Wagging Tongues Will - Part IX
hil surveyed those who were still within his chambers. Lisa was rubbing nervously at fabric tied to cover the stump of her right wrist. Arla appeared to be growling beneath her breath. Even her tail was stiff, though curled slightly between her legs. Lord Avery however appeared to be quite irate, and berated the Prince with words laced both by heat and by drink.
“You’th got a lotta nerve not lettink the boy see his mashtah. He was honesht with ya, and he did’na haf ta be.”
Phil snapped, his piping voice cutting sharply through the squirrel’s slurred speech. “I do what I have to do. Charles left us no choice in this. He protected the Patriarch’s murderer, not I. Spend your anger on him. I am just doing what I must.”
Lord Avery tried to stand up, his tail waving erratically behind him. He did manage to stay on his feet for just a moment though, long enough to point a claw in the lapine’s general direction and offer one more stinging rebuke. “Noya not! Yur doink all this fur revenge.”
Phil’s fur actually raised along the back of his neck and body at that. His form swelled up slightly as he worked to hold back his temper. “How dare you suggest such a thing! I serve Metamor first, my friends second. It has always been that way, and shall remain that way for as long as I live here.” He lowered himself back to the ground and took a deep breath, obviously trying to calm himself.
Glancing back at his desk for a brief moment, he gave the three of them each a slow but certain stare. “I have things to do now. If you would all excuse me. Once Misha returns tomorrow we will be able to make more progress in sorting out this mystery. Until then, there is nothing more to be said.”
Lisa crossed her arms. “Don’t you think we ought to be the ones to decide that?”
“No, I don’t.”
The girl continued, her presence not in the least intimidating, but her voice carried a commanding tone. “I want to know more, because you have not told us all about this man Zagrosek.”
Phil shook his head. “You may find out more tomorrow. Until then you are under orders not to speak of this to anyone. If you can find Garigan, relay that to him as well.”
Arla snorted, the growl in the back of her throat sounding in every word she spoke. “On your orders?”
Phil bristled once again at the implication. “On both my orders and the Duke’s. Now leave me. There is much still to be done. Rupert!”
The great ape opened the door at the summons and emerged once again into the chamber with them, looking between them with at profound melancholy in his eyes. There was no question that the ape knew of the terrible events, though as always he could not speak of them. He looked to Phil, awaiting whatever orders were to be received. The rabbit wasted no time in supplying them. “Rupert, would you escort these three back to their quarters.”
Arla stood up indignantly and walked to the door. “I have no need of his help.” Thus saying, she yanked the door the hallway open, and marched on through, followed fairly closely by Lisa, though the child appeared to have mixed feelings. Her face was not all anger, but also terrible sorrow, but sorrow that knew not for whom to cry.
Only Lord Avery had any difficulty, weaving this way and that as he walked, still terribly inebriated. Rupert gently rested one hand against the squirrel’s back, steadying him. Even as Lisa and Arla continued on their own way, joined by Skylos who had waited outside for them, Rupert began to help the Lord of the Glen back to the quarters he was using during his stay. The door shut quietly behind, leaving Phil to himself in the room.
The rabbit hopped over towards the mantle, warming himself momentarily by the fire, before he picked up the pillow as best as he could in his teeth, and hopped back to the lounge. Setting it aright once again, he headed over towards his own quarters. Leaning his head into the hay strewn cage that he needed to sleep in, he began to vomit, his entire body shaking with the effort. Tears filled his eyes as he cast out his last meal, while the fears and horrors his form brought him smashed themselves against his mind.
For several minutes he stood there leaning over into the cage, coughing, wheezing, and crying. Part of him yearned to hop into that cage and bury himself within its confines, digging himself into a hole to escape the fears that plagued him. Yet the other half of him fought that with every turn, calling to mind younger days when the confrontation he’d just had would have been unpleasant but easily within his capabilities. Now, it had drained him of every last bit of energy, and he felt terribly alone.
Pushing himself back from the cage, his eyes still wet with the shame of his condition, he pondered what he could possibly do about it. The answer, mercifully, came quickly. He would send a dispatch that very evening to his wife, the Lady Clover, who was overseeing his affairs at Lorland. However, forcing his body to act took a bit longer, as his flesh was still shaking, fur quivering despite his best efforts to calm it. Yet, eventually those tremors did subside, and he once more was able to hop back into his living space.
