chose from.

He dreamed of all the torture he inflicted on others, but this time he could not smell the burning flesh and he could not hear Terrance screaming... betraying his friends to save his captain's life... and for what? For what? The hot irons became a whip and each time the whip snapped silently in his dream, he found himself whipping a pathetic little man who looked just like him, and the hate he felt for the image nearly woke him up.

He dreamed of growing fur and being stripped in public... he dreamed that his shame was stripped from him as well, as he is exposed to be nothing but an animal... an animal who could not talk unless his master said it was all right... an animal who composed poems for his master only.

He snapped awake at the sound of a floorboard squeaking. For one wild moment, Wheeler thought the rat thief had come back for him. Eyes wide and heart thumping, he stared into the darkness of his let room, looking for the floating set of blue eyes that would mean he was to be stolen away.

But alas, the only thing lurking in his room was a little square of the lonely night. Whatever the sound had been, wind or a ghost, it did not matter for the room was empty and his heart sank even as he fell back to sleep.

That morning, Wheeler did everything right. He apologized. He bowed. He scraped. He did everything short of begging. He kept his cool during the second meeting with the Steward, but the alligator morph's attitude went beyond ice. The Duke remained too busy to be disturbed, no matter how far his distant cousin had traveled. Wheeler was extremely careful not to let his frustration show this time during the interview, but got no further than the first time.

Depressed and miserable, Wheeler made a beeline for the Deaf Mule. Along the way, he glanced at shadows hoping to see his rat shadowing him, but it wasn't to be. He was alone in the Keep without a friend.

It wasn't the best stuff Wheeler ever threw back, but it certainly vanished quickly enough. He was quite buzzed by lunch and quite drunk by dinner. Donny tried to cut him off, but a white Tiger morph waved the bull morph off and said he'd take care of the drunken fool. Overworked, Donny reluctantly agreed. "I couldn't help but overhear what you said before," the Tiger said by way of introduction as he joined Wheeler at the table.

Wheeler stared at the tiger like he was a piece of meat for a moment. The Tiger's maleness practically knocked him over. His open shirt showed a sculpted and furry chest. The paws were almost human looking, but covered in white fur. The breeches were tight to the point of distraction, and it took a full minute for Wheeler's alcohol washed mind to realize the tiger was appraising him in kind.

Wheeler blinked as his mind caught up. What he'd said before? He'd said so many things before. He had said so much, in fact, the bar crowd had left a trench of open space around him like he was fresh off a plague ship. It didn't matter. He doubted he'd lied, so best to go for the gusto. "Did I say that aloud?" he said with a laugh and then turned serious. Somebody here was going to take him seriously or he'd die trying. "Well? I do. I said it and I meant it. So, what do you think of them apples, huh?"

The Tiger leaned back, gently amused. "I think I would like that very much."

Wheeler had to blink once or twice. He held onto the table as the room began to roll a bit to the left. He found his voice, but it was a lot smaller then it had been a moment ago. He was not sure what the tiger was talking about, but he could hope. "I have money," he said.

The tiger appeared not to hear and leaned forward with half lidded eyes, "Maybe it's the liquor talking, but... let's go to my place."

Wheeler could hardly believe his ears. His breath caught suddenly and it was hard to talk. "I have a room upstairs."

The tiger threw back some of his wine and licked his muzzle to get the last bit of it and then touched his left eyebrow with his tongue, showing off. He smiled evilly at the look on Wheeler's face. "I have... toys... you might like."

Wheeler allowed the tiger to lead him out the door before he could change his mind.

They walked in circles, or so it seemed. Wheeler tried to talk to the tiger, but the tiger wanted him not to attract attention. "People might talk," the tiger advised him and that dampened his spirits. He thought a place like Metamor Keep was free of shame.

The tiger steered them into a dark alley and Wheeler asked dully if he lived back here. Grunting loudly, the tiger said, "We should have gone upstairs to your room, I have to have you, now."

Mixed emotions fought within Wheeler and he nearly cried. Suddenly, he knew something was wrong. He's been here before too many times. Not in this alley. Not with this man. But it was always a place like this. It was always a man like this. But drunk, he could stop himself. When the tiger maneuvered him behind some barrels and told him to take of his clothes. Wheeler obeyed, powerless to stop himself; knowing what was to come. Hoping that it wasn't going to happen the way it always happened before, Wheeler unbuttoned his top. His blouse was off his shoulder and half way down his arms when suddenly something grabbed him from behind and threw him across the dark alley.

His arms entangled, Wheeler could not protect his head from slamming into the oncoming wall. He saw stars where no god meant for them to be. His tiger screamed and something in orange and black roared back at him.

Again something grabbed him and threw him across the width of the alley and again a wall caught his head harshly. Daggers for hands. An orange and white blur in the moonlight. More screaming. None of it his. Silence was safety. Their words meant nothing to Wheeler, who was too busy holding on to his consciousness.

Then his tiger swiped once and knocked him from the bigger cat's claws onto the ground. He heard the two tussling for all of a second and then the two cats were pulling at his clothes. Too dazed to defend himself properly, he put up a token resistance. They found his coin purse, and satisfied with that, left him bleeding on the cold, hard alley ground.

Staring up at stars, he realized that they weren't going to rape him. Spared that, he began to cry. The alley. The attack. He'd let it happen to him again. Again! It was as if he had invited it upon himself. Hating himself for being a victim, Wheeler passed out wishing he were dead.

He almost got his wish.

By chance, Clay saw Wicker and his father slink out of the alley and the way they moved suggested something was afoot. That meant trouble for somebody. As soon as he was sure the two tiger morphs would not notice him, Clay ducked into the alley as silently as possible.

He did not want under confrontation with his father. Since Clay's change, Henrik was suddenly certain Clay was not his son and that Josie must have cheated on him at some point many years ago. Clay's new form had been a complete surprise to him, and it certainly wasn't what he would have chosen, but it was better than being a child all his life or a girl.

Or a criminal, he added bitterly.

Outwardly, Clay had always been mild and even tempered, as well as artistic, so there was no doubt in anyone's mind who the father was... until Clay's change. His father had always been so timid and mild, before the curse of the Three Gates, when he'd been a small man. Now he was a large hulking tiger who wasn't going to accept things as they were.

Henrik accused her of having an affair. she denied it, of course. However, Josie had never been a good liar and Clay saw something in his mother's eyes, like a half-forgotten secret recalled. Henrik had seen it, too, and he reacted by becoming as wild as his youngest, Wicker.

The family Clay had spent years trying to hold together was no fallen completely apart. His mother had gone off to who knows where. His father and younger brother were wallowing in their own filth. Tina had made something of herself, but had long ago stopped trying to pick up the pieces of her family and was working on her new one.

Nothing ever stayed the same.

His transformation was the final straw, and he felt like it was all his fault. It wasn't fair... the curse did not always change the children in the same way it did for the parents. And, if his mother had cheated... once... was it his fault? There were too many unanswered questions in Clay's life right now.

His disfigured hands would never again make anything more intricate than a chamber pot. He had stopped enjoying the work itself months ago, but at least it had been something he could call his own With no job and no home, Clay ended up at the Royal stables. The huge, mindless horses there were beginning to fill the void of family nicely. It was a little humbling; creating art had always been so effortless to Clay. He took great pride in learning and mastering things the other, younger stablehands had learned years ago. But something else was missing...

Clay saw the slumped body and the torn clothing and knew his father and brother had moved from mild burglary to something else entirely. Rushing to the man's side, he clumsily checked for breathing and tried to pull an eye open. The whites of the left eye were beginning to fill with blood and the pupils seemed uneven... not that Clay could easily tell in the moonlight.

He almost called for the civil guard, but something stopped him.

His disfigured fingers ran over the exposed human skin... unchanged pink human skin... and he felt an incredible longing. The feeling was bittersweet and sad, but it felt like a hunger he could not name. He used to look just like this, Clay thought.

There were punctures and lacerations on his shoulders and upper arms. The man had tattoos he couldn't read, but that wasn't important. Clay ran his fingers over the glyphs, as if touching them would make some kind of sense to him. In the moonlight, he thought for a moment he smeared them on the man's chest... but it was just a trick of the shadows.

The man was bleeding, but it wasn't life threatening. Nothing Clay couldn't take care of, if he wanted to. With that thought, something turned inside of him and he remembered consoling Tin who had become Tina and he recalled fondly watching Wicker's injuries heal not too long ago. A yearning he didn't understand filled him and Clay stared at the injured man trying to figure out what that meant.

Suddenly, a familiar smell struck his nose and he sneezed. A puddle of dark urine began to spread out from under the beaten man.

The idyll was broken. Clay instantly became aware that the ground was too cold and the moaning, injured man smelled like a brewery. Belated guilt suddenly came upon him and Clay cursed himself he hesitating. He called out for the Guard, and he kept calling until he heard footfalls in the alley behind him.

In his dreams, Grey Wheeler replayed the sequence of events. In his dreams, the huge hands that lifted him off his feet in the alley belonged to the rat creature.

In his dreams, the rough treatment was but a prelude to something equally violent and, yet, intimate.

In his dreams, the rat creature became Chang and he, himself, became a horse.

In his dreams, the rat creature gnawed at him until his humanity fell away and there was little left of him but a child's doll. In his dreams, the rat creature swallowed him whole.

But in his dreams, he also heard the laughing of others and while his dream master told him not to listen, he could not help himself. And the shame grew within so much, he attacked the rat creature that he had called both friend and master. He sliced at the rat creature with claws the Keep's curse gave him and then the mask of the rat fell away and Grey Wheeler found himself staring hatefully back at Grey Wheeler.

Wheeler snapped awake inside the Keep's walls. Inside the "sick ward," to be precise.

A giant raccoon in a light green vest looked him over and checked his eyes. "You healed remarkably well," the raccoon said. "Either you were not as badly injured as I first thought, or you have some magic."

Wheeler looked away, ashamed to the subject of clinical interest. But the healer persisted. "I need to know if I am losing my touch. I came very close to calling the Lightbringer in and I do not like to do that unless I need to."

"I'm warded," Wheeler said after a long moment of silence. "It keeps me from safe from the worst of it."

"The worst of what?"

Wheeler sighed. "Life." He pushed blankets of fur off his chest and ran his fingers over the tattooed glyphs on his chest. The glyphs were not large, barely the size of his pink thumb, but Coe watched as they seemed to sigh at Wheeler's touch. Starting from the left, he pointed to the first two. "This one's for healing. This one is for endurance."

The healer nodded. "They seemed to have served you well, but, you have to know this, these wards will not protect you from the curse, if you stay."

Wheeler nodded sadly.

"This third one," the raccoon said, "What's it for?"

Wheeler touched the glyph that sat over his heart. It sighed at his touch and he heard Chang's promised whispers once more. He was beloved. Pain. Agony. And Hope, the most delicious torture of them all. A tear formed in his eye as he recalled the day Chang branded him. It had been a terribly long day and he had been surprised to have survived it. He smiled weakly at the healer, feeling oddly guilty that he should lie to a man who helped nurse him back to health, "It's just my name in another language. Grey."

The raccoon nodded. "And I'm Brian Coe, part time healer... although I haven't had much time for my other jobs here at the Keep." Coe smiled and held out his paw for a shake. "Be nice if I could get those wards for everyone here. I might even have time for card games again." Wheeler smiled weakly and took the paw gently. "I suppose so."

The raccoon completed his exam as Wheeler tried not to think about what he was going to do now. "I usually don't have outsiders waking up as calmly as you did. Or being examined by a raccoon as calmly as you. Been to the Keep before, have you? Cough."

Wheeler coughed. "You're not the first animal people I've known." Wheeler spoke slowly, not sure what he could safely say, "I... I've been to Os-Var-Khai. That's where I got the wards."

Coe whistled. "I guess they were expensive, then."

Wheeler just stared off at the ceiling, his thoughts a half a world away. "You have no idea how much these things cost me," he said under his breath.

After Coe got him breakfast and announced him as healed as he was going to get, Wheeler was escorted to the Civil Guard office. The Guard Captain, a wonderfully buxom blonde named Kilroy, peered up at him with dark eyes, she did not try to hide her irritation. "You were walking a friend home, and you don't know his name?"

Wheeler briefly considered making up a name, but if they caught the white tiger, it would all come out any way. "I was drunk," he said, by way of a blanket explanation. "Besides, as it turned out, he wasn't really much of a friend."

A meaningful silence fell between them for a moment. "No, I suppose he wasn't," the Amazonian Captain said after a moment. "If you saw him again, would you remember him."

Wheeler thought about that. He was never one to forget a face, no matter how drunk he had been. However, how many white tigers could there be at the Keep? On the other hand, would he be able to tell one white tiger morph from another white tiger morph? Previously, however, he would have written the whole night off as the cost of doing business, and said no and let the matter drop. But he was working on a deadline; if he couldn't secure a position within the Keep, he had to leave before the change begun. That tiger jeopardized everything. "Yes. Yes, I would."

Apparently, that was the right answer. The woman nodded, happy that her time wasn't going to be wasted. Wheeler let out his air, relieved that this wasn't going to be another of "those" times. The Captain said, "And the other? The one who jumped you?"

Wheeler tried to remember details, but could only see a wall of orange, black and white fur... "Sorry, only that it was an even bigger tiger than the first..." Something came back to him. "The white one called him Whiskers or something. Wicked! That's it."

Kilroy nodded knowingly. "Henry and Wicker Potter. We just happen to have them in custody." "Regular Troublemakers, are they?"

Kilroy nodded. "We have so very little crime here, but there's always a few."

"I vaguely remember being found by someone."

"That's be young Clay Potter. Turned his dad and brother in, he did," the guard Captain replied somberly. "A quiet boy, that one."

Wheeler couldn't think of anything to say to that except, "I owe that boy a debt of gratitude."

"Speaking about debts; this would be yours then?" She held up the purse Wheeler had described not five minutes ago and Wheeler nodded. "The purse is a lot lighter than when they lifted it, I'm sure, but at least you're not destitute anymore."

Wheeler caught the purse and looked inside. They were barely enough coin left for a few days in Metamor. There wasn't enough for passage back out of the Keep, either, and the caravan he came with wouldn't be back for another month. He would have to press the Steward for an audience with the Duke once more. That was going to be delightful. "Thanks. How come you didn't just give it to me before?"

"The tale the Potters told was that they found you and only took your purse because they thought you dead. That's still illegal, but only a slap on the wrist. The boy didn't see nothing but those two leaving you in the alley. We couldn't try them for assault unless you were a willing witness." The woman, who had been a man once upon a time got up and looked at Wheeler pointedly. "I'm about to go break the news to them. Want to come along?"

Wheeler got up. "You mean there's actually going to be a trial?" The few times Wheeler had pleaded for justice over the years, the crimes were always swept under the rug for one reason or another. The idea of a trial completely overwhelmed him.

Kilroy turned back and glared at Wheeler, thinking the man impatient. "Of course there's going to be a trial. What kind of savages do you think we are?"

Wheeler, wisely, kept his mouth shut.

Wheeler expected the captured tigers to be in stocks, out on public display.

They weren't. Things were certainly done differently on this side of the world.

The Potters were in the dungeon under the Keep; not in stocks, but a steel holding cage. Being in a dungeon brought back many memories to the traveler, none of which he would have cared to explain the Guard escorting him. The smell of rotting meat jived with the otherwise clean walls and Wheeler wondered if that was there for effect, if it was, he admired the effect. He let the Keepers there guess at what the expression on his face might mean. Wheeler wasn't quite sure himself; his body was sending out some very mixed signals. Wheeler smiled evilly as his eyes met the eyes of the white tiger and the bigger orange cat that was mugger's son.

It was clear to Wheeler which of the two was truly in charge. Henrik tried to play the innocent, but Wicked was full of bluster and curses. Henrik uselessly tried to make his son realize he was condemning them both with his actions. And then, realizing his son wasn't going to stop, Henrik joined in the verbal abuse.

He stared at the two desperate nasty men. They were just men underneath the fur. Poor excuses for men, but men just the same. Wheeler had seen hundreds of men just like these two over the years. It was rather sad. Woman were never crazy like this. Why couldn't he be attracted to woman like everyone else?

