Captain Coudray leaned on the railing, looking out on the town of Côte d’Ys, main settlement of Brequelle and the home port of the Bythos. Hulking monsters loomed over her on either side, but she was well used to this and, in her estimation, these two monsters and their companions were next door to being lost children. “What was it that hobbit said about adventures?” she mused. “The older one. Something about making you late.”
“‘Nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things. Make you late for dinner,’” Doug quoted.
Coudray nodded. “That was it.”
“We remembered that line a lot,” said Gus, “sitting around campfires, wondering how to cook our boots. Then Gandalf says he’s going to send Bilbo on an adventure anyway. ‘Very amusing for me, very good for you,’ he says, ‘if you ever get over it.’ Which he did not, not really. That kinda put me off Gandalf for a while.”
“What excellent memories you have,” Coudray said.
“We worked hard,” Gus answered, “to remember all the fantasy we could, the whole gang of us. It was our only guide. Especially Tolkien, when it turned out he was writing non-fiction about the languages. And when we were in the troop, with our brains synched up, it worked real well.”
“Later on,” said Coudray, “Sam says something about adventures never ending. I suppose he was right, but our ways part here in Brequelle, at least for the time being.” She smiled. “I hope the dinners have been on time.”
“Oh, ma’am!” exclaimed Gus. “Meeting up with you folk was like coming on Rivendell for us! It was a life-saver, immortality or no. It was– It was–”
“Our hearts were broken, ma’am,” said Doug, picking up for the faltering Gus. “Had been for five years. You folk let them start mending again.”
“My dear young man! You do us too much credit!”
“It doesn’t seem so to us, ma’am,” Doug told her. “To think that I could go down that gang plank and walk home from here. Walk to England, anyway, and call home!” He met Gus’s eyes over Coudray’s head. “Has my– Have our voices changed, do you think? I don’t remember that–”
“No, no,” Gus assured him. “My voice is the same old rasp, I know. I never noticed a change in yours. And remember, after the change, we first recognized Aaron by his voice.” Doug nodded.
“Your families will know you,” Coudray said. “By your voices, by your souls, your selves. And you will re-learn your old forms. Send me pictures when you do! Now.” She picked up her duffle bag. “Have you got everything?”
Each of them picked up a single duffle no bigger than hers. They followed her down the gang plank, a little slowly, savoring their last moments on the Bythos. But Côte d’Ys drew them in. It looked almost like an earthly sea-side village. Almost. A long and complex system of docks ran parallel to the main street—or road, since it was not paved.
Coudray led them through the light traffic—foot and bike, no motors—and gazed up at the brilliant sky. “Hard to believe this is the same summer,” she remarked. “Our detour to Hod. Fighting through to Varsis. Adventures can’t be scheduled. You’ve heard that Alain and Fletcher’s trainees are the ‘Class of ’17’? Ever wonder why, since it’s now 2018?” They admitted they had not given it thought. “We number by the starting year because we can be sure of the year their training begins but not of the year it ends. As it is, ’17 got a very long inning; the Bythos was late getting back from the previous mission, too. Adventures make you late. Here we are.”
She stopped and waved up toward the shop sign above. There was no printing, only a bright orange-yellow lobster buoy topped by the carving of a cheerful rat in a sailor hat. The buoy had several bite marks in it. “The Cheese Buoy pub,” Coudray announced. “Gus, I hear you hoped to listen to Chief Randirel reminisce over drinks. This would be the place for it.” She led them in.
It was big and barn-like, wooden, with a high, raftered ceiling. Conversation chattered. Soccer played silently on a flat-screen TV behind the bar. A middle-aged woman improvised jazz on a piano near the door. So far, so earthly. But the staff and clientele were not. The high rafters gave head room to the centaurs; Gus and Doug spotted many of their equine shipmates. Up in the rafters, gulls and rats and frogs chatted and sipped from shot glasses. Some wore little sailor hats. “Wonder if one of the rats is the owner,” Doug murmured to Gus.
But most folk on the floor looked human. One, a tall, gray-haired man, sprang up from his table and closed the distance to Coudray in four strides. They embraced. “Are you quite done with falling out of the sky and antagonizing strange city states and hunting stray mages?” he demanded after the kiss.
