Self-Delighting, Self-Appeasing, Self-Affrighting

August 7, 2011


 In my room, the world is beyond my understanding;
 But when I walk I see that it consists of three or four
 Hills and a cloud.

“Selendra,” Case said. “Saskia here is your friend from school, yes?”

“Yes.”

“She is to be our guest this evening–”

“Where’s Aloysius?” Saskia interrupted.

Case bowed his head. “Brother Aloysius is thinking some things over. Selendra will take you to her quarters for what’s left of the night, if that will serve?”

Selendra nodded. “As you like.”

“You know, Selendra, I really don’t feel that way about you.” Saskia grinned.

“Good night, both of you,” Case said.

The room doubtless carried unpleasant odors–sweat from life in close quarters, dirt from the tunnel below–but Saskia perceived only the smoke from Selendra’s pipe. She choked on the smell of burnt books and honeysuckle, ash and leather enveloped by the treacle-thick sweetness of tobacco.

“Fancy seeing you here.”

“Thank the Fates you’re alive. I was so worried; we all were.”

Selendra said nothing for a moment. She took a long puff on her pipe. Then: “‘We all’? You, Berend…”

“Merritt, too.”

“Don’t try to flatter me. He doesn’t care a whit.”

“‘E does, after ‘is own fashion.”

“Merritt doesn’t care about anybeast as won’t either pay him or snog him. Or preferably both.”

“After ‘is own fashion. Any’ow, you’ll be ‘appy to know I’ve done a bit of wot was your old job, before you left. I spoke to Brother Tompkins.”

“Did you? You’re one of us, now, with Foremole setting you on Tompkins? Foolish to bring him along, then.”

Saskia frowned. “Aloysius found the tunnel ‘imself, I ‘ad to bargain with Tamarack to keep ‘im alive so long as I ‘ave. ‘E wanted to talk to Case.”

Selendra gave a low whistle. “What did you have to do?”

“Promised to off ‘im myself if ‘e decided to go to Carter.”

Selendra paused to think, taking a long draw on her pipe, and then continued. “I’m not sure whether to call you a damned fool for making a promise you couldn’t keep, or to admire the ingenuity.”

“I intended to keep it,” Saskia snapped.

“Idiot,” Selendra replied affably. “You’re half-besotted, you could never.”

“Am not.”

“Missus Lannister would have had a few things to say about your rhetoric at the moment. If she didn’t decide to tan your hide with her ruler.”

“Hmph.”

“Anyhow, I’m not particularly tired.” Selendra gestured to the bed, the creases in the sheets looking as though they’d been made by drawing a razor over the fold. “Sleep, if you like.”

“You’ll be locking the door behind you, no doubt?”

“Don’t be silly. Of course. Cassius would shoot me. And it’s clear enough you’re not one of us, whatever you’ve done.”

“I ‘eard somebeast say to me once, it wasn’t right to keep free beasts prisoner. Can’t rightly remember who it was.”

Selendra winced. “It’s unkind of you to act as though I’ve a choice.”

“It’s unkind of you to lock me in a room while your–wotever Case is–does Fates-alone-know-wot to Aloysius!”

“So I’m to believe you’d’ve harmed him to save us?” Saskia said nothing. “Goodnight, Saskia. After all that, I’m still glad to hear you stubborn, you know.”

Selendra left, and the lock clicked shut behind her.

Saskia couldn’t possibly sleep, of course. Not while being held against her will, and not with Aloysius in danger. She paced in the small space of the room, letting the rickety planks of the floor tremble under her step.

Even if she could escape, it would endanger Selendra terribly. On the other paw, Selendra had followed an order to lock her in here, and that without a question or apparent regret. This from beasts who wanted her on their side.

Whose side am I on, then? Not Carter’s, and not theirs either, not if they’re willing to lock Aloysius in the cellar–or worse.

There were steps in the hall, fading as they passed the doorway.

My own side. My own, and Aloysius’, and, damn him, Merritt’s too. Anybeast who doesn’t just want more death. Aloysius and Merritt are my best allies, where have I strayed?

A key clicked in the lock. Somebeast knocked.

“Come in?”

The door creaked open just enough for her to see orange fur in the light.

“Tam?”

“Come on, then.”

Saskia grabbed Selendra’s lantern from off the bedside table. “Had a change of ‘eart?”

“Don’t want either one of you hurt.” Tamarack shifted, clearly uncomfortable. “I’m sorry.”

Aloysius and Merritt and Tamarack, then. Fair enough.

“Go, before you get yourself caught.”

Saskia found her way downstairs, the tunnel an empty and gaping maw that swallowed her lantern-light. The side door was closed and still; that was where they’d left Aloysius, no doubt. She tried the handle–locked, of course.

How to get him out? Saskia couldn’t return to the Abbey for help; there might be a guard by the time she returned, and anyhow who would she trust to come here? No, she’d have to do it herself… and without a key. She looked at the lock. It was new, probably as recent as Case and Cassius had been using the tavern as their headquarters. She stepped back.

