Wagging Tongues Will - Part XXI
isha saw that the kangaroo did not appear to be entirely surprised to find the fox at his door. Habakkuk inclined his head respectfully and gestured with an open paw that Misha enter. “What may I do for you, Misha Brightleaf?” Habakkuk asked, his tone deferential.
“I need you to answer some questions that I have,” Misha started, his grey eyes never leaving the kangaroo’s face. He came in and stood next to the main chair opposite the longue that the kangaroo obviously preferred.
Habakkuk shut the door after he came in and nodded once. “I will try to answer as best as I can.” He then crossed over to the cabinet next to the wall. “Is there anything I can get you to drink or eat?”
“No,” Misha said, his voice firm. “I just want some answers. First off, what is a shadow without a shadow?”
Habakkuk’s ears rose straight at that, and his tail stiffened. He turned slowly around, his face a mix of surprise and resignation. Finally, a morose chuckle escaped his muzzle. “Garigan told you then?”
“Only to ask you what it meant.”
Habakkuk nodded. “Please sit,” he gestured to the chair. Misha nodded, but waited for his host to cross over to the lounge and take his own place there upon the thick cushions. He then sat down, his paws gripping the arm rests firmly. The kangaroo ran one paw across his muzzle, as if itching at something. “A shadow without a shadow. It is an obscure reference, but in some ancient texts that is the name given to the Underworld creature known as the Shrieker.”
Misha found the answer to be less than enlightening or startling. He already knew that a Shrieker had appeared at the Keep. Why had Garigan pressed upon him the importance of that other name for them? “I know what a Shrieker is. One was killed here at the Keep during the siege.”
“Garigan told me as much. He saw it in fact. He’s lucky to be alive.”
“We all are,” Misha interjected, tapping one claw upon the armrest. “The question I have though, is why would he tell me that name, a name for something I already knew about, and then tell me to ask you about it?”
Habakkuk appeared to consider that for a moment and then shrugged, as if resigned to speaking of it. “It is something that Garigan claims I said during the Summer Solstice Festival. He says I told him that while drunk. I do not remember it of course, but it is possible I could have said something about it.”
“And just why would you have mentioned it then?”
Habakkuk snorted in slight amusement. “I was drunk at the time. I knew the term, and could easily have spouted it off. Who can say just what I’d been thinking at the time. You are familiar with the vagaries of the mind when drunk after all?”
Misha nodded slightly at that, though knew that the scribe was hiding something. “Garigan does not think that it was quite so innocent.”
“I know that. He has quite a theory about me.”
“And just what is that theory?” Misha pressed, leaning forward even more, his face fixed upon his host.
“I imagine he could regale you with that.”
Misha shook his head. “I asked you.”
Habakkuk considered something again and then nodded. “Of course. He seems to think that I am a prophet of some sort. I’ve demonstrated far greater knowledge to he and his master than they had expected, and they believe that means I am a prophet.”
“Are you?” Misha asked.
“I was a merchant of rare books before I came to Metamor. There is much to be learned within tomes lost to the ages. With that sort of knowledge of the world, any man could look a prophet.”
The fox licked his lips once in slight agitation. He did not know the scribe very well, Habakkuk was an urbane educated individual while he was just a warrior. Their paths did not often cross. But he had known, and Garigan had reinforced that the kangaroo had a slippery tongue. And he could now testify to that himself. “You did not my answer my question.”
“Yes, I know,” Habakkuk said, leaning back slightly, his ears flicking as if a bug were flying about them, but of course, no bug was. “But I also know that to answer such a question is folly.”
“Why?” Misha asked, now confused.
“Because, in my studies I have learned a great many things about prophets, just as I have so many other parts of our world. Their power is not one that they can call at a moment’s notice, it is a fickle thing, one that comes and goes as it pleases. And very few can understand or appreciate that. Were I to say yes, I would be hounded night and day by those who seek my ‘wisdom’ and ‘insight’. And even if I were a prophet, I would be disappointing a great many folks whose hopes I would have to dash. I assure you, the giving of true prophecies has done little good to the prophets who have lived in the past. You are a Follower of Eli, and you know what had been done to Eli’s prophets in their day.”
