Wagging Tongues Will - Part XIX

Are you ready?” Misha asked as he watched the hawk fidget, her claws cutting holes into the carpet she was standing on. Her eyes darted about the room, noting the warm fire crackling in the hearth, the windows closed against the predawn chill, and the fox who stood by his desk, his left paw trailing across the gem.

“I’m ready,” Jessica answered, preening herself for a moment to settle down.

“Don’t be nervous you’ll enjoy talking to Elizabeth. Just think of her as my big sister.”

Jessica’s head popped back up, and her large golden eyes fixed upon the vulpine with incredulity. “Your sister is a wizard of the fifth circle of one of the largest Mages Guild in the Midlands,” she countered gouging even larger holes as she shifted around.

Misha laughed as he picked up the gem he needed to cast the spell that would bring them together. “They aren’t the largest guild on the continent. They just act like it.”

And then the gem gave a soft flare and Misha’s room faded around them, dissolving into the familiar surroundings of the study of Misha’s sister Elizabeth. Jessica watched in rapt amazement as the powerful magics brought them leagues to a city she had never seen before in her life. Never before in her life had she even had a chance to leave the Metamor valley, let alone travel magically to one of the more important centres for magic in the Midlands.

Though it was still night at Metamor, in Marigund the sun had already risen. Despite this the window was shut and the drapes drawn tight, preventing any natural light from pervading her study. Several lamps scattered about lit the room with an even white light, removing any shadows from the floors.

Standing just before the curtains was Misha’s sister Elizabeth. But instead of the loose and informal dress of the previous evening, she had garbed herself in a long, official guild robe. The robe itself covered her completely from the neck down and was a dark blue in colour. Along every hem was a silver filigree woven in tight minuscule patterns. Her hair was carefully coiffured into a bun on the back of her head.

At her side was a man who stood several inches shorter than her. He was garbed in a dark green robe that was even more intricately decorated than hers, with both silver and gold, and even threads of mitheral. Upon his right cheek he bore a small tattoo a swirl of blue and brown. There was an air of authority trapped within his frame, and from the set of his eyes as he caught sight of them, impatience as well.

“Misha,” Elizabeth said in a formal tone and pointed to her companion. “I’d like you to meet Guild Master Demarest. Master Demarest I present to you Misha Brightleaf, knight of the Axe and bow, and third born of the house of Baraslough.”

Misha was startled to here his family’s name in the old tongue. It had gone out of common use centuries ago, and only had been used in the rites of naming. Even his brother Brian with his long string of titles had never considered using it. In Marigund only the most conservative and narrow minded still used the old titles everyone else had long ago changed to the common tongue. He realized that by using the old title she was warning him about the Guild Master.

The man gazed at Misha and Jessica as if he was examining some animal he wished to purchase at the market. Misha could well imagine what Demarest might be thinking. Here he was dressed in the finest clothes of a High Guild mage and he was standing before a scruffy fox man clothed in an old shirt and pants and a over-sized hawk who wasn’t wearing anything at all.

The fox gave a deep bow first to his sister then to the guild master, the direct opposite of what protocol called for. He doubted that Demarest would miss the slight. In fact he suspected the Guild Master would keep a running catalogue of them for later perusal and recrimination if it came to it. “It’s a pleasure to meet you Master Demarest. I’d like you to meet Jessica, senior mage of the Order of the Star.”

Jessica gave the avian equivalent of a bow. “It is a great honour, sir, to meet you.”

The guild master returned the bows with a shallow one of his own. His annoyance did not seep through into his voice. Instead the words were carefully crafted to betray no feelings whatsoever. “I am here to discuss the supposed appearance of an extra-worldly manifestation know amongst scholars as a Shrieker.”

“Supposed?” Misha barked in surprise.

“Nothing has been proven to the satisfaction of the guild,” the guild leader countered as if lecturing a student.

Misha could feel his hackles rising. “What you mean is that you refuse to believe something as deadly could appear at Metamor and be so quickly defeated,” the fox shot back.

