All Deaths I Could Endure

June 29, 2011


It is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.

-1-

“And Saskia–if you could keep an eye on Virrel, I’d… he’s me brother, y’see.”

Saskia nodded, but Noel didn’t see; he’d already swept away, lost in some different thought. His posture was different from the campball coach she’d glimpsed before. Noel had the appearance of somebeast bruised and penitent, of a guttering candle’s soft and tilted flame. Virrel was his?

She remembered meeting Virrel once. The weasel had attempted to haggle with Merritt through intimidation, shoving a pile of books off the makeshift counter. Merritt had sent him scampering with a few choice words–too soft for Saskia to hear–and returned the books to the countertop, whistling as he dusted their covers…

Noel had decided that idiot ruffian was his full responsibility?

For the moment, however, that was unimportant. Saskia tried to organize her thoughts. There was a way to escape. She needed to find Merritt and Selendra, to get them ready to flee. Aloysius couldn’t leave–but he could fly, of course he could–he wouldn’t leave, then. He’d not forgive this, and she would lose him.

It wouldn’t do to forego what might be a last chance, not even with Aloysius’ friendship in the balance. To delay merely invited the escape route to be discovered in the meantime, to remain in Carter’s grasp might be suicide.

Only what matters, only think about what matters. Merritt. Selendra. You can save them. You can save yourself.

-2-

She had canvassed the Abbey, subtle queries into Selendra’s whereabouts yielding no result but a twisting sensation in Saskia’s chest and the feeling of being slowly smothered. Nothing, nothing, nothing again. Her inquiry to the Friar leaked desperation, her discomfort ruling over wisdom. He had asked if she needed chamomile to settle her stomach, or ginger tea.

Was Selendra gone, then? Disappeared by some scheme of Carter’s? Had she escaped first?

Saskia lurked on the north lawn, keeping guard as she pondered. Could she find Berend, perhaps? Or would they both have gone together?

Saskia spotted a wildcat wandering, playing some game known only to herself; she would run up to a spot, pounce, and then remain perfectly still for a moment before darting to another spot. A blanket, tied like a cape, trailed behind her as she ran.

The cat noticed her, gave her a long look. Saskia felt as though she were being measured up. The cat glanced around, then loped over. “Yer Saskia.”

“And you are?”

“C’n call me Bludd.” Bludd cocked her head to one side. “Better watch yerself! King Carter th’ Bloody sent me ter slit yer throat!”

Saskia felt a sudden wave of nausea. Oh, Hellgates. She tried not to tremble. “Does he?” Should I run?

Bludd bared her teeth and snarled. Saskia couldn’t help but jump back and let out an undignified whimper. Bludd’s eyes narrowed.

She burst out laughing.

“Got ya, din’t I? Shoulda seen yer face.”

Saskia let out a held breath, too relieved even to be angry. “You did.”

“Yer that mouse’s shipmate, aren’t ya?” Heard ya bin asking ’round.” Her ears flicked.

“Yes, Selendra. Do you know anything?” Saskia couldn’t keep hope out of her voice.

“I’m an assassin! King’s orders were ter poison ‘er grog.” Bludd looked at the ground. “I din’t.”

Oh no. “Did ‘e really?” Saskia grabbed Bludd’s shoulder, and the cat had to squirm hard to escape her grasp. “Don’t be joking with me about this. Is she alive, still?”

“Aye. She got out.”

“Oh thank the fates…” Saskia sank into a squat, down at Bludd’s eye level. Of course. The tunnel. She looked Bludd in the eye. “Thank you. For telling me, and… and for Selendra. Does Carter know Selendra’s gone? If ‘e ‘asn’t seen a body yet, you’d best get out yourself.”

“Don’t worry yer pretty bob-tail about me, matey. He thinks I slew ‘er, she cut off a bit o’ one of her lugs ta show him.”

“That settles that, then. I should go talk to Merritt–do you know who ‘e is?”

“That ferret with the fancy clothes, like a cap’n.” Bludd wrinkled her nose. “An’ books.”

“That’s ‘im. You need anything, you come talk to me, or to ‘im. Otherwise… I’d not tell anybeast wot you just told me.”

Bludd nodded, and her claws nibbled at the edge of her blanket-cloak. Saskia smiled and left. Merritt had mentioned something about picnicking, maybe he’d be outside.

