Wagging Tongues Will - Part XXXIII

The cellar was fairly clean. Two torches flanked the foot of the stairs casting inwards to the otherwise unlit wine cellar. The room stretched on for quite some distance into the darkness, although they could see an unlit brazier hanging against the stone wall not too far in. Beneath it was a line of vats, huge ponderous barrels filled with cheap ale and mead. Further on in the room would be the racks of the more expensive wine.

Zagrosek carried with him a lantern as he descended those steps. Underneath his other arm was his Sondeckis robe bundled tightly around the golden sword – Yajakali’s sword. He could feel it thumping slowly, but repeatedly, like soft tremors in the earth. Was it laughing, or was it growling impatiently, he wondered. Given its age though, he suspected the former. The memory of what it had nearly done to him when it had grown impatient made him shudder and fervently hope that it was laughter.

When he reached the bottom of the stone steps, he set the bundle down on one of the wooden vats, and took a moment to light the brazier. A small flame grew larger, casting flickering shadows about the room. Even as the other four members of his party descended the stairs, he could see the vats spread out across the other far wall, and the rows of wine racks that lined the distant half of the chamber. He also saw more unlit braziers, and while the three merchants stood mutely waiting for instructions, and Agathe studied the clear floor space at the foot of the stairs, he went about lighting each of them in turn.

After he had finished, and the shadows lurked only between the immovable wine racks, he set the lantern on a small hook by the stairwell and turned to Agathe. “Will this be enough?”

The Runecaster set down her own pack; the travelling pack that she’d brought in with her. Her face was still covered by her hood, so Zagrosek could not see her expression. “No, at least one row of these vats must be moved.”

Zagrosek nodded, picked up the bundle with the sword and laid it against the bare wall by the foot of the stone stairwell. He glanced up the stairway debating whether the vats could be brought up it, but decided against it. He had paid a great deal of gold to the Innkeeper allowing them the use of the cellar, provided they did not destroy his wares, but he doubted they could bring all of the vats up those stairs without damaging them.

He looked from one to the next, and then nodded. “We can stack these vats on top of the others. Come you three, all of you together should be able to lift one of them. Be very careful with them though.” Zagrosek was not so much worried about damaging the Innkeeper’s stock, they’d already nearly destroyed one of his rooms, and he had enough gold in reserve to cover the cost of any further damages. But if one of those vats broke, the ale or mead would spill across the solid stone floor, ruining any hopes they had of casting any spells.

His three slaves were eager to oblige, Kaleas and Thulin standing before the end vat, and tilting it a bit on one side so they could roll it out from the wall. Once they had enough room, Marin slipped in behind, and got his hands beneath the rim, and gave it a lift. The other two then joined with him, bringing with relative ease the vat up to their shoulders. Zagrosek smiled a bit to himself, and then lifted the vat on the other end of the row, finding it fairly heavy, but not much of a challenge for one of his skills. By the time he had it on the other side of the room, the three merchants were setting theirs in place. Zagrosek set his own in its place, thanking the Innkeeper mentally for using vats whose tops and bottoms were the same size.

Twice more he made that trip, as there were six vats in all on each side. When he settled the last in its place, he wiped his hands together, getting a little of the grime that had begun to grow on the wood off. It was clear that the Innkeeper took good care of his stock, but grime was a fact that not even the most fastiduous could keep at bay. Agathe hadn't been watching, but had been rifling through her pack and pulling out several instruments. In a small hide pouch were the necessary pieces of chalk, some of which he knew to be coloured. Beside that was a black scroll case that remained unopened. The black was from onyx, the stone carefully carved, intricate sculptures formed into its design. Though it was centuries old, the spells protecting it prevented any from breaking the stone. It could have been dropped from a sheer cliff and would not have suffered even a scratch.

She had also pulled out another small pouch that appeared to be all but empty. And then several clean rags. But there were only three though. She pondered them a moment, took the largest, and with a firm grip, tore it in two. Satisfied, she laid each one over top of each other, and sat them atop her pack. Finally she pulled out a second scroll case, this one made from simple brass, without any intricate designs. Only a single key lock distinguished it from other scroll cases.

