(This is the continuation of Camouflage, broken up to make for easier reading. If you haven’t seen part one, you can find it here.)
St. Nizier’s remained as he had left it, quiet and sedate. Anita—Sister Colquez—was not in evidence when Danilo arrived, but he poked his head around and soon found her in the back of the church. “Hello,” she said. “The Etruscan student. I’m sorry, your name escapes me.”
“Danilo.” He smiled. His Anita had taken a week to remember his name, too.
She inclined her head. “I have not had an audience with the Bishop yet. I expect to see him this evening.”
“No, I know.” His stomach rumbled, and he placed a paw across it. “It’s only that—well, you know Luc. He doesn’t have a lot of money, and I don’t have any, and I’m—we’re both very hungry. Only he won’t ask for money…” Why would people not ask for money? Maybe Luc had a prior relationship with Anita? How well did she know him? He started to tell her Luc was too proud, and then realized that she probably knew the otter better than he did. “Well, you know him,” he finished lamely.
“I do.” She did not smile. “I have tried to help him in the past, but he refuses any assistance.”
“I was hoping to help him myself.” Danilo didn’t want to ask her directly, and honestly he had been thinking to ask if she knew of a place where he could earn some money quickly.
Anita forestalled him, beckoning for him to follow her. “That is very generous of you. I admit that it pains my soul to see him suffer so. Anything I may do to help, I will, but he makes things for himself very difficult.”
He padded along the back of the church to a small office. Anita withdrew a heavy key and unlocked the wooden door, bidding him wait outside while she entered, still talking. “I know that he took his father’s death badly, but—well, how well do you know Luc?”
“Not very.” Danilo looked politely aside at the stained glass windows, which here looked like children had designed them after the grand, rich windows of Saint-Jean. “I only met him when I came to town yesterday.”
“You had not corresponded with him before your arrival?” Her narrow muzzle poked back into view, ears half-down. “I had supposed…”
“No. He rescued me when I fell into the Saone.” Danilo ducked his head. Falling into a river, in any century, was the move of an idiot.
Anita, as gracious in this century as in his, said nothing about that part of it. “Luc is a very generous fellow, but he has little to be generous with, these days.”
“He didn’t want to rescue me. Taye–Théodore and he argued about it.”
He dropped Taye’s name intentionally. Taye and Anita knew each other only through him in 2008; he wondered if they knew each other here.
“Luc has been told by many of his friends that he should keep some of his generosity for himself.” She reappeared and closed the door behind her. “Here. Take this and buy food, bring it to him.”
He held out his paw; she dropped three coins into it. Danilo examined them. “Er…I’m sorry, but how much should these buy? I don’t know the money here.”
“Of course.” She smiled. “One loaf of bread, a brick of cheese. That should feed the two of you for a day.”
“Thank you so much.” The still atmosphere reminded Danilo of everyone’s mentions of God. “God bless you,” he added.
“God keep you,” she replied. “I hope that we will be seeing more of each other.”
“Me too.” He closed his fist around the coins, preparing to leave, but another thought struck him. “Sister? If you wouldn’t mind, can you tell me something of why Luc is in such trouble?”
Her ears flattened, and her eyes lowered. “It is not my place to say.” She began to walk away, her tail down.
“I only want to know if I can help.” Danilo hurried after her.
She shook her head. “Pray for him. ‘Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous soul is powerful and effective.’” She smiled.
It sounded like a Bible verse, but Danilo did not know which one. He nodded. “Right. Like it says in Scripture.”
Her ears remained flat, and he felt she expected more of him, but she said only, “Your friendship is important. If you can guide him along the proper path…at least if he does not repeat his sin against the Church…”
“What sin?” Danilo said, and then regretted it, because Anita turned away and shook her head. He swallowed his question and bowed. “I will buy him lunch and I—I will pray for his soul.”
Money in paw, he hurried from the church and to the first boulangerie he found. There he bought a long baguette loaf, which cost him one coin, and asked for directions to a cheese shop. In the cheese shop, he traded his remaining two coins for one smaller coin and a block of deliciously fragrant cheese that made his mouth water. He had nowhere to put the coin, so he held it with the baguette as he walked back to the Repos.
The smell was too much for his stomach. Before he got five steps, he was already tearing a piece from the end of the loaf. The bread was delicious, better even than the bread he’d had the previous night: crunchy and warm, soft inside and warmer still, and at the first bite, his stomach erupted in a riotous chorus of rumbling , as though it had begun to forget what food was like, and at this reminder, remembered that it wanted a lot of it. Danilo took two more bites of the bread before arriving back at the Repos.
Across the street from the familiar doors, he stopped. He couldn’t go back in, not until he was sure Luc would be there to smooth things over with Bertrand. But he couldn’t just sit down in the street and wait for Luc, and anyway, what if Bertrand came out front and saw him? He scanned the area and saw, halfway down one of the streets from the intersection, a small area with benches upon which some people sat. He hurried down that way and found an empty spot.
He’d been intending to wait for Luc before eating, but the smell of the cheese proved too much for him. He broke it in half and devoured half of it with the rest of his half of the baguette; the meager meal was gone within minutes.
His stomach clamored for more, but he ignored it. The other half of this was meant for Luc, and he would resist his baser urges to make sure the otter got it. Otherwise he would be a terrible friend, and he would have taken money under false pretenses from a nun, which he was pretty sure was some kind of terrible sin against God, and not the right move for someone who wanted to become a student in the church. Or even someone who was going to become a student in the church, whether he wanted to or not.
A person plopped down beside him, and reached for the baguette. “Give us a bite, I’m starving.”
He pulled the baguette away, and then recognized Taye—Théodore. The mouse held his paw out patiently. “We did pull you from the Saone yesterday, did we not?”
He had the same ingratiating smile that Taye put on when he tried to get Danilo to do something for him. It was weird; the confrontation with Bertrand yesterday had almost erased Danilo’s connection between Taye and Théodore. The mouse had been nothing like Taye when he’d sat down, and then one turn, one expression, and there was Danilo’s friend again. “Luc did,” Danilo said, but held the baguette out to the mouse. “I got this for him, so don’t eat all of it.”
“No, no.” Théodore took the baguette and ripped off a good quarter of it. “Is that cheese I smell?”
Luc was smaller than he was, Danilo reasoned, so if he’d had half the bread and cheese, and Théodore had a third of what was left, then Luc would still have enough for a meal, and anyway it would be better than nothing. “Have you seen Luc?” he asked as Théodore sliced the cheese with his knife.
“Just left him an hour ago.” The mouse’s lips stretched into a smile. Taye’s smile had been less tense, but just as bright. “He’s off to visit a friend and then said he’d come back. Asked me to come look after you. Said you’d be staying in Tigue, not heading up north.”
“That was nice of him. I’m doing all right, though.” Danilo recounted their meeting with Sister Colquez in the morning. “I hope tomorrow I will have work in the Church so I may continue my studies.”
“Better you than I,” Théodore muttered, so low Danilo could barely hear it.
“Why?” the tiger asked, his tail curling around behind him.
Théodore shook his head. “What did you see in Tigue after you left Luc?”
“I went to the Cathedral and saw the clock.”
“Ah, indeed. A marvel, is it not?”
Danilo nodded. “It’s…miraculous,” he said, searching for words. “Truly inspired by God.”
Théodore did not seem as enthusiastic about that attribution as the visitors in the cathedral had been. He broke the baguette open and arranged the slices of cheese inside. “God’s inspiration is…” he trailed off and then took a bite of his sandwich and chewed noisily.
“Something odd happened, though.” The mouse had been wearing a beige scarf yesterday, too, though today he was not. Danilo told him about the weasel outside the church, and as soon as he mentioned the scarf, Théodore’s head snapped around and his eyes locked on the tiger’s.
“You wore the scarf into Saint-Jean? Who told you to do that?”
“N-nobody.” Danilo cringed back. The mouse’s demeanor had changed in an instant; the sandwich was held lazily in one paw as a slice of cheese protruded from the bread, the mouse’s full attention on Danilo.
“Did Luc tell you to take the scarf?”
“No! I just saw it there, I thought it looked nice. I thought it was fashionable.”
Théodore searched his eyes and then relaxed back on the bench. The slice of cheese fell to the ground, but the mouse didn’t notice. “Fashionable! By Saint Pothinus, you’ve a guardian angel looking after you, that’s for certain. So what happened with this weasel?”
Danilo told him, and the mouse chuckled. “Ah, that’s Armand, I’ll wager. Quicker with a knife than his wits, that one.”
“You know him?” Danilo’s voice rose, and he almost squeaked.
“Only in passing. We met a time or two last year. It’s healthy to be vigilant, but that one sleeps with both eyes open.” He smiled and moved Danilo’s arm aside. “Let’s have a look at that side. Does it hurt still?”
“No.” Danilo allowed Théodore to lift the edge of his tunic and probe with fingers at the wound. “Are you a—” He tried to say ‘doctor,’ but the word came out as “surgeon.”
“Ha.” The mouse’s fingers brushed the edge of the wound, and now pain danced in their wake. “I’ve bound my share of wounds, though. No, this one doesn’t appear to be deep. I fought with worse than that.”
“Aye, at Cerignola and Garigiano. But if you are from Etrusca, you must know of those.”
“Oh, er. Of course.” Danilo waved a paw. “I had heard of them, but my family is from a—a different part.”
The mouse spoke casually, taking a bite of his sandwich, but the question tensed Danilo’s fists again. His claws extended and he flicked his tail to the side away from the mouse. “Oh—Firenza,” he said.
“Mmm.” Théodore nodded. “We were south of Firenza, but passed through there on our retreat. Well, I suppose it’s as well you have not heard much of those battles. Our armies did not shine so well in them. Truth be told, there was not much fighting done, not at Gargiano, anyway. There was more retreating.”
“I’m sorry,” Danilo said, though he didn’t know why.
“Bah. Betimes it is the wisest course. Stay and fight and be destroyed, or retreat and lick your wounds, live another day?” The mouse finished his small sandwich and turned to grin at Danilo. “You should have that wound washed, but you’ll live, I would say. Already it is scarring.”
“Thanks.” The tiger relaxed, and impressed on his memory that he was from Firenza. He’d visited there with his father and seen the Duomo and Michaelangelo’s David, though…that would not have been made yet, would it? He was fairly sure Michaelangelo was in the 1600s sometime.
Théodore inclined his head. “I will remonstrate with Armand when next I see him. I am certain he was assured of doing the proper thing.”
The “proper thing” was threatening to kill someone? “What does the scarf mean, if I may ask?”
The mouse considered, and then shook his head. “Better that you do not know.”
Great. Well, maybe Luc would tell him. In the meantime, Danilo asked what kind of work he might expect to do in the church, and though Théodore clearly thought it an odd question, he talked amiably enough about cleaning of the windows, sweeping the floors, preparing the church for the congregation, and so on. “It will be easier for you because you are white,” he concluded. “They may trust you in time with the ritual trappings.”
Luc still had not appeared, so Danilo asked, “What do you do in Tigue?”
“Ah.” The mouse smiled. “I own property. South of here.” He gestured toward the Repos. “A farm; my wife manages it and pays the workers, while I spend much of my time here in the city to arrange for the sale of our grain and viands. In this season, the only thing we produce is honey from two hives on our property, so I sometimes take it to the market to sell, but on this occasion, Phillippe at the Deux Frères purchased all of it. So I have some time before I must return.”
“Don’t you want to get back to your wife?”
The mouse exhaled and then looked around. “Tigue is such a beautiful city,” he said. “I spend as much time here as I may.”
“You seem much happier today than yesterday.”
There again, the echo of Taye in the mouse’s smile, this one more comradely. “Your arrival was ill-timed yesterday. We did not know you and feared what your arrival might mean.”
“Oh, right.” Danilo remembered another question he wanted to ask. “Who’s Cobb?”
Théodore sprang to his feet and had a paw across Danilo’s mouth before the tiger could react. He brought his muzzle very close to Danilo’s ear. “Do not mention that name in public,” he said, so very softly that the hairs in Danilo’s ear barely twitched with the breath that accompanied the words.
Slowly, Danilo nodded, and the mouse released his mouth. He looked nothing like Taye now; he looked like a mouse who’d fought in two battles, serious and hard. “I’m sorry,” Danilo whispered. “Is that something I’m better off not knowing?”
“It’s something you will know, soon enough, but not something to be discussed in public.” Théodore lifted a paw. “Leave it there.”
He’d had almost nothing but frustrating conversations since arriving here, Danilo thought, but perhaps that is what happens when you’re dumped into a time period where you don’t belong. Or encountered a set of shifty-acting people with beige scarves.
He asked Théodore about the battles, and the mouse told him some amusing stories: one friend of his had drunk too much wine and kept complaining of headaches all during the retreat; another, a marmot, had bedded a willing Etruscan demoiselle and claimed he was going to marry her, only to reappear in Tigue the following year with fantastical stories of what her family was like.
It was in the midst of one of these bawdy stories that Luc reappeared, and Théodore said, “I’ll tell you the rest later, if you like.”
“Yes,” Danilo said. “I am curious to find out what he did with his wife’s aunt.”
“Whose wife’s aunt?” Luc’s whiskers were down and he kept rubbing his cheek.
“An army friend of mine. You don’t know him.” Théodore rose and gestured to Danilo as though presenting him to Luc. “Here is your tiger, safe and as purely white as I found him.”
“Quite a shock, eh?” The ghost of a smile danced around Luc’s muzzle. “The Saone masks many things.”
“Aye.” Théodore turned to the otter. “How did it go?”
The ghost vanished. “It went as it must. As yours did.”
They stood together looking down at the street, until Luc sighed and said, “There but for the grace of God.”
“God’s grace,” Théodore said in a low, hard voice, “has naught to do with it.”
He walked off without another word, leaving Luc and Danilo. The otter simply stood, lost in thought, until Danilo held up the bread. “I got you some food,” he said.
“Oh, sweetheart.” Luc lifted his head, his reverie dispelled, and now turned his full smile on Danilo. “You eat it. You’re much larger than I, and I’m used to waiting for my food.”
“I already had some. I’m not hungry now,” Danilo lied. He held the baguette out. “Take it. I got it for you.”
“I don’t need it.” But Luc sat next to him and allowed Danilo to place the baguette in his lap, following it with the cheese and the small coin. “Where did all this come from?”
Luc wouldn’t take it if he knew it were charity. Well, Danilo could be as frustrating as any of them. “It’s better you not know,” he said, grinning inwardly.
But the otter’s eyes widened in alarm, and he rose slightly from the bench. “You didn’t steal it? Oh, Danilo, say you did not!”
“I didn’t!” He put a large paw over the baguette, keeping it steady in Luc’s lap. “I bought them. I—I earned some money and I bought food, that’s all. I did a little bit of work in the morning.”
Luc settled back and looked doubtful, but lowered his head to the bread. “It does smell good.”
“It is. Taye—Théodore had some too.”
“All right.” Luc lifted the bread and nibbled at the end, then ate some cheese. Very soon, both were gone.
On Luc’s advice, they waited a little longer before attempting to re-enter the Repos de la Sainte. “In mid-afternoon, Bertrand is often in back,” Luc said, “and we may slip through the dining-room unobserved.”
They peered in the windows at the almost-empty dining room when Luc judged it time, and the otter opened the door to check. He gestured quickly for Danilo to follow him, and the tiger hurried inside.
The stocky badger was nowhere in evidence, but Maria was cleaning tankards behind the bar. She looked up at Danilo’s entrance and called out, “Good afternoon, tiger!”
Luc froze, then hurried more quickly across the room. Danilo raised a paw to Maria and smiled, his groin tingling at the sight of her, and then he heard movement behind her and ran to follow Luc, heart pounding.
“What is this?” Bertrand’s voice shouted.
The otter stopped dead, and Danilo, unprepared, piled into him, knocking them both into a chair and to the floor. Heavy footsteps approached as they struggled to get up. “I told you,” Bertrand said, waving a shaking finger at them, breathing hard, “no.”
“It is…” Luc struggled to his knees and remained there. “One more night. I promise. Then he will be gone.”
“No more nights, no more lies!” The black-and-white muzzle twisted over them.
Danilo struggled to his feet. “Honestly,” he said. “I’m getting another lodging tomorrow. I promise. I’ll, I’ll work in the kitchen again tonight.”
