Camouflage Part 3

[This is the continuation of Camouflage; here are Part 1 and Part 2.]

Chapter Twelve

Danilo slept through Lauds, he was told when a grumpy rabbit shook him awake. He did not feel rested, echoes of fire-filled dreams crackling behind his eyes as he rubbed them. “I’m sorry,” he told the rabbit, and pulled Luc’s tunic over his head.

All the way down, he prepared the case he would make to the Bishop, expecting to find him in the lecture room. His memory of the wolf’s fanged smile warred with some little hubris he felt (perhaps without realizing it); he had escaped LeSevre, and his twenty-first century knowledge would give him an advantage (ignoring that it had not done so to date). He would propose his sacrifice to the Bishop, and the wolf would admit that this had been a test that he had passed, and there would be no punishment, he imagined one minute. The next, he was remembering the reflection of flames licking at yellow-green eyes and he imagined the Bishop denying his request only for the pleasure of taking a knife to Luc’s genitals, the wolf wielding a blade in his own paw and forcing Danilo to watch the operation. Coumier’s mutilated groin resurfaced in his imagination and would not depart, no matter what sacrifice Danilo offered.

When he entered the small room on the first floor of the seminary, however, three seated students turned their heads, including the rabbit who’d woken him, and a standing slender black-robed wolf—a grey wolf, light of fur with black tips to his ears—looked up from the book in his paws. “Danilo,” he said. “My students are expected to attend Lauds every morning.”

“Yes, sir. I’m sorry, I didn’t sleep the night before…” He scanned the room, expecting the Bishop to be sitting in a corner, perhaps, but the small room held only bookshelves and two desks with inkwells.

“You may address me as ‘Father.’” The wolf gestured to one of the several empty chairs in the room. “Be seated.”

Curling his tail around the back of the chair, Danilo sat down and tried his best to pay attention. But the stuffy room set his thoughts to wandering, and he kept shifting his seat, aware of the feel of his balls between his thighs. Could he go through with his plan? He would have to find the Bishop, get up to the prison before they carried out their punishment on Luc.

There was only one place where he was certain of finding Bishop Lukin, and one time. Danilo had longed for twenty-first century technology before, but now he felt he would give his—well, not his other testicle, but maybe a finger, or—or a claw—honestly, it was harder to think about dismemberment here in 1508, where he confronted people with missing appendages every day, but he would give something valuable just to have a clock in the room. Church bells rang outside, but not always with the familiar hourly carillon. When he did catch a carillon, he counted eleven peals.

After that, he had to trust his own sense of time. He was aware that the opportunity he had, to listen to a real sixteenth century lesson, was one he should be paying attention to, but he could barely keep his tail from lashing back and forth, much less keep his attention on what the wolf was reading from his book. It was something about the saints of Tigue, and he focused enough to hear the names: Pothinus, Epipodius, Alexander, Viator, Sacerdos, Lupicinus. At least two of those names rang familiarly to Danilo’s ears. He drifted off again until the wolf read stories of the tortures the first three had endured at the paws of the Romans, and then Danilo had to hide his squirming, his tail curled tightly around the leg of the chair.

So in any age, people tortured other people. He rested one paw in his lap as the wolf went on to talk about what the saints meant to Tigue, spending quite a bit of time on Epipodius, for whom the seminary was named and to whom, in the old days (old days! Danilo stifled a laugh), many miracles had been attributed.

When the tiger couldn’t stand the waiting any longer, he took advantage of a pause in the wolf’s reading to stand up. “Excuse me, Father,” he said. “I have an appointment at noon. With the bishop. Bishop Lukin.”

The other students all turned to stare. The wolf’s eyes widened and his ears stood up. “I had been informed that the bishop was taking personal charge of your education, but I thought that would be in addition to the regular lessons.”

Danilo shook his head. “I am new,” he said. “He told me to meet him at noon at the Cathèdrale.”

“Very well, then, you are dismissed. Go with God.”

He hurried out into another cloudy day, the streets crowded with people, and by now he knew the way across the bridge to the cathedral so well that he navigated it by instinct. Again, he stopped on the bridge and looked down at the river, but this time the urge to jump in did not even present itself.