“For the moment,” Coudray answered, grinning as Doug and Gus had never seen her do.
The man—Mr. Coudray?—spared a glance for the lion-men. “Ah, return and we return,” he hazarded.
By now, they knew the expected answer was “keep faith and so do we,” but:
“Thank you, sir, but we’re not Channel fays,” said Gus, and took a mischievous pleasure in the man’s confusion when he heard the American accent. “We’re– Well, it’s a long story.”
“And you’ll hear it in due course,” Coudray promised. “Doug, Gus, the folk you want to meet are over there. See Carlin?” She pointed further into the depths of the Cheese Buoy, where the paint centaur made a clear landmark. They thanked her, saluted, and made their way over.
Carlin’s table was made more conspicuous by the three lungmao sitting with him. They sat conventionally on chairs; Carlin sat on the floor, forelegs up, to protect the glossy brush job of his white and ruddy coat. He was also dressed to the nines, in his crimson dress jacket and royal blue stetson with the custom Australian curl; beard and mustaches were elegantly pointed. His class nickname was “Style,” which had surprised Gus and Doug not at all.
Normally, Carlin dressed up, or even dressed down, was smiling and jaunty, but now he looked quite serious. He was talking to the five other people at the table: the three lungmao, his classmate John “Buckjack” Weldon (fully reclined and so less visible), and a young woman. The lungmao were Jon, Philippe, and Ted, the threesome seeking to re-join a troop. The woman was dressed like a flapper of the 1920s, in a sheath-like dress of silvery material, her blond hair in a bob under a silver circlet. She alone held a cup of tea, while all the males had mugs of beer.
“Ah, good,” said Carlin, seeing Doug and Gus. “We’ve got everyone now. Mademoiselle Petra, let me introduce Captain Doug Cheung and Captain Gus Weisskopf.” Gus and Doug traded glances but said nothing about their supposed ranks.
“So these are les capitaines dévoués,” Petra said, offering her hand. “I am honored.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” said Gus, taking her hand. “You’re very kind,” Doug said, following suit. Her hand was light and devoid of heat, and as their eyes adapted to the dimmer interior of the pub, they saw Petra was faintly luminous. Doug noticed a slight puzzlement in Gus’s face and realized he had shown the same. And Petra had seen it.
She smiled. “Like you, I am a mortalborn fée. Unlike you, I died. In 1978. I was seventy-three.”
“So you’re a ghost, ma’am?” asked Gus.
She shrugged. “I was, briefly. Now I am a fée, and became so by being in a troop. The maker of the troop was, in fact, the fée we shall meet today, the Fanatur.”
“Shape master,” Doug translated.
Petra nodded. “Oui. And since my experiences resemble those of you and your men in so many particulars, M. Carlin here thought it useful for us to meet and discuss. I have just been learning of your trials. Formidable! There is irony here, for I sought out what was inflicted on you. But I still may be able to help.”
“She has helped,” Carlin asserted. “She’s the one who arranged the meeting with the Fanatur. Again.”
“Again?” asked Doug.
“Last time we were here, early in the summer, she arranged a meeting with the Fanatur so Buckjack and I could get a shoreleave belt for a friend of ours. You know, one of those belts that gives merfolk the seeming of legs? Then she helped save our horsey little asses. Y’see, no way could we pay for a shoreleave belt, so I made a bet. The Fanatur raced me outta the woods, and if I lost, he got me. It was night, pitch black. She showed me the way out.”
“Pas de tout. I merely walked out with M. Weldon.” But she smiled impishly as she spoke.
“And I merely followed ’em,” returned Carlin, his foxy smile back. “Anyway, as you see, the Fanatur is in a collecting mood. If you want to be collected,” he said to the threesome, “he’ll be happy to oblige.”
“Knowing this, M. Carlin inquired here and so sent word to me,” Petra said. She raised her tea cup but inhaled deeply rather than sipping. “In turn, I have contacted the Fanatur, who is happy to see you. All of you.” Her gaze swept the table, taking in both centaurs and all five cat-men. She took another deep sniff but then abruptly put the cup down suddenly, as if it were suddenly heavy.
