Balance

August 19, 2011

“Qui plume a, guerre a.”

-1-

Brother Aloysius,
Once I found a story of Redwall long past, a lonely battle long forgotten, born of desperate greed and slain in fire. Its historical provenance is far from certain, but I think you would do well to read it, Brother. Maybe I shall have you printed a copy after this all has ended. If, indeed, either of us survives.

Its chronicler wrote: “Never have I ended a tale with more misgiving.”

This shan’t be the end of our tale, you and I, but I find myself approaching the end of this book’s pages, and those words are fitting enough as I wet the last of this paper with ink and tears. I write with misgiving. I will convey you this letter and this book only with misgiving, you who should know my guilt far better than any of your Brothers. I did nothing.

What ought we to have done? What will become of us?

The records of my business herein, I entrust to you for safekeeping. If you wish to keep all your friends innocent in your thoughts, I entreat you not read them. For that reason alone, they are of inestimable practical value. The records of my days, idle thoughts… those you may find somewhat less distressing.

Yours,
MS

-2-

Saskia considered the best method of searching; Timothy’s records did not appear in their newly-written ledgers. Therefore, if it were someplace that she or Aloysius had access to it, it would be among the manuscripts they hadn’t yet archived. Unfortunately, they had spent only a few days together working through the largely-chaotic Abbey library, and the rest was–as far as she could tell from Aloysius’ apologetic descriptions–irretrievably muddled.

“Account of the Winter of Deepest Snow.” Saskia tossed the book aside; Aloysius shot her a stern look and she muttered an apology, stacking it in a corner. “The Spring of the Thrice-Bedamned Tulips,” she grumbled, and added another book to the stack.

For his part, Aloysius was not examining any books, contenting himself with swooping about, piling manuscripts in neat towers, and casting long glances over shelves. Apparently he expected to remember what the records in question looked like, perhaps, or hoped for it to leap forth into waiting wings.

“Is it here?” Aloysius asked nobeast in particular. His voice was raspy, as though the night of drinking still lingered in his throat.

“Summer of the Bally Frogs,” Saskia sighed. “I’ve no idea, Aloysius, you would know better than I.”

“True. There must be a copy somewhere, somewhere.”

Saskia watched Aloysius as he worked; by appearance alone he was much unlike any otherbeast there, wings like living paper stretched around a brittle frame. Despite this fragility, Aloysius held the same enduring quality as his archives–his thoughts and words were proof against any influence.

There was a sudden rapping at the door; three stately knocks resounded in the little room.

“Come in, come in! Ah, Brother Isidore, what brings you here, here?”

The rat pursed his lips. He wandered over to an end-table and ran a scabbed paw over the one sliver of its surface that wasn’t covered in age-crinkled paper.

-3-

Isidore walked with a bit of a hunch, paws clasped behind him.

“Fine day for a walk, Brother, but there is much to be done back at the archives. Per’aps if you’ve anything to say, it would be best done quickly?”

Isidore barked what could have been a sour laugh and stopped; they stood now in front of the beehives. “Then let it be done quickly. I hadn’t thought it possible you were the one who corrupted Miss Selendra.”

Saskia rolled her eyes. “Oh, not this nonsense again, surely. There are better uses of my time.” She turned to leave, but shortly found an iron-strong grip around her wrist; iron-strong and faintly sticky. Isidore’s paw was burned, scabbed. “Let go.”

“You will listen, lass.”

Run. Run. Harm him as best you can, and run…

“Wot is it I’m accused of then, in the specifics?”

“You brought dear Selendra over to Case, to the blight that blackens this Abbey.”

“Brought ‘dear Selendra’ over, did I? ‘Ave you ever spoken with ‘er, then? Spoken with ‘er to listen to ‘er, I mean. Nobeast could convince ‘er of anything–”

His grip tightened around her wrist.

“And it seems the only point on which we’re in agreement is that there’s something dreadfully wrong ‘ere.”

“A traitor’s lies,” Isidore snorted.

