"There is still something of himself - something of the Wolfbane who would always love her - that rallies against the slime. It says, 'lie in the bed you’ve made'. So he gathers the covers and tucks himself in." -- Wolfbane, written by Calcifer
The frozen island is an ever-present ridge on the Taigan’s horizon. The redwood Comtesse has watched it from her grey shore many times before. One of Nerine’s granite arms reach toward it across the water, but they do not touch; Lepis hopes the same can be said of the rulers as she lifts her golden wings to take her maiden flight toward it.
Autumn chills the sea breezes that rifle her wing feathers and the long navy-to-white hair of her mane and tail. The dun mare’s blue-grey eyes are squinted against the wind and the salt spray, for she swoops low to the waves, a daring flyer. The wind is cold, but her winter coat has already begun to grow in – has been doing so since autumn first brushed the redwood forest. Yellow and white and blue, the shaggy tobiano is grateful for it for more than its warmth. The length covers the worst of her scars, the marks of hooves and teeth that line her neck and shoulders. It is colder here in the north, and gets colder more quickly. Now that the fall is drawing to an end, each day might be the one the brings the first snow.
The Icicle Isle has already had its first snowfall, Lepis finds as she touches down on the southernmost beach. The snow is ankle deep, and she shakes her curling blue locks about her shoulders like a cape – or perhaps a shield – as she settles in to wait. Just before landing she had let out a clear call, announcing her arrival to anyone that might be near enough to hear it. Now, she waits, and she glances for a brief moment to the east, where the soaring cliffs of Nerine loom much larger than from her Taigan beach.
The white stuff did not wait until winter to start accumulating. Fall, as you know it from the mainland, is brief on Icicle Isle. The blanket of snow is just deep enough to touch your fetlocks, as a horse. It is light and powdery so, easy to walk through. However, Jesper finds it much more fun to bound through the snow, as a fox. Today, his lean chassis assumes the form of his canine counterpart. His pelt is a silvery gray base with intermingled hairs of a steel hue over a dense white undercoat. His ears carry the bronze tips he earned in the Beqanna Games and, his eyes are the same aquamarine color as always. Jesper tracks the movements of his prey beneath the cover of white. His acute senses pick up the scurrying and, in silence, the fox hones in on the unsuspecting snack. In a single leap, he sticks his landing and catches the mouse. He devours it swiftly. It is only after he swallows and, lifts his nose well above the snow, that Jesper picks up her perfume. His acute senses detect her fragrance well before she announces herself.
Were her ears burning? It was just the other day that Leilan had mentioned her name. Jesper could not help but feel that she knew she had come up in conversation. Perhaps, she had a spy here? He likes to think such a notion is not possible (given how sparse the Isle is) but, it would not be the first time he let something go unnoticed. He whole-heartedly intended to visit Taiga come spring. Well, he still would but, she was on his doorstep now. Without a second longer, the canine leaps into action.
He bounds effortlessly, through the snow, as he approaches the winged lady. As her scent grows stronger, more concentrated in his nostrils, Jesper feels his nerves tingle. The fur on his shoulders and back rise, out of anticipation. He refrains from showing any teeth or, growling (not very diplomatic) though, every fiber of his body is on edge. At last, he pounces into the powdery ground cover right before her. His abrupt stop sends snow into the air to dust his face and her nose (given the height difference). The fox does not sit. That body posture is reserved to display appeasement or, deference and, she deserves neither. Standing before her, he picks apart her familiar scent, which is heavily laced with the must of the redwood trees and, the musk of a male, whom Jesper presumes to be her mate, Wolfbane.
He stands, alertly, and, makes eye contact. While his body language thus far merely suggests an overly cautious and, over-stimulated greeting, Jesper manages to keep his gaze casual and his fur-lined ears facing forward. His jawline betrays a slight tension though, the words that expel from his black-lined lips. "Lepis, welcome. I appreciate you saving me the trip to Taiga. I hope you are prepared for this cold." His lips curve into a smirk, that is more playful than it is spiteful. He literally references the climate difference though, depending on her reason for visiting him, she could very well come face-to-face with his lack of trust in her. His greeting fails to offer the typical pleasantries (such as, "how have you been since we last spoke" or, "how is married life treating you") though, he is far from unfriendly. His diplomatic training was drilled deep within which allows him to talk his way out of just about anything. While he waits for her reply, the hairs along his back fall back into place.
