At the time that young Lewellyn Greenwarden slumped to the floor in the Great Hall of Pando, resigned to another full day of foul-smelling monotony, Pando history stretched back thousands of years. The Council of Elders had existed since the unification of Pando a millennium ago, one elder representing each of a dozen bickering tribes. Greenwardens had existed for over two hundred years, established shortly after Pychis the Worthy brought the seven Greenwarden staves in exchange for sanctuary from The Tyrant. Hippogriff riders on the other hand, were as an institution little older than Lewellyn herself. Their traditions were nascent. Their societal privileges were capricious. To be a Hippogriff Rider, then, was to always be a little uncertain of one’s place in history. To be a Hippogriff Rider and also a lost child from the estranged clan of Barbar, as was Meden, made one’s position all the more unstable.
“Hey, who was dat guy?” Tofur’s voice echoed in the empty hall.
“Speak not to me, Stranger. You are not of Pando.”
“Why did he look like my cousin if my cousin was a foot taller and liked to dress up like a boid?”
Lew snorted and forced her mouth into a tight frown. “Prattle no more. You shan’t receive a reply.”
“I shant? What da feg is a ‘shant? You ask me this whole place smells like shant.”
Lew’s face burned. She worried that she had misused the word. “Shall not,” she clarified.
“I shall not receive a reply, then? Fine by me, Rat Princess. You just do yoah thing and I’ll think out loud. Hey, did you read my book?”
Lew’s throat went dry. “Don’t say anything,” chittered a voice in her ear. “They’re watching.”
“Are they really?” Lew chittered back. “They showed up to work this time?”
“If I answer that question truthfully, will you still behave?”
“Sure,” Lew shrugged.
Francis said nothing for a moment. “It’s better that you don’t know.”
Lew grumbled. “I order you to tell me if anyone else is watching, Francis.”
That earned her another derisive laugh. Probably no one else was watching her, but the consequences might be dire if they were. She looked out at the empty hall for anything to do besides talk to Tofur.
“Go to the pieces of the chair,” Francis chittered.
“I can’t put that back together,” Lew complained, but Francis nipped her ear.
Lew sidled over to the pile of splinters on the far side of the hall. “Pick it up and move it a pace from Tofur’s bag. Then pretend you’re trying to fix it.”
Lew’s brow knitted as she gathered the remains. I’m supposed to outrank almost everyone in Candon, but even Francis gives me orders. She arranged herself so she could watch Tofur and sift at the same time. “When Tofur talks, the other rats look at him. That’s your chance. Just play it cool for now.”
We’re putting on a show to fool rats that probably aren’t even there. Lew felt suffocated.
“Can’t you just tell me if anyone is really watching?”
“Short is the life of the rat who waits to hide until she is already caught.”
“Tch,” Lew grumbled.
Tofur did nothing. It was all Lew could manage not to shout at him to start blathering. Instead, she took one chunk of chair and placed it to the left of the pile, then another, and placed it to the right of the pile. Then she arranged them by size, then made two rows of horizontal struts and vertical struts, with the seat to the side and a not so little pile of wood splinters so damaged they could be anything. She thought of the consequences of yet another failure, yet another careless refusal to follow orders. They wouldn’t send her away, would they?
Finally, Tofur stirred. He rolled over and sat up. “Gimme some beeyah! Whatever passes fah beeyah heeyah. I’ll drink it!”
Francis chittered in Lew’s ear. “Now! Now! Put it in the bag!”
“This is a sin tah force a man tah meet his death sobah,” Tofur whined. Francis scratched at her earlobe and made meaningless noises. Lew stared at her shift pocket, thinking of the book she never got a chance to read. Now she was going to return it? What would happen to it after…
This was the only person who she had ever met from outside this forest, and she had sentenced him to death. Now she was returning the only book that had come from outside to be torn apart or burned or hidden in some secret Elder’s vault. She was tasked to guard Tofur, but it seemed like the prisoner she was best at holding captive was herself.
“Rat Princess!” Tofur called. “Do I get a last meal? Fugget cheese pies, just gimme anything that’ll make me dumbah than a rock. I don’t wanna know what’s in store for me.”
Lew decided. She was not going to return the book. She gave her head a little shake, then felt a stabbing pain in her earlobe. She shrieked and put her hand to her ear. When she took it back, she saw blood dripping down her fingers. She looked to her shoulder and saw Francis was no longer there. Pando save me. Surely he’s not allowed to bite me. Is he going to tell on me?
Lew sat on the floor, muscles taut as if to spring away from whoever might come to drag her to some far off nowhere town. In the meantime, Tofur continued to make one-sided conversation and beg for alcohol. Soon the gloom in the hall turned pitch black. The only light glowed through Lew’s chest pocket, where her night jar had come uncovered. She checked to make sure it hadn’t run down while open all day, and saw about half the jar still sloshing through. She drew the black bark cloth over it once more.
Tofur’s voice roused her from her slumber. “Hey, do you think that maybe you could take ovah watching me full time, Rat Princess? I like you a lot bettah den dat gaffah.”
Lew groaned and rolled over, which was just enough encouragement to keep Tofur going. “I dunno if you can’t read ah what, but I figgah I’ll just tell ya the stories myself.”
Lew put her hands over her ears, but it wasn’t enough to keep out Tofur’s endless droning. “I’ll staht with one about Wyn. You’ll like him. He’s one a yous. Talked to rats, too, and boids. Real boids, not like ya friend from befoah. Real funny guy, he had these feggin’ big eeyahs that went out to the sides and they was pointy on the end. Ha ha, like he was gonna toin the wrong way and poke Da Wizahd’s eye out. Had a Gryphon pal he called Lynn. Lynn Kado…”
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