“Now children,” Elizabeth interrupted, holding her hands before her. “We’re here to try and stop a great evil not bicker like little kids.” She flashed both Misha and Demarest a stern glance. Misha felt his tail itching to wag in frustration, while Demarest appeared chagrined to be so reprimanded by a colleague.

“I have these drawings which show the pieces of the spell that was used to summon the Shrieker,” Jessica said, pointing to the pouch slung across her chest. Balancing upon one foot she pulled several pieces of parchment from the pouch, and spread them across the floor before her. “I can personally vouch for its accuracy.”

One of Demarest’s eyebrows rose at that. “Personally vouch?”

She nodded firmly, almost defiantly. “I was there to witness one of the failed castings.”

Misha took those pages from the ground and spread them out on the desk next to one of the lamps. He touched them as little as possible, and averted his eyes from the symbols depicted on the paper. He knew very well that even a second hand drawing could retain much of the power of a casting.

“For safety I have kept the drawing spread out over the three pages,” the hawk mage explained. “As you can see each circle of the Symphony is on a separate page, and only three chevrons are drawn upon each page. They fit together symmetrically as indicated.”

Demarest approached the table and glanced down at the pages. His eyes went wide in surprise as he caught sight of the symbols, but he managed to retain his calm fairly well. “This second circle is clearly blood magic. Of a rather foul kind in fact. This does not appear to be a summoning spell per se, more like a spell of opening. A very powerful one in fact, but it does not on the face of it indicate that a Shrieker would be involved. But there are strange curves between each of these symbols that imply that the mage who cast this spell is revoking a sealing spell he had already cast. That is peculiar.”

Jessica nodded slightly. “Yes. The mage who cast this had sealed that section of the wall to prevent any Underworld creatures from escaping from the tear that had already been made.”

Demarest glanced once to her. “Are you saying that the tear had already been there and he’s just letting it loose?”

She nodded again. “Yes, and tearing it even wider in the process.”

The Guild Master frowned quite visibly then, even as he glanced at the three pages. “These chevrons themselves are extremely bizarre. I’ve never seen anything of their sort. Of what importance did they play?”

Jessica glanced once to Misha, but the fox nodded. “They were the same symbols that had been on the base of the censer that was responsible for making this tear.”

Demarest’s head snapped up then, and he glanced once at Elizabeth, her own eyes going wide. “What censer?”

Both Jessica and the fox were quite taken aback at the sudden fear in the man’s voice and eyes. “It was one we found when one of our nobles tried to overthrow Duke Thomas. We brought it to the Keep after dousing it with Whales’s anti-magic powder, but it tricked one of the mages here into lighting the candle upon it. I never saw it myself. There were demon carvings and gems festooned all across its surface, and on the base were those nine chevrons.”

Demarest turned his back upon the pages, pushing them together. He muttered an incantation beneath his breath and drew an arcane symbol over his chest. “Well,” he said, his voice suddenly strained, “it appears you are telling the truth. What happened to the censer?”

Jessica wondered what about that blasphemous object could have convinced the Guild Master so suddenly. Elizabeth herself was shaking slightly in her robe. “It was drawn into the tear that it left behind. It is no longer at Metamor, that is all I know.”

Demarest frowned as if he’d expected that. He paced back and forth several times. “Now, if that was responsible for opening the tear, how in the world is there still a Metamor?” Misha gasped at that, his face fixing suddenly. “What happened to the original spell?”

“It was destroyed,” Jessica replied. “There is no trace of it left.”

“Kyia even removed the corridor it was summoned in,” Misha added.

“That doorway is closed permanently,” the avian said. “Even the tear has been sealed.”

Demarest stopped pacing finally, his face ashen. “How was the spell destroyed?”

Jessica blanched slightly. “I have been told that once the Shrieker was killed, the spell was drawn into itself until it disappeared completely.”

“Good,” Demarest said firmly. “The death of a Shrieker could certainly accomplish that.” He turned to Elizabeth, whose own face was white still. “I want a guild meeting set for this afternoon with full membership, no exceptions.”

