Telkarnith paced thoughtfully about their inn room in Scalyr. "We should head back to Port Fins," he said. "I want to get to the bottom of all this. We need to find out who framed Helkhar."
Rachel sighed. "You really want to get yourself killed, don't you. Look, we've shaken off the hunter's trail for now, but that's not going to last if you run off and do something else to attract attention. It's been, what, a month since the incident in Port Fins?"
"Closer to two," Telkarnith said.
Helkhar said, "I want to find out, too. But we don't even know what we're getting into here."
Rachel nodded in agreement. "Your trail on finding whoever really murdered that girl is already cold. Best thing to do right now is to count your blessings and lay low for a bit. You don't need to rush off blindly into everything. Go do some research with those shaman friends of yours you've mentioned. They'd probably be able to help more than skulking around Port Fins and getting yourself into trouble again."
Telkarnith ran his fingers through his fake-blond hair. "Fine. Fine. You have a point. At least then I could go home and be myself again for a while, and get my hair back to its usual color. Nobody in Wishingsdale is going to believe I'm a bloodthirsty werewolf, at least."
Helkhar asked, "Will you be coming with us, Rachel?"
"Of course," Rachel said brightly. "I'm going to need your protection, after all. Little old me would be helpless in the face of certain danger should the wrong parties discover my association with you. You do owe me for saving your necks out here."
"My wife is going to love this," Telkarnith muttered.
"Who is this woman?" Thalayal demanded. "And why are you blond?"
Thalayal's pregnancy was showing quite clearly now. Telkarnith hoped that it would be a son, strong and healthy, to carry on the Chelseer line. As much time as he'd spent on the way home thinking of what to tell her, however, now that he was here, he found himself at a loss for words.
Rachel stepped in and said, "Don't mind me. I'm just a poor foundling that your husband saw fit, in his generosity, to aid in a difficult situation. My poor mother is growing old, after all, and she can no longer get sufficient customers in the oldest profession to care for her twelve starving children. Telkarnith, the kind soul that he is, heroically came to our aid rather than see me forced to sell my body to feed my little brothers and sisters."
Thalayal stared at her for a long moment, before saying, "That still doesn't explain why he's blond."
Rachel went on, "In order to fool the cruel brothel matron, he disguised himself to sneak in and--"
"You know, just never mind," Thalayal said. "Now, who is the young gentleman you've brought home?" She turned her attention to Helkhar.
Helkhar bowed gracefully to her and said, "My lady, I am Henry Stark, an associate of your husband's. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance." He reached out and kissed her hand suavely.
"Oh my," Thalayal said, practically swooning.
Telkarnith snorted softly. Helkhar was laying it on excessively thick and getting far too much into the role, he thought. He almost thought that the werewolf was enjoying this particular game a bit too much. But he had to admit that Rachel's crash course in being a man had done him a world of good.
"Will your friends be staying in the manor?" Thalayal asked.
Telkarnith nodded. "I'm sure providing the extra food won't be any trouble?"
"Not at all," Thalayal said. "I am a skilled cook, after all. What sorts of foods do they prefer?"
Helkhar perked up at the mention of food. "Bacon!"
Telkarnith snickered softly. "You're starting to sound repetitive."
"Well, okay," Helkhar said. "Ham, beef, chicken, turkey, mutton, sausage..."
"I'm sure I can cook up some things that will make your stomach happy," Thalayal said with a grin.
With Helkhar and Rachel safely tucked away in Wishingsdale, Telkarnith took the short trip down to Roulden Trisa alone. It wasn't a particularly long trip, especially since he rarely grew tired when travelling thanks to the blessings of the horse god. He figured the others would appreciate the chance to relax a bit after their recent ordeals.
Marvel Farmer was outside, tending to some last minute chores, as Telkarnith arrived late in the evening. "Telkarnith! Good to see you again, boy. But why are you blond?"
Telkarnith smirked and said, "Don't ask."
"If you're looking for Donna, she's already gone to bed. I'm sure she won't mind you popping in, though." Marvel chuckled softly. If their arrangement had ever bothered him, he hadn't shown any sign of it. But then, Telkarnith had also been certain to make sure that they received a little money now and then, despite Marvel's insistance that he didn't need it.