Agathe sat back, and redid the cinches upon her pack. She took the scroll cases and set them upon the bottom stair. She them framed them with her two pouches, and laid the four rags atop the scroll cases, keeping them from touching the ground. She then deposited her pack on the stair above them, making sure it was not going to tip over before turning to Zagrosek. “Are you certain that none will disturb us this evening?”

The Sondeckis nodded. “Yes. I waved enough gold in the Innkeeper’s face that guarantees it. He’ll flay any of his servants who even try to open that door.”

“Good,” she said, her voice short. She then threw back her hood, displaying her scarred features. She motioned for all of them to step closer. The three merchants moved quickly, eager to be of any assistance to their master and mistress. Zagrosek stood just behind them. “Now, I am going to cast a spell on these rags. Once I do I want you to wipe them across the floor, everywhere in this part of the room.”

“What will that do, mistress?” Kaleas pondered.

“It will remove any bit of dust or grime that may be there. It will also completely smooth and level out the stone for now.” She traced a rune over the first rag, a mix of several letters that glowed a fiery blue before fading. She then handed it to Marin who held his hands out eagerly. “Now make sure you press down firmly with this, otherwise it will not work. I need this floor completely smooth and clean.”

“Will it matter if we step on an area we’ve cleaned?” Thulin asked.

“No. The spell will keep it clean for half a day’s time,” she explained, even as she cast the runes upon the second rag, handing that to Kaleas. The larger man nodded and followed after Marin who was already hard at scrubbing.

“How will we know if we’ve pressed hard enough?” Thulin pressed a bit, his face clenched tight in the fear that he would not do his job well enough to please her.

Agathe cast the runes upon the third rag and handed it to him. “I will know. Do not worry, if you miss a spot I will simply point to it for you.”

“Thank you, my mistress!” Thulin gasped, clinging to the cloth as if it was his very raison d’être. He joined his fellows upon the ground, scrubbing hard in a section they had not yet taken.

“I’ve been demoted to scullion have I?” Zagrosek chided lightly.

Agathe’s lips twitched slightly, as if she wished to smile. “You cannot help me with what I have to do now. Only a woman may open that.” She gestured to the onyx scroll case before casting the rune upon the final rag.

“Afraid a man might be more rash?”

“Something like that, yes.” Agathe then gestured towards the fourth section of the floor, and the Sondecki walked to it obediently, getting down on hands and knees and pressing the enchanted white cloth to the floor. He could see the stone brighten in colour as he wiped across it, reflecting the brazier’s light far more easily.

Zagrosek looked up to watch the Runecaster work even as he helped prepare the floor for her. Pulling a slender chain from her bodice, he saw that a small key was attached to the end of it. The chain itself was probably ensorcelled to prevent a would be footpad from stealing it. She inserted the key into the bronze scroll case and turned it, eliciting a small click. With a twist, the two halves of the scroll case came open, revealing a weathered bit of parchment, yellowing around the edges.

She unrolled the scroll and studied it for several moments, her missing eye glowing a brighter red as she looked over its contents. Only after several minutes did Agathe set that aside and pick up the black onyx case with its finely chiselled figurines lining the sides. She turned it over in her hands until she found whatever it was she was looking for. She traced a single finger across the surface, and then began to touch and press small parts of the onyx, turning and twisting them in a complex but prescribed order. Marin was already scrubbing the last of his fourth of the floor by the time Agathe finally began reciting a small incantation in a low voice. Ancient words that Zagrosek did not recognize began to echo, building in power.

And even then she was not done. Marin watched her from his corner with apt eyes. A silent but discernable glow began to surround the black scroll case, even trailing along her fingers that touched it only gingerly. After moving one more piece of the stone, she let go of it completely. Zagrosek’s breath caught in his throat, but the scroll case simply floated in the air, borne up by its creators hands from ages past. Agathe appeared uncertain and cast a quick glance back at the yellowed parchment she’d laid out on the steps. With renewed confidence, she pressed all ten of her fingers to the stone case, being very careful where she put them. A dull clicking was heard, and a solemn light billowed from the centre of the case.

