Burn After Reading

May 24, 2011

Manners with fortunes, humours turn with climes,
Tenets with books, and principles with times.

“Aloysius, as always a pleasure.”  Merritt grinned.

“About so much a pleasure as ever, ever,” the bat replied, half-fluttering out of the way as Merritt tugged a heavy wooden trunk down from the back of the cart.  “Good morning, Saskia.  I hope the journey found you well?”

Saskia nodded.  “Oh, I’ve got the edition of Moral Essays you wanted, just here.  I ‘ad to correct the Cobham sections myself, nobeast else ‘ad it in print.”  She reached behind a crate of dubious provenance–one of Merritt’s–and plucked the handsomely-bound volume out of her own boxful of previous orders and passed it to the bat.  Aloysius wasn’t a very profitable customer, but if she could pick up a few marks here and there, all the better.

Merritt leaned in.  “And if ever you get tired of moral essays–”

“I’m bally well certain ‘e knows where to find you.  Aloysius, I’ll be along shortly with your other book.  Need to talk to you, too.”  Saskia hefted a trunk full of Merritt’s ridiculous trinkets–some complicated game or other with printed bits–absurd, but apparently financial alchemy.  Merritt raved about it turning ink into gold.

“I’ll wait for you in the gatehouse, I have some copying to do, copying to do.”  The bat trundled off, and Saskia turned back to unloading the cart.

Merritt had finished with his own wares, and both of them reached for the last box at the same moment, the ferret getting a grip on it first.  As he lifted it, a book tumbled down, striking Saskia in the chest.  She caught it, and examined the cover.  Its binder hadn’t bothered to grace it with a title, yet it was of the finest quality, morocco with a bit of gold tooling–

Merritt snatched it from her paws.  “Now, now, best not let a delicate lady such as yourself look through that.”  He winked, but Saskia kept her eyes on his–the usual sunny mischief in his expression had been occluded by something less comforting.  Merritt flicked his wrist and sent the gilt-covered book flying into one of his crates of less-than-savory wares.  It landed like a one-legged raven, tilted and crimped.

“Shouldn’t keep the fair Brother waiting.  I can set everything up while you talk to him,” Merritt said, and he handed Saskia the other book Aloysius had ordered, a draft copy of some philosophical treatise on rightful government.  It had been the first text she’d enjoyed typesetting for Sheridan in what felt like months.

Saskia glared at Merritt.  He smiled back, book in paw.

“Fine.”  She snatched the volume and strode off toward the gatehouse, casting a glance behind her and seeing Merritt retrieve the gilt-covered book he’d thrown.

She knocked on the gatehouse door.  “Come in!”

Saskia entered the gatehouse.  Paper covered every flat surface, looking as though somebeast with a careful and stubborn heart had taken it upon himself to sort and stack the autumn leaves.  It had much the same musty smell as autumn too, the smell of cinnamon and ditchwater characteristic of ancient books.

“Thank you for bringing these.  You can leave the other…” Aloysius paused to scan the room. “Oh, on top of this stack would serve well, serve well.  My apologies for the mess, Miss Saskia.”

“Not at all.  I’d ‘oped to ask you whether y’think we should be printing a new edition of Moral Essays.”  Saskia happened to glance out of Aloysius’ narrow window and realized she could see Merritt.  She perched herself on the edge of the desk as a vantage point, half-sitting and half-leaning, her back mostly to the bat.  A pile of loose papers shifted, but Aloysius halted the avalanche with an outstretched wing-tip.

“I should advise you, I would think, that I am hardly qualified to offer business advice, miss.”

“Rather, but per’aps you could at least offer some judgment on the work for itself?”

Outside, Merritt conversed with a tall otter who almost matched the ferret in manic energy, constantly shifting weight.  Saskia remembered him, faintly, from a previous visit–Gabriel, was it?   Merritt dug through a box.

Aloysius scratched his head with a claw.  “I hardly know where to begin, to begin. It is a fine work, to be certain, but I could not say if you would profit from its printing.”

“If it’s a work of merit, Sheridan could be convinced.”

Gabriel shook his head at whatever Merritt was brandishing, giving it hardly a glance.  Good for him.

“Sheridan always struck me as a fine gentlebeast, gentlebeast.”

Saskia tried not to snort.  ” ‘e’s got a unique taste, true, and much of wot we print wouldn’t be printed elsewhere.”  Because it’s bally rubbish.

