Author’s note: This story builds on material presented in Winds of Change (FSFnet 8-2), A Scent in the Air (FSFnet 11-1,), and A Sudden Storm (FSFnet 11-2), by Becki Tants; it also references The Dream (FSFnet 6-3, FSFnet 6-4) by John White. It continues the adventures of Mouse Kervale, who’s appeared in three previous mouse tales.
I. An Ordinary, Quiet Life
Mouse threw down her quill, making sure that it landed nowhere near her present manuscript. She kicked it off her writing desk, then jumped down to the floor after it. She climbed up to the windowsill and paced back and forth there several times. But it was cold there, even with the midwinter sun shining on her. She soon started to shiver, so she jumped down to the floor again and went over close to the fireplace. She drifted around there for a while, first warming her front, then her back, then her front again. Finally, she pushed over a poker with a satisfying clatter.
Brother Muskrat looked up from his own calligraphy. His eye took several tries before it finally found Mouse standing by the fallen poker. But this was to be expected, actually. Mouse, as persons went, was tiny: no taller than the span from Brother Muskrat’s fingertips to his elbow. Infant-sized, she looked more like a miniaturized adult or a doll or a puppet than like a child. She acted more like an adult than a child, too. Most of the time.
Finally finding Mouse standing by the fallen poker, Brother Muskrat asked “Is it new?”
“I’m a freak!” Mouse shouted. “I’m a freezing freak!”
Brother Muskrat sighed. “It’s not new,” he muttered, reminding himself that there were also still times when Mouse acted like a child. He got up, picked up the poker and stirred the fire.
“Mouse,” he said, as a cloud of sparks flew up the chimney, “you’ve always been small — ”
“Everyone starts small,” Mouse responded impatiently. “Babies are small. Then they grow up. I’m not supposed to start small, get smaller and then stay that way.”
“Well, that’s what happened — ”
“I *know* that’s what happened. I was there — I’m here! This is me we’re talking about. I am three hands high. I’ve been three hands high ever since I can remember. I weigh — what? Twenty lousy mark? A lot more right now because I’m bundled up in these layers of scraps trying to keep warm — and not succeeding very well. Babies weigh measures more than I do. Everything weighs measures more than I do. I’m ridiculous.”
“You’re not ridiculous — ”
“I am! Gerevin, I’m seventeen and a half years old now, right? That’s what we figured from what I remember old Pfevver talking about. I slept for nearly five years under that altar and I was ten when *that* started. So I’m nearly eighteen!”
Brother Muskrat sighed. Yes, perhaps calling her an adult was overstating the case. “Being eighteen doesn’t make you ridiculous,” he said.
Whatever Mouse was about to say, she snapped her mouth shut instead. “Ha ha,” she finally responded, without mirth. “That’s not what I meant. What I meant was that I’m pretty much grown up and I’m not grown up at all. I’m grown small. Now, what am I supposed to do with a tiny life?”
“Calligraphy can be very rewarding,” Brother Muskrat suggested. Because he was a fairly honest man, he didn’t suggest the thought with much conviction. Mouse was of course very skilled at the detailed work that could make pleasure out of reading, but Muskrat knew that calligraphy was not the answer she was looking for.
Mouse knew it too. She glared at Muskrat, her temper not quite so tattered that she would shout a curt dismissal of the whole art. But she was a little annoyed that he would even bother suggesting it as a possible summary for her existence. “Very,” she finally muttered. “Tiniest calligrapher in Baranur — Oh, I’ll be a real favorite with the minstrels for that.”
“Do you want to be a favorite of minstrels?” Muskrat asked. “I thought you already learned how dangerous a little attention can be.”
“I know *that*,” Mouse replied, idly twirling herself before the fire.