Speaking another low chant, she twisted the ends very slowly against each other, fingers pulling the device apart as she did so. Zagrosek could not help but watch as the case grew in length, as black inside as it had been on the outside. Finally, she had twisted it halfway around and her arms simply could go no further without breaking. Another dull click sounded, this one deeper in tone, reverberating through the room. The wine in their racks shook slightly, trembling with that sound.

And then the nimbus faded, and the scroll case was open. Reaching inside, Agathe drew out a rolled up piece of parchment. Zagrosek’s eyes grew wider as he saw it, perfectly preserved, as fresh as the dye it had been made. The parchment had been painted completely black on one side, and the other side had also been painted black, except for the lettering and the diagrams. The maker of that parchment had written it by outlining each letter and each picture, and then filling everything else in with black paint. Without the protection the onyx case provided, it would have succumbed to the elements in a scant few years.

Agathe carefully laid the scroll upon her pack, setting the ancient scroll case aside on the bottom stair again. She nodded thoughtfully as she read over it, noting each instruction. Zagrosek shrugged and returned to polishing the floor, as did the other two merchants. It was only another minute before they’d smoothed out the entire area that she had wanted for her spellcasting. Zagrosek walked over to her side and peered down at the lettering. Strangely enough, the letters kept sliding across the page, and the diagrams folding in on themselves. He blinked several times, but the images would not resolve themselves.

“Only a woman can read it,” Agathe muttered. “Another protection the creator of this placed.”

“This person did not trust men did they?”

She smiled slightly and shook her head. “No. From what I have read of her, she had good cause not to.”

Zagrosek snorted in annoyance at that, but stepped back and gave her the room she needed. He leaned against the wall and looked to his three slaves. They were standing in the centre of the room, still holding their enchanted rags, waiting for instruction. He gestured for them to step against the wall and they did so, pressing as closely to it as they could.

“All right,” Agathe said, standing up again. She turned about and surveyed the floor. “Excellent, it is completely clean. This will be perfect.” She walked along the floor, gauging distances from the vats to the racks, and to the two clear walls. “You will all have to stand within the racks I think. I need to do this alone for now.”

Zagrosek nodded, but the three merchants stood amongst the racks before he had even moved. Their eagerness to obey was startling. Had the powers concentrating on that sword given the cards an even greater power than he imagined? That they obeyed unquestioningly was all that truly mattered though. He joined them then, and crouched low, resting one arm upon one of the racks. They were sturdy enough that his weight would not upset them.

Agathe retrieved the second pouch, the one that did not appear to have anything within it. She pulled the drawstrings lose, and came to stand in the very centre of the cellar floor. Studiously staring at the floor, she reached inside the pouch, and pulled out something very fine between two fingers. Zagrosek could see that it was a single strand of white hair. She laid that down upon the ground, very gently, almost reverently. Agathe then backed up, never letting her eyes leave that piece of hair until she reached the far wall.

Turning back to her things, she set the now empty pouch down, and took the hide bag, opening it and removing two pieces of chalk. The first was a plain white piece, the other a subtle green. She fingered a third, a black piece, but then set it back into its place for the moment.

Stepping back to the strand of hair she measured with her fingers a good three feet in three opposing directions. And then, taking the white piece of chalk, she drew a perfect equilateral triangle, setting the strand of hair in the exact centre. Being careful not to cross the line with any part of her body, she took the green chalk and traced over that line, all the while singing in a low voice a chant in a language that once again Zagrosek did not recognize. As the green line began to cover the white, a faint nimbus began to surround it, flaring with a strange life. It glowed that same colour green as the chalk, though paler, almost febrile at first.

Once she had drawn the triangle in, the entire area contained within it’s lines began to sizzle with that green light, strange electric sparks cascading back and forth, arcing between the strand of hair and the sides of the figure. Taking the white chalk between her fingers again, she traced out a perfect circle, her hand steadied by the magical forces already crackling within the room. Zagrosek could hear the thirsty pounding of the blade even from across the cellar. The circle completely enclosed the triangle, touching it only at the very corners. Chanting once more, she traced over that circle with the green chalk. As before, the curve glowed that strange green, complementing the strange ethereal power dwelling inside the triangle.

