Story (c) 2000 by Hikaru Katayamma/Keith Dickinson. All rights reserved. The character Sheila Vixen (c) Eric W Schwartz. All other characters are (c) Hikaru Katayamma.  This story contains adult situations and language. By reading it the viewer agrees not to hold this or any other person responsible for any content they may find objectionable. If you don't like it, don't read it. Special thanks go out to Jim Lane and Coyotyee for their help in editing this project!

Identity Crisis
Act II
Chapter 26

False Badge of Honor.

Capitol Trip: Day 6

  I had been pissed at Dane for letting me fall asleep in the Empress' Retreat last night, but now I see it was a blessing in disguise. Sheila had come storming into my room looking for trouble when neither Dane nor I had shown up last night, assuming the worst. In a way, this was a good thing as it let us work out our differences.=

  I suppose I should be happy that we're back together now, but its not that simple. I've really grown fond of Dane, and now I must distance myself from him. How do I do this without building a wall? Being a "free spirit", he has his own set of rules about personal relationships. I'm still trying to find my way when dealing with men.

  I look to Gwen's memories, hoping to find a clue, but she never had the opportunity to "shop around." She has always been royalty. There was never much of a choice for her. Worse yet, I almost feel like I'm snooping when I do this. It's almost maddening. How can I handle these feelings and emotions without the background of being raised a female? Am I still too much of a man to fully handle this transformation?

  I don't know why, but there's always a tiny voice in the back of my head telling me that none of this is supposed to be happening. Maybe it's just my paranoia. I don't know. I've always heard that pregnant women get moody and, in most men's opinions, a little psychotic. Maybe it's just affecting me a little different.

  Whatever it is, it's got me on edge. Something's got my fur standing on end and I don't know what it is. It's the same feeling I had just before I was captured. But that can't happen again, can it? I mean I'm an Elite now... That shouldn't ever be a problem again, right?

  Sheila ran off to take care of something or another and I still haven't eaten or bathed today, both of which I need dearly! I need to get my priorities straight if I am to care for the child growing inside me.

  First food and then a bath. That should get my day going.

  Why do I still feel such dread?

  I needed a bath. It was as simple as that. Four days on the road topped off with a night dressed in armor was enough to nearly push me over the edge. Attired in a housecoat with my swords tucked into the cloth belt, I padded my way up to the bath chambers. I looked forward to lounging in some hot water for a while.

  The baths were right where I...rather Gwen, remembered them. I guess word of my being an Elite had gotten around with the guards as they all saluted despite the fact that I wasn't wearing the emblem.

  I was tempted to turn into the baths reserved for royalty but continued on down the hall to the commoner's bath. Although it didn't have the expensive decorum of the royalty, it did have the same cascading waterfall of hot water that the royal baths had.

  If my memory served me right, the water came from melting ice on top of the mountain range that had been routed through artificial aqueducts then over an arcane heat-stone where it was super-heated almost to the boiling point before being released into the baths. The remainder of the water was channeled past another heat-stone where it was then sent through numerous pipes in the complex, creating a form of hot-water heating in the winter.

  The only person in the room at the time was the servant whose job it was to see to the needs of the bathers. I handed her my robe and swords, instructing her to ensure that nobody touched them. Apparently I'm not the only female warrior who goes to the bathes armed, as she didn't bat an eye at my request.

  I practically dove into the pool and swam through the shallows to where the water cascaded down from the rocks, allowing myself to surface behind them. Again the memories turned out accurate as I found a ledge several feet behind the falls that contained shampoos and soaps. I was mildly surprised to discover that the shampoo was scented. I never expected such extravagance in the commoner's baths, but then again, the Countess was probably going all out to upstage her sister.

  Normally, I would have just stood in the water and lathered my hair, but with a full body of fur, I needed some room to work. I cleared off a little space on the stone shelf and hopped up onto it, beginning to lather up my lower body, working my way up from my feet.

  I had just finished my legs when a form pushed their way through the waterfall and grabbing my attention. It wasn't anyone that I recognized from our caravan so I could only assume they were either from the keep or another traveler. A gasp of breath confirmed that she wasn't familiar with me as it punctuated the surprise on her face.