What Danilo was concentrating on was keeping himself from thinking about what he was about to offer. Every time he approached it, his balls tingled and seemed to pull tightly against his body, so he just told himself that he was going to talk to the Bishop, that he was going to save Luc, and that nothing was happening after that. Picturing the black wolf’s smile, too, made him quail, but that was harder to avoid. He was going to stand up to Georg—to Bishop Lukin—or else he was going to give him exactly what he wanted, but in any case, he was going to rescue Luc. That was more important than anything else.

The cathedral’s bells began to toll noon as he approached the plaza. He hurried around the back, walking beneath the flying buttresses and below the stained glass window. Faintly from inside he could hear the clock chiming its carol.

At the back door, he pushed his way through a small crowd gathered to watch for the bishop, and up to the ram guarding the door. “I was here with the bishop yesterday,” he said. “He asked me to return.”

“I was not informed of this.” The ram gazed back at him with impassive, blank eyes.

“Well, then…” Defiant answers from action movies sprung to his head. Danilo subdued them and stepped back. “I’ll just wait here.”

It would be easy now, to slip back into the crowd, to go back to the seminary. Luc would be punished and leave, and he had absolved Danilo of blame. But Danilo had set himself on this path, and had obscured the endpoint in his own mind successfully enough that he remained standing by the door.

When the bishop’s little retinue emerged, Lukin’s eyes found Danilo as quickly as though he’d known the tiger would be there. He affected surprise. “Why, Danilo. You’ve missed the clock.”

“I understand you’re carrying out another punishment.” Danilo took a breath, inhaled the thick dirty street air, the hundreds of people’s scents around him, the steadying old stone of the church. “I want to come along.”

“Thinking of taking up a position in my guard?” The wolf smiled and crooked a finger. “Come, come.”

On the way up to the prison, the bishop asked what he’d learned that morning. Danilo recited what little he could remember, mostly the names of the saints. “Ah, yes. Old Pothinus has developed quite the reputation—not here, but he has shrines farther south. People attribute potency to him.”

“Potency?” Danilo was having trouble keeping up with this conversation, so focused was he on their destination.

The bishop, by contrast, walked as casually as if they were strolling through a garden. “In case of a childless or…un-consummated marriage.”

“Oh, that kind of potency.” In a land without Viagra, people substituted prayer to certain saints. It made as much sense as anything else, Danilo supposed. “Does that count as a miracle?”

The bishop laughed. “You wish to make a study of miracles. I will remember that. It may count as a miracle, aye.”

Scraping his memory, Danilo said, “And Saint Epipodius had miracles attributed to him.”

“Oh, indeed.” They turned below the archway and walked up the narrow street, more crowded in the daylight. “You have stood upon his remains, you know.”

Danilo looked down at the dirt and stones below his feet, startled. Lukin saw his movement and laughed softly. “Not here. He is interred below the altar in Saint-Jean. In fact, some of the old records of Tigue refer to a church of Saint Épipode on that site. Of course, Saint Jean brought the word of baptism to the masses, and we celebrate his presence now. But Épipode is not forgotten by any means, especially by those who know the history of Tigue.”

The history lesson helped distract Danilo as the large, squat block of the prison came into view, and so of course that was the moment the Bishop turned the conversation back. “What did you learn from yesterday’s punishment, Danilo?”

“Learn?” He wrenched his gaze from the prison walls, unable to see around the corner to Luc’s window. Between the shuttered house and the prison, a goat stood murmuring through the bars to the goat who had taken Danilo’s bread.

“I hope you did not simply enjoy the suffering of another soul?”

The wolf’s yellow-green eyes bored into his, the faint smile bizarrely incongruous with the memories his words were evoking. Danilo, unsettled by the expression, could not marshal his thoughts. “I—I learned that—it was a horrible thing to see.”

“Demons are horrible creatures. And when they infest a person’s soul, the results can be equally horrible. The process of destroying them might appear terrible, but in reality the demon has already destroyed the person.” The boar, walking alongside, struck a rabbit who was gawking at the bishop. The rabbit, no more than a teenager, fell to the ground. The wolf did not appear to notice. “So the lesson you should learn is that you must fight the demons should you feel them possess you. You will encounter many virtuous people in Tigue, but demons are sly and may hide their presence.”

Danilo still could not work out in his head whether the Bishop really believed in supernatural demonic creatures who could possess humans, or whether it was a hyperextended metaphor for homosexuality and other bad behavior. “I will remember that, Your Excellency.”

The guard at the prison door stepped aside. The boar grasped the door handle in one massive fist and pulled the door open.

