Wagging Tongues Will - Part VI

Lady Kimberly did not often receive a summons from Prince Phil. Certainly she had on many occasions been to his spacious quarters, but before it had almost always been with Charles. And even then she rarely spoke to Phil himself, preferring instead to share company with Lady Clover, his wife. So, it was quite a surprise to find herself the recipient of a summons from his Highness.

She’d been working in the Kitchens with Bernadette and the others. Steward Thalberg did not come by nearly as much as he had used to, and even when he did, his form was slumped and his gait slow. The imperiousness in his stature had with one stroke been removed, and he appeared a beaten figure, but nevertheless one whose presence was reassuring. The gossip about the kitchens was that it would be several months before he’d be back to his old self, but back to his old self he would eventually be. Thalberg himself refused to discuss his ailment, merely deflecting any questions onto the subject of the latest meal.

A few of her fellow cooks were no longer at the kitchens. One, a teenage boy who had started working there when he had still been a girl, had been cornered and slain while wandering the Keep, but he was the only one. A few others had been injured in the fighting and were still recovering, but they would return to those sweet-smelling rooms in a few weeks. The boy’s absence was felt, though Kimberly had never known him well. She had cried for him, but no more than a few tears. Others would more properly mourn him. There were far too many dead to shed tears for each one.

Most in the Kitchens had devoted themselves to their tasks to keep their minds from the sorrow. Though Kimberly had escaped any personal losses – she had prayed for hours in the cathedral that her beloved was well – many others were not nearly so fortunate. Bernadette’s older sister in fact had been killed while asleep in her bed. But the elder mouse was coping well, and had done her best to cheer others up, and was always quick to smile.

In fact, it was Bernadette who had delivered the message to her. Kimberly had been cleaning one of the ovens, her claws scrapping against some grit cacked into the side of the furnace. Bernadette had taken the note from the messenger and brought it to her personally, and stood be her side while she read it. Although she had been able to read a few words before she’d come to Metamor, it was Charles who had really helped her learn that wondrous art.

The thought of him made her smile pierce her muzzle once more. He was terribly stubborn sometimes, she admitted with a bit of a laugh to herself, but she loved him for it too. When he’d told her of how he’d saved that one opossum’s life when the bridge fell on top of them, she always imagined that it was her that he’d rescued. She liked the thought of having her rat do that for her, it made her whiskers twitch in sudden glee.

But of course, his stubborn side could be frustrating as well. He needed to stay abed now so that he could heal up properly, but every time she turned around he was up and about again, making his wounds worse. She resolved to check on him after she visited with Phil. If she caught him out of bed again she’d certainly give him a good talking to! He’d be no good for anything if his ribs didn’t heal properly after all. Stubborn men!

Before she realized it though, she was at Prince Phil’s door. Lifting her paw to the large oaken frame, she knocked a few times, feeling rather small against its size. Of course, it needed to be that large so Rupert, the great ape retainer that saw to Phil’s needs, could pass through. And it was the simian who opened the door and with the wave of one hand, ushered her in. She smiled up at him, but felt her heart clutch in her chest. There was a dourness to his expression that filled her with sudden apprehension. Had something terrible happened?

Phil was at his writing desk, pen in mouth as he worked over a few pieces of paper. An overturned canvas was leaning against the wall next to him. On the desk was a half-eaten carrot. That alone gave her even more pause, her whiskers twitching as she sniffed at the air. Acrid scents made her whole body tingle. There was quite a bit of negative energy crackling about them. Now she knew that something terrible had come to pass, but to whom? Not to her dear Charles?

Phil swivelled in his chair and stared at her, his face apologetic, but stern. Now she knew that whatever had happened it had been the rabbit’s fault. Was Charles being sent on a deadly mission, so deadly that Phil felt he needed to apologize to her beforehand should he not return? She instinctively reached for the chewstick she had grown accustomed to keeping at her side and brought it to her teeth. Nibbling distractedly on that a moment, she watched as the rabbit collected himself.

