Wagging Tongues Will - Part IV

The wait felt as if it were forever. Jessica stood perched upon a small log that Thomas had rolled out from his hearth next to the central table. It was a small meeting room, she knew, though its size was nearly that of all of her quarters combined. She knew that this was just the extent of the areas of the Keep that the Duke had for his own business, but still she felt as if she were smaller than even Prince Phil who sat nervously munching down carrots on an ottoman on the other side of the room.

She did not even know for whom they waited, Thomas and Phil had not told her, but instead assured her that she would not be surprised, and that he was the object of their inquiry. She, Jessica a journeyman mage, would be there to ascertain whether their subject spoke the truth. Of course, it made sense why they had chosen her. After her change, she was no longer capable of the fine manipulative work needed for enchantment, and so had been diverted into the more mental disciplines, such as divination.

Even so, the art of looking into another’s mind to see whether he was truthful or not was not easy to master, especially if the subject had a powerful mind. To help her she had brought back a small box that Wessex had helped her fashion only a few months before the curse. It was only a few inches wide and half again as long, made from varnished oak, with magical runes inscribed in silver lettering upon the top and sides. The lid opened on a single hinge, revealing a velvety interior, but nothing else was inside. Aside from the runes, it appeared to be a simple lady’s jewellery box.

However, the soothing box was much more than that, although Wessex informed her it was often disguised as such by female mages who didn’t want their company to know they were being interrogated. The box captured thoughts and emotions, the stronger the more easily captured. While it did not directly say whether someone spoke the truth or not, a careful observer could quickly determine so simply by keeping her fingers inside the box to feel the thoughts and emotions captured within.

Jessica did not have fingers as such though, and so, kept one talon on her left foot contained within the box. It was on the opposite side of the log she perched upon from the door, so that a casual observer would never notice it. The log was low enough that Jessica could rest there with no discomfort, and so she betrayed no outward signs of her eventual duplicity. But she could not help but wonder who it was that she was to be studying. Surely this was not a prisoner from the siege, she’d heard that they had all been killed in retaliation. Who could it be then?

Jessica sighed as she slumped forward a bit, dipping her beak into the wide mazer of wine that Duke Thomas had provided for her refreshment. It was finer than any wine she’d ever supped at the Deaf Mule, but after disappearing down her throat, she felt as if she’d swallowed ashes. She wanted to be perusing Wessex’s notes, to see just what it had been that he’d discovered and kept only to himself. She did not dare tell this to either Thomas or Phil. She knew they would demand the notes and that she would never see them again, or ever find out what they contained.

She couldn’t blame them though, it was their duty to protect Metamor from all enemies. But it was her duty to her master to make sure the one who did this to him would not go easily into the next world. Jessica fluttered her wings a bit, wingtips bracing themselves against the desk as she stood upright once more. She had a feeling she knew who must have ultimately been responsible, but until she knew how her master had been slain, she could not be certain. And that was what grated on Jessica the most, that no one would tell her what had happened. She was never important enough to anyone for that.

Except for Weyden, she reminded herself, her beak cracking a bit in a smile. The hawk in Ambassador Yonson’s service was always kind to her, and he did his best to spend as much time with her as he could. He made her feel as if she were the most important person in the world. And with him, she could fly higher than her wings could carry her. She wondered what he was doing at the moment, probably standing guard outside Yonson’s chambers no doubt. They had arranged to get together first thing in the morning tomorrow for a bit of a flight. With their hands spread so widely in their wingtips, they were not able to help a great deal with the reconstruction, and so they continued about their lives as normally as they could.

A loud rapping at the door snapped her mind back to the present. Her claw dug deeper into the velvety interior of the soothing box, even as her golden eyes focussed on the bronze encrusted oak door. “Enter,” Duke Thomas called, as he stood from his seat. Phil scrambled up to his fullest height as well. His ears were held high, his nose twitching nervously.

The door opened with a wide swing, and at it stood the same young wolf morph who had introduced her. “Charles Matthias to see you, your grace,” the young piping voice declared.

