Theft and Virtue

October 27, 2011

Virtue was named for a quality the Inner Circle deemed her mother to be lacking in, and Faith raised her to live up to that name.

As a child, the filly learned that she was part of the nobility, and that the silver horn on her forehead entitled her to respect and reverence from the common people. Those commoners employed by the Circle proved her lessons correct, bowing their heads as they helped her into her jewel-toned silk gowns and braided gems into her mane. She treated them with respect in turn, the respect the served show the servants.

As a teenager, the filly learned that outside the protective walls around the inner city, all the silk gowns and jeweled ornaments in the world couldn’t cover up her rust-and-steel fur, her bushy tail, or her cool, wet nose. The best of them went through the motions, paws scraping in a poor imitation of her gilded childhood. The worst of them showed their mistrust, their suspicion, outright. No matter how hard she worked, she could never truly be nobility in anything but name because nothing she did could change the fact that she had been sired by a Trickster.

As a young adult, just accepted into the Outer Circle, the filly learned that even being formally confirmed into the life her birthright owed her wouldn’t be enough to eliminate that doubt. If anything, it seemed to reinforce it, shaking the commoners’ faith in the Circle. The Inner Circle, of course, wasn’t worried, but some of the less influential members of the Outer Circle adopted the commoners’ disapproval, seeing error in Virtue’s progress in the arcane studies as well as her parentage.

She heard the whispers, and for every doubt she worked twice as hard to quench it. For having the blood of two great magical races in her veins, her potential surpassed that of her peers, yet despite her best efforts, her progress was agonizingly slow, not even matching the dullest of her fellows. Little comfort was it for Virtue, trying to prove her worth, that her difficulties were normal and expected due to her mixed parentage, not when she was striving so hard to live up to the full-blooded unicorns.

As she was growing increasingly more desperate, Virtue managed to overhear the scandalized whispers about a commoner sorcerer – not just a commoner, at that, but one rumored to have been born to a woman of some foreign country so exotic only the elders of the Inner Circle would know anything about it – researching eccentric body-changing magic. According to those rumors, the man aspired to take the body of a noble, himself, and to gain access to the Circle – if not the Circle of Bijoux, then the Circle of another of the Karandian city-states. Clearly this was not a man who could be trusted, but it was equally clear to her that his research might hold a solution to her problem. In her desperation, it seemed to Virtue that her best options for winning the respect she should have been entitled to laid in that sorcerer’s notes.

Her preliminary research before moving out was flawed by necessity; if she was planning to purloin the sorcerer’s notes she could certainly not let those intentions on to anyone. Theft in itself was bad enough, and something she would never have attempted if there was another way, but any kind of involvement with someone like him would be worse. She did manage to work out where the sorcerer made his home, and could use the maps available in the Grand Library to work out how she might most safely get there on foot, and she did after much consideration decide on what she thought would be the least risky way of slipping out of the city unseen.

She said no goodbyes on the morning when she slipped away after taking her morning meal, simply made her way to the guards’ hall like a shadow clad in rich velvet, silver and emeralds, with the rags of an old towel wrapped around her hooves to muffle their ring. In a quiet moment she snuck in, unseen, and supplied herself with a long, hooded cloak, and made sure she pulled the hood down far enough over her face to hide her horn. Thus disguised into what would easily be taken for just a common fox, if one with somewhat unusual coloring, she passed through the gates out of the inner city and started her quest in earnest.

Roads that on the maps had looked like any other had proved to be much more challenging to traverse than smooth, stone-paved city streets, and she was soon sweating under the heavy borrowed cloak she hadn’t dared remove. On her arrival, Virtue wasn’t certain what, exactly, she had expected. It hadn’t been this, this stone tower menacing at least as tall as any building in the luxurious inner city where she had been born and raised. Maybe the hard travel added to the dread that welled up in the pit of her stomach as she looked up at the drearily gray stone walls.