His words sped past the badger with no effect. “I have warned you again and again and again, and this is too much. I will lose patronage! No, you have—”
Luc made some kind of motion that stopped the badger’s words, and Danilo didn’t see what it was because he’d been staring over the otter’s head trying to attract Bertrand’s attention. He felt the motion of Luc’s tail, and saw Bertrand stop, untwist. “No,” the badger said, more calmly. “Not even…”
“It is for one night,” Luc said. “Show mercy.”
“Mercy!” The badger rubbed his whiskers and looked around at Maria, at the two foxes sitting at a table who were staring. “Very well! Though you deserve no mercy, you will have it. But you will leave tomorrow as well. My mercy can only extend so far!”
He gestured with his arms and spoke loudly enough to make Danilo’s whiskers pull back, his ears flatten. But Luc rose and bowed, and then took Danilo’s paw and hurried for the stairs. Behind them, Bertrand shouted, “Kitchen work begins in one hour!”
They hurried up to Luc’s room, where Luc closed the door and Danilo sat on one side of the bed, drawing his knees up to his chin. “I can’t believe he’s such an—” Asshole, he tried to say, but the word came out as “son of a filthy mother,” and he felt instantly ashamed of saying it even before Luc turned with a reproving look.
“Bertrand is…well, he runs his business.” Luc reached up to scratch his ears. “I have been imposing on his generosity for far too long.”
“He owes your father a debt.”
“Owed.” Luc ran fingers across the chest. “Have you seen my beige scarf?”
Heat flushed Danilo’s ears and tail. “I, uh.”
The otter turned. Danilo met his eyes and looked down. “I lost it.”
He told the story, adding that Théodore knew the weasel and hoped to get the scarf back. Luc listened patiently and then laughed softly at that part. “The scarf matters little. But I should have cautioned you against wearing it.”
“I’m sorry I lost it,” Danilo said. “And sorry I got you kicked out of the room here. It’s a nice room.”
Luc sat next to the tiger on the bed. “It is an adequate room. And I will find a place to live, I am certain. I still have some friends.”
“Maybe Théodore could let you stay with him.”
“It is a possibility.” Luc folded his paws in his lap. His thick tail squirmed around as he settled it, brushing against Danilo’s.
The tiger moved his tail courteously aside. “Or if I get a room with the church, you could stay with me.”
At this, Luc’s whiskers flared up in a smile, and he turned. “That is truly sweet. But most student rooms are not private. You will likely be sleeping on a mat in a semi-public space with other students or church workers. And besides,” he raised a paw as Danilo started to argue, “no church would grant space to me.”
“Why not?” Danilo knew he shouldn’t ask, but he was tired of not knowing.
“Oh,” Luc said. “You know already, do you not? Last night, I tried not to allow my nature to show through when I was comforting you, but you must have sensed it.”
Luc frowned. “You understand what it means when Bertrand calls me ‘halfie’?”
“He calls me that, too.” Danilo shook his head. “In Firenza, we don’t have that term.”
The otter bit his lip. “I can trust you? I sensed some of it in your nature last night as well, so you must at least understand what it is like to live this way, even if you are able to enjoy the company of Maria.”
Danilo’s ears flattened. “You know about that?”
“My boy, there is only one good reason for you to wash so thoroughly without a single objectionable stain remaining on your dry clothes. And the clothes, too, smelled of wolf.”
“Sorry I got your clothes dirty.” He curled his tail tightly in on itself.
Luc laughed again and put a paw on Danilo’s knee. “My boy,” he said, “if I could lose myself in a female’s charms, do you not think I would do so as well? Maria may be…experienced, shall we say, but she is at least clean and friendly, which is more than I would say for many of the females in this city whose dubious charms you might have sought out. No, you’ve nothing to be ashamed of. Did she remind you of someone at home? Is this why you became so distraught last night?”
“No. No, Maria was wonderful.” And then he felt guilty, because Luc had all but confessed his attraction. “I mean, you’re really nice too, and I felt a lot better when you—when you held me.”
His words hung in the silent room. Luc wasn’t looking directly at him, but the otter’s paw on his knee remained there, warm and comforting, and Danilo put his paw atop it. “Is that why the church wouldn’t welcome you?”
Slowly, the otter nodded.
Danilo took a breath and then squeezed Luc’s paw. “I. I think that’s ridiculous. It’s—it’s like that in Etrusca too, and it’s—it’s just wrong.”
“It is heartening to hear you say so,” Luc murmured, “though you should speak in whispers when you do.”
“It doesn’t have to rule your life, though.” Danilo squeezed the otter’s paw. “I mean, you can just work on your business and getting back on your feet, and…I mean, you can still have a life, can’t you?”
Luc did turn his head then and looked steadily at Danilo. “Tell me,” he said, “in Firenza, if you are caught…with another male, what is the penalty?”
Cobb’s large hand mashing his paw into the table. Georg sneering down at him about Siberian wolf dick. Danilo swallowed. “Well, uh. I guess you don’t get to do some things—some people might not want to do business with you, or spend time with you…”
The otter withdrew his paw slowly. “Here,” he said, “the first time you are caught, the Church removes a testicle. The second time, you are castrated. Fully.”
The words took a moment to register. At first, Danilo thought they might be mistranslated somehow, that whatever was altering the language he was speaking was getting the words wrong, that he was misunderstanding. “They can’t do that,” he said. “That’s—mutilation, that’s a violation of your rights.”
“Do you not wonder why Bertrand calls us ‘halfie’?” Luc’s eyes slid away from Danilo’s, out to the floor.
“Well, that’s just a name, right? I mean, they haven’t caught you yet, so…uh.”
Danilo’s words trailed off as Luc rose to his knees. The otter loosened his pants and pushed them down his hips before Danilo could protest. “There,” he said, one brown paw cradling his sac. “They have caught me once.”
His sheath was intact, though Danilo was trying very hard not to look at it. The sac held between his fingers bore an angry scar, bare of fur, and half of it looked deflated, like a three-day-old balloon. Danilo’s own balls tried to climb up into his body, and he wanted to look away, but he couldn’t. “I’m sorry,” he choked out.
“It was my own fault.” Mercifully, Luc pulled his pants up and sat next to Danilo again. “There are certain discreet locations we use, and I had been warned that one was compromised. My companion and I were caught and seized and…” His paw rested in his lap. “Punished.”
“What happened to him?” The words choked in Danilo’s throat.
“Oh, it was his first time as well. I believe he has married. The Church leaves us half our masculinity that we might yet amend our ways and start a family. But I suppose I am stubborn.”
“Why?” Danilo kept his voice low, but his tail uncurled and lashed against the wall. “Next time they’ll take—I mean, by God, how could you go on after that?”
“Some do.” Luc looked again at the floor. “For some, the need for companionship is greater than their concern for personal safety. My embrace last night; would you have gone without it?”
“No,” Danilo shook his head. “But…”
“And it is not so common to be caught more than once.” Luc managed a smile. “I can perform quite adequately still, I have discovered. There are many discreet places in which we may still share affection, the kind of closeness that for my kind does not ring true with a female, the kind of closeness that comes from two like souls sharing body and heart for a time. Tell me, Danilo, would you choose abstinence, if told it would prolong your life five years?”
Some people choose abstinence, some have abstinence thrust upon them. He fought the urge to laugh at the phrase he’d muttered to himself on many a lonely night where his paw was his release. “Five years isn’t so long. I mean…” He rubbed his whiskers. “It’s a false choice. You can’t guarantee that.”
“For us, it is not a false choice. Abstinence or the chance of a terrible death.”
“Oh, aye.” Luc turned to him. “Have I not mentioned the penalty for a third offense? Burned at the stake as though you were a witch.”
Luc nodded. Danilo just kept staring at him. “Come on, I know this is—I know this is—” He couldn’t think of a way to say “The Dark Ages” without having to add a whole lot of explanation he wasn’t ready for, so he finished, “the site of the cathedral, but aren’t we civilized? Burn people?”
“For witches, it’s the only way, and they regard us as witches of a sort. If we cannot control our urges, they say it is a demon possessing us.” Luc spread his fingers. “I do not feel in possession of a demon; or if I am, it is a rather benevolent one.”
“Except for getting one of your balls cut off.” Danilo was vaguely aware that even though he meant to use the cruder term, he said the same word Luc had used for “testicles.” He forged on. “But witches—do you believe in witches, Luc?”
“Aye,” the otter said promptly. “Théodore told me the Iberians used one in the war to move about unseen by our sentries. My grandfather told me that when they broke new ground for the cathedral, it rained every day and they could not lay the foundation until they caught the witch who’d been displaced and killed her, and when they’d killed her, the sun came out.”
“That’s…” Danilo paused. As ridiculous as someone traveling here from the twenty-first century? He’d be regarded as a witch if he told the truth about himself. “In Firenza,” he said, “we don’t burn witches. It’s barbaric.”
Luc blinked slowly. “Barbaric it might be, but for witches, we are assured it is the only means to cleanse their souls. Now, for such as me…” He rubbed the side of his muzzle.
“You’re not going to be burned.” Danilo caught Luc’s paw.
“No…” The otter squared his shoulders and looked Danilo in the eye. “I have just come from visiting a friend of mine who is.”
In Luc’s eyes were the hurt, the sadness, the truth of what he was saying: he had just come from seeing a friend for the last time, a friend who was about to suffer a horrible death. Danilo bit his lip. “He was…a third time?” Luc nodded. “How—”
The otter spread his paws. “He trusted the wrong friend. He was betrayed by someone who pretended to care for him. But he will not tell us whom it was. His kindness forbids it. ‘He was only protecting his family,’ he says.” He closed one paw into a fist.
Danilo had been about to ask how or why someone would go on trying to have sex of any kind after being “fully” castrated (which he assumed meant just removing everything in the groin area, and even that fleeting thought turned his own sheath and balls ice-cold), but he did not feel this was the appropriate time to ask that question, and he was not at all sure he wanted to hear the answer anyway. “That’s terrible,” he said. “I’m really sorry.”
“It is a reminder of what may happen if we are careless,” Luc said. “The best we can do is live more cautiously, and well, in his memory.”
“I don’t understand why you would take those risks at all. If it could cost you your life…”
“Life,” Luc said, “is more than the beating of your heart. Life is your heart’s connection to the people around you. If your soul is shut off, isolated, alone, is that living? Would you survive to the age of fifty without speaking to another?”
“I get it,” Danilo said. “It’s the same thing you asked before.”
“Do you understand truly?” Luc’s eyes remained focused on his. “Have you been alone all your life, and this is why you do not fear it?”
“No, I—I’ve had my family, and my friends.” He couldn’t look away from the otter’s gaze.
“Someone you could trust your heart to? Someone you could turn to at the worst times in your life?”
“Yes.” Danilo had always been able to pick up his phone and call family if he needed to. He probably wouldn’t have told them about Cobb, about the bullying, but he was handling that on his own. He would’ve laid low, waited for it to blow over, and everything would be fine. The only reason he was alone here was because he had no phone, no way to get in touch with the people he depended on, who were all four-hundred-odd years from being born anyway. Well, the other reason he was alone here was that if he told anyone that he was from the future, they would think he was crazy. They didn’t even have science fiction to tell him where he’d gotten his crazy idea from.
“You are lucky, then. I have been fortunate enough to have a few friends I could trust, in whose arms I could experience truly the joy that God made for me. Those bonds, that joy, is worth the risk.” His tail moved slightly; the tip curled up. “I would rather go to an early grave having lived a full life than carry the weight of empty years.”
“I would rather live.” Danilo paused. “I’d rather have my friends stay alive, too. I mean, won’t you miss your—” He gulped, but was already most of the way through the sentence, and there wasn’t any other way for him to end it. He hoped Luc wouldn’t think him callous. “Friend?”
“Of course. But all friendships come to an end.” Luc smiled, but sadly, and his whiskers did not rise with his smile. “After tonight, most likely you and I will not see each other again, and I feel you are as close a friend as he was to me. We’ve talked more, for certain.” He rubbed his eyes. “Coumier was not given to conversation.”
“You’ve been a great friend to me.” Danilo eagerly left the subject of soon-to-be-dead Coumier. “You pulled me out of the river and helped me get on my feet. Tomorrow I’m going to the church and I might have a place to stay and something to do, and I never would have had that if not for you.” He put a paw on Luc’s shoulder. “And you made me feel better last night when I thought I was going to lose it. I don’t want to stop seeing you after tonight.”
“It is much better for you if you do not,” Luc said, but he leaned into Danilo’s embrace and put his paw back on the tiger’s knee.
“I trust you,” Danilo said. “And you can trust me.”
“I probably should not.” But Luc didn’t move, and his thick tail pressed against Danilo’s back.
After several quiet minutes, the tension in the otter relaxed, and he squeezed Danilo’s knee. “You’d best go down to the kitchen,” he said, “lest they suspect some demon-inspired activity here.”
“They wouldn’t ever know.” Despite all that Luc had said and even shown Danilo, the intermediate step of the church officials still felt unreal to him. What, did people barge into houses like the comedy skit Spanish Inquisition and grab people while they were in the middle of…his imagination raced with scenes. No; nobody would come barging into the Repos. Bertrand already hated them because he was worried about a church raid, and anyway, if he wanted to accuse Danilo and Luc, he would have sent the church people upstairs within the first half hour after they went up together.
Not that they had time to do anything right now anyway, although as Danilo held Luc close, he thought he might want to get closer to the otter, in time. The room here was safe; the door was closed, and if they were quiet, how would anyone know what had gone on? The chamberpot would surely mask any smells, and it would take all of—well, if Maria was any indication, about five minutes. The chances were that nothing would happen.
Wait, why was he trying to talk himself into sex with Luc when the otter hadn’t made a single move toward him? Well, other than showing off his sheath—but Maria, too, had been very open with her body. Maybe it was just custom. Then there was the way his tail was pressed against Danilo’s back—unavoidable in the small room, perhaps. Or the paw on the knee that was now no longer all the way down at the knee, but had crept up the thigh. Or the fact that he had specifically mentioned his “nature” to Danilo.
Was Luc hitting on him? Danilo cursed himself for his uncertainty, but he really had no idea what flirting felt like. Right now, being close to Luc felt good, and the chance to make the otter feel better, after so much Luc had done for him, appealed to Danilo. But he didn’t want to be too forward, and anyway, he would have to get down to the kitchen fairly soon. So he just kept his arm around the otter.
Luc’s fingers rested warmly on his leg, definitely on his thigh now. Maybe Danilo just wanted to think they were moving up toward his groin. His sheath already felt warm and full from the closeness, and the anticipation of the touch of the otter’s fingers got him harder still. Luc could tell, couldn’t he? Or could he?
Danilo’s inexperience kept him from going any farther, which was probably a good thing. After several nice, close moments, Luc breathed a sigh and straightened, pulling away from the tiger. “Thank you for the comfort, Danilo,” he said. “I think you had better go down to the kitchen. It’s near time for you to start. I’m sorry you must work again tonight.”
“I don’t mind,” Danilo said, which was only a partial lie; he minded being dragged away from a peaceful moment with Luc, and he wasn’t looking forward to another three or four hours by the hot stove alongside the sullen bear. But now, he felt, he knew a little better how the kitchen worked, and he would be much more confident. Hopefully he would not lacerate his paws any worse than they were.
That reminded him of the cut in his side, which hurt when he touched it. “I want to go wash up before,” he said.
Luc shifted his tail and got to his feet as Danilo pushed up from the bed and did the same. The otter smiled and then gripped Danilo’s wrist in what felt like an approximation of a handshake. Danilo gripped Luc’s wrist in return and returned the smile. “Thank you for that,” Luc said. “It has been a trying day, and it is pleasant to feel that I still have a friend.”
“Of course you have a friend.” Danilo was rather aware that his sheath was brushing against his pants, and wondered if the bulge were visible. He looked down at Luc’s pants and saw what might have been an answering bulge there, or might simply have been a fold in the fabric. He closed his eyes and just squeezed the otter’s wrist.
Luc squeezed back and then released it. “I have to put my things in order,” he said, although Danilo did not see much for him to be arranging. Most of his clothes were already in the chest.
The tiger rubbed a paw down the tunic. His claw snagged on the tear the weasel’s knife had made. “I’ll return your clothes when I get new ones. I promise.”
“They are merely clothes,” Luc said. “For as long as they are of use, you may keep them.”
But he would return them, Danilo vowed as he hurried down the stairs to the back yard and the pump. He stripped the tunic off and examined the rent as he pumped to bring water up. This time, he was pleased to bring water up almost as quickly as Seline had. He cupped his paw under it and brought the pleasantly cool water to the cut in his side, rubbing it. Without soap or antiseptic, there wasn’t a lot he could do, but he was sure he would rather have it clean than not.