“I’m sorry, Lady Kimberly, but I must tell you this, for you deserve to know more than anyone,” Phil began to speak, but his voice broke off for a moment there. His face contorted slightly into a grimace, and his eyes cast back towards the canvas. “But before I tell you, I must ask you something. Rupert, would you please make sure the door is securely locked?”

Kimberly heard the bolt turn in the door behind her. And then the great ape disappeared back into the small room off the main chamber. That door too closed shut, leaving them both alone. Kimberly found enough of her composure to ask, “What secret can’t you tell even your own man?”

Phil paled slightly, and then hopped over to the canvas. “These are matters that do not concern him right now, but they do concern you. I want you to look at this picture, and I want you to tell me if you have ever seen the man in it.”

Kimberly brought the chewstick back to her teeth, grinding away at it, chips of wood falling into her mouth, only to be pushed back out with a quick flick of her tongue. Phil lifted the canvas up with one paw, and then spun it around on one corner. Kimberly blinked as she saw that grim countenance, maliciousness contained in every stroke and swirl. She gasped and fell back, her heart pounding so hard it threatened to burst from her chest. The face was unfamiliar to her, but the intent in the eyes was not. In fact, they seemed to delight in her terror, savouring her cry of anguish as a killer might pleas for mercy from his victims.

Phil mercifully spun the picture back around after only a second’s glance. He leaned it back against the wall so that loathsome face was hidden again. However, in her mind, Kimberly could still see that smirking figure, glaring down upon her with arms crossed before his black robes. She stumbled backwards, nearly stepping upon her tail as she did so. Unconsciously, she slumped down in the chaise longue that Phil kept to entertain guests. Before another moment was out, Phil had hopped to her side, and nuzzled against her with his head, much like a rabbit might.

“I can tell you have never seen him,” Phil spoke softly, regaining his own composure after a moment. “There was no recognition of him in your eyes. But he is important, and I needed to know.”

Kimberly was whimpering slightly despite her best attempts to collect her wits. “I’ve never seen him,” was all that she could manage to say.

Phil nodded. “I know. But I thought you might have.”

She blinked at that, sending a half-formed tear down her soft-furred cheek. “Why?”

Phil looked away then, obviously uncomfortable to be speaking to her of such things. “Because you are to be Matthias’s wife soon. I don’t know when you plan on having the ceremony, not for some time I imagine after that attack, but I do know that you are closer to him than any other, even his closest friends.”

Kimberly did not think it possible, but asked anyway, “Was that what Charles used to look like?”

Phil shook his head firmly at that. “No, not at all. When still human, he’d had a short beard. It has been so long I have forgotten anything else. But I believe that Charles and that man do know each other, and have known each other for almost all of their lives.”

Kimberly could not believe the words she was hearing now. Her Charles knowing a man who bore such a terrible visage as that? It was unthinkable, she must have misheard him. “That’s can’t be right. My Charles would never know somebody like that.”

Phil’s countenance grew graver then, an unpleasant moue that barely seemed possible on the short lapine snout. “I have known many terrible individuals in my life. For many years I was forced to put up with such monsters as Lord Loriod, who in the end tried to destroy my humanity. Oh yes, I have known monsters, and you do not think ill of me?”

“No,” Kimberly admitted, still knowing in her heart that somehow Phil had to be wrong about her rat. “But, I don’t know how to say it. That man is worse than Loriod. He looks worse.” She knew in her heart that there was an evil in the picture she had seen, one that surpassed the bloated lord’s piggish desires, but the words to say so escaped her.

Phil nodded, grim. “You are right about that. For that man is the very man who had been controlling Loriod last Spring.”

Kimberly sat stunned, her chewstick falling from her lips and into her lap. It then rolled off her knees and clattered upon the terrazzo. Phil bent down and scooped it up in his paws and held it out for her. She took it back, her shock having passed her, though still she found her mouth would not work at all. The lady rat felt as if her heart had not beaten in hours.

“You do understand that this is not to leave this room?” Phil then broached, seeming to add it as an afterthought.