Inside, Danilo breathed that sickly-sweet disease smell, urine, and the thick musk of people confined for weeks without running water. This stone-walled room appeared to be the guard post; a desk and large wardrobe occupied one wall, spiral stairs in the corner led up, and scraps of bread and cheese lay among crumbs on a small table, though how anyone could eat amid this smell, Danilo couldn’t fathom. The chairs around the table had been pushed back and sat empty, while three guards in uniforms familiar from LeSevre’s crew stood stiffly as the Bishop entered. A fox stepped forward at full attention, ears up, tail curled appropriately down. “All is in readiness, Your Excellency,” he said.

“Thank you, Perchet.” The wolf’s muzzle inclined ever so slightly downward. “Is he…?”

“Yes, Your Excellency.”

At the name “Perchet,” Danilo gave a start. But the fox’s eyes traveled impassively over his. It was rather impossible that Perchet did not recognize him, but he gave no sign. Danilo was thankful, and wanted to tell the fox so, and that it was not necessary for him to dissemble. He settled for nodding as he passed the fox, head down, following the Bishop. They passed several cells, one of which held a fox asleep on a board in the corner—perhaps the one that had taken Danilo’s bread and cursed him. Just after the fox’s cell, the Bishop turned onto a stone landing from which stairs led up and down. He descended, and Danilo followed. Culliver came behind the tiger, while the boar remained on the first floor.

One floor down, a door of thick oak beams stood closed, but the Bishop did not hesitate nor wait for the boar; he pushed it open himself. It opened on well-oiled hinges that only hissed softly as the black wolf walked through. Danilo stepped in after him and clapped a paw to his nose.

There was no question of the use of this room. A long table of wood stood at the center, near a side table that glittered with silver blades and a brazier that lent a smoky haze to the air nearby. The sight of the stains on the table and the stench of old blood made Danilo gag. To the right, a long brown curtain obscured the wall, and as they entered, it rustled, and a polecat in a bloodstained tunic walked out from behind it.

He reminded Danilo of Armand, but taller, and when he spoke, he revealed far less damage to his teeth. “All is ready, Your Excellency,” he said, and then caught sight of Danilo. “What’s this? New guard in training?”

The Bishop smiled, fangs showing. “Danilo is a new student of mine. I am supervising his education personally.”

The polecat appraised him. “Truly the color God gave his fur is reflected in his good fortune. Welcome to Tigue, blessed Danilo.”

“Thank you,” Danilo croaked. The sight of the grisly table and the affable polecat in bloody clothes had sapped his resolve. He did not want to lie on that table, he did not want that polecat to come near him. He turned to the Bishop, preparing to argue Luc’s case, but at that moment his whiskers twitched and footsteps sounded behind him.

He turned to see LeSevre pushing Luc into the room. The otter’s paws were bound behind his back and he wore nothing but a tunic that fell to mid-thigh. As the wolf surveyed the room, his eyes rested on Danilo’s, and his features brightened in a savage smile.

Luc’s eyes lit on Danilo a moment later, and his dull resignation turned to wide-eyed shock. He controlled himself and looked away immediately, staring resolutely down at the wooden floor as he was marched over to the table.

“Danilo,” the bishop said, his voice honey-smooth, “you will help LeSevre lift the prisoner onto the table, will you not?”

Another guard had come up behind LeSevre, a lanky rat with a patch over one eye, and he had been moving forward with Luc. Now he stepped back and waited at the door, attentive. The Bishop and LeSevre both watched Danilo, the first with that light smile that hid his worst intentions, the second with feral glee that hid nothing.

Danilo licked his lips. In a way, he was glad the Bishop had forced his action here, because if he were simply allowed to stand and watch, he did not know if he would have been able to act. “I want to say something first,” he said, and hurriedly added, “Your Excellency.”

The Bishop nodded as though he had known all along. “Proceed. But I pray you will not have the discourtesy to draw out the waiting period for our prisoner.”

“I suppose you know that I know him,” Danilo said. “LeSever here will have told you.” He deliberately mispronounced the wolf’s name and was rewarded with a flicker of annoyance.

Luc snapped his head up and stared at Danilo. The tiger couldn’t meet his eyes, but he saw the quick shake of the otter’s head. He ignored it.

Slowly, the Bishop nodded. “I am pleased that you have chosen honesty,” he said. “Is that what you wished to say? To confess what you had been hiding from me?”

