The Last Tale of Yajikali

Interlude II

by Charles Matthias

Cover | Contents | Prologue | Book I | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Interlude I
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue

Laurence let a smile slowly creep across his muzzle as his arms began their descent. All around his feet the children had curled on the ground, tails to snouts, asleep. Complete silence greeted him from his family and from all the other guests who had come to hear him tell his tale. Even King Albert sat transfixed, waiting for the next words to be uttered from Lord Erick’s uncle.

But the jongleur let his arms drop to his sides, and he lowered his eyes slowly. In almost a whisper, after so many excruciating seconds of waiting, he said, “And that is where I shall end my tale for this day.”

“Oh come now,” Timothy cried in protest. “Surely you cannot leave us on such a note!”

Lise shot him a dirty look. “Keep your voice down!” she hissed through her teeth. “The children are sleeping.”

Erick chuckled under his breath as he saw his cousin’s chagrin. Still, the only reason he had not jumped to his feet to denounce his uncle for a knave was that his two year old son was curled into his lap, one paw gripping the edge of his tunic as if it were a blanket or favourite toy.

It was well past dusk now, and if not for that exciting climax, Erick knew there would have been droopy eyes amongst the gentry too.

King Albert nodded slowly, long ears turned to Laurence, as if expecting him to recant and continue his tale any moment. “Fair enough. It is late and the children need to be put to bed.”

“Robert,” Lise called over her shoulder. The donkey was reclining in one corer, a shocked look on his snout. “Could you gather my servants? We need to put the children to bed.”

“Of course, milady,” he said dutifully. He did give Laurence, who was carefully picking his way amidst the maze of sleeping forms towards the King, one last look of incredulity before slipping out to do as instructed.

Erick worked his paws beneath his youngest and lifted the boy into his arms. The child yawned, displaying his wide variety of teeth and long red tongue, but did not open his eyes. Erick smiled and handed the boy to Lise. “Here you go. I’ll see to the men.”

Lise took the boy, and gently stroked one paw behind his soft ears. “Of course. Do not stay up late drinking.”

“Only a bit of wine, I promise.”

With his lap free, Erick rose and walked over to his liege. “Your majesty,” he said in soft tones. “If it is your desire, we and the other men can adjourn to my study where we might interrogate this villain storyteller while we enjoy a libation.”

Albert smirked and let one eye turn on Laurence. “Aye, that is a fine idea, your lordship. Lead the way.”

It took a few minutes to organize the rest of the men, but each of them found the idea of one last drink before bed appealing. Though the Åelf ambassador was not a man, Erick still offered her a chance to join them. He’d been rather awkward about it, despite his many years of experience treating with women who were once men. And though Sinhåsa el-Abarei’s face was inscrutable, she seemed to recognize his embarrassment and politely declined the invitation. Still, Erick was uncertain whether or not he should be relieved.

Erick’s study proved to be a high-ceilinged room with large hearths at both ends. Above each hearth, the stuffed heads of elk had been mounted. Tapestries dominated the walls, each describing some historical anecdote of the valley and especially of the Matthias line. Between them were shelves of books, bottles of wine, swords, staves, crossbows, and even a few older muskets, including the one Kalder had presented to him as a gift yesterday. Sturdy wooden chairs dominated the centre of the room, while the stone floor was covered with animal skin carpets except for one imported from Kelewair. That one was patterned in with flowers and geometric shapes winding ever inward to a stylized crest bearing a rodent.

Albert admired the musket case with a wry grin. “I see Ambassador Kalder has given you a gift for which he has asked me a mighty sum.”

“And a weapon the Long Scouts resent,” Ryman added quietly.

“‘Tis not meant for stealth,” Kalder admitted, “but power and penetration. A musket of Vysehrad can pierce e’en a knight’s breastplate up close. This musket,” he stepped to the case and spread his fingers wide, “‘twas given in gratitude for Master Laurence’s service to my King.”

“A worthy gift indeed!” Albert agreed as he settled in a large damask chair. “For so fine a storyteller.”

Laurence bowed his head, whiskers straight and proud. “Thank you, your majesty.”

While Robert stoked the hearths, Erick poured the wine for his guests, a tut-tut upon his lips. “A fine storyteller indeed! Now Laurence,” he chided, “you should know better than to end a tale in that way. You have to at least tell us some of what comes next.”

Laurence took the proffered glass and smiled at his nephew. “And you, nephew, should know better than to berate a storyteller. Tomorrow I will tell you more. Any questions you may have now will be answered then.”

“Did Jothay really die?” Ryman asked as he accepted the goblet Erick held out for him. The red panda turned the glass between dark claws and narrowed his eyes. “It sounded like he did, but I wasn’t sure.”