“He is expected, let him in,” Thomas called back, his hoof-like hands firmly planted upon the table. So that was who it was, Jessica thought, her heart fluttering suddenly. Charles was one of those that her master had warned her about, and now here he would be coming into her very presence. She would have to study his mind to know when he spoke the truth or not. The very notion made her body tremble in anxiety. Wessex had described his encounters with that blasted Zagrosek as trying, drawing every ounce of strength from him. How could she pit herself against the other half of Wessex’s nightmares?

The rat wandered on in, looking decently respectable, though obviously a bit surprised at his summons. He nodded his head towards both Duke Thomas and Prince Phil, smiling warmly to each of them. “Thomas, Phil, good to see you. What is it that you need?” His eyes then found Jessica, the predator to his prey. His body stiffened briefly, and then he relaxed, stepping forward towards the fourth side of the table. Phil had begun to hop to the chair on the table opposite Jessica, while Thomas dominated the side opposite the door.

“In case you did not know,” Thomas began, “this is Jessica, formerly a student of the late Wessex ard’Kapler. I invited her here because she deserves to know what happened to her master during the siege. From what I’ve come to understand, events were rather scattered, you know at least some of what occurred to him. Can you tell us how it happened?”

Jessica’s heart brightened a bit as she heard what Thomas had to say. But then her talon felt the trembling of the velvet in the soothing box, knew the tension that had begun to fill the room, despite Thomas’s friendly words, and knew them for the lie they were. Charles may very well be the one who had murdered her master. Yet she restrained herself and kept steady, hoping her fixed stare did not unsettle the rat too much.

“Well, when we found him, he was already dead. Whoever killed him had to be a mage of great power though, I can assure you of this. Because though he was dead, he was walking and casting magic of his own.” Jessica gasped at that, as did Thomas and Phil. Undead? Who could have made her master undead? And to what end? Before Charles had even continued, she knew precisely to what end. The tingling in the soothing box assured her that Charles was telling the truth, but not quite all of it.

“How do you know he was dead?” Phil asked then, leaning forward slightly. Jessica could feel Phil’s love for her master flow through every word. There was much personal grief that the rabbit had refused to share with any other over Wessex’s death.

Charles grimaced and gestured to his neck. “His throat had been sliced cleanly open. I suspect with a garotte or something similar. His shirt was completely stained with his own blood, and his head was flopping back and forth.” Jessica felt sick at this description, though in the disgust Charles felt, she knew it was the truth. She tried not to visualize what he must have looked like, but the memory in the rat’s mind was too powerful to resist. There her master was, in a frock once white, but now red, holding a piece of chalk in one hand, eyes grey and lifeless, while that vicious line in his neck spoke of his demise.

“And his eyes were completely grey, completely lifeless, as if some dark being had inhabited his body. And he attacked us the moment he saw us. Something truly evil had taken him. I would not wish his fate upon anyone.”

Thomas grunted but nodded slowly. He patted Jessica on the wing. “I’m sorry, Jessica. Will you be all right.”

Surprised at the sudden show of emotion from the Duke, she could not help but nod. “Yes, I will be fine. I just want to know more about what happened. How did you find him?”

Charles grimaced a bit. She could instantly tell that there was something that he did not wish to reveal. “We happened across Wessex’s quarters and saw that there was a fire inside. Fearing for his safety, we rushed in and put the fire out. We saved most of his furnishings, but there was nothing we could do about his work room, it had burned too much by the time we had arrived.”

“What did Wessex keep in his work room?” Thomas asked, turning to Jessica.

“Oh, almost nothing. The floor is slate, completely smooth. His magical powders are in a secret compartment off to the side, but I found that undamaged when I went through his belongings.”

“Is the slate flammable?” Thomas asked. Phil gave him an incredulous look at that, but said nothing.

“No, but if you can make it extremely hot, it will become slag.”

“And that is how you found it?” Thomas asked, turning the question back on Charles.

“Yes, it was already slag by the time we arrived. But I tell you, something in that workroom was burning. We couldn’t save it. It was already ash by the time we arrived, though I think it had been some satin cloak before, I did not get a good look at it. Whoever killed Wessex did their best to destroy the workroom and whatever Wessex had been doing that day.”