Muskrat watched her silent dance and smiled. Her small size, he thought, seemed to magnify her intrinsic grace and prettiness — even were she normally sized, she’d be attractive — into something wonderfully fey. Magical, he decided, though he knew she hated the word. He ignored the drying ink on his pen and simply enjoyed for a moment the sight of her. She was lovely, a pleasure simply to look at. He wondered if that was all that knight — that Sir Ongis — had thought when he’d taken Mouse and kept her in a birdcage. And that other man, who’d grabbed her on a riverbank. Had they simply wanted to capture and cage up beauty? It was a dark notion, possessing loveliness, close — very close — to jealousy. But jealousy was something any lover could understand, Muskrat mused. Understand, if not agree with.
“I’m going to Dargon,” Mouse suddenly announced, coming to a stop.
“What for?” Brother Muskrat asked reflexively.
“Well …” Mouse’s small voice trailed away into silence. She needed to think about what reason for going to Dargon she cared to say aloud to Muskrat.
But Muskrat didn’t worry about that. Mentally, he was kicking himself for asking. After all, that was the sort of question a jealous — well, possessive — man would ask a woman. Not that Muskrat cared to think that he was possessive of her. Rather, he was being protective. That was normal. That was appropriate for men. Men protected and women and children needed protection. And Mouse clearly required protection. Not so much as to require keeping her in a birdcage all the time, of course, but it was appropriate to offer some.
“I’ve been very sheltered here,” Mouse finally said.
Muskrat put down his pen and stared at her.
“Maybe I’ve been *too* sheltered here.”
“What — ?”
“I mean,” Mouse quickly continued, “I’m grateful that you have all protected me from the world, while I’ve been here. It’s been almost like home again, almost, since everyone here has mostly treated me like just a person. And you’ve taught me to read and given me work to do writing copies of manuscripts that you receive. I like drawing the illuminations and painting them — and reading through the text to figure out what the subject of the picture should be …”
Muskrat half-heard her. He had to wonder, since she’d raised the question, could protection be imposed when it wasn’t wanted? And if it were, did that mean that the imposition of protection was wrong, or that the beneficiary was simply incompetent to judge whether it was called for?
“… And I enjoyed trying to master the occasional mathematical treatises that Terkan of Dargon sends along from time to time,” Mouse smiled.
“Math books? Oh, you and Brother Martren are probably the only ones who like those things,” Muskrat remarked. “It’s a good thing both of you have a clear hand.”
“Thank you. I’ve been happy here, mostly.”
“Mostly,” Brother Muskrat repeated. Was the amount of protection Mouse had at Rockway House stifling? But didn’t she need it? Hadn’t the previous kidnapping experiences proved it?
“I just don’t think I want to stay here the rest of my life.”
“You could if you did want.”
“Yes, but …” There was that pause again. She didn’t want. Brother Muskrat sighed, the image of Rockway house as a very large birdcage flitting through his mind. Mouse was safe here. She was free to share her beauty and grace here, but only as long as she didn’t want to leave. If she did want to leave, then even though he’d want to shield Mouse from the Sir Ongises and protect her from the harsh world beyond the House, he couldn’t do that and remain different from the Ongises. One sometimes had to be wary of one’s own good intentions.
“I have a mission to complete,” Mouse declared.
“Mission?” Brother Muskrat picked up his pen and began writing. With a casualness that tore at him, he asked, “What mission?”
“Sir Ongis Fishteller killed my parents. It can’t be right that he can do that and not get punished for it.”
“I thought you did punish him,” Brother Muskrat said calmly. “His wife recovered from a deadly illness and you asked her to hate him the rest of his life. I thought that was an awfully appropriate retribution.”
“Maybe, but I don’t think it was very effective. And my sword of justice — ”
“You’ve been reading too much of Brother Anthony’s romances,” Brother Muskrat smiled. But the smile felt empty. If Mouse had been reading that stuff, then no wonder she was tiring of the calm ease of Rockway House.
“They’re very entertaining. Anyway, the hate’s not happening. Ongis isn’t suffering a bit. ”
“How do you know?”
“Sir Ongis is at present without a wife,” Mouse said dryly. “I don’t know exactly what happened to her since eight years ago, but banns have been posted for Sir Ongis to get a new one.”
