Should I Wade No More

July 21, 2011


And fill me from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood,
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it!

Saskia bit into a tea biscuit. The delicacy of lemon and fine sugar were interrupted by a hot blossoming of pain as she caught her tongue between teeth. She swallowed, and the bitter memory of lemon mixed with the filthy black-iron taste of blood in her mouth, the sugar departing entirely.

“Good?”

“Mmmf. Bit my tongue.” Saskia spat red on the ground beside her and swallowed blood again.

Merritt offered her a kerchief, perfect white and fringed with spiderweb-thin lace, but she waved him off. No reason to stain such a fine thing. She sipped at her tea instead, setting the cup back atop the makeshift picnic table they’d fashioned from Merritt’s empty crates.

“I’ve been doing well lately,” Merritt said. “The more seditious flavors of philosophy are selling quite well. Can hardly abide the risk, though.”

“You’re known to be a friend of Selendra and that idjit Gabriel about tried to punch Rigg’s muzzle off. No ‘iding for you, pretending to not take a side.” Saskia frowned. “Not that you’ve taken that to ‘eart, ‘ave you?”

Merritt spread his paws wide. “If Carter or Rigg or anybeast of their party wishes to retain the goodwill of the Abbeybeasts who believe themselves righteous, they’ll have to present evidence in public.”

“Evidence. Like they did for Raimun. Or for Andrew. And Aloysius stands aside and says nothing still, ‘im as righteous as any of ’em.”

Merritt fell silent. He sipped his own tea. Was this to be a council of war, then? Saskia imagined her parents planning for the battles of their glory days, but she couldn’t pry their wisdom from her own memories. Did she fancy Merritt her commander? No. Would she be his, then? Saskia smothered a laugh. He’d never allow it, he’d never let Selendra control him before and wouldn’t let her do it now. This wasn’t a battle anyhow, nothing so dignified. The Abbey lawn was not the field of honor.

No matter how Isidore might delude himself that it was so.

A few beasts walked by as she and Merritt drank and ate in silence, engrossed enough in their own conversations to pay no mind to the picnickers. Among them was Foweller, who slowed his steps, looking a bit too conspicuously nonchalant. Saskia leaned down to refill her cup but kept a careful eye on him, seeing him duck behind their cart.

“Merritt, wot’s the name of that otter chap who was ‘arassing you earlier?” Saskia murmured.

“The kit? Foweller, I think it was. About the right age to start being a proper customer, I half-expect him to come dragging his tail–ah, poor choice of words, innit?–back to me wanting some… more interesting literature.”

“Pornography.”

“Blunt today, aren’t you?”

“Pardon me for a moment.” Saskia rose and quietly stepped over to the cart, giving it a heavy shove. It tilted away from her momentarily but didn’t tip; it slammed back onto the ground where it had been. A yelp came from behind it, and Foweller scampered out, glowering.

“Ah.” Merritt frowned.

“And just wot did you think you were doing back there?”

“I… I… ” Foweller cringed briefly before abandoning his defenses to conduct a counterattack. “I got one of them p–por–nasty pamphlets, the one ya gave Ripple. ‘Filth that must be cleansed.’ Oughta take it to the Abbot.”

Merritt raised his eyes to the heavens, intoning dramatically to nobeast in particular. “And what is it he thinks will happen to me then, this callow youth? The Abbot is not a complete imbecile, he already knows–”

Saskia ignored him.

“And you were there why, again?” She let the question hang in the air. Foweller glared. “Never mind, I know why. I’d not be making trouble, if I were you. Beasts could get ‘urt.”

“Good sapper never let that stop ‘im, marm.”

“If I’d pushed a little ‘arder, you’d be bally well missing a leg, too. Go on.”

Foweller looked as though he intended to say something else, but trudged off instead.

Saskia turned back to Merritt, eyes narrowed. “Wot’re you ‘iding? Should be worried.”

Merritt smiled, beatific, and offered her another biscuit.

“Miz Saskia? Oi be needing to talk to you’m.” Cobb cast a dubious glance over at Merritt. “Alone.”

Merritt snorted, and Saskia led Cobb off on a walk across the lawn–or, more appropriately, a trundle. She nearly tripped over her own feet, taking strides short enough to match his.

“Wot could you be needing, Mister Cobb? Some tracts on vegetable gardening, per’aps?”

Cobb frowned and looked down at the ground. “Hurr… Oi need, well… Miz Althea said Oi need a proimer.”

Saskia felt a flush creep up her ears. “I ‘ave some of those. Can always sell a few to the Abbey, so I bring them.”

Cobb nodded. He stopped walking. “You’m know what Miz Selendra be doing for th’ rebels? Miz Tam said you’m moight.”

Saskia shook her head. “Not past wot Tam’s told me ‘erself. I never spoke to Sel much about them. You’d do better asking Merritt. Er, don’t tell ‘im I said that,” she said.

“Aye. Oi should go ask him, then.”