“That might be a bad idea,” Misha suggested.

Demarest gave the fox a haughty look. “Why?”

“There is more going on here then any of us can tell,” Elizabeth said. “The appearance of the censer is just a part of it.”

“What is this censer?” Misha asked. “You both seem to know of it.”

Demarest glanced to Elizabeth, and she nodded. “It’s supposed to simply be legend. Only the fair-folk know of its true origins, we can only guess. But it is rumoured to be over ten thousand years old.”

Both Misha and Jessica gaped at that. Elizabeth acknowledged their surprise with a tilt of the head, but continued. “There are two other items that are related to it, forged at the same time and for some purpose we can only speculate upon. There is a sword and a dias. They have periodically turned up in strange parts of the world, and always leave terrible chaos in their wake. They move between the worlds in a way we do not understand, rippling and tearing at the fabric between them as they move. That is why Shriekers often emerge in their passage, as did at Metamor, and the last time one of those three were seen.”

“When was that?” Misha queried, the fur on the back of his neck eager to stand on end.

“Roughly five hundred years ago,” Demarest cut in. “Somewhere on the Southern continents the dias emerged and unleashed hundreds of Shriekers. The mage guilds of the South united for the only time in their disparate history to fight back the scourge. Afterwards the dias had disappeared once more.”

“So why would one of them appear at Metamor?” Misha pressed.

“Metamor is a nexus of magics. In fact, they are so interwoven that they nearly tear at the fabric between the worlds themselves. Even the most inept mage could have pushed the censer to the point it tore an opening to the Underworld.” Demarest tapped his chin with one finger. “But you say that the censer has disappeared now, and the tear sealed. Perhaps there is nothing more to worry about after all.”

Misha shook his head firmly at that. “I do not think so. Jessica has located Wessex’s notes, and there are some disturbing things within them. Thankfully Wessex managed to hide the most important ones from whoever it was who killed him.”

“We were up most of the night discussing them,” the hawk added. “Evidently someone had been subtly attacking him for months through his dreams. They were slowly breaking down his resistance to opening that doorway.”

“Also,” Misha put in, “this wasn’t the first time the summoning was tried. The last time Wessex managed to stop himself in time.”

“It’s a certainty that whoever attacked Wessex is still out there, manipulating and maneuvering out of our sight,” Elizabeth remarked.

Demarest simply nodded in response, his face bearing a thoughtful moue. “Agreed.”

“And it is also very likely that whoever was manipulating Wessex knew of the censer, or was responsible for bringing it to Metamor.”

The Guild Master shook his head. “Utterly insane. Whoever this person may be is truly a psychotic.”

Misha was not going to disagree there, not after what he’d been told of the censer’s importance. “It’s no accident that the Patriarch is killed less then five miles from the spot where someone summons a Shrieker.”

“They have to be connected,” Demarest said shaking his head even more. “Perhaps the same person who killed the Patriarch is also responsible for bringing the censer to Metamor and manipulating Wessex into casting that spell. This must be dealt with care. We will restrict the number of people who know of this to a minimum.”

“Agreed,” Misha said. “It won’t be hard to keep it quiet here at Metamor.” Unsaid was the inference that the Guild wouldn’t keep it secret. Very little remained secret at the guild.

“I know of certain people who can be trusted,” the Guild master pointed out, reading between the lines. “They have proven useful in the past. And they can keep a secret.”

He turned to Elizabeth, “You haven’t spoken of this to anyone but Thadeus?”

The woman shook her head, “ No. I told only him.”

“Good,” he said through heavy breath and turned back to Misha and Jessica. “I will contact my people immediately. I want another meeting in one week. Until then you will stay in daily contact with Elizabeth,” The Guild Master gave a curt bow and took two steps backward. He vanished from sight like the illusion he was.

The three of them stood silently for a moment before Misha turned to his sister and asked, “Why does the guild always elect such pompous twits as their leaders?”