“Let me warm that up for you,” said Carlin. He reach out his hand. Petra took it with a grateful smile and changed subtly. Her faint luminance, which had dimmed, rose again. The mortal onlookers realized she had been slightly translucent, for she now became fully opaque. “Merci, mon ami,” she said to Carlin. To the others, “I am not a ghost, perhaps, but I am still ghostly. I work my way back to solidity, but it is slow. A little vis—or do you call it chi or prana?—is not the only favor M. Carlin has done me. But let us set out for the forest. We can converse on the way.” She raised the cup again, now without difficulty, and took a final deep sniff, then rose.
The beast-men followed her out of the Cheese Buoy and through the streets of the town. “It all looks so normal!” Gus marveled. “A little old-fashioned and no cars, but other than that...!”
Doug nodded. “Normal like we haven’t seen in years.” He turned to the threesome. “Good enough for you?” They grinned and nodded but did not speak. They seemed shy—all shy together, as if rehearsing the joining of emotions they meant to undergo. Or achieve. He stared at them, remembering and baffled, then turned his attention to the conversation between Gus and Petra.
“So, Miss Petra, you can tell me to shut up and mind my own business, but I’m curious: Why’d you want this?”
“No, you have a right to ask, for reasons I will explain. It is very simple: I was afraid of death.”
“But you Grand Normans, you see ghosts all the time. You know death’s not the end.”
“Oui, but we do not know what the end is. Oh, most of us are Avignese or some other kind of Catholic, and the rest are Protestants or Jews, for the great part, and so we—they—believe in a judgment of mercy and justice, and in Heaven. But we cannot say we know. Ghosts move on. No one comes back to report, or so seldom, so fleetingly, it amounts to rumors. Also... So...” She faltered. Her shadow and the sound of her steps on the pounded earth of the road both faded. Gus watched to see if she became more transparent; he could not tell, but it seemed her colors paled. Certainly, her expression was grave. “These are general issues of faith, but perhaps I had little faith that I would face mercy further into death.”
“I don’t wanna know–” Gus began.
“There was nothing terrible. But could I lay claim to any splendid virtue? No.” She looked at Gus’s troubled expression. “You wish to say, I think, that one does not earn one’s admission in this way, that one depends on the generosity of le Bon Dieu. But that, perhaps, is where my faith fails.” She sighed, straightened, and strode more boldly. Her step grew louder, her shadow darker. “So, in my life, I had done business with the Fanatur. I knew that he had indeed mastered shape, as his use-name says, and now he seeks to become a fay lord—that is, a fay who can bind and loose others in troops, lead troops, set them to mighty deeds with their combined power. But you know of such things at least as well as I.” By now, she walked in a cluster of lungmao. They all nodded, the threesome in synchrony. The centaurs trailed behind, listening intently.
“So I know he is building a troop. I go to him, an old woman, my heart failing, little time left, and I ask him to take me into his troop. No senior lord would have taken me. They have all the troop members—troopers?—they want, or can rally at need, and they want members with special abilities, special powers. Not like me. But he is a beginner, he needs head count and practice, he takes me. He even takes me on my condition, which is that I do not stay long. I join, I am now a fay, I leave. While I am there, his cohue, his rabble pick up knowledge, and he hopes they pick up my skills as well. And in return, for the brief stay, I agree to owe him a favor, une grande faveur.”
“Rabble?” asked Doug.
“He is a beginner, as I said. The souls he can acquire are not fays already, are not even ... good ghosts. They are ... leftovers. Neither Heaven nor Hell wants them. Nor greater fay lords.” She smiled at the threesome. “You are a treasure to him. Gems who may choose their own setting. You shall see. And, in bringing him such a treasure, I have done him his great favor! And that is because M. Carlin introduced you!” She cast a brilliant smile back at Carlin, who smiled in return. “And because of this, I am free, free of obligation.”
“Everybody wins,” Doug said somberly.
The group walked on in silence. They were in a residential neighborhood now—stone cottages with thatch roofs, yards full of flowers and vegetables but without lawns. People’s clothes and some bicycles were the only modern touches.
People stared, of course, but not a great deal, especially not the adults; it wasn’t cool for an adult Grand Norman to be amazed at what was, after all, just some new shape of fay.
But the young children held no such poses and stared openly at the collection of odd people. Gus smiled when one little girl met his eyes, accidentally showing teeth, but she just smiled back.