“I see. And you think you want to stop this?”
“Because you don’t know what happened to the previous wife?”
“Because the prospective one is marrying a murderous fiend who’s probably never loved in his life — ”
“This is a knight’s marriage we’re talking about,” Brother Muskrat said dryly. “Love can come later, if it does at all.”
Mouse glared at him. “That’s awful,” she said. “She’s not even supposed to love him?”
“Why should she?” Muskrat asked. “She hardly knows him.”
“You can say that again. Well, I intend to make sure she does know him — more about him, anyway.”
“Well, the marriage isn’t scheduled until next Winter Court, so I have some time. But since he’s a knight, I guess I have to go see Sir Ongis’s lord and complain to him about Ongis being a disgusting dog who murders wives and parents.
“That’s *your* parents, not his.”
“He might’ve done both.”
“You don’t know that. You don’t even know how his previous wife died.”
“She was in perfect health when I left her.”
“She might have had an accident.”
“A fall from a horse? Brought about by tack that just happened to wear out when she was cantering along the cliff?”
“You have been reading too much of Anthony’s stuff, haven’t you?” Brother Muskrat asked.
“It does give a girl ideas. But Muskrat, the fact remains: Sir Ongis is unpunished for killing my parents and I must go ask the Duke of Dargon for justice.”
“Well.” Brother Muskrat looked at Mouse. He saw a woman with a purpose, not that he cared especially for the nature of the purpose. Not when the purpose would carry her into what he considered to be a very dangerous town — dangerous to anyone, male or female, small or large. He saw also a new adult who needed to be free, lest she decide that the house she was living in was confining her. He saw a girl who needed protection deciding that she didn’t want it just now.
He was about to suggest that Mouse would want an escort when she said “Well what?”
Brother Muskrat looked again at Mouse. This time, he saw a woman with a purpose, *her* purpose. She was intent on it, he realized. He felt suddenly the fact that she *was* fey. She was small and everything around her was gigantic. She lived in a world that he perhaps scarcely knew. And her parents, ordinary peasants, were, because they were ordinary peasants, one of the few things that might connect her to the normal world. They mattered. Parents always mattered. And resolving for oneself the deaths of one’s parents always mattered. And it mattered even more if you had some sort of role in those deaths. But for Mouse, perhaps, it mattered even more than all that. Her parents were still a connection for her to the normal world. Brother Muskrat shivered. Here was something important. Also, the room was cold.
“Well, there it is,” he only said.
In the succeeding months, as the snow gradually melted and became mud, and the mud eventually dried, was tilled, and became furrows and seedlings, Mouse remained preoccupied with the idea of going to see the Duke of Dargon.
She thought about what, exactly, one should say to a Duke. She wondered whether one should broach the subject cautiously: She was accusing of being a cold-hearted, ruthless murderer someone who might be an extremely good friend of the Duke. But perhaps the Duke scarcely knew the knight and he was, Mouse was sure, a very busy man. Perhaps she should come right to her point immediately after introducing herself to him.
Mouse thought about how, precisely, one should phrase an indictment of one of a duke’s underlings for excessive killing. She’d copied a few books of legal matters, so she knew that such a message was not necessarily couched in straightforward language. But she did expect, from seeing the legal records she’d copied, that a lot of this business would probably need to get recorded on parchment, so she prepared a set of nibs and quills and inkwells to take with her to Dargon.
She thought about how one finds a Duke: Did one just ask anyone around the castle where Lord Clifton was working? (She imagined that the Duke’s keep was rather like Rockway House, only with thicker walls.) She realized the Duke might be uncooperatively absent when she went looking for him and she might have to wait for an opportune time to talk to him. For all she knew, he might travel around his Duchy a lot. Brother Muskrat helped her with this problem, though, writing for her a letter of introduction to his colleague, Terkan the Mathematician, since Mouse knew him only by the occasional treatises he sent for copying. Terkan was a quiet, scholarly man who would likely not have any difficulty with Mouse staying in a corner of his house for quite a while until she had had her audience with the Duke.