Misha grimaced and nodded at that.
Habakkuk went on. “And were I to say no, I would still be hounded night and day by folks like you and Garigan demanding that I admit to what they have already decided they know is true about me.”
“That’s not true,” the fox interjected.
“Is it?” Habakkuk pressed. “I believe it is. You are here are you not?”
“If you say to them as you have to me now, then they will not ask again,” Misha pointed out.
“Some like you will not ask again, that is true. Why do you think I’m telling you this now? Because I know you will not ask that question again. But those like Garigan and Charles will be sure to. While they do not quite plot how to trap me with words, they certainly wish that there were some way to do so.”
Misha grimaced at that, and leaned back in the chair. “You are very clever with words, Zhypar. You have been so clever in fact you’ve prevented me from asking several questions already. However, back to the shadow without a shadow. Garigan indicated to me that you not only said that but knew that a Shrieker was going to be summoned here at the Keep. How did you know that?”
“Garigan bases that assumption on what he claims I said.”
“And just what was that?”
“Before this year is out somebody will die from a shadow without a shadow.”
“Ah, I think I see that now. The one who was killed would be Wessex then?”
“That is what he claimed, yes.”
Misha shook his head. “You continue to use the word claim. From what I have heard I would take it to be the truth.”
Habakkuk cocked one ear to the side. “And why is that?”
Misha laughed brusquely. “Would you really have me believe that Garigan made up that entire phrase simply to make others think you were a prophet? There is no reason for him to do so at all. And even if there was a reason, how did Garigan stumble upon the phrase ‘shadow without a shadow’? You said yourself that it was something used in the older books. Garigan is a woodsman, and he can barely read even modern texts, though I know he’s improving.”
Habakkuk nodded. “Very good point. I have admitted that I might have said something about a shadow without a shadow. I’m not denying that at all.”
“Did you know that a Shrieker would be coming to the Keep before the year was out?” Misha bluntly asked. “I want a yes or no answer from you.”
“It was not something that I had anticipated.”
Misha sat back, surprised at how quick the kangaroo had responded. Was that the first straight answer he’d ever given? Or was something else lurking beneath it, something that he was completely overlooking.
“Well, enough of that then,” the fox declared, tapping the arm chair thoughtfully. “Since you are so familiar with ancient texts, perhaps you could enlighten me about a mystery we’ve come across.”
“I’d be glad to help. What is it?”
“A mystery surrounding three objects. A censer, a sword, and a dias. Do you know of anything about them?”
Habakkuk shrugged. “Just three objects? There have been many swords and censers throughout history. Do you know anything more about the particular ones you are interested in?”
Misha nodded. “Yes. I know that they are all engraved with nine symbols, and fashioned from gold. I know that the censer is decorated with horrific pictures and numerous gems as well. It is said that the elves know the most of them.”
Habakkuk appeared lost in thought, rubbing his chin with one paw. “I think I know the items you speak of. But I’m afraid that I can tell you little of them just now. I am certain that I could find a reference to them in one of my old tomes, but I doubt that even that would be able to provide you any more than you likely already know. If you want to truly learn of them, you will need to speak to the fair folk, though I suspect they will not be so forthcoming with you as I have been.”
Misha was surprised by that. “Why?”
“Because what I do know of them is that they are connected with a dark time in the fair folk’s past. But that is all.”
“That is interesting,” Misha said no more than that, as his own thoughts needed time to correlate those facts. Finally, he lifted his eyes once more to his host and brought the last issue to the fore. “Now, do you know a man named Krenek Zagrosek?”
Habakkuk shook his head. “Not really. I know of him, having met him briefly in Makor eleven years ago. I met Charles at the same time, though doubtless Garigan has already told you such.”
Misha did not answer that, but continued on. “You do know what he’s been accused of, and Charles by association?”
“Murdering the Patriarch or so I hear. Knowing the nature of the clan to which they both belong, it is highly unlikely he would have done so.”
Misha smiled for the first time at that. “Will you testify to that?”
“If asked. When is the trial?”
“At noon. I am going to request your presence so that I can bring your testimony on this matter before everyone else.”