“No, Your Excellency. I mean, yes, but more than that. The—the prisoner took me in when I was lost and homeless and basically didn’t know what to do. He is a good person, and what happened with Bertrand—I’m pretty sure Bertrand reported him—anyway, Bertrand is the innkeeper and he asked for whatever it was they did.”

“Danilo, you don’t have to—”

“Quiet!” LeSevre smacked Luc hard in the muzzle. “Prisoners speak only when ordered.”

The bishop turned toward Luc. “Do you deny what Danilo says? Do you claim he lies?”

Luc lowered his head. LeSevre’s paw came up under the jaw and snapped it up with a crack that made Danilo wince. “You’ll look at the Bishop when he addresses you,” the wolf snarled.

“No, Your Excellency,” Luc said. “I do not contest what he says.” He turned his head to one side and spit a dark mass to the floor.

“Filthy swine!” LeSevre lifted his arm and hit the otter on the side of the head again, so hard that Luc staggered into the edge of the table.

“LeSevre,” the Bishop said calmly, “perhaps you will go and pay the innkeeper a visit tonight. He must learn that the Church is not his personal instrument of revenge.”

The wolf’s eyes gleamed. “With pleasure, Your Excellency.”

“Now, Danilo,” the bishop said. “If you have finished your confession, then perhaps you will help LeSevre…?”

“But—but he was forced to do it!” Danilo gestured. “Bertrand—he made him, because I was staying there.”

“You have said that Bertrand asked for it. In any case, the prisoner could have sought lodging elsewhere. Were he truly devoted to the church, he would have refused to commune with demons in this way, no matter the price.” The bishop’s smile tightened. “And it is his second offense. Therefore—”

 

“Please don’t castrate him,” Danilo said. “I will—”

He faltered. The reality of the silver knives, of the reek of blood, pounded on his senses, undeniable. And yet, what was at stake for him was less than for Luc, who now had blood running down his lower lip, who had risked his own well-being to save Danilo. Could Danilo do any less for him? He turned desperately around the room, waiting for a last-minute movie rescue, but only the silence, the polecat, the wolves, the otter, the rat returned his gaze.

“Yes?” the bishop prompted.

“I will offer myself—”

“No!” Luc shouted, and kicked back at LeSevre, then turned and spit blood at him. “Don’t let him! Take me, the crime is mine! He is innocent!”

“Restrain the prisoner,” the bishop said, unnecessarily, as LeSevre had already driven a fist into Luc’s stomach and sent the short otter to the floor, doubled over and wheezing for breath.

“Luc, stop it,” Danilo said. “This is my choice.” He took a breath. “If I take a punishment for a first offense—will you suspend his punishment for this one? Will you leave him whole?”

“He’s not whole now!” LeSevre barked a harsh laugh.

“What would be the use in that?” The bishop smiled, ignoring the other wolf’s words. “It is a noble impulse, but it leaves a demon unpunished and levies a harsh toll on an…innocent.”

The pause before “innocent” was not lost on Danilo, but he ignored it. “Can’t I take his sin onto myself? Like Jesus did?”

For the first time, he saw the bishop’s eyes widen and his composure slip. Then the wolf threw his muzzle back and laughed. “Oh, the blessed tiger compares himself to our Savior! Danilo, truly I have not regretted taking charge of you for a moment.”

“Is it so funny, to model myself after Jesus? He, uh,” he scraped for his knowledge of Christ, “died for our sins, and I’m just offering to take one sin. I mean…” He trailed off.

The bishop’s laughter died, and his eyes resumed their calculating stare. “Forgive me. You are correct, of course, we should strive to emulate our Lord and Savior in all things. You took me by surprise, and for that I must applaud you. But I am afraid I cannot permit—”

“Lukin.”

The voice came from behind the curtain, deep and resonant, the kind of voice born in a large sounding-board of a chest and forced up through a long, wide throat, a voice that made Danilo curl his paws and tail in against his body and look for somewhere to run. The curtain rippled, and then a white hand drew it aside, and a figure stepped gracefully around it.

His antlers preceded him, magnificently curved to gleaming points, and if he was not exactly an elk, he was the largest deer Danilo had ever seen. He wore a white robe with gold trim and an elaborate miter between his antlers, and he stood taller than anyone in the room, even Danilo. His eyes came to rest on the tiger, so dark they appeared in the shadowy room to be black. It was Cobb, all right, down to the swagger of the shoulders and the condescension in his eyes, but where Cobb’s fur was a rich reddish tan, his 1508 analog’s pelt was as white and pure as the fabric of his robes.

