Grace (Found Briefly)

June 9, 2011

After meeting Noel, Selendra returned to the Nameday Feast. She kept to the shadow of the belltower, away from the games and gluttony and commotion. Her neckerchief made her itch and sweat; she tied it, untied it, eventually tucked it into the waist of her skirt. A match flared and then fell from her paw. She champed the stem of her pipe.

Someone joined her: a ferret.

“It’s a lovely evening,” she said. He smiled; they stood there in the dark each like one half of a different pair of lovers, each waiting for some other elusive beast. After a pause of some minutes, she addressed him a second time: “It’s your turn to say something, Merritt. I’ve talked about the weather.”

“Whatever you want me to say, I will. Formalities, a poem, something ribald–”

“Poem. A good one.”

“Good at its heart? Or popular, lots of stirring empty-headed words, maybe a heaving bosom or two?”

“Merritt,” she snapped. “Don’t toy with me.”

“Sorry, then.

From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead beasts rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea
.”

“Hum.” She tapped the ashes out of her pipe. “You always know how to bother me.”

“Yes. But I also meant it’ll end.”

She sighed and lit her pipe again. She last met her contact weeks ago, for a delivery of parcels at the wicker gate. She had taken a crate filled with tinkling jars: someone had marked the marjoram’s lid, for “joy.” On delivery to the kitchen she opened the jar and found a dried nasturtium amongst the herb– that was for “victory.” Julian had reached Salamandastron.

She also found a sprig of prince’s feather, meant only for her.

“Where’s Berend?” she asked. “No one told you anything?”

“No.” He dug in his pocket. “I’ve got to show you the most remarkable pamphlet, though, it’s about Case– things even I never thought I’d see–” He offered her a crumpled, sextodecimo booklet.

She turned it over in her paws and then tore it down the middle. “That’s not funny. Who made this?”

“Wasn’t Saskia,” he said. “Wasn’t anyone I know.”

“Don’t talk to me. Bother someone else.”

She stalked away, but Merritt called her back. “Come, then, Sel, some little words. You know how fond I am of you.

I prophesy, with feet upon a grave,
Of freedom, though all beasthood were one slave;
Of truth, though all the world were liar; of love,
That time nor hate can raze the witness of
.

“So you see, I’m not so bad,” he said, and gallantly he kissed her paw. “Go.”

The bats swooped overhead, stirring the already-riotous feast. Isidore’s head pounded with a surfeit of sour white wine as he and Brother Aloysius led the new guests away. He felt trapped in one of those dreams that haunt soldiers years after their tours: running-dreams with arrows, high fires, and breezes that tug and might really be the enemy’s clutching paw.

The otter at the gate heralded their approach. Together they divided the guests into three lines, to take papers. One mousemaid in Isidore’s procession wore garlands of flowers on her neck and on one arm. She laughed when she saw him. “Halloo,” she said, “you’re the beekeeper?”

He squinted at her papers. Berend Beecham of Rillrock. Herbalist and midwife, here by invitation of–

“Selendra tole me all about you.” She beamed. “We met at market, though, you ‘n me. That wax you sold, I use it for salves and I swear there’s naught better.”

“Well, thank you,” he said, and he returned her papers.

He and Aloysius finished their queues. The otter at the gate elbowed Isidore. “You got your paper, ratty?”

“Rigg,” said Aloysius, “don’t tease. Isidore is a Brother, a Brother.”

“Oh, I know– I’m only kiddin’.”

“Aye,” said Isidore. “It isn’t any trouble.”

He joined the festivities. He was happy just to watch the dragon-tongue flickers of gentian blue at the heart of the bonfire; he thought of a night long ago when he had addressed a teeming crowd, like this, just like this, and each of them had held a torch so a field of light like endless stars burned beneath him.

But those were idle dreams: he had yet to apologize to Skipper’s son.

First, though, he found Selendra. She stood at the fireside with a lanky hare and the mousemaid Berend.

They spoke absently, about the food and the sweet night air. “Do you remember,” said the hare, too voluble, “that dreadful thing the schoolmistress recited every evening when she made us tramp about the yard?”