“Wait.” Saskia held up a paw. “Wot do the rebels ‘ave you doing?”

“We’m be watching Brother Tompkins. We’m be told he be part of th’ Society.”

“Brother Tompkins, yes. I know that from Miss Tamarack. Why?”

Cobb frowned. “He’m moight change soides. If we’m do it roight.”

“Hmm. D’you think we could talk to ‘im?”

“Foremole said we’m shouldn’t. And Oi’ve got to stay out of trouble.”

“You can say it was my idea. It’d even be true.”

“Maybe you’m should just go.” He paused, blushing. “Hurr burr. Me an’ Miz Tam an’ Noel aren’t clever city-beasts loike you’m.”

Saskia bowed her head. “I ‘ope I can do a bit of good.”

Tompkins’ room was neither ascetic nor indulgent: the curtains were neither silk nor burlap, bedclothes neither velvet nor gunny. Everything had an air of worn comfort. He’d polished the surface of his little desk smooth, but still it showed the stains and cracks of age.

He looked at them expectantly, and Saskia realized perhaps too late that she hadn’t quite planned this out to the end. Or the beginning. Still, she knew much of rhetoric; her schooling had taught her that at least, how to turn ears to listen.

“Brother Tompkins, I ‘ope I’m not intruding too badly,” she began.

He smiled a flat and ashen smile. “Not at all.” Tompkins’ paws were folded in his lap, one clenched around something she couldn’t see. “I haven’t had the pleasure of making your acquaintance, miss. Saskia, I believe? The printer?” He extended one paw for her to shake.

“I see my reputation ‘as preceded me,” Saskia said, laughing nervously as she took Brother Tompkins’ paw in her own.

“Aloysius speaks highly of you.”

“Does ‘e? That’s kind of ‘im.”

“What brings you here, miss?”

“I’m not sure. Wot’s ‘appened in recent days, I suppose. The disappearance of Selendra Bon, my dear friend. The deaths, all of them.”

Tompkins’ fist tightened in his lap. “I had hoped not, miss. I had hoped–” He looked down into his lap. “–to speak of more pleasant things.”

Saskia softened her voice. “There seem to be passing few pleasant things lately. Begging your pardon, Brother.”

“Yes. What brings Mister Cobb here?”

Saskia nodded to Cobb, who spoke. “I doan’t rightly know. Th’ same’s Miz Saskia.”

“We’re told,” Saskia continued, “you might ‘ave some unique insights.”

“I am old. I’ve watched this Abbey prosper and falter, seen the building of so many new things, changes beyond measure, beyond wisdom. What insight could I offer, anymore?” He closed his eyes.

“You love this place, I can see it, and I can see you’re saddened by it. Anybeast with eyes to see would know.”

He swallowed. “Yes.”

“Some things’re going on that doan’t be right,” Cobb interrupted.

“‘E can smell something foul ‘ere, Brother, same as you can. I’m not of this place, I want to go ‘ome. I can smell it too, feel it go through me like cold in summer. A thing outside its season, strange and terrible to the bone. But I won’t be allowed to go ‘ome, will I?”

Tompkins didn’t reply, nodding into his own lap as though falling asleep, shoulders hunched. “I apologize, Miss Saskia. You have been treated abominably, here, in a place where hospitality was our highest calling since the days of Martin.”

Saskia curtsied. “Thank you, Brother.”

Tompkins moved his clenched paw to the desktop and opened it. With a gentle clink, a glitter of silver spilled out, a ruby set in the middle. He pointed to it. “This was a beautiful thing.”

Saskia’s voice caught in her throat. “Wot is it?”

He paused. “I oughtn’t say. It would be a betrayal–”

“Would it? You say it was a beautiful thing. As a trinket, it is, still.”

“So it is.”

“I’ve ‘eard of something called the Society. Wot is it?”

Tompkins flinched. “Then–then I suppose it couldn’t hurt to tell you this is its symbol, could it?”

“Miz Tam, she’m found one in the graveyard.”

“She might’ve done, true. We’ve all spent far too many of our days there, especially of late. The winter was unkind to us all, most unkind to those who carry these pins.”

Saskia kept her eyes on him, as did Cobb, who’d broken into a sudden frown. “Wot is it, Brother? Something behind all that’s ‘appened, I warrant.”

“Unkind, yet I truly believe there are those who may have relished it,” he muttered. “But I’ve said far too much already.”

“‘Ave you? You’re troubled still.”

“My troubles are not for you to bear, miss. Mister Cobb neither.”

“If you wish to share them yet, I’ve often found Brother Aloysius a willing ear, and ‘onorable. I’m sure you know.”

Tompkins smiled. “You speak as fairly as he does, miss, though with a bit more cunning and a bit less fine diction, if I may say so.”

“We’ve ‘ad different lives, ‘e and I.”

“So have we all. Good evening, Cobb, Saskia. Do visit again, you may find me here often as not.”

Saskia turned to leave.

