Wagging Tongues Will - Part XVII

It was Thulin’s deal, and so the man had the first bid. They were seated as they had been in the morning, their drinks to one side. He had to admit they were not foolish enough to drink mead or ale as some gamblers did. How could they ever watch the level of their glass if they were inebriated? The first three cards were dealt face up, and he saw that he had the Two and Four of Coins as well as the Six of Swords. A small wound for little reward should he continue betting upon the hand he suspected.

Glancing to his left he saw that Kaleas had the Priest of Swords, Knight of Hearts, and the Ace of Swords showing. Priest High perhaps, but that it was the Priest of Swords caught his interest. Marin had the Queen, Knave and Seven of Spades, a possible Flush, though Marin would follow his lead if need be. Thulin himself displayed the King of Hearts, its sword thrust through his head in suicide, and the Ten of Coins and Spades. Good reward perhaps, but it would ruin some opportunity.

After the remaining cards had been dealt, the man glanced at them each in turn. He had the Seven of Coins, but also the Knave of Hearts and King of Spades. King high perhaps, but he suspected that at least one other amongst them had a pair. Turning over his first three cards, he pressed them towards the centre of the table and shook his head. “I fold.”

Kaleas’s eyebrows raised slightly at that, he then tossed on another coin, a small bronze piece, and slid his Knight of Hearts across the table. Thulin flipped the top card over, and slid it back, revealing an Eight of Swords. A possible Flush he realized, though it took a great deal of confidence for a man to toss out a showing card. He glanced to Marin, eyes catching the young man’s in an instant. He flicked his gaze back to Kaleas briefly, and then covered the gesture by taking a small sip from his goblet.

His servant noticed the gesture, and after a moment considering his own hand, he slipped one of his hidden cards to Thulin, and placed a bronze coin upon the pile. It bounced in the air, before falling and landing squarely on the man’s own initial bid. Krabbe listened to the crackle of the fire, as the trickle of smoke from the hearth grew in intensity, the snapping and popping more excited. The room itself felt as if it were shifting, though he doubted any but himself noticed the tilt to the cider within their goblets.

Thulin glanced at the man with a quick furtive gesture, and then laid down one bronze coin himself. He did not turn in any cards, but chose to remain standing with his current allotment. The man glanced at those three turned over, the King of Hearts and Ten of Coins and Spades. He knew that Thulin could have only at most three Kings, but he could have all four Tens. Yet there was something in the configuration of the cards that made him think otherwise. Turning to Kaleas, he set down several coins, equal to the man’s entire bet so far. “I would like to buy your hand.”

Kaleas appeared quite surprised by that, but pushed his hand over to the man. “I offer you my hand.”

The man placed his hand upon the cards and smiled warmly. “I take this hand and make it mine.” Kaleas shrugged then and leaned back in his seat, drinking from his goblet. The smoke from the hearth was curling upwards along the roof, settling just over their table. Glancing at the three hidden cards, he smiled as he saw the Priest of Hearts, and the Eight of Coins and Spades. Full House, Eights over Priests. Sufficient to defeat a Flush should Marin have that.

Marin smiled slightly, and then tossed out some more coin onto the pile. “I’ll keep bidding.”

Thulin looked from one to the other, and then turned his top three cards over. “I fold.” He leaned back then, watching the man known to them as Krabbe fairly closely.

The man tossed out an equal number of coins and nodded. “I call. Display your hand.”

Marin turned over the Priest and Knight of Spades, plus a Five of Hearts. Nearly a Royal Flush, a most impressive hand indeed, but it was not so. But a Five Flush lost to a Full House, and so he smiled as he turned his own cards over. “It looks as if I have won with my bought hand.”

Marin laughed a moment as he drunk from his cider, waving at the coins. “I will win them back from you both later,” he declared.

“Now we draw for the pile,” Kaleas pointed out, motioning for Thulin to pass the deck to them. “You bought my hand, so I draw first, correct?” When the man nodded, Kaleas lifted the top card and turned it over, revealing a Six of Coins.

Krabbe smiled broadly then. “Perhaps I will make some profit from you this time.” He was wincing inwardly though, but refused to let it show. Above him the chandeliers swayed precipitously back and forth, their ends being drawn towards their table and their game, while the cider in his cup threatened to spill over the edge. He covered that by taking a quick drink, emptying the goblet of its contents.

And then, he pressed his fingers to the top card, and flipped it over. He let his face fall then, as Kaleas laughed heartily at what he thought was his luck, arms drawing the coins to his side of the table. For he had turned over an Ace of Spades, which in the game they played was the lowest possible card. A sharp pop from the fire nearly made their heads spin, while the servant who had been attending the fire clutched at where the coal had leapt upon his hand and burnt the flesh. But the moment passed quickly, and soon, the fire subsided once more.

