Guilt By Association

June 1, 2011

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

Saskia did not particularly like feasts; the clamor and bustle offended some fragment of her tradesbeast’s conscience, as they served to produce no concrete result. She wondered whether Aloysius would approve of the feast as an end in itself, as innocent celebration. Was that an acceptable excess or would the bat stay shuttered in his own chambers, ascetic and disapproving? The honest effort of preparation, she supposed, might appeal to him, though maybe not as much as the new books she’d delivered.

Aside from Aloysius’ order, she had sold a few pamphlets of sticky-sweet romantic poetry to a young mouse fellow, a brewer’s book to one of the cellar-keeper hedgehogs, and so forth. Worthy purchases all, but Saskia had little to do that morning but tend to the occasional browser and watch Merritt’s ridiculous posturing as he, at least, had steady business.

A young squirrel in a Redwall habit stood across from the ferret, three pamphlets and a small cloth-bound book clutched to his chest. Merritt shook his head mournfully.

“…yes, well, if you’re a half-mark short I’m not certain I can manage that, young sir.”

Saskia pondered the damnable lightness of her own coin purse.

“But–I s’pose you’re right. Just the two, then?” the squirrel chirped.

“For seventy, I can give you all three pamphlets, if you like. Consider it a gift for a good customer.”

The squirrel fumbled for his money. “Thank you!”

The book the squirrel hadn’t bought disappeared under the table before Saskia could get a look at the title. She imagined a few, along the same lines as what she’d printed for him: The School For Girls, Memoirs of a Fine Ladybeast

The squirrel paid and left, and finally Merritt didn’t have a customer.

“Goodness, Merritt, I’d think that fellow was old enough to know better. If not to do better, clearly.”

“I was selling him philosophy,” Merritt said, annoyance peering through his usual veil of good humor. “And none of that nonsense Sheridan has you printing, neither.”

“As though you’d know about it,” Saskia snapped back.

“In males, we various ruling passions find,
In females two almost divide the kind;
Those, only fixed, they first and last obey,
The love of pleasure, and the love of sway,”
Merritt recited, giving the whole thing an air of a schoolyard taunt, rhymes exaggerated and stretched to the point of breaking. “I do read these things, you know. And I always did wonder which it was with you, pleasure or sway. Seeing as you aren’t pleased to inform me what it is you do with your saved wealth.” He flashed Saskia a placid smile.

“You ‘ad best be accustomed to wondering, wot? An’ last I ‘eard about it, you were a male… but nobeast ‘as to ask about your ‘ruling passion,’ do they?”

“Hm.” Merritt jingled the coins in his pocket. “‘Least I can afford mine on my salary. And speaking of otherbeasts’ passions and my salary, do you mind horribly if we stay the night? I have some business yet to be done that, well, might best be done after nightfall.”

Saskia sighed. “Not as though you’re asking. I’d wager those otter fellows wot you ‘ired to pull the cart won’t be back until tomorrow morning?”

“I’m sure you can find something to occupy you. Maybe ask Aloysius to read you some poetry. ‘Males, some to business, some to pleasure take–‘ ”

“But every female is at ‘eart a rake,” she cut in, rolling her eyes.

“What do you mean by rake?” a young but scratchy voice asked.

“Oh, Miss Tamarack, I hadn’t seen you there!” Nor had Saskia, absorbed in fending off Merritt’s–Merritt’s–whatever that bally ferret had on his mind.

The vixen had the look of a dibbun with a mouthful of stolen pie. “I saved up like you said I ought to, Mr. Merritt.”

Saskia buried her face in her paws. She teetered on the narrow precipice between moral outrage and sheer nausea.

“I see you have! Well now. That would be about enough for two of these.”

Saskia heard the rustling of papers inside one of Merritt’s boxes. Even without looking, she knew she’d printed them; not because her paws were stained with the ink of all Merritt’s wares–he printed plenty himself–but because the bally perversity of the universe wouldn’t have it any other way.

“What happened to her?” Tamarack asked.

“She talks to Brother Aloysius too much. See anything you like?”

“Let’s see… this one… and this? Aye.”

Control yourself. It’s not as though she’s buying anything you haven’t read. Saskia took a deep breath and uncovered her face. Tamarack tucked two pamphlets into her pocket.

“A pleasure, miss.”

Tamarack grinned, and then suddenly frowned. “Miss Saskia, I was wondering if I could talk to you for just a minute.”

Saskia nodded and stood, wobbling a bit as a sudden spell of lightheadedness came and went. Haven’t eaten, have I? She wasn’t hungry.

The hare looked around for a place within view of the table they could speak without Merritt overhearing. She took two full steps toward the side of the gatehouse before she reconsidered and led Tamarack toward the Abbey proper.

“Wot is it, Tamarack? Never ‘ad you concerned with any of my books.”

“Boring old things. I was thinking maybe you could help with this,” she said, and a paw dove into the pocket that didn’t hold Merritt’s pamphlets, retrieving a cloakpin. “I found it, and I want to know what it is.” A little red gem glittered in the centre of it–Saskia thought it looked remarkably similar to the chip of ruby in her mother’s ring.

“Looks like a Redwall thing, doesn’t it? You could ask Brother Aloysius.”

Tamarack squirmed. “Aye, could do. But everybeast says you have books on all kinds of things. The best books,” she added.

“Flattery won’t work, I’m a bit old to fall for that bally trick,” Saskia muttered. “Also you just called ’em ‘boring’.” She peered at the pin up close.

“Still, can you help?”