Soon they were on a dirt path leading out of town, through a belt of pasture land, into la Fôret de Brequelle. Breaking a long silence, Petra said to Doug, “I see that you regret the decision your three friends have made, but consider this: Would such a condition appear so repellent to you if it had been offered freely, without slavery and the enforced transformation? How would you have answered if a lady of the fays had come openly to you and proposed, ‘Be my liege men, and I will give you immortality, psychic unity, and the chance to learn transformation and other magic’? What would have been your answer?” Doug shook his head in bafflement. “You?” she asked of Gus.
He shook his head too. “I don’t know. I’m too different, now, from the guy I was before. And I don’t just mean this.” He swept his hand from face to boots. “Being in the hive-mind, the troop, didn’t mean we all thought the same, but we all thought about the same things a lot, and we all thought about death. I know none of us wanted to die—being in the troop told me that much—but death seemed like the only escape. Then we did escape, only now we find out that death is the one way we can’t do it. For me—maybe not for anyone else—it feels like being trapped again.”
“Transcendence,” said Doug to Gus. “You developed a taste for transcendence. An unfortunate one.”
“I dunno. I’m not sure that’s what I mean.”
“I’m pretty sure it is.”
“Anyway,” Gus went on to Petra, but roping his three friends into the exchange with his glance, “you guys going back into a troop just feels like going back into the old trap.”
“It won’t be,” Philippe assured him. “We won’t let it. We won’t put up with the trapping any more than you will. If it’s going to be that, we’ll call it off and do something else.”
“There will be no trap, no enslavement,” Petra assured them. “I have conveyed your concerns to the Fanatur and he is tout à fait d’accord, entirely agreeable. You will see.”
“And you don’t care about going home?” Doug asked.
“Not as much as about this,” Philippe answered. “Maybe we can do both, but this first.”
The path entered the wood now, piercing a stone wall, head-high at this point. The wall was dry-laid, of unshaped stones, except at the entrance, which was flanked by smooth, square-cut pillars bearing trefoils of leaves. As they entered, Carlin remarked, “Last time we were here, Buckjack and me, it was night. Mlle. Petra guided us by her own light.” This time, the woods were drenched in a late summer noontide.
“What was he like to look at, this Fanatur?” Doug asked.
“Like an invisible man wearing a mask and a black-and-white cowboy outfit,” Carlin answered. “That time.”
“Remember,” said his friend “Buckjack” Weldon, “that fanatur means ‘shape-master.’ We’ll just have to see.”
The trail wound through oak, ash, and hawthorne to a clearing deep in the forest. There stood a square of four upright stones, and in the center lounged the Fanatur.
He wore a form that was lion-like but no lion. The general shape was leonine and maned in gold, but the body was scaled in fine silver, like fish mail, except for the tuft of the tail and feathering on the lower legs. The ears were long and pointed, and the eyes were silver.
“C’est un hommage. Une idéalisation,” Petra murmured. Philippe, Ted, and Jon nodded. Doug and Gus guessed her meaning well enough. The lungmao were being complimented and welcomed.
The Fanatur was not alone. Behind him lay a second lion, bigger but ordinary in color and detail. Off to one side stood a tight cluster of figures, and a looser crowd was scattered through the clearing. Most looked human, though many were very short. Small animals with very expressive faces peered up through the grass or crouched on friends’ shoulders. Bundles of sticks pushed to the front for a better view. There seemed to be a lot of butterflies and dragonflies.
The gold and silver lion rose and said, “Well met, gentlemen.” The voice was a light tenor, calm and even. “Your friends described you well.” It came prowling toward them. “And welcome back, cavalrymen,” it said to the centaurs. “Return and we return.”
“Keep faith and so do we,” Carlin and Weldon answered.
“Indeed. I with you, you with Petra, and now Petra with me. And back around the circle, of course. Excellent.” He sat, then gestured in a very human-like way with one forepaw. “Please be comfortable everyone.” They all sank down onto the grass. “Now. You three gentlemen wish to be together in a troop and I wish to employ you. How shall we arrange this?”
Doug raised his hand. “Sir, may I ask a question?”
“Certainly, but first answer this one: Who are you? You are not one of my three prospective aides.”
“My name is Douglas Cheung, sir. This is my friend Gus Weisskopf. We were their captains, when we were all lost on the road together, and ...”