"You'll be here for the trial?" the Amazon captain asked.

"If I can secure a position within these walls, yes."

The Watch commander nodded in an almost friendly manner. "They'll find something for you to do... We've gotten quite good at finding tasks for people over the years; we don't turn away those that wish to stay. Don't worry about that. If you do stay, I won't have to call the boy to the stand."

That set off the white tiger. "That RAT is NOT my son!"

Wheeler felt the blood drain from his face and even as the Watch Commander was yelling at the guard nearest the cell to quiet them down, he recalled those piercing blue eyes looking at him from the shadows and he knew he'd been rewarded for his good deed. With a father like that, it was no wonder the boy had to nick apples.

As the Guard Captain led Wheeler back out, Wheeler asked where he might find the young man. "He would be working at the stables, I suppose. You shouldn't have any trouble spotting him, he's the only bay Fell mucking the stalls."

A small bird flittered in and then flittered out again so quickly, Wheeler almost didn't see the note appear in Kilroy's hand. "Ahhh, a message from the Steward. He'd like to meet with you at your earliest convenience, if we're done here." The Guard smiled officially. "I think we're done here."

The thought of being invited to speak with the Stewart made him so happy that he forgot to ask what type of rodent a baifel was. The Guard Captain asked a soon-to-be-off duty constable to walk Wheeler to Thalberg's office. As it would get him out of uniform that much sooner, the officer agreed.

Wheeler's talk with the Steward was a rather awkward and strained. Thalberg all but called him a liar, a treasure seeker, and a fraud. Wheeler readily admitted that several of the copied documents were replacing documents the scribe hadn't seen. Wheeler had had to describe the papers from memory, so if there were any irregularities that might explain it.

The Steward said they had information on the Wheeliers, who were truly distant cousins of the Duke. Wheeler told the story of how his great grandfather had changed the family name to make it easier to spell, as the man was mostly illiterate himself. Thalberg all but admitted that they had gotten his letter weeks ago when he said even his claim of being Grey Wheeler was in doubt. Records show the child, Greystroke Wheeler, was thought to have died at the age of 12.

"I was shanghaied," Grey said honestly, "I was kidnapped and forced to serve as a cabin boy on The Black Capricorn. The less said of that time in my life the better. I escaped, eventually, to the Far East."

"And you came here rather than go home?"

"Port Pleasant?" Wheeler shook his head. "I don't have a home, really. I spent many years in Yesaelam trying to purge myself of my experiences over the years."

"I take it, you were a monk during that period."

Wheeler had a flash of an image of himself strip down to his silk shorts and bound to the floor, strapped so that he was helpless on his knees before Dramm. Unable to look up at Dramm. Wondering what the merchant would do next to him. Dramm ordering him to beg for mercy, despite the fact that it was the last thing he truly wanted.

"I was a supplicant, yes."

The Stewart made a face, or at least appeared to try to make a face. The alligator's face was not quite up to the challenge. "There is a record of a Greg Whaler being expelled from the Holy city under rather... unusual circumstances."

"I was known by that name in the Holy City, yes." Wheeler held his temper. "If you know those circumstances, you, perhaps, now understand why I traveled to Metamor Keep in the first place."

Thalberg barked a short laugh. "No one comes here without a good reason, Wheeler. And I can see how the gender exchange might appeal to a man of your... tastes. Nevertheless, the issue here is your intentions to the Duke. You come here with lies and falsifications, you shouldn't expect to be treated fairly."

"Those documents were created to illustrate the relationship, not to prove it."

Thalberg shifted in his seat and waved a scaly hand at him dismayingly. "Let's put that aside for now, and let's pretend the Duke allows you to stay within the Keep. Let's say he wanted to employ you, in fact. What position would you expect?"

Now it was Wheeler's turn to shift in his chair. "If the Duke were to have relations with the countries of the Far East, like Os-Var-Khai, I would make a most excellent advisor. However, I realize that that is a most unlikely occurrence. If the position were open, I might also do well as the Stable master."

This caught the Stewart's attention. "Do you know a lot about horses?"

Wheeler smiled weakly. "I, myself, am not a great horseman. I can barely tell the difference between a Clydesdale and a Shetland Pony. However, on the sea voyages in my youth, I was in charge in the cleaning and feeding of the horses in our hold." He did not mention the methods he'd been taught to use, he had the feeling it wouldn't appeal to Thalberg. "I found it very rewarding."

"I imagine it was pretty physical job," the alligator said, seeming to measure Wheeler as he leaned forward. "You didn't think it beneath your station?"

Wheeler didn't know he was going to laugh until it was out of his mouth and he was instantly embarrassed by it. He apologized almost as readily. "Oh, I'm sorry, but -- like I said - I'd been kidnapped. I didn't feel particularly noble during that period in my life. Besides, many members of the Hassen family had physical jobs. We are not a family of great riches and hard work is hardly anything to be ashamed of."

"That is a very enlightened attitude."

"Had I lived another life, I might not feel that way." Wheeler met the Stewart's eyes but couldn't discern anything to tell him what kind of impression he was making. That the interview was continuing was a good sign, of course. "I don't have many illusions left, my good Steward, except that I deserve to be happy and accepted for what I am."

Thalberg nodded, seemingly aware that Wheeler was trying to imply he was already as cursed as they were, and directed Wheeler to tell of the jobs he had had over the years. Hours passed away and food was brought and, while Wheeler was quite happy telling the censored tales of his youth, he wondered how much the Steward already knew about him. He glossed over the time spent with Lord Chang and his years with the Merchant Dramm. With Dramm, his official job title had been caravan boss, and if the caravan had been a ship, he would have been the Quartermaster. He glossed over the caravan's destruction and his sacrifice that Dramm might escape. Dramm had forbidden him to speak of the merchant's cowardice, and only a master of Eastern Magics would ever be able to pull the events from his lips.

Wheeler paused for a moment to remember those nights with poor Dramm. Dramm was the only one who ever insisted that Wheeler take a whip to him. Those nights were the only time he'd ever felt someone's honest trust outside of Os-Vi-Khai. Those were the only times he'd even marginally felt in control. Dramm had been the man he'd been trained to serve. The man Chang almost didn't give Wheeler to.

To this day, holding a whip frightened him in ways he did not understand. The whip had been a gift from Dramm. He'd sworn never to part with, yet now it was hidden under his bed, along with his sword and dirk. He was a free man now. Wheeler knew he didn't have to abide by old promises made while he was a slave, but his heart sank slightly with guilt for a moment.

"How many men did you have under you?" Thalberg prodded and he started.

It took him a moment to realize that Thalberg meant the caravan crew. "About 15, plus some swordarms we'd hire as was called for."

Thalberg nodded and poured some water for Wheeler and himself, nodding as he did so. "You do tell an excellent tale, Wheeler. Can you write?"

Wheeler nodded. "I had some schooling before I was stolen away and Dramm insisted I be able to create and read maps, plus keep a written inventory. I can speak, by the way, several languages very well and know enough of almost every other language to start a bar fight."

Thalberg laughed a bit at that one, or perhaps it was just a burp. It was hard to tell with the reptile morph. "That must serve you well." The reptile tossed the water back and made drinking with a snout look easy. Wheeler wondered if he would have been able to do that once the change hit him. He sipped at his water, a bit guilty that he still had the lips to do so properly. "Tell me," the alligator continued, "have you considered joining our Writers' Guild? You could easily carve yourself a place there, I should think."

Wheeler suddenly saw red and was surprised when he heard a chair overturn. It took a moment to realize that it had been his chair hitting the floor and that he was standing over the alligator, glowering.

"How dare you!" It was true that he had glossed over some details that wasn't any of the alligator's business, but he would not have his life dismissed merely because it was a bit complicated. "How dare you? I've come here to meet my cousin and I am to be judged by the likes of you? I'm sorry if my life doesn't suit you, but it is my life and not yours to judge. Tell my cousin not to call on me until he is ready to meet me himself.

Wheeler stalked out the door and Thalberg's eyes followed him. After a moment, he said, "What an odd man."

What did you just do?

Wheeler pushed his way through the streets of Metamor, his breath misting before him. Today, was going to be a cold day... not really a surprise considering they were on a mountain. But Wheeler's wardrobe had been purchased with warmer weather in mind. By winter time, he doubted he'd fit in anything he'd brought with him. Just his luck if winter should decide to come early this year. His lack of forethought didn't bother him nearly as much as his outburst to the alligator had. That had been very stupid of him.

When are you going to grow up?

Last night's attack, of course, had gotten to him and his nerves were shot. The tough man act was always his fall back in stressful situations, and Wheeler's normal anxiety around the alligator just made things that much worse. Lizards and bugs did that to him.

It wasn't until he was actually out among the Keepers that he remembered the high regard these people had for their writers. He'd been so close to winning Thalberg over, he knew that now. The printed word was their number one export, and one could make a living here telling tales of their youth as easily as one could telling tales of Holy Quests. Wheeler was ready to just kick himself.

After an hour or so of aimless wandering, he calmed down enough to realize that he was being stared at. Of course, his shirt was still covered with some blood and then there were his eyes, black with blood. Coe said that it would fade over time by itself, but for now they were attracting some unwanted attention. Nothing he could do about it now, unless he was willing to pluck them out and find out how long they would take to grow back.

He had cleaner, if not warmer clothes back at the Deaf Mule. He should at least look decent. If word got out that the Duke's cousin was a slob, he was sure the Steward would hold that against him, too. And well he should. After all, who would want you as a relative, anyway?

On the way towards the Deaf Mule, Wheeler found himself at the Duke's stables. By accident or by design of his subconisous, he did not know. He saw few horses, as if the stable was half empty. Perhaps they were out for a foxhunt or something. He looked for his rat, for he was quite certain it had been his rat who had saved him. Who else cared for him in this cold place?

He saw several children working the stalls, some of whom might well be over his own age and a woman he guessed as having been a man at one point in her life by the way she swaggered about. There was only one fur covered being in view, and that one was horse morph.

He found himself watching this young horse morph carefully as the lad tossed back a handful of grain when he thought nobody was looking. Wheeler wondered what the real horses made of him. Did he smell like one of them? Did he understand the things they said? He wondered what Chang would make of him if he saw a specimen this beautiful.

Suddenly, the woman appeared out of the shadows silently and whacked the horse morph behind his head a second after he swallowed the grain. Just as any craftsman would do with a naughty apprentice. This was apparently the stable master. His ears went flat back as she gave him a tongue lashing Terrence would have been proud of. The lad's eyes went wide but he smiled gleefully as soon as the woman's back was turned towards him. Unaware of being watched, the horse morph's lips rolled back, giving a very horsy and toothy smile.

The stallion morph was a dark brown pony and pretty young, if his teeth were any indication. His coat of body hair was thick, but nowhere as thick as that of the ponies from Wales that caravan had used for the cooking wagon. His arms and legs had thick black socks that ended at the elbows and just above the hocks. He wore breeches of blue denim that rode low on his brown hips, which apparently was to allow his docked tail some freedom without going through the fuss of cutting a hole in the garment. The knees were caked with mud and straw. The horse morph went shirtless, revealing muscles of human shape and design beneath a shiny coat of brown horsehair. The hands weren't hoof like, the way the Duke's were said to be, but his short thick fingers with thick brown fingernails seemed marginally human. His black mane had been tied into a series of little knots around twists of leather straps, as if loose hair was a complete annoyance to him.

When their eyes met, Wheeler found himself staring into a deep dark pool... of a brown so dark as to be black.

It took Wheeler another second to realize that the horse morph was now watching him watching him. He felt his face flush and he looked away. The young horse morph, however, did not look away when Wheeler looked back up. He stood rock solid and stared back at the unchanged man. Wheeler was surprised to note that not a single muscle moved on the stablehand. A real horse always seemed to be in motion, a muscle twitch here and there even when otherwise motionless. Not this creature. Wheeler had his full attention and that frightened him.

Then the horse morph took a step to the side, as if afraid of spooking the horse he was feeding... but Wheeler realized that he was the one the horse morph was afraid of spooking. The horse morph was going to walk over to him and ask him something along the lines of what are you looking at? Wheeler would try to act coy and cute, and end up insulting the stallion with his brash desires. Then the stablehand would punch him, hard. He would wake up looking into the healer raccoon's face, because when the horse morph did move, Wheeler could see the cords of muscles even beneath the coat of glossy horse hair.

When are you going to stop being a victim, Grey?

By stable hand's second step, the man suddenly on the move. The horse morph watched him go with no visible emotion and then nickered to himself his own version of a chuckle. What a strange series of thoughts he'd just had. He rubbed the nose of the simple beast he'd been feeding and it nudged him back playfully, perhaps hopeful for an apple. "That was the man from the alley I told you about," the stable hand told the horse.

He'd lost a lot of sleep last night worrying over the fate of his family and much of this day wondering if he had done the right thing, turning his father and brother in. Obviously, the man had come by to thank him but had lost his nerve at the last moment for some reason.

Clay was surprised he found that... cute.

Donny gave Wheeler his first drink free by way of apology for not warning him about the tiger. The honey-thick mead turned out to be a good business decision, too. The variety of tongues and palates at the Keep inspired many strange concoctions at the pub, and Wheeler was more than willing to taste each and every one of them. Each brew reminded him of a distant port and the stories began to pour out of him just before nightfall. First a trickle and then a full torrent that burst into the pub and carried most of the patrons one by one to the bar and then to distant lands like Quoroom and Os-Var-Khai.

The drinks came as fast as the stories and, more often than not, a coin appeared from some other place besides Wheeler's purse. It was a reaction Wheeler had gotten before but never to such a degree! It was a bit of a mystery to him, but not one he was willing to question.

Hours later, Donny was closing up, or at least going through the motions and Wheeler found himself alone at the bar with a blondish dog who stared into his mazer, as if waiting for it to fill itself. "So," he said when the silence got unbearable, "What's a nice doggie like you doing in a place like this?"

"Coyote," the canine morph corrected gently.

"Sorry." Wheeler said sincerely. It was hard to be anything but sincere with this much drink in him.

"Thas'alrite," The coyote mumbled. "Never seen one myself 'til I got here. Gods like their jokes, and who can blame them?"

"Joke? How so?"

"I was a Solfire monk. Vegetarian, no meat." The coyote smiled weakly and then frowned that his mazer was still empty. "I came here from the Southlands, hoping to preach gleeping nature's balance. You'd figure a Keep full of animal people would be a good place t'startsomedin'... something like that."

"You'd think." Wheeler agreed sagely. "So what happened?"

The coyote laughed at that after staring at him a full five seconds and clomped him on the back, hard. The smile left his face when he noticed his mazer was empty. The coyote spun around to complain to the bull that ran the place and fell flat on his tail. "Jus' be careful what you wish for, thas all ah'm sayin, he said from the floor.

Good advice, the unchanged man thought. Wheeler remembered his visions and idylls of being manhandled. That was why he was always a victim. That was going to have to stop. He was getting too old for that crap, anyway.

With the snoring coyote leaving a puddle of drool on the floor, Wheeler left Donny a generous tip and wandered up to his room. He was vaguely aware that the whole evening had barely cost him a cooper and as, he stripped for bed, he told himself that tomorrow he would take charge of his life for a change. No more sex. No more of this silliness.

He was asleep before his pants were off.

The problem was, he'd made those promises to himself before and when he woke up he knew he did not want to live the life of a monk. As before, he remembered the rambling drinking adventure he'd been on last night without leaving the bar with crystal clarity.

He broke fast at the bar and found himself the center of interest of most everyone there. He was about to retire back to his room when an otterish morph waddled up to him. "Excuse me, my lord," the otter said with a wavering formality that may have just been his voice or a bit of nervousness or even the way he was brought up to speak to his betters. That thought did not sit comfortably with Wheeler. He nodded, not knowing what to say or if saying anything would make his head hurt worse than it did.

The otter nodded in turn, and took off a tiny hat. The morph was barely three feet tall. "I heard tell you'd been to Quomoor rather recently."

Wheeler shook his head. "Not for about three years, my friend. I'm afraid I have no recent news to bring you. And, please call me Grey."