"Actually, it was you I wanted to talk to most immediately," Telkarnith said. "I ran into a few issues up north that I was hoping you might be able to help me with."
"Certainly," Marvel said. "Come right in. Dinner's already done past, but there's some leftover stew you can dish up for yourself."
The two of them headed inside into the kitchen, and Telkarnith sat down with a bowl of delicious warm stew. It tasted delicious after walking the entire day, even with his inhuman stamina.
"So, what's this issue you mentioned?" Marvel asked, taking a seat across from him and leaning on his elbows. "It must be important if it would make you want to come talk to me before saying hi to Donna."
Telkarnith nodded. "What did Donna tell you about what happened in Port Fins?"
"Some business about being framed for a murder you guys didn't commit," Marvel said. "Some rumors trickled down here about a pack of werewolves slaughtering half the town, but nothing substantial."
"Well, there was one werewolf, but he didn't kill the girl they accused him of killing," Telkarnith said. "Unfortunately, the guards were a bit overzealous about attempting to arrest us, and three of them died."
"Ah," Marvel said, frowning. "Since when are you travelling with a werewolf?"
"Since it turned out Helkhar is one," Telkarnith said. "It came as much of a surprise to him as it was to anyone else. He's a good lad, but some seem to think werewolves are bloodthirsty monsters just for being werewolves. We tried to keep it quiet, but he wasn't really very good at blending in at first. For anyone that knew what to look for, I imagine that he may as well have been wearing a sign on his chest."
"It's a difficult situation," Marvel said. "The old myths about the Fall of Albrynnia attribute it to maddened shapeshifters running amok, driving people from the face of the continent. It's something of an injustice for them, though. They weren't the ones responsible for it, but superstition dies hard, particularly in the face that there are still some shapeshifters who are corrupt to the core. But even a few taints the perception of the whole."
"Do you think it might have been a corrupt shapeshifter who did this?" Telkarnith said, raising an eyebrow. "To frame Helkhar for murder?"
"Perhaps, but I doubt it would have been intentional unless it was far more lucid than usual. Did any of you sense anything out of the ordinary around the time it happened?"
Telkarnith thought back. "Helkhar said that something smelled funny. Like... old blood in stagnant water, he said."
"Interesting," Marvel said thoughtfully. "No, this doesn't sound like a shapeshifter, corrupted or otherwise. Unless I miss my guess, I think you're dealing with something much worse. A vampire."
"A vampire?" Telkarnith said. "Why would a vampire want to frame Helkhar for murder?"
"Because vampires and shapeshifters have a long history of animosity. Because he perceived Helkhar as a threat to him. Because he wanted to stir up trouble and it was too good of an opportunity to miss. Because you somehow angered him personally without realizing it. There are any number of reasons why vampires might do the things they do, none of them good."
"What do you think I should do?"
Marvel gave him a crooked grin and said, "Live. You're still young and healthy. Your life may grow more dangerous, but you should appreciate every moment of it that you are granted. Don't try to get yourself killed too soon. A vampire has all the time and patience in the world. Be certain that you are prepared before you go in to try to face one."
"Telkarnith! Why are you blond?" Donna wondered.
"It was just a disguise," Telkarnith replied. "Had to lose the trail of someone trying to kill us."
"I suppose there are worse reasons," Donna said.
Telkarnith embraced her. "It's good to see you again. I'm not staying long, though. I'll be heading off again soon."
"I'm coming with you," Donna said.
"I'm not going off chasing vampires," Telkarnith said. "I'm just going back to Wishingsdale for the moment. You know what we agreed on."
"I don't care," Donna said. "We have a lot of planning to do, and I'm not getting left behind again. Thalayal can just deal with it, alright?"
"Ugh, like she's not already annoyed enough about one girl hanging around as it is."
Donna raised an eyebrow. "You have another woman tucked away at your house now?"
"It's not like that," Telkarnith replied. "She helped me and Helkhar out back in Scalyr."
"I'm sure," Donna said dubiously. "I'm definitely coming along now. Got to make sure you're not going around picking up mistresses in every single town you come to. Starting a collection perhaps?"
"Donna," Telkarnith said.
"Don't Donna me. I've enough trouble keeping my hands on you as it is."