“... and we want to see them off right, sir,” Gus supplied.
The Fanatur nodded. “Ask.”
“Does a troop have to have a boss, a master?” Doug asked. “When we were slaves, the dagorrodel could command us and, if we resisted even in thought, this panic and dread set in. If we went on fighting, it started to feel like we were dying. Eventually, we just– That slavery is the main thing I want to protect them from, sir.”
The lion sighed noisily. “That is what comes of taking unwilling folk.” He gave a sardonic glance over his shoulder at the tight group of fays behind him. “I know. They are such a troop. I hold them in so tight a grip, they are not even thinking about freedom.” The troop stared back at him, expectant and blank.
“No,” he told Doug, “a troop does not need a master to stand. A master must create it, but need not stay in it. I doubt your war-lady stayed in yours, but by the thinnest chain. The tight chains she set in the beginning would do the rest.
“I offer you a troop of a different sort. I am a beginner. They were my first effort, simple and crude.” He nodded at the little mob. “In order to enlist you, I will try the opposite tack: a light touch, taken freely, with your help in managing it. Understand that, being a beginner, I must experiment, but I will strive to tailor your bond to your liking. Excellent practice. And–!” His silver eyes gleamed and the lion’s face registered far more eagerness than cats normally can. “–I will seek to make of you a team of champions! Perfect in accord and coordination, able to pool your skills and powers. Powers I do not grant you, but teach you. Powers you will learn all the faster for having three minds together in harness.”
He lifted his hand—for suddenly, smoothly, he was anthropomorphic enough to have a hand—and cast a little mist into the air. In the mist, the audience could see three figures in silhouette, clearly lungmao, tall, heavy, and tailed, running over rough ground. They cast themselves down and were lions. They ran up to a tree, became men, fully men, and climbed. At the top, they leapt off and were eagles, flying away. He lowered his hand and the mist faded.
“If you wish it! For the polish and zest and fire of it all is your joint will, your threefold freedom! I do not want puppets, reflections!” He tossed his head dismissively at his troop, who stared back glassily. “I want aides, companions, whom I can join in deed or revel, and leave knowing I will be welcomed back. I want to lead folk who will take me as leader, not submit to me as leader. I have that already–“ He nodded again at the troop but then also at the general crowd of onlookers. “–and it is something, but I want more. I want a court. Sidekicks! A merry band! Gentlemen, you want to be such a band. Shall we dance?”
Doug realized his mouth was hanging open. He glanced at Gus in time to see his friend’s jaw close. Gus glanced back, eyes shining. That could be them. It would be the threesome, if–
Gus blinked, inhaled, and asked, “What do you want from them in return? You called them your ‘aides,’ so you want some sort of service.”
Doug made a mental effort and pulled away from the fascination that had come boiling up in him. “What does a fay lord do?” he asked.
The Fanatur nodded, commending the questions as reasonable, and settled into a more normal, library-lion-like position. “Fays have little government. A fay lord or lady is simply the fay no other local fays would wish to cross. Being able to bind and loose troops is certain proof of sufficient power. But if you wish a long reign and a happy, you do more. You are a rescuer, a defender, you settle disputes.”
Gus laughed. “You’re a cop! A sheriff!”
The Fanatur laughed back. “And I would have deputies. Three.” The lion smiled invitingly. “Or five?”
Freedom. Exhilaration. Endless potential.
“We want to go home.”
Gus said it, but Doug realized he had said it in chorus. Gus was holding his upper arm. He felt Gus had pulled him back from a precipice.
“Thank you, but we want to go home,” repeated the man who hungered for transcendence, who thirsted for heaven. But before that achievement, there was his family, and Doug’s. “Thank you, no,” said Doug.
The lion smiled again. “Another time, perhaps.”
Had Doug nodded in answer? He wasn’t sure. The others were talking details. It turned out Buckjack was the son of a trader, and was applying the family skills to negotiating: the Fanatur would not control the threesome through the troop, but they would swear an ordinary oath of service to him. Buckjack knew the terms...
Meanwhile, Doug half-listened and wholly stared at his own hand, the right one, the one that had been cut off and grown back. The fingernails were back now, and the scales were nearly as heavy as those on the back of his left hand.