Something moves in the distant snow, and Lepis’ blue ears flick toward it. Too small to be a horse or a hungry predator, it is nevertheless coming directly toward the Comtesse, who shifts her position so that she might better face the approaching creature.
It’s a fox, she soon sees, silvery and difficult to see in the sunlit snow. It is fitting in this environment, Lepis thinks, but the way that it approaches her suggests that it is no true canine. There is a horse there somewhere, a sentient creature behind those sharp eyes, and it is to them that the dun mare bobs her head in a polite greeting. She has little experience conversing with foxes, and the body language that he uses goes unread; she knows only that he’s come close enough to speak, and speak he does.
His voice is the same, she finds, whether spoken around flat equine teeth or pointed canines, and the tobiano pegasus confirms her suspicion that yes: this shifter is Jesper, the leader of this frozen island.
“It’s been a while,” she says, and wonders how clearly the vulpine creature recalls their last meeting. She’d been less than hospitable, she recalls, defending Sylva to her fellow captive. Of course, she’d still been in denial then, refusing to acknowledge that the autumn kingdom was as much her prison as her home. The beatings hadn’t started yet, she remembers suddenly; they’d started after the black stallion had returned to his then-home of Ischia. Her wings had still been unbroken then, and the navy haired mare pulls them tighter to her body at the memory, as much an effort to reassure herself they are still undamaged as to warm herself from the chill that skips along her spine.
Truthfully, she has not given the stallion much thought in the time that has passed since. Only her son’s news – that Sabrina had lost her challenge to Jesper – had even informed her that the stallion was living in and leading her neighboring territory. Lepis is without spies on the frozen island, and is unaware that the fox in front of her has been so recently briefed on the goings on of her home. Had she been, she would have been eager to correct information that was more bias than fact, knowledge tainted by the feelings of a roan stallion who prides himself on being exceptionally irritating.
“Oh I don’t plan on staying long,” she replies to his quip about being prepared for the cold, but its said with a smile at the edges of her navy mouth. “I only wanted to come and say hello, to learn what you’d be willing to tell me about how Icicle Isle fares, and to see if there was anything you might want to know about Taiga.” She expects that there are, especially since he’s mentioned that her arrival has saved him a trip to her home.
A winter sun bathes Icicle Isle in its weak glow. Jesper's light gray pelt reflects the light almost as blindingly as the blanket of snow upon the frozen ground. His furry paws shift in the crusty powder as the canine adjusts his weight. He maintains his stance, standing before the navy-pointed pearl lady. Dark-rimmed furry lobes point towards Lepis as he awaits her response. "It's been a while", she says. He nods in agreement before his aquamarine gaze lifts to acknowledge how much the filly has matured. The bars on her legs and, extending from her withers are striking against her golden base.
At first, he is unable to distinguish between her natural markings and the many scars which deface her body. He does his best not to stare; though, the navy hairs that fill in the impressions left behind by hooves and teeth offer too much contrast to go unnoticed. Her mane drapes over the teeth marks along her crest and so, he does not see those. Jesper is certain she was unscathed the last time he laid eyes on her. He recalls their conversation in the woods. The one where he offered to come back for her, and Kwartz. But, Lepis made it clear that she was no prisoner; that she could leave of her own free will. Jesper wonders if the scars were Morty's doing when she tried to return home to Loess or, if they were entirely unrelated.
The fox adjusts his gaze to meet her gray-blue eyes. He would not dare ask who was responsible for the abuse as it is hardly appropriate for where this conversation is going. He waits to see if Lepis wishes to delve deeper into their briefly shared history but, she does not. For that, he is grateful. Her next words, said with a smile, pull his own lips into a smile. He politely listens to her list of goals for this visit. Only when she falls silent and, a visible exhale can be seen between them, does he respond. "Well, hello. There is not much to report about the Isle. We are a quiet few. Though, I do believe the fairies have blessed my lady and I with our first child. Plus, I intend to do some recruiting come the Spring. As for our loyalties, we answer to Nerine." Jesper did not feel the need to say more about the Isle's political ties. Nerine is the Isle's only political tie. But, Taiga is a territory of Nerine, as well. It isn't like a territory has many options in terms of alliances, right?
There is little more he wishes to divulge to the gold and navy female. Jesper studies her expression carefully as he collects his thoughts. After a moment, his level tone breaks through the crisp silence once more. "I would love to learn more about you and Taiga. I am afraid I know very little about Taiga's history. What are your plans for the redwood forest?"