"Fine," Telkarnith said with a sigh. "Fine, come along, then. Shall we bring Winder along, too, and make a party of it?"
"You brought home another woman?" Thalayal said, almost incredulous when the three of them arrived back in Wishingsdale.
"Hey, don't look at me," Donna said. "I'm practically his sister."
Telkarnith gave her an odd look at the disturbing mental image that that brought to mind. She was older than his sister had been when she'd died, but he'd always thought that there was something of Kaymellor's spirit in Donna's personality.
"We have important things to discuss," Telkarnith said. "Where's Rachel and He-- Henry?"
"Down in the village," Thalayal replied. "They said they'd be back soon."
Sure enough, Helkhar and Rachel returned to the Chelseer manor in due order. Helkhar was carrying a small bouquet of yellow flowers. Telkarnith intercepted them in the foyer and raised an eyebrow at Helkhar. "What's with the flowers?" he wondered.
"I don't know," Helkhar replied. "Rachel told me that they're commonly used in your courtship rituals."
"Who are your courting?" Telkarnith wondered.
Telkarnith blinked at him in confusion. "Why are you courting my wife?"
Helkhar looked equally confused right back at him. "Why not? It's not like she's your mate or anything. That's Donna. You've said plenty of times you only married her so you can produce an heir."
Telkarnith couldn't really argue with that. "But why? I thought you didn't like her."
"Oh, she's not really so bad when she's not shrieking and jumping at the very sight of me."
Rachel smirked, and added, "He just likes her cooking."
"Hey, it's a perfectly legitimate reason!" Helkhar argued.
"You know, it's also generally considered poor form to go courting a woman when her husband is around," Telkarnith said with a snort.
"You were down in Roulden Trisa," Helkhar said. "How was I to know you'd be back already?"
"You know what?" Telkarnith said. "I'm just going to go to the parlor and pretend I didn't see any of this, alright?"
He and Rachel headed off to the parlor, where Donna and Winder were sitting and having a cup of artu tea. "Oh," Donna said, looking up at them. "Is this the other, other woman, now?"
Rachel interrupted, "Hello. I'm Rachel. A pleasure to meet you."
Donna glared at her, and said, "You had better be keeping your hands off my man, if you know what's good for you."
"Oh, he's your man?" Rachel said sweetly. "I thought he was married to Thalayal."
Donna continued to glower, but said nothing in response to that. Winder said, "Ladies, ladies, please, we can be friends, right?"
"Certainly," Rachel said cheerfully.
"Why is she here, anyway?" Donna asked.
"We're here to discuss that sticky business we ran into up in Port Fins a few months back," Telkarnith said.
"And I am quite skilled in the art of being unnoticed," Rachel said.
"That's because you're a thief," Telkarnith said with a smirk. "But anyway. We probably would have been killed up in Scalyr if it weren't for her help."
"A thief?" Donna said, raising an eyebrow.
Rachel snorted softly. "Perhaps I have done some unethical things in my day, but it was purely for survival, I assure you. I am reformed these days, and I will never again harm another for my own sake, nor take that which is not mine."
"Right, sure," Donna said, rolling her eyes. "And if you think anyone's going to believe that load of bull, you're more gullible than they are."
"Donna, please," Telkarnith said. "She's done nothing but try to be helpful. There's no need for the animosity."
"Oh, you're defending her now, are you? What have you been doing, sleeping around on me like you've been sleeping around on your wife?"
"Donna! I've been doing no such thing!"
"So you say," Donna said. "Am I not good enough for you, then? That you have to go dig up a half-elven whore for more entertainment on the side?"
Telkarnith felt his face flush in anger. "That's enough of this. We have important things to be worried about. If you really don't trust me so much that you think I must be sleeping with every woman I come across when you're not around, maybe you should just go home and settle down with some nice farmer?"
Donna gave him a glare that would wilt plants, then without another word, turned and stormed out of the room.
Winder stared after her and sighed, and said, "I suppose I'm going to have to go talk to her now." He followed after.
Rachel, left alone with Telkarnith, turned to him and said, "This is the woman you were travelling with? Really, I don't know what you see in her."
"She's not usually like this," Telkarnith said. "I'm sorry about this."
"No, it's alright," Rachel said. "I can understand how she might be jealous. And I can certainly understand how you'd be attracted to me." She smiled at him.