  She was a young human, maybe nineteen or twenty in age. Standing about five nine, she had long brown hair and sea green eyes. Her fair complexion was testimony to the fact that she wasn't a commoner or traveler. Although she was a little plump, I seriously doubt she'd have any trouble finding a mate should the urge find her.

  "It's all right," I said as I gave a friendly wave. "I won't bite."

  She stood frozen at the sight of me. I'm not even sure she was breathing. Her arms were full of bottles and cakes of something or another. For about fifteen or twenty seconds we just stood there and stared at each other.

  Now, I'd just love to blame Lucifer for this, but I know that deep down inside, it was all my own idea.

  The smile on my face turned into a large, toothy grin showing off all my teeth. With a quick motion, I threw my arms open wide as I leaned forward and said "Boo!" Sure enough, she screamed as she dropped everything into the water, turned and fled.

  That definitely made my day. I laughed so hard I slipped off the ledge and fell into the water. Unfortunately I came up sputtering and coughing water I had unwittingly inhaled when I took my plunge. Still laughing, I made my way through the falls out into them main pool, looking for the poor unfortunate girl that had been the subject of my twisted humor.

  Once through the water, I combed the fur out of my eyes with my paws and looked around for my victim. She was talking excitedly to the servant in charge of the room, gesturing wildly in the direction of the falls. That set me to laughing again, this time so hard that I had to clutch the side of the pool for fear of accidentally drowning myself.

  Between my gasps for breath, I watched as the servant explained my presence in the baths. The expression on my victim's face changed from one of stark terror to that of major annoyance. She obviously wasn't enjoying my little joke.

  I was just starting to get my laughter under control when she re-entered the pool and waded over to me.

  The girl scowled at me as she watched me try to control my laughter. "That was not funny," she declared.

  That set me back to laughing for a second. "Yes..." I said, gasping for breath and trying not to laugh, "it was."

  She gave a harrumph and turned to wade back through the water, again sending me into hysterics. I couldn't remember the last time I had laughed this hard.

  After a few minutes, I managed to calm down enough to stand without fear of falling over and made my way back through the cascade of water. Beyond I saw the woman searching for the items she had dropped in the shallows. The foam from the falls made it difficult at best to see the floor much less anything laying on it.

  She spotted me out of the corner of her eye and frowned before continuing the search. "You are not a nice person," she said peevishly.

  I leaned against the ledge and smiled down at her. "I'm sorry, but you have to admit, you were a perfect target," I replied lightly in my defense.

  She abandoned her search and turned angrily to face me. "I was not! You were quite rude and there's no excusing it," she said with a pout.

  That almost set me to laughing again. This girl must have led a sheltered life. "Let's see if I was mistaken," I said as I backed up so my tail was brushing the falls. I mimicked her expression of surprise, mocking her surprised expression and fear.

  I threw up my hands and gave a week scream of horror and pantomimed running from the falls before I again started to chuckle and looked back at her. The girls expression was hard as stone for a minute. Her scowl would have made a good reference for a gargoyle.

  I frowned a little and walked over to lean next to her on the ledge. "Look. You've got to admit, you totally over reacted when you saw me," I said casually as I cocked one soggy ear in her direction.

  She stared at me for a few seconds before she nodded, a small grin slowly making its presence felt on her face. "I suppose you're right," she finally admitted. "I just had no idea I'd find an...a creature like you here in the baths." She gave me a little shrug as she began searching again for dropped items.

  I gave her another little chuckle as I knelt in the water and helped pick up her stuff. "Well, I'm glad you decided to be such a good sport about it," I said as I handed her a bar of something or other.

  She gave me a small lop sided grin as she accepted the cake. "Oh, I wouldn't say that," she replied mischievously. "I do have a reputation as a practical joker myself to maintain. I'm afraid I'm not going to be able to let you off that lightly."