It stung as he rubbed it, and a little blood came away on his fingers. He wet his fur thoroughly and then slid the tunic back on. His fingers found the cut again, a hole where the threads had been severed as neatly as his skin had. He shuddered again, thinking of the weasel and the knife. How close had he come to actually dying, there? Best not to think of it. He looked down at the tunic, keeping his mind on the injury to the cloth.
The tunic wasn’t as badly ripped as he’d thought: a cut perhaps an inch long. It could easily be mended by someone handy with a needle and thread. Which was not Danilo. He began to brood about how few actual skills he held, but was mercifully interrupted by a growl from the general direction of the kitchen. “You workin’?”
He hurried in under the bear’s watchful eye, paused to gasp in the smothering heat. The previous night, the oven had been going but winding down and the day had been cooler. After a day of bright sun, the kitchen had likely already been hot before the cook had lit the stove. Now Danilo breathed in hot, smoky air, and coughed, and coughed again, only managing to stop under the withering glare from the large bear.
A stack of potatoes and carrots waited for him, and without being instructed he attended to them with the same knife he’d used before. When the bear called him, he helped remove the fowl from the oven, and otherwise he applied himself to the vegetables. Kitchen work remained very low on Danilo’s list of preferred activities, but as a way to get a meal, it was bearable. His paws hurt by the end of the first hour, his left from being cut (though he did slip twice with the knife), and both cramping from holding the small vegetables and knife. Danilo imagined that they were saying, We did this ALL LAST NIGHT and okay, we put up with it then, but now we are over it.
Just a few more hours, he told them, and tried to stretch in between peelings, flexing his fingers. The bear growled at him twice for cutting too much flesh from the potatoes, but Danilo ignored him and was allowed to continue without punishment. He was even daring enough, when the bear wasn’t looking, to chop a piece from a raw carrot and pop it into his mouth, crunching as quietly as he could, and whether it was covered by the noise of the restaurant or the bear simply didn’t care, Danilo was not punished for that either.
The cool of the evening relieved his breathing, and he fell again into the rhythm of peeling. The last fowl came out of the oven, the stewpot bubbled, and Seline came in to take plates out to the dining room. Danilo faced the back door while peeling and only saw Seline the one time he was helping with the fowl. She didn’t acknowledge him with anything more than a quick nod.
Toward the end of the evening, Luc looked in the back door with a smile for Danilo. Danilo returned it, hoping he looked more encouraging than he had the previous night. The otter waved and hurried off just before the big bear turned and would have seen him. The cook squinted at Danilo, who was trying to hide a smile, then the bear scooped peeled vegetables from the table to the pot. He leaned against the wall and ripped a large chunk of bread from a baguette while Danilo continued to work.
In an hour or two, when Danilo was done, he could go back up to the room and wait for Luc. He would insist that the otter take the bed this time, but would offer him some affection. Just a hug, maybe lying together…or more, if Luc wanted it. In Danilo’s head, of course, the otter did want it, and he imagined Luc’s paws pushing his boxers down, the fingers that had lain warmly on his thigh curling around his sheath…and his paw, in turn, grasping the otter’s length.
That brought back images of the scarred sac, the single testicle. Not very sexy. Danilo frowned. There were no church people here, nobody to betray a trust except himself and Luc. He trusted the otter, and the otter had said he trusted Danilo in return. The more he thought about it, the more he felt he had a duty to help Luc out with some kind of physical affection. In a world where every encounter was unsure and could lead to torture, wasn’t there an implicit obligation to take advantage of the safe times when they arose? Besides, it seemed fitting to Danilo that just as he’d had his first sexual experience in this inn, he could have his first gay experience here too.
In the midst of these thoughts, his erection alternately growing and flagging as he imagined first the details of the encounter, then the possible consequences, he paid less attention to his peeling, and the knife slipped again, this time scoring painfully beneath one of his claws.
He swore under his breath, but didn’t drop the knife. The bear laughed, deeply. “Knife bites you, eh?”
“I’m fine.” The pain, as it often did with this sort of injury, dropped off quickly from the sharp impact and then returned, getting worse as he curled his cramped fingers around each potato. They were the worst; with the carrots, he could at least peel with the same stroke all the way around the root, though these carrots were not all the straight, even carrots he was used to. They twisted, with bumps and scars, and the ones that were straight were small and needed more care. But the potatoes varied in size, and had to be turned around and around before they could be completely peeled, and every time he had to turn one, his finger flexed and his claw hurt.
Finally, Bertrand came in to tell the bear that dinner was done. The cook grabbed the remaining half-baguette and turned to Danilo with his mouth full, chewing. “Stew,” he said thickly, pointing to the pot. “Share.” And then he was gone.
As he had the previous night, Danilo washed the thicker peelings and shared his stew with Seline and Maria. Maria spoke as jovially as she had the previous night, and apart from the occasional sly glance at Danilo and a pinch of his tail, he would not have known that they’d slept together the night before.
Seline obviously knew, and kept her conversation to a minimum, but Maria was talkative enough that the rabbit’s silence made little difference, and when Danilo joined in to talk about his visit to the cathedral (minus the encounter with the weasel), Seline’s absence from the conversation was barely noticeable. This spurred her to join in, because she too had loved the cathedral, and she seemed both affronted that Danilo had gone and pleased that he had enjoyed it.
He’d seen the clock, and the rosettes, but when Seline asked about other features, the relics, the shrine to the Virgin, he had to confess that he had not noticed any of them. “Reason for me to go back, I suppose.”
The rabbit sniffed, and Maria laughed. “She believes the Cathedral is a miracle. It would be impossible for you to appreciate it enough.”
“I really felt the presence of God there,” Danilo said, because he wanted to make Seline happy, and because it was partially true. It felt right for the time.
“I know somewhere else you felt His presence,” Maria said, and pinched his tail again.
Seline looked away. Danilo shifted and smiled at Maria, wondering inside whether Luc would pinch his tail. Probably not in public like this. He changed the subject back to the clock in the cathedral.
When the dinner ended, Seline offered to clean up again. Maria simply walked back to the inn, without saying more than “good night” to Danilo. She did pause at the hallway, but he didn’t register that until he was already on the stairs heading back up to his room. He didn’t hesitate; he could always come back tomorrow night or the night after, if he wanted to see her again.
Luc wasn’t in the room when Danilo entered. His tail drooped, but he turned immediately to close the door, and a smile grew on his muzzle. He stretched out next to the bed, head facing away from the door, and imagined what Luc might do when the otter walked in.
His paw strayed inside his pants, and encountered the elastic waistband of his boxers. Maria had known right away that this was foreign. If Luc got that far…there would be questions. And Danilo didn’t want to have that conversation, not if Luc was reaching into his boxers.
With an eye on the door, he slipped Luc’s pants off, and then the boxers. He stashed them behind Luc’s chest, stuffing them between the thick wood and the wall, and tweaked the cut under his claw again as he did. He cursed softly and stood, massaging the finger, his tail swinging freely over his bare rear.
The finger felt better soon, or at least the pain receded to a familiarly manageable level. The tiger extended his claws, which brought another flare of pain. He retracted them again and reached down to his waist.
The small tunic hung barely halfway down his sheath, leaving his sac exposed to the air. He slipped his paw under it, fondling himself and his two, count ‘em, two balls. Poor Luc. If things went that far, Danilo would have to remember to be sensitive. Luc might not want that area touched. As a matter of fact, Danilo wasn’t sure what the otter would want. His paw trailed back up to his sheath. He knew what he liked, but that wasn’t necessarily what someone else liked. Taye had told him that he already had a leg up whenever he was ready to play with another guy, because he’d had years practicing with the same equipment, and certainly, Danilo felt more confident about playing with Luc than he had about sleeping with Maria. But maybe different guys liked different things.
His sheath was getting harder under his paw. He remembered a Stateside sitcom he’d seen, in which one of the guys who went out with a lot of ladies explained how when they’d come back from dinner on a date, he would get naked and sit on the couch. Sometimes he got thrown out, but sometimes she said, what the hell, and he got laid.
Danilo never believed that that would work. That guy, he thought, was a complete asshat. And now here he was, pawing himself while waiting for a guy he wanted to cuddle with—and maybe more—to come back into the room.
He hurried over to the pants he’d dropped and pulled them up over his legs and hips, fastening them around his growing erection with some difficulty. The good news was that the erection was fading with his embarrassment, and by the time he sat down again, he was presentable.
But still Luc did not arrive. Danilo lay back, alternately imagining the otter caressing him, groping, stroking, and then forcing himself to stop imagining that. He must have drifted off, because he became convinced that his trip back in time had all been an elaborate joke. Taye had conspired with Cobb and Georg somehow, and they had constructed an immense set, a fake Tigue, and if only Danilo could get to the edge of it, he would find his way out into 2008. They had even stocked their set with fleas—he scratched at his side. The urge to call out to them bubbled up in his chest, torpid, slow. You guys win, he wanted to yell. Come out now.
The door opened, and he blinked at the silhouetted otter. So Orwin was in on it too. He opened his mouth, and then the door closed and so did his mouth. Struggling back to wakefulness, he recognized the movements and then the scent of Luc.
“Hi,” he said.
Luc stopped, and then white showed as he smiled. “Good evening, Danilo. You may have the bed again.”
“No.” The tiger pulled his knees up and remained on the floor. “You’ve done so much…you have the bed.”
“I am accustomed to meager accommodations. You are accustomed to wealth.”
Danilo swallowed. His tail tip flicked. Luc’s whiskers glimmered in the darkness. “We could…share.”
The teeth showed again, and slowly, the whiskers lifted. “I am not sure that would be advisable.”
“No, it’s…it’s okay.” He swallowed against his dry throat.
The otter lowered himself to the ground and sat next to Danilo. “I am tired,” he said. “I do not know what your intentions are…or expectations…”
The tiger leaned against Luc. Images whirled through his head. “No expectations,” he said. “You talked about closeness being important to life, and you’ve done so much. I wanted to give you something back.”
“You owe me nothing,” Luc started to say, and Danilo cut him off.
“I owe you my life.”
Luc hesitated, and Danilo summoned all the courage he had. He put one long arm around the otter’s shoulders.
Tension stiffened the muscular shoulders, but Danilo kept his arm there, and a moment later the otter relaxed, and slumped against Danilo. “I really am tired.”
The tiger pushed down the disappointment. Luc was enjoying the hug, and had not said no to curling up in the bed together. They would see what the morning would bring, after they’d both had a rest.
In the still air of the bedroom, a faintly sour smell came to Danilo’s nose, but he had gotten used to ignoring hygiene issues, and he just held the otter close. “Danilo,” Luc said patiently. “I am very tired.”
The third time, it sunk in. “Oh.” Danilo felt a little foolish. He sat back and let Luc lie down on the bed. The otter lay on his back facing the wall, and curled his tail between his legs, leaving room for Danilo.
The tiger hesitated a moment, and then crawled up behind Luc. He had to press his body close to the otter’s to get himself all the way on the bedding, which was designed for only one person, and a sixteenth-century person, at that. Luc shifted as Danilo squirmed to get comfortable, pressing his chest to the otter’s back and finding that that placed his sheath right against the arch of the thick tail. Not wanting to be that forward, Danilo squirmed a little more, trying to find a less intimate way to sleep in the same bed. He draped one arm over Luc’s while he adjusted his hips one way, then another. No position was entirely chaste; both his awareness and the resultant rubbing of his sheath against Luc’s tail aroused him, and the more he moved, the more his erection grew, and the more it rubbed against the tail.
His ears flushed. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled.
Luc chuckled softly. He took the tiger’s paw and brought it to the front of his own pants so Danilo could feel the bulge of an erection there. “Don’t be,” the otter whispered as he moved the paw back to his chest.
Danilo’s heart thumped and he pressed his nose against Luc’s ear, inhaling the otter’s scent. He closed his eyes with a smile. Luc murmured something that Danilo perked his ears to catch. “…in this world you will have trouble. But take heart. For I have…” The rest was too soft to hear.
Was he meant to reply to that? He couldn’t think of anything to say, and the way Luc had said it, it might have been a prayer. The otter didn’t speak again, so Danilo just exhaled against Luc’s fur and didn’t worry about it.
He thought he would never get to sleep. Usually when he was this aroused, he would just jerk off and go to bed, but that wasn’t an option. Still, he didn’t mind so much. Lying next to Luc like this felt close and warm, and he thought he understood what the otter had meant when he said it gave purpose to his life.
Besides, he wasn’t the only one who couldn’t sleep. Footsteps broke the silence, faint in the hall outside. Someone going to the outhouse, undoubtedly. Don’t they know about chamber pots? Danilo thought with the smugness of the newly educated.
Then he was pushed violently off the bed, rolling to the floor and reflexively slapping a paw to the ground to stop his rolling. Unfortunately, it was his left paw, and his cut flared with pain. He gasped and brought it to his muzzle, which stopped him asking why Luc had pushed him out of bed, if it was just a dream or—
The door burst open.
Danilo scrambled back against the light of lanterns, which swung around to pierce his eyes. A gruff voice barked, “On your feet!”
Three figures crowded into the small room, and with the oil lantern’s flame casting the rest of the room into shadow, Danilo couldn’t make out any of them. He smelled burning oil more than anything else.
Beside him, Luc stood. “I’m the one you want,” he said quietly.
“We want both of you,” the voice growled. It wasn’t the one holding the lantern—either lantern, for another one shone full in Luc’s face, illuminating the whiskers, the steady, calm expression. Danilo tried to mimic it, but his legs trembled and almost gave way. He thought he saw the shadow of antlers on the wall behind the lantern, but then the leadmost shadow moved again and the antlers disappeared.
The room was barely big enough for five people to stand, but one of the lantern-holders kicked the door shut. “Now,” the shadow in front said, stepping forward so that his nose was less than a foot from Danilo and Luc, “you are under arrest by order of the Church and the Archbishop of Tigue for crimes against the Holy Order and violations of God’s commands.”
With the lanterns behind him, the foremost intruder’s small triangular ears and thick canine muzzle came into focus. His nose glistened in the light, nostrils widening. “It reeks of blasphemy in here.”
“We haven’t done anything!” Danilo felt safe in protesting this; any evidence of his arousal was long gone.
The wolf half-turned. “Perchet. Inspect them.”
The lantern in Danilo’s eyes dropped to the floor, where it rested. In its diffuse light, the figures in the room resolved slowly.
All three wore dark brown tunics with a white cross stretching from neck to stomach, the crossbar defining each broad chest. Smaller white crosses adorned the sleeves, and a row of small white marks ran across the shoulder of the wolf in front of him, who was nearly his height.
The figure who’d put down the lantern, a shorter fox, crossed the room to kneel beside Luc. Danilo couldn’t look away as the fox brought his nose up to the front of Luc’s pants, then the back, and finally, standing, the otter’s mouth. “Aye,” he said. “Stinks all over, this one.”
The lantern’s light turned on Danilo. He still had not seen the third figure, and now he was blinded again. But his whiskers felt the fox’s movement, and the large, grotesque shadows cast by the lanterns twisted about the room as the church official knelt beside him, poked his nose into the tiger’s groin, moved to sniff below his tail, and finally stood.
“Lower your head,” the wolf commanded, and Danilo obligingly bent to bring his muzzle close to the fox’s nose.
This time, the fox hesitated. His eyes gleamed in the lantern’s light.
The wolf gestured, a ‘come on’ motion with his paw. “Well?”
The fox’s thick tail swished. “Sir, he is white.”
“I can see that. Does he smell of sin?”
The large black ears flattened. “I do not think so.”
“Think so?” The wolf leaned forward, ears cupped forward.
“I—I could be mistaken, but—”
“Enough.” The wolf turned. “I am satisfied. Let us bring them both to the prison. Dumond, the door.”
The fox crossed to pick up his lantern while the other lantern swung down and free, and the corridor door opened. “Wait,” Luc said roughly. “Leave the tiger. I hardly know him. He was begging in the streets and I offered him a roof out of Christian charity. He has done nothing.”
Neither have you, Danilo wanted to say, but he couldn’t make his mouth work, and his throat was a silent desert. He turned his gaze to the wolf, who had lifted a paw to the white stripes on his shoulder and was running a claw over them. They appeared to be lines of thread sewn into the fabric. “Perchet, Dumond. Secure them.”
