Wagging Tongues Will - Part III

Wessex’s quarters were mostly back to the way the boy had always kept them. With the help of Weyden, and Wessex’s other students, Jessica had worked constantly since the siege had ended to restore it to the way their master had lived in them, even down to the angle of the books in the bookshelves. Most of his belongings had survived the inexplicable fire that had consumed the workroom, including every last present that they had given their master the morning before the attack, the last day any of them had seen him. Jessica had even ordered Phillips, a boy just as Wessex had become, though quite a bit taller, to use the cleaning agent to work the wax stain from the damask lounge, one of the few heirlooms left from the ard’Kapler estate.

Yet the hawk was alone just then as she stood in his bedroom, running her wingtips across the desk the boy had worked at all the years she had known him. One of the legs had been too charred and was in desperate need of repair, so she was afraid to put any weight on it. Jessica was not sure why she was here now, the other students were off having their midday meals, or doing what they could to find a new teacher. Wessex was not the only pedagogue at the Keep, but he was the most versatile. As a journeyman, she would need to pursue her own studies, but she would need to rely on the other mages or advice and help still. Yet that was a search she had no desire to begin.

Even Weyden was elsewhere, serving the Ambassador in some undisclosed capacity. She sighed deeply, wishing she could feel his wings about her. She’d spent a good deal of the last week wrapped in them as she cried, drying her golden eyes in those warm feathers. But Jessica was alone now, alone in her dead master’s demesnes. There had been magic used in his demise, that much was obvious from even a cursory scan of the quarters. But who had killed him she could not discern. The magical fire had burned any evidence that had been left behind in the workroom. Even the slate that Wessex had drawn his spells upon had melted into useless slag.

The worst part of all was that she had no idea how Wessex had died, only that he was gone from this world, with no body left behind to say how. Prince Phil had informed her of the terrible news shortly after his return from Lorland. Before then, she’d been running about in a panic, searching for him or anybody that had known about him, but not a soul had seen him since before the siege. She had been afraid that he’d been caught unawares by the Lutins, but there was no way they could have cast magic powerful enough to melt that thick slab of slate. But even Phil did not know how he died, only that he’d received word of his death at the hands of an unknown assailant.

Of course, she had her suspicions, but she lacked the magical knowledge to even attempt to confirm them. Jessica heaved another sigh, and leaned forward, running her wingtips over the soft wood of the desk. With a start, she heard the wood splintering beneath her. She stepped back, but the burnt leg gave out, and the desk toppled over at an angle, but did not fall completely over. Letting the air rush between her beak, she gently pressed down with her wing on the desk, and watched it wobble back and forth for a moment. She knew it would be all right, but she would have to have the carpenters repair it before she could ever be satisfied. Jessica did not know why she was going to all the trouble that she was, but for some reason, she could not bear the thought of her master’s things being left to ruin or forgotten.

Yet, as she pressed the table back into the wall, a sudden metallic click caught her attention. Letting the table sink back to the angle again, she saw that one stone behind the desk had popped open slightly. Taking a few tentative hop-steps around the tilting desk, Jessica forced her wingtip into the crack, and pulled the stone loose. To her stunned eyes, she could see a sheaf of tightly bound paper nestled firmly in that small cache. Clacking her beak together in annoyance, she wished once more for proper hands, but her pleas fell on deaf ears.

However she had to see what her master had hidden away. Leaning back on one leg, she raised her talon up the hole, and gingerly gripped the sheaf between two thick black claws. Lifting her knee, she drug the papers out, and set them onto the floor before her. Bending down at her waist, she gripped the documents between her beak, and kept them there firmly, making sure not to touch them with her inquisitive tongue. Hopping back over to the lounge, she set the papers down before her on the table that Wessex used to entertain guests. She stood upon the ruined ottoman, and let herself shrink to a more comfortable size for reading. Her eyes of course had no difficulty in making out the words. It only took her a moment to realize that these were Wessex’s notes concerning Zagrosek, and all he had discovered about that terrible man.

But she had barely read past the first page when a knocking came at the door to Wessex’s chambers. Returning to her normal size, the hawk hopped down from the ottoman in annoyance and made her way to the door. Griping the handle in her talons she gave it a quick tug. “What is it?” she asked of the messenger standing outside, small lupine eyes trailing upwards to meet her golden beak.