“And which day was that?” Phil asked then, rubbing his paws together.

Charles flicked his whiskers a moment. His paws reached down to the bit of wood at his side, but he did not take it. “It happened shortly before we knew of the siege. Winter Solstice.”

Phil nodded. “I had seen him shortly before leaving for Lorland. I am lucky to have made it in one piece, my carriage must have only been an hour or two ahead of the Lutin armies. But when I saw him, Wessex had asked for some of the Whalish anti-magic powder. Whatever magic he was performing must have been powerful indeed. Jessica, did he tell you what he was doing?”

Jessica shook her head. “No, he would not tell me when I asked him. Weyden and I were on our way to the Lightbringer Temple for the Solstice services. But the Solstice is one of the best times for casting ritual magic, the natural weaves are that much stronger on those days. Of the four days of the year when the magical flows are at their apex, that is one of the most potent for scrying. Only the aphelion is better suited to it.”

“Aphelion?” Thomas asked, perplexed.

“When the sun is furthest from the Earth,” Phil answered, betraying his sailor’s heritage. “So, it sounds as if Wessex was trying to see something that did not want to be seen then?”

“Or perhaps he was killed to prevent him from telling others what he had seen,” Thomas mused then, his eyes turning back to Charles. “But that still doesn’t explain why he was turned into one of the undead. Just what was it that he was doing when you found him, Charles?”

“He was casting some sort of spell onto a section of the Keep’s walls.”

“What section?” Jessica snapped, a hard edge coming into her voice.

“I don’t know, it appeared to be like any other part of the Keep,” Charles grimaced, pulling his stick out then and bringing it up to his teeth. He gnawed nervously on it, the feeling so clear through the velvet.

Both Thomas and Phil looked concerned now, they obviously knew just what Jessica was now aiming for. “What did the spell look like?”

Charles set the stick down before him on the table and scratched at his head with one paw. “I can only dimly remember it, but I’ll try to describe it as best I can. It was three concentric circles, with a roundel of some sort in the centre. The second circle was drawn in his own blood though.”

“And outside the last circle?” Jessica asked, nearly leaping upon the rat in her desire to know. The velvet resonated with her passionate hatred so much that she was having trouble isolating the rat’s feelings. She schooled herself to remain calm, but it was very difficult.

“Some strange symbols, I did not recognize any of them.”

“How many?”

“There were eight when we arrived, but it was clear that he needed a ninth to activate the spell.”

Thomas, Phil, and Jessica all exchanged glances then. They did know what that meant. It was very clear to Jessica now who had sought to destroy Wessex. After all, he was the only one who could open that portal into the Underworld. They had tried to make him do it in his sleep. Having failed in that, they resorted to killing him and raising him as undead to do their bidding. Yet, obviously, Wessex must have been unsuccessful, or the Keep would have been overrun by creatures from the Underworld. Why did Matthias stop him if the rat was partially responsible?

“Did he manage to draw the ninth?” Phil finally asked, his voice quiet. Jessica could tell with her eyes that they were all badly shaken, she did not need the soothing box for that.

Charles nodded. “But not without serious fight. He had some sort of protective film over the spell. When we tried to erase it, it made our arms numb and cold unto death. While we were trying to get that film off of our arms, Wessex drew in the ninth chevron.”

“And?” Phil prodded, nearly hopping out of his seat in his impatience.

“The spell flared to life, and then, something ripped its way through Wessex and into the Keep. It was completely black, lanky, arms and legs were just skin and bones, and maybe just bones. It had no face, only a mouth, and every torch in the room was snuffed as it emerged. And then it screamed,” Jessica felt her blood run cold. Though she had no idea what Charles was describing, the fright in the rat’s body was enough to scare her.

It apparently frightened Thomas, as he began to shiver slightly, his horse flesh shaking. “Was it?”