Habakkuk leaned forward a bit. “I will speak on Zagrosek, but I will talk of nothing else. I do not need folks hounding me simply because they may think I am a prophet.”
Misha nodded firmly. “Of course. You have no reason to fear that.” He then stood up. “Now, if you will excuse me, I have others I must speak to before the trial begins.”
Habakkuk rose as well, hopping to the door and opening it. “Of course. Best of luck to you in defending Charles.”
Misha said his farewells, and then left, having the vague feeling that Habakkuk had managed to sneak something past him, but he could not quite tell what it was. He brushed the feeling off, and headed out through the Keep on his next errand.
The hour was escaping at a steady trickle, and soon, there would be no reason Krabbe could concoct to convince Thulin to stay and continue playing cards. Already it was clear that the merchant suspected something was amiss, and had no desire to let him purchase his hand. He continued to fold at every opportunity, just before Krabbe would make his own bid. It was frustrating, and the dark clad man could feel his temperature rising bit by bit.
Daylight had been shining for several hours now, and soon, the noontime meals would be served. Though Kaleas and Marin would play as long as their master wished them too, Thulin was not so eager. In fact, only the previous hand he’d suggested that they stop for the morning. Kaleas however had shook his head, and asked his friend if they could at least play one more round, and Thulin had deferred to him. Yet two of those hands had already been played, and only two more remained. Kaleas himself was shuffling the deck, while the others placed their first bids in the centre of the table.
With a sudden spark of interest, Krabbe watched as Thulin’s coin bounced over Marin’s, and then rolled around his own, before finally collapsing at its side, the edge of it just barely touching his own copper piece. He swallowed at that, rubbing his hands together in his lap, the fingers stroking against the thick wool fabric of his breeches. Kaleas’s drink was still half-full, and as he glanced at the level of the juice within the goblet he saw that it had tilted forward, as if some great force was pulling it towards the centre of the table.
The large merchant he’d claimed the previous evening flung the cards with a quick flick of his wrist. The first three face up, the next three face down. Krabbe glanced at his own and saw the Queen of Hearts, as well as the Knight and Knave of Coins. A potential straight, and that was what the others would see. Thulin would have a chance to bid before he did. Would that merchant try to buy his hand again? He hoped not, and found his toes curling itghtly within his boots to relieve some of the stress plaguing him.
Lifting his bottom three cards he felt little in the way of relief. For one of the cards he held was the Priest of Spades. While the other two were the Three and Ace of Swords, he was one card away from a Five Straight. If given the opportunity, he would have to fold his hand. There was nothing else to do but that.
Looking around, he saw that Kaleas was showing the Eight of Spades, as well as the Seven and Four of Swords. Perhaps he too held a straight, though it would not be nearly as tempting to the thin merchant as Krabbe’s own hand must be. Marin’s hand appeared terribly disjointed, with the King of Hearts at one end, the Eight of Coins in the middle, and the Three of Hearts rounding out the bottom. There was some hope in seeing one of the four Kings already held, as it reduced the risk of his hand being turned into a five straight.
Turning to his right, he saw something that gave him even more cause to breathe again. Thulin held the Kings of Coins and of Swords. Perhaps the final blow that would reap him great reward? He barely had the time to note the third card displaying in Thulins’ hand, the Four of Hearts, when a loud popping emanated from the hearth. The heads of all four of them turned around to regard the great flame as it licked up inside the chimney, a few orange wisps lapping along the corner as a startled serving boy jumped back several feet, his face darkened with ash.
Krabbe returned his focus quickly to the table, feeling a sudden hysteria claim him. He caught Marin’s eyes as the goateed merchant sat back down. With one flick of his eyes towards Thulin’s hand, he conveyed the message that he needed to. Marin was passive, looking once more down at his own hand. Kaleas laughed slightly then as he settled back in his chair, taking a quick drink from his goblet. “I bet he’ll be careful putting logs on the fire from now on.”
“Quite,” Thulin said softly, his face scrutinizing his cards. The man who had called himself Krabbe wondered just what other messages were contained in that single word, but he knew that he would not have the liberty to plumb them unless all played into his hand this round.