“His grace Duke Thomas wishes to see you, journeyman Jessica,” the young messenger reported. The curse could not have taken him more than two or three years ago, she reckoned.

Jessica stood perplexed for a moment. Why would the Duke wish to see her? Then a thought struck her that gave her some hope. Perhaps she was to be told how Wessex had died? Nodding down to the wolf, she cracked her beak once more. “Wait for me a moment and I will accompany you back to the Duke’s chambers.”

“Of course. I got the impression that it was rather important.”

Jessica’s eyes widened at that. But she did not say anything more, shutting the door again with a brush of her wing. Returning to Wessex’s greeting room, she picked up the sheaf of papers in her beak once more. She hated having to delay reading these for even a moment, but she was not one to turn down a summons from the Duke. Hopping along on her talons back to his bedroom, she did her best to slip the papers back into the little cache. It took her a few tries though, as they did not want to go back in. Almost as if they wished to make themselves known. But Jessica did finally manage to secure them. And with a firm push of her wing, the stone lid back into place, clicking to seal the papers in their cache.

Satisfied that they were hidden from detection, Jessica made her way to the entrance, and stepped out of Wessex’s quarters, being careful to duck her head beneath the transom as always. The messenger had been standing there with his paws behind his back, and his tail wagging back and froth. His ears perked up as Jessica emerged, and he started off down the left. Jessica fell into step behind him, her heart fluttering with trepidation. Just what could Duke Thomas want with her?

Although Charles had only been to the Shoeshine Inn on a handful of occasions previously, he did know they served decent food, and were situated in one of the few districts of Metamor that had been spared from the fires. They were a small family run establishment, frequented more by travellers than by Metamorians themselves. Although he’d never slept in any of their rooms, he did know that every guest would receive a complimentary shoe shine during their stay. Shining shoes was one of Zuri Pavlik’s favourite past-times apparently, although Charles had only met the lady once before.

Zuri and her husband Kemper were friendly enough of course, though after the curse left her a child, and he a lean black bear, they had left most of the customer interaction to their children whose forms did not surprise guests nearly as much. And so it was that when Charles and James arrived at the wide two-story building, they were met just inside the foyer by a slender woman of about sixteen. Charles did not recognize her, but it was not hard to tell that this comely lass had once been one of the Pavlik boys. “How may I help you?” she asked in a bright voice, even as she pulled her warm woolen coat further across her shoulders, a chill wind following the rat and donkey in through the door.

“Oh, we were hoping for a bite to eat and a place to sit for a while,” Charles said, smiling towards her, his whiskers wiggling slightly. James eyed her briefly, noting her dark curly hair that hung down just above her shoulders. There was a small white scar over her eye, though it did not appear to be recent.

“Well, you are the first for today then,” she said, laughing at some untold joke. She then turned and waved for them to follow with one hand. “Come, let me find you a table in the Commons.”

James motioned for Charles to go first, and so the rat did, keeping his tail right behind him so that his friend would not have to worry about stepping on it accidentally. He shrugged his shoulders a bit as they entered into the main room, and quickly felt the warm rush of air as they passed into a hall with high ceiling, candelabras swaying slightly from the rafters, and a large hearth with crackling fire on the wall opposite the double door to the kitchens. There were several tables arrayed in a widely spaced fashion around the hearth, some larger than others to accommodate all the various sizes Metamorians came in these days. However, the only other person in the room was a young boy who was shifting the coals about in the fire with a long iron poker.

“No guests at the moment?” Charles asked, even as they were directed towards one of the tables closest to the fire. Unlike the ones that had graced the Deaf Mule, these tables were square in shape, large enough to seat from four to six. While James sat down along the table’s side, Charles waited while the young lady brought a larger chair for him. Thankfully, the rat did not have to climb into this one as he had feared he might, though his legs did dangle a foot from the floor.

“No, not since before the attack. We don’t have many visitors during Winter as it is.” She said as she wiped the table over once with her hand to make sure there were no crumbs upon it. The tables were thinly lacquered a glossy black, presenting a very handsome appearance. Charles doubted a day went by when each table wasn’t washed at least twice, or perhaps three times.

“So how have you been keeping in business?” James asked, his long ears tilting to either side as he leaned forward upon the table.

