He stood up on a four legs at the edge of the forest studying the silhouette of the city of Braques that lay before him. The moon had disappeared between the clouds hours ago, leaving him to find his way here more by smell than anything else. His ears perked up at the sound of the a cow mooing from inside the walls. He had been out in the woods for around ten days and was less than enthusiastic at the prospect of going to the city again. He enjoyed roaming the woods where he was lord over the wolves and only had the occasional tussle to maintain his rule. Despite all this. the city called him too. When he was there, he was lord Tobin of Braques, and also a loyal earl to the emperor. He could protect his lupine family from the deforestation that had once threatened them, while protecting the people’s livestock from them.
After a bit of contemplation, the he trotted on toward the city. Out in the open he could feel the tension in his shoulders growing, as if somebody may be watching. Glancing to his left, he could see the first pinks of sunlight creep through the tree trunks. As he got nearer the edge of the first farms, his shape started to morph, and by the time he was past the outer fields, he was walking upright. It was just a short distance further to where he had stashed his belongings. He hoped the curfew was still in effect and give him a few moments of privacy while he was exposed.
By the time he had gotten dressed, all traces of his feral attributes were gone. He now looked like any other a middle aged merchant from Braques. He left his clothes looking a little unkempt as it would play into his story of being lost in the woods, if his friend Stragove was not at the gates. When he knocked at the door, he was greeted by a young guard who was far more alert than the normal watch at this hour. He smiled when he saw Tobin and whispered, “I knew you were coming, I could smell you from the other side of the gate. You should really work a bath into your routine before coming back.”
“I will take that advice shortly, Stragove” replied Tobin he was relieved he did not need his alibi. “I take it all is well if you are on duty at this hour.”
“Yes, though the men still think it odd that a captain would take the gate watch at this hour. It is rather boring, and most of them want some interaction with people when they work.”
“If they only knew. I see you have the rotations setup right to. I got past without even one of them on the walls.”
“I followed your orders. I will cover that gap tonight. By the way, your sister is asking where you have been. You know she hates all the formal audiences you leave her to deal with, almost as much as she hates covering for your absence.” Stragove, had worked the gate open and let Tobin in.
“She could have taken up the offer to be the earl of these lands if she had married right.” Tobin entered the safety of the walls and quickly shook his head. “You smelled my approach over these odors?”
“Yes m’lord, only thing that smelled right for weeks.”
“I can imagine. Return to your watch, and see me when you are done. I have news from the pack to share with you. I will bathe and see where things now sit.”
Tobin sat eating a breakfast of dried meat and berries, when his sister, Tara, sat down next to him. “You better eat seconds this morning. We have a long day ahead of us, as tomorrow we leave for the Routh’s castle. I hope you got the wild out of your blood for a few days.”
“It is never out. This will never truly be home, and I do not know how you stand it.” Tobin retorted. “I will take your advice on the food, however. Forest was a bit scant on game. I think I am getting soft in the luxury here.”
“The people do not see you as soft. They do see you as fair, which is good. I heard over in Windclave, there was some inklings of revolt brewing. Seems the people prefer their Mistress to their Master.” Tara replied. “You enjoy your time out there with the boys, but do not know the amount effort I have to put in to keep them off me right now. I am in the prime of my life and they know it. I am much safer here, only have to keep Stragove and Klause at bay. They are far easier to handle in the wall s of the city.”
“Oh you still playing them off each other?”
“No, Klause is no longer interested. Stragove knows to keep his distance when you are here.”
Had Tobin not been so tired, he may caught something in her voice. “Do you know how many are making the trip with us? I know the normal twenty of the Emperor’s men will be there, but who else are we taking?”
“They are the only required people. I was thinking, some of the merchants may want to come along under our protection. It would make some good will for you with them. Also may give us a better network of connections.”
“Do you have a few in mind, ones we can trust?”
“Yes, I have scouted out three loyal ones. I know you are weary since the spy was found last year in our court, but I think these are ones we can trust.”
“They will not turn on us if they know our origins?”
“I cannot say that, but that is humans for you. I think Routh knew what he was doing when he reached out to you. It took him a couple years, but I think an alliance will be needed between all who call these lands home when the Emperor meets his demise.”
“Quite. So then, I take it you have the merchants set for a meeting today with me?”
“Silversmith Helena, Charles of trade house Wenthra, and Sabine the clothier. They are coming as a group, you are to put them at easy for safety and that the trip will be worth their while.”
“Will you tell me what you have already promised them?” Tobin prodded.
“Why, only that there is opportunity if they could spare some time,” Tara smiled, getting up from the table.
“So like always you rely on me to run with your scheme. And what makes you think they are loyal?”
“This,” she held up a small opal. “One of the treasures passed along by our lord. It is used for discerning intentions of others via the temperature and color it shifts to.”
“And you trust it? I do not accept these enchantments are all that we are told. I suspect spirits and demons at work here.”
Quiet settled in for the rest of breakfast, Tara was certain she had pushed a little too hard in her ambitions this morning. It was not her fault she saw the potential in a world beyond the forests they called home. If they stayed isolated here and the prophecy was true, who would ally with them if their nature came out? Her brother did not seem to worry about such things, and that bothered her more.
She looked out of the corner of her eye at him. He sat methodically cutting at his food, lost in his own thoughts. She gave it a few minutes more minutes before speaking, “We will join up with Earl Kanto and Herald in Hearthvale on the second day of travel. Have you given any thoughts to the proposal their envoys made?”
“You mean alliances in the case of unforeseen issues?” Tobin replied. “You know those two are the weakest of the earls. Kanto has at best another two years to live and Herald is a simpleton. Not to say I am a product of better breading than either.”
“Allies are allies, and it is not like you want to pick sides between Wilfred and Francis. Natalya and Flynn would be perfect for an alliance, but we have nothing to offer them. Johan, Byron, Robin, Garth, and I forget the rest, I know too little about to advise. Besides Kanto is who we make the alliance with, but I am putting the prize as his daughter. I saw her a few months back and I do see potential in her future.”
“I am surprised you forgot Timothy. His domain is productive farm land and near enough to the Ironblack Mountains to have a ready supply of metals.”
“Smallest in size after Wilfred, but none of the magic. What does it get us? We are fine here for food,” Tara replied
“And by size do you mean land? I am certain you would be auctioning your own hand in marriage if Routh had not forbidden the Earls from such actions among themselves.”
“My dear brother are you saying I have higher ambitions than a suite at the top of Braques keep?”
“Only socially,” he smiled. “But you must excuse me as I must go make ready for my audience with the merchants.”