The otter shook his head sadly and his voice wavered and then broke, "Please, I have been stuck here six years and can not leave this hellhole. I have not set my eyes on Qupmoor's harbours for two years longer than that. I-I know nothing of my family and I have been too shamed to tell them of my travails. Tell me what you saw, and I will be your most humble servant."

Wheeler thought of the unrest there and the suffering of its people. He'd seen fire and rape and those had been the highlights of his trip. The low points he didn't even want to think about. Dramm was lucky to get out alive with any gold. He could find nothing in his memory that could please this otter.

He opened his mouth, but it was his heart that spoke. "I remember the fishing fleets coming in on the morning dawn. In and not out, that was most strange."

The otter nodded sagely, "Pirates is always after Quoroom ships, as if we all have gold in our bellies. Night time is safer for fishing for us."

Wheeler nodded. "The dawn was painted red and yellow and the sea looked black and as bleak as Quoroom's blood stained sewers. Yet, the boats came in with their white sails high and a flock of birds chasing them. Maybe a dozen of men at the back of the boats were dressing fish and tossing the heads up in the air and never did one land in the water. Some hungry gull would catch it before that could ever happen. The docks were all bright and new having been rebuilt only several months ago when a fire took them out."

The otter's eyes went wide at that. "They's feeding the chickens, they call that." The Keeper seemed surprised to have remembered that.

Wheeler launched into the story he'd only overheard once briefly, but he padded the tale as best he could, adding the panic at Madame MacRae's for colour, and wrapped it up by citing that only one man had died in the fire and it was the gods' justice that that one man should be the arsonist himself. "The sun poked up just as the first ship came along side its berth and the ocean was suddenly glittering with gold flecks. Staring at the water glittering like that, I knew what kept its people there when all else might tell them to run, run away." The otter seconded the beauty's holding power, though, of course, at the time, Wheeler had been thinking of its gold. He nodded sagely. "That first boat, I forget it's name, but it was an older boat, at least 10 years old and battlescarred."

The otter's eye went wide. "Was it a four masted vessel?"

"Yes, but not a whaler, it had a woman on its prow..." Wheeler made hand cupping motions over his chest as if trying to recall just the right details...

The otter could not wait but a second before bursting out with a question, "Was it a blue dress that became waves at her feet?"

Wheeler snapped his fingers and pointed at the otter excitedly. "Yes, that's it... a blue dress made as if from the sea itself... I did not know how to describe it, thank you." Of course he didn't know how to describe it, for he'd never seen such a boat in the harbour of Quoroom. They had all burned in the dock fire he had glossed over. Quoroom vessels were much smaller now and made of pine. No goddesses graced their plows now, the general feeling being that the gods had pretty much abandoned them years ago.

Maybe they had, for all he knew.

"That was the Falling Star! That was my brother's ship! He's still alive, then!" The otter was now terribly animated.

"More likely as not, if he is as solid as the ship he sails upon."

"Oh he is, for he is such a great big man that were he to come here, he would as like as not be confused with Christopher the bear. Once, had as it is to believe, I was as large a man, larger, but the curse took from me everything."

Wheeler shook his head. "Quoroom does not make less than the heartiest men in the world. Your Quoroomian soul can not be diminished while lesser souls break under the weight of the curse." That was true. Slaves from Quoroom were valued highly by the likes of Dramm simply because they were the most difficult ones to break to one's will. "You will survive or die trying."

The otter nodded quickly and then threw himself at Wheeler's feet. "Your news gladdens my heart more than I can say. My exile is now once more bearable for your words. What can I do to repay you." A brief fleeting image of a stripped down ottermorph wearing only a leather mask tying Wheeler to his bed flashed through his mind. It was so stunningly ridiculous, that Wheeler burst out a guffaw. That otter looked stricken and then hurt. Wheeler, luckily knew the proper protocol for this, "Sorry, your joy's just a wee bit infectious. Tell you what, let me buy you a beer and we'll call it even."

The otter looked stricken again, but there was a kind of satisfaction to it.

"You buy the drinks?! Never! Donny! Two mugs of the frothy piss you pass off as the good stuff." Wheeler turned his head and smiled. Being otter cute must been an incredible burden for that poor Quoroomian. His thoughts began to turn to ways he might make his new friend feel like a man again, but he promptly squashed them. No more of that.

No more of that.

He raised a mug nearly as big as the otter and toasted Port Quorum.

Three days had past since Clay had his father and brother arrested and he still hadn't been down to the dungeons to visit them. He was sure they'd be sober by now, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. He could handle the verbal abuse -- he'd experience enough with that over the years - but his main fear was what seeing them locked up would do to him. Misplaced empathy he did not need.

He had thrown himself into his work at the stables lately and wondered if he'd be ready for the trial. Too bad he found himself with so much time on his hands. The royal row was a breeze to maintain now that it was practically empty, and Doug, the stable master, had ordered him to stay from the other side of the stables. Clarabell was in season, and Clay's proximity affected her badly. He was going to miss the studding, a very important lesson in horsemanship. He'd live. He didn't really want to be there for the joking he was sure would occur at his expense.

He did not think of himself as a horse, despite his appearance. Yet, he had to admit there was a resemblance. He was still human, not an animal. The body was only a container, a vessel. Form and function: that was his father's logic, not his. His father was now a carnivore and he seemed to truly believe that gave him license to become a predator within the Keep.

But still, as he put away the last of the tack he'd just cleaned, he found himself holding a bit in his hands. The metal and leather object felt cold and heavy in his hands. It was something he'd seen a hundred times before. It was something he had to remove or put on horses like Clarabell a hundred times a week.


Not too long ago. he had a dream where a silver haired fairy had come to him with a halter that he allowed her to slip over his head. When his eyes opened, he was on all fours prancing like a parade pony, with the wind whispering in his ears and a gentle weight on his back that was a little feminine slip of a nymph on his back. He was an engine of speed and the world was a blur at his feet.

Clay was alone now, in a vacant stall. Everyone would be out back in the paddock area, watching the studding. Clay slowly brought the bit up to his mouth and pulled his lips back. He lips were huge and there were so many more muscles in them than in his old human lips, he still wasn't used to them. He needed both hands to slide the bit into his mouth. His cheeks fought with the bit, and they pinched horribly on the corners of his lips. The urge to gag was overwhelming as they slipped into place behind his teeth. Someone he managed to get them in without choking on his own tongue. Talking with these on would be next to impossible.

But that was ok, he wasn't expecting to be bothered.

Controlling his swallowing was difficult, but Clay managed. It irritated him a bit, but his mouth wasn't quite shaped like a true horse's would be so that was to be expected. He wondered if he could try to morph into his full Draft Pony form with the bit in his mouth and felt oddly excited about that. He wondered briefly if the Duke himself ever allowed himself to be rigged up. Then he felt incredibly guilty that he should even be having such thoughts. The Duke wasn't like him. He was royalty.

He took a deep breath and started to fasten the rest of the tack to his head. With his thick fingers, it wasn't easy to do it on a real patient horse. On himself, excited and clumsy, it was much, much harder, yet. It took him ten minutes to put the reigns on properly, more then twice as long as it should have... and he wasn't exactly being gently with himself.

He never new exactly what moment he decided he was going to morph into full pony mode, but his breeches were off quickly enough. The sound of the studding outside wasn't helping matters and he was going to just try it once to see if a real horse's jaw found the bit as comfortable as the Stablemaster had said it was. Clay started to morph, but stopped when he felt the bit tugging painfully in his mouth. Duh. His head, Clay hadn't quite realized, was bigger as a full horse.

Clay paused for a moment trying to figure out what he should do. He morphed back to normal and stood there naked for a moment, feeling the reins brush loosely against his buttocks. It was actually a very nice sensation, but it did not help him decide what he should do. He stared off into the corner as he tried to decide if he should take the equipment or just to loosen it enough to change.

"Excuse me?"

Clay nearly leapt out of his skin.

He whinnied in fright and jumped back and spun. The whites in his eyes flashed white and his tongue was suddenly on the wrong side of the bit. He choked and tried to cover himself at the same time.

The man his father and Wicker attacked stood just outside the stall. His eyes were wide too, by the time Clay met them. But the gag reflex was now completely out of control and Clay was sure the things were trying to kill him. Panic grabbed him and he tripped on his own two feet. He made an effort to kick his feet out so he wouldn't land on them and sprain them or - worse yet-break them.

Then, the man was on top, making shushing noises as Clay clawed at the rigging on his head. When the man cupped his nose with his unchanged human hand, Clay's shock at the contact froze him into place... yet, there was a gentleness within the firmness. His lungs were still working like an angry set of bellows, but other wise only his eyes moved as the man touched him.

Still talking calmly, the man loosened the reigns and then took the bit out of his mouth. Clay went to say something, but a coughing fit stole his words. His throat was raw!

The man carefully put the bits on a nearby nail and squeezed Clay's shoulder. The man's breathe was tainted with honey mead and something that might have been fish, but his eyes were sharp and focused. They were filled with some slight concern.

He smiled gently, fatherly, and said, "Did you want to try to what it was like?"

Clay blinked. Of course not! But what he did was nod yes.

The man looked knowingly at the discarded britches on the floor and nodded. "I don't blame you... I wonder too."

There was moment of silence man actually seemed to lose himself in time. Then he touched Clay's cheek gently. "Would you like to try it?"

Clay blinked. No! But what he did was to nod yes.

The unchanged human smiled and a look passed over his face that took Clay a moment to place.


Wheeler had come to the stables looking for his rat one last time.

The trial was going to be tomorrow and he wanted to thank him before then. He'd had a lot of fantasies since first seeing the thief what meeting him would be like and what might come of it, but he hadn't struggled to suppress them over the last few days just to trot them out now.

After the trial, he was going to leave the Keep.

His heart had finally learned its lesson and he wouldn't need to be turned into a woman or child just to avoid feeling like a freak the rest of his life. Nor would he need to become a freak just to justify his feeling like a freak. He wasn't wanted here, not by the people who counted at least. The regular crowd at the Deaf Mule was nice enough. His cousin, the Duke, was ignoring him, of that much he was sure. That was probably for the best, all things considered. The curse at Metamor Keep was a bit too extreme a cure when just a bit of will power would easily solve his problem. Not that the people of the Keep weren't nice enough.

This meeting with the baifel, Clay, was a test of sorts. If he could keep his resolve and keep his fantasies still, then he'd be willing to take his chances with the Lutins... whatever they were. He wasn't exactly sure what a baifel was either, other than it was a rodent like creature.

The stable was relatively empty.

He poked his head in a few stalls, most had been mucked clean. And the smell was much less oppressive than the ship's hull had been. In fact, the smell was actually pleasant and took him back to the days before he'd been kidnapped from the streets of Br'Aire. The carefree days of youth so long ago... there was no going back.

Well, actually, there was a one in three chance of that very thing happening if he stayed long enough. He could be a child again. It happened. But, it wouldn't be the same, there would be no Mommy for him cleaning his ears or fussing with his shirt hems. There would be no wonder of discovery that made childhood special. There would be no father to make proud. There would be no growing up... a child forever helpless.

Helpless. His loins stirred at the thought.

Hmph. There'd be none of that, either.

Then Wheeler's thoughts and libido came to a crashing thought when he came face to face with a monster coming out of one of the stalls.

It's just a Keeper. Don't panic. It's just a Keeper.

It wasn't just a Keeper, though. It was a iridescent green giant dung beetle standing on incredible thick hind legs. Four hind legs, to be exact. The upper legs held a brush and a bucket of soapy water. The thing stood eye level with Wheeler and seemed to be just as startled with Wheeler's presence as he was with its. Except, Wheeler was only guessing about that. There could be no mistaking the blood draining from Wheeler's face or his leaning against a post for support. He covered his mouth in embarrassment and tried to form words. It didn't happen. The sickle like horned bobbed a bit and Wheeler actually took a step back from it, as if someone was holding a knife over his head.

The feathery things that made up the beetle's mouth buzzed a bit faster, making a questioning noise.

Wheeler pulled himself together and stammered out, "I was looking for Clay. Do you know where I can find him?"

The beetle pointed down towards the stables where the royal steeds were kept. "Zzz'all zeeeeee." It whispered. "Zzzz'all zeeeeee." And went about its own way.

Another reason not to stay, Wheeler thought. A bug. He didn't even think of them as animals, yet, that fate could as easily be his as any other. If he stayed. Which he was not going to.

A bug.

Wheeler shook off his heebie geebies and found Stall three.

Instead of a rodent morph, he found a horse morph. It was the young stallion morph he had found himself staring at several days ago, but this time its back was to him. IT? Him! This was no animal, but, in this one candid moment, the most beautiful man he had ever seen. He felt his heart swell at the unexpected vision before him.

The horse morph's back was to him and the doorway, its reins dangling off his back and along his tail, almost as if in invitation to be taken. A real horse would have spotted the unchanged human easily. However, the mostly human shape of his head prevented the Keeper from seeing Wheeler in the doorway. But then a real horse would never be swept up in the act of rigging himself.

Wheeler's eyes absorbed every inch of the Keeper's naked body, noting the impromptu pile of clothing. The hocks of his feet were as thick and as black as Chang's hair had been and the brown coat of hair was as deep a brown as Chang's eyes had been. There the resemblance ended. Chang's rat body was soft where this stallion seemed almost chiseled from stone. The legs were long and fragile looking below the knees, but actually a little thicker than a real horses might be. The docked tail showed buttocks each as huge as hams, yet without fat. The fur blackened into the crack of it, but the pink skin of youthfulness could still be seen. He felt incredibly guilty that he wanted to look under that tail to see more, but he kept on looking, entranced.

The muscles and structure above the horse tail were human looking, except for the coat of brown hair and the equine like head sitting upon the Keeper's shoulders. The mane, in the last few days, had been cut incredibly short, but the black line of it still ran from just below his shoulders and up his neck. The little twists of fabric were gone now from his mane, giving the horse morph a wilder look. Behind his ears, there was a spade shape puddle of hair, remnants of his human hair. Unlike the last time he laid eyes on the stablehand, the muscles under that brown coat twitched and flexed as the horse morph explored the sensation of having a bit in his mouth.

Wheeler could not help but remember a time when he himself had held a bit in his mouth the first time.

Chang had taken him off the streets in Os-Var-Khai and given him a place to stay. No, it was more than that. Chang had saved his life and even, miracle of miracles, actually made Wheeler feel good about himself.

Like most residents of that island nation, Chang was an animal morph, a five foot tall rat with shiny black head fur always tied back into a pony tail. Wheeler did not know this marked the rat-man as a priest, nor did ever quite understand the Tantric forces that Chang wielded until he, himself, was branded with them. He only understood that this powerful and ugly creature had taken a liking to him, saw something within him that he wanted. With halting words foreign to the rat's mouth, he promised Wheeler that if he came willingly, he would never lose hope again.

It all came with a cost. Wheeler became his willing slave. Chang spoke very little of the boy's tongue, but he taught Wheeler his own language, as well as a number of other things. He overcame his shame and learned to seem the beauty of the rat's form. He learned what he liked and what he could do.

Wheeler's life as a slave had been an easy one, compared to his life aboard the Black Capricorn. Chang began his training in earnest, once his shame had been conquered. After the first year, Chang announced that he found a potential buyer for his golden haired slave from the West, and his training began to be specialized towards the merchant Dramm.

It was about this time that Wheeler realized that he had fallen in love with Lord Chang. He felt betrayed and began throwing himself at the Tantric master. Once, Chang gave in and allowed Wheeler to service him while bathing. Chang held still the entire time until Wheeler could perform no more, and he left without saying a word.

Wheeler begged for more chances to please the master, but Chang did not give in again. Wheeler began provoking Chang and, after a short time, Chang simply stopped all his training. Wheeler was crushed. Then, a week or so later, Chang returned with an ancient jar and a bag of horse riding equipment.

Realizing that his misbehaving ways had caused Chang to avoid him for a time, Wheeler was sure to be extra attentive as Chang explained that the jar would be used to house Wheeler's soul while Chang did research into the nature of horses. The reins were magical and held a horse's soul. If Wheeler agreed, at dusk each night Chang would place Wheeler's soul in the jar and place the horse's spirit into Wheeler's body. The horse, raised to want to please Chang, would have to relearn everything it knew as the human body was so different. Chang told him he would be vaguely aware of what was happening to his body and he gave Wheeler a magic word if something should happen and he needed to get back to his human body.