She smiled winsomely to him and laughed. “Oh, right now we have quite a few people coming in looking for a bite to eat. Lots of people working hard repairing the city right now. You’re the first for today, but there will be more. Just you wait and see.”

Charles leaned back a bit in his wooden chair. “So, do you have any stew? It was quite good the last time I was here.”

“I’ll have the same,” James said then, his voice quiet, though not nearly as distant as it had been.

Nodding, she gave the younger boy a look. Charles wasn’t sure if the lad had undergone his change yet or not, he knew that Pavlik’s had a whole slew of children. The boy nodded, set the poker back in its place, and ran off towards the kitchen, his baggy pants shuffling as he went. She then returned her smile to them. “And would you care for anything to drink?”

Charles blinked a moment, trying to recall if the mead had been good the last time he’d been here. However, it had been so many years ago, he wasn’t certain, and so he just decided to take a chance. “I’ll have a mazer of mead, thank you.”

“I’ll have the same,” James said again, resting his hands upon the table softly, running his thick hoof-like nails across the lacquer.

She smiled at them again, and turned towards the kitchen. “Excuse me,” Charles piped up then, holding one paw in the air. “I’m afraid I’ve forgotten your name; it’s been too many years since I was here last.”

Turning back around, the young woman stared at Charles as if trying to remember who he was, though it was clear after a few moments that she did not know him at all. “Sam,” she said tersely, before blushing slightly, and then hurrying back towards the kitchen. Charles just laughed under his breath, brought out his chewstick, and nibbled on it a moment as he sat across from James. The donkey was staring appreciatively at the fire, but made no move towards it.

“I take it you don’t come here much either?” Charles asked the donkey, so as to break the silence that had suddenly descended upon the table.

James snapped his eyes back upon the rat, and then shook his head. “No, I rarely ate anything that we didn’t purchase ourselves.” He paused a moment, rubbing the lacquer with his two-fingers. “We bought everything from visiting merchants, and from some of the farms around Metamor. We didn’t make any of it ourselves.”

Charles shrugged and leaned back. “So what’s wrong with that?”

He just shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s gone now anyway.”

Blinking a moment, Charles favoured him with a smile. “That doesn’t mean you can’t find some new pursuit for your life. Lots of people lost their homes and their livelihoods in this attack, as well as loved ones. You’ll find a new place for yourself. It just takes some time.”

James sighed and let his long head hang low. “I wish I could have your confidence.”

“So where have you been staying this last week? You said you lived in that house.”

James shrugged again, his ears splaying out on either side of his head. “They’re letting people sleep in the Ecclesia Cathedral for now.”

“On the floor?”

“No, I have been sleeping on a pew.”

“That can’t be very comfortable.”

“It’s not. But where else am I going to stay? I don’t have any money left.”

Charles opened his mouth to respond, when the front door opened, and a small group of Keepers, obviously tired from their hard work repairing the city, came into the hall. Sam immediately sprung upon them, smiling and calling them by name. After ushering them to a table, she glanced over at the rat and donkey and smiled again. “Your stew will be ready shortly.”

James’s ears perked up at that. “That was fast.”

“I suppose they were already making it when we came in. It looks like Sam was right, they will have plenty of business today.” Charles pointed as another group of Metamorians wandered on in, wearing coats smeared with grime from where they had been working. Soot lined their leggings, as did snow, though the latter quickly melted in the warmth of the Commons room. Their faces were brusque, but a few of them did nod in greeting to the rat and donkey. Charles returned the gesture, and belatedly so did James.

Charles then turned his attention back on the morose jack. His ears were still perked and upright, turned to the Keepers filling into the Commons and taking their seats, but they almost appeared to sag as if they wished to lay down in dejection. The brown eyes that dominated the centre of his face continued to stare into the empty air, finding nothing. “Do you have any friends you can stay with until you get back on your feet?”

James shook his head. “What friends I had were either killed or lost their homes too. I don’t have anything,” James leaned forward on his elbows, as if he were about to descend once more into sobbing. But he stopped himself and whuffled. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be putting all this upon you.”

“No, I asked you to. If I had a place to spare for you I would give it. I’ll see if I can’t make some arrangements for you for the next couple of weeks. That should be enough time for you to get your life back in order, don’t you think?”