Everyone in the room was bowing already. Danilo caught himself staring and then hurried to bow along with them. As they rose, Lukin said, “Yes, Your Grace?”

The Archbishop surveyed Danilo up and down. “I will allow his petition. Our Savior took the sins of others onto Himself, and perhaps it will do our new student good to share that experience. As for the demon…” He waved a hand at Luc without taking his eyes from the tiger. “The demon will understand that any further offense against the Church will be treated as a third offense, though he has not been punished for his second.”

Bishop Lukin bowed again, but despite the flare of victory, Danilo could not look away from the Archbishop. The white stag met his eyes with a smile that communicated some shared secret between them. His fur rose on his arms and his tail tingled; he felt that somehow, the Archbishop knew him.

And then the polecat turned to Danilo and said, “Remove your trousers, please,” and the creepy feeling and fleeting triumph both evaporated.

The tiger turned to Luc, but the otter’s bloody mouth remained closed. His eyes said what he was not allowed to speak: sympathy and shared pain. Then his lips moved, and Danilo thought he might be praying.

Not a bad idea. He tried to recall any prayers he knew, and could only muster up a brief prayer to Saint John the Baptist again. If you brought me here, protect me now.

The polecat was still waiting. The Bishop said, “Danilo.”

Or…give me the strength to get through this. He lowered his eyes so he didn’t have to see everyone watch him undress. His balls felt hard and tight against his groin as he hooked his thumbs into the waist of his trousers and pushed them down. At least his boxers were gone. That could have raised some awkward questions—or bought him extra time. But no, when his trousers fell down around his ankles, the short hem of Luc’s tunic meant that most of his sheath and balls were visible to the room, amid the white fur of his groin. His tail curled around his leg, across the black stripes of his fur.

The surgeon nodded his head toward the table. “Lie there. Paws behind your back.”

His breath came more quickly. He could not make his feet move him toward the table.

The Archbishop, in his deep, soft voice, said, “LeSevre will be happy to assist you should you require it.”

Danilo jerked his head up to the stag’s eyes. They were locked on his midsection, avid and eager. The tiger swallowed and shook his head as a heavy paw pushed him in the shoulder. “I’ll do it.” He shook LeSevre off.

“We have other duties today,” the bishop said, a hint of a growl in his voice.

His heart raced; his head swam. He worried he might pass out. Actually, that would probably be best, if he just lost consciousness. But he would have to get onto the table. There was no way around it. And then, scanning the room, he caught sight of Luc again, and he remembered why he was subjecting himself to this. The otter’s bloody muzzle gave him the strength he needed.

The table smelled like an abandoned slaughterhouse. Danilo winced as he lay down on it, pinning his paws behind his back. He stared at the rough wooden ceiling and thought about the last time he’d been in a hospital, and realized that here there was no chemical smell, no sterilization, no antiseptic. There was the smell of burning from the small brazier, stronger here; that was all.

The part of him that did not really believe anything would happen to him was shrinking, walling itself away from the reality bombarding it, even as the polecat came around to his side. “Bite down on this,” he offered, and with his left paw held out a piece of wood. Danilo took it in his teeth, which sank into the soft surface farther than he was expecting.

That was it. That was his anaesthetic, a piece of wood to bite down on. How many other people had sunk their fangs into this wood? Did they get a new piece of wood every time? His mind raced to avoid thinking about—

The instruments clattered as the polecat picked one up. “Wait.” Danilo tried to say the word, but the wood muffled it.

“Did you wish to say something?” The bishop’s voice was low, and he enunciated each word carefully.

If he backed out, he would have to watch Luc be castrated. Danilo swallowed and shook his head from side to side.

Nobody spoke, but the silence of the room gave way to soft movements. Danilo’s whiskers felt the surgeon move to his side, and then a paw lifted the hem of his tunic up, folding it carefully back over his stomach, exposing the entirety of his groin to the room. He stared at the ceiling until he felt movement behind him.

Paws threw a rope over his thighs, securing them to the table. A moment later, the smell of LeSevre flooded his nose; the wolf leaned over his face, his tunic falling against Danilo’s nose as he draped a length of rope over the tiger’s chest. With deft, quick moves, he caught it below the table and wound it around again, pulling it tight.