The hinges. The hinges were on her side of the door.

Saskia drew her knife. Placing the base of the blade between the pin and the body of the hinge, she snapped her paw down on the handle; the pin jarred loose, and she pulled it free. The upper hinge came out just as easily.

“Hello? Is somebeast there?” Aloysius said. The door was held in place only by the friction of metal against metal.

“Aloysius, stand back.” Saskia reared back and kicked the door at waist height. The hinges whimpered and gave way, sliding apart as the door twisted in its frame.

Aloysius squinted, his eyes adjusting even to the faint glimmer of the lantern. “Saskia, what are you doing, doing?”

“Escaping, obviously.”

“You have changed your mind, your mind?” Aloysius squeezed between the mangled door and its frame.

“‘Ow d’you mean?”

“You mean to side with the Abbey, and not with them, with them.”

Saskia set the lantern on the floor; from there its beams cast stretched, grotesque silhouettes of them both onto the walls. “I don’t mean to speak to Carter, no.”

“Then why did you break down that door?”

“It’s no more right for Case and Cassius to keep you prisoner than it is for Carter to keep me prisoner.”

She could hear Aloysius frown as he spoke. “Well-reasoned, I suppose.”

Saskia bowed her head. “Should I ‘ave let you out? Do you intend to tell Carter now?”

“Of course not, I gave you my word, my word.”

“Come ‘ere, then.” Aloysius shuffled to stand next to her, and Saskia picked up Selendra’s lantern. She threw an arm around Aloysius’ neck, pulling him close. “Lead us back?” she asked, and blew out the light.

His wing wrapped around her as they stumbled along. It felt like living parchment, stretched over a fragile frame to dry–not quite warm as flesh, but not cool either. Every few steps, they stopped for Aloysius to squeak and listen for echoes. Saskia thought several times about interrupting the relative silence with conversation, but the lovely, glib sentiments with which she’d swayed (perhaps) Brother Tompkins had abandoned her entirely.

Do you think we can take sides against them both?

I want the same as you, you know. Peace for the Abbey and beyond, an end to all this–

I should tell you what I had to do to save you from Noel–

I feel–

None of them merited speaking aloud. She’d replaced his judgment with her own, twisted him into promising not to tell Carter, promising that against his own conscience. He would hate her once he realized. Or, at least, he should, though perhaps he was too forgiving even for that…

“Saskia, Saskia? You don’t seem well, seem well.” Blast him. How could he tell in the dark?

“No, I should say I bally well don’t. Don’t feel very well either.” She felt his wing pull away, his slender neck slip out from under her grasp. Vertigo threatened to overtake her; she could see nothing ahead, nothing behind, had no sense of anything but the close dampness of the tunnel and the ground under her footpaws. She slid down to sit against the tunnel wall.

“Saskia?” The scholar’s voice took on a note of panic.

“I need to take a few breaths, is all.”

“Forgive me, but I can’t bear to see you this troubled, this troubled.”

“Can’t do anything about it, can you?” she snapped, and then felt her stomach lurch with immediate regret.

“I’m sorry, sorry, I wish–”

“No, I’m sorry.” Saskia stood as best she could, stumbling a bit before recovering her balance. “I’ve asked too much of you already, so I ‘ave.”

“Not at all.” That wing wrapped itself around her again, smooth and steadying.

Saskia tried to remove any trace of a tremble from her voice, hoping to let a simple question stand on its own: “Wot did Case want with you, any’ow?”

“A bunch of daft things, I’m afraid, I’m afraid. Something about the Mossflower Heraldry and a conspiracy. He wanted me to look in the Abbey records, records.” The pair trudged onward through the dark, until Aloysius announced, “We’re here.” He waited for Saskia to pass into the cellar first.

“Are you going to look?” she whispered.

“It would seem disloyal.” Saskia heard him shift in the darkness, but still his wing lay across her back.

“So would this entire trip, if your loyalty were owed to Carter and not the Abbey.”

“The Abbot is the Abbey, the Abbey.”

“You’ve spoken much of the Woodlanders’ Code. If you’re willing not to tell Carter of this, then your loyalty lies elsewhere than ‘im, doesn’t it? With the Code, per’aps?”

“Julian spoke to me of the Code, too.”

Saskia snorted. “And ‘im locking you in a cellar afterwards.” She sighed. “I’ve pushed you too far. I release you from your word, if you wish it. You may tell Carter.”

“You don’t believe I should, I should.”

“No. I think it would be a disaster for us all. You may tell Carter, if you trust ‘im with my life, and Noel’s, and Tamarack’s. If you could not possibly be wrong.” Aloysius bowed his head; she could barely see it in the gloom. “You won’t.”

“I should look over my records, my records. The Heraldry.”

“Wotever ‘elp you need…”

“I know. Of course you will, you will.”

Aloysius’ other wing wrapped around her, pulling her close.  He had to reach up a bit, but he lay his muzzle in the crook of her neck for just a moment.  He felt as though he were made of paper and quills, light and fragile and, impossibly, stable.

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