“Not a traitor, surely, if this isn’t my ‘ome? In every account I’ve read of it, every gardening manual I’ve set into type, there is one point on which everybeast seems to be in agreement. Blight comes from the inside, outward. If you get my meaning, sah.”

“Lies, all the same, lass.”

“‘Ow’d you burn your paw?”

“Not important.” He tightened his grip again. Saskia fancied she could hear the small bones in her wrist grind together, but wouldn’t cry out. “You and that ferret, you never should have been brought into this place.”

Saskia tried not to flinch. Merritt next… have to try to help him.

“Oh, Merritt ‘asn’t ‘ad anything to do with much of anything, really.”

“I know what sort of filth he sells,” Isidore growled.

“Besides that, I mean.”

“So you are one of Case’s minions, then. If you claim the ferret isn’t guilty.”

I’m trapped.

“No, but you won’t believe it.”

Isidore dragged her roughly toward a hive. Buzzing filled her ears, a maddening hum. She swallowed. Isidore’s tools lay next to the hive, a box full of steel, blunt and sharp alike. He hefted a trowel.

“No, I won’t believe it. Not when I heard from Brother Tompkins.”

Oh, no. No, no, no…

Saskia’s heart thundered in her chest.

I’m sorry Aloysius, I’m sorry Merritt, I want nothing but for you to live–

She took a deep breath.

“You’re going to kill me, then.” It wasn’t a question.

Can I reach my dagger? No.

Isidore didn’t answer it. He frowned. A flicker of what could have been regret was stillborn in his expression. The bees buzzed on, oblivious.

Even if I escape for now, he–they–can find me…

“Then I’ll tell you something true, something I believe with all my soul.” She sighed. “If the rebels ‘eld in their ‘earts the evil you accuse them of, your Abbot would already be dead.”

Isidore shook his head. Saskia stared into his eyes.

Don’t cry.

“You know they could ‘ave done it, by now.”

Saskia closed her eyes. The bees–abruptly–were silent.

-4-

Later…

Night had fallen; the stars aligned in familiar constellations, blissful in their ignorance of happenings on the terrestrial sphere. Aloysius couldn’t decide whether he ought to take comfort in their steadiness or vent bitter fury, that the stars did not know what he’d lost, the news he’d been given. The Abbey lawn was quiet. Somebeast padded through the dark.

Aloysius stood, wings wrapped protectively around himself. He felt as though he’d been thrown down stairs, disoriented and tender.

“I told her she’d come to no good… end,” Merritt said, his voice at first like the crunch of an icicle against a stone path, but rising uncontrollably at the end to a chirp of strangled birdsong. He sat down hard on the grass, paws over his eyes. “Perhaps she had the right of it after all. Perhaps I’ve been foolish.”

Aloysius stood, mouth open. “It seems she may be right, be right.”

“Have been.”

“Y-yes. Have been,” Aloysius whispered.

Merritt stood and uncovered his eyes. His mask was unmarked by tears, but he seemed to Aloysius to be looking past him or through him.

“I have a gift for you, or I shall soon enough. A book.” He paused. “If you would take me as an ally, or at least the lesser of two evils. I care not for this paltry, filthy little war. But I shan’t see a friend go unavenged. Whatever you think of me, I’ve never brought pain or death into this Abbey.” Merritt’s voice grew sharper. “I know you cared for her. Help me.”

Aloysius swallowed, and bowed his head.

“I–“

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 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.

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.


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?”

“Lo maggior don che Dio per sua larghezza
Fesse creando, e a la sua bontate
Più conformato, e quel ch’e’ più apprezza,
Fu de la volontà la libertate;
Di che le creature intelligenti,
E tutte e sole, fuore e son dotate.”

A long silence hung in the air, marred only by the edges of Saskia’s panting breaths, torn ragged by anger. Isidore had gone, and Merritt too.

“It’s much too foul a morning to ‘andle ‘is nonsense.” She waited. Selendra said nothing. “…I’ve missed you.”

“It’s been too long.” The words shivered, naked and cold.

” ‘ave you been well?”

“I don’t understand him. He really does think he needs to protect me from something.”