  Oh no. As much fun as this had been, the last thing I wanted to do was to get into a war with a practical joker. "I'll tell you what," I said handing her the last of the stuff she had dropped. "How about I just concede the title to you and you keep your reputation intact ?" I offered as I gave her a hand up.

  She gave me an evil grin that would have made Lucifer proud. "Nope," she laughed. "No deal. You're now amongst the elite of all the folk here. You've made my 'Must hit' list."

  I let out a low groan that set her to laughing. Some how I don't think my status as an Elite would be much of a deterrent to her. "Oh well... May the better joker win," I said as I stuck my paw out.

  She looked at me oddly for a second before she accepted my paw in a firm handshake. We chatted casually for a while as I did the rest of my fur. She was nice enough to help me do my back, which I appreciated greatly.

  With the exception of a practical joke war hanging over my head at the end of the bath, I must admit that it was one of the better experiences of the past few days.

  Kerry, as it turned out, was a real dear. Despite her threat of retaliation, she had accompanied me back to my room after the bath, enchanted at the opportunity to hear my story. Fortunately for Thomas, she offered to help comb out my fur, thus saving him from "girl work." Since he wouldn't be busy, I let him spend the time he would have used brushing my fur by working on my armor. Girl work indeed.

  Kerry chuckled. "You know, I envy you while at the same time I pity you," she said.

  I cocked an ear backwards in a querying fashion and asked, "Why's that?"

  Kerry leaned close to my ear and spoke, using it like a microphone and making me wince. "Because you've got such beautiful hair while at the same time you have all that fur you've got to deal with," she explained, laughing at the ear I now had pinned against my head. I must remember she's a practical joker.

  I looked at my image in the mirror and thought about it. Having fur was definitely more of a chore to maintain than not, but was it something to be pitied? When I first became a bear, I had missed my ability to towel off in a few minutes after a quick shower. But there was something ever more comfortable about having fur. Like I had told Thomas, you're never quite naked when you're covered in fur.

  I nodded back to Kerry's image in the mirror and smiled as I replied, "Yah, I see what you mean, but I feel pity for you for the same reason. You're so naked and vulnerable without any fur, whereas I'm never really exposed like you are. In a pinch, I can walk down the hallway and everyone will just see a furry female. In your case, they'd see a lot more than they bargained for." That last part got a chuckle out of her as the imagery struck home. It was true and she knew it.

  I stood and took the brush from her hand and placed it back on the dressing table along with the one I had been using. "Thank you so much for lending me a hand, Kerry," I said with a smile.

  She waved my gratitude aside. "Don't worry about it. Anything to delay having to go deal with mother," she said in a slightly grim voice.

  I looked down at Thomas on the floor who was still working on my armor. "Aren't you done with my armor yet, boy?" I said in mock annoyance.

  "Not yet, Miss Arden," he said without looking up.

  I crossed my arms and frowned as I watched him. "And what's taking so long?" I asked.

  Again he didn't bother looking up. "Any job worth doing is worth doing well," he answered with a rather bored voice.

  "Hey!" I objected with a laugh. "That's my line!"

  He looked up and gave me a toothy grin and replied, "Yes, I know," before he went back to polishing the armor.

  Kerry harrumphed as she watched our little exchange. "You don't beat him do you?" she asked as she watched him.

  "No, I don't," I answered, more than just a bit surprised and concerned.

  She shook her head as she smiled and gave me a wink, still watching Thomas. "Well, I guess it's too late to start now," she said gravely as she continued to study my squire.

  I was about to join Kerry in poking some fun at my squire when he received a reprieve by way of a knock at the door.

  "I'll get it," Thomas volunteered quickly as he set the leathers aside to stand.

  "Aren't you forgetting something?" I asked, looking down on him, my arms crossed in front of me.

  Thomas just cocked his head back at me, not realizing what I was referring to.

  I let out a sigh and shook my head as I waved my hands over my body. "Don't you think it would be a good idea if you got me my housecoat?" I asked in a chiding voice.

  The poor boy got a very pained look on his face as he realized his mistake. "I'm sorry, Miss Arden," he said as he picked up my housecoat. "Like you said, with all that fur, you're never really naked." He held the coat out for me slip on, guiding my arms through the sleeves.