“He does a fine service to us here, that is for certain.  Though I do wish your coming to Redwall so often was not at the cost of…”

Aloysius looked out the window as well.  Gabriel still stood across from Merritt, who swayed like a willow in a stiff wind as he spoke.  Gabriel laughed, and that sound penetrated even the gatehouse walls.

Saskia shifted and slipped off the edge of the desk, taking a sheaf of paper with her.  Aloysius fumbled for it as it slid to the floor.  “Oh, sorry!”

“I have been reorganizing the archives, I’m afraid, I’m afraid,” he explained.

“Ah.  As I ‘ad been about t’ say, some things…”

Saskia looked outside.  Gabriel nodded assent to something Merritt had said, and then walked away.  He wasn’t carrying anything.

“…some things, well, they may be regrettable, but they can’t often be ‘elped.”  Saskia felt as though she were back at school.  Aloysius was the strict schoolmarm to whom she offered answers only as half-questions, fearing disapproval.

Aloysius looked down at the papers he held, shaking his head.  “Perhaps.”  He sat the papers atop their stack.  “Was there anything else, miss?”

Saskia kept her gaze fixed on Merritt; she saw a young otter step up, a heavy limp marring his stride.  Probably after those cards, but…

“No, no, Brother, I really ought t’ be on my way, wot!  So I’ll just, I’ll be going along, then.”

“Mmmm.  Fare you well, you well.”  He bowed slightly, as far as the size of his wings would allow in the cramped space.  Serenity, if not a smile, had crept back into his expression.

“Thank you.”

Saskia approached warily.  Merritt had sat down on a crate, all the better to be at eye level with his customer.  Saskia might’ve called it his “gale-force” sales pitch.  The young otter was half turned away from Merritt, and shielding his eyes from the sun with one paw.

“Well, Mister Ripple, I do happen to have a set of new watercolors–which, since these are the newest cards, just came out–”

“Um, Fourth Edition?”  Ripple’s eyes lit up.

“Yes, just got them printed last week!  And I can get you a package deal on the watercolors, ten pennies off the whole price if you throw in the new map for three pennies.  Should be plenty of colors for sprucing up all these cards and the map besides!”

Saskia watched.  I’d wager a month’s wages that ten-penny discount is about as mythical as the Ribbajack.  She spoke up.  “‘ere, lad, don’t let this ‘uckster take your whole allowance.”

Ripple looked at his own paws.  Merritt scowled, and stared at Saskia.  “Oh, Ripple.  This is Saskia.  She has some books of moral poetry that I’m absolutely certain would interest a lively young fellow such as yourself.”  He drummed his claws on the side of the crate idly, head cocked to the side as though in dreamy contemplation of a cloud.  “Or perhaps not.”

“Well, can’t blame me for trying to wrest ‘im from your claws.”

“Ah, well, you’re Aloysius’ favorite and I get everybeast else.  Seems fair.”  He turned back to Ripple, while Saskia sat down on a crate beside his.  “Speaking of fair, I do have a Sunflash the Mace, Second Edition, which I believe you said you were in the market for?”

Ripple grinned.  “Ye remembered!”

Merritt dug through his box of game cards.  “Ah, yes, here it is.”  He held it out to Ripple, who cradled it in his paws.  Saskia thought the little otter might be shaking in awe, but maybe it was a breeze stirring the card.  It was beautifully painted, she had to admit.  “I might be convinced to throw in a Rosalie, First Lieutenant, if you like.”

Ripple snorted.  “I wouldn’ be payin’ fer it, that’s fer sure.”

“Merritt, you bally–” Saskia hissed.  Ripple gave them an uncertain look, as though he wanted mostly to flee but was held transfixed by the promise of cards.  “That’d be my mum,” Saskia said.  Ripple cringed.

“Oh, wow, yer mum’s a Long Patrol hare?” he asked weakly.

“Less interesting than it sounds, don’cha know.”

Merritt cut in. “Yes, yes, I’m very touched–”

“Yes, I’d say you’re pretty touched,” Saskia stage-whispered.  Ripple hid a grin with his paw.

“–but, anyhow.  The Sunflash is twenty, and fifteen for the new starter species, five for their weapons, three for the river map, plus sixty for the watercolors.”

“Thought you were giving ‘im a discount on the watercolors, wot?”

Merritt forced a smile.  “Right you are.  Fifty, my mistake.”

Ripple counted out his coins.

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