“From Merritt.”

Selendra waved a dismissive paw. “From whatever he’s taken it into his head to protect me from on a particular day.”

“You might… you might be more tolerant, I suppose. ‘E does seem to mean well, and ‘e may be right about Merritt.”

She snorted. “Fates below, Saskia, I’ve never been the first to speak in Merritt’s defense but that’s a bit much. He’s harmless and exceptionally useful. He can be turned to a just cause, since he’s always thinking with either his wallet or his–”

“I ‘ad noticed.”

“Anyhow, weren’t you working for him?”

Saskia cringed. “Yes but–if I want to open my own shop someday, I need the money. Sheridan pays enough to live on but little more.”

Selendra looked at her. “I won’t tell you what to do. But you don’t look very happy.”

“Thank you for the commentary,” Saskia snapped. “It would make an excellent footnote in my memoirs. ‘But she wasn’t ‘appy.'”

“You’re damned stubborn, and always were. If you believed it was wrong, you wouldn’t be doing it.”

“There’s a vixen ‘ere, school-aged I’d reckon, and yesterday I watched Merritt sell ‘er… sell ‘er ‘is things, things I’d printed for ‘im, and I stood there and watched it. All I could think was my mother would be positively ill at the prospect and Aloysius would never forgive me. I shouldn’t ‘elp Merritt, no right-thinking beast ever would, and I felt nothing about it but sick. I’ve a duty to stand against ‘im.”

“There’s an argument to be made that if she’s old enough to want it, she’s old enough–” Selendra held up a paw to forestall an outraged response. “But I don’t mean to speak of that. You never struck me as a beast to substitute another’s judgment for your own, and here you are sounding just like Faraday.”

Saskia recoiled as though Selendra had reached out and cuffed her across the jaw. “I can’t believe you’d dare–”

“I speak,” Selendra said, “as I find. Another beast tells you what your duty is, and you’d carve out your own heart in service, as he would. As he did. The only duty you’re bound to take on is to follow your own conscience–the only duty you have any right to take on.”

Saskia took a deep breath. “Are we talking about Merritt, or about Abbot Carter?”

“Either. Both. You know Carter’s poison, he’s lying through his teeth.”

“Merritt ‘as something to ‘ide too, you know. ‘E’s got a book which fates alone know wot’s in it, but ‘e’s not keen to let me ‘ave a look.”

“Sometimes you have to trust.”

“Like you trust the Abbot?”

“Saskia, Carter has done worse on this day than I ever have known Merritt to do. I don’t know what Carter’s intentions are, nor Merritt’s, and I don’t know either of their secrets. But Merritt isn’t the one keeping us prisoner here.”

“I know that.” She sighed. “And I do trust ‘im, ‘e’s given me a chance to earn wot I most want and I ought to be grateful. I just wish…”

Selendra nodded. “And Carter?”

“The Abbot, whatever else ‘e might do or say, ‘as no right to keep us ‘ere,” she conceded.

“If you believe that, truly, you’re one of us.” Selendra extended a paw to shake.

Saskia looked at it. “No. I can’t, I need… I need to think. And I want to talk to Aloysius.”

Selendra grimaced. “Brother Aloysius is Isidore with dear Faraday’s manners. The latter, I grant, are charming, and perhaps all the more so to you, but–”

“Enough. I’m not lusting after ‘im, if that’s what you mean to imply. But if you mean me to make up my own mind then let me do it.”

Selendra smiled and nodded. “It heartens me to see you stubborn again.”

Saskia stepped forward and wrapped her arms around the solid mousemaid. “Thank you.” She walked away, leaving Selendra standing alone in the Abbey lawn.

Aloysius had been at breakfast and she hadn’t yet seen him head for the gatehouse. Distracted, Saskia wandered into the Abbey with intentions of finding Aloysius in the attic.

She wouldn’t let anybeast write her thoughts, but the least she could do was to truly become a palimpsest, the words that had been inked in carelessness scraped away to be replaced. She could become a tray of type, the metallic nibs of her letters sorted and orderly and unset, an engraving plate unpainted.