Rupert had not yet returned, he could see this immediately. Yet he was only dimly aware of the great ape’s absence as he stopped and stared at the back of that canvas, the awful face of his nemesis hidden from view. Though his heart trembled, he stepped forward and spun that picture back around on one corner so that he could see that wicked man’s face. The dark lines of charcoal brought the relief clear, every detail as if it had been etched into his own memory. There was no doubt a viscousness to his appearance that made his nose twitch in distaste. Yet at the same time, he knew with a grim certainty that this man was indeed the evil that plagued them, and had brought an end to some of his dearest friends.
Phil could not help but feel a sense of urgency as he gazed into that picture, noting the way that the smooth lines almost moved the more he watched. He fancied that the eyelids blinked every now and then, and that the nostrils upon his narrow nose would grow and shrink as he breathed in and out. The mocking triumph upon that face was almost a malleable presence, one that infuriated the rabbit beyond even what Charles in his defence of this man could have accomplished.
With anger boiling up through his blood, the rabbit finally declared to that face, “I will stop you. You will never set foot in this land again.”
“Oh really?” the words echoed towards him, and it took the rabbit a moment to realize just where they had come from. They had emerged from the curved lips of the face of Zagrosek, resounding from the canvas as if the man were standing in the room with him. Yet, somehow, Phil could not bring himself to find this in the least bit peculiar.
“I will!” he declared hotly, stamping his hind paw upon the carpet. The effect upon the picture did not appear to be significant, for the drawing was as it had always been, of Zagrosek’s triumphant grin. Phil blinked a few times, staring at that face, but it did not appear to be moving any longer. Had he simply imaged it all? That made the most sense.
Turning back to his desk, he tried to recall what it was that he had been intending to do. Rubbing his forepaws together, he glanced back once at the cage, the scent of his own vomit was rather pungent and strong. It seemed like an hour ago suddenly to him that he’d been standing over the hay and calling up his previous meal. The taste was still upon his tongue, a foul stickiness that coated his mouth.
Hopping over to the bookcase, along the wall next to the mantle, he opened one of the bottom drawers with a forepaw. The handles had been modified long ago so that he might use them with ease. Inside was a large bowl and a ewer that contained a bit of wine. Before Rupert had been sent here by his Father, he’d needed to use the bowl to drink with, as he could not trust his clumsy paws to pour wine into even the widest of mazers. He still kept it, and Rupert made sure the ewer was filled with fresh wine, though he only used it rarely.
Taking the ewer between his paws, he bit the cork between his teeth and pulled it free with a pop. Tipping the ewer, the spout over the bowl, he watched as the clear but fragrant liquid began to pool in the basin. He then set the ewer back on its base, and worked the cork back in as best he could. Leaning over the bowl, he lapped at the wine, washing the foul taste of his stomach acids from his mouth. He did not drink too much though, as he knew better than to put alcohol in an empty stomach, but it was all that he had to clean his muzzle with. When Rupert returned, he would ask for some milk to soothe his belly, but this was what he had for the moment.
“You should eat something with wine,” a voice called over his shoulder.
Phil spun around on his hind paws, eyes suddenly alert, though there was still no other in the room with him. The voice was unfamiliar as well. It was firm, and there was a sarcastic taint to it, but it was not one that he knew. “Who’s there?” he called out, though hoping against hope that there would not be an answer.
For several moments, the only sound he could hear was the beat of his heart. And then, with grim finality a response came. “I think you know.”
Phil steeled himself, stepping slowly across the carpet, his paws falling softly upon the thick weave. Bit by bit he worked his way around his desk until he was gazing once more at the picture of Zagrosek. The face was still as it had been drawn, and it made no move as he watched it. Phil breathed deeply several times, scanning that picture for any differences, but he could find none. Strangely enough, he did not find himself burdened by the usual instinctual fear that had rendered him nearly incapable of motion on so many previous occasions. He thought back to the only time he had ever been close to the man whose face he gazed upon, that carriage ride back from Lorland the day he met Apadares of Whales. Wessex had been there, and had seen Zagrosek’s face within the leaves. Phil however had been nearly unable to move towards the forest with his friend, and only with great strength of will had he made the journey.