By dawn, Chang promised the lid would come off the jar and Wheeler would have his own body back. The horse would, of course, retreat back into the magick bit until the next time Chang did his experiments.

In any other place, this might have sounded odd. But in Os-Var-Khai, science and magic were wrapped around animals to an incredible degree. Wheeler readily agreed. He wanted to show his master and his love that he would do anything for him.

A little sake and they began the bonding ceremony. Wheeler felt woozy from the incense burners and he could feel the magic in the air as Chang poked his naked body once in the forehead, once in the heart, and three times in the loins (the center of the soul) with a peacock feather. It drew a bit of blood in each spot and Chang painted a bit of blood onto the lip of the magic vessel that would hold Wheeler's soul as Chang experimented on his body.

Then the ceremony was over and the lid was placed on the jar, and the jar placed on a high shelf where Chang had assured him he would be able to see everything. The odd thing was, Wheeler was still in his body. But he held still all the same, as if his mind was no longer active. Chang put the bit on him and he tried to look vacant as his mind raced. He choked on it and it took all his will power not to actively resist. He kept waiting for the horse to enter his body, it never did. The last thing he wanted was for his master to have failed, but it was conflicting with his desire not to deceive the one he loved.

Change stroked his hair and then leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. Chang had never kissed him before. It startled Wheeler and then the rat merchant stroked his nose and said, "I know... I know."

It was exactly the thing one would say to a horse in a strange place, a horse resisting yet trying to please its master at the same time. Except, Chang had said it in Wheeler's native tongue, and it was then that Wheeler knew it was just a game.

But it wasn't just a game, either. The magic might have been a sham, but the experience was real. Chang trained him as if he was truly retraining a horse. Wheeler fell into the role easily. Chang was rich and his servants discreet and all had followed Chang from the Tantric temple where he was apparently once a priest. From dusk to just before dawn, Wheeler knew what it was like to serve a man body and soul as Chang became more intimate with him. It was, quite surprisingly, the happiest year of his life. It was only when Chang offered to give him a horse's body that it all came to an unhappy ending.

At the time, he had thought Chang had simply grown tired of him and was asking this of him to pressure him to leave. It was only in later years, when relating this story to Dramm, did Wheeler come to realize it had been a close a marriage proposal as he was going to get from any man.

And he had thrown it away.

He supposed that might be a bit of motivation behind his infatuation with the rat-like thief he had seen when he first arrived here. But, he could not think about that. He could only think about the creature before him about to experience what he, Wheeler, could have only pretended to. With a body that could have been Wheeler's if he had only said yes.

Then the most amazing thing happened.

The horse morph's skin rippled in a completely unnatural, magical way and the young stallion actually started to grow larger. It only lasted a second. The horse morph snapped back to normal and clutched at its face. Obviously, the Keeper's bit wasn't any more magical than Wheeler's had been and it had caused a bit of pain during the transformation. Then the Keeper appeared to brace himself for one more try and Wheeler's heart skipped a bit. The stallion would probably kill himself in the process. That's when he cleared his throat and said, "Excuse me."

It might have been a bit too loud and sudden. Horses can be skittish at times.

This one whinnied as he jumped out of his skin and tripped over his own two feet. White panic filled his eyes and Wheeler was afraid the horse morph would break something in his panic to stand up. He laid a hand on the young stallions muzzle, with thinking it might be insulting to the young man trapped in the horse's body. It was his luck the lad appeared to be the big and slow type. The bit kept gagging him and he wasn't able to catch his breathe. Wheeler made shushing noises to calm him down and that seemed to work.

Calmer, but still breathing as hard as a jousting charger, the whites slowly vanished from the Keeper's eyes. Wheeler talked about the weather as he loosened the reigns just a tad. He told him what a beautiful creature he was. Things just came out of his mouth. He didn't think to introduce himself, but kept sprouting soothingly inane things. He took the reigns off the Keeper and put them on a nearby nail, where he guessed they would go. He was about to introduce himself, but he saw that the horse morph could not take his eyes off the leather and metal rigging.

"Did you want to try what that was like?" He asked. The horse morph started, his whole body twitching the way a horse might before taking off on a run. The young stallion went to say something but nodded YES instead.

He looked again at the breeches lying on straw-covered floor of the stall. He was ready to throw his into the pile, too, if given a chance.

"I don't blame you...," Wheeler said. "I would wonder, too." Only that wasn't how it came out. What came out sounded like he was inviting himself to intrude on the stallion's private moment. But there was a pleading look in the horse morph's eyes and Wheeler knew he was falling for the stallion. Hard.

He touched the horse's cheek, wiping a bit of spittle and hay off but letting it linger there impulsively. It did not seem repulsed in the least; in a place where one's sex, age or species was subject to change it would have surprised Wheeler if it had. The older man summoned his courage and asked, "Would you like to try it?"

Again the whole horsey twitch and then a quick nod. The stallion gulped nervously and his beautiful dark eyes swallowed Wheeler and he knew he'd found a reason to stay in Metamor Keep. Probably the best reason in the world to stay anywhere.

And he smiled.

The man helped Clay to his feet and brushed him clean of the fur sticking to his naked body.

The man glanced approvingly at his body and Clay never wanted to run away more from anyone in his life. But he could not. The sight of this silver and gold haired man laying helplessly in the alley had haunted his dreams guiltily since then. The human had been bleeding to death and Clay really should have called for the Keep Guards as soon as he had seen the man's condition. But he hadn't. Instead, he had drooled over the injured man's body like a love starved girl. He would stand here and take it like a man.

Except the unchanged man didn't do anything to make it seem like punishment. His touch was gentle and soothing and his eyes, still muddy where there should have been white, were a deep emerald green that seemed to accept everything they saw. He stared at Clay expectantly and Clay stared back at him uncertain of what he should say.

Then the man smiled and gestured slightly to the stall they were in and then gave a look at the rigging on the nails. Clay whusked out a breathe, his horsey version of an, "Oh," and began to change into his full draft pony form. His vision stretched out the stall in an odd way. The unchanged human actually seemed to become bigger and the stall smaller. Colours became a bit flatter and the smell of the nearby horses in season became almost unbearable.

When the change was complete his body was huge, but his head was about the same distance off the ground. Energy twitched and yanked on his body and it was all he could do to stand still. He looked down on himself and between his forelegs to see what other embarrassing changes he had brought upon himself. He was surprised to feel his vision pivot and that the world did not seem upside down, as it would have had he'd been a human bent over and looking between his legs.

He'd only assumed the full draft pony form once before when Doug the stable master had insisted on it. The intent had been to give that stablehands some pointers on horse care. Clay didn't handle all the scents and visions very well and nearly trampled half the stablehands in his panic. The stablemaster used the occurrence to point out how dangerous a spooked horse could be and never asked Clay to stand in again for a real horse. Clay had come very close to running away to some nearby farm that day.

But the unchanged man was only one man, with a kind scent and an incredible amount of patience. He used to think his father was this type of person, but the curse had changed him slowly over the years. Or maybe Clay just got to know him better. The human's green and brown eyes reminded him of little pieces of clover in the dirt. The man's eyes were like a spring day, and when those eyes took in his new four legged form, it was like winter was gone before it even started.

Nobody ever looked at him like that before.

His pottery, yes. But before his hands had become thick and short, his hands had pulled one work of art after another from the red mud where he got his name. His charcoal sketches, too, had been highly priced by most people. In the last weeks before the curse had hit him, Clay had actually made quite a bit of coin drawing Keepers before the change had hit them, so they could remember the way things used to be. It was coin his father had taken from him, but that didn't matter to him. Or it wouldn't have mattered if his father had only been grateful.

As the man brought the rigging over his head, their eyes met and Clay realized that this older, unchanged human man from exotic places, rumored to be pirate, minstrel, and/or royalty-in-exile, wanted him. He did not know if the man wanted him as beast or man, but he closed his eyes and held back tears as he admitted to himself that he did not care.

It was just nice to be wanted for a change.

Wheeler tried not to read too much into the tear rolling down the horse's face. The rigging had brushed up against the stallion's left eye and just may have irritated it. Wheeler could see the horse was fighting to keep still, as if the transformation to draft pony had filled him with limitless energy. Maybe it had, or maybe he was just excited to have someone put him in gear.

As Wheeler found himself working the bridle into place, he tried to tell himself not to get his hopes up. Since coming to the Keep, Wheeler had heard quite a few tales about what it was like to be an animal morph. And while he never really wanted to become an animal, the stories were intriguing.

One of the things he had learned was that many animal morphs, especially the younger ones, like to play predator and prey games. Cat and mouse games, some of them called it, even if the morphs involved weren't cat or mouse. It was meaningless and considered to be almost completely harmless (there seemed to be some free-floating concern that somebody was going to go too far one day, but so far, no one had). This could be just another version of that game.

He led the draft pony around the stall three or four times. It was a big stall, designed for royal steeds and maybe a Knight and two retainers, but the draft pony was huge himself. A lap was barely more than fifty feet. At first shy and uncertain, the pony soon lifted his head up and almost pranced about the stall on the last lap. Wheeler offered to the open the door leading to the sideyard, but the horse's enthusiasm seemed to dim a little and his ears went back with a formality. "I'll take that as a no," Wheeler said understandably. Many of his friends were out there and a few of them no doubt had noses that would make a dog blush.

Wheeler found a nice saddle blanket and brought it towards the brown draft pony. The horses eyes went wide but his ears did not fall flat against his head. Wheeler stood near the nervous pony for a moment and then said, "If you don't want me to rig you up, put your ears back."

The ears twitched and moved but they did not go back. Instead, the horse lowered his head and closed his eyes in a distinctly human gesture of reluctance. Wheeler patted his neck reassuringly and arranged the blanket no his back. In the stall next to them, Wheeler found a saddle wide enough for the draft pony's back. The stallion was frozen wide-eyed at the sight of the saddle and Wheeler again asked the stallion to lower his ears back if he wanted not to wear the saddle.

The horse whusked and blinked but his ears did not fold back.

Wheeler lowered the saddle onto the stallion's back as carefully as he could, but the horse's shoulder was a good 16-17 hand high and the man could barely see over the horse. The sudden weight surprised the stallion as he jerked a bit in shock. The reaction nearly made Wheeler stumble, but he leaned into the horse's mass and said soothing things. The apologies were sincere and the horse seemed to understand that.

Well, of course he understood, Wheeler chided himself. There was a young man in that horse flesh, even if he couldn't speak at the moment.

He worked the straps across the belly, glad to have gotten some recent practice on the caravan. Wheeler lingered a second longer than necessary under the Keeper's stomach.

He did not tighten the straps across the belly too much. It wasn't like he was actually planning to ride the Keeper. At least not in the stall, there were too many low beams.

He took the horse around the stall once or twice more. It was hard to read the look in the young stallion's eyes. He was breathing harder than he should have been, but it wasn't labored breathing, either. The eyes were moist and Wheeler remembered the mixed emotions he'd felt when Chang had trotted him about as a horse.

"I know," Wheeler said quietly as he turned a corner, which he was doing every three seconds. "I know." The stallion's ears flickered towards him and there was the slightest look of disbelief in those huge brown eyes. Wheeler patted his neck, feeling the steel cables underneath the fuzzy brown coat of hair, and smiled his most sincere smile. "I do know. Really. It's all right, nobody's going to judge you."

Not anyone who counts, at least.

With that, the draft pony began to prance just a bit. Somehow, Wheeler's smile got wider and he actually laughed. The horse nickered almost cheerfully, as if trying out the sound for the first time, and then picked up the pace just a little bit more before letting loose with a hearty nickering that was like laughter.

Night comes quickly on a mountain. Shadows as heavy as the mountains themselves can fall upon you with extreme suddenness. The human barely paused to set up a lantern. Clay was afraid that might attract unwanted attention but no one came near the Royal row after the studding, for which he was extremely grateful. He and his new friend were working up quite a sweat in the tiny stall. He trampled his own clothing, but he didn't really care. He'd never felt so alive in his life and he owed it all to the man tugging gently on his reigns.

"Done now?" the unchanged human asked but Clay was not. With night newly fallen, his bravery had increased 100 fold. He pushed his ears back in their secret language they'd invented and felt a thrill that he could communicate without talking. He looked significantly at the door leading to the sideyard and whickered in what he hoped was an invitation.

The older man caught his meaning and his eyes went wide. His breathe was making a tiny clouds but he lit up at the thought. "You want to go outside?"

Clay nodded his head up and down, surprised that his field of vision seemed to move independently from his head. He was ready to try something else, all right. He'd seen the way the man had looked at him, that look that boys got when Tina entered a room. A look that no one had ever given Clay before.

The side yard gave them more room to play and after a few laps and there was no one around. Clay built himself up enough courage to ask the human to mount him, but now he had to figure out how to do it. In a moment, he started sidestepping towards the older, unchanged man. It was not a natural movement for a draft pony to make, but there was hardly anything natural about his desires.

He laughed as the older man sputtered good-naturally at Clay's sudden odd behavior, and then caught on as the saddle continuously presented itself to him. With an odd mix of joy and hope apparent on his face, even in the moonlit darkness, the human mounted Clay and squeezed his legs together. At first, Clay wanted to take him clockwise, but the gentle pulling on the reins made it impossible for the horse to head that way. To his surprise and shock, he moved almost against his will towards the other direction. His head was awhirl with both fear and delight and his body shivered with an emotion he couldn't place. The sensation of being a puppet was overwhelming and his heart raced with fear. The man atop him seemed to sense his resistance and let the reigns go slack and leaned forward over the pommel to caress his neck soothingly. He'd seen Sir Egland do it a dozen times and he'd always thought the knight was probably annoying his horse more than he was assuring his mount. This man proved him wrong, for while the saddle did shift uncomfortably, the gesture of being touched on the neck by a creature on his back stirred something satisfying deep within him. He wondered if it had anything to do with the way horses mounted each other for sex.

"Did you want to show me something, my friend?"

Actually, Clay had only really wanted to go in a slightly different direction than his rider had chosen. However, with the question asked, Clay did indeed have something he wanted to show the older man. He nodded emphatically and was glad the man was not in a position to see the physical reaction the thought was invoking.

The man let the reins go loose and squeezed Clay's ribs firmly twice. "Let's go, you lead." Clay turned towards the gate and trotted gracefully through the paddock and across the small fairgrounds that sometimes doubled for a jousting field. He trotted through the moonlit streets of the Keep and came to a courtyard with a single lone larch standing in it. A knee high metal fence wrapped the base of the tree to protect Laracin from casual harm. Clay sent a mental hello to the silvimorph, curious to see if the tree would respond. It did not, but then it was not only night but fall, so Clay was not too surprised.

He did not slow, but sped up as he approached some shrubbery and leapt over it.

That's when the saddle betrayed him and wrenched across his stomach painfully. It burned like fire and he felt the man's weight shift suddenly. The man's comforting pressure on his back suddenly vanished as Clay fought his own momentum and came to a stop. The reins tugged suddenly and painfully. Clay thought something exploded in his mouth for a second as the man's weight suddenly pulled and suddenly the ground was rushing at them both. Only instinct of his horse body kept him on all fours.

His vision cleared in the next instant and Clay had a second to wonder if the pain had been real at all. Then, as if his senses were slowed by the panic, the horse felt the saddle cruelly digging into his left side. The absence of his rider hit him a second after that. He tried to call out, because he could not see the poor man anywhere, but only a panicked whinny came out of his lips.

Mentally kicking himself, Clay pulled the draft pony form back as far as he could and melted to a fraction of his previous size. He scrambled naked to the bush and found the human trapped within it. It wasn't a thorn bush but the foliage was stiff and tended to poke those careless enough to brush up against it. Clay could not imagine what it felt like to fall into it.

The human looked up wide eyed at Clay. His legs and arms reached for the sky like he was some sort of upturned table. It was obvious he was wedged in there tightly. Clay sputtered not knowing how to remove the human gracefully and he told the man not to panic and he paused guiltily not knowing what to call the man he'd just spent one of the most happiest days of his life with, sad as that was.