There had been other cases. Gus had lost his tail twice (taken as a trophy both times, he suspected). Marco had lost a hand. All had grown back over the course of a month. Those regenerations, Captain Fletcher had said, were early clues that they were now immortal and shapeshifters.
He remembered how odd it had felt when that hand wasn’t there, despite feeling that it ought to be. He had heard that “phantom limbs” usually faded after a while, but the real hand had grown back too quickly for that. His body image had never changed. Not from that. He remembered waking up to Gus’s panicky shouting, seeing Gus monsterized, soon enough realizing he was too. And his body image was already changed, already included a tail and mobile ears. He understood the centaurs when they told him they could not remember what toes were like, or how it felt to be two-legged and tailless.
That hand had come back from nothing. It could go on to become a paw, a wing, a flipper. He glanced at Carlin and Buckjack, respectfully dickering with the Fanatur, and reflected his arm could divide, branch off a foreleg. Theoretically, he could become a centaur, once he learned the trick.
Weeks ago, Fletcher had told them they could learn shapeshifting, but Doug had only thought of changing back, fixating on the lost human form. The Fanatur’s sales pitch made it clear there was so much more. He thought back on the talking dogs that had taught him Sindarin, the little gossiping nimmies back in Huspaan. He looked around at the watching birds and beasts and insects. He could be any of those. It was splendid. It was scary. How deep would the changes go?
He remembered Gus’s hand on his arm, holding him back, holding him steady. Gus had let go by now, his hand back on his own knee. Doug reached out and gave his forearm a quick, grateful squeeze. Gus looked up and flickered a smile. “I’m okay now,” he muttered softly, so that Doug realized the grab had been because Gus, too, had been rocked by the idea of endless forms.
Soon enough, it was done. The Fanatur stood. “We are agreed, then. Gentlemen, let us go for a run. Try to keep up with me, but even more try to keep together. When we stop, you will be in your troop. And tired! As will I be! It is no small thing we do here. After that, you will take your oath as a troop.”
The threesome rose and looked around the clearing, at the Forest of Brequelle, where they would start living as fays among fays. Now.
Doug could see they were tense and bright-eyed. But they did not immediately turn to the gleaming lion. They turned to him and Gus. Jon thrust out his hand to clasp, then closed in for a hug. Philippe did the same with Gus, then Ted, then they traded around until all three had embraced both of them. “You got us through!” Jon declared. “You got us here! Thank you!”
“Let’s do a team-up some day,” said Philippe. “The three and the two.”
“We’d’ve been so much more lost without you guys!” Ted declared.
As soon as the hugging was done, Gus shoved them gently off. “Go, go!” he told them.
“Be happy,” said Doug. “Be whole.” He turned away and did not watch them run off with the lion.
He himself felt by no means whole. One part was regretting that he had refused the invitation to exaltation and belonging and enlargement of being. The other part was horrified that he was so tempted away from family and home and humanness.
He strode briskly back the way they had come, eyes on the ground, ignoring the various strange fays—the other strange fays—scattered around the clearing. He heard Gus’s footfalls catching up and breathed a little easier.
“I hadn’t thought about all the things...” Gus said, trailing off.
“Me either,” said Doug, finally raising his eyes from the trail before him. “That was– To think we could–“ He was no better at pushing it out than Gus was.
Gus nodded and walked silently next to Doug out of the clearing and through several twists of the trail. Then, “Would you like to be lions some day? I mean, we really could, couldn’t we? How weird is that?”
“Pretty weird. Yeah, lions would be cool. Lion knights.”
Hoofbeats came up behind. “You guys okay?” came Carlin’s voice.
Doug meant to answer but continued brooding about lions instead. Would it be easier to go on to lion than back to man?
Gus replied, “There’s been a lot of goodbyes lately. And this one– The other guys are going off to something like normal living, even Rob, even the ones back in Netzach-Isis. But those three, will they be ... themselves any more?”
Will we be ourselves? Doug wondered. The option of transformation will always be there. Always, as in forever.
“And I gotta wonder if we’ll be ourselves,” Gus went on. “We gotta learn shapeshifting to become human again. Hell, I guess it’s inevitable we learn shapeshifting eventually. And I gotta say, it looks so tempting. Lion! Eagle! Dolphin! Fire! Wind! Just so much fun! But does that mean we’re bound to drift away into– into– drift away? Can we stay ourselves?”