“I wouldn’t be too upset with him, Misha,” Elizabeth said softly. “When I told him what you said about the Shrieker, he was certain that it was just the over active imagination of some peasant.” She then reached to the back of her neck with both hands and undid the clasps holding the robe together. The thick blue robe billowed about her as she drew it off, setting the bulky fabric across the desk, revealing that underneath she had only worn a simple yellow and blue dress. “I think he hoped that you were wrong.”

“I wish we all were,” Jessica said. “I had a hard time believing this myself at first.”

Misha appeared slightly mollified, but still, the sourness pervaded his mood. “What will he do?”

“Just like he said. He has been using a group of people, a mix of fighters, thieves, and mages for several years. They’ll be looking into these matter very discreetly.”

“I assume they are not part of the Guild?” Misha asked.

“Of course. They’ve been his personal troubleshooters for over five years. They handled the Lightbringer madman who was killing people last year. The group did so quietly and without any fuss.”

Misha nodded, his mood beginning to brighten. “Probably stopped a full scale religious war. They must be good but can they be trusted?”

His sister nodded firmly without any hesitation. “Yes. They’ll keep quiet and their loyalty to him is unquestioned.”

Misha felt a sombre burn in his heart well into a terrible flame. “That bird’s loyalty to Metamor was unquestioned and he poisoned twenty guards in his betrayal.” His voice was cold, belying the terrible anger that smouldered within his chest. “And then he let Nasoj’s Lutins into the Keep.”

Elizabeth appeared hurt at that, though the pain in her face was as much for her brother as it was for herself. “I’m sorry, Misha. But I know Demarest’s men can be trusted. They have proved their loyalty countless times. If they were to betray him, they would have done so already. I assure you, that I know their loyalty as much as I know my own.”

Misha’s grey eyes fell to the floor. “I would have said the same thing about that bird only a month ago.”

Elizabeth sighed and glanced away, towards the curtains covering the doorway to the balcony. “Will you at least accept my word for now? I give you the only guarantee that I can. But we do need to trust somebody in this matter. They have helped to keep the peace until now.”

Misha appeared quite distraught but finally he nodded. “Yes, sister. I will take your word for now.”

The emotional impasse being breached, Jessica stepped forward slightly, her face firmly fixed upon the mage. “I don’t think we were properly introduced,” Jessica said in a bright voice. “My name is Jessica. You are Misha’s sister?”

Elizabeth smiled, and stepped forward gingerly wrapping her arms around the avian giving her a soft hug. Jessica’s eyes went wide at that and she shifted nervously about on her talons not sure how to respond.

“After the cold reception you received from the Guild Master I figured you deserve something more personal,” Elizabeth explained.

“Thank you lady Elizabeth,” the avian mage replied, blushing if a hawk could blush.

“No need to be so formal,” Misha said. “We’re all friends here.”

“Just call me Elizabeth or just Liz.”

“Thank you Liz,” she said and noticeably relaxed.

Elizabeth gave her a curious glance. “How long were you Wessex’s apprentice?”

“Almost seven years but he was teaching me for some three years before that,” the hawk explained. “And only a few months ago he made me a journeyman.”

Elizabeth appeared quite surprised. “How old are you?”

“Twenty two.”

“My daughter Heather is the same age,” she mused thoughtfully.

“Don’t let her age fool you Liz,” Misha interrupted, respect filling his voice. “I rate her guild level as nine perhaps eight. I saw her cast a full strength ice storm spell during the fight to retake the armoury.”

Elizabeth’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Impressive for someone so young.”

“Wessex was an excellent teacher. I doubt there is another mage of his skill in Metamor,” Jessica added ruefully.

“Given time I think you’ll match him,” the fox said encouragingly, favouring her with a smile.

Jessica’s beak cracked in a slight avian smile, but closed just as quickly. “I’m flattered,” the hawk said in a flustered tone.

“You cast an Ice storm spell,” Liz said in continued surprise. “How? It requires complex finger gestures.”