Rachel leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. Donna, coming back in the room again with Winder, saw this and flew into a fit of rage. "I turn my back on you for one moment and you're already fooling around with her?"
"Well, we'll see about that," Donna said. She went over to Telkarnith and grabbed him by the arm. "I'm just going to have to not let you out of my sight for a moment!"
Telkarnith looked helplessly at Rachel as Donna dragged him off.
"You know, Winder," Telkarnith said. "I don't think we're actually managing to accomplish anything here."
He sipped a cup of hot artu tea, and glanced across the kitchen at Donna and Thalayal preparing dinner. Outside, there was snow falling, and Thalayal was heavily pregnant, ready to give birth any day now. The two of them seemed to be getting along admirably for some reason, although Telkarnith was utterly clueless as to why that might be.
"Sure we have," Winder replied. "We've managed to get everyone in one building and not attempting to kill one another. Frequently, anyway."
"Yeah, great," Telkarnith muttered. "And what's been happening in the outside world in the last few months?"
"Um, well." Winder swirled the tea in his cup a bit. "Talked to a merchant in town the other day who said that Tanivalis has broken off from Hannaderres rule. No idea what's going on with that. And they think that Unar is building a fleet of warships."
"Lovely. And while I'd love to be out there doing something, I'm obligated to stay here until my child is born, and very likely until Thalayal is pregnant again."
Winder snickered softly. "Provided Donna is willing to let you out of her sight long enough to do that. Unless she insists on watching to ensure everything is done with the minimum required pleasure?"
"Bah. Donna's just being ridiculous in general. You know I haven't done anything with Rachel."
"Hey, leave me out of it. I wasn't there, and I don't really care. I'm not getting into the middle of any cat fights."
Telkarnith glanced over toward the two women, and wondered, "What's going on?" They'd stopped preparing the food, leaving vegetables half-chopped on the table, and Thalayal was freaking out.
"Thalayal's going into labor," Donna said. "Winder, go get Tevriel."
Donna took Thalayal off, and Telkarnith found himself shoved off to the parlor, where he ran into Rachel and Helkhar. Rachel was attempting to coach Helkhar some more, ever patient and persistant about it. They paused what they were doing when he came in, turning their attention to him and glancing in his direction.
Helkhar went over with interest and said, "Is something going on?"
"Thalayal's going to give birth," Telkarnith said distantly, in a bit of a daze. "I'm going to be a father."
Helkhar blinked for a moment in confusion and said, "Oh."
"That's wonderful!" Rachel said, clapping Telkarnith on the shoulder.
"Hopefully it'll be a boy," Telkarnith said. His head was swimming, and he felt light-headed, giddy, and very nervous. "A fine, strong, healthy boy."
He began to pace about the room nervously. He hadn't even really put much thought into a name for his child. But what if it turned out to be a girl? He didn't know what he'd do then. He'd have to get Thalayal pregnant again to produce another child. But there hadn't been a girl firstborn in his family in generations.
"Why are you so nervous?" Helkhar asked.
"Yeah, relax," Rachel said. "She's the one doing all the work."
"I'm just really hoping that it's a boy."
"Why?" Helkhar wondered.
"Otherwise I'll need to try again to produce an heir."
Helkhar looked very confused. "What's so special about boys? And what's an heir?"
"Only a boy can carry on the family name and line, of course," Telkarnith said. "Children take the name of their father, after all."
Helkhar blinked. "So your kids will be named Telkarnith too? Won't that get confusing?"
Telkarnith chuckled softly. "No, no. Their surname, not their given name. My name is Telkarnith Chelseer, see? And since I'm a man, any of my children will also have Chelseer as their second name."
"Oh," Helkhar said. "I see. But, I don't have a surname, do I? What would any kids I have be called?"
"What, thinking of settling down and having little ones already?" Telkarnith said, vaguely amused. At least trying to explain things to the poor, easily confused werewolf distracted him a bit from his unease.
"Maybe," Helkhar said, shrugging. "I'm just wondering. I suppose it makes sense if you're trying to keep track of whose kids are whose."
"Well, if you're not still trying to pretend to be Henry Stark, you could always give them Helkhar as their last name," Telkarnith said. "Or make up a new surname for yourself."