“Fates, do I!” said Sel. “You know, she was the fattest cat I’d ever seen… I always thought she might pounce if I didn’t keep an eye on her.”

“No, that’s the old ferret Merritt did drawings for,” said Berend. “Jack, jill, dib, he’d jump ’em.”

He noticed Berend’s left arm ended in a stump at the elbow. Her garlands stopped him from appraising the napped, worn fabric of her shift.

Isidore found it curious Selendra had befriended someone so obviously deficient, yet it was admirable in its way. He esteemed Selendra for the temper of her soul. Her spirit was of particularly strong, masculine quality; it shone through in her large and knuckled paws, in her hoarse, smoke-parched voice. Best of all she was one of those rare, very rare females who did not take the world for granted, never wearied her beauty with powders or milks even in the smallest quantity, enjoyed the sweat of honest work.

“Oh, don’t talk to me about Merritt.” Selendra massaged her temples. “He made me so angry–”

“What now?” said the hare.

Selendra sighed. “He had one of his dreadful pamphlets.”

“Is he–” Isidore hesitated. “He’s the one that circulates… Aloysius had said. Don’t–”

“Look,” said the hare, “Let’s not talk about ‘im. I’ve told ‘im ‘undreds of times, I stamp my foot and ‘e’s never once listened to me.”

“You’re his partner,” said Isidore.

“I– no!” the hare stammered. “I mean, I know ‘im. But I’d never…”

“Come here,” he said, tugging her away from the fireside. “I must speak to you.” He placed a paw on her shoulder. “There is no room for filth in the Abbey. I won’t tolerate it. And if you– your influence– might corrupt Selendra–”

She snorted, and she brushed his paw away. “Don’t lecture me.”

“If you should like a good friend, or good work, I live here.”

“No,” she said. “I don’t even know you.”

“All right.”

He turned back to the pair of mice. Berend dressed Selendra with garlands, calling the flowers’ names. “Here’s chamomile,” she said, “columbine, and pheasant’s eye. Give one of these to Sebastian, ‘n Flint. This is yarrow. That’s for the Abbot, if he wants it.”

He caught young Ripple on the stairs to the attic. The otter flinched away from him. His bowl of shrimp slopped broth on the floor.

“Let me be. I worked it off now,” he said.

But Isidore gently tapped his back. “I was a fool. I apologize.”

“All right, then,” said Ripple, and shuffled away.

Isidore followed him into the library. “Listen.”

The event of that afternoon had made a profound impression on him and aggravated his nerves; it was perfectly in keeping with his code of ethics and yet had disturbed him utterly. He had not been so cruel in a long, long time. His actions shone like the bright patch on a wall when some object has been taken away and the rest of the surface has dimmed and dirtied. “You see, I regret it. But if you should ever need a friend, then I am here. I would like to teach you.”

“I got friends, sir. I got a teacher. Brother Aloysius.”

“I mean if you would like to build things, or grow them… I am sure you have an able mind, and you should exercise it.”

“I do. It’s all I got.” He waddled to his desk.

“Well. Good night.”

“G’night.”

Isidore’s paw pushed the door open but he turned at the otter’s cry. “Mister Isidore! Mister Isidore! Come quick, there’s–”

“Aye?”

“There’s somebody in the stacks.”

The library’s darkness descended on Isidore, a pitch that pressed on all sides and made his whiskers prickle. A creaking moan split the silence. Isidore rounded one of the shelves. There in the deepest shadow, somebeast lay crumpled like an old, dry beetle belly-up in dust; the figure’s claws scuttled over the spine of a book. Ripple peeped from behind Isidore. “It’s Brother Raimun,” he said.

Isidore knelt beside the mouse. Yellow foam covered his chin. “Please, please,” he croaked, clutching blindly at Isidore’s habit. “Carter…”

“Lad,” Isidore snapped. “Find the Abbot– stop sniveling so. Tell no one.” He patted Raimun’s cheek. “He’ll be here soon, Brother.”

Raimun shuddered, and died soon thereafter. There in the silence, Isidore held the Recorder, stroking the old mouse’s paw.

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