“Oh!” Tompkins said. “Do send Selendra and the rest my regards, if you happen to see them.” He looked directly into Saskia’s eyes, the restful glow of a warm hearth behind his own, a conscience set at ease. Her own shivered, searched for a quiet corner to weep unnoticed.

She nodded tightly. He’d turned, then? Or not quite? Something had shifted, but the ground beneath her paws felt as damp and treacherous as ever. “I shall.”

Sand-dusted barkcloth scratched at her paws; she’d hoped to find Aloysius at the archives, hoped to scrape clean her fears and write over them in new ink. The work was dusty, tedious, and freeing–it occupied just enough of her mind to blot the worst of her troubles.

Down with the cellarhogs? Aloysius?

Perhaps she’d misjudged the bat, or the news of Ripple’s death had toppled him entirely.

She set the barkcloth note back down and then thought better of this, slipping it into her pocket. Aloysius had meant it for her.

…the clarity and good humour and solace furnished only by one’s dear friends. I leave this so you might know where to find me…

Aloysius intended her to follow him. Saskia set off for the cellars.

It was the dark that saved her, and that the glimmer of upstairs light was at her back. She could see more clearly than they could.

Go, idiot!

Saskia flung herself down the last of the stairs and caught Noel by the midsection, bowling Tamarack over as well. She and the weasel rolled right through the young vixen’s ankles as though they were nothing at all. Saskia shoved Noel off of her and chanced a look back at Aloysius; the bat lay on his back, unmoving.

“Noel, wot in ‘ellgates are you doing?” Saskia snarled. “Decide Ripple wasn’t enough?”

Noel groaned and slumped against the wall. “I didn’t–”

“I can… I can explain,” Tamarack cut in, struggling to get her paws under her in the gloom. Saskia knelt and slipped one paw under the hem of her skirt. Noel froze at the sound of metal. The dagger her parents had convinced her to carry was drawn in anger for the first time.

“I never want to use this. But I’ve been taught ‘ow.” Saskia stood between Noel and Aloysius.

“All right now. Don’t you risk Tam over this,” he said.

Saskia turned to where the light from upstairs outlined Tam’s form. “Would you ‘urt me if I killed ‘im, Tam?” She jerked her head at Noel.

“Yes,” Tamarack snapped.

“Thought so. Point taken?” They all stood motionless, breathing heavily; Aloysius was silent, still, but Saskia thought she saw his chest rising and falling, slow and shallow. “You said you could explain.”

Tam pointed to the wine rack. “The tunnel comes out right here now, ma’am. Brother Aloysius found us coming back through, and saw it. He’ll go to the Abbot, and we’ll all be dead come morning. Like Andrew or Raimun.”

“So you ‘ad to kill ‘im, then?”

“No,” Noel snapped. He was almost panting. “I just couldn’t let him–he can’t see.”

Saskia swallowed. “Why is it you went through that tunnel? Wot ‘appened there?”

“I told you that already.”

“Yes, the bit where the rebels are there, wot-‘ave-you. Fine. Why d’you want to ‘elp them? Beasts wot gave you that welt on your muzzle?”

“Because the Abbot killed our friends, you daft bally hare!” Tamarack’s hissed words echoed off the walls. A hedgehog stirred and rolled over, groaning in her unconscious state.

“So you take to killing mine, then.” Saskia pointed at Tamarack, dagger in paw. Noel shifted along the wall and she pivoted, glaring at him. “And yes, I can see you. Not very well but well enough.”

“I’m not–”

“He’ll get us killed,” Tam said.

Saskia sighed. “‘E won’t, I swear it.”

“How’re you going to stop him?”

“At the moment, ‘e’s in no fit condition to be telling anybeast anything. I’ll take ‘im upstairs, put ‘im to bed, and stay with ‘im. ‘E wakes up, we’ll talk.”

“What if you can’t talk him out of it?”

Saskia gulped, voice suddenly trembling and high. “Then I’ll stop ‘im myself, and straight to ‘ellgates with us all.”

“I don’t believe you,” Tam whispered.

“I swear it,” Saskia replied, swallowing a sob. “Nobeast ought to die ‘elpless.”

“Like Raimun,” Noel put in.

“Or Ripple.” He flinched. “I’ll do wot needs to be done. ‘E oughtn’t die, but neither should you.”

Tam nodded. “Fine.” She looked sick, even in the dim.

Noel shook his head, eyes downcast.

Aloysius was a heavy burden as she mounted the last of the stairs; he’d woken partially, mumbled something incoherent, and dribbled on her shoulder.

His living space was a perfect portrait of disuse. Ripple’s belongings occupied half of it, scattered and forlorn. Saskia nudged Aloysius over to the narrow, unused bed on his own side and lay him in it as best she could.

When he swallowed in his sleep, he coughed and turned, throat occluded by the damage Noel had done.

Saskia sat on the bed next to him and lay a paw on his chest. His heart continued to beat, deep and sluggish. She felt only the rhythm of blood and the tightness of the knife-sheath, circling her leg like an iron shackle.

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