Laurence smiled and sipped at the wine. “Ah, my good Prime Minister, the question is not whether he died, but whether or not you believe he died.” His whiskers twitched in mischievous delight as he settled onto one of the lounges. In a rather shocking display, he propped his bare paws on the lounge’s arm, and stretched his long toes. Ryman nearly dropped his goblet in surprise. King Albert merely regarded him with a detached amusement. Even Ambassador Kalder seemed more ill at ease than did Laurence’s King.

For Erick, it was a familiar sight. Laurence was a consummate showman, and right now, he knew that he could say or do anything he wished, because they each wanted to hear his tale more than to see him observe proper decorum. Still, Erick mused, it wouldn’t hurt his uncle to be a tad bit more discreet and put his foot paws down on the carpet like the rest of them!

The red panda managed to recover his wits with a quick drink and turned his eyes to one of the tapestries. “I’m not quite sure I see the distinction, master jongleur. History should not be a matter of opinion.”

“Ah, but it is,” a new voice said. Standing in one corner wearing the scarlet of Kelewair was Count Floran. About his neck was the charm that kept him free of the curses, and also the blue sash which marked him a member of the King’s Council. In truth he was merely the representative from the Duke of Kelewair, and an often unruly and uncooperative representative at that; prone more to pretty speeches and posturing displays of bravado than he was to actual policy. Erick had no idea why he’d been invited to hear Laurence’s tale.

“History is very much a matter of opinion, Prime Minister,” Floran continued, now facing them fully. His soft features were bit through with the faintest hint of sarcasm at the corner’s of his eyes. As Erick set his goblet aside and drew out his pipe, he exchanged a worried glance with Albert. But the King made no move to intervene.

Floran glanced discreetly in Albert’s direction. “For instance, this matter of absolving your ancestor of any role in, if I am not mistaken, the treachery from Salinon that nearly destroyed the Kelewair Duchy. That is what is about to happen, if I am not mistaken.”

Laurence sat a little straighter on the lounge and regarded Floran with an odd measure of sympathy. “Not all tales have happy endings, milord. It is not whether we win or lose a battle that is important. It is how we face our adversities that determines what sort of man we are. I think you will find some solace in that. Wouldn’t you agree, your majesty?”

King Albert nodded; slowly at first but with increasing confidence. “Indeed,” he sipped at his goblet. “One of the chief reasons that the race of men engages in war is because it cannot let go of the tragedies of the past.”

“One cannot forget the mistakes of history,” Floran said. He lifted his cup to his lips and added in a quieter voice, “Or you will make them again.”

“I did not say we should forget the mistakes of the past,” Albert pointed out. “I said let go of the tragedies.”

“Stories,” Laurence interjected. He finally put his feet down, and leaned forward, his eyes intense, “It is in stories that we must face that which we cannot face over the bargaining table. A story strips away all of our carefully crafted lies and leaves us only with the inescapable truth. We see what the real character of men are in the tales that are told. As you will, milord Count.”

Floran nodded but said nothing more. Erick was glad of that. For a moment he had feared years of diplomacy may have gone up in smoke. As if on queue, Father Rouse, who sat with his webbed fingers wrapped about the wide brimmed goblet more suited to his broad mouth, opened his lips and croaked, “Master jongleur, I know of Father Kehthaek, Felsah, and Akaleth. All Questioners know of them now. I myself was trained in the Akalene precepts of charity, clarity, and incomparability. But I confess I had never known these things about those three. Where did you hear of these things?”

Laurence leaned back in the lounge, his smile returning to his snout. “Ah, yes. This particular part of the Ecclesia’s history is one that it is not proud of. Many documents of that time are held secret. However, there are a few who strive to keep that memory alive, so as the good Count has pointed out, it will not happen again.”

“And you happen to have access to them?” Rouse leaned forward, red eyes peering at the rat with an intensity that Erick knew unnerved the few who had been unfortunate to receive an official visit from the Questioner. Rouse was certainly a kind priest, but he was also cagey and clever in a way that people did not expect.

Laurence took a long sip from his wine, dark eyes never leaving the frog. “Why, Father, a Questioner of the Akalene order never asks a question they don’t already know the answer to. I would not disappoint you by telling you otherwise.”

Rouse croaked in laughter and shook his head. “Very well, keep the secret for now. But you know I will want to learn more.”

“And you will, you will. Tomorrow.”

Timothy chortled. “Aye, we’ll all learn tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the day after that. Who knows how long this story will go on. Have you invited anyone else, uncle?”

Laurence winked. “A few more will show still. I hope.”

“Who?” Timothy pressed, whiskers twitching madly in anticipation.