The man looked up expectantly as Clay made a few forays into the bush, backing out as he realized that the way he planned was going to hurt the unchanged man. Clay looked down helplessly onto the man in the bush and tried to think. The thrown man continued to look up as the gears worked in Clay's head and then finally the man couldn't stand it anymore.

He inhaled through his nose deeply and then blew the leaves Clay's struggle had dislodged off his face. His eyes sparkled in the moonlight and then he brayed with laughter over the look on Clay's face.

Clay was startled but relieved and when the man flexed his hands towards the horse, Clay smiled hopefully and took his hands. The man's legs went down and he pulled up with his hands and worked him out of the villainous plant. They were both laughing hysterically by the time his impromptu rider and trainer was freed.

Clay hugged him, laughing but noting the scratches. He noticed his shirt was ripped in the back and he leaned over the man to get a good look. The cuts and bruises set off little plucks of emotion within the horse morph's body and he suddenly wanted to bring the man home and care for the man. "You're hurt," he gasped but the human melted into his body with a chuckle.

Suddenly, Clay realized he was still naked except for the bridle hanging loosely off the back of his head. Clay froze, afraid what his mysterious rider might intend to do; afraid what his new found friend might NOT do. Then the man proceeded with a brilliant tactile demonstration of what it was exactly he intended to do. And just so that there would be no mistaking his intent, the unchanged human bit lightly into the back of Clay's neck.

With tears and only a second's hesitation, Clay pushed the man down behind the bush.

It was still relatively early in the evening, but the Keep conspired to divert traffic from the courtyard until the next morning.

It was hard to say who limped into the Deaf Mule first, dawn or Wheeler.

The dawn this morning was thick and sluggish with fog. Wheeler was equally sluggish, and limped in with the limp rays of the day's first light, but the human was brighter than any morning Shinto Zhing, the Solfire Monk, had ever seen since coming to the Keep. It was almost disgusting, the coyote thought as he picked at his mushroom and cheese omelet. Eggs and cheese. Eggs and cheese. Now that was disgusting, but at least it wasn't meat.

The monk's hangover buzzed painfully just looking at the grin on his still-unchanged friend's face. The man's clothes were ripped and torn and his face was full of tiny rodent-like scratches. The monk wiggled his paw-like hands towards a chair the human favoured. There were three very different chairs for the other friends that usually ate breakfast with the Monk. There were all relatively new arrivals with the coyote being the senior resident at six months. "Found your rat, Grey?"

Wheeler made a face of a little embarrassment. The monk never forgot anything he'd hear when he was heavy into his cups, too. But it was too late to do anything about it now, and besides the coyote seemed to have accepted his social needs. "Actually, Shinto, he wasn't a rat," Wheeler said wryly as he lowered himself into his seat, and stopped with a painful grimace. He rubbed his chest absentmindedly and sighed. "I'm incredibly sore."

The Solfire monk smiled and some bits of food fell out of his mouth. He still wasn't completely used to not having cheeks even after half a year. "I didn't think it was a rat," Shinto said absently as he tried to recover a few bits of escaping mushrooms. "I was told there was only eight of them. None of them have blue eyes. So what kind of animal was Clay, anyway? You were with Clay, last night, I assuming?"

Wheeler shifted uncomfortably in his chair as if the question reminded him of his discomfort. "Oh, I was with Clay last night, all right," he said, with a smile. "He was a Horse."

Shinto's jaw dropped another mouthful of breakfast. He blinked and then blinked again as he tried to decide in what way his odd friend meant that. "A horse morph... or just hung like...?"

"Both, as it turned out."

The monk looked as his mushrooms carefully. "Well, that explains why you can't sit down."

Wheeler laughed, "I'll have you know I feel into a overgrown bush."

"Is that what they call it where you come from?" Shinto said with his best mystic seer voice and then laughed. "Seriously, how did you ever confuse a horse for a rat?"

Wheeler could only shrug. Donny brought over his usual plate of biscuits and cheeses and the human dug in but Shinto was still curious how Wheeler could mistake an equine for a rodent. "A muskrat or even a Opossum, those I could understand."

Wheeler just shrugged again and got up. "It's a long story. I'll tell you about it later. Really." He tossed two coins onto the table and patted Shinto on the head playfully. "Meanwhile, I've got to hurray to make myself presentable for my cousin."

Shinto ignored the petting as he would any one who was being a little rude. "That's right, you have court this morning."

Wheeler nodded as he bounded up the steps to his room. "And the Duke is the presiding judge."

Dawn found Clay staring at the ceiling of his bunkhouse bedroom.

His room-mate, Blaine, a stable pro at the age of fifteen, was a bit concerned. "You're going to be late this morning."

"I have to go to court this morning," Clay said without looking at the younger rooster who was supposed to be keeping an eye on him.

The rooster plucked at his yellow feathers, anxious to let the tawny adult feathers to come in. Of all the bird morphs Clay had known over the years, Blaine had the most dexterous fingers. It annoyed him to no end that a stupid bird could draw better than he could now. That was why he usually resented Blaine (although Blaine just assumed it was because he was in charge of the older boy and not the other way around). Today, however, Clay didn't have the energy to resent anyone. This calmness disturbed Blaine more than anything else. "That's right," the chicken said, "today, you're dad's trial. Do you want to talk about it?"

Clay sighed. "It's not that. I've come to the opinion that my dad and my brother won't be any good to anybody until someone decides to rip the skin off their meat and make coats out of them." Dead total silence filled the bunkhouse. Blaine was shocked. The worst thing he'd EVER heard Clay say about someone in the months he'd been here was that Blaine had "funny ideas about what tea should taste like." He never thought Clay could really hate someone, much less his own father.

"Did you want to talk about it?" Doug was big getting people to talk out their problems.

Clay smiled and then sighed. "Ever have sex, Blaine?"

"Yes," came the immediate reply, but it was an obvious lie. Blaine was too young a bird, but he could have had sex when he was still human. He hadn't, but his room-mate gave him the benefit of the doubt.

"Neither have I," the horse morph sighed. "I almost did last night." He looked at the bird morph. "I came so close. We touched each other all over and did other things. We laughed and I wanted to so much..." The stallion could only look back at the ceiling and remember the stars as seen through Laracin's branches as Grey's semi-rough voice told ocean tales. "But I didn't know..."

"Ah, come on," the rooster crowed, "you just stick it in her. That's all you gotta know."

Clay smirked and looked at the rooster. "I have it on good authority there's more to it than that." The stallion sighed, letting it come out as a whicker. This started Blaine, too, as Clay never made horse noises. Never. He'd been insulted that Doug had insisted on docking his tail in the tradition manner for Fell draft ponies. "Besides," the horse morph continued, "I was going to say 'I didn't know if I should.'"

He did not know if Laracin was fully dormant, or if he'd been a reluctant chaperone and witness to his silliness. Laracin was supposedly accustomed to becoming part of the background, but Clay felt guilty about fooling around like that beneath the silvimorph. Clay had a cruel streak sometimes and he wondered if it had been showing in his behavior last night. If only he'd been sure of its dormancy, Laracin's court would have been the perfect spot.

Blaine managed a beak smirk, which wasn't easy. "Oh. Was she ugly?"

"She was a guy. Unchanged human."

"Oh," the rooster said easily, "Well, give it a few days, that'll change. So, what exactly DID you do, anyway?"

The stallion seemed a bit put off by that question. "What? We... unm, sorta... held each..."

"What? Where?"

Clay sputtered. "I really don't think I should discuss details with you... you're... ummm, kind of young."

"Yeah, but both my parents are guys."

An odd look came over the horse morph's face. "Yeah, but..."

"Hey, you opened this can of worms, you know..."

Clay got a trapped look and quickly clambered off the floor. What was he thinking, talking to Blaine like this? "I've got to get ready to go to court."

As soon as Clay threw the privacy curtain back, Blaine started laughing quietly. He resisted the urge to tease Clay through the curtain as he dressed. He could tell the guy was too stressed out to appreciate it if he noticed.

Clay was done in record time and he charged out of the room, trying not to look in Blaine's direction. "Hey," the little bantam called out, "Wait."

With reluctance, Clay stopped and the rooster smiled. "What? I don't want to be late."

"Your tail's undocked."

Clay blanched. "I don't have time!"

But the rooster had the tail in his grip in minutes. "Just a quick fix. Nothing fancy."

Clay did not like his tail touched, but his own fingers felt clumsy and thick when trying to dock his tail. Court was a formal occasion, however, and he'd probably hear about it from Doug, so he put up with it while Blaine tidied him up.

"Clay," the rooster paused. "There's nothing wrong with two people loving each other, no matter what happens. You know that right?"

Clay nodded sullenly, only half convinced that the rooster even had a clue what it was like to be attracted to someone.

"And there's something my Dads' told me I should tell people when they ask about bird sex. 'A gentlemen never tells.'"

Clay nodded and seemed to think about that.

"And, if you used your mouth," the bird continued, "That counts as sex. In a way."

Clay digested that silently and then his eyes burst open wide. He couldn't believe the brashness of the younger cock. "Really? What if only one of us... um, used... ummm, the mouth... does that mean only one of use, err, us had sex?"

Blaine finished tying up Clay's tail and slapped him gently on the rump. "That's gross, Clay. Now, hurry up, you're making the Duke wait." At first, Clay started and blushed but he smiled and trotted off, his hooves clip clopping until he hit the dirt.

Blaine couldn't wait to tell the other guys the big horse was gay and that he'd won the pool.

Wheeler found the draft pony in the court room easily, but he hesitated on whether he should sit next to Clay. They hadn't really talked much about how Clay felt about the trial. He had turned in his own father, afterall, and Wheeler imagined that it must be eating him up inside. Wheeler, who couldn't even remember what his own father looked like, realized he'd never be able to do that. As it turned out, he had to sit next to the horse morph, as they were witnesses for the prosecution. Wheeler frowned as he was told this but let himself be led to the stallion's side. What was he going to say? Would Clay try to make him drop the charges?

But then he smiled when Clay's face towards him with an anxious expression. Of course he would do exactly if Clay wanted him to drop the charges. They nodded silent greetings, neither sure how to proceed with their relationship at this point.

Wheeler knew he could take care of Clay. This was exactly what he had been looking for, someone he could be master of, the way Chang had been his loving master so many years ago. He was too old to be a sub anymore. He needed to start acting like a man and to stop allowing himself to be a victim. Clay needed him and he needed the horse morph, and unlike what he had with Chang, nothing would be make-believe. They would be good for each other, but, still he recalled with a thrill the power in those hands and wished for that now.

As the crowd settled down, Wheeler slipped his large but unchanged human hand onto Clay's knees. The muscles under the horse morph's clothes rippled outwardly from his touch and the horse looked at him and blushed a bright red, although Wheeler barely saw it in the horse morph's ears and pink exposed flesh of his nose. "Would you like it if I dropped the charges?"

The horse's demeanor suddenly changed and he seemed to grow larger. Given how the curse worked, Clay thought, that was entirely possible. His brown ears slammed down into his head and a there was degree of whiteness whirling within his eyes that would have made Wheeler flinch if he'd seen it in a real horse. "I want them to rot." Then it was gone and the horse morph seemed confused by his sudden outburst.

Within moments, the courtroom became as hot, stuffy, and as smelly as the Deaf Mule became when the kitchen was going full tilt. Except for the absence of the pleasant aroma of beer, that is. Wheeler gave the horse morph's knee another squeeze and didn't press the matter.

He wouldn't have had time anyway. No sooner than Clay's blunted hands touch his own, did Thalberg stamp the ceremonial Bill, a large pike-like staff with a hatchet near the top, indicating that court was now in session. And just to be sure, he announced in a large ringing voice that Prime Minister Mal would be presiding over today's docket and would everyone stand, please.

Wheeler stood up all right; he almost hit the ceiling in fact.

Luckily, the others standing a mere second after he was on his feet, so he didn't think Thalberg had the satisfaction of seeing his face. "That reptile," he muttered like it was a curse. Somewhere it was, he was sure. Logically, he knew that this last minute substitution could have happened for any number of legitimate reasons. Even the Duke, himself, could have simply cancelled his appearance on a whim, but Wheeler had the distinct impression Thalberg was getting a laugh out of keeping the two distant cousins apart.

The woman who took the stand came out in a powdered gray wig and a black robe and banged her gavel loudly before she was ready to sit down herself. Wheeler got the distinct impression she wasn't a morning person. She was lovely, even scowling. Wheeler fleetingly wondered what she looked like before as a man. Oddly, he didn't find the idea of sleeping with a one time man as attractive as he had first thought he would have. He liked the equipment too much, he supposed.

Fleetingly, he wondered what it would feel like to be a horse morph like Clay. His mind's eye was overtaken with an image of two horses chasing each other in the field popped into his mind, but then one stopped and became a furry little man who dropped onto the other's back. Then after a bit, the two switched and he saw that the rider was now Clay and he was the steed. It was a nice daydream. It took the edge off his anger and he sat back down automatically with the others.

Clay seemed annoyed with him for some reason and then the prisoners were being hauled out, so he never got to ask why.

Henri, the white tiger, looked like hell. The dungeons did not agree with him, it seemed. His son, Wicker, did not appear the worse for wear, however. Henri did not look up but the large orange cat made it a point to look everyone in the eye... until his eyes fell on them. The large gem like eyes narrowed as if committing every detail of his face to memory.

A lot of good that would do him. By the time he gets out, I'll be... different.

That thought didn't end as satisfying as it had started.

Mal made it clear she wasn't going to be intimidated by a pair of low-life carnivores. Or anyone, for that matter. She called Wheeler up for his testimony but she hardly gave him the room to speak his piece. She cross-examined him and got him to admit that he was under the impression that he was going to have sex with the white tiger. She dismissed Wheeler curtly, and he returned to the gallery burning with embarrassment and anger. Clay tried to take his hand, but Wheeler pulled it away sullenly, not wanting to be touched while he was angry. And a little ashamed.

The Prime Minister then asked Henrik Potter if what Wheeler had said was true. In part, the white tiger admitted, because the liquor was talking and Wicker's involvement was limited to mistakenly defending his father. Wicker, wisely, said very little. The purse was stolen, only to make it look like a robbery, Henrik said. The story was full of holes and Mal was not amused.

Mal surprised Wheeler by calling Donny the barkeep as a witness. The bovine morph did not take the stand, as Mal only had one question for the man and she did not have time for formality. She stopped him as he started to make his way to the stand, "How much did Henrik Potter have to drink?"

"One maser of wine," the barkeep said, "but he did ask me to top it off several times."

Mal raised an eyebrow at that, "Guess."

"The one maser of wine," the bull-man said, "He said it was too strong so he had me top it off with water. By the end of time he left with Mr. Wheeler, it was little more than colored water."

The courtroom buzzed excitedly as Donny sat back down. Not because what he said was particularly earth-shattering, but because many people had never heard the barkeep say so much at one time. A few in attendance were surprised Donny could talk at all.

The gavel slammed down and quieted the court room. "Before I ask the jury to consider your case, is there anything either one of you would like to say?"

Henri nodded. "I would like to ask the court to remember that my son is only a young boy, barely old enough to hold down a job. Please look past his size and remember you are seeing only the curse and not the boy beneath."

Mal nodded, as if she hadn't expected the older tiger to say otherwise. "And, you, Wicker Potter? What would you have the court know?"

The big orange cat had been glaring at the jury since Donny had sat back down. Wheeler was unsure what the group's function was, but apparently the four Trans-sex humans, the four faux-children, and the four animal morphs held some responsibility to the Potters' fate. At the judge's question, Wicker casually looked away from the 12 Keepers and looked directly at Clay and Wheeler. Without question, Wheeler felt the full attention of the engine of destruction fall upon him. His hand found the horse morph's and squeezed it without conscious choice.

Looking right at them, Wicker spoke in a low voice that carried evenly across the courtroom. "Some people," he said, "are just born prey."

That cut right through Wheeler and he barely heard the gavel fall repeatedly as the courtroom buzzed angrily.

Wheeler was horrified and his own thoughts did nothing but his increase his unease. What if it was true?