The tower showed few signs of life; no servants scurrying about, no lights flickering in any windows. The only sounds she could hear were the indistinct whispers of the surrounding land and a strangely muffled echo of a baying hound’s voice, so faint as to make her second-guess her own ears. If there were no servants in evidence, neither could the tower’s master be, nor could he possibly be due to return soon. The sorcerer’s absence was a lucky break that loaned courage to Virtue’s heart and strength to her weary legs, and thus heartened she proceeded to what had to be the next step of her plan.

That the doors might be locked had never occurred to her, a child of the sheltered inner city, and so she simply tried the door and found the latch willingly yielding under her tentative touch. She saw nothing to cause alarm beyond that door, either, just a cold stone room lit by a blue-green magical glow, a spiral staircase winding around its walls up beyond the room’s ceiling. With nothing tangible to hint where the sorcerer’s workroom – and notes – might be, she started upwards, cracking open doors to peer into the rooms beyond as she went. Little of what she found seemed to be of interest to her; lower down, there seemed to mainly be what would be servants’ workplaces, the first one being a kitchen, and following those, a number of storage rooms filled with odd curiosities, including a chilling number of stuffed malformed animals. Only briefly did she reflect over the oddity of there being no servants’ quarters that she could see, then she dismissed the notion. The servants must simply live farther away in the woods, within their own walls.

A bedroom, sparse by her standards and strewn with lengths of brightly-woven cloth in a careless, haphazard manner, gave her some pause, though she told herself that she only stopped and looked longer in that room to rest her legs for a moment. Past that room, the stairs only continued far enough to let her out onto the next floor, the walls of the circular room lined with shelves and rolls and leather-bound sheaves of parchment strewn across seemingly any surface but what would be their proper place. One door opened onto a balcony, and since she had found her goal Virtue took the time to ascertain that the balcony, too, was empty, and in the center of the room a steep, surprisingly rough-hewn not-quite-ladder lead up to a trap door in the ceiling, one that had to lead to the topmost floor of the tower. A heavy iron bolt held the door in place; clearly nobody was going to surprise her from that direction.

With the sorcerer’s notes in no discernible order, Virtue had to start by picking up a scroll at random, quickly eyeing through the neat handwriting and meticulously-drawn diagrams in an attempt to discern whether it held the information she sought before discarding it. She continued browsing in that manner, slowly moving about the room, ears pricked to pick up any sound that even hinted that someone might return. Most of the writing was advanced well beyond her knowledge, but she persevered in the hopes that once she found the right scroll or tome it would all fall into place.

She was flipping through one such tome when she heard a light thump from the balcony. For a moment she froze up, looking about her for a hiding place, then she relaxed and turned her attention back to the book. She had inspected that balcony and found it empty, and it was far too high up for anyone to try to sneak in that way. Moments later, a breeze stirred the edges of her purloined cloak, as well as the rolls of parchment strewn about her.

Mildly irritated at herself for apparently having failed to latch the balcony door properly, the filly turned to go close it. The sight that met her made her blood freeze to ice.

He was tall, though not unnaturally so, with utterly unremarkable sandy-grey fur that paled a few shades on what was visible of his throat and front. A length of pattern-woven fabric, much like those she’d seen strewn across the bedroom on the floor below, was wrapped around his waist and slung over his shoulder in a mode of dress that was as strikingly exotic as his fur was plain. And, most worrying to Virtue, his eyes were hard as rock, and the same aquamarine shade as the magic glow lighting the tower.

“It seems I have a visitor.” The coyote took a step towards her, and she backed up, feeling panic well up in every space previously filled by courage and determination. “Helping yourself to my hard work, no less.” Another step, and his next sentence, his command, came like the lash of a whip. “Remove the hood.”

She dropped the tome she’d been holding and clutched her cloak tighter around herself. If she removed the hood he’d know she wasn’t just a fox, and who knew what he’d do to her then…

The sorcerer’s ears flattened, and his lips pulled back to expose sharp white teeth when the book fell. “Who sent you? You clearly have no respect of your own for my research, so who is your master? What Circle do you answer to?” His voice fell to a low growl, and he continued to advance on the terror-struck unicorn, backing her up towards the wall until the shelves of one of the bookcases dug into her back. “Now remove the hood, thief.”