“I replaced the finger gestures with wing gestures plus more formulas that I recite mentally. Plus my claws are equal to arms. The trouble is I can only use one at a time.”

The woman nodded, her face demonstrating her amazement. “Ingenious. How do you handle Mertwin’s formulas?”

Jessica’s head drooped. “We never got to those. He was going to teach me that come the new year.”

Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed as she looked at the avian. Jessica stood as tall as she could under the gaze, but the knowledge who this woman was made her wings wilt slightly.

“I know that look Sis,” Misha said. “What are you thinking?”

“The Guild leader said we’re to meet every day,” she said, offering them both a pleasant grin. “He didn’t say what we were to do.”

She turned to the hawk. “If you’re willing Jessica, I can pick up where your mentor Wessex left off. I can help you with your studies.”

The hawk didn’t answer at first but hesitated visibly. The offer had come as a complete surprise to her. It was not something she would have ever thought to ask for herself.

“Take your time,” the woman said soothingly. “No hurry on your answer.”

“No,” Jessica came back with surprising conviction in her voice. Surprising even to herself. When had been the last time she had been this certain of anything? “We can start tomorrow. Somehow I feel I’ll need all the help I can get if we’re to beat the monster who killed Wessex.”

“We’ll get him,” Elizabeth added in a cold tone. “Of that I have no doubt.”

Clover was relaxing in the baths. Phil knew that she needed it, after her day of travel yesterday, and he did not begrudge her the time to soothe herself in the warm, steamy waters. He felt much surer of himself now just knowing that she was here at Metamor. It was still three hours before the trial would commence at noon, but he was determined to be ready to state his case. And so, with Rupert carrying the canvas just a few steps behind him, he made his way through the castle towards the Judicial Chambers.

Although the Keep often moved rooms about, they were generally in the same place. The Judicial Chambers themselves were in the central spire of the Lower Keep, below Duke Thomas’s official audience chambers in fact. Phil understood the significance of concentrating authority as closely as possible in a single place. He also knew that Thomas avoided these chambers as much as possible, a feeling he shared. He wished that he would be able to stay as far from those places of power as he could when possible. But now it was inevitable.

One of the guards opened the double doors before him and stepped back out of the way. Phil inclined his head respectfully to the soldier and then hopped on through. The Judicial Chambers were large, though the ceiling was not very high overhead. A solitary chair sat at the back of the room, from which the Prime Minister would render judgement. It was surrounded by walls on three sides, setting it off from the rest of the room. A second chair was set along one side of the room, this one with two smaller nooks set alongside it. Charles would be there, under guard at all times. And lastly, one more booth resided in the centre of the room. There the witnesses would stand and testify what they knew of the matter. He had a few of his own he wished to bring before them all so that they might see Matthias’s treachery.

Yet at the moment the chamber was completely empty. In another three hours it would be bustling with activity, as the trial would commence. Phil turned his attention to one of the doors set off the side of the chamber. He hopped towards it, followed by his towering retainer who opened the door for him when he reached it. Phil saw that the room beyond was empty, although a single lantern hung from the centre of the room and cast some light about. Rupert walked in first, set the canvas down, the face towards the wall. While the rabbit waited the former marine took a lighting candle and lit the other lamps spaced around the room's walls.

Phil then stepped inside, scanning the long bench along the far wall, and the two tables pressed against the near one. Before the tables was another bench, and Phil jumped up onto one, laying his forepaws on the hard wood. Rupert turned to face him, considering his charge with solemnity. The rabbit’s whiskers twitched as his mind ran over several things, but finally his mouth moved to speak. “I need you to inform several people that they will be needed here at noon. They are going to testify as to the identity of that man.” He nodded his head towards the picture, though the face was thankfully out of sight.

Rupert nodded firmly, though continued to gaze down at the rabbit expectantly.