But here, before this image, an image that he could have sworn had just spoken to him, he felt none of that. So it was with curiosity, and great trepidation, that he hopped forward, closer. Reaching out a paw, he touched the canvas, feeling the firm rasp of the paper beneath his pads. He was careful not to tear it with his claws as he rubbed across it, even over the charcoal lines of Zagrosek’s face. Yet when he touched those lines, he felt as if he had just stepped in ice water, and so quickly drew back his paw. The face seemed almost to mock him and his sensitivity, though it was the same expression that had always been there.
Phil glowered at the picture, his heart beginning to boil once more. He wanted to spit upon the man’s face, but he knew he needed this picture to present at the trial. With a bit of venom upon his tongue, he did cast out a few words, “I will stop you. I will make you pay for what you did to Apadares, and to Wessex.” After a moment’s silence in which his thoughts trailed back to the Spring, though he could not remember much of it himself, he added, “And to me.”
The face remained impassive, unperturbed by this latest declaration. Clearly it had all been in his imagination, Phil said to himself. It was after all, just a picture. Turning back to his desk, he hopped up in his chair, and sought out a bit of parchment. The special pen that he used was right before him, and he picked the end up in his teeth. Leaning forward, he pressed the shade on the lantern he kept at his desk back, casting more light over the parchment.
“You won’t do a thing,” suddenly sounded from his left.
Phil dropped the pen upon the table and spun about in his chair, eye scanning the room quickly, but as before, there was nobody about. Glancing down at the picture, he saw that it was still unchanged. Yet the picture was at his left, and he knew that was where the voice had come from. His eyes were fixed upon it, his ears erect, and flesh twitching in apprehension. He had never been prone to hearing voices before, certainly not like this. A part of him cried out to flee this place, or to destroy the picture, but the other half berated him for being afraid of a picture. First leaves and now this, was there not any bit of man left within him?
The rabbit refused to believe that the man that he had once been was completely gone. Instead, Phil turned once more to his desk, picking up the pen between his teeth. He set the end in the small bottle of ink that was set firmly in place, and began to trace out the characters to his wife. He had long grown accustomed to writing this way, and while he could no longer pen the calligraphy expected in such a personal entreaty, his figures were both clear and delicate.
“He screamed like a woman when I killed him,” the voice announced in flat tones.
Phil’s concentration was broken, and a huge ink smear spread across the parchment. He had stood up in his seat so fast that he’d nearly knocked the bottle of ink over as well. The pen still clutched tightly between his teeth, he turned his focus upon the drawing as quickly as possible, hoping to catch the face in the act of motion. But Zagrosek’s face was firm and still, though one thing caused Phil’s heart to tremble even worse than before. The face was staring back at him.
“No. This can’t be,” Phil stammered, the pen falling to the desk as he spoke, the quill landing upon the parchment and further smearing it.
“Why not?” the face suddenly asked, moving slightly, becoming completely fluid. The lips curled into that smile again once it had finished speaking.
Phil leaped back from his desk, cowering against the side of the lounge, his eyes wide, and body nearly paralysed in fear. His flesh shook so hard that he had a hard time keeping his paws from digging into the carpet, but steady himself he did. His voice was broken, the tone fluctuating wildly in his panic. “You’re just a drawing. This is nothing more than stress and too much to drink.” Though he spoke the words, he did not believe them.
The face twisted in whimsical curiosity. “You think wishing this to be no more than a product of your imagination will make it any less real? Make me any less real? Is that how you plan on stopping me, willing me away?” He snorted derisively at that, and then his face returned to its arrogant smile once again.
Phil twitched, his body still shaking in terror. He kept trying to back up, but was already pressed against the lounge. “I will stop you,” he said again, though he spoke more to himself than to anything else.
The picture of Zagrosek’s face did not appear in the least bit concerned. “You? You could not stop me even if I told you how. Wessex thought much as you do, and we both know how that ended for him.”