Virtue raised one shaking hand to grasp the edge of the hood, but let that same hand fall before it could pull the fabric back. With a vicious growl, the coyote lashed out and tugged it out of the way for her, violently enough that for a moment, she could feel the clasp pressing against her throat, choking her.

And then, he started laughing.

“A fine visitor she is, too! Either your precious Inner Circle sent you, or you’re one very ambitious and very foolish girl, very far away from home. Which is it, my pretty?”

Maybe it was the blatant disrespect shown to her by a commoner, maybe it was just a reaction to the threat of his bared teeth for the moment being out of her face. Whatever the case, Virtue’s shame at having been caught stealing couldn’t drown out her indignation, and indignation prompted her to press her lips shut in the face of the sorcerer’s questions. She didn’t quite have the courage to meet his gaze, but instead expressed her defiance with a stubbornly clenched jaw.

He waited, watching her with a shadow of a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. When the seconds amassed into minutes, that smile remained, but the sorcerer shook his head. “I don’t have time to play your games. If you won’t tell me what you were doing with my notes, or for whom, I will simply have to find out through other means. Until I do, I will be quite content to provide you with the hospitality of my dungeon.

“If the Circle sent you, they will come to retrieve their errand girl before long. If you went on your own, I’m sure I will sooner or later hear about you being missing. Either way, I will have my answers, with or without your cooperation.”

Virtue simply stared at the man, her emerald eyes wide. He didn’t fear the Inner Circle’s wrath? He was prepared to keep her, one of his born betters, captive until he had his way? How was she to know, even, that he’d actually release her once he did find out?

“Now, my dear,” the coyote practically crooned, reaching out with one hand to stir the net of emerald-adorned braids in her mane, “I imagine you wouldn’t want to lose or ruin any of your pretty trinkets or fancy clothing before you can return where you came from, would you? I think, just to be sure, I ought to take them for safekeeping. Would you prefer to remove them yourself, or shall I have to do it for you?”

She jerked away from his touch, clutching the cloak she still wore tighter around herself. “Watch yourself! Just my jewels ought to be more than adequate pay for the information I seek; you will not simply take them and keep me a prisoner.”

“It might have been, if you had come to trade,” the sorcerer granted, cocking his head and leaning his muzzle in so close she could feel his breath stir her short whiskers. “But you didn’t come to pay for my knowledge, did you? You came to take it, with no regard for anyone but yourself.” A pair of black-feathered shadows spread on either side of the coyote, blocking her view of the room as they mantled over him and his prisoner. “This is my home, girl, and in my home I do as I will. You would do well to remember that.”

Virtue cowered, startled and fearful in the face of what appeared to be an entirely unfamiliar, powerful spell, cast so casually as to be undetectable, and inclined her head. While she wasn’t entirely ready to accept the word of one of her inferiors as law, she could see the wisdom in, at least, attempting to avoid angering him.

He snorted dismissively and half-turned, the great black wings folding and settling against his back. “The world is much larger than you realize, my dear. There are even places where wings are not reserved for the nobility. My mother’s people call themselves ravens.”

The unicorn stood silent once again, fear and defiance warring within her but both agreeing on her tongue remaining still.

“As I said, the dungeon below is regrettably no place for your finery. It will have to be removed before I send you down there, and I would much prefer it if you didn’t press me to do so by force. I am not a savage, and I intend to return you much in the shape I found you once I know where you belong.”

Virtue’s jaw set a little more firmly, her fingers clutching the edges of her cloak a little tighter.

“Are you always this contrary, or is that only when you’re caught red-handed?” Again he turned towards her, again he invaded her space, his hands deftly unfastening the throat-clasp of the cloak and pushing it off her shoulders, to be held up only by her grip on the fabric. He left his unwelcome guest no room to escape, his arms blocking her escape to either side.