Marin glanced around the table once, and then placed another coin on the pile, and turned all of his cards over. “I fold,” he said in his youthful voice. Then, turning to Thulin, he smiled to his fellow merchant. “I’d like to buy your hand.”
Krabbe felt his body thrill in excitement. His toes pressed deep into the soles of his boots, the nails threatening to tear through the leather. His natural strength yearned to burst through and tear off the confining clothing he now wore. With baited breath he watched as Thulin slid his hand over to his fellow merchant, face seemingly passive. “I offer you my hand.”
Marin smiled and laid his hand upon the cards. “I take this hand and make it my own.” He glanced at the cards that were turned down for a moment, and then sat back, satisfied. His eyes trailed over to Thulin, who was glancing across the three remaining hands still in play in the game. Krabbe kept his face impassive, as if he were disinterested in the particular hand. He had tried to wear that façade as often as possible during the game so as to leave the others uncertain as to his intent. It had sometimes worked, and sometimes had not. It was his most fervent wish that it work now.
Thulin appeared torn over what to do, his face a theatre of warring factions. He glanced once to what was now Marin’s hand, as if he pondered buying it back, and then to Krabbe’s own. There was only one thing that Thulin could do that would keep the dark clad man from taking his hand. If Thulin dared to buy Krabbe’s hand, then there was little hope left for taking him in this fashion. Other less subtle methods would have to be employed. He supposed he could ask the woman who now waited for him in his room upstairs, though he knew he would have to endure some of her masculine epithets.
But Thulin simply leaned back and looked to Krabbe. The man nodded, and then set some more coin upon the table. He turned his cards over and looked to Marin. “I would like to buy your hand.” Thulin sat up straighter at that, a bit of a frown crossing his lips, but he said nothing just yet.
“I offer you my hand,” Marin said, his face barely concealing the grin that wished to escape. He passed the cards around the pile of coins in the centre, sliding them over to Krabbe.
The dark clad man rested his hand upon the cards, his own smile escaping ever so slightly to peek out from his lips. “I take this hand and make it my own.” It was his, the chance to take Thulin and make him his own was upon him. All that remained would be to win the draw, for Kaleas would never allow Thulin another chance to bet, not this time.
And indeed, Kaleas glanced at his hand, slid one card under the deck and took the top card, face down still. “I call.”
Thulin shook his head at that. “No, the rest of us should have a chance to bid one more time.”
Kaleas peered at his fellow merchant oddly, while Krabbe waited nonchalantly. “Well, the rules only stipulate that we get one chance to bid after we’ve seen our hands. We’ve all had once chance at that, so there’s no reason I can’t call. Don’t worry, you might make some money from this hand anyway. Krabbe there has your hand after all.”
And when he’d said that, Thulin’s face truly went white. He realized instantly his mistake and nearly jumped from his chair. “No. He can’t. He has Marin’s hand.”
“Oh sit down, you’ll get yourself thrown out into the snow if you make a scene,” Kaleas waved one hand.
“Come on, Thulin,” Marin said, laughing slightly, and tugging at his fellow merchant’s sleeve with one hand. “It’s just one hand. And remember, I did buy that hand from you. Just relax. It’ll be over soon.”
Thulin was still white in the face, but he was finally coaxed back down into his seat. He could not take his eyes off of the cards that lay before Krabbe, his whole body shivering in strange anticipation. And then, Krabbe turned the cards over, revealing the Queen and Ten of Coins, as well as the Four of Spades. “Two pair,” Krabbe said, pointing to the two Kings and two Fours before him.
Kaleas shook his head and turned over the Knave of Hearts, and the Five and Three of Spades. He had nothing in his hand at all. Krabbe took the deck and placed it between himself and Thulin. “Well, it looks like we get to draw. It was your hand, so you draw first.”
“No,” Thulin said, shaking his head forcefully. “It was Marin’s hand. You bought it from Marin.”
“But Marin bought it from you. Come now, you are a merchant, surely you know that this was your hand to begin with,” Krabbe said, smiling affably to the shaken man.