Kimberly finally found her ability to move once more, and nodded slowly. “Yes, I know how to keep a secret.”

“Good. This man’s crimes do not stop there. He is also responsible for killing the Patriarch.”

At that, Kimberly dropped her chewstick again, her face filling with the sadness of that great man’s death anew. “No...”

“I’m afraid it is true. And the worst news is that he was here at Metamor during the first part of the siege.” Kimberly found her skin shaking, which made the hem of her skirt ruffle. This was far too much for her to handle. She wished that Phil would stop speaking, and take back this terrible news from her, free her from its knowledge. But the rabbit continued, his voice ringing like a death knell, bearing with it the same uncaring certainty. “And the most frightening news of all is that I have good reason to believe that he was here in the company of Charles.”

“No!” she cried out in anguish. “No, that’s not true.”

Phil’s face appeared grave. “It is. Charles himself confirmed that a man fitting the description you saw, one that we know committed those crimes, was with him.”

“No, it can’t be!” Kimberly objected, shaking her head, her paws reaching up to cover her face.

“I am sorry, but it is. You may go ask Charles yourself if you do not believe me. I wish that it were not so, you have no idea how much I wish that, but it is the truth.”

“I don’t believe you!” Kimberly cried out, pushing the rabbit away with one paw. Though he could have easily pressed himself closer to her, he moved back willingly, giving her the space she needed. “How can you say such a thing?”

Phil however, did not appear to be perturbed by her anger. In fact, his own flared up slightly. “As I said, if you do not believe me, you may speak to Charles. Why don’t you ask him how he could do such a thing. He protected that man for many months. He knew who it was who controlled Loriod, and he did not tell us he knew. He knew what that man was capable of, and he did not tell us, but deliberately kept the truth from us as long as he could. Even now he fights to protect that man. And that is why I had to do what I have done.”

Kimberly threw her eyes upon him, anger mixed with hurt. “What have you done?”

“I have put him back in the dungeon for now. None may see him, but I have arranged for you to be allowed through. Though my anger with him may be great, I will not keep the woman he loves from him. Speak with him, and ask him of the things I have told you. You will find that I have spoken the truth.”

“What if you are wrong?” Kimberly shot at him, her voice strained with the tears that wished to flow from her eyes.

Phil let the anger drift from his body, the tension leaving his bones and muscles, and he relaxed slightly. “I hope I am. I hope Charles is right, and that we have all been misled as your fiancè claims. But I cannot take that chance until we can know more. That is why Charles is in the dungeon right now. We are going to be doing our best to determine whether he could be right or not. But I do not see how he could be right.”

Kimberly felt wounded even still, and she balled her paws into fists before nodding, and standing up from the chaise lounge. “I wish to see him now.” She tried to sound sure of herself, but there was a glimmer of her racking sobs still within her voice.

The rabbit gave a curt nod and then called out in a loud piping voice. “Rupert, escort Kimberly to the dungeons to see Charles.” Phil then turned back to the rat standing before him. “Say nothing of this to anyone else. Until this matter is resolved, consider yourself sworn to silence in the name of the Duke.”

She pulled tight her skirt about her legs, and turned off away from the rabbit towards the door, her anger and misery great, each fighting to overwhelm the other. At the moment her anger won, allowing her to storm towards the door without acknowledging Phil’s last order. She had every intention of obeying it, but this bit of spite was all she could muster against him. The great ape emerged from the chamber off the main quarters, smiled sadly down to Kimberly, and then opened the door for her. Tears standing in her eyes, she stepped out and let the simian guide her to the dungeons.

Phil watched her depart, his heart trembling in his chest. He hoped she would understand why he had to do this, it was terribly painful. But so was the pain of Charles’s betrayal, if that is what it had been. Glancing back at the missives on his desk, he realized he would have to put those things from his mind for the moment once again. Sighing, the rabbit hopped back over to that desk, back into the chair, and clamped his writing utensil in his teeth. He hoped this matter would find a swift resolution.

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