Raimun died by poison, and now this? She’s not lying, she’d not be clever enough to say it was poison if she were. A image of Carter, gurgling and limp, flashed before her eyes unbidden, leaving behind it only a filth-smeared feeling of satisfaction.

-3-

Merritt sat in the grass, an old quarto volume of etymologies in front of him. He wasn’t reading it–it lay there closed, a ballroom floor for his paws as he shuffled a double-pack of cards. The deck arched, was held for a moment in tension, and then slumped into a unruly pile. Gabriel sat on the other side of the book, apparently taking a moment’s rest from the game to peer up at the sky.

Saskia thought she saw a whisper of a smile, almost smug, almost an echo of Merritt’s, but she knew she must be wrong.

“Two thousand to me, nine hundred thirty to you? Oh, hello Saskia, how is our… extended vacation from our troubles… treating you?” Merritt burbled. Gabriel nodded at the score.

“Wonderfully. Though perhaps not as beneficial to my canasta game as to yours, I see. I ‘ope you’re not playing ‘im for money, Gabriel.”

The otter smiled, but Merritt replied before he could. “Of course not.”

“Good. It’s a game for the devious-minded, I doubt ‘e’d ‘ave a chance.”

“Hmm. What do you need?”

“I need to talk to you.”

Merritt dealt. “Go ahead.” He picked up his hand and began sorting.

“Alone,” Saskia snapped.

Merritt glowered. “I’m having a perfectly nice day. Not ‘corrupting anybeast’s honor’. Nobeast who doesn’t want it corrupted, anyhow. I’m playing cards on the Abbey lawn and shortly I’m going to tea.” He made a tea-drinking gesture with his little claw stuck out. Gabriel muffled a laugh. “So if you’ve managed to get Isidore’s bees in your bonnet, could you possibly inform me of the fascinating and tedious details later?”

Saskia took a deep breath and put on a pleasant tone. “Wotever it is you’re attempting to deny you did, I’ll be bally interested to find out. I do think you’ll want to ‘ear this.”

Merritt stood up, laying his hand face-down on the book. Gabriel frowned. “Just a moment, Gabriel.”

Saskia steered him away from Gabriel, toward the north lawn. She could watch from there, as Noel had suggested.

“What is it?”

“Two things. First, there’s a tunnel out of ‘ere.”

“Hmmm. Well, that is a stumper. We’ll be leaving, of course, but who ought we take with us? Think I can convince him?” He nodded back at Gabriel.

“Not ‘ardly. This is his ‘ome. And if you’re thinking of leaving, then you’d best be concerned about convincing me. Second thing. Carter tried to ‘ave Selendra killed. She escaped.”

Merritt whistled quietly. “Wow. Your source is credible, I take it?”

Saskia frowned. “Not particularly. But seeing as Selendra’s gone from the Abbey I’m inclined to believe it. It’s… it’s better than thinking ‘e succeeded.”

“And you’re not going to leave?”

Saskia took a deep breath. “No. I can’t. I won’t leave Carter in charge ‘ere.”

Merritt gave her a long look. She could hear a distant voice on the breeze, the rustling of treetops. He nodded, and smiled. “Good.”

Saskia stared back, puzzled. “I would’ve thought you’d be ready to leave. Don’t tell me you’ve grown a conscience.” She glanced back at Gabriel. “Or ‘ave you met one, then?”

“Neither. Carter’s bad for business.”

“You ‘ave another reason.”

“Do I need one?”

“Most beasts, maybe not. But you do.”

He grinned, showing his teeth. “That’s for me to worry about. By the by, I have something of yours.” Merritt bent over, hiking up the cuff to his pants, displaying a finely-carved wooden sheath. He untied it, and handed it to her.

Saskia looked at him. “That was in the false bottom of my trunk.” She snatched up the blade and checked for otherbeasts within sight–only Gabriel, who was paying them no attention. It fit tightly against her calf, concealed by her long skirt.

“Not a very good false bottom, was it?”

“Evidently not.” She gritted her teeth.

“Mind you don’t get caught sending little vixens to look through my things, and I’ll keep my own paws out of yours.”

“It–” Saskia frowned. The blade was from her youth, when her parents still believed one day she would join the Patrol. The strap itched below her knee. “Thank you. I should ‘ave it with me.”

Merritt slung an arm around her shoulders in a brief embrace. “Don’t get yourself killed.”