Clay did not like crowds. His ears tended to rotate by themselves when a stray noise caught their attention and in the courtroom, his ears felt like they were going to wander off his head at any moment. He could feel his muscles twitching under his clothes. His whole body was responding to the excitement of the others and he was ready to bolt at a moment's notice. There were too many carnivores near him to ignore, but he tried to concentrate on Grey's scent. My rider, he thought with a thrilling mix of emotions. My trainer. My groom.

Clay knew he was just being silly. He doubted Grey actually thought of himself as his rider or trainer. Grey was so much older and more mature... he'd been around the world. Literally. How he thought of Clay or his relationship to Clay was a mystery to the stallion. Horny kid, maybe. Someone to teach, maybe. Playmate, maybe. Or maybe even the man thought of him as a weird kind of surrogate son. It had only been one night, afterall.

Just one long night that he had bared his soul to someone in the dark, that was all.

That thought just about covered his whole body in a blanket of goose bumps and he had to shake them away as the gallery suddenly rose as Thalberg announced the Prime Minister as the standing judge for cases today. Mal was beautiful, in an angry and severe sort of way. Even Grey stared at her and Clay found himself dealing with a pang of jealousy he hadn't expected.

His first impulse was to dismiss all these emotions and stray thoughts, but since becoming a horse, Clay had to learn that he must listen to his body. And his thoughts. It prevented unwanted surprises further down the road. Other morphs encouraged this, although they all cautioned that some instincts the animal bodies brought with them were to be ignored. Kimberly the rat, for example, admitted some reluctance to being in a room with a cat morph. She did not let this rule her life, however, and she only acknowledged it so she could deal with it. Life was too complex to waste time lying to yourself.

Wheeler was called to testify and Mal cut him to pieces. When Mal asked him why he left with Henri, the unchanged human glanced miserably back at Clay. The horse morph's heart went out to the poor man and he nodded supportively. After last night, Clay knew the older man was attracted to other men, as he himself was. There was nothing to hide; nobody was going to judge him.

Nobody that counts, in any case.

"I had been drinking heavily. I'd just come back from a talk I had with the Steward. A talk that did not go well. By the time Henrik sat down at my table, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself and very alone. Henrik suggested we leave and I agreed."

"Why? You had a room over the Deaf Mule, as I recall. Why didn't you go upstairs?"

Clay saw his friend's ears turn red. His semi-rough voice was barely a whisper when he did answer. "He said he had some toys he wanted to... show me."

"To show you?" Mal's voice was doubtful.

"He thought," the man said as if the question was a crushing weight on his shoulder. "I would like them."

Mal glared at Wheeler as if he was the one on trial. Clay wanted to run up to the man and protect him, and hold him and cover his ears. He could have trampled Mal when she asked the next question, it was so unfair. "Why did you go off with the tiger? Was it to so you could pay for sex with him?"

Grey looked like he'd been slapped. The man might look like a bronzed skinned, blonde haired warrior from tales of yore, but Clay had learned last night Grey was soft and fragile in his heart. "My lord?" he asked and his voice broke pitifully.

"Nevermind," Mal said, "We can just assume Henri was not discussing his spinning top collection, alright? For the court's purposes let's leave it at that. Did the subject of money ever come up?" Grey started to shake his head no, but stopped. He swallowed and Clay imagined he could feel Grey's dry throat and his fear and embarrassment. "Actually, I let him know that I had some money, if that was an issue."

Mal nodded. "Did he ask for the money?"

Grey shook his head. "No. He acted like he didn't hear me. He said that... That... that maybe it was the alcohol but he wanted me. That we should just go to his place."

The questioning continued along the vein right up until the attack. "I think we can safely remove prostitution then from the charges against the two tigers." Mal finally nodded with satisfaction and signaled for Grey to sit back down. Grey was shaking with emotion when he sat back next to Clay. Clay tried to take his hand, but the older man pulled away. Clay watched Grey carefully as he struggled with his rage and embarrassment.

As expected, Henrik lied to Mal, but with enough truth to make everything look all twisted. Clay could not believe that man was his father. The tiger morphs really could rot for all he cared about them. His father did look like Hell, however, and would not have been surprised to learn that Wicker was stealing his father's rations. He had completely no sympathy for either one of them. Henrik made Wicker seem like the hero of the piece and for the first time realized that Henrik was not frightened for Wicker, but frightened of the big cat morph. Even that revelation did not endear his father to him in the least. He wanted to kick his father. He wanted to kick Wicker and he wanted to kick the Malissa and everyone who would hurt Grey. Clay couldn't ever remember feeling this way about someone before.

Mal got a few words out of Wicker and then called upon Donny the Barkeep. Clay was shocked at the length of his testimony, for he'd never heard the minotaur like creature say more then four or five words. Wicker finally spoke up when the judge gave them a chance to ask for mercy. His brother wasted his chance by pointing out, "Some people are just born prey."

Grey blanched visibly at the threat and suddenly their hands were once more intertwined. Clay willed as much strength through his hand and into Grey's body. Grey smiled weakly at the gesture. Clay got the distinct impression he wanted the horse morph's arms around him, but not in public. Clay moved his hand where no one could see it, stroking his new friend three short times. It was a bit forward, but it felt like the right thing to do. Grey squirmed a tiny bit and that hidden cuteness in the big man bubbled out. Clay got a thrill just knowing that he was the only one who could see it.

If anyone had told him a year ago he'd be flirting with a sailor while the fate of half his family was being decided by a group of 12 of his fellow Keepers, he would have laughed. Not so much in doubt, but in evil delight. Clay was quiet, a hard worker, and had a softness towards those in need but he also had a cruel streak that manifested itself when he was opposed. When his own body betrayed him by refusing to change quickly enough, he began slicing his arms and stomach with broken pieces of pottery to punish it. Sometimes, he would hurt his friends accidentally just to care for them later. He tried to limit himself when the urges came upon him as that really wasn't the person he wanted to be.

Of course, in the Keep, people rarely got to chose the kind of people they want to be.

Mal set the jury out to deliberate. Grey suggested that this might be a good time for a trip to the outhouses. Clay doubted the jury would take that long, but nodded seriously. On the way, they fell into talking as if they were old friends. Grey complained bitterly that the Duke was avoiding him. Either that, or Thalberg was conspiring to keep him from the Duke. Both of Clays ears shot straight up in the air and he stopped in place in the middle of the street.

Wheeler really should have used the chamber pot before leaving the Deaf Mule, but being on time was more important than being comfortable. Now as he tried to find a spot to relieve himself, he grumbled, "The Duke is avoiding me, I think. Either that or that overgrown lizard that is the Stewart has taken it upon himself to keep me from Thomas." He stomped on and it was three long strides before he realized that horse morph was no longer by his side.

Wheeler looked back to find the pony looking at him in a funny way. "What's the matter, Clay?"

The pony unfroze and shook his head as to clear it. "Let's go this way to the stables."

Wheeler smiled slyly and followed Clay through the twisting streets of the Keep. Within minutes, they were at the stables, heading for the Royal row. A set of six stalls separate from the other stalls and each marked with the seal of the red stallion. "There's nobody here. Not even horses to bother us."

Clay made it a point to stop and check into each one. Wheeler looked also and saw that each stall was not only empty of everything but straw and a few pieces of equipment. "This week was a good time to clean," he said when they came to the last empty stall, "I was able to spend a whole day in each stall cleaning."

Wheeler felt confused and he didn't see a chamber pot. Clay made a point of not moving as he fingered the bridles they had cleaned and replaced a few short hours ago after their little experiment. There was an undertext Wheeler felt he was missing, and it had nothing to do with a few spare pieces of horse tack. He stepped in front of Clay and cupped the horse's nose in his right hand. It was warm and fuzzy and reminded him of another piece of anatomy. "Why was it a good week to clean these stalls?"

Clay closed his eyes and pushed his muscular lips into Wheeler's palm. "Why was it a good week to clean the stalls where Thomas keeps his mount? It's rare that all the horses are gone at the same time, that's all."

Wheeler ran his hands on the cheeks of his new friend. "Thomas' mount is not here?"

"He's not where he belongs, that's all that I'm saying."

"Where is he?" Wheeler stepped back from Clay.

"I don't know."

"Where's Thomas? Is he even here?"

"I can't say."

Wheeler was flabbergasted. "He's been gone all week? Why didn't anyone tell me? What is he on a secret mission or something?"

"I can't say."

"What can you tell me?"

Clay seemed to think about that and he smiled an evil grin. "You picked a bad week to come to the Keep."

Wheeler felt his chest tighten and he rubbed the tattoo automatically. It didn't help. "When is the Duke coming back?"

"I don't know. Of course, if I did know, I'm sure I couldn't say."

Wheeler felt himself unwrapping a bit. "I'm almost out of money. I don't have a job yet. What am I going to do?"

Clay leaned forward and touched the unchanged human. He was watching Wheeler very carefully, as if frightened by the way he was reacting. He wanted so much to be strong for the Stallion but it was too hard right now. "What do you want to do?"

"I want to stay," Wheeler said.

"You can," Clay said easily. "Nobody gets turned away from the Keep. We've taken in criminals and assassins because everyone literally gets a new start in Metamor."

"Why won't Thalberg give me a job or let me stay within the Keep proper, then?"

Clay shrugged at that and hugged the man. Then he started and smiled. "Did you try asking for a job or did you just ask to speak with Thomas?"

Wheeler opened his mouth and then closed it again. "I asked for Thomas, not a job. And, if Thalberg put me within the Keep proper, it would be harder for him to hide the fact Thomas was missing."

"You're cold, aren't you?"

Wheeler started. "I didn't pack warm enough clothes. We're in the mountains and I wasn't thinking." Clay pulled him into his arms and hugged some warmth back into him. "You know, if there's one thing we have in Metamor Keep, it's a heck of a lot of clothing that no longer fits their owners properly. I bet I could find you something."

"You'd do that for me?"

Clay blinked. "Of course I'd do that for you." And then he whispered, although there was no one else around to overhear. "You're my Rider."

To Wheeler's surprise, that whispered phrase brought a sob choking up his throat. Hot tears dribbled down his cheek which Wheeler pushed into the horse morph's chest. And his arms wrapped around the pony.

"My mount, my stallion, my steed," Wheeler choked. They had only known each other for a few hours, but this felt so very right. "My true companion."

Clay grasped him tightly, unable to believe that anyone could want anyone so much so quickly and yet too afraid to question it.

They held each other until they heard the signal that a verdict had been reached.

The Prime Minister almost didn't wait for them to get back before asking for the jury's verdict. There was no surprise. They were both guilty. Mal looked at the two tigers and did not like what she saw. "You, Henrik Potter, lured a trusting man who had come here to Metamor Keep to voluntarily to share in our fate, our curse, and our destiny. He did you no wrong and his only mistake was looking past the claws and fangs and imagining he saw a likeable man underneath." Mal shuddered with disgust. "His mistake, however, does not excuse your crime. And, I will not allow a man who can look past a face like yours and try to see a man beneath it to suffer such an injustice. I can't turn back the clock, Henrik Potter, but I can lock you in the dungeons for six months for the crime."

Mal turned to Wicker. "Wicker Potter. I'd be willing to believe you were led into this life by your father if it hadn't been for your rather blunt statement about some people being prey. None of us here are animals, despite our different appearances. Where you think you fall on the food chain does not entitle you to special behavior here in the Keep. Therefor, after a four week incarceration in the dungeons, you will be brought before a council to be chosen at that time. You will be made a ward of the Keep and you will be monitored. You will either curb your aggressive tendencies, harness them for good, or you will find yourself in my hands again. Is that clear?"

Wicker stood his ground and seemed defiant. "Perfectly clear, woman." Mal raised an eyebrow and said nothing for a good minute. Wicker did not flinch or blink, but he did seem to smile softly. "Make that eight weeks. Take him away."

Wicker left calmly with his head held high, memorizing each face on the jury, each court guard, and everyone, in fact, that was there to witness his conviction.

After Wicker was led away, Clay led Grey to the place he had grown up in. "My mother moved out a few weeks after I changed." Clay said as he walked past the broken pottery and busted tin pieces of the abandoned storefront.

"My br-my big sister has her own place within the Keep with her husband. With dad and Wicker in jail, we can have this place to ourselves for two months."

The unchanged man wrinkled his nose. "It'll take that long just to clean out this place."

"Naw," the stallion said with relative humour. "When you've got a pair of bored five foot tall dung beetles around, you'd be surprised how fast a place can get clean."

Grey made a face but said nothing.

Clay turned around with a chest full of clothes. "These were Tin's before he changed. I think they'll fit you. My old pants might fit you, if his don't. He had shorter legs, you know."

Grey smiled weakly and looked at the pile of clothes... the chest had been cedar lined so they smelled nice, at least. "Tin was a bit on the husky side for a 15 year old."

"My mother's side has a lot of tall men," Clay said with some gentle cheer.

"Or so she told us. I haven't seen anyone one on that side of the family since the Battle of the Three Gates. I guess they've written us off as dead." He looked at the pink and brown skin of his palm and then scratched at the long black hair hanging off his wrist with his other hand. "It's not like I can visit them and find out."

Grey was absorbed in sorting the clothes, obviously trying to imagine what a monster Tin must have been. In truth, Tin was only about 5foot tall and barely weighed 5 stone, when the change hit. Mother just happened to be a terrible seamstress , preferring to err on the side of huge. Grey was too quiet, he realized after a moment.

"Grey? This is where you're supposed to ask, 'What was it like, changing, Clay?'"

Grey looked up and actually looked embarrassed. "I'm sorry, Clay. What was it like, changing?"

"It's different for different people. For me, it was like having a cold for awhile. I had a fever, I was sullen, and then I was a little hoarse." He cleared his throat a few times for effect. Grey actually chuckled at that. "The big problem for me was that my mother was wolf and my dad was a tiger and most children of mismatched animal morphs usually become one or the other. Usually, meaning, of course not always."

"Right," Grey said catching on. "Your dad claimed your weren't his son."

Clay deflated at that. "I wish it were only true."

"Hey, if you were my son, I'd be proud of you no matter what you were."

Clay grabbed a few random pieces of clothing from the chest and grabbed Grey by the arm. "Let's play dress-up."

Grey laughed nervously as the stallion dragged him to the master bedroom.

"That's the first thing my sister said to me when she saw new body was finished with me." She grew up as a boy and never really played much with dolls. Tina measured me and altered my shirts a bit. I'd always been a big boy, but I couldn't get my head into my old shirts. My old breeches were a lost cause, they rubbed against me in all the wrong places and I had to go to a tailor to get a few pairs that fit just the right way."

He picked up Grey and placed him on the bed standing. He started undressing the man only to stop when he saw the man turn white. He hadn't seemed shy last night, but something was bothering him. "Are you ok, did you want me to stop?"

Grey sighed and looked confused himself. "I'm trying to figure out just when you became in charge of me."

Clay suddenly saw what he was doing to his new friend. To his rider. If anything, the rider should be in charge, at all times. His hands went to his mouth slowly as he considered what he had been about to do. And what he 'd already been done. Having had to admit his desires in a court of law before complete and total strangers must have eaten at the man's ego.

Outside the Keep, same sex affairs were frowned upon, to say the least. Inside the Keep, it still produced a certain amount of smirking, especially among Followers of the Way, but it was at least tolerated because of the curse. Grey had been brought close to tears in the courtroom and then Clay, his Steed, turned on him by dragging him across the Keep and comparing him to a doll that he might dress up.

"I'm sorry," Clay said, softly and sincerely. "Tell me what you want me to do."

"I... I don't know." Grey admitted. "I'm just a little confused right now."

Clay waited for a moment, but the unchanged man standing on his mother's bed just seemed to stare off into space. Then his fingers were back at the top of his Grey's light fall breeches. Grey started cutely and Clay tried not to smile with delight at that. As Clay undid the top bottom, he asked,

"Would you like me to stop?"

"No," the man said after a slight hesitation.

Clay undid the next button. "Would you like me to stop?"

Grey swallowed and then took a deep breathe and then swallowed again. "No."