Charles nodded then. “Yes, it was a Shrieker. The Keep herself knew of its threat, and did something strange which I still have difficulty wrapping my mind around. The walls twisted in such a way that the spell suddenly hung in the centre of the room, light filled the area, but I could not tell from where, and the walls were each joined in such a way that seemed physically impossible. I don’t think I can adequately describe it, it was just bizarre. And every time we moved from one wall to the next, that wall suddenly became the floor. I could stare up and see that thing standing firmly where it should have been falling. It was extremely confusing at first, but we did manage to finally accustom ourselves to that prison the Keep had created for the Shrieker.” Charles paused, taking in their fixed stares. “And we did manage to kill it.”

“And then what happened?” Thomas asked. Jessica could feel their fear through the velvet, gripping her talon and threatening to pull it free.

“Its body was sucked back into the spell, along with what was left of Wessex. And then, it vanished completely, and the area was back to normal. I don’t understand what happened any better than that.”

“What is a Shrieker?” Jessica finally asked, steeling herself for the answer.

Charles grimaced, glanced to Thomas, and then began to speak in soft, hushed tones. “A Shrieker is a creature formed in the Underworld. It has no sentience as we understand it. It exists solely to destroy all that exists within this realm. It can only enter this realm through tears between the worlds, like the one that Wessex was forced to open. It is as I described it, completely black. Yet it burns like no fire you’ve ever seen. One touch from its skin can melt the flesh from your bones. And its scream – well, if you never hear it, then count yourself blessed. I will never be able to forget it. It has been rumoured that if it kills you and screams afterward, the scream will shatter your soul, utterly destroying you in a way not even the Hells of the Lightbringers or Ecclesia can accomplish.”

“Did it destroy Wessex?” Jessica asked, her voice cracking. She had never imagined that her master’s death could have been so vile and so catastrophic. Yet as far as she could tell, everything Charles had told her was the truth. There was something he was leaving out, but she could not discern what.

“I don’t know,” Charles shrugged then, paws gripping his chewstick tightly. He nervously gnawed at it again for a moment. “All I do know is that Wessex’s body was sucked back through that spell along with what was left with the Shrieker after we killed it.”

Phil leaned forward then. “Well, I’m very glad to know that such a monstrosity is now dead. However, I take it that these creatures are very difficult to kill.”

“One man alone would have no chance against them. Had I alone been there to stop it, I would now be dead. Sometimes, even two or three are insufficient, unless these two or three are very highly trained in both magic and combat.”

“Something else I was suspecting, “ Phil nodded, his ears perfectly erect. “Which brings me to my next question. Just who exactly was with you to fight this creature? You have not said.”

That was it then, Jessica realized. That was what Charles had been keeping back. She let her talon rest within the soothing box, wondering whether he would lie to them at this point. Yet, the only thing she detected was resignation. “My student Garigan as well as two old friends. They were here to help me celebrate my student’s ascension to the green.”

“Their names?” Phil prodded.

The rat grimaced and then said in a flat tone, “Jerome Krabbe and Krenek Zagrosek.”

Jessica turned on him, her eyes wide then, her wings spreading in her sudden anger. “That man!” she squealed, her voice suddenly piercing. “You allowed him in the Keep and took him to Wessex!”

Thomas reached over and wrapped his arms about Jessica’s chest, pinning her wings against her back suddenly. “Calm yourself, I’m sure Charles has an explanation for this.”

Charles nodded. “Yes, I do. I know what some think he has done. I am not sure I believe it, I still am uncertain. But I was going to do something about it. I wanted to prove his innocence, yes, but if he was guilty, then I would do what was needed to have him restrained to await his judgement. That’s why we went to Wessex’s quarters. I knew that Wessex would both be able to identify him, and be able to match him magically. I would help overcome his own Sondeckis powers, and I’m sure Jerome would have as well once Zagrosek was revealed.”

“How exactly did you manage to convince him to go see Wessex?” Phil asked, even as Thomas slowly began to ease off of Jessica. “I don’t think that man would have gone willingly.”

“I told him we were going to visit somebody else. There is another at the Keep that we both knew. I counted on him not knowing the Keep itself, so he wouldn’t realize where we were until it was too late. Of course, if he was innocent, it would not matter, but I was not going to let this chance slip through my fingers.”