Mostly, though, she thought about what she would wear.
This was not because she normally thought about what she would wear. Indeed, she almost never thought about what she was wearing, except whether there was enough of it to keep her from freezing when in the cold. After all, she had just one habitual costume and she wore it nearly all the time. There simply wasn’t much to think about.
But one of the few books she had about the Duke spent a great many words discussing what people wore when visiting him. And the great many words boiled down to a simple concept: People wore special clothes, fancy clothes, impressive clothes, when visiting the Duke. So Mouse needed a special, fancy, impressive dress. She needed something that would be suitable for appearing in the court of the Duke of Dargon and that covered attractively her tiny self.
“At least, I think I want to look attractive,” she told Sister Anne, when she went to consult her on this topic. “Don’t I? I mean, it was pretty unpleasant the results I got the last time I dealt with aristocrats or the like.” She fingered a small rip in her chemise, pulled her chaperon a little bit forward over her head and tightened slightly the lacing of her sorquanie. “Maybe I should try to look plain.” She studied her scuffed shoes.
Sister Anne looked up from a close examination of some mushroom spores, a subject she much preferred over nearly all forms of social interaction. She squinted at Mouse and then shook her head.
“I don’t think you can manage plain, dearie,” Anne told her. “Not with the size you are and the slender bones you have and all. Best for you to try to look attractive. Everyone else at court will be — they don’t have much else to do — so it’ll help you blend in.”
Mouse nodded at this wisdom and went back to designing an attractive dress to wear. She consulted Brothers who’d been to fashionable towns, listened to their descriptions, and then hoped for the best. It didn’t seem too hard, not impossible, anyway. She wanted a new chemise, one that would fit her more closely than her present one did. Then, she wanted a cote and surcoat, also tight-fitting above the waist and flowing attractively below it. All that careful measuring and precise sewing. Not for the first time, Mouse cursed the Duke for running such a demanding court.
And new shoes, of course — Mouse remembered — though those would have to be left to Brother Gorim. And once she’d designed the thing, Mouse had to acquire the materials and make the thing. This took time. She encountered delays getting things and then she encountered delays learning to sew well. Nobody in Rockway House knew more about sewing than she did, which wasn’t much. Most of the time, most of the people at the House looked a little patched together, which was all right in the community but not acceptable to Mouse if she was going to go talk to the Duke. So she consulted the one text on the construction of clothing that could be found in the House — and discovered that it seemed to be more loathe to yield its knowledge than any mathematical treatise she’d encountered. She persevered though, and the number of times she had to rip out her stitches and start over was not too terribly excessive. But it wasn’t zero either.
The cote was pale blue linen and the surcoat was dark purple. Brother Anselm had made her wonder about the wisdom of that choice by mentioning that he’d read somewhere that the color purple was reserved for royalty. But everyone else at the House had said they’d seen a good deal of purple in Dargon Town and of course the color wasn’t reserved for anyone. So Mouse had felt better until she started worrying whether she’d even be noticed in purple.
And the surcoat was velvet. Though Brother Muskrat had said something about the cost, Mouse had been pleased enough with the material until a few hot days just before she left the House made her worry that the outfit might have her sweating too much before the Duke. But Brother Thibald had told her that Dargon Town was right by the ocean and didn’t get that hot, even in summer.
It all took longer than she hoped it would. When Melrin came, she was still not quite ready. Instead, it was several weeks after that when Mouse modelled her costume for Brother Muskrat for what she hoped was the last time.
“Well?” she asked, tugging on her cote. Truth to tell, it hadn’t come out quite right.
He eyed disapprovingly the neckline. It wasn’t especially close to her neck. “You’re sure that’s appropriate?” he asked.
“You’ve asked me that every time I tried this on,” Mouse said. “No, I don’t know, but everyone I’ve asked has said that this is how women dress at the Duke’s court. I’ve done the best I can.”