“I will not fail! You will be mine!” Phil cried out, much louder this time. He felt the anger growing within him. His fears were slowly subsiding to his rage, one borne from the terrible wounds this man had inflicted upon him.
“Of course, you continue to believe that. And now you will believe something else.” Zagrosek’s smile grew even crueler then if it were possible. “I am nothing but a bad dream, nothing that a good soak and some pleasant wine won’t cure.”
“I will stop you if I must expend every last breath to do so.”
The smile narrowed then, and the head leaned forward. “Forget.”
Phil jumped back with a start then and blinked several times. He was no longer cowering beside the lounge, but sitting at his desk. The sharp tang of ink came to him immediately, and he saw that he had been laying within it. His thoughts were terribly clouded, and as he sent them backwards, only vague images came to him. Somehow, he had fallen asleep while writing his letter to his wife, and had knocked the ink over, and across his arms, and part of his face. Wiping at it with his paw, he lamented that it would not come free so easily.
Glancing over at the canvas, he saw that Zagrosek’s face was still turned back against the wall, hidden from view, just as he had left it. Phil breathed a sigh of relief, though he did not quite know why. However, he was going to have to have himself cleaned up, no getting around that. Though he did not like heading to the baths at this hour of the night, he had little choice in the matter.
And it was just then that he heard the door to his chambers open once again. Turning in his seat, showing the black streaked face to his retainer, he saw Rupert enter, giving him a very distraught look. “I must have fallen asleep while writing. I’ve been under far too much stress of late. I’m sorry to have done all this to you.”
Rupert nodded and came over to his side quickly. “Can you prepare my things? I would like to head to the baths right this moment to get this ink out of my fur before it sets too much.” He then glanced back at his desk. Cleaning that up would not be too difficult for Rupert to manage later. However, what he had been working on caught his eye. “Oh, I was preparing a missive to be sent to Lady Clover at Lorland. I need her to come to Metamor first thing tomorrow morning. Can you send that message? I’ve only made a mess of myself.”
Rupert nodded his ponderous head once more, and set about gathering Phil’s cleaning supplies, the various brushes and gels needed to make his fur white once more. Phil just waited quietly, hopping from his desk, and making his way rather quickly towards the front entrance. Though he could not quite put his paw on why, he would be extremely happy to soak himself in the warmth of the baths that night.
Popping her eyes open, Jessica saw that the light fell across the pages differently than it had before. Glancing over towards the window out across her balcony she could see the Eastern horizon brightening, the skyline of mountains beginning to take on their characteristic winter glow. The white-capped peaks grew darker, the last of the stars fading from view as the sky above turned to warm blue in the dawning twilight. Along the edge of each mountain summit was a brightening line, showing the contours in even starker relief than during the day. With a bit of chagrin, the hawk realised that she’d slept through the night upon her perch, bent over Wessex’s notes midway between her normal slightly human self and the untamable red-banded hawk.
Righting herself, she took note of the hour by a quick glance to the small clock set upon a stool in one corner of her small quarters. It was only nine, another hour before dawn at this time of the season. When had she last glanced at its finely carved face? She could not quite recall. The clock itself had been a gift from her master Wessex many years ago. The winding mechanism was designed so that she might be able to easily manipulate it with her talons, a fact that she had long since grown accustomed too.
There were still occasions she wished for real hands, such as in reading the mage’s papers – turning them with talons was difficult. She took a deep breath, her eyes staring down past her beak at the pages. Just where had she been in them at any rate? Doubtless she would need to reread the entire page just to make sure she understood it well enough. Taking just a moment to preen herself beneath one wing, she started to read from the beginning once more
Jessica blinked as she tried to take her thoughts back to that day. She had spent most of it with Weyden of course. They’d gone to the Lothanasi temple shortly after midday for the celebrations there. They were sombre and very dignified, and for the first time since she had known him, she knew that Weyden felt as if he’d belonged in that temple. His acceptance of her faith, and adoption of her ways filled her with secret delight, and she could not help but crack her beak slightly in an avian grin at the thought.