  I nodded as I tied the belt. "That's all right, Thomas. Just don't let it happen again," I instructed. He nodded to me, acknowledging the lesson before he rushed to open the door.

  I sat back down in the chair, crossed my legs and pointed my ears towards the door to listen in on the conversation. It was one of the guards looking for me. "It's all right, Thomas. You can let him in," I said, preempting Thomas' inquiry.

  The guard, no longer barred by Thomas, stepped into the room and bowed slightly. "I'm sorry to disturb you, Drijen, but the Countess has requested your presence in her audience chamber at your earliest convenience," he said formally.

  I smiled and nodded back to him. "Thank you. Please let her know that I'll be along presently."

  Again the guard bowed to me before turning to Kerry. "Lady Kerrindin," he said getting her attention. "Your mother also requests your presence." He got a small, humorous smile on his face. "I believe she mumbled something about you learning how to handle future duties."

  Kerry winced and pinched the bridge of her nose before responding. "I don't suppose there's any way you'd tell her you couldn't find me, is there?" she asked awkwardly.

  The guard laughed. "Not on your life. I'll let her know you'll be along presently," he said with a laugh as he turned to leave. Before stepping out the door he paused and turned back to look at Kerry. "By the way, the trick with the flower and yeast in the armpits of my armor? That was a good one." His smile was quite predatory. It looked like Kerry was getting some just desserts.

  "You can't prove that was me!" Kerry hastily declared in her defense.

  Again the guard laughed. "I don't have to," he said as he gave us a small bow before exiting the room.

  Kerry moaned and flopped backwards, spread eagle on the bed. "God, I hate that old hag," she sighed with exasperation.

  I was still a little stunned over realizing who she was. I hadn't realized that she was the Countess' daughter. Last Gwen had heard, her aunt in the Imperial Capitol City was still raising her. To find her here was somewhat of a shock. Also, she had grown considerably since Gwen had last seen her over eight years ago. She was no longer the trouble-making tomboy that I remembered. Now she was the grown up tomboy making trouble that I remembered.

  I stood and walked over to the dresser, removing one of the large shirts I wore under the armor to protect my fur from the leather. "I take it you're referring to your mother?" I inquired casually as I changed out of the robe and into the shirt.

  "Please," she growled, "don't remind me that we're related!" Kerry let out another moan as she covered her face with her hands.

  Thomas gave me a hand with the leathers as I slipped them on and began lacing them up. "Come on," I said chidingly. "She can't be all that bad."

  Kerry sat up on the bed and shook her head. "You don't understand, Arden," she said tiredly. "I've been living in the capitol for the last ten years, and though there's a lot of internal politics, I have never met anyone as conniving, self centered, vindictive and down right evil as my mother."

  I could see that this conversation was upsetting Kerry. She really did hate what her mother had become. I could understand. Gwen's memories showed me her evolution into the amoral creature that she was today. It seemed entirely possible to me that if I were to do my duty as an Elite, that I might have to take steps that would not only destroy the countess, but also my friendship with Gwen.

  Kerry slapped me in the ribs, thumping the hard leather to get my attention. "Hey, what are you so glum about?" she asked. "It's not like you're related to her."

  Little did she now. "Yah, I suppose your right," I admitted as I accepted the pleated, heavy kilt from Thomas and began to strap it on.

  Kerry stood and walked towards the door. "I'm going to go get changed. I'll meet you in chambers, OK?" she asked at the door, looking back at me.

  I accepted my swords from Thomas and inserted them into my belt as I hurried over to her. "Wait up," I said, trying to position the scabbards properly. "I'll give you a hand." I turned and looked at Thomas as we paused in the doorway and waved to the rest of the armor scattered about on the floor. "Put this stuff away then join us in chambers."

  I watched Thomas nod as he began to police the room. Once I was assured that he wasn't going to slack off I followed Kerry out. It was now my turn to make sure she looked presentable to the public.

  The only thing to mar my day so far was a nagging curiosity as to why the Countess had summoned me.

Chapter 27