The fox came to bind Danilo’s wrists behind him, while the other soldier—a young ram—did the same to Luc. “Don’t worry,” the fox murmured very low, as he tied the rope. “If it’s your first, it’s not so bad.”
It was not Luc’s first. Danilo thought about the list of punishments Luc had told him, imagined the otter suffering the punishment for a second offense, and his gorge rose. “No,” he croaked.
Nobody paid any attention to him. “Keep to God’s way,” the fox murmured, again very softly, “and you need never suffer this again.”
The wolf left first, followed by Luc with the ram behind him. The fox prodded Danilo, and the tiger stumbled forward and fell. Unable to break his fall, he landed painfully on his knees, and made a muffled sound.
The fox swore. “Get up, get up. If you resist, it will be worse for you.” When Danilo still did not move, the slender muzzle hissed next to his ear, “LeSevre has killed prisoners who would not come willingly.”
The wound in his side throbbed. Danilo struggled to regain his balance, with the fox supporting his arms.
“What takes so long?” The wolf—LeSevre—appeared in the doorway.
“He tripped,” the fox said. “We are just coming.”
A large paw descended to the wolf’s belt, to the handle of a knife. “Does he need encouragement?”
“No,” Danilo croaked, seemingly the only word he could manage to utter. He wobbled, got one foot under him, and pushed himself upright, desperation lending him the strength terror had sapped.
“Hurh.” The wolf’s ears dipped, and the paw left his knife handle. He disappeared again.
The fox pushed Danilo out the door and into the hall. Luc was just walking around the corner, the ram behind him. Doors creaked open, eyes gleaming behind them as Danilo was paraded down the hall, around the corner, down the stairs. All the while his mind was racing. He hadn’t done anything! Not really. He’d had his paw on Luc’s erection, briefly; he’d pressed himself against the otter. That was all. It barely even counted. It wasn’t fair—was he really going to lose a testicle for this?
His gorge rose again, and he stopped next to a window, sure he was going to be sick. “Come on,” the fox urged pushing him again, but he pressed his head against the glass, breathing harshly.
“I didn’t,” he choked out. “I didn’t do anything.”
“Your friend did, did he not?”
Danilo remained silent. The truth was, he didn’t know what Luc had done, and the fox had seemed so certain when he’d smelled. Maybe there was a ‘gay scent’ you could pick up if you were familiar with it. And if Danilo said no, then they might think he was lying about everything. He put a paw to his stomach and wished he could make himself throw up.
“I don’t know,” he said finally.
The fox sighed and pushed again. “Go on, unless you want LeSevre back here with his knife.”
The turmoil in his gut remained just below the level of vomit. Danilo swallowed and stumbled down the hallway toward the stairs.
At the base of the stairs, the wolf was waiting with Luc and the ram. “Fast or slow, you all come to the same place in the end,” he said. “Now—”
“Begging your pardon,” a clear, high voice said behind him, “but what is it you are doing?”
Behind them, from the servants’ quarters, Seline stepped out, a tunic and nothing else draped over her body. She glared severely at the soldiers, her ears straight up.
The wolf turned and matched her severity. “These depraved souls are being taken to prison.”
“Depraved.” She stepped forward and rested a paw on Danilo’s shoulder. “You have observed this one in a depraved act?”
“We were told—” The wolf stopped.
“Aye, you were told. And did your informant have personal experience of this depravity?” She waited, but the wolf made no answer. “I can assure you from personal experience that this tiger is no more depraved than you or I. Whoever bore false witness against him will have to answer for that sin, but Danilo has no stain on his soul.”
“We have a duty—”
“Sir,” the fox spoke up quickly. “I believe she may be telling the truth.”
“Perchet, quiet!” LeSevre took a step to come closer to Seline. “What stake have you in this?”
“None, save the good Christian desire to see a soul spared pain it has not earned.”
Danilo watched their equally intent faces, and held his breath. He did not dare move or utter a word; he could think of nothing to say save for the denials he had already attempted. Having someone fight on his behalf made him want to shrink back and tell Seline to go, that she was putting herself in danger; at the same time, she was his only desperate hope to avoid prison. If he’d only known how to comport himself better in this time. If he’d only been more careful.
Behind him, the fox’s paws rested on his bindings, waiting, Danilo hoped, for the order to release them. The wolf and rabbit stared each other down, and when the wolf did not speak, Seline went on. “You may sniff him yourself, if you find my testimony unbelievable.”
At this, the wolf’s eyes flicked to Perchet, behind Danilo. He straightened, and rubbed one paw down the cross on his chest. “Release him,” he said gruffly, and then looked up into Danilo’s eyes. “But you make sure to keep your life according to God’s rules. If we meet again, I shan’t be swayed by hearsay.” His muzzle twisted into a nasty smile, showing long fangs. “White or not. And don’t think you will be able to hide, not in this city. There are none like you here.”
You don’t know how true that is, Danilo thought in a flood of relief as the fox loosened his wrists. “No, sir,” he said, and then his eyes fell on Luc.
The otter stood facing away from him, back straight and head lifted. He remained there, rigid, reminding Danilo of the pretense that they weren’t close. He wanted to do something for the otter as well, but he knew he couldn’t. If he showed any affection, he’d be endangering himself. LeSevre still had predatory eyes fixed on him, and Danilo knew that with the slightest excuse, he would be back in custody, on his way to having a testicle removed.
“Come,” Seline said in a low voice, and pulled him by the wrist back into the servants’ quarters.
He went with her, keeping his eyes on Luc as LeSevre said, “Let us go,” and led the ram and fox with their prisoner out through the restaurant.
“You can do nothing,” Seline began, and then Maria’s voice erupted from her bed.
“I warned you not to be involved with him!” The wolf looked nearly as fearsome as LeSevre, breasts bouncing as she hopped to her feet and stormed at him in the tiny room. She shoved Danilo in the chest. “You bring the church into this place, who knows what they may do!”
“You and he are lucky indeed that the church does not arrest fornicators,” Seline said. “Other than that, he has done nothing wrong. Have you?”
She turned her gaze on Danilo, who backed into the corner of the room beneath the intensity of the two female stares. “N-no. I haven’t, I didn’t do anything with Luc.”
“Good.” Seline relaxed, and turned to her bed. “I will only have a small penance to say this Sunday.”
“You can’t stay here,” Maria said.
“Where will I go?” Danilo clasped his paws together. The sick feeling was returning to his stomach. He kept seeing Luc’s rigid back, the cold “I hardly know him” that Luc had uttered to try to save him. And he, he had done nothing but protest his own innocence. Seline had lied to save him, and she barely knew him; he had not even attempted a lie to save Luc.
“He can’t go now. They will still be out there.” The rabbit sat on her bed and leaned back against the wall, stretching out.
Maria pushed Danilo again. “Stupid boy,” she growled, and stalked back to her bed. “Ten minutes.”
She lay down and faced the wall. Danilo felt as though he’d just emerged from the river again, the world around him unfamiliar and hostile. He sat on the floor next to Seline. “I am to go to St. Nizier in the morning,” he said. “They may have work for me there.”
“So you said.” She did not lie back, but did not continue to talk.
“If Théodore comes looking for me, please tell him to go there?”
Seline grunted assent. Danilo sat quietly for another minute, letting the night’s events recede into memory. But he kept seeing the fox bend to Luc’s groin, rise and say, “Yes.” He could perhaps discuss it with Théodore, but he didn’t know if he would ever see the mouse again. And Seline and Maria would know what went on behind the closed doors of the Repos. “Luc hadn’t been doing anything…recently,” he said. “He had a meeting this morning, and then maybe…but after that, I don’t think—could they smell it from hours before?”
“Ha,” Maria barked. “Stupid boy.”
“I don’t have a fox’s nose,” he protested. “Or a wolf’s. I don’t know.”
“You don’t need a nose. You need eyes and a mind.”
He shook his head. “He was meeting someone here? But who?”
Maria laughed, bitter. “Tell him, Seline.” She turned back to the wall.
Danilo turned to Seline. The rabbit had tilted her head toward him. “He did not tell you?”
Seline sighed. “It is usually Maria’s job to sate Bertrand’s baser appetites of an evening. But when you arrived, in order to pay for your room…” She coughed, and looked down at her knees, then at the wall, then at her paws. Her voice lowered to a near-whisper. “Luc took over those duties.”
For a moment, Danilo just sat. More pieces of the puzzle of this world fell into place for him, and he could not believe he’d missed them. “Luc…with Bertrand…for me? But I worked in the kitchen!”
“To pay for your meal. Luc paid for your lodging.”
“Oh, my God.” Danilo sunk his muzzle into his paws.
Seline coughed again. “Please do not take the Lord’s name in vain in my presence.”
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” So the fox had smelled Bertrand, because Luc had just come from doing God-knows-what—no, who-knows-what—no, God-knows-what; Seline couldn’t hear him think. And that was why Luc was tired, why he still hadn’t wanted to do anything.
“Bertrand is a filthy beast,” Maria said without moving.
That was why Maria had been available to sleep with him: because Luc was occupying Bertrand, and she was desperate to have the company of someone who wasn’t the crude badger. And Luc, poor Luc, think of what he must have gone through.
“He pulled me out of the river,” Danilo croaked. “He gave me a place to sleep. And in return I let him be molested by Bertrand, and then taken away by the Church to be…” He couldn’t say it. “But who called them?”
“Who? Who do you think?” Maria’s voice echoed sharply in the small room. “Bertrand himself. He told you you would be gone tomorrow.”
Danilo gaped. “Bertrand? That foul, filthy—” The language he was speaking did not adequately convey any of the curses he wanted to say.
“Filthy beast,” Seline said in a low voice. “He will pay for his sins in the next world.”
“He’ll pay for them in this one,” Danilo growled.
The rabbit put a paw on his knee. “You should not seek retaliation. ‘Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.’”
“In addition to which you would never triumph over him,” Maria said. “The only thing to do with creatures like Bertrand is to take whatever they can give you, give as little of yourself as you can, and escape when you are afforded the chance.”
“And you should take that chance now.” Seline lifted her paw from his knee. “It has been enough time; the street will be clear.”
“Wait one more moment,” Maria said. “And silence yourself.”
“For what?” Danilo asked, but neither of the ladies made answer.
They sat in silence for two minutes that stretched into five, and then a single set of heavy footsteps sounded on the floor, then the stairs outside.
“Now,” Maria said. “While Bertrand is cleaning out your room.”
Cleaning out…? Danilo struggled to his feet. “He can’t take Luc’s things!”
“Hush.” Seline, too, stood. “This is your chance to leave. Take it.”
“No. I’m not going to let him—”
“Listen to me,” Seline said. “If you go up those stairs, you may not end up at the mercy of the church. You might even win a fight with Bertrand. But you will lose the battle. Leave his fate to the Lord, and take charge of your own.”
“I…” He stared at the door. Beyond it, Bertrand was even now entering their room, where only half an hour, forty-five minutes before, he’d lain down close to Luc. The badger’s paws would be rifling through Luc’s clothes, would find—shit, his boxers. Luc’s pants rubbed directly on his sheath. “I can’t. I can’t let him do that.”
“For the love of all that is good.” Maria sat up in her bed. “Have you not listened to what she is telling you? What I am telling you? Seline and I, we do not agree very often, so when we do, you would do well to listen.”
His heart beat one-two, one-two, one-two. The room, completely still, waited for his decision.
Seline put a paw on his shoulder. “Luc would want you to remain safe,” she said softly.
Danilo stumbled out the front door of the Repos and into a silent street. He ran first for the bench where he’d sat with Théodore, but that whole area was empty save for several prone forms, one snoring. The bench, the figures, the houses glowed in silver light so stark that they almost appeared to be statues, the moon a silver rosette surrounded by stars.
The rosette reminded him of St. Nizier. That was the only place Danilo could think to go. The Repos was closed to him, and he didn’t know where to find Théodore. The Cathedral was a destination, not a home. St. Nizier held Anita, the only other person in the city he might be able to call a friend.
He hurried toward the Repos, and then caught himself and made a wide berth around it. This took him out of the path Luc had taken him on that morning, and in an effort to work himself back around to where he thought the church was, he found himself on a narrow street.
Here, there was movement: shadows before him that flicked to life and then stilled as he approached. Danilo kept to the middle of the street and glanced nervously to either side.
Despite these cautions, he was caught unawares when a shape appeared behind him, and for the second time that day, a knife point tickled Danilo’s tunic. “Just be still while I take your purse, good sir,” a voice said.
“I haven’t anything.” Danilo kept his voice low and barely controlled. This indignity, on top of everything else that had happened…
Paws—or hands, perhaps—groped his waist. “Where do you keep it, then?” The fingers probed more private sections, and Danilo lost control.
“Leave me alone!” he shouted, and swung his elbow backwards. It connected, but even as his assailant uttered a muffled curse, he was springing forward, running down the street.
Around the corner he sprinted, turned again at the first corner, and stopped two more blocks down, panting. The streets around him echoed only with his harsh breathing. No shadows fluttered around the edges of the buildings.
Slowly, Danilo straightened. He placed one foot forward, then another, and continued on his way through the city.
It took him the better part of an hour to find the grand steeples of St. Nizier again, by which time the adrenaline of the raid and his encounter in the dark street had worn off, leaving his toes dragging on the stones of the street. But there was the small plaza and the church, and there were people sleeping around the edges of the open space.
He made his way to the doorstep of the church, but it was locked. The moon still shone down from high in the sky. Danilo sighed and walked over to the nearest sleeping figure, sat down next to it with his back to a wall, and closed his eyes. Luc’s face swam before him with the memory of the otter’s body against his. The night air chilled his clothes, and no matter how he hugged himself, he could not seem to get warm.
Danilo thought he would never sleep, but when he opened his eyes, he could make out more details of the square. The clock in the left-hand tower of the front of the church glimmered, gold hands catching the moon, but he could not make out the time from their position. He rubbed his eyes and looked up, where fewer stars were visible in the sky. He stood and stretched, and saw the sky behind him soft with dawn’s light.
People around him stirred; the streets clattered with early travelers. The archway of the church still hid the door in shadow, so Danilo walked over to it, stretching his legs as he did. Still locked. He turned and saw a raggedly-dressed rabbit eyeing him from the corner of the church. “Opens for Lauds,” he said in a rough voice, and then coughed, a hacking cough that animated his whole body.
Danilo didn’t want to start a conversation, so he walked back to where he’d been sleeping and sat back down again. But sleep was gone from him, and all he could do was sit with his knees up and his chin on them, breathe in the lingering scent of otter on his clothes, and replay the previous day’s events in his head.
The world had seemed to him very much like his own: people were people, after all. But here, people could be arrested, castrated, burned. People walking down the street could be assaulted in broad daylight or dead of night. People gathered around churches and threw garbage in rivers and betrayed each other.
Much as he’d betrayed Luc.
He shook his head. There wasn’t anything else he could have done for Luc, and the otter himself had just about said as much. Danilo repeated that to himself several times, and it failed to quell the burning shame in his chest.
And then there was Bertrand. Danilo’s claws extended whenever he thought about the badger taking advantage of Luc, then calling the church on him, those fat, dirty paws going through Luc’s things. If only there were something he could do about Bertrand. Leave his punishment to the Lord, indeed. That was another difference between this time and his own. In his own, people took things into their own paws, they didn’t trust to the Lord or magical powers or anything…
Magical powers, like the ones that had brought him here in the first place.
When he looked up, a small crowd of ten had gathered in front of St. Nizier’s. More people were walking up to join, so Danilo struggled back to his feet and joined them. At least while standing, he could rub his arms to get some warmth into them; he could look at the people around him and try to forget what had happened.
The bells rang a short time later, but not at St. Nizier’s. Ears around him lifted, muzzles followed, and noses sniffed the air. Danilo, a head above most of them, thought they were looking at him until he saw the unfocused stares, the wide nostrils flared as though the far-off tones of the Cathedral bells could be seen or smelled. So he, too, lifted his head and let the sounds wash over him.
Above him, the Lion Christ looked down on the crowd, his suffering detailed in every drop of paint and carved line. Danilo could not look at Him for long, but he could not look away for long either. He tried to focus on the expression of the carving, the sad spiritual resignation of the feline face, but always had to look away, to the brightening sky, the fading stars, the rooftops around him; or the haze of smoke growing thicker as people awoke and lit fires; the smell of unwashed fur as more people joined them.