“Well, I suppose it is my deal then,” the man remarked, taking the cards and reshuffling the deck. He felt Thulin’s eyes upon him, and returned the gesture, smiling warmly to him. “I’m sure you’ll win a hand soon.”

Thulin nodded, leaning forward, hands crossed before him. “I’ve no doubt of that.”

The sun had long since passed beyond the Western Mountains, and so Phil had abandoned his perch at the windowsill, the lights of the city unable to pierce the distant wood. So the rabbit focussed instead on his duties, reading over reports that had come to him in the last few days, reports he’d failed to turn his attention to because of Charles’s betrayal. Behind him Rupert continued to slowly straighten the apartment out, and prepare it for the arrival of Clover.

They rarely both spent a night together at the Keep, and so all of her things were still at Lorland. Only when he was with her, did he dare risk sleeping in a real bed and not a cage. To date he’d never risen simply a rabbit when she had been at his side. It was comforting knowledge, about the only he had left anymore. Without her, he doubted he’d be able to keep himself from slipping back into that feral state, rendered nothing more than an animal. And how could he let that happen, for clearly the enemies of Metamor would triumph then.

But if he did not finish his other paperwork, he could miss moves that the enemy was making while he was distracted with Charles’s betrayal. That was something that he should never have let happen, despite his fears. When he’d been a sea captain for Whales nothing like this had ever been able to draw him from the rigours of his duty. Perhaps the animal side of his nature was becoming more intractable over the years? He shuddered at the thought, and kept his focus upon the documents before him. He was still a man where it was most important, and he would not be distracted.

Although, he could not help but admit to himself that Charles’s betrayal had hurt him like very little ever had during his career as a seaman. He had worked alongside the rat for years first in the Writer’s Guild, and then as an advisor and commander for the Long Scouts. And now the rat had sided with the enemy, and protected the Patriarch’s murderer. He remembered the time a commander of the Fleet of Whales had tried to give away the secret of the Fire, and he’d been forced to hunt down the man who had once been his teacher, and destroy him. But then he’d had the backing and trust of the Nation of Whales. Now he had the trust and support of no one. The loneliness was far too palpable.

A knock from the makeshift door brought his ears up, and his body spun about in the seat so quickly he nearly fell from the chair. His eyes were eager, hoping against hope that this was his wife, the sweet Lady Clover come to rescue him from the animal that lurked around the corners of his mind. Rupert obediently went to the table and pulled it inwards, his massive body blocking the rabbit’s view.

But when he stepped aside, pulling the table completely back from the door, his heart leapt up in exultation and he hopped across the floor to greet his beloved, whose expression was ragged, but content. She greeted him with open arms, smiling her broad lapine face to him, holding him close. He felt as if he could lose himself within her fur, his relief was so great. Yet he steeled himself and pressed back, siting upon his haunches as Rupert sealed the doorway once more.

“My Lady! Thank you so much for coming. I have needed you so.”

Clover nodded and gently held her hand at his shoulder. “I was glad to come, Phil. I’m sorry it took so long, but one of the carriage wheels snapped while we rode; there was a large stone in the road beneath the snow that we could not see.”

Phil shook his head and held her close. “I understand. I’m just glad you are finally here.”

Clover glanced about the room, and then at the door. “What happened here?”

“I’ve been having some problems. Something terrible has happened, and I am all alone in my position. I needed your support right now.”

“You have it,” Clover said, her voice firm. “You always have it.”

Phil nodded, and pressed himself close to her once more. “Thank you, my love. Just stay here for a few days more. I will return to Lorland with you when this is all over, and we can rest there for a time in quiet.”

“Of course,” Clover rubbed her paws firmly over his back, almost petting. “The rest of my things are being brought up from the carriage now. I will stay with you as long as you need me.”

Rupert had of course discreetly slipped into his own chambers to allow the two rabbits the moment alone together. And they took advantage of it, holding each other in their arms for quite some time without saying a word. Phil was glad for this, for her support, and for her presence. He felt as if he had the strength after all to see to it that others would believe him. And they would, he’d see to that.

Jessica was rereading Wessex’s notes when she heard the knock at her quarters. It had taken her most of the day in flight to finally be able to bring herself back to her quarters to continue what she had started. She’d found a few unfortunate mice along the way to eat, and so only needed a short rest before she had been able to return to the notes. Yet the hawk had been unable to finish them, merely starting over from the beginning and going through them again. Those final pages still haunted her, for she did not yet wish to know why she had ended up in her former master’s dreams.