Clay held his fingers over the last button, letting Grey feel the weight of it. "You know, Grey, there's no reason you have to be in charge all the time. It's hard always being the one to do everything. Sometimes it's good to just switch with somebody, and let them do all the worrying."

He looked up and saw tears in the man's eyes. This crying man was so incredibly dear to the stallion at that moment that he was ready to cry, too. "I never wanted... to be weak. I wanted to be strong for you."

"Now, it's my turn to be strong for you." Clay whispered.

"Don't... do this for me..." the man said in a small faraway voice.

Clay slowly undid the final button, letting his hot horse breathe fall directly on the silk beneath. "Then I'm going to do this for me, my rider. Is that alright?"

"Yes," Grey said in surrender.

Wheeler awoke to a distant pounding.

It wasn't even dusk yet, but Wheeler and Clay had eaten up much of the day getting to know each other. It was exhausting, but rewarding work. Clay was completely spent, but Wheeler's tattoo wards speeded up his recovery time. He'd never been both master and slave to anyone before and he wondered if he could make a relationship like this work. He wondered if this would survive the change.

The pounding came again and Wheeler threw on some of Tin's old clothes. They were tight in the crotch, but they fit. Clay was wearing his silk underpants, so Wheeler left them there with a gentle pat and ran down the steps to the front door.

It was a coyote, but not his friend, the monk. "Thalberg requests your presence at your earliest convenience."

"Thank," Wheeler said a little gruffly. "How did you happen to know where to find me?"

"The Prime Minister suggested you might be here." The coyote said as if that name would mean something to Wheeler. "If you like, I can take a message back to Thalberg."

"Oh, yes, I'll need five minutes to get ready. Thank you for letting me know."

The coyote smiled and then trotted off. Wheeler was going to have to ask if he was supposed to tip messengers here. He ran upstairs and found his silk clad pony still snoring away. He matched his outfit as well as possible and then shook Clay awake. "I have to go see Thalberg. I'll bring back some food for dinner, but I need you to do something for me."


Wheeler pulled up his blouse and exposed the two inch high mystic glyphs.

"Could you rub here?"

Sleepily, Clay rubbed his hands across the three glyphs and Chang's distant voice called to him. Pain. Agony. Hope. The warmth of healing spread over Grey's body as it hadn't in almost two years. The warmth in his chest became heat quickly. Clay loved him, he knew, otherwise, the warmth would never have become such a burning ember so quickly. Three passes was all the pony could manage before his arm became too heavy. He loved the horse morph, too, and he kissed Clay on his muzzle.

Clay's eyes fluttered once more. "You smell nice."

"It's the cedar on the clothes, now get some rest."

Wheeler was deliriously happy when he left for Thalberg's office.

It did not last.

When Wheeler entered the Stewart's office, Malissa and Coe were there as well as the alligator and two other creatures he did not recognize: a chicken morph and a smaller lizard morph that very well may have been Thalberg's son for all he knew. They stood off to the side, so Wheeler ignored them.

"I am glad you requested this meeting, my lord," Wheeler began still high from this day's exercises. "I wanted to apologize."


The command, called out in Noble Khumari, caught Wheeler completely off guard. Instinct and training threw him down to the floor before he could figure out what was going on. He heard his new pants rip, but he hardly cared. He was absolutely shocked to the core. He tried to gather his wits, but he couldn't even remember what he'd been saying seconds ago. Clay should be here, he thought.

Clay should be here.

Thalberg came out from behind his desk. The alligator seemed to be inspecting him. "Incredible. What kind of spell is he under?" Wheeler felt stupid and, for a second, he was sure he had only imagined that he had heard a shrill woman's voice that had commanded him to his knees. "I 'm not-"


To hear the highest dialect of Khumari, after so many years! The screeching woman's voice just plowed through any effort he made to erect mental walls against it.

Training over took Wheeler's brain. He snapped his mouth shut and hit his forehead on the floor to apologize. It hurt since his body was expecting a woven mat beneath him not stone, but he took the pain without question. He felt his throat muscles constrict painfully. He whimpered in frustration and did not move.

"It is not a spell, Noble Thalberg, but deep, intensive training." This was from the lizard that might have been the Stewart's son, but Wheeler could not bring himself to look up. His accent was pure noble Khumari and he seemed to emanate calmness. Wheeler could feel a gentle magical probe lapping against him and he knew this young lizard morph was not what he seemed. "At least, the tantric wards are not reacting to Mong-Ho's commands. He is on his knees because he was trained to do so. Apparently, by a Tantric master that is all I can say with certainty."

"Remarkable," the steward said. "Mong-Ho, ask him who his master is."


"Please, I can not," Wheeler started.


The displeasure was thick in the woman's voice and it took a second to associate the screeching with the chicken he'd seen as he entered. He pictured Clay in his mind and tried to deny the image and that made the tattoo burn in shame. Wheeler let out a strangled cry. He answered in lesser Khumari then, in his panic. "I have no master. I have been freed."


"Noooo!!!" Suddenly, the bird morph was ripping at the hole in his pants.


"Please, Mong-Ho, there is no need to attack the man, I only want some answers."

"He lies and says he has no master."

The younger lizard seemed unperturbed by the roster's screeching. "Tantric slaves are not trained to lie, Mong-Ho."

"They are trained for discretion! They can be trained to lie!" the hen screeched. "Especially a westerner."


"I call no one master!" Again he could not help himself but to answer in Khumari. The hen was using the neuter form of master now.

"Ask him what his interest in young Clay Potter is," this came from the prime Minister and when Wheeler heard Mong-Ho inhale to repeat the question to him in Noble Khumari, he screamed.

Wheeler screamed like someone shoved a hot poker into his heart. They might as well have. He would not hear the question. He could not allow himself to hear the question. He would not have to answer the question if he did hear it from the cruel chicken morph behind him. But he did not count on Mong-Ho 's innate ability to out scream anyone.


Wheeler gouged his face but could not stop the answer from coming out. In Khumari, he told them that he was Clay's rider as well as his slave in turns. He wailed but could not stop the explicit details from pouring forth from his mouth. The question had opened a flood gate of emotion and even as Thalberg and Coe grabbed his hands to keep him from clawing out his own eyes, Wheeler told them everything. Everything. About the rat who stole the apple. About lying in the alley wishing he would be raped or killed. His soul spilled out completely before enough of his blood could drain out of him.

He fell limp to the floor, crying, in great big racking sobs. Thalberg looked incredibly pale, which was a feat for the cold blooded alligator. Even Mal felt pity for the man. Ye, the smaller lizard, translated as much as he could. Wheeler was vaguely aware that the smaller lizard cleaned up a lot of what had spilled out of him and for that little bit of dignity, the slave was grateful. Wheeler could almost feel the magic sight of Ye on him as he said, "The wards seem to be reacting to his distress, protecting him."

"I still do not understand, if the only magic on him are protection wards, why the dramatics?" Thalberg asked, regaining some control over the session. "Why is he acting this way?"

"He has been very well trained. Understand, please, that he willing opened himself up so that his master could control him." Ye said softly. "To serve so completely, is an honour so very few achieve. But it is also an honour that can not be given back." Thalberg shook his head confused. "But why is he acting like we're torturing him?"

A ripple spread across the pool of calmness that surrounded the smaller lizard. Ye sighed and looked down. "He did not give himself to us. We are not his masters. We are uninvited into the garden of his soul and he is a most delicate flower."

"It is show," the hen screeched. "He is warded. He will heal."

"He's not lying, is he?" Thalberg asked and Ye murmured that Wheeler was completely open to them. Thalberg sat heavily down on the floor. "I'd only wanted to ascertain if this man was a threat. If only Wessex were here to verify his intentions, as he has done in the past."

"I feel like a rapist." Mal said under her breathe.

"I could order him to forget, if it make you feel better." Mong-Ho offered glibly.

"If only you could make me forget," the Prime Minister spat. "Would that work, Mr. Wheeler, if Mong-Ho ordered you to forget."

"No," he sobbed, "I would only pretend to forget and hope the act would become fact."

Mal glared at the two native Os-Var-Khumaris. "How can you people, by that I mean your whole damn island, how can you turn people into this?" Ye sighed. "In our country, those who serve are the most honored. Those who serve so completely that they allow themselves to become possessions are honored for their sacrifice. A slave like your Wheeler is revered as highly as the Emperor's household staff or advisors. To us, there is no shame in the selflessness."

Thalberg ran his claws through the weeping man's hair. "I am sorry, Wheeler. When Coe described the symbols on your chest, Ye and Mong-Ho recognized the pattern as the slave wards of their homeland. The first two symbols agreed with the meaning you told Coe, if with some variations I could understand you glossing over. The third one, neither Ye nor Mong-Ho recognized, but it certainly wasn't your name."

Wheeler did not respond to any of this and simply continued to bleed and weep onto the stone floor. There was no question for him to respond to, as Ye gently reminded Thalberg a moment later. "I'm sorry, you see, recently we had a few incidents with people who were under the control of others who would not step directly within the Keep. The glyph we couldn't identify... Mong-Ho and Ye agreed it might have been a control glyph. We asked a trusted Keeper with great magic sight to examine you from afar. It had the strongest magic of all three, but Sean did not know or understand what he saw." Realizing he still hadn't asked a direct question, Thalberg sigh.

"What does the third glyph mean."

"Hope." Wheeler whispered. "The worst torture of them all."

"What does it do?"

"It lets me hear Chang's voice."

Mong-Ho crowed at this little tidbit. "I knew it! I knew it!"

Thalberg continued the stroke Wheeler's head. "What does he tell you to do?"

Wheeler broke down further and the racking sobs made it hard for the four

Keepers to hear the answer. It was heartbreaking. "He doesn't... tell me to do... anything," the words stumbled out one by one between sobs. "He tells me... I am... beloved."

Clay awoke just pass dusk to an urgent pounding on his door. He wasn't in the bunkhouse, so he was a little disoriented at first. He found Kee hopping from on foot to another.

"It's your friend, Wheeler. Something happened to him. You have to come quickly."

Clay didn't even bother putting on more clothes; his loins were covered. That would have to be enough. He chased the messenger back to Thalberg's office where he discovered the young dragon morph, Ye, his fellow countryman, Mong-Ho, and the raccoon healer, Coe, standing over Grey. "Grey?" The man looked up and his face was in tatters. Clay suddenly felt a touch so cold, his legs went numb and failed him. Coe and Ye jumped up towards him.

"Don't let him fall on his legs!" Coe cried out but Clay did not hear him as they broke his fall inches at a time. Neither of them was up to supporting Clay's weight. All Clay could take in was the pitiful way his beautiful rider looked and the smacking sound he made trying to get the words out. Clay crawled on his hands and knees to Grey's side. Grey said, "I'm sorry." He said it three times before he stopped and started crying softly again.

"What happened?"

Ye said simply, "We have shamed him."


Ye spoke slowly and sadly. "His western mind could not fully accept his Eastern heart."

White lightning appeared in Clay's eyes and his tail shot around like a ferret in heat. Anyone who spent time around horses or even the Duke, knew all too well what those things meant, yet Ye continued blandly. "He is a slave without a master and he is suffering for it."

Clay grabbed the little lizard, "I want to know what happened here." Brian Coe put his hand on the draft pony's shoulder. "We happened here." He sighed as Clay released Ye. "Thalberg thought he might be a danger to the Keep."

Clay was flabbergasted. "I knew Thalberg didn't like him, but to rip up his face...!"

"I did that," the man sobbed from the floor of Thalberg's office.


"I used to be a slave... when I was in Os-Var-Khai... I should have told you... and they... and they thought I was a threat so they used commands on me to make me talk..." the man's voice squeaked pitifully as another crying jag overtook him. "I tried not to talk... but I was too weak. I'm so... so sorry... I told them... everything."

"That's ok, Grey. Really."

But Grey shook his head and would hear none of it. Clay ripped open Grey's shirt and saw the glyphs half faded. Clay ran his fingers over them and they seemed to flicker.

"He wants to die," the hen said regretfully. "The shame is too great. His Western mind is too small to understand the honor he has."

Clay ignored the bird. Between his bantam bunkmate and what he'd had heard about Mong-Ho, he was coming to the conclusion that all birds were idiots. "No," the horse insisted, "There is no shame. Grey, listen to me. Listen to me! Did you tell them about the bit in the stall and how you put the bridle on me?"

Grey nodded miserably.

"Good, because that's my favorite part." The horse said honestly. "Did you tell them how you rode me to Laracin's courtyard? Laracin is the big tree, by the way. I think I forgot to mention that."

Grey nodded, his eyes remained closed however.

Clay called his name several times and slapped him to get his attention. Coe went to stop Clay from slapping his rider, but Ye gestured to let the stallion handle things.

When Clay was sure he had his friend's attention, he spoke again. "Did you know that the prime Minister was engaged to get married, Grey? You should see Malissa's fianc?e, Grey," Clay paused, "She's a hottie. You see, Grey, there are others here like you. Like us."

The glyphs were darker now and now seemed to sigh.

"Like me," Clay added in a stage whisper after a beat.

Clay continued to stroke the glyphs and now even he could feel that mystic warmth Grey had described. "You see, I always knew I was different. Not just because I didn't change when I was supposed to. Not just because I liked boys better than girls. But I was always afraid to find out why I was different. I was afraid to find out how I was different." Clay took a deep breathe, not liking the attention he was getting from the three other Keepers in the room. "In one night, you changed all that. Now, I want to know everything about me. Everything. And I want to learn about you."

Grey smiled weakly. "You really aren't upset with me?"

"No, but if I see Thalberg anytime soon, I might rip his scaly head off," Clay said half- jokingly as he continued to rub the glyphs gently. He could actually watch the scrapes healing before his eyes as the warm glyphs danced beneath his fingers. A phantom scent of jasmine and sandalwood tickled Clay 's nose as Grey's eyes closed once more, but in a relaxed way this time. Clay leaned in closely and sniffed his friend deeply. The sweat and blood of this delicate man were evaporating into a fine perfumed mist at his touch.

"You smell good," the horse said approvingly in a quiet little whisper and kissed Grey lightly on the forehead. Clay awoke in the middle of the night to find himself alone in his parent's bed.

Even with the moonlight falling into the room from the windows, it still took a few minutes to find Grey lying in a fetal position on the floor. He wore the silk underpants that Ye said were something of a status symbol in Grey's class. Knowing that, he was surprised that Grey let him put it on, but then with Grey things were apparently going to be ON or OFF. When Clay was in charge, Grey wasn't about to argue with him. It was a simple enough concept for Clay to grasp and while he didn't think anyone should have to live like that, he had to admit that there was a certain appeal that someone would live like that.

What did annoy him, however, was how this neediness manifested itself at times.

Still, he wasn't going to yell at the poor guy, not after the milling Thalberg and the rest of the Duke's cronies had put him through. He got down on the floor and saw that Grey wasn't even sleeping, he was staring under the bed. He was a still as a pile of mud. "Grey," he whispered softly. "Grey?"

The man's eyes flickered towards him and then he looked away shame-faced. Clay didn't know what to call the state Grey was in, but he recognized that he was seeing right into the unchanged man's soul. Although, he was no longer truly unchanged. Thalberg's little interview seemed to have stripped every piece of dignity out of his rider.

Something turned within Clay and he felt love swelling within him for the helpless man in front of him. He reached forward with his hairy hands and touched Grey's cheek gently. He stroked the cheek and Grey closed his eyes as if not to cry. But there was something different about the man's face and, for a moment, the stallion could not place it. "Sit up," Clay told him softly and nudged him into that position. Grey complied no faster than the horse-morph moved him, but Clay was too busy staring at him in the moonlight to really be annoyed.

"You look younger," the horse morph muttered. "No, not younger... just... you had scars on your face when you got here." Clay counted the days since Grey made it to the Keep. "It's too early for the curse..."

Grey looked down and rubbed his chest distractedly.

Clay took his cheek and pointed Grey's head so that their eyes would meet. "Look at me when I talk to you," he snapped. That was harsher than he wanted it to be, but Grey did look at him and he didn't look away. That was progress, at least, and he wasn't going to apologize for it. Clay took a moment to adjust his voice to a calm pitch. "What happened to your scars?"