Thulin was still trembling, but he finally reached forward and snatched the top card from the deck. He flipped it over, revealing the Priest of Coins. Krabbe already felt the swell of victory building within him because there were only three cards still within the deck that could possibly trump the one that Thulin had drawn. Reaching up, he flipped over the top card, and saw the Knight of Swords. Knight of Swords and Priest of Coins. Strangely enough he found the symbolism quite fetching.
And in that moment that the card touched the tabletop, the fire snapped and started again, flames licking up far higher than normal. The juice still in Kaleas’s goblet tilted far upwards, nearly spilling over the side, and the chandeliers far overhead swayed back and forth, their bases angling towards the table at which they sat. And then, they returned to their normal places, the fire died down to its normal crackling, and the juice levelled off. His triumvirate was complete.
The thin merchant jumped from his seat then, face even whiter than before and he fell back against the wood of the stairs. He gave out a horrid scream, causing every head in the establishment to turn in their direction. “You monster!” he cried then, eyes livid and contorted with some abyssal fear. Several other people rose from their tables, but it was Marin and Kaleas who came around to restrain their fellow merchant.
“What’s gotten into you,” Kaleas roared, grabbing one of Thulin’s arms. Marin reached for the other, but Thulin slammed his fist into the young man’s face, sending him sprawling backwards. Krabbe jumped from his own seat at that, even as the thin man tried to kick at Kaleas, his boot connecting with the larger merchant’s knee.
Kaleas buckled with a groan, hands cupped around his injured knee. The dark clad man jumped forward, his fist solidly connecting with Thulin’s stomach, even as the thin man threw wild punches and kicks at his adversary. Yet that single punch was enough to send him falling backwards across the floor, the force of the blow far greater than he could have possibly expected. Thulin crumpled, curling into a tight ball, as he gasped for breath.
The man who called himself Krabbe stood up and waved his hand reassuringly to the rest in the Inn. “It’s all right. We’ll take him up to his room so he can get some rest.” That appeared to satisfy the others who were taking their noontime meal, as most of them went back to eating and talking amongst themselves. A curious few continued to watch. Krabbe paid them no attention as he helped both Kaleas and Marin to their feet. “Would you help carry him up? I will clean things up down here.”
They both nodded obediently, and hooking one arm under each of Thulin’s shoulders, they lifted their companion, who was still groaning from the punch, and began to carry him up the stairs to their rooms. Thulin protested some, but was too weak to fight them anymore. His eyes stayed upon Krabbe when they could, but soon, they were at the railing, and then down the hallway towards their rooms. It would not take long before Thulin found himself kneeling before the man who called himself Krabbe, and kissed that ancient sword, sealing himself to it in a very special way.
Krabbe occupied himself with collecting the cards. After stacking them neatly in one pile, he swept the coins that still littered the centre of the table into his hands. His merchant friend would have no further need of any of them, and so he deposited them all into his coin pouch. Only one goblet was left upon the table, and it contained that last few sips of Kaleas’s cider. He reached across the table, and took the goblet into his hands. He’d already had milk that morning, so the cider would avail him nothing for the evening. Carrying the deck in one hand and the goblet in the other, he brought it to the main bar, and left it there for one of the serving maids to clean up. He then climbed the stairs himself, and when he came to his door, he knocked once.
The door opened inwards, and he could see in the febrile light beyond that the cloaked woman was standing next to the shuttered window. She was standing much too far to have opened the door, but there was no other in the room. But this did not bother the man, for this was the sort of thing that he had grown accustomed to from her. He stepped inside, holding the deck of cards still in his hand. He shut the door behind himself, and then tossed the pile onto the bed, watching as the ornate designs on the back spilled out over the dark quilt. “They are all mine,” he said softly, smiling to her.
“Good,” she said, her voice curt. “I had thought perhaps one of the others had found you out, given all the commotion I heard from below just a moment ago.”
The man who called himself Krabbe crossed over to the bed and shrugged, his eyes glancing about the room. She had set her things against the far wall. The clouded mirror remained where it had been, and his robes were still in their pile on the bed, covering up the golden sword. Had she even touched anything aside from closing the shutters since she had come into the room?
“The last had realized that there was a power to the cards, but it came too late to save him. My other two servants have taken him to their shared room. All we have to do is wait for him to come to me in a few hours. There is nothing he can do about it now.”