"Hmm," Helkhar said, looking thoughtful, then he nodded.
After some time, Telkarnith grew worried again, wondering if everything was going alright in the other room. But finally, the door opened and Donna came in, carrying a blanket-wrapped bundle in her arms.
"Congratulations. It's a boy," she said.
Telkarnith took the precious burden from her hands and looked down at the small elven baby, blinking up at him with clear blue eyes. "My little one... my son, my heir," he murmured.
Helkhar came over to peer at the little boy. "What's wrong with him?" he wondered. "He's all pink and hairless and ugly."
Telkarnith just laughed lightly. "He's not a wolf, Helkhar. This is what elvish babies look like."
"Oh," Helkhar said.
"So beautiful," Telkarnith murmured, looking down into the child's bright eyes. "Your eyes are like the blue star, Shazmar, shining brightly above in the sky. Therefore, I believe I shall call you Shaznith."
"You are not going in there," Donna said.
"What?" Telkarnith said, raising an eyebrow. "But she's my wife. Didn't we already discuss this?"
"You already have an heir."
"But what if something bad happens to him? It's always good to have a 'spare', they say."
Donna smirked. "Nothing's going to happen to him. Come on. Let's go to bed."
"I have a duty to my bloodline, you know." Telkarnith shook his head, and turned to go into Thalayal's room.
Thalayal, already in bed, poked her head out from the curtains at him. "Oh. Telkarnith. Do you need something?"
Telkarnith stared at her and said, "We need to get started on the next one, don't we?"
"Oh, I don't think that'll really be necessary."
"What, not you too?" Telkarnith said in exasperation. "Damnit, woman, you're my wife!"
"And I can just kindly ignore the mistresses you're keeping in my house if you'll leave me be about it," Thalayal replied.
Telkarnith was taken aback. "I'm not... damnit."
"Go along now, then. Have fun with your girl friends."
He peered around suspiciously. "Do you have someone in there with you?"
Thalayal closed the curtains and slipped back into the bed with a giggle.
"You know what. Never mind. I don't want to know." He turned and left the room. He headed back down the hallway and to Donna's room instead with a sigh.
Donna was a lovely sight, half-undressed and showing a lot of gorgeous brown skin, but she just glared at him when he came in. "Do you expect to still sleep with me tonight after that? Go on. Get out of here."
"I'm sorry," Telkarnith said.
"Get back to me tomorrow and I'll think about accepting your apology."
"Am I going to have to sleep on the couch now?"
"I'm sure your dear Rachel might have other ideas," Donna said with a snort. "Take your pick."
"I'm not sleeping with Rachel!" Telkarnith snapped.
"Good," Donna said. "And you're not sleeping with me, either, at least not tonight."
Sighing in frustration, Telkarnith headed out of the room and went down to the parlor. Rachel was sitting there, sipping a cup of artu tea, and munching on some little cucumber sandwiches.
"Isn't it a bit late in the day to be having tea?" Telkarnith commented.
"I shouldn't think so," Rachel said with a shrug. "Not when there's plenty of good reasons to be awake for the moment, at least. What's wrong? Can't sleep, or get kicked out of bed?"
"Didn't even get a chance to get to bed, not that it's any of your business," Telkarnith said with a smirk.
"Oh, but I could make it my business," Rachel said. "You're more than welcome to sleep in the guest room with me, after all."
"I'm not sleeping with you, Rachel," Telkarnith said.
"No? I suppose you'd rather sleep on the couch then? Or maybe with your mother?" She smirked back at him.
"No!" Telkarnith said, feeling a touch ill at the thought. "Damnit, Rachel."
"What?" Rachel said innocently. "Don't look at me. Would you like some tea?"
"Is this all some elaborate scheme just to get into bed with me?"
Rachel looked shocked. "Me? I would never do something like that!"
Telkarnith chuckled softly. "I know. I was joking. But I'm still not sleeping with you. I'll just go... off... somewhere... by myself..."
"Suit yourself," Rachel said lightly. "You know where to find me if you get lonely and change your mind."
Telkarnith snorted softly and went off to find someplace quiet.
"Oh, Telkarnith?" Donna said, "I'm pregnant."
Telkarnith glanced up from Shaznith and looked over across the parlor at her. "Really?"