Who knows where she got this thing, but I’m supposed safe to ask because… because I come here with Merritt. She tried not to think about it, or about what Aloysius, or her parents, or the Abbot would think. But she’s a little sneak, this one…

“Yes, but only for pay.” The words tumbled out, flat and heavy enough that she half-expected to hear them splat upon hitting the ground.

Tamarack’s head drooped, and she gestured toward the paper in her pocket. “But I spent–”

“I know, but I ‘ave an idea. You can do me a favor.”

“What kind?”

“Well, Mister Merritt ‘as a book ‘idden back in one of those boxes. And if anybeast puts a paw on it, ‘e looks like there are ants down the back of ‘is trousers.”

The vixen’s eyes lit up. “And you want me to go nosing ’round the spine.”

“If you can. It’s a fancy one, red with little bits of gold in the cover. You try to get a good look inside that, and I’ll try to find out about your pin.”

Tamarack stuck out a paw, eyes glittering with mischief. Saskia felt the ground sway beneath her as she shook on the deal. Dipped your paws right in the muck, now, haven’t you?

Merritt stared at Saskia as she returned to their cart.

“No, I won’t tell you.” She paused as a realization dawned far later than necessary. “And why in the name of ‘ellgates would you be quoting that nonsense at me. ‘Ruling passions’ in-bally-deed. You don’t believe any of that.”

He smirked. “No, I don’t find anybeast limited to just the one passion, at the very least. But I think you believe ‘that nonsense.’ That’s why it took you so long to remember I didn’t.”

“I do not!”

“As you please…”

“Oh, you–” Saskia huffed. “Just watch the cart, would you? I’ll be back.” She stomped off in the direction of the Great Hall. Battling Merritt was just like sport in her school days: She hated losing.

Inside the Great Hall, the preparations for the feast had bubbled up and boiled over. All around, beasts scurried from one door to another with ingredients or decorations or prepared food. A gang of Skipper’s otters was moving furniture; Saskia spotted Gabriel among them, who she’d witnessed escaping Merritt unsullied. He caught her eye and favored her with a bright and honest smile; a nod substituted for a wave, since his paws were occupied supporting one of the broad oaken altars that served as banquet tables.

Saskia noticed Ripple slowly navigating the hall, his double-armful of streamers dangling behind him, unduly bright plumage for a beast who mostly preferred to disappear. He looked as though he’d rather be elsewhere, having a few quiet moments with his cards and watercolors.

“Can I ‘elp you?”

Ripple scowled for a second but then reconsidered, nodding gratefully.  Saskia scooped up half the streamers.

“So, um,” the otter began, “what’s yer mum like, anyway?  They gave her awful crummy numbers.”

Saskia laughed.  “I never ‘eard much about wot she did with the Long Patrol, I was still young when she left, she and my pa.”

They both dropped their loads of streamers next to a hedgehog and a squirrel maid, who giggled and gossiped as they tied bows and hung them over doors.  Ripple led Saskia back toward a stairwell.

“Mums are all the same though, bet yours is mostly the same as mine.”

Ripple paused on the bottom step.  “Um.  Sure.  Maybe.”  He took the steps carefully, one at a time and Saskia followed behind him.

“Oh.”  She frowned at his back.  “Something ‘appened.”   

He shrugged.  “She, um, died when I was little.  I’m fine now.  Skipper’s still–”  He waved a paw expressively.

“Were they close, then?”

“Well, yeah…  Oh.  Sorry.  Skipper’s my dad.”

“Ah.  That explains…” …rather a lot, actually… “…why ‘e’d still be upset.”

“I guess.  Um.  I don’t know who to ask.  I found someth–” He paused.  “I guess it’s not important.”  Ripple stumbled over a step and Saskia moved to catch him, but he righted himself and leaned against the wall.  “Say, yer from the outside.  I been wonderin’, do beasts out there know about the lockdown?”

“Somebeasts do.  It’s–it’s like a rumor, is wot it is.  Everybeast saying something or other and ‘alf of them don’t ‘ave their stories the right way ’round.”

Ripple kept climbing.  He limped more heavily, and fidgeted with the collar of his habit.   “Ah.”

“I don’t…” Saskia cringed.  Something was wrong, and she’d done it.  “I’m.  I’m sorry about your mum,” she mumbled.   

“Uh, it’s fine, really… Do they know there’s no letters goin’ out?”

“Huh?  Er, I’m not sure.”

Ripple frowned, and turned down a hallway, Saskia still trailing behind him like a lightning-struck kite.

Saskia decided to fill the silence as Ripple opened a closet door.  “Somebeasts don’t like it much, ‘ow the Abbot decided ‘e could keep all of you in ‘ere.”

“Aye.  An’ I’m one of ’em.” He paused. “Well, I don’t mind the stayin’ in part.  But not sendin’ letters is stupid. I don’t mean no disrespect, but I can’t even play my game.  Only beast interested is Virrel, an’ I’m not allowed near him anymore…  an’ Foweller, an’ he probably hates me now…”

“I don’t know what to tell you.”  Saskia laid a paw on the otter’s shoulder.  He glared ineffectually at a shelf of streamers above his head.  “I’ll get those.”  As she reached up, she noticed a stain on Ripple’s collar, just where her paw had been.  No, nothing on my paw.

As they descended, she pondered his words.  Couldn’t hurt.  “If you’re serious about that whole… ‘not liking the Abbot keeping you inside’ bit, ask Brother Aloysius for the book I gave ‘im.  Not Moral Essays, the other one.  That beast is one of the ones who’s wondering what’s going on ‘ere.”

Ripple nodded, whether in agreement or dismissal she couldn’t tell.

“And I’ll try to keep Merritt from… bothering you too much, if you like?”   

“Botherin’? He, uh… only sold me cards… that’s not a bother at all.”


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