Scarcely had the last peal died away when a clack sounded from the doors and they swung open. The crowd of people had grown to over twenty, and they filed in with Danilo among them. He followed numbly to a pew, where he knelt between a smelly goat in a stained tunic and a squirrel missing an ear and several teeth.
Now the bells of St. Nizier rang out. The goat and squirrel bowed their heads and Danilo followed suit. When they too had finished and he raised his head, a slender rabbit stood at the altar. Latin words washed over Danilo like music, melodious and incomprehensible, and he did his best to follow his companions through the service, moving his lips when they spoke, bowing when they bowed.
The service worked upon him, short though it was. At the front of the church, a crucifix hung with the Lion Jesus on it, as detailed as the one in front of the church. This time, when Danilo’s eyes came to rest on the carved suffering figure, they did not slide away.
Christ understood suffering. He had been betrayed as well, and worse, and yet he looked out on the congregation and His disciples preached forgiveness.
They had also taken Luc away.
Danilo squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his paws together. He hadn’t prayed since he was…five? Six? At whatever age his parents had told him he didn’t have to, when he’d prayed to be better at football (and that hadn’t worked out at all). Not even when he’d been struggling with his sexuality had he thought to turn to the Almighty, but here in the church, with Latin droning around him, he felt the urge, and so he addressed the figure on the crucifix and the Presence everyone else was kneeling to. God, if you’re listening, help me. If You did this to me, then help me get back somehow. And take care of Luc. And punish Bertrand.
The service went on around him. He glanced to his left and right, and tried to emulate his companions’ devotional poses. He was not at all sure that anyone had heard him.
When the service ended, his companions rose and filed out, but Danilo remained kneeling. He had it half in his mind to wait for Anita, but mostly he remained kneeling because he did not know where else he could go.
As the congregation exited, he said his prayer again. As he reached the end of it, his whiskerd registered movement toward him. He didn’t look up, but the scent of vixen reached him, and a moment later a paw landed on his shoulder.
“Bonjour, Danilo. I am sorry to interrupt your prayer.”
He turned his head. The sight of her familiar muzzle, even in this unfamiliar setting, even knowing that she did not know him, made it easier to smile. “I was done,” he said.
The memory of movies and TV shows in which people crossed themselves after praying came back to him. He made the sign of the cross, and Anita’s eyes relaxed. “I have some good news for you.” She gave him that smile he recognized from when she’d found the perfect book for an essay in their class. “The Bishop is very pleased to welcome a white tiger to our seminary. He says that if you know how to write, you may copy manuscripts and it will help you learn. If you do not, you may work in the kitchens until you learn. Can you write?” He nodded, and she beamed. “Excellent. And perhaps we will find you some better-fitting clothes, as well.”
She led him out of the church and down a short two blocks to a large wooden building. As they walked, Danilo said, “Luc was taken by the church.”
Her ears flattened. She paused but did not stop. “I am sorry to hear it.”
“I was praying for him,” he said. “Even though the church are the ones who took him.”
“That is kind of you.”
“Well, I don’t…” He sighed. “I don’t understand it, really. I’m praying to God to help him…but the church are the ones who took him.”
“When you pray,” she said softly, “you are not praying for God to intercede in the mortal world. You are praying for God to give you the strength to cope with the mortal world. In this case, I presume God would answer your prayer by guiding Luc to bear his punishment and continue his life according to His word.”
Bear his punishment. Danilo’s mind kept skirting around what was actually going to happen to Luc. “What if someone’s done wrong? What if I prayed for their punishment?”
“Oh.” Anita’s ears remained down. “You should leave punishment to the Lord. It is not our place to exact punishment in this world.”
Seline had said that to him as well. “If that’s the case, then…then why is the church punishing Luc for his behavior?”
Here, Anita did stop. She lifted her eyes to the second story of the building they stood in front of. A simple cross looked down over the main door, and above the top row of small windows, a sign read, “St. Épipode’s Seminary of Tigue.” For a moment, Anita did not move, her long russet tail curling behind her. Then her ears came up and she said, “The seminary is new. It opened five years ago at the command of the Archbishop. Previously, our students had to travel to the monastery for their education. This allows the officials of the church to participate in training. You will have the great privilege of receiving some lessons from the Bishop, and perhaps even the Archbishop. They are already building similar seminaries in Lutèce and Orléans, but this is the first of its kind.”
It looked a far cry from the grand brick buildings of the Université. Danilo tried to view it as one of the foremost educational institutions of its time, and that made him feel a little better about perhaps beginning to live his life—his 1508 life—within its walls. And then he would become, what? A priest? Not such a bad option. Anita looked better fed than most of the other people on the street, her fur clean and well-groomed.
“It’s lovely,” he murmured.
She began walking again, to the front door. “What happens to Luc,” she said, low and very soft, “is not punishment but correction. He is in the grip of demons and they must be exorcised.”
The tiger chewed over that as Anita opened a plain wooden door in the base of the seminary and ushered him through. Something Luc had said when Danilo had first emerged from the river came back to him. “Will I be working for Cobb?”
When she didn’t say anything, he looked at her in time to see puzzlement turn to shock. Her ears snapped back and her voice was hushed, scandalized. “You mean Archbishop Argile?”
He heard the name first and relaxed, and then whatever facility was allowing him to speak the language translated ‘argile’ into ‘clay.’ Danilo’s tail curled again. Cobb’s last name was Clay. “I’m sorry. I’d only heard him referred to by one name. Is he—is he an—” The word “elk” had no word for him to say, so he tried to describe the species. “Antlered person?”
“A stag, yes. You have seen him?” Her surprise animated her eyes. “He has not given a service since the Feast of Michael. Where have you seen him?”
Danilo shook his head, the fatigue of the night catching up to him. Of course if Taye and Anita were here in this dream, Cobb would be here too; he’d forgotten about Luc and Théodore discussing his guard at the river’s edge. “I have only heard of him,” he said. “His reputation is…great.”
“He has done much for the Church, and for the city of Tigue. He collected funds to finish the Cathedral, he has built this seminary, he has brought fine priests to this town…”
“And the guard who arrested Luc? Those were his?”
“There are many sinners in Tigue. He has brought us the means to rid our city of those demons.” She said it tranquilly, as though she did not know Luc at all.
Anita in his time also had that ability to turn off her emotions, especially when she was focused on schoolwork. Danilo gritted his teeth. “Do you know the guards well?”
“I have seen them.” They had entered a plain wooden room with a portrait of the Stag Jesus on the walls, which made sense if the Archbishop was a stag. This room, alone of any place Danilo had explored in this time, was furnished with a carpet over the hard wood floor. His paws relaxed onto it; he curled his toes against the short pile. One didn’t realize how luxurious carpet was until it was taken away.
Anita now gestured to two doors at the back. “Your living quarters will be in a small private room on the second floor. On the ground floor are the instruction and meditation rooms. You will join a group of students that meets daily with an instructor, and you will have a primary instructor who is responsible for your spiritual education. Mme. LeChamp will assign you a room and furnish the schedule, and your application will be presented to the priests so that one may choose you as a student.”
“That wolf LeSevre,” Danilo said. “Do you know who his superior is?”
The vixen turned and met his eyes with her dark brown ones, the slit pupils wide in the dimly-lit room. “You can do nothing for Luc,” she said, keeping her voice low. “You should help yourself.”
“I’m trying to.” Danilo exhaled and rubbed behind his ears. “I’m sorry. I won’t ask again.”
She studied him a little more and then nodded. “Very well. Now, you had wished to speak to the Bishop about a miracle?”
“Oh!” Given what had happened the previous night, and all Luc’s talk about witches, Danilo was no longer sure that he wanted to confess to someone in the church that he had been sent to this world from another time. But an audience with the Bishop…maybe here was someone who could help him see Luc. If the Bishop were really a holy person, perhaps he would be sympathetic, could see that Luc’s case would be different, especially if Danilo told him Luc had been coerced into his actions by Bertrand. Of course, the Bishop could be as bad as LeSevre; Danilo knew perfectly well that there was unlikely to exist any sympathy between the viciousness of LeSevre and the intensely focused homophobia of Cobb (assuming that Cobb was as he’d known him, and thinking of the elk with the power of the church and the righteousness of God did not do much to improve Danilo’s state of mind). But he had no other choice. Nobody else in the city of Tigue had the authority to help him.
What was more, even if he couldn’t explain his own particular miracle to the Bishop, at least he could ask about miracles that had happened previously in this city. Perhaps other things would give him a clue as to how he could reverse whatever it was that had brought him here.
Anita watched him patiently. “Of course,” he said.
She smiled. “You have luck today. He would like to meet you.”
The Bishop of Tigue held his offices in a building adjacent to the Cathédrale itself. Anita gave Danilo directions, although had she simply told him that the Bishop’s offices were near the Cathédrale, he still would have found them easily. The white marble building had clearly been built concurrently with the cathedral, overshadowing the wooden buildings around it much as the cathedral dominated the town. Gold lettering on the façade proclaimed it the “Official Ecclesiastical Offices Of The Bishopric of Tigue,” with a bishop’s mitre on the sign on either side, and the ebony door bore a gold cross. No crucifix with Lion or any other kind of Jesus appeared on the front of the building, though.
Danilo entered cautiously, stepping onto another carpeted floor in a room that smelled gloriously clean compared to the smoky, unwashed body air he’d grown used to. Incense burned in one corner, and something like sandalwood was all he could smell once he passed the doorway.
A young sheep greeted him and brought him upstairs to another plush room where he was told the Bishop would send for him in a moment. He sat down in a chair with a cushion—another first in 1508—and curled his tail properly around his hips and placed his paws in his lap. This room also bore a painting of Stag Jesus, a copy of the one he’d seen at St. Nizier, and two more paintings, one of which he actually recognized from his studies in 2008: Lion Jesus on the cross. The second one, closer to him, showed a young, attractive deer, so delicate in his features that Danilo thought at first he was Joan of Arc, Sainte Jeanne, before remembering that Sainte Jeanne had been a weasel.
The deer smiled out, standing alone, his right hand pointing up. The texture of his fur made Danilo want to reach out and touch it, and the dark featureless background made it seem that the deer was emerging from nothing, pointing the way to the light that shone on him. Pointing to heaven. Was there a texture of water in the background? He peered closer.
“You like this one, yes?”
Danilo’s fur prickled. Though he didn’t want to now, he turned. Standing in a doorway, smiling a friendly smile, the black wolf he’d seen in the cathedral the previous day was holding out one paw toward the painting.
He was again dressed in white robes, although at this close distance, Danilo could see their gold trim. The wolf stood every inch as tall as Danilo himself, black ears perked and lips pulled slightly back in a smile that showed his long canine teeth. Green-yellow eyes measured Danilo.
“It arrived here only a month ago, from Etrusca, the master da Vinci. You are from Etrusca, yes? You have seen his work?”
Danilo’s throat was dry. He nodded.
The Bishop inclined his head. “I am pleased to see that your education has included the arts. I am Bishop Lukin.”
There was no need for him to make that introduction. Danilo knew Georg’s voice and last name perfectly well.
“I’m Danilo.” The tiger stood.
The wolf waited. Danilo swallowed. “From Firenza.”
“You have family? Sister Colquez did not inform me of their names.”
He should have guessed. How could he have been so stupid? With part of his mind repeating those two phrases over and over, it was difficult to marshal his remaining mind to answer the bishop’s question. “Er, yes. We are the Mitin—Mitini family.”
The wolf’s ears flicked back and then up again. “I have traveled often to Etrusca and I have never encountered this family.”
“We are a small family.” The advantage he had was that he knew Georg, but Georg did not know him yet. If he professed to be loyal to the church, then he could perhaps get Georg to be on his side. “I was fortunate enough to study in the Vatican for a year.”
This brought widened eyes. “You studied with His Holiness?”
“Not directly, of course.” Deception was difficult. Keep it simple. “And only for a year. My family made a donation to the church, but we fell on hard times. They sent me here to finish my education, but I lost the money that had been entrusted to me.”
The wolf studied him. “And, it seems, the clothes from your back. Well, come in and we will discuss your future.”
He showed Danilo into a plush office, to a wide, cushioned chair before an ornate wooden desk. The bishop walked back to sit behind the desk, trailing incense and perfume in his wake, and then placed his elbows on it and bestowed a warm smile on the tiger. “It is a rare thing, a white tiger, especially one who has studied at the Vatican. I wonder that I was not informed in advance of your arrival.”
Crap. Yes, that is a thing that would probably have happened. “You see,” Danilo said, “my family…” Wait, it was the 1500s, right? No computers, no cell phones. Messages were sent via horse, or maybe bird in extreme cases. They took weeks and were unreliable. He coughed. “My family employed an unreliable messenger. I am not surprised that he did not arrive.”
The bishop’s eyes narrowed, but his expression showed no surprise, nor suspicion. “I see. It is unusual that you would be dispatched before a response was received from our seminary, of course, but we can certainly accommodate you.”
Again he stopped, and Danilo felt the pressure of an explanation required. “It was my eagerness to come here before the winter. My father…my father told me that if nothing were available, I could find some other work easily.”
“Such as kitchen work?” The wolf’s smile stretched wider. “Yes, I can smell the oven and potatoes on you. We do appreciate resourceful students here. What was the name of your priest at the Vatican, again?”
“Father Green.” Danilo blurted out the name of the pastor of his village, the only name he could think of on the spur of the moment, aware that hesitation would be more suspicious. He heard the word as “vair,” when he said “Green,” and added an “ee” to make it seem more Etruscan.
“Verdi?” Bishop Lukin cocked his head to the side.
Danilo made himself nod with an nonchalant an air as he could. “Verdi,” he said. “He was—is—a tiger as well. So we worked together.”
The wolf’s eyes widened again. “I see. I will send word to Father Verdi to ask about your previous instruction, so that we may have his assessment of your skills.”
Well, he had to have expected that. Now he had a time limit. How long would it take to send a messenger to Vatican City and back? Driving by car it was possible to get there in a day, about ten hours going at 90 kilometers per hour. How fast did horses go? A third of that, a quarter? So he had a week. He cleared his throat and nodded. “Thank you, sir.”
“Now,” the bishop said, leaning forward, “Sister Colquez said you wished to talk to me about a miracle.”
“Yes.” He couldn’t lie. His mind raced. “Can you tell me what constitutes a miracle?”
The wolf smiled, eyes narrowing. “Surely you must have studied miracles at the Vatican.”
“I studied Christ’s miracles. The miracle of multiple species, the miracle of fishes, turning water to wine…but I did not study general miracles.”
Danilo flushed as he said the words, pulling out all the miracles he could remember Christ having performed. Too late, he remembered that some saints had performed miracles as well. Indeed, Bishop Lukin said that first, and then, “We think of three classes of miracles: things that cannot happen; things that should not happen; things that do not happen. More generally, if the moon were to disappear from one place and move to another place in the blink of an eye, that would be a miracle of the first order.”
“Or if a new star appears.”
“Just so.” The wolf seemed pleased. “If an animal rises and walks after having died, then that is a miracle of the second order. Animals may rise and walk, but they should not do so after death. If a person manifests boils of the plague, or scars of leprosy, and is later cured, then that is also a miracle of this class. And if rain comes at an unusual time or frequency, or at a time requested in prayers, then that may also be a miracle, but that is subject to closer inspection.”
“I see.” If he were classifying things, then his trip back in time was definitely a first-order miracle. He didn’t quite have the guts to ask the difference between a miracle and witchcraft, not now, not of the bishop, and especially not of Georg. “What miracles have taken place in Tigue?”
“Oh…” The wolf leaned back in his chair. “Saint Épipode, who is buried beneath the altar of the cathedral, is said to have worked many miracles after his death. The harvest was saved, people were cured of the plague…what miracle did you witness?”
Bishop Lukin inclined his muzzle, his ears perked forward. “You question with the air of someone who has witnessed a miracle and yet hesitates to call it such.”
“Oh, I—” He swallowed. “I thought I saw a manifestation of Christ’s face—Lion Christ—on the surface of the river. That’s why I jumped in.”
Stupid, stupid, he thought. Why not just tell him you saw Jesus on a tortilla? But strangely, this story put the bishop at ease. He relaxed and nodded slowly. “Our Lord and Savior is often associated with water. And here you are near the very cathedral consecrated to Saint Jean-Baptiste, who is also associated with water, for obvious reasons.”
Obvious maybe to you, Danilo thought, until he listened to the translation in his head. Saint John the Baptist. Baptism.
His claws snagged the wood of the chair arms. It all made sense now: the saint of baptisms had called him back to this world through the water.
