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Constance

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One consequence of having Rykian for a mentor was having to deal with certain of his creatures. Kestrel, the gryphon, wasn’t any trouble at all, and Mort was only unpleasant by virtue of species, but Malice was another matter. Ekaira usually loved cats and still hadn’t given up on befriending a winged cat, but the tienko was what people who didn’t like cats thought cats were like. The calico tienko seemed to view Ekaira’s room as a second home, which wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t for her knack for chaos and destruction. Ekaira had yet to find the spell that could keep her out. To make matters worse, Malice rarely showed up alone, and today was no exception.

“Malice, just drop him,” Ekaira said in exasperation. “I don’t care how much Mort likes being mauled. It’s not hygienic and I don’t particularly want to clean up rat parts.” The undead rat had stayed in one piece so far, but there was a first time for everything.

Malice, though never particularly inclined to obey Ekaira at the best of times, had never growled at her before. Ekaira looked at her, startled, and realized that Malice’s dark bundle wasn’t Mort at all. The tienko had a black Keep rat hatchling hanging motionless from her jaws.

Ekaira knew enough about cats not to try taking Malice’s prize away from her directly. Malice was already backing away from her, looking pleased by Ekaira’s distress. With a little help from Snowy (the Arkenian kitsune had never liked Malice), Ekaira soon had Malice distracted enough to drop her victim. Ekaira quickly scooped up the hatchling and took several steps back from Malice.

Malice stalked off (before phasing through the door as usual) with a backwards glance that boded ill for Ekaira’s possessions the next time Ekaira left her room, but Ekaira hardly noticed. The hatchling was still alive, thankfully, but its wounds looked serious. Ekaira had little healing magic herself, but luckily she knew plenty of magi who did.

Ekaira had barely set foot outside her door when three black Keep rats skidded to a halt in front of her, each with their sword drawn and looking grim. The tallest came up to her knee. Ekaira took an involuntary step backward. “I swear to you that wasn’t my tienko,” she said. Their expressions didn’t change. “Look, this little one needs help, but I wouldn’t even try to heal myself. You must know all the shortcuts to the infirmary.” One Keep rat nodded, sheathed its sword, and stepped forward, arms outstretched to accept the hatchling from Ekaira. That Keep rat and another – the hatchling’s parents, Ekaira suspected – then hurried off, leaving the third Keep rat glaring up at Ekaira.

Ekaira sighed. “I had nothing to do with the attack besides rescuing that poor hatchling. Believe me, I’ve changed since I arrived here. I know what Keep rats are, now.” And if someone had bothered to explain to her that any oversized rat she might see scuttling around the Keep was intelligent and not just vermin, she wouldn’t have antagonized a whole species. In all fairness to Ekaira, the rat she’d seen hadn’t been wearing armor or a sword and she had seen mundane rats that size on multiple occasions.

The black Keep rat still looked like she didn’t quite trust Ekaira, but she at least put away her sword. “And as you don’t have claws or fangs like a cat, I believe you. Besides, that tienko is well known to us. There is still your past history to consider, though. You do realize that Fortitude will always walk with a limp?” Ekaira nodded. Honestly, she was surprised that Fortitude’s injuries hadn’t been worse. “Lack of knowledge is no excuse, but if the youngster survives, I might be willing to reconsider my position on you. If he doesn’t, well, that’s another matter. Mark my words, you’ve not seen the last of me, no matter what the outcome.” The rat turned and walked away, leaving Ekaira feeling decidedly uneasy.

Ekaira spent the next week expecting to turn a corner and be confronted by a host of irate Keep rats. Instead, she returned to her room one afternoon to find the black Keep rat she’d spoken with sitting on her bed, reading over Ekaira’s history assignment with a critical eye. A cloth-wrapped bundle sat beside her. Ekaira’s heart sank. Even knowing that she could have done nothing else to save the Keep rat hatchling, she still felt guilty.

The Keep rat motioned to Ekaira to sit down. Ekaira pulled over her desk chair and did so, dreading the upcoming conversation. “Now,” said the rat, “I did warn you we’d have more to talk about. First, though,” she said, starting to unwrap the bundle, “you need to see this.”

Ekaira held her breath as the layers of cloth were removed. Underneath them was a Keep rat egg. The rat chuckled wickedly at the expression of surprise Ekaira knew had to be on her face. “Not what you were expecting? The youngster’s expected to make a full recovery, so we decided you needed a second chance to make a good impression. He was promised to another before his egg hatched, but this one hasn’t been yet. You’ve been given a rare opportunity, Ekaira.”

That made what Ekaira had to say difficult, but she knew the egg deserved a better opportunity. She sighed. “I do understand what an honor this is, but it’s not one I feel I should accept. Snowy and the others chose me of their own free will, while nothing I’ve raised from an egg has willingly chosen to stay with me.” She hadn’t even kept all of those who had chosen her. “I won’t condemn a Keep rat to a contract they wouldn’t have willingly chosen.”

“If that’s the way you feel, then so be it,” said the Keep rat, pointedly moving the egg away from Ekaira and starting to re-wrap it. “Plenty of magi around who will jump at the chance to raise this one.” She tucked the egg carefully back into the sling she was wearing, slid off the bed, and walked over to Ekaira. “That was a one-time offer, you know.” Ekaira nodded. She had expected as much. “I don’t blame you. Some magi just aren’t cut out for raising eggs, so it’s good that you already know your own limits. Nothing wrong with restricting yourself to creatures old enough to know their own mind.” The rat paused. “I’m not under contract at the moment,” she said casually.

Ekaira blinked, startled. Surely she had misheard. “You mean you’d-. After what I did to Fortitude?”

The rat nodded. “He forgave you in time and I've always trusted his judgment. I take it this arrangement is more to your liking?” Ekaira nodded, still taken aback. The rat held out a paw. “I’m Constance. Don’t make me regret this and I’ll make sure you won’t either.” Fair enough. Ekaira shook Constance’s paw, grateful for second chances.