Jessica could tell already that Phil and Thomas were both slightly relieved, though there was a smouldering anger against the rat. Her own anger was clear, though she tried to suppress it without much success.

“And what did he do when you faced the Shrieker?” Thomas asked, his voice quivering at the mere mention of that dreaded beast.

“He helped me kill it. Without him, it would not have been possible. That is another reason why I think he may be innocent still of the charges levelled against him. Why would somebody you claim was responsible for what Loriod had done–”

“And the Patriarch’s murder,” Phil pointed out, a bit of acid in his tone.

“And for killing the Patriarch,” Charles continued, his voice firm. “Why would they fight along my side to kill the Shrieker if they are supposed to be allied with darkness?”

“You said yourself that the Shrieker was not sentient. Perhaps he helped kill it because he did not wish himself to be killed,” Phil pointed out. “After all, we hardly know his motivations.”

“Perhaps,” Charles granted. “But he fought very firmly on the side of Metamor during the battles that followed. Ask anyone at Glen Avery and they will confirm this. Zagrosek was a tireless defender of Metamor during the siege.”

“And why didn’t you try to have him confined after you saw what happened with Wessex?” Thomas then asked, even as he returned to his own seat. “You knew already that Wessex was the first to have seen Zagrosek, the one who has been tangling with him this last year. It was Wessex who discovered that Zagrosek was a Sondeckis, just the same as you are. It was Wessex who died on the same day that Zagrosek reappears at the Keep, ostensibly to help you with raising Garigan to the green. How do you know that he did not kill Wessex before he came to greet you?”

“He couldn’t have. When we arrived at Wessex’s quarters, the fire had only been burning for fifteen minutes at most. Zagrosek had been in my presence for several hours by then. We raised Garigan to the green before venturing out to see Wessex.”

Phil and Thomas exchanged shocked glances. Jessica could tell that the rat was becoming defensive, but so far, he had not once lied to them. Both Phil and Thomas were becoming increasingly angry with their companion, something that grew in intensity with every new word from the rat’s mouth. “You knew he could be a dire enemy, yet you celebrated with him for several hours before you thought to do what was right and have him turned in?”

Charles gripped the stick tighter in his paws. “Yes. It would have been awkward for me to test him before the ceremony. I felt it prudent to wait until afterwards.”

Jessica let her eyes open wider at that. Charles was being deliberately evasive with that answer. She was not certain if it was a lie or not, but clearly, the rat knew that it had not happened quite like that, or he had told himself that was how it had happened to hide something he did not want to admit to himself. Phil caught her sudden surprise and let his face descend further into a frown, or at least, as best a frown as he could put on. “Charles, this man is responsible for the deaths of scores of people, including Patriarch Akabaieth, my kinsman. His actions will likely result in the deaths of tens of thousands more. Akabaieth’s death has already increased tensions in the civilized world. It is likely there will be border skirmishes to avenge this murder, if not outright war. He is a criminal that must be brought to justice before he causes more harm and plunges us further into chaos. And you know he is guilty in your heart. Wessex has identified him beyond a shadow of a doubt. How many thirty to thirty five year old black-haired, lanky Sondeckis have risen to the black and happen to be named Zagrosek? I doubt that there is more than one.”

Charles scowled at the rabbit. “Then why is it that he did all those good things in my presence. Not for a single instant did I notice anything different in Zagrosek. The Krenek Zagrosek I know would never do the things you describe. Never. He was sometimes hard, but he was a good man. He had a sense of justice that this world is sorely lacking in. I find it very difficult to believe those things you say about him. Would you not find it difficult to have someone say that your best friend in all the world was a cold-blooded killer, that he would murder a holy man?”

Phil kept his gaze of iron fixed on the rat. Jessica knew she would have withered under that stare, but Charles returned it, ice for ice. “Charles, you have also been my friend. But by siding with Zagrosek, you tear that friendship apart.”