The only thing Danilo could move was his head. He felt the imminence of the knife even before he heard the small scrapes of the surgeon laying two of his blades in the brazier, and turned his head from one side to the other. Unexpectedly, his eyes met Luc’s.

The otter stood a foot from the table, and as LeSevre finished knotting the rope to secure Danilo’s chest, Luc’s eyes flicked to the big wolf. But LeSevre simply stepped back and allowed Luc to remain close. “It will be over soon,” Luc whispered, quickly, and LeSevre’s paw caught him in the ear, though not as hard as before, not hard enough to knock him over.

Though it was the Bishop who had orchestrated this, and the Archbishop who had given it his blessing, Danilo felt a flare of hatred in that moment that overwhelmed his fear. The Bishop and Archbishop felt to him like instruments of a cruel church, but LeSevre was reveling in suffering, causing it by his own paw, and yes, it was irrational, but Danilo hated him more than anyone else in the room, or indeed, anyone else he had met in Tigue, past or present. People could draw knives and kill in this time, and if anyone deserved to be killed, it was this hateful wolf.

Blood dripped from Luc’s muzzle. The otter, with his bound paws, could not stop it. Danilo opened his mouth to answer, but all he said was “Stay quiet” before he felt the surgeon’s paw press down on his sheath and the touch of a blade on his sac.

He jumped, all six feet of him, and heard laughter around the room, soft chuckles. LeSevre, the Bishop, the Archbishop, perhaps even Culliver and the other guard. Not the surgeon, though. “Easy,” the polecat muttered as the blade slid down, trimming the fur away in a small line down the center of Danilo’s sac, which was doing its best to retreat from the touch.

“Least you know the bindings are tight.” LeSevre laughed. “Stronger than he looks, though. Need another one across the midsection?”

He was tossing rope over Danilo’s stomach before the polecat lifted his blade and paw and said, “That might be best.” In a moment, the queasiness below Danilo’s white stomach fur intensified, compressed by the binding of a rope. He fixed his eyes on Luc, who remained steady and calm.

Another clatter. The surgeon picked up his blades from the brazier.

Danilo shut his eyes and clamped his jaw shut on the piece of wood. The polecat’s paw returned to his sheath, pressing harder on it. And then—

A stab of pain. That wasn’t so bad. He could—

A searing line of fire on his balls. He cried out around the piece of wood, biting down hard, his body struggling but unable to move. The touch of claws on his sac dimly registered through the pounding waves of pain, fingers separating the skin and pushing inside. A burst of nausea in his stomach as the fingers pulled on a testicle, and he felt it, he felt it pull out of his sac.

Tears leaked from his eyes, running along his muzzle and down to the table. “Oh God,” he moaned around the wood. It was really happening, this horrific torture, and nobody was going to save him, nobody stepped forward to help him, nobody—

Another shock of pain, a lightness, an absence. The nausea persisted, but disconnected now.

Danilo thought he might throw up, and then he would choke on his vomit because his teeth were firmly embedded in the wood. The fingers were prodding at his sac again, and then little starbursts of pain joined the deafening chorus, a point here, a point there, moving up from his fundament to where the paw still pressed on his sheath.

He opened his eyes. Through the blur of tears, Luc’s brown eyes still watched his steadily, tears running down the brown muzzle as freely as Danilo’s were running down his own. He squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again, and tried to smile, to reassure Luc, but oh God, the pain was terrible, and every beat of his heart made it throb that much worse, down there between his legs.

The surgeon’s paw lifted from his sheath. A moment later, the ropes around his thighs and stomach loosened. Something cool and damp pressed against his sac, held there as a cloth was wound around his hips to hold it in place. “Keep this on for the rest of the day,” the surgeon said. “In a few days you can pull the stitches out.” He pulled the hem of the shirt down to partly hide Danilo’s sheath, a gesture that only reminded Danilo how naked he’d been.

The words seemed to come from a distance, as humiliation joined the pain. Beyond Luc, Danilo saw the white cross on LeSevre’s uniform, and farther back in the room, the white figure of the Archbishop, watching with his hands clasped together and just a little bit of his tongue showing. They had all watched as the polecat had taken half his masculinity and cut it out with a single slice. Images rushed into his head, amalgams of horror movies and surgery videos he’d seen. The wound between his legs pulsed, and his stomach roiled. He turned his head and made an urgent noise.