Yet that morning things had been far different. Weyden had not accompanied her on the beginning of that day. Instead she had gone to her master’s chambers along with his apprentices, and they had exchanged gifts, as was traditional for them. She had given him an ornate scroll case containing a map of the known world, and he had given her a book of magical instruction, one that he himself had studied from when he had become a journeyman many years ago. She had never seen the boy happier than that morning amongst his students.
Blinking slightly, she glanced back at the page. It was clear that the night he referred to was the last night he ever slept. How long had he lived beyond penning these words? How long had her master known that he might not survive? And just what had he been doing when he was killed? Not even Matthias could tell her that.
Her eyes however did not go back to that page just then, but instead to the small note that had laid amongst the pages when she’d found them. Somehow, it had been jostled about when she’d removed those pages from the cache, so she had not seen it until after she’d left the Duke’s presence. Though he had not known who could possibly have found that faux stone, she still felt as if the note were addressed to her. Unable to help herself, she began to read it once more
Jessica nodded her head softly as she stroked the page with one wingtip. She knew now how true the words that Wessex had written were. He had been her father in more ways than her natural parent had been, and she was proud to say that, no matter how he may have died. Though in her reduced state her voice was barely understandable as speech, spoke she did, unable to withhold her voice any longer. “I will take up your task, my master. You have been my father as well, and I love you as a daughter would her father. I wish you were here.”
The page did not respond though, as she knew it wouldn’t. The window pane rattled slightly as the winds increased, coming over the mountain tops, snow blowing this way and that across her own balcony. Her attention was drawn to it, as she watched the Eastern sky continue to brighten. It would be dawn ere long, and she would no longer need the lantern to read by. Peering at the flickering lantern, she could see that it was running low on oil, but had enough left to see her through to the sun’s rise over the mountain peaks.
The distraction had been a welcome one, as her thoughts were once more clear. Peering back at the page she’d fallen asleep while reading, she continued
Jessica leaned back a moment and considered that so far. She had reached the end of the page, so it was the natural time to reflect. Could the priest have been that Bishop that had accompanied the Patriarch, Vinsah? No, even when he’d been human he’d been a thin man, almost lithe. Now he was a raccoon, or so she’d heard from one of the apprentices who happened to be Patildor. It must be another, but of course she would have no notion as to who it might be.
And as for the fair folk, she knew even less of them than did her master. Wessex must have planned on speaking to Raven at some point. Jessica took comfort in that, as she could easily ask the Lothanasa and it would not appear remarkable in the slightest. She would need to do such later, but for now she wished to finish reading Wessex’s notes. Jessica had already learned so much from them, but this last she knew to be the most critical. And so, leaning forward, she flipped the page over with her beak, and continued reading
Jessica leaned back at that, her eyes gone extremely wide. The kangaroo had been of inestimable help to Wessex throughout this mystery. In fact, her master had spoke of his help earlier in the notes, and not just in that he gave the boy the Sudenhart Arcanum. So why would Habakkuk join this ghastly crew in haunting her master’s dreams? Needing to know, she immediately continued reading
Jessica set the page down then. There was more writing left, but she could not see it anymore. Shifting upwards into her morphic and nearly human form, she hopped off the perch and continued to gaze down in disbelief at the papers. How had she come to be in Wessex’s dreams, and as a sacrifice no less? The thought of some darkness plunging a dagger into her chest to tear out her heart made her whole body quiver in fright.
Shaking her head to clear it, she found that it would not leave her quite so easily. Jessica gave out a sharp cry of distress, and nearly jumped towards the door to the balcony. Plunging out into the snow, she leaned over the railing, her wingtips pressing into the snow. The cupola over the balcony kept most of the snow off the stone terrace, though her talons still scraped through the soft fluff. The Eastern mountains were shining even more brightly with the dawn sun, even though she could not yet see it. Metamor lay below her still shrouded in darkness, only the burning of torches throughout the city any hint to the life below.
Lifting herself to the railing, Jessica jumped out into the air, letting her wings propel her upwards. The air was cold, but it held her aloft and it filled her mind. She knew it was dangerous for her to fly at night, her eyes were not designed for that, but she needed to be airborne just then. Gliding towards the mountains, she endeavoured to greet the sun as it rose. This was not a day to dwell on dreams.
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