Her strength was no match for his when he seized her shoulder and turned her around, only barely not pressing up against her in the course of working the latches along her spine holding her dress closed. She tried to push him back, but moments after her back pushed against his chest his jaws were around the back of her neck, just below her ears, his hot, damp breath an unspoken threat, while his fingers continued to dance lower. A whimper escaped her when he pushed the dress, too, off her rusty-furred shoulders, running his hands down her arms and bringing the rich cloth with them. A squeeze to her wrists, just barely firm enough to be slightly painful, sent both dress and cloak falling to the floor in a pile around her feet, and another unhappy sound escaped her lips in response.

Once the filly was out of the dress, the sorcerer’s teeth ceased to press against her skin, though he kept one hand on her shoulder to restrain her. She didn’t dare try to pick her dropped clothes back up, just twisted  her body and tried to cover herself to the best of her ability with her arms. The way he looked at her, his blue eyes nothing if not piercing, didn’t lessen her embarrassment; under his gaze she might as well be a beast of burden or a cut of meat. When he, with a heavy sigh, started to unfasten the colorful weave that clothed him, her breath caught in horrified anticipation. Then the sorcerer, paying little if any heed to his own nudity, held the fabric out towards her.

“If you’re that shy, put this on. It can take a bit of damp better than your silks.” There was a slight, impatient edge to his voice, even as his tone otherwise remained level. When she didn’t accept the offered cloth, he pushed it into her arms, ears tilting back.

She took it only because she couldn’t not, and then stood frozen, shifting the drape in her hands to let part of it fall down and obscure her body, but not daring to take her eyes off of the sorcerer to wrap it about herself properly even if she’d wanted to accept that would-be kindness. She wasn’t certain what he was trying to do; her best guess was that he was aiming to somehow increase her perceived debt to him – as though he didn’t have a duty to serve nobility – by offering her his own clothing in exchange for the much finer garments he was so crudely seizing. That was, apparently, not good enough; he grasped her shoulder and once again turned her around to face the wall again, stepping closer to her bare back though carefully avoiding stepping on the dropped clothes pooled by her feet. She could feel a whisper of fur against fur as his fingers started to unravel the delicate net her mane had been braided into, and fumed in frightened, silent anger as he gathered up the gemstones woven into those braids in his hands.

“You must excuse me,” he breathed against her flattened ears, once finished, “if I don’t trust you. I’m sure you can think of a few reasons why.”

A strange, wet, slithering sound emanated from the point where the staircase opened up into the circular room, and she turned her head only just enough to catch a glimpse of what was making it. The creature had some superficial resemblance to a snake, if a snake had a man’s upper body yet no neck or head, was thicker around than her waist, and was made entirely out of viscous water with a blue-green glow. The sorcerer must have called it, whatever it was, even if she’d not heard any obvious such signal.

“Hold her.”

For a moment, as the creature’s wet hands closed around her wrists and its master withdrew, she struggled against its grip. But though it didn’t look particularly solid, its grip was vice-like, and she could as well have tried to move a mountain for all the good it did her. Trembling, she twisted her head around and watched the sorcerer pick up her discarded clothes, and carry those and her jewels up the steep stairs-or-possibly-ladder in the center of the room. The strange, winged coyote had been intimidating, but once he was gone she found she’d preferred his company to the unnatural being he’d commanded to keep her restrained.

She could, if she strained, hear his claws clicking against the floor overhead, and the scraping of objects being moved around. It fed her anxiety just as effectively as his looming presence had; the stories about the immoral commoner dabbling in magic arts best left for the nobility had left enough room for her imagination to fill in gruesome details about what he might be doing out of her sight.

When he returned, he held in his hands several pieces of light-colored leather, most of them wide and flat, each of the shorter ones with a flattened metal ring threaded onto them, while the longer seemed to be fitted with a dull, colorless crystal. From his wrist hung a more delicate set of straps, as far as Virtue could tell fashioned into a headcollar like what might be put onto a beast of burden, along with a length of delicate-looking ribbon. He offered no explanations, nor any audible commands to his servant-creature, as he had the water-snake hold her hands out towards him, one at a time.