But when she finally brought that green circle into complete being, the fire inside the triangle vanished completely, to be replaced by an even brighter flame between the circle and the triangle. Arcs of lightning sprung from each edge, galvanizing the entire room with its power. Zagrosek could see Agathe’s hair lift from the charges about her. Yet they did not appear to bother her, as she began drawing three smaller circles just outside the large one. Each circle was situated directly on top of the corners of the triangle, each about a foot in width. And once again, she traced over the white chalk lines with the green, chanting the entire time.

No strange flame permeated those smaller circles though, for which Zagrosek was glad. After all, as soon as she had completed those tasks, she began to draw intricate runes, symbols the likes of which he had never before glimpsed. She drew slightly different runes inside each circle, but always first in white, and then she traced over top of them in green. Yet these did not flare immediately, but remained subdued, though still tingling with anticipation.

And all the while Agathe chanted that same formula over and over again. Zagrosek knew it was an invocation of some sort, but lacked the knowledge to understand just what it was that she was invoking. The chant carried a strange hollow quality to it, though he suspected that had something to do with the holes burned through either of her cheeks. Minutes trickled by and still she chanted and drew those runes, each growing in complexity. She moved around the circle counter-clockwise, stopping at each smaller circle and tracing only a single rune before she would move on. And then we she came back, she would replace the white with the green.

After several minutes, she stopped, and stood back. Walking gingerly over to her pack by the stairs, she set the white and green chalk aside, and drew out the thick black piece. Carrying it carefully within her hands, she knelt before the diagram, still crackling with violent energy. And then she drew the black chalk around the figure, outlining it perfectly. Where the black touched the green, no more electrical arcs would touch. When she had completely traced out the line between two of the corners, the green power vanished completely from within that lune, just as it had in the centre of the triangle. One by one, the fires were snuffed out, as she slowly moved around the edge, this time in the clockwise direction.

Agathe brought the outline to a close only with increasing slowness. It was as if she feared what may happen when she did. She studiously leaned back from the diagram as the black chalk met its beginning, and flung herself backwards when it did. The three smaller circles suddenly flared into violent life, vines of lightning shooting upwards, curving around some invisible spire, outlining some terrible smooth shape upwards even appearing to pierce beyond the stone roof. The black line rose up as well, shading a green wall where light flickered through its courses. The streaks of light began to coalesce slowly above those three circles, giving shape to great spires, towers of stone, chiselled into regular grooves, standing atop firm platforms.

Zagrosek smiled slightly as he realized just what it was that he was seeing at last. “The Pillars of Ahdyojiak,” he breathed quietly.

Agathe rose to her feet, still clutching the black chalk tightly between her fingers. “Yes, it is them. Do not dare put anything material through those walls. You will never see it again if you do.” She surveyed the work and breathed heavily. “The rest of the spell will take some time. We will not be able to pass through those walls until midnight.”

She then turned to look at each of them, her empty eye socket flaring a bright orange. “Do not disturb me, or they may want us all.”

The four of them nodded, only Zagrosek with any true understanding of just what she meant. He sat back, crossing his legs before him. It was going to be a very long wait.

The party in the Long House was subdued, but there were still smiles about, and good drink to partake. Misha and several other Long Scouts had helped bring out the ale kept in storage, while Caroline and the rest set up tables, mugs and goblets to enjoy the ale with. Meredith had insisted on joining them, slouching against one wall with a mug of ale in one paw, talking animatedly with the other Longs, loudly denouncing the court’s decision, but cheering at the news of the wedding. And so it went with the other Longs, and most of the guests who were there.

Charles was making sure he spoke to all his fellow Longs, at least those able to be there - Kershaw was still far too injured to get out of bed. He refused to say any goodbyes then, but instead talked of more mundane things, such as their lives, and how the battles up north had gone. But he also discussed the coming wedding with as many as he could, making sure each knew they’d have a front pew seat in the cathedral if there was enough room. Every once in a while he would gaze across the room and see Kimberly animatedly discussing the wedding with the female Longs, and the wives of the males.

When Charles had stumbled upon the squirrel who led the Glen, he mentioned it to him. “Be glad my wife isn’t here,” Avery pointed out, waggling his free paw while the other clutched his mug tightly. From the scent Charles could tell he was drinking a rather fruity ale, peaches perhaps. He hadn’t seen that one, but he certainly would have to find it on his next pass by the tables.