“Life is much more interesting when it still surprises us,” Laurence replied, his greying snout brimming with impish delight. There could be no doubt he thoroughly enjoyed their frustration and need to know what came next.

Erick shook his head and removed the savoury pipe from the side of his mouth. “You are enjoying this far too much, Uncle.” He tapped the side of his goblet with one claw. A mischievous glint came into his eye. “One day you will have to write all of this down.”

The older rat scoffed, grey brows furrowing. “A true storyteller does not need to write his stories down! They live inside here and here.” He tapped his head and then his chest. “And you know I’ve said that many times before.”

Erick feigned injury. “Ah, you have struck me to the quick with your words, dear Uncle. But I fear for posterity’s sake. If you do not write it down, then who shall ever know it for the future? I doubt there is a storyteller alive who could master the words with such charm and wit as you.”

“And don’t you start kissing my tail either, Lord Matthias!” Laurence snapped, waggling one finger at his nephew. “Don’t think I don’t know that trick.”

Ryman Ertham coughed lightly, his frizzled tail flicking back and forth in agitation. “Hmm, your majesty, I think Lord Matthias makes an astute point. This is precious history that we will want to preserve. If perhaps Laurence Matthias spent a bit of time with the royal scribes or his old comrades from the Writer’s Guild...”

Timothy was the first to laugh, but he was quickly joined by Erick, and the rest. Even Albert found the look of disgust on Laurence’s face highly amusing. Laurence made sure to shoot the red panda an especially dark look before he lifted his goblet high. “Then let us make a toast to a story that should never be forgot!”

“Here here!” Albert bellowed in approval. Erick and the rest did the same a moment later.

Though the men retired for the night only an hour later, Laurence made sure to fill some of that time with a few embarrassing tales of Erick’s youth. Nothing scandalous of course, not in the presence of foreigners and potential political rivals; but enough to turn the Lord of the Narrow’s large ears a deeper shade of pink. Erick supposed he deserved it though, after cleverly saddling his uncle with the monumental task of writing his tale down. Even as he kept his muzzle firmly clamped around his pipe to hold back any embarrassed squeaks he might emit, he told himself it was a price well worth paying.

After Laurence had his fun, the men continued to entertain themselves with drink, pipe, and attempting to trick the jongleur into giving away some morsel about what was to come in the tale. But the elder rat cleverly rebuffed them all, either by turning the question back on them, or with an infuriating smile followed by a sip of wine. After their questions were expended, all they had to show for it was an hour’s worth of good wine, camaraderie, and smoke.

And then, without much fanfare, they all retired to their quarters to enjoy well-earned sleep. Erick had found Lise sitting at his desk studying reports from the Commerce Guild. Though her ears had turned towards his quiet entrance, she did not look up, allowing him a moment to admire her form. Her cream-coloured fur had glowed orange in the witchlight, and her eyes shone with a ghostly radiance. Erick had smiled and watched for a time, until she finally set the report down and turned to regard him.

“Are you going to stand there or come with me to bed?” she had asked, her voice soft, eyes appraising as they studied him head to tail.

Erick had chuckled lightly, ears blushing with chagrin. Moments later they were together in bed, and though it seemed unfair, it only seemed the blink of an eye before the morning sun shone through the high east windows. Erick rubbed the sleep from his eyes and groaned. Lise was already up, stirring something in the kettle on the fire.

“Good morning,” Lisa called to him over one shoulder. “I don’t know how much you and the others drank last night, but if you want to be in good cheer to hear more of the story, you are going to drink some tea.”

Erick bristled his whiskers and buried his face in his pillow.

An hour later and he was dressed in a light green open-sleeved doublet and hose. He had settled in the Main Hall with many of the excited children and the others who had come to hear more of the tale. By the grumpy look on Timothy’s face, he could tell that Lise had forced his cousin to imbibe the foul tea as well. That at least brought a grin to his snout.

Timothy saw Erick’s glance and came over. He shifted his cap between his ears with one paw and set the other over his belly. He stuck his long red tongue out as if he were gagging. “Your wife’s hospitality never ceases to amaze me. Reminds me of my mother. Are all Matthias women trained in the art of ruining a man’s morning?”

Erick laughed and patted Timothy on the shoulder. “I certainly think so. But don’t ever say I said so. I’ve had enough tea for one day.”

“Tea?” Ryman said from behind them. The red panda’s tail was even more frazzled than the night before. With one paw he idly stroked the fur, attempting to smooth it out. “Lady Matthias slipped me something utterly foul this morning with my breakfast. I still cannot get the taste off my tongue.”

“Couldn’t you smell it?” Timothy asked, one eye following the tip of Ryman’s tail.