“Yes,” Muskrat agreed, “I regret to say that I can see no flaw or omission in your work. You’re lovely.”
“Regret?” Mouse smiled.
“I’ve already told you several times that the Port of Dargon is a dangerous place and that I don’t think you should be going there by yourself.” Brother Muskrat had found several occasions to reverse his initial, metaphysical response and attempt to bring rational analysis to the issue.
“And I’ve already told you that it doesn’t matter if you or any other Brother or Sister is or isn’t available to accompany me to the city,” Mouse replied, having on each occasion evidenced to him that his reading of her firmness of will had been accurate. “I need to go, and seeing the Duke is something I need to do myself. We’ve argued about this before.”
“Repeatedly, and Mouse, you are a very stubborn little woman.”
“Why? Because I won’t give in and say ‘Yes, Brother Muskrat, please carry me everywhere I need to go whenever it should happen that you’re willing to go to Dargon. Next year, next decade, next century. Whatever’s convenient for you will be fine with me’?”
“You know I do go up to the city from time to time — ”
“But not now.”
“It’s not a good time now — ”
“Now meaning this year.”
Brother Muskrat shrugged.
“Well, now’s the only time for me,” Mouse insisted. “I want to see Dargon. I want to see the Duke.”
“But are you still sure that that’s a good idea?” Muskrat asked.
“Who else is there?” Mouse asked back. “Sir Ongis is a knight. The Duke’s his commander.”
“Yes, but are you still sure that it’s a good idea asking anyone for punishment upon Sir Ongis?”
Mouse gazed at Muskrat from the table she’d used for modeling. Then she looked down at her skirts. She walked a slow circle deciding what to say. She wasn’t absolutely sure that this was the right thing to do. Her memory of Sir Ongis was horrible and, occasionally, she had nightmares that featured his heavy, mostly lupine visage. She knew that he would react badly to her bringing up this old crime. As for the Duke, people at the House had told her that he was said to be fair and just. So she had a good character reference but it was at third hand. How he’d react to this case she had no idea. How could she be sure that this was a good idea?
But she was sure that she needed to do something. That much she knew and, until she could think of a better something she could do to bury her parents peacefully, what she had would have to do. She looked up at Muskrat and said “Yes.”
“All right,” Brother Muskrat acceded, as he’d always done before. “The good news is that your delays in the dressmaking mean that you want to go up to town at the same time as our first shipment of rhubarb relish. Could you stand traveling with several dozen quiet jars of preserve?”
Mouse frowned. “You pack them in a barrel, don’t you?” she asked.
“And ship the barrel down the river,” Brother Muskrat agreed. “That would, I think provide you with a fairly discreet entrance to the city.”
“I have to pack,” Mouse assented.
“Same goes for the barrel.”
The barrels were never packed tightly with jars of rhubarb relish, Brother Muskrat had assured her. There was always a fair amount of hay — rough and scratchy hay — packed in to keep the jars separated. So it was hardly going to trouble anyone if this shipment had a Mouse packed in as well. Most of her stuff made reasonable packing material anyway, certainly as soft as that irritating hay was. She looked at her rucksack, formerly a pouch that Brother Thibald had kept on his belt when he traveled. It held now the few miscellaneous possessions that Mouse had accumulated while living at Rockway House and — most importantly — the clothing in which she intended to call upon the Duke of Dargon.
So that was how she entered Dargon, sweltering in a barrel.
She’d gotten out of it, of course, when she needed to during the trip. A hole in the barrel allowed for that, and Brother Muskrat had worked a deal with the most trustworthy crewmember on the barge so that, if things went wrong and she was found, it wouldn’t be a complete disaster. That was as much protection as Mouse would let Muskrat provide her. That and a letter of introduction to the former Brother Terkan in Dargon that he’d sent ahead.
Unfortunately, the reliable crewman hadn’t been around when the barge was unloaded into a warehouse in Dargon Town. Mouse found herself looking out the hole in her barrel at a wall that was flush up against her only exit.