“Why is that?” the rat asked, genuinely curious.

Avery gave him a sidelong glance. “Oh, before you knew it she would have planned your entire wedding for you. Even picked out your clothes if you’d let her.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Charles said, though he would have preferred to handle his own attire.

Avery shook his head with a laugh. “No, it isn’t. Not until you realize that she would have wanted to spend every day before hand telling you just what she was doing in excruciating detail.”

Charles sipped at his ale, and then took a longer drink of it. Kimberly had already given him carte blanche this one time to drink as much as he wanted. He intended to do just that, as he was certain that after their wedding his alcohol privileges would be drastically reduced. “I don’t think I want to know that much about my wedding.”

Lord Avery laughed and patted him on the shoulder. “Most men don’t want to know anything about it. Some even wish that it never happened.” He winked then, and laughed, taking a quick drink.

The rat shook his head and sipped once more at his ale. His mug was almost empty now. A good excuse to migrate back towards the tables and find that peach wine that Avery had discovered. “I certainly want to have mine! Just don’t need to know all the details.”

Brian nodded. “No question. You won’t remember half of it anyway once it’s over. Nor will your wife. Makes you wonder why they spend so much time fussing over every detail. When the time comes they can’t even see it to make sure it’s right.”

Charles chuckled and shrugged. “Well, whatever makes her happy.”

Lord Avery nodded and then gave the rat a far more serious look. “And how do you feel?”

“Feel?” Charles stammered. “I’m not sure. I’m happy to be marrying her, and the thought of living at the Glen is appealing in many ways, but...”

“What is it?”

The rat finished off his drink and then looked down into the mug regretfully. “Could I get more to drink first?”

“Of course. I’ll accompany you.” Avery set out alongside the rat. Neither of them had yet had so much to drink that they still couldn’t walk straight. But Charles definitely felt the buzz within his mind. They had to pass several boisterous Longs and even one Glenner in the process. Angus was wrestling several Longs all by himself, and given the way things were going just then, appeared to be winning, as he had two of the three pinned beneath his legs.

“Well,” Charles mused as they came to the table, “it’s not quite the Christmas party but its something.”

Avery nodded and smiled to his friend. “You can’t expect things to be perfect. Misha and the rest feel like a member of their family is being taken away from them.”

“That is what is happening,” Charles corrected. “I feel as if I am being taken away from my family.”

Avery’s tail ducked low then. “I’m sorry. I am looking forward to having you live with us at the Glen.”

“I know,” the rat admitted, and smiled slightly. “I don’t blame you, it is a lovely place. I am looking forward to it as well, even if only for the next few months. I doubt I could live there forever though. I’m a city person.”

Avery smiled slightly, as if he were thinking, We’ll see about that. But he kept his thoughts to himself.

Charles noted the glance, but paid it no mind. Instead, he gestured to the array of barrels and the taps set in the side of each. “Which of these is that peach wine you have? I’m eager to try some of it.”

The squirrel pointed with one paw towards one of the darker barrels just off to the side. “That one there. It is decent I suppose. I prefer Lars’s brews.”

“I have not had much opportunity to enjoy his wares,” Charles mused then as he filled his mug from the tap, savouring the sweet but pungent scent of the peaches. “I suppose I will have quite a few opportunities to amend that soon.”

Avery grimaced at that, and looked away. “I wish you wouldn’t speak of living in my homeland so reluctantly. I love my land and my people. You have been there, seen them, and befriended many of them. You have little choice about this decision, and you treat it as a death sentence. Why not embrace it, see it as something grand. You are not leaving your family, they will still be here. Five months and five hours are not that long if you think about it.”

Charles nodded and sipped at his mug, finding he rather enjoyed the peach wine, it had quite a bit of bite to it. “I’m sorry. I did say I was looking forward to it. I just have my doubts about it.”

Avery turned to face him more fully, and placed one paw on his shoulder. “Charles, I am going to head back home tomorrow and prepare for your arrival. I will make sure that you will have no more doubts when you get there in a week.”

Frowning, Charles took another, longer sip. “I was hoping you would be at the wedding.”

“Oh, Angela and I will attend, but I want to see to these arrangements first. They should only take a couple of days, and then I will return with my wife and kids.”