“I am not siding with Zagrosek!” Charles declared, his voice exasperated. “I am simply trying to get you to see that maybe things aren’t as crystal clear as you think they are. Perhaps whoever is responsible for this simply chose to appear as Zagrosek. Why not, it would drive a wedge between us. If you want to destroy the prophecy we are supposed to be a part of, why not drive us apart like that? Why not turn somebody who could be an ally into an enemy. We are dealing with powerful magic here after all, magic that taxed Wessex to his limits, and finally killed him and raised him as undead. Why couldn’t its origin mask itself as Zagrosek?”

Phil appeared shaken in his conviction for a moment. He let his eyes slide over to Thomas, but the horselord was ruminating over his own thoughts. Finally, those dark eyes lifted and met the rabbit’s. With a reluctant gesture, the Duke nodded his assent. Phil turned back to Charles and spoke slowly, but firmly. “Charles, you raise a very good point. I am still very angry with you, but you deserve a chance to prove your contention. However, we need to explore this possibility you have raised, and determine whether it really is possible. I do not know enough about magic to say. However, the fact remains that you harbored a man that we have every reason to suspect is responsible for the murder of Patriarch Akabaieth, among many others. You must be detained.”

Charles sighed and shook his head. “So you are going to throw me in prison again?”

Phil nodded. “Oh yes. And this time, you will not be given a reprieve until we know exactly what is going on.”

The rat shook his head. Jessica could feel his own anger, but it gave way to resignation. “The Zagrosek I knew would never do those things.”

“Maybe he is not the Zagrosek you knew anymore,” Phil retorted, his voice cold. Jessica could feel that icy fury in the rabbit’s heart. This was not the Prince Phil who hopped merrily along and always said kind things to her. This was the grizzled sea captain punishing a member of his crew to the fullest extent, without mercy.

Thomas clapped his hands hard together twice. The door quickly opened and the young wolf morph peered in. “Yes, your grace?”

“Have three detachments of guards escort Charles Matthias to the dungeons. He is to be securely locked away under close guard the entire time. And instruct them to speak to no one of this.” The wolf morph was very surprised by the order, but nodded his head and darted back out the door.

“You think I would try to run?” Charles said, giving Thomas a challenging glare.

“I don’t know what to expect from you, Matthias. You have demonstrated an unpredictability that disquiets me. I am not going to be taking any chances with you. I hope you intend to be cooperative.”

“Of course,” Charles snorted. “I gave you my word I would obey your orders.” He paused a moment, his grip on the stick so tight that it snapped in his paws. “But I also give you my word that I am guilty of no crime.”

“And Zagrosek?” Phil shot back, his voice menacing.

Charles paused, his face turned into an unpleasant moue. “I give you my word that the Zagrosek that I knew is guilty of no crime as well.” Before the rat could elaborate any further, the door opened, and several armour clad guards stepped into the room, their faces all turned towards either the rat or the Duke. Charles turned his back upon the three of them, his demeanour haughty but complacent. He walked amidst the guards, and allowed himself to be escorted out into the hall. The young wolf morph closed the door after they had left, leaving them alone.

“This is a dark day,” Phil mused, his anger settling down ever so slowly into a forlorn melancholy. “Charles is right. We are breaking the triumvirate of the prophecy. I just don’t see any other choice.” He hit the table forcefully with his paw, claws digging gouges into the wood.

“There isn’t any,” Thomas said stoically, though his heart betrayed his sadness as well. He turned his head to the large bookcase along the wall. “Lord Avery, you may come out now.”

The bookcase stirred then, pushing outwards and revealing a small alcove set into the stone wall. A grey squirrel morph emerged, dressed in fine livery, though bearing one of the most unpleasant faces she had ever seen. “I assume you are going to be having a trial ere long?”

Thomas nodded. “That is probably for the best. It will be kept quiet, I want as few to know of Charles’s incarceration as possible. We will have to tell Kimberly though.”

“I will tell her,” Phil said then, his voice once more soft. “I am the one who ordered it, I will tell her. It breaks my heart to do so, but it must be done.”

“So, did he lie?” Avery asked, his tail twitching back and forth so rapidly that Jessica had a hard time following it.