“First and foremost is Sir Albert Bryonoth. I do not care how you manage it. He, or she, must be at this trial. Nobody has been in his presence as long as he has. His testimony is vital. If you must drag him kicking and screaming do so.” Rupert grimaced in discomfort at the thought of that. “I doubt he will force you to do so, but if you must, you must. I cannot prove my case without him.

“You will also need to find Sir Yacoub Egland. He was there as well, and fought with the man. Also Bishop Vinsah. He only saw him briefly, but judging by the reaction to the picture he had, I’d wager he recognized it.” Rupert snorted in amusement at that. The way the raccoon had scrambled to get away and the rictus of fear that had fixed itself upon his face could warrant no other explanation.

“Jessica may also prove useful. She has told us a great many things already. Clearly she was most intimately familiar with Wessex’s work.” Even the thought of his now dead friend made the rabbit wince. He would make the killer pay for his death, and pay in great measure.

Rupert was gazing at him with an anybody-else expression. Phil shook his head. “No, I do not think so. That should cover all that I can establish. It is unfortunate that we do not have more than this, but we must work with what we have.”

The great ape nodded firmly and then stepped across the space of the room and rested one hairy paw upon the rabbit’s shoulder for a moment. And then he was gone out the door, leaving the Prince of Whales alone in the side-chamber. He breathed deeply for a moment before hopping down from the bench. He nudged the door with his nose until it swung shut. The echo of the door settling into its frame reverberated for a few seconds, before it too faded, and all that was left was the subtle flickering of flames within the lamps.

“And just what do you hope to accomplish by this?” the voice rang from within the walls of the room. Phil started suddenly, his ears perfectly erect, his eyes scanning about.

“Who’s there?”

“Still you pretend ignorance?”

Phil hopped around, checking every nook and cranny, bending down and peering beneath the tables to see if somebody was hiding within the chamber. He knew that was impossible, as Rupert would never have left him alone with another who thought to hide themselves. But he looked anyway, not wanting to admit what he already knew to himself.

“Come now, you know who this is.”

Phil bristled further, his fur standing upon its ends. Finally, and with slow resolution, he turned upon his hind paws to face the canvas. “I know who you are.”

“And just who am I?”

“You are Krenek Zagrosek. You killed the Patriarch, and you are also ultimately responsible for Wessex’s death.”

“You flatter me,” the voice added, the tone mocking. “Now turn this damn picture around.”

Phil hopped up to the canvas, and pressed one paw upon the corner. With a quick spin he brought the man’s face to bear. The eyes were fixed upon the rabbit, cold malevolent eyes that took him with one sweep. “Oh, there you are. Now just what do you hope to accomplish by this?”

The rabbit glared as best he could at the face. “I will destroy your allies here at Metamor. And from there, I shall hunt you down and destroy you as well, and all those aligned with you. Your plans will come to naught, I will see to that!”

“But do you really think you have a chance against me? That little boy thought he could play with me. Where is he now?” Zagrosek smiled, favouring him with one of the most confident grins the rabbit could ever recall seeing. It made him want to retch.

“Wessex did not know what to expect from you. I do. I have the advantage now,” Phil spoke though clenched teeth. His gums were nearly sore from the way those teeth ground against each other.

“And just what am I going to do?” Zagrosek asked, appearing as if he were folding his arms over his chest. He appeared unconcerned, his question borne out of sheer curiosity more than anything else.

Phil dug his forepaws into the table, his claws pressing into the hard wood. “What sort of fool do you take me for? I will tell you nothing of the sort.”

Zagrosek smirked, laughing to himself. “Ah, I see. You have no idea what I am going to do. How can you possibly stop me if you have no idea what I am going to do?”

Phil leaned forward, eyes flaring in rage. “I will wring it from that rat who does your bidding, your precious little ally.” Zagrosek’s face was tinged by surprise then, and Phil felt the first taste of victory already upon his tongue. “Oh yes. We know of him, and I have him held firmly. He will tell all that he knows of your plans.”