Sure, he told himself. Because that happens all the time. Did the saint of languages magically make you understand and speak 16th century Gallic as well? And yet, still, the idea that this bizarre experience might have a purpose or an explanation stuck with him.
“I see your excitement,” the bishop said. “It may well be that you witnessed a miracle. Perhaps Christ wished you to lose your worldly possessions. Have you been covetous, my son?”
“I—I didn’t think so.” The accusation drained his excitement. What if this experience did have a purpose, and it was a punishment? Danilo lowered his head, and then remembered the gulf between reality and the face he was presenting to the bishop. Humility would be a good virtue to show. “Perhaps.”
“And have you been less covetous? Have you appreciated the gifts you had been given?”
“Yes, sir—” He said it automatically, knowing that was the response that was expected, but he stopped partway through. Had he been appreciative? He certainly had learned to appreciate food, like the bread and cheese he’d had. He’d appreciated the value of friendship, someone who would reach out to take care of him out of charity. And yet, hearing the sanctimonious homilies in Georg’s voice kept him cautious in his responses. “I have been trying,” he said, more truthfully.
“Making the effort is all God requires of us.” Georg’s yellow-green eyes stared back at him.
“I look forward to making an effort here in the seminary,” he said.
Bishop Lukin’s smile remained fixed. “I will have my secretary show you the work you will be doing. We can advance you a small sum, enough for a little food and clothing.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The wolf smiled beatifically. “And then I would be most pleased if you would accompany me on my noontime walk. I always visit the cathedral to see the clock strike noon. Though it is the same each time, every day presents a new audience, a new lighting.”
Danilo thought of the weasel who’d attacked him and hesitated. If he were seen in the company of the bishop, it would not look any better than whatever it meant for him to be walking out of the church. But he did not have the scarf, and in the company of the bishop, at least he would have less to fear from strangers who happened to take a dislike to his clothing.
“Yes, sir,” he said. “I would like that.”
“Be downstairs at fifteen minutes to the hour, then.” The wolf brushed a paw toward him in an obvious dismissal.
Danilo stood. “Thank you, sir,” he said again, and walked for the door.
“One more thing,” the wolf said, his voice still casual. Danilo turned in the doorway, his tail twitching once before he stilled it. “You should address me as ‘Your Excellency,’ you know.”
“Er.” Danilo swallowed, his stomach fluttering. The yellow-green stare and slightly exposed fangs faced him directly. “I’m sorry, Your Excellency.”
“Forgiven.” The wolf smiled, though his eyes remained deadly serious.
The secretary was the young sheep, and he took Danilo to a room on the first floor, windowless and stuffy, that contained a pile of printed copies of the Bible. The sheep opened the thick books to show Danilo the hand-crafted words and intricate illuminations inside, page after page, and Danilo thought to himself that he would never be able to finish a single volume, even given his whole lifetime in which to do it. “Do I have to copy them exactly?” he asked.
The sheep shook his head. “We are aware that you may have been taught with a different style. As long as the copy reflects well on the Church, you may copy them in your own manner.”
His own manner was likely to be far less elaborate, Danilo thought, staring down at the bright colors, the gold leaf, the crisp, precise lettering. Then again, he only had a week before Bishop Lukin’s messenger exposed him as a fraud anyway. He wouldn’t have time to ruin more than one page. Even those gloomy thoughts could not dim his appreciation for the craft in the books, and he turned page after page, marveling. The vellum pages, soft and bright, did not resemble anything he’d seen five hundred years in the future, although they definitely aged better than paper.
He would get his money that night, he was told. Until then, the sheep gave him the schedule for the seminary. “You have luck,” he said with a small trace of envy. “The Bishop has elected to supervise your education personally.”
That did not make Danilo feel any better, but he smiled anyway. It would be much harder for him to focus on rescuing Luc if he were to be constantly supervised by suspicious, smooth Georg. But perhaps he could use the Bishop to bring justice to Bertrand, anyway. Leave his punishment to the Lord, yes; but perhaps the bishop could help the Lord along. Danilo would have to be very careful, because the wolf was easily the smartest person here (and that made him wonder about Georg himself, back in 2008—had he simply attached himself to Cobb for convenience, or was 1508-Georg really smarter than 2008-Georg?). But he could lay the groundwork, perhaps—starting with the noon visit to the cathedral.
While waiting in the lobby with the sheep, Danilo tried to plan for what he would do. He had to get back to St. Nizier’s at some point; Théodore would be waiting for him there or would have sent word to someone there, if the mouse cared at all about him. He thought Théodore would come, because Taye would have come looking for Luc, if not Danilo. So after noon, he could hopefully get away and back to the church, and then he could tell Théodore about Luc, and then about his own situation, and then…
And then what? Théodore would almost certainly recommend he flee the city, just leave and go somewhere else. Maybe stay on his farm for a little while, although how he planned to hide a white tiger in 1508 was anyone’s guess. It would be safer than staying in Tigue, at least marginally, and definitely once the messenger returned from the Vatican. The way the bishop had been talking, Danilo was sure the messenger had already been dispatched.
Danilo didn’t want to leave Tigue, though. The strongest reason was that he still held out hope that he could help or save Luc. He’d tried leading the conversation with the sheep around to where the prison was, without success. The secretary did tell him that since Bishop Lukin had taken office in Tigue, demons and miscreants had been enthusiastically prosecuted, and that in the Archbishop, the Bishop had found a willing ally in the enforcement of God’s laws. This raised Danilo’s hopes of revenge on Bertrand. Whatever Lukin thought of Danilo, he seemed the sort who might happily punish another transgressor.
And he smiled at Danilo when he entered the lobby, a genial smile, and Danilo remembered to call him “Your Excellency” even before the sheep did. They felt like a close group of friends, all three of them, as they walked over to the church behind a large boar in uniform, who swiveled his head from side to side as the bishop walked the short distance in the open. Any people who glanced their way drew back at the sight of the broad, muscled soldier’s fearsome tusks and ready sword.
He stood discreetly behind the bishop when they entered the cathedral through a small back door, and remained in the shadows as Bishop Lukin greeted the priest again. He introduced Danilo to the old fox, and the three of them plus the secretary stood and watched the marvelous clock as it whirred and struck noon. The same display took place, but Danilo noticed things about it that he had not before, and he understood what the bishop meant when he’d said that each time was different. The light was softer today; clouds muted the sun and the church was suffused with warm colors rather than sharp light beams. One of the people began to sing along with the hymn the clock played this time, and others joined in.
“So uplifting, the sight of people filled with the spirit of the Lord,” the black wolf murmured. “But I suppose these crowds must be meager indeed compared with what you have seen at the Vatican.”
The first sentence might have been to himself; the second was definitely directed at Danilo. The white tiger had been trying not to look back at the people who were staring at him, and only half-heard what Bishop Lukin said. “Ah, Your Excellency,” he said, while forcing his brain to replay the words so he could process them, “it’s not the size of the crowd in the house of God, but the size of the house of God in the hearts of the crowd.” He winced as he said it; it was a tired old twentieth-century saying repurposed badly. “That matters, I mean. It’s not—”
But the bishop was already laughing and turning to the sheep. “You see, Culliver, we have a scholar in our midst. He has great facility with words. One can see that his year studying with His Holiness was not wasted.”
“Indeed.” In the company of the Bishop, the sheep’s previously friendly manner evaporated. He didn’t look at Danilo at all, as if they hadn’t just spent over an hour talking together.
“I can see I will not regret taking a personal interest in your education.” The wolf’s smile turned back on Danilo, though his eyes, greener here in the shadows of the church, remained devoid of mirth. “Truly you have a great deal of potential.”
“Thank you, Your Excellency.” Danilo waited, but the bishop returned his attention to the clock, and so the tiger did, too. But his tail twitched whenever he was not immediately focused on it, and he kept glancing sidelong at the black wolf. His unease might be simply from standing next to Georg, especially if the Siberian wolf were pretending to be friendly. But Danilo didn’t think that was all it was.
When the last peal from the cathedral’s bells had died away and the crowd had begun to disperse from around the clock, Danilo composed in his head the way he would ask the bishop for the afternoon off. Before he could say anything, the wolf’s muzzle swung his way. “I wonder if you might accompany me for a short time. I have one more duty to see to. It is somewhat unpleasant, but you know, this life is not all clocks and adoring masses.” One black paw swung out over the crowd.
“I—of course,” Danilo said.
“After that, you will be free to go. I suggest you spend the afternoon purchasing new clothes. A scholar of the church does have a certain appearance to maintain.”
“Yes, Your Excellency.”
Danilo followed the boar and wolf out the back of the church, with Culliver the sheep by his side. Even though clouds crowded the sky, the air they moved through was warm and stagnant, filled with not only the sweet perfume the bishop wore, but also the thick smells of the people who had recently moved through that space.
“Tell me, Danilo,” the bishop said as they walked, “what you think of our city. How does it compare to the grandeur of Firenza, of the Vatican?”
“Oh, well,” the tiger said, “Your Excellency, it is a splendid city. I like it quite a bit. I think if I had not fallen in the river when I first arrived—”
“But you did so in the course of experiencing a miracle.”
“Yes, that is true. I—I may not have appreciated it as a miracle at the time. But the cathedral is one of the most marvelous things I have ever seen. Including the Duomo.”
“And Saint Peter’s?”
“Yes, of course.” Danilo had no idea what that was, but the best course was to agree.
The wolf smiled, showing his fangs. “I suspect His Holiness would not agree, but then, no-one need tell him, eh?”
“No, Your Excellency.”
“Danilo, it was a joke.” The bishop shook his head. “We bishops may be justly proud of the monuments we raise to God, and I will be first to admit to some friendly competition between us. But His Holiness is above all that. He is concerned only with the spiritual duty he bears to administer to his flock, and his chief concern about the building in which he performs his duties is that it be large enough to house all who wish to come before him.”
From what little Danilo remembered of some of the popes—and he wished he could remember which one was reigning in 1508—this was not strictly true, nor even a little bit true in some cases. But the way it was phrased made him think it was also a lesson for him, and so he bowed his head. “The Cathédrale Saint-Jean seems quite spacious enough for the citizens of Tigue.”
“Indeed. But tell me more of your arrival. You fell in the Saone yesterday?” They were walking away from the river, toward the Roman ruins up on the hill, though they had not yet begun to climb. Houses were growing sparser as they got farther from the cathedral.
“The day before.” The truth came out before he could stop it.
“Why did you not come immediately to the church?”
That was a great question. “I—I was ashamed. I hoped that I might earn some money to replace at least my clothes.”
“And you found some Good Samaritans.”
Though the road they walked on skirted the edge of the city, the street was as crowded as any in central Tigue. Danilo glanced around and behind from his small isolated island. Behind him, he thought he saw the weasel who’d attacked him, the yellowed teeth and needle-sharp stare, but then a panther walked in front of him and he was lost. “I, er. Some people loaned me clothes, yes.”
“What kind of people?”
Caught in the flow of conversation, Danilo replied without thinking. “A mouse and otter,” and then said, “Your Excellency” to cover his inward cursing at himself. “But they did not even tell me their names.”
Great. That sounded even worse. The bishop did not question it, though, just nodded his long black muzzle and said, “You were fortunate to encounter good people. Though we strive against evil, Tigue is rife with it.”
They turned a corner and emerged at the side of a small amphitheater, standing on the edge of a stage half-ringed by ten rows of wooden benches. The people walking with them moved to sit on the benches, but the bishop’s small party kept walking along the stage—all except for Danilo, who had stopped the moment he saw what occupied the center of the stage.
Two church officials, a badger and a ram, stood on either side of a three-meter pole, at the base of which a small pile of kindling had been laid. A strong tarry smell came to Danilo on the breeze, along with the smell of fresh-cut wood, but he barely registered them.
Tied to the three-meter pole, paws bound behind his back, an otter stood, his head bowed.
Danilo’s heart thudded in his chest so loudly it sounded like the tolling of the cathedral bell to him. Bishop Lukin spoke, but his words were difficult to make out. “One of those regrettable but necessary actions…the demons are least powerful during the noon hour…this one caused its host to engage in the sins of Sodom against the strict dictates of the church…given many chances, but the demon is inextricably bound to his soul…to prevent it from infecting others, we must destroy it.”
The bishop and his bodyguard and secretary stepped down from the stage, to the front row of the amphitheater. “Danilo,” the sheep said in a low tone.
Danilo hurried to follow, but could not take his eyes from the bound otter, and nearly fell down the stairs. He caught himself, ears burning, and then he did look up at the bishop. The wolf’s attention and sadistic smile were fixed on him.
This was not happening. This was a nightmare. He was going to wake up floating in the Saone in 2008. Or he was going to wake up drowned and dead. Any of those would be preferable to this, to the hot stone under his feet as he hurried to the bishop’s side, to the fierce stares of the people behind him, everyone watching the tall, gawky white tiger who had a front-row seat to a public burning.
He’d never even seen anyone die, and now he was going to have to watch his best friend in this world twist and scream, smell his flesh…Danilo’s stomach churned and he was glad he hadn’t eaten yet today.
“It would please me,” Bishop Lukin said with a low growl under his words, “if you would sit by my side.”
The huge boar shifted to make room. Danilo took his place and made as if to sit, but the bodyguard gripped his arm and pulled him up. What had he done wrong? He started to ask, but then the bishop sat, sweeping his black tail behind him, and the boar released Danilo’s arm. On the other side of the bishop, the sheep took his seat. Danilo sat quickly, so quickly that he sat on his tail and had to get up to resituate it. He stared down at the dusty ground, not willing to look up.
The bishop raised a black paw to the officials on the stage. The badger stepped forward.
“Coumier de Marche, having been convicted of your third violation of church law, and thereby being found guilty of the additional crime of willful compliance with a demon of satanic and most unnatural character…”
Danilo’s head snapped up at the name. He had been avoiding staring head-on at the otter, but now he took a good look. This otter was broader, thicker than Luc and better-fed. His eyes were closer-set and appeared to be swollen shut, and his neck was wider. Black streaks broke the matted yellowish-white fur down his front. All of that Danilo took in in a moment’s glance before his eyes were pulled downward, horrified but unable to look away.
Between the otter’s legs, there was nothing but an angry red scar. The wound had blackened in parts, remained dark red in others, and Danilo could not stop staring at it, as though he could heal it if only he would stare hard enough. His own groin tingled in sympathy, but he did not move to cross his legs, aware of the scrutiny of the black wolf beside him.
Even though the bishop faced the stage, the black ear on Danilo’s side remained cupped toward the tiger. As the official on the stage concluded the charge and looked up, the bishop raised a paw and nodded his head. The badger continued on. “Therefore it is the judgment of the church that in order to rid the world of the demon which possesses you, we shall cleanse your mortal body with fire and commend your soul to God.”
The ram stepped down behind the stage and returned with a torch. Danilo’s attention jerked to the flame, the hot brilliance warping the air around and above it. This was all a play, it was an act, and as soon as he said the right thing, apologized for sleeping with Luc, renounced his attraction to males, the players would step off the stage, the otter would remove the elaborate codpiece concealing his unharmed sheath, and the bishop would shake his paw, the malice dropped from his manner.
But even as he struggled for words, the ram lowered the torch. Fire licked at the woodpile, and only now did the otter shift and seem to take note of his surroundings. He looked blearily out at the crowd and croaked a word.
Danilo leaned forward. Beside him, the bishop rested a paw on his arm. “It is best not to listen to the rantings of demons,” he said in a low, even tone. “At the end, even given a soporific to dull their thoughts, they will say anything and everything.”
The tiger leaned back, but kept his head up. Behind him, the crowd began to cheer, with cries of “Burn, demon!” They stirred and stomped their feet, and some of them chanted words in Latin.
The otter’s lips moved, and through the noise, Danilo caught the words, “Thierry, my love.” Then his eyes closed and his mouth stilled.
The fire caught quickly, leaping from log to log and surrounding the otter. He shifted on his pole, and lifted first one foot, then the other, a pathetic gesture. Bound at the legs, he could barely move them at all.
Danilo closed his eyes. A moment later, his whiskers twitched at the warmth of the bishop’s muzzle and breath. “It is important,” the wolf said, “to bear witness to the punishment of devils. Understand that there is no way to hide from God’s authority. All those who do not acknowledge it meet this end.”