“He could kill himself,” the woman pointed out through clenched teeth. There was a strange light that seemed almost to emanate from her right eye, but still her face was shrouded in the cowl of her cloak.
“No, not while my other two watch over him. They won’t let him do such a thing.” He then smiled to her and crossed over to where she stood. He placed one hand upon her shoulder and gripped it firmly. “Relax, Agathe,” he said, his voice deepening in tone, almost sultry. “Tonight we will complete our tasks. In the meantime, we can enjoy the next few hours together.”
Agathe shook his hand from her shoulder abruptly, her face almost scowling from the cowl, though he still could not see it. “You have not yet seen me, and you already speak of pleasure? Just how vulgar are you?”
He snorted and balled his fists tightly. “Then show me what has happened to you. You do not need to hide yourself from me. There is not a part of you that I have not seen before, and do not wish to see again.”
The woman turned back around facing him, the light from the single lamp burning upon the night-stand cast faintly over the front of her dark travelling cloak. “Then see what was done to me.” She flung back the cowl, and a red flare seemed to pulse from the empty socket of her right eye. Vicious scars trailed up either cheek, revealing tender muscles burned at every fibre, even showing through to the bone of her jaw, scorched white by some celestial fire. Her left eye was still bloodshot as it had always been, but the dark iris had flooded the cornea, leaving the only colour the dark red of the veins as they crisscrossed through her eye.
The man blinked several times at that as he took all that had become of her visage in. “Who did this to you?” he managed to ask after nearly a minute of stunned silence.
“That brat, Wessex!” she spat, her jaw bone rubbing against the open wounds upon her cheek. He could see the insides of her mouth and her tongue working to produce each and every sound. “He gave his life in casting the magic that scarred me, so I cannot heal it without killing myself.”
“I assure you, the fate that we gave him is far worse than this.”
She nodded, and then pointed to the empty eye socket that glowed that baleful red. “I can see him suffering. I always see his agonies, how he is torn limb from limb repeatedly, violated in the most depraved of ways, and shown over and over again what will happen to those he loves. But it still brings me no pleasure.”
The dark clad man approached her once again and held out his arms to her. She did not push him away this time, and he took her within them, pulling her close to his chest. He leaned over, the torn flesh of her cheek rubbing against his own. His mouth to her ear, he whispered, “When all this is over, you will be restored. You have only to wait until then.”
She said nothing though for several moments, before pushing away from him again. Her face found the mirror and she studied it for a moment. She waved one hand, and the clouds within that glass dispersed, revealing a dark wall, but nothing more. “I see the picture has been drawn.”
The man nodded firmly, coming up to stand alongside of her. “Yes. I’ve been using it to watch them. That rabbit from Whales has been particularly interesting to me.”
“Yes, I’ve been using the mirror to talk to him as well.”
She turned upon him once more, her face flush with fury, the seared muscles glowing a dark maroon, and the nimbus within her empty eye socket flaring even brighter. “Zag, you fool! If he destroys the picture while you are speaking to him he could kill you.”
“He won’t. He needs the picture to prove that my old friend Charles is guilty of conspiring to kill the Patriarch.”
Agathe’s jaw fell open slightly, and then she closed it again. She approached him then, a slight smile playing upon her lips. “You have been busy. If they execute him, then we will have already won.”
Krenek Zagrosek, who had called himself Krabbe, nodded and smiled right back to her, their faces approaching. “Oh yes. And even if they do not, we will have gained a powerful ally at Metamor. In another few days, Prince Phil will do whatever I wish of him.”
Agathe leaned forward, her hands pulling back his own tunic, revealing his bare chest. Her tongue darted forward and she licked up along that chest, all the way to his chin. She favoured him with that sultry grin of hers, and Zagrosek could not help but think that despite her disfigurement, it still became her so well.
He pulled down her cloak, pushing it to the floor, even as he breathed heavily upon her. Leaning forward one time, he drew his tongue across the curves of her ears, undamaged in her fight with the boy mage. He then whispered, “We have a little bit of time before the trial begins.”
Agathe said nothing, merely pulling him down on top of her upon the wooden floor.
|Talk to me!|