Charles smiled at the thought of seeing those two scamps again. And then it dawned on him that he’d get to know them a great deal more of the next few months and could not help laugh to himself. As long as he didn’t try to follow them through the trees, perhaps he’d survive it.

“That sounds good,” Charles admitted, even as he cast a sidelong glance at the fox who was quickly approaching, a large mug held firmly between his paws.

“What are you two hovering around my beer for!” Misha declared with a healthy measure of boisterousness. “I oughta make you pay for what you’ve had there, my Lord Brian Avery!” Charles knew that his friend was not yet drunk, but working hard on it. He hoped to not remember much more of the evening himself.

“Oh, just talking of our plans,” Avery admitted, stepping back from the vats. “I could reimburse you the cost of this party if you wish,” the squirrel offered with a good-natured smile.

The fox nodded, as if that had been the last thing he’d actually wanted to think about. But he smiled anyway, and looked to the rat, teeth gleaming. “And just what are you going to do, Matt?”

“Me?” Charles asked, and sipped a bit more from his mug. “I think I will get drunk tonight just like everybody else. Tomorrow I will set the date for the wedding with Hough, but otherwise, I would like to spend my last week here in the company of my fellow Longs.”

Misha grunted and nodded at that, as if he heartily approved. He finished off his mug with one swig, and then filled it again from the nearest vat. “Good. We have a few things to attend to now that this madness is behind us.”


Misha scowled at Lord Avery a moment, though that was more the alcohol showing through than any real animosity. The squirrel took the hint and quietly backed away, locating Berchem a short distance off he began to quietly speak with the skunk. The fox and the rat leaned their heads closer together then, and Charles pressed his ear up to his friend’s muzzle. “We’ll be burying Llyn tomorrow. And the day after that, we’ll give Him a burial.”

Charles licked his lips a bit, tongue taking extra time to press firmly against the back of his incisors. “Of course,” he mouthed, though found he could barely say the words. He took a long drink then, nearly finishing off the peach wine he’d poured himself only minutes ago. He had only begun to get to know Baldwin the condor morph the last two months. And then to find out that he’d betrayed the Longs to Nasoj’s forces during the siege, and even earlier than that too, had been a stiff blow.

And Llyn’s death had also hurt him, though in a far different way. He had never really known the mink that well, mostly through his friendship with the skunk Murikeer Khannas. They had grown so close, Charles often thought of Kimberly and himself when he saw them together. Now Llyn was dead and Murikeer was in a coma. How would he react when he woke and discovered that his love was long since dead and buried? Charles finished the rest of his peach wine, wanting to wash such thoughts away.

As he was filling his mug with another brew, the same that Misha had taken, he saw a third figure approaching them through the collection of Keepers. Misha saw it too, and turned, his eyes narrowing in puzzlement. Habakkuk was hopping some, spilling beer from his mug with each hop. A year ago Charles would have laughed merrily at the sight, but not now.

“And what can we do for you?” the rat asked as the kangaroo came to a stop, long feet planting firmly into the stonework with a clicking sound.

The kangaroo looked injured at that. “Charles, I know we have had our differences, but I consider them past.”

“Oh really?” Charles sneered. “Lovely performance you gave Phil. I’ll believe you are sincere when you stop trying to manipulate me.”

Misha set his free paw on the rat’s shoulder. “That’s enough of that, Matt. He was right, and I told you to give it back to Rick too.” The fox glanced at the bemused Zhypar. “I know you were referring to the Sondeshike, and I admire your ability to avoid telling them what it was.”

Habakkuk inclined his head respectfully lifting his mug to his muzzle for a drink, and then appearing distraught when there wasn’t anything left in it. “You did a fine job on your defence as well, you managed to prove his innocence on every charge you could.”

“I wish I’d proved him innocent on every charge,” Misha grumbled a bit.

“There was no way you could have cleared his name on that last charge. You could not get around the fact that Charles simply had not revealed what he’d known.” Habakkuk looked down at the rat then. “I do recall telling you back then that you should be more open about yourself and your past. Perhaps if you had you would have been found innocent of that charge as well.”