"You did," Grey whispered. "You erased them by stroking the tattoo the way you did."

"Pity," Clay said, his tone light, "I liked them. They made you look like a warrior."

Grey's face just about fell off and Clay's heart skipped a beat. "I'm sorry," he said miserably.

Clay had to jerk his chin a little to get Grey to look at him, again. "No, it's fine."

"No, it's not."

"No, really," Clay had to smile. "We can always make you new scars." The words were a joke, but Grey's face suddenly had such a hopeful, forlorn look that Clay's felt something hitch in his throat. "If you could heal like that, why didn't you touch the tattoo during the fight with Wicker. You could have fought back."

Grey tried to look away but Clay's hands always gently tugged him back. Finally, he answered. "I can only heal myself a little. I need someone who loved me to do it."

Love heals all wounds.

That was a bit of a jolt to Clay. He loved Grey. It wasn't just fondness or caring or concern. Love.

"Wow," the horse morph said. He let go of Grey's chin and touched the tattoo in the moonlight. He touched the tattoo and felt it squirm pleasant at his touch. Grey did not move or flinch. Nor did he look away. He loved the man. He wasn't sure if he could say it outloud, but he didn't have to.

Grey knew.

Grey knew.

His blunt hands were then touching Grey's chest. And when Clay moved the man's right arm out of the way, it stayed where the stallion put it. Grey began taking in deeper breathes as Clay explored his body in the semidarkness. Clay was fascinated by the image in his mind. Grey was a pile of mud that the stallion could mold anyway he chose to. Anyway. He fingers groped and pulled and Grey responded, completely compliant to Clay's wishes. Then Clay picked up Grey and placed him back on the bed and began smelling every square inch of the man. The man smelled good enough to eat. "What... are you... doing?" the man said quietly as Clay began to pull the silk shorts down towards the pink human feet.

"Does it matter," Clay said, half teasing. Half serious.

"No," Clay admitted with a wavering voice.

Clay pushed his stomach onto the edge of the bed and looked up playfully at

Grey between his legs. "Why doesn't it matter?"

Clay swallowed before he spoke. His voice was far away. "Because I love you. Because I'm yours."

Still, the next day, Wheeler was miserable.

He walked Clay to the stable. They passed a bakery where a cat morph was busy sweeping the stoop and Wheeler tried to describe how he felt. He felt awkward and selfish talking about it, but his lover insisted on knowing how he felt. "I just hate being a victim, Clay. I think if I keep acting like a slave, the world is going to treat me like one."

Clay looked at him, stung. "I thought you liked what I did last night." "No," he reassured his stallion, "I loved what you did last night. But I'm almost thirty..."

Clay gave him an evil look that did things to his body and said, "That could change, y'know. Your hair does seem darker, , after all. More gold... less silver. Is the tattoo supposed to do that? Maybe it's the curse."

"I don't know if the tattoo is," Nobody's ever loved me as much as you do.

"But doesn't the getting younger thing happen pretty quickly?"

"Yeah," the horse morph agreed. "But it could still happen slowly." They walked in silence for awhile before Clay had to nudge him again. "What are you thinking?"

"What happens to us if I become a little boy?"

Clay thought about that. They walked in silence for a block before Clay just started chuckling evilly. Wheeler blushed furiously and tried to change the subject. "Shouldn't we be at the stables by now?"

Clay shrugged. "The Keep's funny that way. It knows we still need to talk."

"Talk?" Grey sighed, "What happens if I become a woman?"

"I'll miss certain things," Clay admitted. "There are some things I don't think I would do again, in any case. And there would be certain advantages. Clay Potter, stud pony. I like the sound of that."

Wheeler was flabbergasted but pleased at the same time. He couldn't believe this is the same quiet kid from a few days ago. But then, no one who traveled in the caravan across the flatlands had ever guessed that the cargo master crawled on his belly each night begging to be flogged by the short and flabby family man who owned everything in the fifth district in Yesulam. Thank the gods for magic sound baffles. "But you wouldn't be able to get me pregnant, would you?" he added with a nervous laugh.

Without warning, Clay tugged him close and bit his ear playfully and roughly. Wheeler's heart skipped a beat but he held his ear in shock. "Do not doubt my manhood, Grey."

With wide eyes, Wheeler stammered, "No, sir."

Then he blinked and checked his hand for blood, but there was none. His hand went absent mindedly to his chest but Clay stopped him with a word.


"No, sir," Wheeler stumbled along for a few feet before noticing the smile of the Stallion's face. "Gods, you're good! Are you sure you've never done this before?"

"I am very sure," the young Keeper said. "After I tucked you in back home, I went to the library and got a book." Wheeler completely felt the blood drain from his face. Clay giggled at the expression of his discomfort. "We have a very good library, you know."

"I guess you do." They continued to walk. "I didn't even know they had books on this kind of thing."

Soon they walked passed the bakery where a cat morph was busy trying to hang a shingle declaring that the shop was now open. "We've walked by here before."

"And yet, we've gone in a straight line," the horse-morph said. "Now, if you don't tell me what you want to tell me, I'm going to be late for work and then I'll have to punish you."

Several sensations ran through his body at once then. The desire to please conflicting with a need to be punished for even displeasing him in the slightest. "Is the whole Keep really like that?"


"Ok, what if I become... an animal?"

Clay just brayed where he stood and then grabbed Wheeler and tickled him under his shirt relentlessly until Wheeler backed into a wall and slid it laughing. "You are an animal, Grey! A big horny animal of a man."

"Clay, not in public, please!"

"This is Metamor keep," the stallion said as he got in one more tickle. "Nobody cares."

A passing guard grunted, "Get a room," as he walked past them.

"Ok," Clay conceded. "One person cares."

"I care," Wheeler growled back. "Dammit, nobody's looking at us twice because they think I used to be a woman! What happens when or if I'm a stallion? Will you walk with me hand in hand, then? Huh?"

The stallion suddenly looked down and seemed to shrink a little into himself. "I'm sorry."

Wheeler frowned and then smiled wanly. "Gods, is that how I look when I do that?"

Clay suddenly lit up. "Well, yeah. Except, you know, my eyes are prettier, but, you're much better at pouting. Let's enjoy the hand-holding thing while we can still enjoy it, then."

Wheeler took his hand and leaned in close. "Oh, well, no wonder you can't keep your hands off of me." They walked a few more paces before Wheeler spoke again. "I mean, what if I really change. What if I become a dung beetle. Or a fish. Or even a tree like Laracin."

Clay thought about that and then dragged him into the alley where they first met. "If I'm going to be late for work, I might as well be good and late." "Oh, my..."

Clay buckled his breeches up as Grey sat on the ground pulling his pants back.

"If you like my silk shorts so much, why did you even bother giving them back to me this morning?"

"Because it's so much fun getting you out of them."

Clay scooped the man up in his arms and kissed him. He was lucky, many morphs can not truly kiss their lovers at all. The dexterity he'd lost in his fingers had apparently settled in his lips, or so Grey insisted. He was willing to believe that, he supposed.

"You didn't answer my question, before," his rider and his groom chided.

"If you become a dung beetle... I'd rip off your legs every morning and leave you upside down in my chamberpot and use you. Then at night, I would rub your tattoo until your legs grew back and I would rub my waste over my privates and make you lick it off."

Grey went completely ashen and did not say a word.

"If you became a fish, I would use you as a cod piece I suppose, and keep you in my breeches with the tattoos facing me. As I walked, I would it's warmth as you struggled helplessly against me."

Grey sat frozen with horror.

"If you became a tree, I would carve my initials in your side. I would piss on your roots and make myself a little knothole so I could violate you while you stood in the middle of the Keep holding up the stars. I would tie my lovers to your trunk and flay them with your branches while the two of you screamed for mercy."

Grey swallowed and got up slowly. He looked wide eyed at the stallion.

"That must have been some book," he said breathlessly.

"I just skimmed it," Clay shrugged with a laugh. "I was joking, by the way. When it comes to the curse, you can't make plans. When the curse was new and fresh, 14 was the absolute age a child would be hit with the curse. I was 17 before I changed. Or maybe it took three years for me to change, who the hell knows." Clay stopped to study every inch of his rider's face, a face the man would not be wearing a week from now. There was anxiety and concern there. "No matter what happens, I will... always... love... you. I 'll be there to take care of you."

They stepped out of the alley into the corral. Grey looked at Clay, bemused. "You know, I always thought I was getting turned around in this place because I was getting drunk all the time."

Clay was a bit bemused himself. I will always love you. He'd actually said it. And, he meant it.

Wheeler walked back to the old tinker and pottery shop that was now their home. It was a much shorter walk, because his spirit was lighter and the Keep was being nice. The streets were busy but he maneuvered around the Keepers with little problem.

Hope. He was full of hope and it was delicious. Clay loved him and the whole town had seen them together, hugging, laughing, and holding hands. People had looked, of course, but there were gentle smiles on almost everyone's face.

They had spent an hour pre-dawn talking about what it was they had. The stallion told him what it felt like to create a piece of art from simple mud. With obvious wonder in his voice, Clay told him that he hadn't felt that sensation since his hands became blunted and a little hoof-like, until Wheeler had laid there passively, a lump of clay he could shape into anything he desired. That's what he wanted to do. Shape him. Mold him. Reward him. Punish him. Clay wanted to put his mark on him, as Chang had.

As Dramm had.

And as on one else before him had.

The stallion thought of him as his Rider. He had promised that, with a word, Wheeler could take the reigns anytime he wanted to and their roles would be switched.

Wheeler hadn't known what to say. He had never really wanted to have any one subservient to him. It had only been fear and shame that made him seek something other than what he had had with Dramm or Chang. With the horse morph's promise, all his mental anguish now seemed silly and trite. He had what he wanted right here, wrapped in horsehair and inhuman sinew.

The change had seemed so far away before dawn, but it was going to happen any day now.

Any day now.

He found the messenger coyote morph, Kee waiting for him at his new home's door step. He was holding a black lacquered box that had the Royal seal Metamor Keep on it. Not knowing if he was allowed to let the messenger in, Wheeler broke the seal and opened the box. The box contained two large colorful plumes that could have only come from Mong-Ho, the chicken from Os-Var-Khai, a clump of ancient black hair in a yellowed fold of rice paper, a lock of dark hair that must have been Mal's, and a single reptilian tooth. Wheeler's jaw went slack and he nearly fell off the steps. The box was small, but he suddenly needed two hands to keep the contents from spilling out.

Kee cocked his head to one side, and offered a hand for support. "Thalberg said that you would understand what the contents meant and I also have a message that is meant for you only."

Wheeler nodded but he was not going to let anyone in Clay's house without Clay's permission. "Go ahead."

Kee nodded and closed his eyes. When the messenger spoke, he spoke with the young reptilian voice of Ye in the formal Khai tongue flawlessly. "Please forgive this most humble messenger this task of conveying our most sincere and humble apologies, for it is too huge for a mere man to bear properly. Please accept, instead, these tokens of the dishonor we have brought upon ourselves, until such a time your worthy self is ready to accept our apologies in person. Your most worthy self's presence is requested at your leisure so that you may be tendered an offer of employment in the service of this land's highest Thomas Hassen, this land's most humble servant." Kee opened his eyes and his tongue rolled out happily. "I think I got that right, didn't I?"

Wheeler could only nod as he slowly shut the lid on the black lacquered box. There were butterflies in his stomach as he followed Kee back to Thalberg's office.

Mal was already there, and Thalberg asked Kee to run after Ye and Mong-Ho, but Wheeler asked him not to. "There are no apologies needed," Wheeler said quietly. "I should be thanking you, in fact. You stripped me of all of my illusions and I am better off without them."

Thalberg did not know what to say to that, so he felt compelled to say as much.

"They were heavy and I was very tired." Wheeler hung his head for a moment and tried to smile. "You have no idea how tired I was,"

Thalberg left it at that and looked into Wheeler's face. "You look... younger. Has the curse begun?"

Wheeler smiled and imaged Clay towering over him, twice as large as he was now. "No, the wards Chang wrapped me in keep me young and healthy." As long as serve the one I love. He took a breathe, "I doubt it will protect me from the curse."

Thalberg sighed. "Good, because I do have a position to offer you and I would like to offer it to you before the curse takes hold." Wheeler nodded. "I appreciate that, but anything you offer I have to discuss with Clay before I can accept."

There was a slight pause before Thalberg continued. "I... understand." Thalberg sat at his desk and motioned for Wheeler to do likewise. Wheeler almost kneeled on the floor, but decided the Stewart and the Prime Minister would be more comfortable if he sat on one of the chairs provided. "Some time ago, the Emperor of our sister kingdom, Os-Var-Khai, sent us three gifts of great value. In that time, the Duke has sought for gifts of equal value to send to Os-Var-Khai."

The thought of returning to Os-Var-Khai, one last time, of presenting gifts to the Emperor in the name of his cousin, Duke Thomas... was overwhelming. It made sense that he should be the one to do it; he knew the language and the customs and he was a relative of the Duke. He knew trade routes and how to manage a caravan. And, if he was to do it, he would have to do it before the curse struck. A woman held many of the rights men held in a few lands, but little respect. A child would command no respect. And an animal morph would be killed out of fear and the goods stolen.

The whole trip would take about a year round trip. If Clay let him go. Of course, Clay would let him go; there was no one else better suited for the trip.

Except... there were two others who spoke in the tongues of Os-Var-Khai. Gears began to turn in Wheeler's head. "May I ask what those gifts were?"

"The gifts were Ye, Mong-Ho, and a panda you haven't met yet, Wasoko." Mal, the Prime Minister, said with a certain gravity and a certain gentleness.

"As you can guess, finding gifts even remotely comparable in value is a difficult task. I was hoping you might tender some suggestions."

"You see, Metamor Keep has many powerful magic-wielding enemies." Thalberg said. The fact that Wheeler was talking to an alligator wearing a navy blue velvet blouse with applets and a gold monocle was proof of that.

"Os-Var-Khai's magics can reach across the world and they would make a powerful ally."

Mal nodded. "But we've never returned the Emperor's gesture in equal measure. While our relationship hasn't exactly been strained by what many in the far Eastern lands would consider a breach of protocol, we do need to nurture that relationship. To encourage that bond."

Thalberg nodded and folded his scaly hands on his desk. Wheeler could see he knew what he was asking. "You have no idea how great a service you would be performing for Metamor and your cousin."

Mal came around the desk and Wheeler could see where she had lobbed the hair off. As tradition dictated, the loss was quite noticeable. She sat on her knees before the unchanged man and took his unresisting hands into hers.

"We will comply with whatever arrangements you feel need to be done." Wheeler nodded hollowly. In a way, what they were giving him would be considered a gift. He should never have left Chang and Os-Var-Khai so many years ago. He had felt like dirt doing it and he knew he'd live to regret it, but pride ate at him. Wheeler had felt he needed to start acting like a man. He'd been afraid to let the magic transform him further. What a fool he'd been.

To bask once more in the glory that was Os-Var-Khai...

But his stallion...

"What does the Duke say about this?"

Thalberg and Mal looked at each other. "The Duke isn't aware of this... appointment," Thalberg muttered.

"It is within my power to make you ambassador to Os-Var-Khai, Wheeler," Mal said firmly, "In that official capacity, the gift, or gifts, you present to the Emperor would be of your own choosing."

Wheeler could only think of one gift that would be worthy.

"I have to talk to Clay," he said weakly. He placed the penance box on Thalberg's desk. "Please see that these are returned to their proper owners."

The two important Keepers still at Metamor Keep nodded and took the box back.

Wanderer's Surprise (Quantum Leap/Blind Pig) mash-up_

**Wanderer's Surprise** **By Bill Kieffer** _Icthorian inspired another story with his contests. This one was combine two universes... one from television and one from one of the TSA universes. I'm happy to say, this story won second place. The...

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Excerpt of "Brooklyn Blackie and the Unappetizing Menu" from Inhuman Acts, a FurPlanet book

I've had had three stories published this year. Possibly the best one of the bunch is my first ever mystery story. You can buy the book here:[http://furplanet.com/shop/item.aspx?itemid=811](http://furplanet.com/shop/item.aspx?itemid=811) A **CASE...

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