“Help him,” Luc said, but before anyone could move, Danilo freed his trapped paws and turned, his guts heaving, body convulsing. The movement brought fresh pain, and thankfully that quelled his nausea. Fortunately, he’d eaten nothing that day, and so the vomiting brought up only spatters of bile. He reached up to pull the wood off his teeth, which took a good amount of leverage, and he smelled the bile on it as he dropped it to the floor.

He closed his eyes again. The Bishop said, “Take the prisoner down to the exit and release him,” and Danilo exhaled, not wanting to remain lying on the horrible table, unable to muster the strength to get up.

“Wait.”

The Archbishop’s voice cut across the room, stilling all movement. He spoke again when nobody responded. “Lukin, will you please review the charges under which the prisoner was brought here?”

Bishop Lukin did not respond immediately. Danilo struggled to his elbows and opened his eyes, his stomach beginning to churn again. The black wolf had his paws clasped before him, his ears flat out to his sides, and his expression was not one of pleasure. “LeSevre?”

The grey wolf barked immediately, “Prisoner was accused of unnatural acts perpetrated upon the person of Bertrand the owner of Repos de la Sainte.”

“Acts, plural?” The Archbishop’s deep voice remained smooth as silk.

“Yes, Your Grace,” the wolf said. “Over two nights.”

“Two nights.” The Archbishop steepled his fingers together, and the corners of his lips curved slowly upwards. “Two separate instances. It would seem to me that young blessed Danilo has taken upon himself the punishment for the first of those in his friend’s place.”

“What?” Danilo finally put together what the Archbishop meant.

The Archbishop’s eyes met his. “Which leaves the punishment for the third offense.”

“No!” It burst out of him. “You can’t! It isn’t fair!”

LeSevre moved threateningly toward him. “You address the Archbishop with respect.”

“It is God’s judgment,” the large stag said, “and God’s judgment is supremely fair.” He leaned forward, his eyes fixed on Danilo. “Unless you would like to take that punishment, too, upon yourself.”

“No!” Luc cried. “I will not permit it.”

“LeSevre,” the Bishop said, holding up a paw, for the grey wolf had made ready to strike the otter again. “The prisoner has just heard himself condemned to death. I think an outburst may go unpunished.”

“You can’t burn him!” Danilo said. “He won’t—you can’t—”

“Do not despair,” the stag said. “Your sacrifice has not been in vain. He will go to the pyre whole, which is more than most can say. At least—as whole as you are.” His brown eyes glittered, and he waved his hand. “Lukin, see to it.”

“Yes, Your Grace.” The Bishop bowed.

Danilo bent his head to Luc as the Archbishop disappeared behind the curtain again. The otter’s eyes were bright and sharp on his. “I’m sorry,” Danilo said softly. “I didn’t know…”

And then LeSevre pulled Luc away, marched him toward the stairs. The other guard accompanied them, and the polecat, who had watched the scene impassively, wiped his blades on a piece of cloth. He turned to the bishop and said, “Will you still be coming this afternoon, Your Excellency?”

The black wolf’s muzzle remained down and he did not answer, appearing lost in thought. Danilo, too, was trying to sort out the thoughts tumbling through his head, which oscillated between the twin poles of they cut out one of my balls and they’re going to burn Luc alive. The first paled beside the second, until his body reminded him with a throb of pain how immediate and intimately the first had changed him.

“Sir?” The polecat touched Danilo’s shoulder, and he turned toward the masked muzzle. “If you’d care to trim the fur around your stomach and at the end of your tail, I’ll not charge you for the service.” He held up a small scissors. When Danilo just stared, unable to process what was being asked, the polecat coughed politely. “It is looking a little ragged; that is all.”

“No,” Danilo forced out. Let this creature touch him with a knife again?

The polecat nodded and put the scissors down. He leaned forward and whispered in Danilo’s ear, “It was brave, what you did.”

“Yes,” Bishop Lukin said in the surgeon’s direction. “I will visit your business presently. Now, please leave me with Danilo. I would have a word with him.”

The polecat bowed and hurried behind the curtain. A moment later, the black wolf strode to the curtain and pushed his muzzle behind it, then returned to Danilo. “You are excused from lessons for the afternoon,” he said roughly. “Tomorrow morning you will resume them at the seminary.”

“Do I have to come to the execution tomorrow?” Danilo said in a low voice, and then added, “Your Excellency.”