“Wot’ll you be doing? Sunning yourself?”

“I’m sure I’ll occupy myself somehow, while the rest of you are taking sides.”

Saskia sighed. “I’m sure you will.” Merritt smiled, and rejoined his card game.

-4-

“Miss Saskia!” Tamarack leaned on a shovel, surveying the half-dug grave next to her. Cobb had gone to take a break, and she had an unusually pensive expression.

“I’d think you’d be a bit better at sneaking than to let Merritt catch you. Considering.

Tamarack’s ears drooped. “Oh.”

“Well.” Saskia flapped a paw. “‘e ‘ad a few words to say to me about it, was all.”

“Sorry. Um.” She looked down at the grave again. “This is for Mister Andrew…”

“Andrew’s dead? ‘Ow?”

She lowered her voice. “We think Carter killed him.”

“Seems likely. ‘E tried to kill Selendra. Thinks ‘e managed it, so I didn’t tell you that.”

“Fine… but I really wanted to talk to you about something else.” Tamarack fidgeted.

“Oh?”

“Well, you go around with Mister Merritt, right?”

Oh this can’t be good. “Yes?”

“I was wondering about some of them things in the, uh, pamphlets.”

Fates preserve me. “The…. those pamphlets?” Saskia cringed.

“Yes.” She caught Saskia’s expression. “Oh, nothing like that, I can tell how it works.” Tamarack scratched at an ear. “But I’ve got friends, like, um. Ripple, and Noel.” Saskia raised an eyebrow. “And I don’t know how to tell the difference with… friends, and that, and anything… anything between, I guess.”

“Noel’d be a bit old for you, wot?”

Tamarack nodded. “And he’s not a fox.”

“Far be it from me to scold you about that.” Saskia gave a crooked smile.

“You and Mister Merritt.”

“Augh, no, no, no,” Saskia spluttered. “No, never, ‘orrible… why would you even think that?”

“Well, you’re around him all the time, and you fight like you’re–”

“–So any’ow I couldn’t possibly complain. About any interest on your part, in Ripple. Or Noel, I suppose, given some seasons.” Saskia was certain the insides of her ears were a brilliant shade of scarlet. “Besides, Merritt would never–”

“–He’s like the pirates in that one book he has, ain’t he?”

“Never read it.”

“But you have… you’ve had feelings about somebeast as wasn’t a hare, you’re saying.”

Saskia swallowed hard. “Yes.”

“Was he handsome?”

“Very, and intelligent, and not kind precisely. Could be cruel. But sweet enough in ‘is own way. Everybeast was so jealous of me.” She grinned. “‘E was a squirrel.”

Was?”

“Oh, ‘e’s still alive somewhere, I s’pose. Parents decided ‘e ought to be properly courting a squirrelmaid. ‘E listened.”

“That’s not very.” She frowned, searching for a word. “Romantic. Or decent, seems to me.”

Saskia hung her head. “Guess it depends wot you think about that sort of thing,” she muttered. “Anyway, I can’t tell you ‘ow it ‘appens, getting from friends to pamphlets. It just ‘appens.”

“But what does it feel like?”

“Feels like you couldn’t imagine feeling any other way,” Saskia said, decisively ignoring any other possible interpretation of the question.

“Not much of an answer.”

“It’s the answer I’ve got. Any’ow, if you’re more curious, can always ask me about this type of thing later. Feel like we’re being watched, out ‘ere in the open.”

“I should get back to digging.”

“I should… I don’t know wot I should do. Oh, ‘ere, one thing I should do is give you this.” Saskia fished a pamphlet out of her pocket. Policraticus, on the Right to Revolt, the title read. “Take this ‘ome, and leave it around where somebeast might read it. And don’t let anybeast know you ‘ave it. It says some things about beasts like the Abbot.”

Tamarack slipped the paper into her own pocket and saluted.

“If you know anybeasts who might want something like it, just find me.”

Saskia felt a pang, letting a younger beast bear the burden of something that might… best not to think about it. She would go to see Aloysius, maybe then she would feel better.

-5-

“Oh dear, Saskia, you look as though you’ve fallen down the stairs, down the stairs.”

“I’m perfectly well, Faraday.”

“Faraday?”

“Oh. Sorry. I was thinking of somebeast else, lately. I’ve lost my ‘ead entirely, ‘aven’t I?”

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