Other ratties visit Madame

In the darkness of the lock-up, Madame rested through what was not quite sleep and not quite awakening. Memories drifted like gossammer curtains through her mind; the days in the palace, secret meetings in the scented darkness-after all, it would not do for the Queen to know, now would it? A smile flickered across her face as she recalled music and dances, brief trysts among the roses. The days when the King's Mage was the king's mistress, and the king's mistress knew more than the King's Advisors. Heady days, the days of her youth.

And then, pregnancy, and the end of it all. Furious arguments with Alastor, who wished to claim the child as his; the final confession to the Queen, when it could no longer be hidden. The woman had been angry; that was natural. But she was also sensible, and she saw what should be done. Claiming pregnancy herself, when the child was born she took it as her own-and the King's Mage, claiming a long spell of ill health, left to establish a school for the young mages of the new empire. Equilibrium returned; but blood will out, and the young prince possessed too much magic  for it to be hidden, and the natural place to go was Magusford's Mage School. She had thought herself prepared, she thought she no longer cared for the son she had never known; but she had ached despite herself to see no recognition in his eyes when they first met, and to see the fine young man he had grown into without her knowledge. A mother is still a mother, even when her son grows up under the care of another.

"Madame?"

Her thoughts and reminisces interrupted, Madame da Silva shook herself back to the reality she had escaped and looked down. Several rat faces peered up at her, whiskers twitching, bright eyes gleaming in the darkness. Steiffa was not among them, she saw; she hoped the girl had found Borysko, and was safe.

"What is it, my friends?" she murmured, sitting upright. The pain was almost gone, she found with some relief. The rats chittered in anxiety.

"Madame, we follow, we follow y'r rattiegirl, her who's rattie y't not rattie-"

"Steiffa?"

"Aye, rattiegirl Steiffa, we follow her-she caught!"

Madame drew in her breath. "Caught? By whom?"

"We follow, we follow- girl wiv circus, big tents, many lights-Steiffa in cage, she talk, th'people they look!"

"The circus," Nyssa breathed, anxiety rising. "Is she safe?"

"Aye, nothurt, jus'caged."

"Thank you, friends. Thank you for telling me. Return to watch her, make sure she is safe. I will...follow, later."

"Yes Madame yes madame, keep safe!"

The rats scattered, tails whisking into the shadows. Nyssa da Silva watched them leave, and stretched out the kinked muscles of her shoulders and back. She could afford no more languishing in this lock-up. Steiffa had left silvering, had she not? It was the work of the moment to find it, and to trace the intricate patterns on her skin. She had not traced the lines of power for so long she feared at first she had forgotten; but they were as familiar as they had always been, and in an instant she was ready.

She spent a moment debating which form to take. She was not limited to one; she had become too proficient. She could take any she wished for. But a mouse or a rat would be best; and so, shortly after, a fieldmouse crept through the ratholes in the wall and scuttled through the crumbling stonework into the courtyard outside. A tabbycat, dozing in the slowly growing dawnlight, spotted the movement and thought of breakfast; but when she stalked the mouse into the deep bushes, it had disappeared. A black-and-white magpie chattered impudently from the wall, and was gone.

The End

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