But when the knock came, she took the pages in one talon and pushed them beneath her cabinet. Hopping over to the door, she pulled it open again with one talon, and was surprised to see a fox beyond it. He was injured, with a bandage over his hand, and across one ear on his head. The ear was clearly missing. It took her a moment to recognize Misha Brightleaf, one of the greatest warriors and scouts that Metamor had.

“Misha Brightleaf?” she asked in confusion, for there had never been a time in her life that this man had ever come knocking upon her door. Few men ever had in fact, and only recently had Yonson’s chief guard Weyden begun to show an interest in her. The thought of him brought temporary brightness, but it was quickly squelched by the sight of her guest.

“I see you remember me, Apprentice Jessica.”

“Journeyman,” she corrected, rather proud of the distinction.

“I’m sorry,” Misha apologized, inclining his head respectfully. “Journeyman then. I usually don’t hold to such titles, forgive me.”

“It is all right. What do you want?”

Misha appeared uncertain, but finally said, “We need to talk. I have just spent most of the evening talking with my sister. She’s a wizard of the Fifth Circle of the Guild of Marigund.”

Jessica felt her eyes pressing against her head rather forcefully, threatening to fall out upon the floor. “Your sister?”

“Yes. Now, Duke Thomas has told me about what happened to your master, so I consulted with her to see what she thinks. Now, I know you have been searching his quarters.”

She nodded slightly, still trying to appreciate what she’d been told of the fox’s sister. To have a sibling upon the fifth circle of the Guild of Marigund was simply extraordinary! Finally, she realized that the fox was no longer speaking. “Yes, I have been going over them.” She did not wish to mention the notes. It was her responsibility after all.

“I need to know if you managed to find anything. Did he leave any notes behind? Anything we could use to track down his killers?”

She knew it was wrong to lie, but she could not just give up those papers. “Nothing of any use to anybody else.”

Misha stared at her for a few moments, and then narrowed his gaze. “May I come in?”

Jessica nodded, and stepped back from the doorway, letting the fox enter her humble quarters. “I’m sorry I don’t have anything I can offer you, Sir Brightleaf.”

He waved his left paw once. “Please, it is just Misha.” He then turned and closed the door behind himself. “And if you are going to a be a truly great battle mage, you need to hide your feelings better. You found something, didn’t you?”

Jessica tensed, and then sighed. She nodded, and reached beneath the cabinet with one talon, and pulled out the thick stack of notes. “My master hid these in a secret cache behind his desk. I found them yesterday, but I didn’t tell anybody because I was afraid Phil and Thomas would take them and I’d never see them again. Wessex was my master, and he wanted me to have these.”

Misha leaned forward and picked up the notes, leafing through them quickly, but not stopping to read them. “You say you don’t want Phil to take these from you? Well, I will make sure that he does not know of these for now. We tell people what they need to know, but we make something up if they want to know where we got it. At least until you can make copies of all this for yourself. Is that acceptable?”

Jessica blinked at the fox several times. She had heard many stories about this man, but nothing that would have led her to believe he’d so easily defy his superiors. “Yes, thank you! Thank you so very much, this means a great deal to me.”

“Good, I probably couldn’t understand half of what is in this anyway,” Misha declared, setting the pages on her table. “Which is why I’m going to need you there with me to explain them to my sister tomorrow morning.”

“Your sister?” Jessica asked, her eyes bulging again.

“That’s right. I want you to meet my sister, and I want you to tell her what you know of Wessex’s studies. You must not tell her any names or any groups that may be associated with this though, that would be far too dangerous. Will you do this?”

Jessica looked at him as if he’d asked if she wanted the sun to rise tomorrow. “Of course! It would be an honour to meet her!”

“Good!” Misha smiled, patting her on the wing with his good paw. “Then it is settled. Tomorrow at eight o’clock we shall speak to my sister. But for now, I am going to need your help.”

“What do you need?”

“I want to go over Wessex’s quarters myself. There may be something there you missed. I’ve been trained to find little secrets. Have you read his notes?”

She touched them gently with the short claws at the end of the elongated fingers that made up her wings. “I’ve read most of it yes. Some of it is hard to understand.”

“Good, I’ll want you to tell me about as much as you can from them. We have a lot to do until eight o’clock.”

Jessica blinked once. “You mean you want to spend the entire night searching through this?”

The fox nodded, his face calm. “If it takes that long, then yes. I could not sleep now anyway, not knowing what I know. Will you be up to it?”

Jessica paused for a moment, looking once to the fox, and then down at the notes. They were her responsibility, but sharing that for even a little bit did not seem so bad, especially since she knew he would not take them away from her. Though she barely knew him, she knew deep down that she could trust this fox to keep his word. Finally, she nodded her head, golden eyes alive. “Yes, I am.”

Misha smiled broadly. “Good! Let’s get started.”

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