The scratchy barkcloth of Lew’s bed awoke her. The crash of Sunfall echoed around her, and she blinked in the sliver of light peeking through her window. Was it just a dream? She moved to push herself up, but a stab of pain laid her out. Orange wood rope bound her arm to a long, thin plank, and she noted the ache that pervaded the rest of her body. “Pando save me,” she mumbled, and the heavy door to her room creaked open.
Bat-face shuffled into the room, looking at the floor. “Good morning, Miss. How’s the pain?”
Lew moaned, and Bat-face nodded. “I made you breakfast. The High Greenwarden says that you gotta… that you must come to relieve him as soon as you are awake, but I’m sure you can eat somethin’ first.”
He disappeared and came back with a plate piled high with mashed cassava and placed it next to her on the bed. Chunks of dry pig meat mingled with the usual salt and red and black spices along with flecks of green seven-leaf for the pain.
“Ah.” Lew stared at her plate until Bat-face exclaimed.
“Oh! You need a spoon! I’m so sorry! Do you need help sitting up?”
“No,” Lew pouted. She reached with her left arm and managed to get into a sitting position as Bat-face hurried to her bed stand to grab the wooden spoon just out of her reach. He held it to her and she winced when she tried to accept it with the wrong hand.
Lew dug into her mashed cassava and wrinkled her nose at the bitter seven-leaf. The pork, however, was softer and more flavorful than salted meat had any right to be. The cassava spread out on her tongue with a rich, meaty flavor. “Bat-face,” she remarked, placing her hand before her full mouth. “how did you do this?”
Bat-face looked at his feet again. “Do what, Miss? I’m sorry.”
Lew chewed and swallowed. “No, it’s good.”
“I just threw it all together and put it over the fire,” Bat-face shrugged.
Tiny claws clambered up Lew’s back, and a little voice chittered in her ear. “You need to go now, Lewellyn.”
Lew rolled her eyes, but Francis wasn’t done. “You are in so much trouble. Everyone knows you stole Biffy and tried to fly him far away from Candon. Everyone knows Zad let you do it. Everyone knows you’ve been smoking with him.”
Lew shook her head and put her hand over her mouth again so she could speak through a mouthful of delicious pork cassava. “I didn’t smoke with him. I didn’t even want to be there. I was pretty much his hostage. Are you Francis or are you my stepmother?”
“They sent Zad to Mar.”
Lew’s heart dropped in her stomach, and she nearly choked. Mar was the northernmost of recognized Pando towns. A day’s ride on a hippogriff. Closer to the Barbarians of the north than to any normal Pandoans. “Are there even any other riders there?”
“Come on, Lew, do you think Mar is an important military position for Pando? No. He’s been sent away from everyone he knows. His career is over. Because of you.”
Tears came to Lew’s eyes and she caught Bat-face staring at her. “Go away,” she sputtered. “Bring me this again for lunch.”
“Yes, Miss.” Bat-face bowed and took his leave.
“They’re gonna ice me, too, if you don’t get your act together. It’s too cold for gryphons up there near the mountain. A little rat like me will never survive.”
Lew snorted as her eyes stung, sending extra salt down into her breakfast. She spoke her own tongue. “Don’t say that, Francis.”
The little rat was unmoved. “Do you know why you’re here in this warm bed eating breakfast instead of laying alone on the forest floor? Because I was there. I followed you as fast as I could, and when I lost you, I followed the thousands of little black eyes that see everything that goes on in these woods and they told me where to find you. Every rat in Pando knows the High Elder’s daughter when they see her. We reported to Kallen where to find you, and he sent Zad and Biffy to rescue you. Then he thanked Zad and sent him to Mar.”
Lewellyn shoved in another mouthful of cassava and swallowed it whole. Then she did it again.
Francis chittered in a low voice. “You don’t have secrets, Lew. Your actions have consequences.”
“Maybe I don’t want my actions to have consequences! Maybe I wish everyone wasn’t paying attention to me!”
“Things can get worse for you, Lewellyn. You don’t have secrets, but it’s not too late to do the right thing.” Francis skittered down her shift and into her pocket. The pocket with Tofur’s forbidden book. He grabbed a corner with his teeth and tugged so there would be no question of his meaning. It was her best connection to the world outside. Her tiny window high in this insufferable prison of sky-blocking trees and unwanted attention. No. I won’t put it back.
Something about the way Francis spoke convinced her not to say it aloud. He crept back to her shoulder, and she felt tiny claws grip her ear and a furry head push an inch inside her ear.
“No one else was there that day. Two more rats were supposed to watch with me, but they never showed. I haven’t seen them since.”
Lew’s heart dropped. “Francis…”
“This is the life of a rat, Lew. The point is, I know everything, but not everyone has to.”
“Stop talking to Tofur,” Francis said. Even with the voice literally inside her head, Lew felt as if she had to strain to hear it. “I’ll tell you when no one else is watching and you can put the book back. Do it for me, Lewellyn.”
Lew swallowed spoonful after spoonful of food, barely tasting it. Francis chittered at normal volume. “Kallen is waiting for you.”
Lew groaned and swung her battered feet off the bed. She tried to carry the food with her, but it fell from her bad arm and splattered on the dirt floor. More than anything else so far, that made her want to cry. “Bat-face,” she called, “there’s a mess here.” She limped to the door and pushed it open with her good shoulder. After an interminable walk through the High Elder’s Palace’s main hallway and out the door, she trudged past the hippogriff pen, noting with chagrin the absence of Biffy in the quorking, chortling crowd.
Lew’s leg burned as she stumbled the last few steps to fall against the door of the Great Hall. It creaked against her weight, and the aroma of excrement and unwashed bodies greeted her. Without warning, the door swung out from beneath her. Lew shrieked and crumpled to the ground once more.
Something above Lew growled. She glanced upward, and saw the pale, curly black-bearded face of Meden Rider scowling beneath his feathery headdress. “Kinkiller,” he muttered, moving his hand to his gryphon dagger. “You oughta be the one executed.”
Meden Rider has appeared from nowhere to execute me. Crumpled in the dirt with a broken arm and half of a breakfast, Lew was in no shape to defend herself. She took the surreal situation in stride. Please stab me in the heart right away, she thought. Don’t start with the neck first like you do with the Gryphons.
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