“Only once and maybe not even then,” Jessica finally found her voice. So much she now knew about her master’s death, so much she did not wish to know. How could she ever take vengeance for what had been done? No punishment could ever surpass the crime that had been committed against the boy mage. “He was not entirely honest when he said he thought it awkward to take Zagrosek to Wessex before the ceremony for Garigan.”

“How so?” Thomas asked, his voice tired.

“I’m not certain. It could be that he wants to believe that is what he did though he may not be sure. Or it may never have occurred to him to take him to see Wessex until after the ceremony, and he knew it would not reflect well upon him. He may have been afraid you’d think he deliberately waited as long as possible before doing the right thing.”

Avery was incredulous though. “What would he be waiting for? It is not as if he would delay on the off chance that somebody would kill Wessex.”

“Unless he knew beforehand that was what was to happen,” Thomas mused quietly. He then laid his hands down on the table. “Well, this idle speculation will accomplish us little. I need to know everything I can about Zagrosek, what Wessex knew of him, and I need to know everyone that may have come in contact with Zagrosek, especially while he was perpetrating his crimes.”

“Sir Bryonoth likely saw him,” Phil pointed out. “He was the knight who was kidnapped from the–“

”I know who Bryonoth is,” Thomas replied tartly. “I know all too well in fact. Yes, he should be there to speak at the trial. Could you scan his mind to see if there are any images of Zagrosek within it?”

Jessica shook her head. “Not unless I knew what he looked like to begin with. I’m not nearly as talented as Wessex was. Unless I know what I am looking for, I will not be able to find it, at least not yet.”

“In that case,” Thomas said, rolling his head about his neck. “Have the Painter’s guild send up one of their best portrait painters. Perhaps Bryonoth will be able to help them come up with a sketch of what he looks like.”

“You forget, I too have seen him,” Avery pointed out.

“And if the sketch Bryonoth comes up with looks nothing like the Zagrosek you remember, then we have all gotten excited about nothing. If that happens I plan on spending the evening stone drunk to celebrate. But if it is the same man–“ Thomas let his voice trail off, unable to finish those thoughts.

Lord Avery appeared to know what they were as well, for he stiffened, his long bushy tail coming to rest perfectly behind his head. “I wish to speak at this trial in Matthias’s defence. He may be guilty as you say, but I am far from convinced of that.”

Thomas nodded. “I would not expect you to be, you have not been here to see just what Zagrosek has been capable of. Your testimony will be welcomed.” Thomas’s eyes slid over to Phil. “This will not be a show trial. I want to be certain beyond a shadow of a doubt before I pass any sentence on Matthias.”

Phil nodded at that, his ears beginning to droop. “I do as well, Thomas. I do not want to see my friendship with Charles end this way. When Misha returns tomorrow, I will see if we cannot have him contact one of his mage relatives. They will know whether or not Charles could be right about Zagrosek simply being a mask for the true culprit. Until then, we should all pretend as if nothing has happened.”

“Agreed. Not a word of this is to be spoken outside this room,” Thomas nodded, rising to his hooves finally. “I wish to be alone now. I need to think on these things by myself for now.”

“As you wish, your grace,” Phil said, bowing slightly before hopping from the ottoman to the floor. Jessica bent at her waist and then stepped off the log, picking up the soothing box in her talons. She lifted it up until she managed to nestle it between her wings and chest, cradling it as best she could. Lord Avery spoke the same words Phil had done, and bowed as well, before walking to the door, his tail flitting in agitation still.

Phil and Avery were out the door fairly quickly. Jessica had to hop on her talons, while making sure the box did not tumble from her wings, so she moved more slowly. Just as she reached the door she heard the Duke’s voice call out, “Jessica.” She turned her head a bit to see him with one eye, curious what more he could have to say. “I am sorry that we had to put you through this. Thank you for being here.”

“I wish I could truly be grateful, but thank you anyway, your grace.” And then, she was out the door and into the hallway. There was only one thought on her mind though – she had to read Wessex’s notes now, she would suffer no further delays in this. Somewhere in them was the key to unravelling this entire mystery, the mystery of Zagrosek and now Charles Matthias.

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