James looked up, his eyes squaring on Charles as if he were seeing him for the first time. “Are you being serious?”

“Of course I am. You need the help and I will give it. Why should you doubt my sincerity?”

James looked down at the table again, rubbing the lacquer with one thick finger. “Nobody has ever done anything like that for me before.”

With a bit of a snort, Charles twitched his whiskers and declared, “Well, it’s about time somebody did.” He looked over at the door as he caught a delicious scent. Sam was carrying two plates in her hands, while steam rose from them both. As she approached, Charles could see the chunks of beef, carrots, and potato piled high upon the wooden platters. Sam set them down one at a time before them and smiled, “There you are, Kurt should be out in just a moment with your drinks.” She cast a glance back at the door, and sure enough a young feline morph walked from the door bearing two mazers of frothing mead in his paws. Charles studied the youth for a moment, noting the black tufts to his ears, and the wide square face they were set upon. It did not take him long to recognize the distinctive features of a lynx. Given his youth, he must have just changed a few months ago.

“There you are, sirs,” Kurt said as he placed the mazers before them. “Just give a shout if you need anything else.”

Though Charles was certainly twice the youth’s age, already the lynx stood taller than he and the gaze from those green eyes was slightly unsettling. But Charles chalked it up to his animal instincts, smiled and thanked the lad and lass. “I think this will be sufficient for now.”

They both nodded and smiled, though Kurt’s grin showed far too many sharp teeth for the rat’s taste, and then they returned their attentions upon the other group of Keepers who’d come to sit in the warmth of the Shoeshine Inn. Charles took the spoon he’d been given, and filed it with a bit of beef, which had always been his favourite part of stew. James had gone first for the carrots though, a move that did not surprise the rat in the least.

“This is delicious,” James remarked wide-eyed after he’d gulped down the first bite. “I haven’t had anything this good in months.”

Charles snuck one of the potatoes into his maw then, and washed it down with some of the warm mead. “I’m curious, can you eat the meat?”

James nodded at that, even as he sipped at his own drink. “Yes, I do still enjoy meat. I can’t eat too much of it or it makes me sick, but having some stew now and again will not hurt.”

“So your palate hasn’t changed much? You are lucky in that, James. Some folks I know cannot have any vegetables in their diet. And some cannot even stand the smell of meat.”

James’s stuffed another piece of meat into his mouth, chewing upon it with great delight. “I don’t feel too lucky.”

“I don’t think many folks are these days,” Charles admitted. “I suppose I’m lucky that all I have to show for the fight is a broken rib. It’s mostly healed anyway now, not even a scar.”

The donkey nodded as he took another drink from his mazer. “How did you break your rib?”

Charles smiled a bit mischievously, “Oh, nothing much. I just had a bridge fall on top of me.”

James’s eyes opened wider at that, and he leaned forward. “A bridge fell on top of you? How did that happen?”

“Oh, well, we knocked the supports out from underneath the bridge, and it came tumbling down. I just couldn’t get out of way in time. This was up far to the North, just South of the Dike in fact. We had to knock the bridge down to prevent any more Lutin troops from being sent into Metamor. I’m afraid that was the last of the fighting I saw, I spent the rest of the battle in bed.” Charles grimaced at the memory of Lady Avery and Baerle keeping him there in that bed long after he had wanted to get up and join his friends in the battle.

After taking several more bites of the stew, James finally blinked a few times and stared at the rat. “You really knocked a bridge down?” he asked incredulously, his voice ripe with disbelief.

Charles nodded before he took another drink from the mead. “I know it sounds remarkable, but I had quite a bit of help.” He stuffed some carrot between his teeth and chewed it into mush. “Besides,” he added, and then swallowed the carrot, “all you have to do is knock out the foundation. Without that, a bridge cannot stand. It was not easy though.”

“I’ve helped tear down some of the rubble in the city the last few days. That took several strong men. I can’t imagine how you knocked the foundation out from underneath a bridge. But I guess you’ve been trained far more than I have.”

“For that sort of thing, yes,” Charles said then, stuffing the last bites of the stew into his mouth. He savoured their rich deep flavour for a moment before swallowing. Washing his meal down with a bit more mead, he leaned back in his chair, satisfied. “Don’t feel bad about that. I’ve been training for a very long time.”