“Well, after I’d already had a taste, yes!” He sighed and then smirked. “His majesty was clever enough to wait until after I took a sip. I fear the ivy on your southern wall received an unwanted soaking shortly thereafter.”

Both rats laughed for several seconds. King Albert was sitting a short distance away upon the makeshift throne that Robert had erected the day before. Though he could hear them, his attention was focussed on the ring of little rats circling his hooves. The children stared up at him with big eyes and awestruck expressions. Erick knew he should shoo them away from their majesty, but Albert appeared to be enjoying himself.

“And there’s Uncle Laurence,” Timothy declared, gesturing to the front entrance. “I wonder if he’s had his tea today.”

Erick turned and saw his Uncle standing with paws gripping either jamb. He was wearing bright colours, with sleeves that hung a foot from his wrists. His eyes were lucid, and when he opened his muzzle, there was no reek of Lise’s awful tea. “Good morning, friends, family, lords and ladies. Good morning to all our guests. It appears that everyone is here, and what is it you are here for, I wonder?”

King Albert chuffed and leaned forward in his seat. “I think you know very well why we’re here, master storyteller.”

“Uncle Laurence!” the children chimed, scampering from Albert’s legs over to the elder rat without any hesitation. They grabbed at his sleeves and tugged eagerly, swarming his legs so quickly that for a moment even Laurence appeared in need of help! “Tell us a story, Uncle Laurence!! We want to hear about grandpa Charles!!”

He laughed merrily and patted them on their heads each in turn. “Aye, aye, a story! That is why you have come!” He yanked one of his sleeves out of the paws of Erick’s eldest. “And if you would all take your seats, I will be glad to tell you more about Grandpa Charles and all the rest.”

Lise was up at his side moments later, shooing the children away from him. “Could I get you something to drink, Uncle?” she asked politely. It was so polite, completely lacking any hint of the malodorous concoction that was her intent, that Erick could only stare with muzzle agape at his wife’s chicanery.

But the elder rat only smiled to her. “You wouldn’t be preparing tea for me, would you?” At her sudden blush, he chittered in amusement. “Thank you, dear niece, but no, I shall forgo your wondrous tea. I have already enjoyed my repast with a bit of juice.”

She grimaced but nodded, coming back to where her husband was busy snickering with Timothy and Ryman Ertham. Once her back was to Laurence, she gave the three of them a scowl as of a mother to unruly children. Ryman sucked in his breath and politely excused himself to stand at Albert’s side. Timothy likewise left to find a corner he could hide in.

Erick smiled and held out his arm. “My, you are looking lovely this morning,” he said as she slid her arm in his. And she was, donning a gown of olive damask, with a jade pendant nestled just above her bodice.

“And you, dear husband.” Lise’s anger could not stay for long, and soon she erupted into a spirited laugh that lasted but a moment. When it was done, she shook her head and settled down on the steps next to Erick.

Laurence moved to the centre of the room with practised grace. He turned about and surveyed his audience with satisfaction. “Lords and ladies, strangers from afar, and all good folk who can hear my voice, welcome. We have heard of events three hundred years past, when the founder of the Matthias line and many others from Metamor did travel through the Barrier Range and into cities forbidden to the race of men. Through eldritch mountains and ancient forests they journeyed, and now they join in the company of he who was old when many of the dragons we know this day were young.

“We learned also of a trio of Questioners, knights from Sonngefilde, and the Magyars of the Steppe, as they were all thrown together in one of the oldest human cities in Galendor. We saw one of the great weapons of Yajakali, his sword, a blade of nine sides that craves human blood. And we heard what happened that Autumnal Equinox beneath the city of Yesulam, when strange ritual brought an end to Bishop Jothay, one of the Marquis’s chief allies.”

Laurence smiled faintly, eyes straying to one dark corner of the room. “But we also heard of unlikely heroes, great sacrifices, and surprises that we shall marvel upon for all time.” His smile broadened, and he looked away from the corner. Curious, Erick glanced into the shadows and saw something he did not expect. What he first took for a dog shone with a metallic hue, and bore the angular features of a fox. It’s face was fixed upon Laurence with calm but keen regard.

Erick opened his snout in surprise, and nearly said the creature’s name, but Laurence’s words brought his eyes back to the storyteller. “And now we continue this tale, and hear of sorrow and betrayal, of new ideas, of redemption and revenge, and of the most terrible loss. But there is joy and hope too, awaiting you this day. We near the final climax, but before the dawn shall come, we must first endure the blackest of nights.”

Laurence took a deep breath, and spread his arms wide, paws lifted to the ceiling. “And now I bring you this, one more chapter in this great saga. Let us hear more of this, the last tale of Yajakali!”

Cover | Contents | Prologue | Book I | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Interlude I
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue

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