Quick and quiet and unnoticed the rat scuttled through the corridors, shadows hiding its lithe brown form as endless scarlet-suited soldiers marched past.
The Academy is fouled by their ignorant boots, Steiffa thought angrily, as one of those boots narrowly missed her naked tail. They have no concept of the delicate balances that must take place here...
The healer had left his door ajar. Steiffa whipped through the gap in an instant, hearing behind her a muffled oath against filthy mage-places infested with vermin. More than one type of vermin, it seemed to imply, and the rat's brown fur bristled with righteous anger.
The healer's soft boots appeared in the rat's vision, and she squeaked with relief.
"Healer! Please, I need green willow for Madame. She is...she is badly hurt."
"Hush, don't talk so loud! There are many ears who could listen and be curious. I will fetch the willow. Hide yourself; even non-talking rats in their rooms make trouble for healers."
Hurrying to his cupboard, he retrieved a packet of the painkilling extract, and turned back to find where Steiffa had hidden herself.
Instead, he found himself looking at one of the Scarlets; a corporal, from the pips on his shoulder. He was smirking in a way the healer did not like at all.
"Who were you talking to?"
"Talking to, good sir?"
"Yes, talking, you senile old fool. I heard you talking. Just now. But there's nobody here-or were yhou talking to yourself?"
The healer smiled, a tight, angry little smile with nothing of humour in it.
"As you say sir, I am old and probably senile. I talk to myself often. If you heard me talking, it was likely to myself."
The corporal's smirk widened, and a cruel glint came into his eyes. He seized the healer's wrist and squeezed, making the old mage gasp and drop the packet of green willow. Unnoticed to either, a sleek brown rat scuttled out of concealment and seized it.
"So you put on a female voice when you talk to yourself, and speak of green willow for your treasonous Madame? I think not. You will come with me."
The healer sighed, and gave a hopeless shrug.
"As you say, good sir. As you say..."
The Madame was glad to see Steiffa return, although she would never say it; she had listened for the scamper of small rat paws in the darkness of the lock-up, and her heart leapt with relief as she heard them returning.
A packet was dropped into her hand, and the girl's squeaky voice spoke in tones of urgency.
"Madame, they have taken the healer! He will be tortured, I know he will! You must surely do something?"
"Be calm, Steiffa," Madame da Silva said softly, although her bouyed heart had sunk once again, far further this time. She swallowed the green willow, and shut her eyes as she waited for the pain to ebb. "Be calm, and think. What can I do, locked up as I am? It must be you, Steiffa."
"Me Madame? Me? What can I do?"
"You are clever, Steiffa-you must think for yourself. Imagine it to be one last assessment, from your old Assessor. And if you can...find Drakon and Borysko. Tell them both what happened, and tell Drakon..."
"Tell Drakon what, Madame?"
"Nothing. Just go. Do your best."
She felt a damp rat-nose press against her hand, and a whispered and tearful assurance that Steiffa would always do the best she could; and then the rat was gone, and darkness closed in once again over Nyssa da Silva's heart.