The tiger took a breath and opened his eyes. He had to shut them again immediately, take another breath, and force himself to watch. It’s just a horror movie, he told himself lamely. The black pitch burning as it melted into the otter’s fur, the smoke curling up oily and black from the pyre, all that was special effects. The otter, an excellent actor, writhed and now screamed as the flames reached his head. But the acrid smell of cooking flesh filled Danilo’s nose and heat licked across his nose and whiskers. Next to him, the bishop’s muzzle wrinkled, the yellow eyes fixed on the person burning before him. The slightest tip of his pink tongue appeared between those black-furred lips.
The crowd chanted their Latin and their curses more loudly now, but not enough to drown out the terrible screams. The otter struggled in earnest now as the fire ate through his fur, yanking at his bindings. His legs came free, and he kicked one burning log away from him. It skittered to the edge of the stage and lay there, smoking.
Danilo had jumped when the log came toward him, but the bishop barely moved. The otter’s screams were interrupted by wracking coughs now as the smoke wreathed him. He kicked out one more time, but more weakly, doing nothing but shifting the pile. Flames rose from him as though he were nothing but wood himself, a fuel quickly consumed and even now nearly spent.
Another agonizing scream, a twist, and the otter’s arms came free. But he fell forward, onto the pile of burning logs, and though the officials snapped to attention, he did not move any farther. He struggled to lift his head, and when Danilo saw the otter’s eyes through the bright glowing flames, they were rubbery-white and cooked.
Bile rose in his throat. The noise behind him deafened him; the smell of seared flesh overwhelmed all else. He doubled over and retched, dry-heaving onto the dusty ground. Once he’d started, his stomach convulsed again and again, trying to turn itself inside out, and the pain in his gut, the scraping in his throat, the horrible taste in his mouth, the ache of the stab wound in his side, all these distracted him momentarily from the atrocity on the stage. For the moment he had looked into the otter’s face, he had seen Luc’s face there, the eyes boiled and dead, the fur glowing and charring away from the muzzle, the lips parting to whisper, your fault. He hacked and spit, eyes shut, until the vision left him.
When finally he dared to sit upright again, the otter’s body lay still and silent, mercifully hidden by the flames. A few cheers came from the crowd, but many were already filing out of the auditorium. Over the cracks and pops of the fire, he heard murmured blessings as they passed the bishop’s entourage.
“The trick,” the bishop said conversationally, raising a paw to the passers-by, “is the pitch. It is important that the demon burn faster than the stake, and especially faster than the ropes that bind it. So the pitch burns its flesh, and by the time the ropes give way,” he gestured to the stage, “it is too late.”
Danilo did not trust himself to speak, but he did turn to meet the bishop’s gaze. He had thought that anything would be better than staring at the pyre, but the hard emotionless eyes nearly made him sick again. The wolf’s black nostrils flared as if relishing the smoke, and as the bishop spoke, he licked his lips. “Likewise,” he said, “temptation burns hot and fast in we mortals. But we must bind ourselves with faith, for God’s word will hold us fast. Some of us may fall…” His eyes flicked to the stage, where the body on the logs was blackening, the fur mostly gone, skin charring. “But those of us who may remain upright, the kingdom of Heaven is our reward.”
The thing on the logs was barely recognizable as an otter. It was easier to look at when Danilo could forget it had been a person. Now the smell of a wood fire dominated the other smells, and Danilo’s eyes were watering, perhaps from the smoke. Perhaps.
The bishop’s eyes were clear and dry. “This is your first lesson,” the wolf said, and rose.
The sheep rose after him, and when Danilo remained still, the boar grabbed his arm and yanked him to his feet, wrenching his shoulder. “The rest of the day is yours,” Bishop Lukin said. “You will attend Lauds tomorrow morning at the seminary, where your education will continue.” He gestured to the sheep as he walked away. “Culliver?”
Without a glance at Danilo, the sheep pulled several coins from his purse and held them out to Danilo. The tiger stretched out his paw and felt their weight drop against his pads. He closed his fingers reflexively and dropped the arm to his side, holding the coins there as the boar, the wolf, and the sheep walked across the front of the amphitheater to the street outside.
As he watched, they stopped to talk to a wolf, a grey one shorter than the Bishop. It wasn’t until the grey wolf turned and stared across the crowd at him that Danilo recognized LeSevre. The wolf’s lips stretched into a feral, humorless smile, and then he fell into step with the bishop as they vanished from sight.
The fire began to die down. The ram prodded at the blackened body on stage. Danilo hurried away from the front of the stage to join the last few stragglers. A female goat, who had evidently been watching him, said, “Good job, sir.”
“What?” He tried to focus on her.
“Capturing these demons. Tigue is a more wholesome place today.”
Danilo had never in his life wanted more to disagree with someone. He could barely think straight, but he knew he had to find Luc somehow, see the otter again and make sure he was okay. And that meant he had to find Théodore somehow.
He turned away from the goat and scanned the crowd behind him, and one figure caught his eye: a weasel stumbling down the steps along the outside of the amphitheater, staring at the ground as though it had mortally offended him, muttering to himself. His bared teeth flashed at Danilo in a familiar black-and-yellow pattern.
As he turned and passed Danilo, he spit at the tiger’s feet. Danilo stepped back, ready to hurry away, but the weasel did not come after him nor even say anything. And then, as the weasel turned and made for the exit, Danilo saw a beige cloth hanging out of the waist of his pants, just beside his tail.
If he thought about it—if he thought about it, he would not jump forward. If he thought about it, he would stay and wait until everyone had left, would go with them out into the street, would go to St. Nizier and hope that Théodore had received his message or could figure out where to go. If he thought about it, he would sit and think about it forever and he would wait for things to happen to him and they might never happen, Théodore would never come and one day the bishop would bring him back here where there would be another otter tied to the stage, gruesomely castrated, covered in flammable pitch, and Danilo could not bear that.
So he pushed his way forward and grabbed the weasel by the shoulder at the bend where the amphitheater spilled out into the street. When the weasel saw who it was, he struggled and tried to escape. “You have no reason to accost me!” he screeched. “I have done nothing! Let me go!”
“I need to ask you something,” Danilo said. “I’ll pay you.”
He held out the coins the sheep had given him. But the weasel smacked his paw, sending the coins clattering against the wall and onto the ground. “I don’t want your filthy church money!”
A fox passing by glared at him and murmured something. Danilo cringed, until he noticed that the fox was glaring at the weasel. A mouse behind the fox murmured the same words and crossed himself.
“Shut up,” Danilo hissed at the weasel. He leaned close, trying to lean imposingly on the smaller person the way Georg had leaned on him. “Don’t take my money if you don’t want, but I need you to get a message to Théodore.”
The weasel spat again, into Danilo’s face this time. Moisture and foul breath spattered the tiger’s nose and whiskers. He closed his eyes, desperation mounting into fury. “Fine,” he said. “Fine.” He reached around behind the weasel and grabbed the beige scarf, yanking it free.
“Thief!” the weasel shrieked. Danilo glanced around them, but the crowd had thinned and only the occasional passerby kept them company. So he held his paw up as the weasel hopped at Danilo, swiping for the scarf. When he couldn’t get it, his paw went to his side.
“Keep your knife where it is.” Danilo glared down. “You stole this from me yesterday, and I’m taking it back. But if you want it again, I’ll be happy to give it to Théodore to give back to you. If it means so much.”
The knife came out despite Danilo’s words, and glittered between them. “You’ll give it to me now.”
But whereas yesterday the weasel had seemed fierce and threatening, here with the smoke still in his nostrils, Danilo knew there were far worse things in this world. He pushed the weasel back as he’d done before, but this time did not run away. He stood and glared down at the smaller person, and thought about wresting the knife from him, in revenge for the day before. The wound in his side barely hurt anymore, certainly not in comparison to what was paining his mind. The weasel’s defiance buckled in the face of Danilo’s stony intimidation, and Danilo felt a stab of triumph with absolutely no joy. “Tell Théodore to meet me where we met yesterday,” he said. “I will be there until sunset.”
The hardest part of all of it was to turn his back, with the weasel still standing there, the knife out and shining. But he collected the coins that had scattered, as many as he could see (some of the people passing by had taken the ones that had rolled out into the street), and then walked away. Luc’s scarf trailed from one paw.
No noise came from behind him, no hurried footsteps. Perhaps the weasel could see his ears turned back or perhaps he didn’t care. There was a small part of Danilo that thought that if the weasel did run after him, did stab him in the back to take the scarf, that at least this nightmare would be over and the smell of smoke would be gone from his nose. He did not know if air would ever smell clean to him again.
Hold it together, he told himself, rubbing his nose hard with the back of his paw. The images were coming back to him, the liquid fire running down the blackening fur, the charred body, the dead eyes. Don’t, he told himself. He was coming out into the plaza in front of the Cathedral, and he looked up expecting relief in the beauty of the immense monument. Instead, he saw marble white as bone, crosses black as char, and stained glass windows like skeletal mosaics pressed into the wall. For a moment, he imagined people—otters, mice, tigers—pressed into the wall while alive and left there to die, the sun streaming through their bodies as their weakening flesh stretched thinner and thinner. Then the vision passed and the windows were only windows again.
He brought Luc’s scarf—a sniff confirmed that it was Luc’s scarf—to his nose. But smelling Luc through the smoky residue of the dead otter only led him to worse panic, and so he tucked the scarf into his pants and hurried on his way.
Only once more did he hesitate, at the center of the bridge. Here, too, was another way for his adventure to end. The water had brought him here, and one way or another, the water could take him away. But though he could see himself standing on the stone railing, leaping, diving, plunging into the murky Saone, he did not get up to do it. Not yet. He raised his eyes to the cathedral. St. John, if you brought me here, tell me how to get back.
He received exactly as much answer as he was expecting, and with a sigh, walked on. He bought himself bread and cheese and went to sit on the bench in the little park.
To keep himself from seeing those horrendous images in his mind again, he tried to take stock of his situation. It didn’t work, but it was better than nothing. Bishop Lukin clearly knew about Danilo’s association with Luc. LeSevre would have told him, and there was no hiding or claiming it was another white tiger who’d been arrested. But Bishop Lukin didn’t want to arrest Danilo; at least, not yet. He had gone to great lengths to impress upon him that if he continued along the path he was on, he would end up
(dripping with flames, screaming as his fur blackened and smoke filled his lungs)
dead. If he’d wanted to arrest Danilo, he could easily have done it already. Therefore, he wanted something from him.
It was possible that the bishop thought he was merely a student who had been seduced by undesirable elements in the city. If that were the case, then he had certainly dispatched a messenger to probe Danilo’s background.
It was also possible that the bishop realized that Danilo’s story was completely made up. In which case he was hoping to, what, redeem him? Weren’t church people all about redemption?
Or it was possible that the bishop thought him unusual but wasn’t sure what his deal was yet. Which was fair; Danilo didn’t know what his deal was, either. All he knew was that he had to rescue Luc somehow before he was castrated, if that hadn’t already happened.
The best way to find out where Luc was being kept, of course, would have been to ask Bishop Lukin. He could have just had that conversation as if watching a person burn to death hadn’t bothered him at all, could have asked, “so, any other horrible mutilations or executions planned in the next week or so?” He could have told him that he had a friend who’d been captured and wrongly accused, and the bishop might have appreciated his forthrightness. He might have taken him to Luc right away and Danilo wouldn’t have to be here.
But no, the bishop was Georg, and Georg, though not as scheming in Danilo’s time, was not trustworthy at all. Or was he? He hadn’t really done much but follow Cobb around and join in the teasing, both light and harsh. Other than that, Danilo didn’t know him very well.
There was the Archbishop, whom Danilo assumed outranked the Bishop, but he was a stag named Cobb. Who knew what he would be like? Best to avoid him.
That left only LeSevre as an authority figure to appeal to, and Danilo liked him less than Bishop Lukin, truth be told. At least the bishop had appeared to believe Danilo, and he might enjoy watching people burn, but maybe it was out of an honest, twisted interest in their souls. Maybe he believed in demons.
Danilo sighed and rested his head in his paws. The only other option he saw was a movie-style jailbreak. And this was a sixteenth-century jail, so it was probably pretty solid, not one where you could bust up a computer panel or fake your entry and then knock out the guard and take the key. It was all as ludicrous as pretending that the immolation he’d just seen was only a special effect. He had to wait for Théodore to tell him what to do.
The smell of smoke remained in his nose as the sun descended in the sky. The emptiness in his stomach impinged only slightly on his awareness; he did not think he could manage any food right now. His mouth was dry and tasted of bile, and he would have liked some water, but he didn’t want to leave the park for fear that Théodore would appear while he was gone.
The waiting and the stress and the lack of sleep the night before all pushed his eyelids down. He closed his paw around his coins, folded his arms across his chest, and hunched forward. He didn’t want to sleep, but his eyes refused to remain open. He dozed; the smoky smell in his nostrils waxed and waned, and he imagined that some of the people who walked past him on the street were burning, the smoke from their fur drifting to him. In his dream, an otter turned to him with glowing embers for eyes and held out smoking arms, and Danilo knew he had to bring the otter to the water, to put out the fire, but the Saone had gone dry and he didn’t know where he could find any water. “Water,” he moaned, and jerked awake to the sound of the word on his tongue.
No otter sat near him, nor any mouse. A wave of loneliness crashed over him, and he gulped back sobs, and then his paws opened and he buried his muzzle in them. Coins pattered to the ground as his body shook, tears running against his fingers and through his fur.
Someone crouched in front of him, reaching for the coins. Danilo couldn’t even rouse himself to object to his coins being stolen. He didn’t care; they didn’t make any difference to him in the end.
The coins dropped into his lap. “You’ll need this,” Théodore’s voice said, roughly.
Danilo rubbed his eyes and stared up. The mouse had his paw out, his eyes cold and hard. “I wouldn’t have come at all. Armand thought I shouldn’t. But he wanted Coumier’s scarf.”
The tiger wiped the back of his paw across his nose. The scent of smoke lingered there. “It’s not Coumier’s scarf,” he said. “Taye—Théodore—I’m so glad to see you.”
“Just give me the scarf.” The mouse’s voice remained as dead and neutral as his eyes.
“It’s Luc’s scarf,” Danilo said. “They took him.” The memory of that night crushed his chest inward, atop the burning he’d just witnessed, and he struggled to draw in a breath for a moment.
Théodore’s eyes flickered, and when he spoke, his voice wavered. “How do I know this is truth? Armand saw you sitting with the Bishop.”
Of course Théodore didn’t trust him anymore. Danilo had spent the morning with his bitter enemy, apparently friendly. The tiger licked his dry lips and pushed his sleep-deprived brain to come up with words. His only ally—well, the only one who would help him rescue Luc—was about to walk away from him, and with good reason. If Danilo had met a new student and then seen him eating lunch with Georg and Cobb, he wouldn’t have trusted him, not one bit.
He croaked, “I want to save Luc.”
The mouse’s ears lay back, and his eyes narrowed. He did not withdraw his paw, but the fingertips with their blunt claws curled upward. “Give me the scarf,” he ordered.
“Please.” When the mouse’s expression did not waver, Danilo reached behind him and freed the scarf. He laid it across Théodore’s fingers.
The mouse stuffed it into a small purse. “God have mercy on you,” he said, and turned on his heel.
Danilo sat on the bench and watched the thin tail flick as Théodore walked away from him. Get up, go after him! his mind cried, but he could not force his legs to move. Finally he struggled to his feet and lurched into the crowd, his eye fixed on the mouse tail. People crowded around him, moving with him, blocking his way. He hurried past them, around a corner, and caught up to Théodore.
The mouse appeared not to notice him. Danilo laid a paw on his shoulder, and the mouse turned.
It wasn’t Théodore. This mouse was the same height, but had a large boil just beneath her eye. She cringed back from him and said, “Don’t harm me, sir.”
“God keep you,” Danilo said. He released her and looked around the crowd, but there were no other mice in view. He’d lost Théodore, probably forever.
The sun had sunk nearer the horizon, casting a golden glow on the hills, by the time his slow steps brought him back to the seminary. He had stopped in at St. Nizier’s to find a service in progress and had not seen Anita there anywhere, so he’d decided to go ahead and settle into his room. At least then he would have a place to stay and to leave his things. If he ever acquired any things.
He still carried the coins clenched in his paw. His stomach, though painfully empty, had not yet informed him that it was ready for food again. So when Mme. LeChamp, an elderly sheep with a black-furred face, showed him to a cramped room on the second floor of the seminary, a room barely larger than the straw pallet on its floor with a window that looked out onto the adjacent building and a door that did not lock, Danilo pushed his coins under the straw pallet and just sat cross-legged looking up and out the window. From the floor, he could see the sky, the clouds underlit by the sun, and he thought idly that sunsets were just as beautiful in 1508 as in 2008.
