A Great Deal of Plotting and Planning

This night, Berengar dined on venison with his advisor and friend, within smell of the Great Marsh, hardly a stroll from the previous night's camp; for this day, as Berengar rode the bench of his baggage cart, a stag burst from the trees ahead. He saw the Prince, drawn by his oxen. Saw the many men. The stag snorted, bolted for the trees.

Alastor, Berengar remembered, hunted a stag every summer.

"Take him," commanded the Prince. And his Scarlets pursued and took the stag for him.

Venison being a complicated dish in the best of kitchens, the day's pursuit by the King's eldest after his father, brother, and any companions, halted.

While Berengar and Dono licked their fingers over venison, the soldiers, Scarlet, and Esben's, settled to their vittles: whatever might fit pot, or burn on a stick in the many scattered fires.

Khoreia ate nothing and took to her tent. Berengar had compelled her travel as a lady of his court in her scarlet gown. And yet on foot. Her gown soon lost many pins, required her hold it together in her hands, and put a frown hard over her eyes that brought on headache by the time of halting.

Venturing his snout after her inside her darkening tent, Calla found Khoreia upon her bedroll, asleep, that silver horse dull on her throat, and the cobbledied gown pulled around her. Reese, her former captain, now the Prince's court fool, lay curled up by her hip.

Calla bared his fangs, considered how easily she might here die. Then he left her, as quietly as he had come.

--

The sun had gone to bed. Quant swept his gaze from the ruddy glow west to the fine night deepening over his head. The sky seemed deep as the ocean he once saw as a boy. Stars already were coming to look down on the circus at the town's edge. And on the children who had outside chores. They were safe here, even during curfew. The pairs of Scarlets passing on patrol, at intervals every night, seemed disinterested in a circus shut down by that curfew. A patrolling pair, swinging their lantern, might come as near as the path from town, then turn around. Sighing, Quant saw his breath.

He felt ready as ever he could be. Steiffa should be taken out of Madame's way, unless Madame could see a use there at the school for the reckless child. Jack had last seen Madame, as a rat, of all creatures, by the drain below school hill. Quant resolved to make his way there. Not as Borysko might do it: smacking down and clearing himself a hero's way there, or flitting from shadowed doorway to backside of a cart, spry as a youngling, and as reckless. Quant would go there in the only manner he could: along the river verge, hiding from view, concentrating with all his ability so anyone encountered would believe they had not seen him.

As if the Vagari Mother had heard him, fluttering wings settled by his shoulder.

Quant turned, saw beneath the stars Madame the falcon returned, settling on the stump, tucking her wings, and evidently eyeballing the children who were still at the outside chores. Smiling some, he held his greeting, let Madame savour the sight.

The moment passed. Madame held her bird form, spoke in his mind — "Old friend, I stopped to say I would send the children to you. This is most excellent! How many are out?"

Madame's whole statement seemed odd, yet Quant told her — "The same, Madame. You've sent no others yet. And Jack's not brought any since these."

Shining, full of starlight, the falcon's huge eyes blinked at him, several times. "Jack," said Madame.

"The ratter, Madame. Following your instructions —"

"JACK THE RATTER!" — Madame's wings burst open and she nearly launched herself to the stars — "Quant. Explain now. How have you done this? Where does Jack the ratter fit?"

Now Quant blinked his eyes. And then he saw through the puzzle, clear. A shiver shot up the old man's back. He imagined his white hair must be standing in shock.

"Steiffa, Madame!" — Quant stifled a shriek that might have brought all the circus running.

--

In Madame's former chambers at the school, over a monumental map unrolled on Madame's great desk, the commander of Berengar's Scarlets holding the town bared his teeth and his plan to rescue their Royal Head, who did not want a rescue at all — "I shall lead out our two companies. We shall find and return Prince Berengar. We shall crush all opposition."

