Concerns keeping him from sleep, Quant had struck outside, to walk the riverbank in the solitude before Medved's noisy circus stirred. He mused that Borysko, in his strong days, was said to do the same, in his worrying hours before pummeling an opponent.
Last night Kurt, the sideshow barker, had taken it as simple — "Spectacularly miraculous, Quant. She's a boy rat now!"
Steiffa! — Quant had almost shouted her name, but that should be impolite, he reasoned, and disturb the small birds twittering tunefully beside him in the brightening trees. He turned, starting back toward the wagons and gaudy tents.
Meeker, in his opening night, was an immediate favourite with the town children. Certainly no talking rat, still he was entertainingly energetic inside Steiffa's cage. Springing about. Even so high as the beech twig braced between the wires, where Madame had perched. He did all that leaping for the tidbits the kids dropped inside for him. Chubs of carrot. Juicy apple cores and skins.
The children stayed, crowding the sideshow stalls. Their parents, their others'guardian, they left them to Old Quant's care, and made for the main show. It brought back fond memories of his time in Madame's school.
Quant suddenly was disturbed from his reverie by a gruff, yet polite, "Beg pardon", by his shoulder.
"...Jack...you're the ratter." said Quant, blinking, facing him.
The old healer fell silent, his old heart flipping about, like an acrobat, and his old eyes darting and registering. Jack, the ratter, stood before him in a blaze of morning sunshine. Children stood with him — and Quant knew their faces — for these were his, and Madame's, from the school. Not all the children. Still, enough of them. They deserved his dammed up tears. It was a struggle to comprehend Jack's words.
"Her Majesty sends me, Masta Quant."
"Her Majesty..." — and Quant let slip a chuckle, delighted for this turn, and that Madame had come for the children.
"Aye. She says ye'll look to yer liddle ones...keep 'em safe n'all."
He loosed the neck of the cloth sack he held, proffered it open for the healer to see inside. Its living passengers piped "Maaaster Quaaant!"
Tears and laughter had their proper time, and this seemed that moment. Quant lifted lovingly each small adept creature, and arrayed them on the heads and shoulders of giggling, wet-faced students standing nearest him.
Jack puffed out his chest. It was then that Quant noted Cut'Tail riding Jack's shoulder, and holding on Jack's quite dirty shirt by teeth and claws.
"Her Majesty...assessed ol' Jack's a good man — Aye. Uh'takes my mornin' rest below school hill, in yer grand woods. She come out the drain n' says she has needa ol' Jack. Me! Uh'sez Uh'm her man! Uh'd carry thems who canna walk or fly. Me, n' Masta' Cut'Tail to watch m'back. But ol' Jack's cleverer than them Scarlies. Takes us all by the riverbank. None the wiser, Masta' Quant. None the wiser!"
"You've done us a great service, Jack. Many Thanks!"
The children's names came again to him, and Quant matched them with the upturned faces holding him in their bright eyes.
"Jack's a changed man, Masta' Quant."
"And a good man, Jack."
"Kinda ya t'say so. Thank'ye!"
"And Madame seemed well? No longer the falcon, then."
"...Aye, Masta' Quant. Beautiful rattie, she be. And back up drain, last Uh'sees her."
"That would only be right for her work now, Jack..."
Again he ran his gaze over the grand, wet-eyed assembly.
"For the others...still...there..."
Then at the back, where the naughtier usually tended to congregate, where teachers less observant might not see, he saw Byell, with Fela, the acrobat. Squinting, he caught their transaction. Byell passing coins into Fela's extended palm.
"Byell. Fela. Here, now." Quant pronounced in his unpracticed master's voice. It was only right that they make their way toward him, not the other way round.
Where the other children very apparently had hurried from the school in the night, some still in nightshirts, Byell had had time enough. She had fled as if dressed for the town, a silver comb pinning her hair, and colour on her face.
"What has passed between you?" he addressed them both.
Squinting at him through grey catlike eyes, Fela stated it — "Payment. Clever girrrl, she saw I could lead her out. Your little rattie'girrrl — she didn't let me take her. But a deal's still a deal, my sweet old man. I tried...you pay."
Quant's tired heart attempted more uncomfortable acrobatics — "Steiffa?" — but he could not see her before him. There were several spiders riding children's unbrushed heads. A snake in a pair of hands. Another draped around a neck. A wisp of smoke assembling herself against the gentle morning breeze just above the sideshow tent. At his feet, a half dozen rats and in all sizes — but not his brave and foolhardy Steiffa.
A small voice cried, "She wouldn't come with us!"
Then the children all were crying at once.
"What's this? — What's THIS, Quant? — So many so early."
Kurt strode through the assembled children, like a man parting man-high wheat. His large forestman's eyes shaded against the sun beneath that broad-brimmed hat, but Quant knew a storm should be darkening those eyes.
"Children, Kurt —" he replied, absently.
"Yes — see they're children — weepy over you? What've you been telling them?"
"Ran away. Happy they're here." said Quant, unsteadily.
"RAN AWAY? —"
"Their guardians...these orphans...come to join the circus, Kurt —"
"RUN AWAY TO JOIN THE CIRCUS? — WE'RE A BUSINESS VENTURE, QUANT, NOT A...NOT...A...KID'S ADVENTURE! —"
"We have run away to join your circus. We have money." said Byell, a stare in her eyes that might wilt a tradesman. She would have learned that stare from her mother, a much whispered about prominent shrew. Confident girl, she even jingled the embroidered purse she held, for emphasis.
In the ensuing silence, while Byell and Kurt smirked together amicably, Quant gathered his thoughts, geared himself in the only armour he ever knew, his determination. He would return to their school. He would find Steiffa, remove her to safety, for Madame needed no distraction in the work she would do. Tapping, his heart reminded him those Scarlets should not like seeing him again.