“Why not?” asked Buckjack. “I’m still me, and I’ve been turned into a horse. Horse feelings, horse perceptions, mixed in with the human, but I’m still John Joseph Nicholas Weldon. You might guess that we’ve talked about this identity stuff among ourselves a lot.”
“A lot,” echoed Carlin. “What didn’t we talk about? All through those long nights. When we didn’t sleep, ’cause horses don’t sleep much and now we’re horses. But we’re still men and still us. And we’ve got Charliehorse with us, and you can bet he didn’t let this one alone. He wanted– Well, maybe I shouldn’t tell tales out of school.”
“No,” contradicted Buckjack, “it’s fair. Charlie wanted to change himself, his personality. And he did. We know, because he explained it to us, because the new personality is candid and open. That’s why it’s fair to talk about him this way. And he used the new stallion in himself to get that way, to be bold enough to open up, but it was all his own doing. We watched him do it. It was him doing it. People can change, but shapeshift won’t make ’em change. Not into other people.”
“There’s the trooping business,” muttered Gus.
“Okay, I don’t know what it’s like to be in a troop,” Buckjack admitted, “but you were in a troop with them yourselves for three years, a pretty tight one I hear, and you were still individuals, right?”
“Well, there was a lot of stuff swapping around between heads, but yeah.”
“Well, anyway, you all bounced back to being individuals when you left. And they’re in on a purely voluntary basis.”
Petra's footfalls had made no sound, but she had kept up with them as easily as breeze. “Mes chers garçons, you do not know what you are going on about.” She strode ahead of them, then turned to face them, bringing them to a halt on the forest path. “It is, I may say, very American, or maybe very male or very young, to focus on endless change. Fays do not do that. Habit is great! Or maybe it is just the nature of choice. Every decision, every day chosen to live a certain way, makes you more definite. You may flit from shape to shape like a cloud, but the character that directs the changes becomes every day more distinct. The fays you have met—the other fays you have met—who are so much older than you, they have been what they are for centuries, millennia, I have no doubt. The Fanatur is newly a lord, but that urge to grow and lead, that is immemorial in him.
“I came into existence more than a hundred years ago, and you, mes enfants, are a small fraction of that, but we are all so young as fays! So it behooves us now to select our virtues, so that in future centuries, when we have crystalized into our characters, we are something admirable, or at least bearable. I said, back in the town, I had no splendid virtue to offer God, but now I have stripped myself of every excuse: I have all the time in the world, I need nothing to preserve my life, and I will always see the consequences of my acts, so I am determined to be a ‘good fairy’ so that I do not make a hell of everlasting time. Do you the same. You will drift away only if you set your minds to drifting. Your problem is not that you will shift and smear and smudge into nothing in particular, but that you are certainly going to crystalize into something very specific, and all your work is to make sure it is something good."
The two lungmao stared at her. Then Doug recited softly, "This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, / patch, matchwood, immortal diamond, / Is immortal diamond.” Petra looked her puzzlement at him. “Poem,” he explained. “Gerald Manley Hopkins.”
“About dying,” Gus amplified. “I was there when he hauled it out of the troop memory. We talked a lot about dying, after all. ‘In a flash, at a trumpet crash, / I am all at once what Christ is, / since he was what I am, and / This Jack, joke...’ is immortal diamond.” His voice fell to a whisper on the last words.
Petra nodded. “For our mortal friends, the flash and crash. But diamonds also form under ages of pressure. That is my path and yours, chosen or not. Do not concern yourself that you are ‘tempted’ by shapeshifting. Yes, one can get drunk on it, but shapeshifting by itself is not bad or good for you. And, if there is something you should do first—go see your families, whatever—then go do it.”
The two stared at her silently for a few seconds, then bowed. “Thank you, mademoiselle,” said Doug. “And you guys,” said Gus to the centaurs.
Everyone resumed the walk out of the forest. One heard leaf-song and birds, ordinary ones.
“So. Lions,” said Doug to Gus.
“Yeah. After we learn to turn back, o’course. I figure we have all the bits.” He swished his tail. “We just change the proportions and the upholstery.”
Doug nodded. “Foxes. I want to do foxes, too.”
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