Charles sipped at his ale, finding it had a milder flavour than the peach wine. “I’m really not interested in your I-told-you-so’s, Zhypar.” He sighed and set his mug down on the table, shaking his head. “I probably should have listened to you, but that is past now.”

“Yes, it is,” Misha asserted firmly. “And we are both grateful for what you did in making sure Matt’s sentence was not nearly as bad as it could have been.”

The rat looked up then at the fox, across to the kangaroo, and then back to Misha, eyes curious. “What do you mean by that?”

Misha blinked. “Didn’t you realize what he was trying to get Phil to admit there? Zhypar here got Malisa to realize that your silence didn’t make a damn bit of difference in the end. Even if you had told what you knew, nothing would have changed. Who knows what sort of sentence you would have received if it hadn’t been for that.” Misha then gave the kangaroo a welcome smile. “Thank you, Habakkuk. I never would have thought to try that.”

Zhypar waved his free paw then. “Phil was being an ass anyway. I must confess I took great pleasure in it.”

Charles snorted a bit and then laughed. “That’s not quite what it looked like from where I had been sitting, but I thank you nonetheless. Don’t think this means I am ready to take you back into my confidences just yet. But I do not wish a painful death upon you anymore.”

“That is comforting to know,” Habakkuk remarked drily. His ears waggled a bit and he smiled weakly. “I have nothing against you, Charles. I hope that we can be friends again someday.”

The rat took his mug into his paws again and sighed. “I miss the old Zhypar Habakkuk that I had been able to call friend.”

“I have not changed. The times have.” His voice was strangely distant, as if weeping for something long since lost. “Well, I believe I shall find Nahum and Tallis and share a drink of my own with them.”

“What are you going to tell them?”

“Oh, I’m sure they’ll want to see your wedding too, you had been planning to invite your friends from the Writer’s Guild were you not?”

Charles laughed then, genuinely. Misha too felt the levity between them at last, and let his own grin return. “Of course I was! I’m afraid we’ve no time for formal invites, so you just let them all know. I’ll get word to you of the exact time tomorrow once I work it out with Father Hough.”

Misha patted the kangaroo on the back then. “It was good to have you here, Zhypar. Talking with you can be a pleasure when one doesn’t feel lost in a maze.”

Zhypar chuckled lightly at that. “Words are a powerful weapon. Take care both of you. May Eli watch over you.” The kangaroo then hopped off, setting his mug down on the table, and then heading for the doorway back to the Keep regular.

“A strange one that,” Misha remarked as he watched the kangaroo leave. The fox then returned his attention to his fellow Long. “So, just how many are you planning to invite to this wedding of yours?”

“Oh, not sure, all the Longs, all my old friends from the Writer’s Guild. There’s a bunch more too. All my fellow rodents of course, well, maybe not all. I don’t think I’ll be inviting Phil.” Charles’s face was pained as he said that. “Damn, I have always considered him a friend.”

Misha grimaced quite visibly then. “As I said before, he has changed these last few months.” The fox’s face made it quite clear that he felt he’d changed far more than any of them had thought. “I am going to speak to Thomas about this tomorrow as well. There is something wrong with that rabbit.”

Charles nodded, taking a long drink of his ale. This celebration was supposed to be a happier occasion than this, and he had every intent to enjoy himself and have his friends enjoy themselves as well. Setting his mug down beside him on the table again, he offered the fox a grin. He had always meant to ask him this when the time came, and the time had indeed come for it. “Misha, there is one thing I must ask you though.”

“Of course, Matt. What is it?”

The rat offered him a wide grin. “Will you be my Best Man?”

Misha blinked at that, all traces of unpleasantness disappearing from his countenance. Those grey eyes beamed in delight and pride. The fox bent down to one knee and bowed low, clutching one paw to his chest. “My good friend, Charles Matthias, I would be honoured to serve as your Best Man.”

“And I will be honoured to have you be my Best Man, Misha Brightleaf,” Charles said, barely able to keep the boisterous laughter from his voice. Other Longs were looking over at them, pointing, and asking themselves what in the world could possibly be going on. He did not care right then. Misha stood up again and they hugged each other tight, laughing merrily. Yes, the rat thought then as they stepped back, raising their mugs in a glorious toast, this would be a wonderful party.

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