The grey fox says that his land is populated by a quiet few, and Lepis nods. Quiet, he says as though he is not still newly recovered from a battle for his title. He has kept it though, and Lepis has not gotten word of Sabrina searching for a new home, and so she can only assume that the red hound continues to make her home here in the icy north. Jesper is brave, Lepis thinks, to let her stay. Brave, or perhaps foolish. Lepis knows Sabrina, or at least she knows her blood. They are not the type to stay down, even after a beating, even after being reminded of their proper place.
At the news of his child though, Lepis smiles. Her own young son waits for her in Taiga (another reason her visit will remain short), and when she offers congratulations to him they are genuine.
”Good news then, and congratulations on your child.”
He says he would like to learn more about Taiga, about herself, both the past and their future plans. So much for a short meeting, she thinks, but perhaps this is better than being asked to leave after so short a time. Elio will find his father if she is too long in returning, she knows, if the striped boy even notices that she has been held up at all. He is much like his siblings in that way, content to keep himself busy.
”My husband and I took Taiga from Aten, who stepped down to instead serve as the redwood’s protector” She says, utterly truthful and purposefully careful in her choice of words. ”If you wish to know of Taiga’s history, there is none better than Aten to tell you,” the Comtesse continues, ”But as for its future?”
Here she trails off with a shrug of her scarred shoulders – not careless so much as uncertain.
”I plan to continue our rapid growth, to strengthen our ties to outside lands.” These are good, steady plans she knows, plans that she is quite certain she can pull off. “Nerine is less than accepting of these plans though, so perhaps be thankful for the small numbers of your island, lest Heartfire come to see you as a threat to her sovereignty as she has Taiga.” There are facts Lepis has left out of course – like the fact that she had been the one to demand independence from the monarchy – but she is content in the fact that she has told no lie to the silver fox and her conscience troubles her not at all.
There is a rumble of thunder behind her, one that in this land might well mean a snow storm just as much as rain. She glances over her shoulder and sees that it is still some distance away. Enough that they might talk a bit more, but near enough that she knows she cannot wait too long, and returns her blue-grey eyes to Jesper with a raised brow that says as much without words.
Jesper observes that Lepis' diplomacy skills are as mature as the lady that stands before him. Her words are reinforced by the genuine manner in which she delivers them. Her congratulations pulls a smile onto his lips. He offers a proper "Thank you" in a tone that is laced with pride. As the gold and navy winged mare speaks of Taiga, Jesper listens closely. He hopes to catch any fluctuations - any slips - in her tone or, word choice that would indicate she is withholding or stretching the truth. But no, Lepis is much too careful. The fox admires her for her silver-tongue though, he still cannot trust her.
Bronze-tipped fuzzy ears face towards her even after she has finished speaking. Jesper has been formulating his reply this whole time though, he takes an extra moment to ensure his vocal chords are ready to deliver a smooth, unyielding tone. "I shall certainly seek Aten when I visit Taiga. Last I knew, the redwood forest was more of a common land. I would love to hear how it became the formidable land that it is today." He smiles behind the compliment to emphasize his recognition of all of Lepis' ambition.
Her details on future plans seems vague but of course, it is a diplomatic answer. If only Jesper could read between her lines. Or, read her mind. As that is not an option, he focuses on taming the hairs that rise along the base of his neck. Her words regarding their Queen disturb him. They imply that Heartfire is threatened by Taiga's existence. Rather, Jesper suspects that the gold and navy female is leaving out some important details. It is far more likely that Lepis would throw Heartfire under the bus to cover her own skin. Well, he did not have any proof so, he would need to keep his ruthless canine antics at bay for the remainder of this meeting. Should his Queen come knocking on his door and, deem the Isle as the residence of her personal pack of mutts, he would leap at the opportunity. She may not be his blood but, his loyalty for her ran deep and, he already considered her his Alpha.
Wandering thoughts fade and attention settles on the scarred lady before him. He manages to organize himself enough to offer the most diplomatic response that he can. "I feel immense gratitude for all that I have." He, also, hears the rumbles of thunder and, sees the ominous clouds that aim for them. He decides now is as good of a time as any to bid her farewell so, he replies to her raised brow with a calm and sincere tone. "That storm will make for some difficult flying conditions. I understand if you wish to take your leave, Lepis. This is hardly goodbye, after all. I will certainly visit you and Wolfbane in Taiga come Summer. Thank you for dropping by. Until next time, I wish nothing but the best for you and yours." He falls silent and, waits. He can only hope that this conniving lady departs his little corner of the world and, he may resume his quiet living.
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