He could just continue numbly on with this life. Forget about Luc, forget about Théodore, make up some excuse for his lie when the Bishop’s messenger returned from the Vatican. But Luc’s plight nagged at him, not only his own actions that had led to it, but the otter’s suffering. He had to see him, had to tell him he was sorry, and if he could come up with some way to help, he had to do it. He’d let other people solve his problems and guide his life for years; sure, he’d gone to Tigue for University, but where else was he going to find a good program without going to the States? He’d suspected he might be gay, but hadn’t acted on it until Taye had urged him into it.
(He was at least bi; he’d enjoyed his night with Maria, after all.)
Now Luc was sitting in a cell, perhaps looking out at the same sky, and Danilo was sitting in this tiny room, and the easy thing to do would be nothing at all.
He found that he did not want to do the easy thing.
Anita had told him to forget about Luc, but he could not do that, not when his last memory of the otter was his stiff back as he told LeSevre to leave Danilo alone. Not when he could still see the raw wound where Coumier’s genitals had been. Not when the smoke still—still!—tickled his nostrils.
He pushed himself to his feet, pushed the door open, and walked out into the late afternoon to find Anita.
At St. Nizier’s, when the services were over, he found her cleaning the pews. She smiled when she saw him, but her smile faltered at his expression. “Danilo, did it not go well with the Bishop?”
“It went fine,” he said. “Sister, please tell me where I might find the prisoners guilty of crimes against the church.”
Her ears swept back and she looked down at the polished wood where her paw rested. Her claws scraped back and forth. “You should forget—”
“He saved my life!” Danilo’s voice echoed in the church.
Several people turned to look at him. He ignored them, but Anita smiled around at them. “He means he was saved by the Christ,” she said, and the confusion cleared from the muzzles.
“I need to see him.” He lowered his voice. “Please, Sister. Christ would have mercy, would he not?”
She exhaled. “The prison is on the Rue St. Bartholème, on the right bank of the Saone. Cross the bridge, go to your left, right below the second archway, and left when that street ends in a wall. You will see it, a grey stone tower, and you will smell it as well, no doubt. That is where the prisoners await their judgment. But there is nothing you can do for them.”
What did Danilo think he was going to do for Luc? Stand outside and remind him that he was in jail and Danilo was free? Make empty promises to save him? His shoulders slumped. Then he remembered the coins under his mattress. “Is there a way to get food to them?”
She hesitated. He placed a paw on the pew and leaned in closer. The smell of the wood and the paper, the ancient stone of the church, died away before her musky scent. “There is, isn’t there?”
“No.” Her eyes remained cast down. Her next words were spoken in a whisper so soft that it died in the stone of the floor, the statues of the Virgin and the saints around them. “I have heard that there may be a way, but it requires bribing the guards with gold.”
None of the coins he had with him were gold. “Thank you,” he said. He turned and then a painting caught his eye, hung on the wall of the confessional near the back of the church. It was Jesus as a Fox, administering to the poor. The halo around the fox’s head did not strike Danilo so much as the beatific air about Him, the kindness as He extended His paw.
Danilo turned back to the vixen. “What about simple charity?” he said. “Company, reminding him that he’s not alone?”
She lifted her head to frown. “Pardon me?”
“That is what I can do for him, if nothing else. I can tell him that his friends haven’t abandoned him.”
In her eyes, he saw glimmers of color from the stained glass shimmering and playing. She blinked, and then her lips curved into a smile. “Yes. I think that is very noble of you. You have a good heart.”
He smiled back, tightly. In his heart, he warred with himself. Because while he had been able to say what he thought would be the right thing, and he had been able to come up with something tangible he could bring to Luc, what good was comfort? What good was a meal of bread and cheese when the otter was about to be mutilated? No, Danilo was afraid that what he was doing was simply to comfort himself, a selfish act at Luc’s expense, that he was going to make the trip up to the prison simply to try to get Luc to tell him that he wasn’t to blame.
Even if he were doing that, though, was it so bad if he did offer company to Luc? If he brought food, if he stayed and offered comfort, then at least it was an even exchange. And if he could figure out a way to help Luc, then it would be much more than even.
He told himself this all the way back to his room at the seminary, all the way down to the boulangerie, and across the bridge. Maybe he could get Luc out of the jail, and then Luc would know where he could go after that. Conveniently he did not remind himself that Luc had been free just a day ago and had had nowhere to go; things were different, more desperate now, and when they were more desperate, there would always be a solution. There would be an answer, there would be an answer.
Twilight stole over the rooftops, turning red clay to maroon as the sun settled over the hills. The ruins atop the hills stood silhouetted against the clear mauve of the sky. Danilo paused below the second archway and lifted his eyes over the shadowed houses. There were always older buildings, with newer ones built around them, wherever people settled. The buildings he’d touched with wonder in his own time, thinking about the ancient people who’d lived in them, were new here. But there were still ancient buildings here, where the wolves who’d ruled Rome had left their mark, where battles had been fought three times longer ago than he’d been thrown back. And when the Romans had come, there had been old caves and riverbank dens where the ancient tribes of otters and foxes, hares and wolves had gathered and made their homes.
Had those people worried about whom they loved? Or had they just loved without abandon? He was fairly sure he’d heard that homosexual relationships used to be tolerated, but he couldn’t remember why things had changed, or when. Clearly it was before 1500, if nothing else.
He shook his head. Luc needed him, and philosophizing about the people who’d lived here fourteen, fifteen hundred years ago wouldn’t help at all.
The road rose up through houses, spaced more widely than around St. Nizier’s and the Repos. When he reached the wall and made the left turn, he looked down and saw the Saone and Rhône, and the area called Presqu’ile between them. Even now, the red-roofed houses were clustered together, huddled on the precarious bit of land. In the midst of them rose the churches, the stately St. Nizier’s across the river, and at the foot of the hill, the glorious and terrifying St. Jean-Baptiste.
The sun’s light had almost entirely faded, and the clouds, though scattered, did hide the moon. There were no street lights, of course, but Danilo found he could actually see well enough without them. And he wouldn’t have had to see to find the prison.
Anita had been right. The smell came to him within five yards of turning left along the wall. He breathed in and then gagged, assaulted by not only filth and urine, but a sickly-sweet smell he didn’t know immediately, that filled him with an instinctive dread, quickened his steps as he approached the great stone tower.
It stretched halfway from one street to the next, and as far back. Its squat shape rose three stories, and bars in the windows caught and reflected the meager light. Danilo stopped amid the scant crowds in the street and then edged into a space between a house and the prison. He stood with his back to a wall, so nobody could sneak up on him, and stared at the ragged stone building, the thick metal bars. How would he even figure out which window was Luc’s, let alone get to it?
Traffic on the street outside decreased as the minutes dragged on. Danilo glanced out at the darkening evening and then cupped his paws around his muzzle. “Luc,” he called toward the prison.
No response. He called a little more loudly. “Luc!”
A pale goat’s snout appeared between the bars of the window nearest him. “Quit yer noise,” it said. “Leave us in peace.”
“Do you know where Luc is?” Danilo stepped forward eagerly. “He’s an otter.”
The prisoner eyed the baguette in the tiger’s paws. “Give me an end of that bread and I will tell you what I know.”
Danilo tore off six inches of the baguette and stepped forward to hold it up to the window. The goat’s filthy hand reached out, fingers scrabbling to grasp the bread, and as Danilo released it to him, he noticed that one of the fingers was missing. Thick blunt nails dug into the tender crust and the bread disappeared into the prison. The sickly-sweet smell drifted down to him with the sounds of desperate chewing and gulping, and at this close distance, Danilo recognized it as the smell of disease. Which one he couldn’t tell, but he held the rest of the baguette to him, thankful he hadn’t touched the goat’s fingers at all.
A contented exhalation came from the other side of the window. “Where’s Luc?” Danilo called up.
“How should I know?” The goat’s voice drifted out to him.
“You said you’d tell me!”
“I said I would tell you all I know. I know nothing. I have never heard of your ‘Luc’ nor of any otter. There. So I have upheld my bargain.” He laughed harshly. “Thank you for the bread. Come back anytime.”
“You…” Danilo clenched his fist around the bread, and shouted the word. “Thief!”
“Report me to the Church, then.” The goat laughed harshly.
Danilo stalked around the corner. Here no house bounded the prison, but a low stone wall surrounding a park of some sort. He stood with his back to it, and stared up. This prison wall looked identical to the other. “Luc!” he called, and here, away from the street, he dared to call more loudly. “Luc!”
A shape appeared at one of the second floor windows, a small round head without large ears. “Who’s there?” Eyeshine gleamed down at Danilo.
“It’s me! Danilo!”
“Danilo?” The head leaned out farther, and Danilo now recognized Luc’s head. “What are you doing here? Go away!”
“I’m sorry!” He held up the baguette. “I brought you some bread.”
At the word “bread,” heads appeared at two of the other windows. “Who’s brought bread?” “Is it fresh?”
“You need to leave,” Luc said. “They will follow you. They knew about me because I came to see my friend.”
“Was your friend Coumier?” Danilo thought he could say the name without thinking about it, but he was wrong. He closed his eyes and slumped against the park wall, because now Luc’s face was superimposed on his memory of the burning otter.
Several seconds passed. When Luc didn’t say anything, Danilo said, “I saw him die. I’m sorry.”
“You saw him? Why?”
“The Bishop took me. He wanted to warn me. He—he knows—”
“Quiet!” Luc’s voice rang out sharply.
Danilo stared up at the two shining eyes. Of course he shouldn’t confess to being gay right here beside the prison. Who knew what ears were perked nearby? He cleared his throat. “Did they hurt you at all?”
Luc laughed, but his laugh was short and had an edge to it, not like the laugh Danilo remembered. “My shoulder hurts,” he said. “My stomach. But no, they have not exacted their punishment yet. Tomorrow, they say. Today they were otherwise occupied.”
“Then there’s still time.”
“No,” Luc said. “There’s no time.”
There’s always time, Danilo told himself. But he would have to figure something out without Luc’s help. He sighed. “Can I come in to give you the bread?”
“No. The guards—you can’t visit me. It isn’t safe.”
“I’ll throw it to you.”
He ripped off another chunk of the bread. “Hush,” he said. “Get ready to catch.”
But his planned toss and catch went very badly. To start with, Luc was only able to reach about half a foot outside the bars of his cell. If Danilo had been able to throw accurately, it would have been hard enough. He’d never been a bowler at cricket, and what’s more, the throwing motion stretched the wound in his side. The piece of bread sailed wide of the window, smacked into the wall, and fell to the ground before Danilo could catch it. He tore off another, which flew into the air, and at least that one he caught and threw again.
Five minutes later, he held the last bit of baguette, and three chunks lay on the ground. “I’m sorry!” he called up to Luc.
“It was well meant,” the otter called down. “Do you have a place to sleep?”
“Yes, they let me in at the seminary. I’m studying there.”
“Good. Go back there and sleep, and forget about me. When they release me tomorrow, I’ll leave Tigue.”
Danilo swallowed and lifted his head. “I won’t forget you.”
“Pray for me, then.” Below the eyeshine, for the first time, he saw the pale white of a smile. “God keep you, Danilo.”
His throat tightened so much that it was hard to get the words out. “God keep you, Luc. I’ll find a way to help you.”
The silhouette above him disappeared. The night sky, thick with clouds, shone faintly beyond the prison roof. Danilo’s eyes lingered on the clouds, and then the smell of disease reminded him that he shouldn’t linger here. He bent to collect the bread that had fallen on the ground.
“Ho.” A weak voice called from the first floor window nearest him.
Danilo straightened and met the gleaming green eyes of a fox, framed between the metal bars of the nearest window. “Give me that bread,” the fox said, “and I’ll tell you how you can get in to see your otter.”
The tiger stared and clutched the bread to his chest. “No. There’s no way, is there? You just want bread. Forget it.”
A dry laugh, and the fox tilted his head. “There’s a way.”
“So tell me. Then I’ll give you the bread.”
“You’ll walk away.”
“I won’t.” He held up the bread. “If there’s really a way—I’m honest. I can’t say the same for you.”
“I swear by the Lord that I will tell you.”
“Well, I swear that I will give you the bread.” He glared stubbornly into the cell.
The fox exhaled and rested a paw between the bars. “Give me a small piece.”
Danilo set his jaw, but then looked down at the pieces of bread pressed to his chest. All the prisoner wanted was something to eat. He was probably starving. Danilo himself hadn’t eaten at all, and finally the ache in his stomach was not accompanied by nausea.
He took one of the pieces of the bread and laid it in the fox’s paw. “Take it,” he said.
“Thank you.” The fox’s paw withdrew, but his eyes remained fixed on Danilo’s. “Sometimes when the moon is high, the Archbishop comes to hear the confessions of the prisoners. He sends the guards away, for the confessional is inviolate. We prisoners can hear murmurs and cries of repentance, but nothing more. Perchance you might slip in at that time.”
“The Archbishop? He comes all the way up here?”
“Not every night.” The fox leaned closer to the window. His breath, sour and stale, at least did not carry the taint of disease. “But if your friend is to be executed tomorrow, he will certainly come tonight. He comes always to hear the confessions of the condemned.”
“Luc isn’t to be executed!”
The prisoner stared out and then said, “I thought from what you said…I only heard your words…well, then, perhaps he will not come tonight. I am sorry.” He lowered his eyes, and then, slowly, the bread appeared between the bars. “If my words have not been useful…”
“Keep it.” Danilo waved a paw at him and then impulsively pushed another piece of the bread through the bars. “God keep you.”
“God bless you,” came the throaty response.
The Archbishop certainly would not come up here two nights in a row. But…he turned back to the window. “One more thing,” he said.
“Certainly.” The triangular outline of the fox’s ear flicked.
“Do you know where they carry out the punishments?”
The air remained still and mostly silent. Up the hill, a night bird cried. “Aye,” the fox said, slowly. “Aye, I know. I had my lashes right here.”
“But for…for…” Danilo swallowed. “For halfies,” he whispered, “that is here as well?”
“Halfies?” The fox drew back, the glare of his eyes brighter. “Your friend is a halfie?”
“Pfah! You should be in here with him. Truly there is no justice in the world.” The eyes disappeared. A soft thump came through the bars: the fox sitting down. A moment later, the sounds of chewing.
“I gave you bread!” Danilo called in, but not too loudly. He sighed and returned to the wall over the park, trying to put the fox’s words out of his mind. Was it worth waiting to see if the Archbishop would come tonight?
He settled down by the wall to wait, but his eyes drifted shut almost immediately. He tried to force himself awake, but soon realized that if he were not walking or talking, he would sleep. So he pushed himself to his feet, and only then did he look over the wall and see what the park really was.
Granite markers and large stones lay about the field as though cast in a game of dice, most of them quite plain. He’d been leaning against a cemetery wall. No wonder this part of town was so quiet: a prison and a cemetery at night? He wasn’t superstitious, but as he stared at the empty field full of graves, a shiver passed through him, so he hurried back to the Rue St. Bartholème. Among the few nocturnals who scurried about the streets, he felt more at ease, all the way across the glimmering river and back to the seminary.
He ate his bread on the way back, and by the time he’d crossed the river, he had decided that he needed another plan. When he entered the seminary at the street level, no lamps were lit in the room, but soft light from the window fell on the picture of Jesus Stag. Danilo stared, and heard again the fox’s words. Inspiration crept slowly into his mind.
He mounted the stairs, turning over the idea, refining it. He would have to offer the Bishop his testimony about Bertrand; that was inescapable now. But that would not expiate what Luc had actually done. The Bishop would not simply waive his punishment. He might, though, be persuaded to punish someone else. If Danilo offered himself in Luc’s place, much as Jesus had offered himself in exchange for the sins of the world… if he took the punishment for a first offense in exchange for freeing Luc from the punishment for a second—well, if this were not real, then whatever happened to him would not matter. And if it were real, then Danilo would trade a testicle to prevent Luc from being castrated.
At least, lying on his straw pallet and staring up at the clouds through his window, he thought he would. It remained to be seen if he could actually act on the idea. He cupped his balls in one paw. There were many questions to be answered about it, but he remembered the Bishop’s savage smile and he felt sure that the wolf would leap at the chance to punish Danilo. It would hurt, but…if it were the only way to help Luc, he would do it.