And Saskia could speak to Aloysius, and listen to the bat’s calm words and kindness, and decide for herself who to follow.

Saskia found herself soon enough on the stairwell where she’d spoken to Ripple. The previous evening seemed like years ago now, with all the time between smeared to a blur. He’d limped up the stairs, she’d helped with the decorations. She’d wanted to feel useful, a part of the Abbey’s celebration.

It had been a frivolous desire. Hadn’t it?

Saskia climbed the stairs like a gallows. Here she’d embarrassed herself, here she’d made an attempt at redemption, here Ripple had asked her whether she’d thought the lockdown was right. She had evaded the question. That was… close to what had happened?

His words, and hers, clattered away into a vague jumbling of feelings. It had been uncomfortable, and she hadn’t known what to say–

“Saskia, you seem quite lost, quite lost.” Aloysius half-stepped, half-fluttered down the stairs to her.

She jumped, startled.

“Oh goodness, I’m sorry to scare you, scare you.”

“I’m not lost, Brother, at least not anymore. I was looking for you.”

“Whatever for?” He smiled, beatific.

“I want–I need to talk to you.”

“Then to the gatehouse, I think? Young Ripple is still upstairs, and,” he considered her expression, “I warrant that whatever you must say would best be said undisturbed, undisturbed.”

When they emerged from the Abbey back into the vacant gray daylight, Selendra had moved on; the cart stood unattended. Aloysius led the way to the gatehouse in reverent silence.

They entered. He closed the door behind them.

“I’m troubled.” Saskia leaned heavily against the paper-laden desk while Aloysius idly looked over his bookshelves.

“I see. What troubles you?”

Saskia thought. That was a complicated question. She opted for the simplest route. “That the Abbot of Redwall ‘olds us all prisoner.”

Aloysius’ expression changed, Saskia thought, from cheerfully neutral to firmly neutral. It was difficult to tell.

“You’re much smarter than me, and good. You know the Abbot isn’t telling the truth. That if ‘e believes Raimun died naturally, there’s no reason for me to be confined ‘ere.”

Aloysius frowned, and nodded gravely. “Yet I am certain that our Abbot is acting for the best, for the best.”

“I’m not.”

He was dumbstruck. Saskia pressed her advantage. “Look at it from my place. ‘E’s keeping me ‘ere against my will and lying about why.”

“Sometimes we must take it upon ourselves to trust the wisdom of our betters, our betters.” Aloysius folded his wings about himself.

“I’m not a Sister of Redwall, Aloysius. ‘E isn’t my better and ‘e hasn’t the right.”

Aloysius turned his back to her and unfurled his wings, stirring the papers on his desk, which he then straightened once more. “Be that as it may, you have always been a beast who knows her duty, her duty.”

“I find myself uncertain.”

“You are well-read enough to find your own way, your own way, and follow the wisdom of those who have spoken before.”

“I don’t know what is past wisdom to be treasured, and what is past folly to be discarded. Not anymore.”

He smiled, a bit sadly. “You shall find your way again, I have faith, have faith. Commitment to duty, to the path on which we find ourselves… these things bind us, keep us far from… from our impulses, impulses.” His words died away at the end, a cold, dry, faraway wind in barren treetops.

“I…” She found herself wishing and unwilling to confess. I am what you despise, I am Merritt’s cohort, I have stained my paws in black ink and with them painted over others’ hearts. Please…

“Yes?”

“I… thank you, Brother, for your words and your kindness.”

“If ever you wish to consult me again, please do not hesitate, do not hesitate. I do always find our conversations illuminating.” He bowed his head to her and opened the door.

Saskia let go of the desk, swayed, and righted herself. She stepped outside.

The click of the door behind her brought with it the revelation that her parchment was still blank, that nothing had been written at all, she knew nothing, thought nothing…

Or, rather…

The Abbot’s actions of this day were a gross injustice. At least there was that, which she did believe with all her ill-tempered heart. If that is all, then I should, I must resolve to do whatever I can to escape this place, and see that we all are free again.