"So am I," Thalayal added with a sly grin from across the room.
Telkarnith smirked and gathered up Shaznith in his arms. The young boy would be two years old in a few months, come winter. Telkarnith really couldn't say anything about the way she flaunted her infidelity, considering his own situation. She and Donna had gotten along quite well after coming to that arrangement behind his back, although he wasn't entirely certain just who Thalayal was actually sleeping with.
"So," Telkarnith said. "Care to let us in on who the father is? Because it's obviously not me."
Thalayal laughed lightly, and Donna just looked at Telkarnith and said, "You mean you don't know?"
"Sorry if I'm a bit dense. I haven't really cared to wonder just who my wife is sleeping with."
Donna just laughed herself, and turned to Thalayal and said, "I'll go and tell him the good news." She left the room.
"So, who?" Telkarnith said. "Really, who?"
"Your good friend, Henry," Thalayal said.
Telkarnith blinked at her. "I thought he was just... oh. Um. Do you even know who he really is?"
Thalayal stared at him. "What do you mean?"
"He hasn't told you who and what he is?"
Thalayal shook her head. "If he's somebody other than a human gentleman by the name of Henry Stark, then I haven't a clue. He's a tad eccentric, some very odd mannerisms, but he's quite charming in his own way."
"Right," Telkarnith muttered, setting Shaznith down. The little boy scrambled off to play with his wooden blocks. "You've known him by another name, but you probably wouldn't recognize him anyway."
"Oh," she said. "Is he in disguise? To avoid persecution? That's so exciting and romantic!"
"Something like that." He rubbed his head. "Promise you won't freak out if I tell you?"
"Of course not."
"His name is Helkhar."
Thalayal looked at him in confusion. "That's an elvish name. Is he really a half-elf or something? The illegitimate son of a noble?"
"You don't remember?" Telkarnith said. "You know that big wolf that used to hang around with me?"
"What about it?"
Telkarnith said patiently, "That's him. That's Helkhar. He's a werewolf."
Thalayal stared at him for a long moment, and he had to start wondering if she was going to react badly to the news and what she might do. But she stayed calm, and said, "Oh. Well, that would certainly explain a few things. Like his appetite."
"That doesn't bother you?"
"I'd rather just someone by who they are rather than what they are," Thalayal said. "And he's the perfect gentleman, always kind and polite, positively chivalrous. In short, he's everything you're not. Also, he's much better in bed. A real animal, you might say."
"I didn't need to know that."
Helkhar came into the room, followed by Donna. "Is it true? Am I going to be a father?" he asked Thalayal.
She smiled at him and nodded. "You're going to be a father, Helkhar."
It took him a moment for the name to register. "You know?" He looked worried.
Thalayal laughed, and went over and kissed him. "Relax. I don't mind. Although I have to wonder whether or not your children are going to turn out fuzzy too."
"But you were always so afraid of me."
"I was young and far from home, and I'd never seen anything like you before," Thalayal said. "But I suppose it's perfectly natural to be afraid of things which are larger and stronger than you."
"So," Helkhar said thoughtfully. "Can we give the kids the surname 'Helkhar' then? I'm going to need an heir!"
Telkarnith said, "But you're not even married to her."
Helkhar looked at him in confusion. "She's my mate. Donna is yours. Isn't this 'marriage' thing more political than anything else, anyway?"
Telkarnith sighed. "The children get the surname of the person the mother is married to, not necessarily the person who actually is their father."
"Well, that's just wrong," Helkhar said. "How can you tell who their father actually is, then?"
"Not acknowledged, officially anyway," Telkarnith said. "Your name won't be on any official records, anymore than Donna's will be. To the family trees, any children Thalayal has will be my children."
Helkhar looked disappointed for a moment, then perked up again and said, "Well, that's okay. I'll know whose children they are. The wolves won't care about your politics."
"I was always wondering why you were always so confused about things everyone else takes for granted," Thalayal said. "But I always thought it was charming and quite endearing, really."
"At least now I can go by my real name again," Helkhar said.
"Helkhar," Thalayal said, grinning and looking thoughtful about the name. "Helkhar. I do like the sound of that much better." She looked at him for a moment and said, "You've got a silly grin on your face. Is this where you'd be wagging your tail if you had one at the moment?"