Zagrosek regained his composure quickly, smiling that arrogant grin of his. “Oh, I doubt you will discover anything easily. And while you waste your time clawing him, I will be busy furthering my own plans; plans you know nothing about, and will not discover until it is too late. Your efforts are for naught.”

Phil shook his head. “No, I know they are well-placed. You would not oppose them if you thought I had no chance of success. You must take me for a fool indeed.”

“Oh I am sure that you will do your best. But by yourself you will accomplish nothing.” Zagrosek yawned then, waving one hand nonchalantly before his mouth. “And on this you know that you will be alone.”

“No, I will convince them of it!” Phil cried at the picture.

“No you won’t. That rat as you put it will only convince the others that you are delusional. No one will believe you at all.”

“That’s not true! Clover believes me. Rupert believes me!” Phil cried, though he found it hard to add a third name. Every one he brought to his mind he suspected was already eager to side with that traitor Matthias.

Zagrosek laughed, as if he were enjoying a good joke at the rabbit’s expense. “Oh come now! You know very well that the seeds of doubt are already germinating in their minds. Why else would Rupert never offer his opinion on this matter? Why else did it take Clover the entire day to reach you? They do not believe you anymore.”

Phil shook his head at that, claws digging deeper into the table. “No!” He shouted, though it was all he could say. Clover had said that one of her carriage’s wheels had broken, certainly it must have. But where was the carriage? Surely it would do no harm to look into the matter. And Rupert had always stayed silent on such matters, hadn’t he? A hundred instances began to creep into his mind, despite his best attempts to push them away.

“You know it is true,” Zagrosek continued, his voice no longer mocking him.

Phil closed his eyes, feeling tears beginning to well in them. That voice was so, something, he could not describe it. He leaned forward then, his ears folding over themselves in his agony. Somebody had to believe him. He’d show them all, they would have to believe him after today. They simply had to! “Someone will believe me,” he said, relaxing his jaw slightly, only to clench it again a moment later.

“I believe you,” the voice said, almost cordially in fact. “I know what you say is true.”

“I care not if you believe me!” Phil snapped then, his eyes shooting up at the picture. But the rage fled him again in a moment and he bunched over the table, trying to hold back his misery. It filled his lapine body, the rabbity instincts eager for any comfort from the pain.

“Don’t you?” Zagrosek asked, his voice distant now, as if he were leaving.

Phil found himself reaching a paw out to touch the picture, as if to break that reality and find something else. His mind raged with conflicting emotions, a desire to rend that canvas to shreds, and something else, something far more vulnerable. Zagrosek glanced down at that paw, and then held his hand out to meet it. Phil felt the paper beneath the thick callouses of his forepaw, and he could almost, in his mind at least, feel something pressing back against it. And then, a gentle touch drew across the fur on the back of his paw, smoothing it out.

“Remember, I will always believe you, Phil.”

The rabbit felt his whole body trembling, part of him wishing to dash that picture to pieces, and damn the consequences of it. But he needed it to prove to the others that Charles was guilty of collusion with the Patriarch’s murder. He needed it badly to prove that. But, that other thought in his mind whispered, would it really matter? If all the Misha’s and Avery’s united in opposition to him to protect that man as well, would his testimony really matter? Would any of them believe him in the end?

Zagrosek’s voice came again. “I will.” Phil found himself nodding numbly at that, but could focus on nothing else. Even the walls of the room and the table he stood upon faded from view. “You will remember that, but still forget.”

Phil jerked his head up from the table then. His body was cool and relaxed, yet still he felt a strange nervous tension. Glancing about the room he saw that the picture was turned to the wall still, just as Rupert had left it. The lamps had burned quite a bit of oil judging from the fragrance in the room. The chute for the smoke to escape had probably been clogged with snow and ice, but it would melt soon enough.

He set himself to pacing. There was much to do still before the trial would commence. While he knew it was doubtful that any would believe him in the end, he still had to try. If no other would help him, he would continue on his own to destroy that man and all of his allies. Phil smiled as best he could. For some reason, he knew that there would always be somebody who would believe him.

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