The filly watched helplessly as the sorcerer fed magic into the leather, making the ends of the wide straps meld together and the entire cuff shrink until it fit snugly around her wrists. She tried, half-heartedly, to kick at him when he knelt to fasten another set around her ankles, and found, once again, that he was more than capable of overpowering her; his grip could well have left a bruise under the fur on her shin. Those cuffs in place, he once again put his face close to hers, as he looped the final length of leather, the crystal-adorned one, around her neck.

“For your own safety,” he said to her, his voice laced with a growl, “and to help me keep an eye on you. The collar will store any magic you attempt to use while you are wearing it.”

“For my safety?” she echoed, her voice smaller than the previous times she’d questioned the coyote.

“Not a lot of sense in that pretty head of yours that I’ve seen, my dear. If I allowed you to keep your magic, no doubt you’d do something just as foolish as trying to rob a sorcerer. I couldn’t let you get yourself hurt.” The coyote’s jaws parted into a grin. “Now be a pet and stop fussing so much.”

Of course, she didn’t heed that request, and shied her head back when he lifted the delicate halter towards her face. His response was immediate, and just as coolly, calmly efficient as if he had truly been dealing with a beast; he gave her no chance to back away, but fastened the narrow straps around her muzzle and behind her ears in the same buckle-less, magical manner as he had used previously, and the ribbon to the halter. Once satisfied those items were properly in place, he took a step back, frowning with his ears half-flattened at the sight before him.

“This won’t do; you can’t move without losing the wrap, that way.” With a casual ease that only increased her sense of violation, the sorcerer wound the end of the ribbon around his wrist, and then took the small amount of brightly-colored modesty he’d previously granted her away. She tried to twist out of his reach as his hands seemed to be everywhere, passing the fabric this way and that, and he relentlessly followed. Then, as abruptly as he’d started, he stepped away from her once again, this time nodding his head.

“Much better,” he said, and she had to agree, at least inwardly, that he was right. The wrap was now properly covering her, though it would have granted her more dignity if it hadn’t been combined with the leather tack.

Virtue gritted her teeth in frustration and humiliation as she was led by that deceptively thin silken leadrope down the winding stairs and down through a hidden passageway in the tower’s entrance chamber, to finally descend into a damp stone tunnel, lit by the same sort of blue-green glow as the rest of the tower, but here seeming to emanate solely from the water pooling on the stone floor.

“Watch your footing,” the sorcerer warned as he lead her down a passageway. “The floor drops away in places, and the magic in the water sometimes makes it difficult to tell.”

The tunnel let out into an octagonal room, with connecting tunnels in four of the eight walls. Roughly in the center of the room stood a pair of wooden troughs, the material dark, dense an heavy-looking, a pair of chain-ends trailing out like lifeless serpents from under them. It was by those troughs that the coyote paused, making his captive’ stomach sink.

After a few moments, he fulfilled her fears by bending down and picking up those chains, magically making the solid link on each end pass through and hook into the flattened links on one of her wrist-bonds. Then, watching her carefully for her reaction, he walked around the troughs, reached down, and neatly tied – tied, with a perfectly mundane knot – the ribbon to a metal loop set in the floor some distance away on its other side. The narrow length of silk itself was long enough to leave plenty of slack, and seemingly would do so even if she backed up as far as her chains would allow.

“You will find that the chain is long enough to allow you some freedom of movement,” he told her, his tone that of a slightly bored servant introducing his master’s guest quarters. “But not long enough to let you reach the end of the ribbon. During your stay, my servants will make sure you have food and water, and that your bucket is emptied.” He gestured toward the bucket in question, a slightly dented tin affair, and her ears folded back as she realized how he intended for her to use it. “I am afraid I cannot spare the time away from my studies to be a very gracious host, and the servants are not very socially inclined. But my dogs have free roam of the dungeon, and if you get lonely you may call for them for company, if you wish.”

She was insulted at being offered only the man’s pets for entertainment, and almost balked before whispering, “Call them? How?”

“Oh,” the sorcerer replied with a dismissive wave of his hand, “that doesn’t matter much. ‘Dogs’ would do it, I imagine. Just call them, and they will be happy to come. They are very… friendly, my pets.”

And then he left her, tied up like a soulless beast, alone in the cold, damp dungeon lit by spilled magic.

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