He had planted his fists east and west, like map weights, the commander. He tipped all his tallness on his long arms, on those fists. He shook himself with the force of his soldier'like oaths. He seemed very like a post fated to fall. Mecho already had forgotten his name. Three sergeants gathered round nodded heads.

A rat — Mecho spotted it beneath a splendid chest of drawers by the wall.

A pretty'ish rat, Mecho decided, not at all disturbed a rat should seemingly be spying on preparations for war. Old great places, such as this school on its hill, such as castles and strange ruins and such, always had rats running loose in them.

The pretty'ish little rat twitched its whiskers, its eyes bright and returning his stare.

"On my honour!" — the commander THUMPPD a fist down upon the map, and approximate to a blandly coloured marshy waste near the mountainous northwest.

"We. Shall. Crush them. You, Corporal" — the commander stared at Mecho — "I should not ask it of you, after your suffering it once already, however you know the way. You come with us."

Mecho's neck stiffened. His legs wobbled. The room wobbled. The wall hangings and shelves packed in books, the splendid chest and rattie beneath them, they all wobbled. And the three sergeants gathered round the desk, nodding heads. The commander's mouth moving, and making no sound.

Sonny, let your legs show you the way.

"Da!" — Mecho wasn't sure he had not blurted it.

Aye, m'stupid boy, your Da.

"Da? —"

Stupid, Aye. Over Her. And fool's luck is all — that you can hear your dead Da this time before comin' to join him! Aack! — Good your Ma knows none of it.

"Love Madame, Da. Near sure of it."

Leave it! Listen to your dead Da now. Do your best faint — for your life depends on it.

"It's not manly, Da. I shouldn't faint."

What...manly? I seen sun-cooked soldiers faint on parade. Crack their noses. T'ain't no finger on how less than manly the man. You're off, worse than a circus acrobat wh'can't keep his feet under him, plain and clear. And no shame. Now, give in, son. And be quick.

"Aye, Da." — and Mecho gave in, hoping in however long the moment he did not crack his nose on the floor.

--

"Like a sack o'potatoes," muttered a gravelly somebody, close, probably peering at him, probably one of the sergeants present, thought Mecho.

"I've seen this before, Commander. Only duties in barracks will fix him." continued the gravelly sergeant.

"Agreed, commander." said another.

"He'll be no good to us out there," said the third. "He's described the land well enough. We can march out the companies within the hour. On your say."

Mecho then found there was floor under his back. Soft floor. And remembered the fine and colourful carpet: birds spinning through a grand green tree. His eyes would not settle themselves, so he left them be for the moment.

"Agreed," said the commander, adding, "Pasha, show your company prominently. But I see you should have no challenge holding the town. You need put only a squad to watch the brats upstairs."

"Aye, Commander," said gravelly Sergeant Pasha, so close Mecho knew he had onions at supper.

Thinking on the sergeant's oniony supper started a small bear growling in Mecho's belly. He found his eyes useful again. Saw the sergeant, squatting by him.

Unsmiling, still the sergeant's left eye seemed to look down on him with a look kindly enough. He had a scarlet patch on his right eye. He said, "Stay down, Corporal, until you find your feet."

Comfortable, on the floor, on the carpet of birds spinning through the green tree, Mecho saw now as he considered a school's rat might. The big boots. The undersides of furniture, and things. It was still there, he saw too, the pretty'ish bright-eyed little rattie under the drawers. Watching him, from partway behind one of the chest's stout legs.

Staying down perhaps would be best, decided Mecho. The room before his eyes still had an odd to-and-fro swinging about it. He dared not believe all he had heard, not yet. Dared not believe his fainting, unmanly and all, might have saved his neck.

Perhaps best I stay down until they've left town, he said only to himself, but also with the smallest chuckle, which turned the gravelly sergeant's left eye briefly on him.

Aye, sonny, careful now — and Mecho's heart pattered happily, hearing his Da again — And leave her be, the rattie. She has a night's work to do.

 

The End

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