James nodded, though the donkey’s motions were not what had caught the rat’s eye. Another Keeper had come through the main door. Sam was upon him in an instant, though the coyote only politely nodded his head towards her. Charles recognized him as Kee, one of the court messengers. And by the way that tawny furred head scanned the room, he knew the message was meant for him.

Indeed, the moment Kee’s eyes alighted upon him, he came straight for the rat. James noticed Charles’s abstraction, and turned his head to see who it was. “What is it, Kee?” Charles asked as the coyote neared their table. Although his meal was finished, Charles was loathe to leave just yet. This place was comfortable and warm, and he was finally beginning to break through James’s layer of self-pity.

Kee nodded politely to James, and then turned his full attention on the rat. “Duke Thomas wishes to speak with you immediately.”

Grimacing in disappointment, he just knew it would be something like this, Charles tapped the lacquer impatiently. “Did he say what about?”

Kee shook his head. “No, but I gathered that it was very serious. I’m to bring you straight to him.”

Glancing over at the donkey, James appeared resigned to his loneliness once again. He just sat there moving his spoon through the thick meaty broth, pushing a small chunk of meat about. “How long did it take you to find me?” Charles asked, making no move to rise. He had no intention of not accompanying the coyote, nor did he want to keep Duke Thomas waiting, but he did have something to accomplish still here.

Kee appeared slightly annoyed. “Nearly an hour. You have been amazingly hard to locate. You did not leave a note in your quarters. I was told that Healer Coe ordered you to stay in your bed for now.”

Charles lowered his head in slight embarrassment. “Well, I got a little restless, and have just been having a lovely meal with my friend, James here.” The donkey’s ears perked up in surprise at the familiarity, though he said nothing. “And since it took you so long to find me, one more minute will not make much difference. I have something to do before I go. It won’t take long, I promise.”

Kee crossed his arms over his chest, but just waited sensing no reason to argue. Charles waved to Sam, who was standing by the foyer, watching them curiously. She caught his signal, and quickly trotted over to their table, all smiles once more. Clearly she had been born to serve at an Inn. “How may I help you?”

“My friend here,” Charles pointed to James, “needs a room to stay for the next couple of days. Would you kindly provide him with one of your best. I will pay for his charges, and any meals he has while he is here.”

Sam appeared surprised at the request, but her smile faltered only a moment. “And your name, sir?”

“Charles Matthias, formerly of the Writer’s Guild.”

It was clear that she had heard of him, because her eyes grew wide in sudden recognition. “You’re the one who outran the army of Lutins?” Charles tried not to sigh. Would that be how he would always be remembered from now on?

“Yes, that is me,” Charles said, trying to keep his teeth from grating together. “And remember, he is to have one of your finest rooms.”

Sam nodded firmly. “I shall arrange it immediately.” She then darted back towards the kitchens, her feet moving very quickly.

James was staring at Charles in shock, his long face hanging open. “You would do that for me? But you barely know me.”

The rat nodded, but smiled, even as he rose from his seat to stand next to the waiting Kee. “Yes, I would. You deserve it. And I hope that I will be able to get to know you better, James. I’m sorry I have to leave now, but one does not ignore a summons from the Duke.”

“Will you be coming back?” James asked, hope plastered clear on his face.

Charles shrugged. “I have no idea. It all depends on why the Duke wants to see me. I will try to see you again as soon as I possibly can get away though.” He then glanced over his shoulder at the other table. “But for now, you might want to go introduce yourself to those fellows over there. You never know, they could use an extra hand later today.”

James’s face visibly brightened at that, and he held out his hand. “Thank you, Charles. I hope the Duke will give you some good news.”

Charles took the proffered hand and shook it firmly. “We all hope that. Now you take care, and go help out.”

James nodded firmly. “I will.” He smiled then, a bright and clear smile. Charles was glad to see it, and turned his back on James shortly thereafter so it would be the last thing he would see of his new friend. Kee led the way towards the door back to the cold outside, and though he had been annoyed at having to wait, there was a bit of a grin to his lips as well. Charles just hoped his sweet Lady Kimberly and Healer Coe would be able to smile too once they found out he’d left his quarters without their permission.

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