The wolf paused, and then looked directly at him. “The execution will be the day after tomorrow. But yes.” When Danilo scowled and looked down, the bishop said, “Do you think you have been ill-used? You offered yourself for sacrifice.”

“Nobody cut off one of Jesus’s testicles,” Danilo muttered.

“No.” The Bishop strode toward him and lifted his muzzle with a paw so that he had no choice but to meet those yellow-green eyes. “No, they did not. They drove spikes through His paws and ankles and left Him in the burning sun to die over the course of days. They pressed a crown of thorns upon His head and displayed him like a criminal. And He bore it all without complaint.”

“Did they make Him watch His friends die?” Danilo asked, belligerently.

“Yes. That as well.” The Bishop released him. “Perhaps your education in the Vatican should have prepared you better for the act you foolishly took.”

Danilo remained silent. The black wolf stared down and then paced back and forth. “I will expect you when the clock tolls noon.”

Yet still, he did not leave. Danilo said, “Yes, Your Excellency,” because he thought that perhaps that was what the Bishop was waiting for, but still the wolf remained near him. Finally he looked up and saw the Bishop extending a paw.

The gesture disgusted him. He swung himself off the table and stood, though he could not help wincing at the flare of pain that stabbed upwards from his groin. He put a paw across his stomach to settle it, and reached for his—Luc’s—pants.

“Buy yourself better clothes.” The Bishop produced a silver coin from a pocket of his robe and held it out.

“I don’t need your money,” Danilo said, and again waited before adding, “Your Excellency.”

The wolf turned the coin over and then replaced it in his pocket. “Very well.” He watched Danilo pull the pants carefully up over the binding, remaining impassive even when the tiger let out a hiss of pain. When Danilo looked up, the yellow-green eyes were watching his, and the wolf spoke again.

“Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God. You are not your own.” He paused. “Meditate on that while you are in pain.”

Danilo did not think that would help very much. The pain continued to radiate from his groin, dominating his thoughts. He stared at the ground until the bishop said, “Come with me.”

Every step up the stairs sent fresh spikes through the tops of his legs. He gritted his teeth, not wanting to give the wolf in front of him the satisfaction of hearing him cry out. The smells of the prison did not overpower the smells of wood and bile and blood that filled his head. He followed the waving black tail up the tight spiral stair, focusing most of his attention on keeping his paws away from his groin. The coolness of the damp poultice had faded already, and a trickle of moisture ran down one leg, which Danilo knew was water but which he kept picturing as blood.

At the stone landing, the wolf turned before stepping out into the room. His long black muzzle looked down at Danilo. “You have not disappointed me,” he said.

Was that supposed to make him feel better? Danilo mumbled something and tacked “Your Excellency” onto the end of it.

The Bishop measured him with his eyes once more and then turned. He told Culliver and the boar to come with him, and when they had left, silence descended over the prison.

Chapter Thirteen

Footsteps sounded above Danilo. He flicked his ears in that direction, but with the smells of his ordeal still strong in his muzzle, the still air of the prison brought him no scent. He knew who it was, though, even before the grey wolf spoke. “Move yourself, halfie,” LeSevre said.

The tiger extended his claws. “Come make me,” he growled.

LeSevre paused, his short ears sweeping back, eyes narrowing. Then he aimed a swift kick at Danilo’s groin.

Danilo jerked himself to the side, catching the kick on the side of his thigh. He slammed against the wall at the base of the stairs heading up, twisting to strike it with his shoulders rather than his hips. The impact stabbed upwards at his groin, and he slumped against the wall, protecting his crotch with a paw, and gritted his teeth.

LeSevre strutted past him, laughing. Danilo actually lifted his other paw, claws out, and then dropped it to his side. Not here, not now.

He waited until he heard the door close, and then a few moments longer until his stomach and groin settled. His legs, though wobbly, supported him, and he made his way out into the main guard room.

None of the guards paid him any attention or offered him any help. He pushed the heavy door open by himself, unable to restrain a moan, and stumbled out into the street.

The walk back to the seminary was torture. Where it had taken him perhaps twenty minutes to walk to the prison the previous night, this afternoon he scraped his way along the rough streets, and in twenty minutes had barely gotten to the turn off of Rue St. Bartholème. Every irregularity that tripped him up was another flare of pain, and the pain spread from his groin up to his abdomen as well. He made his way across the bridge by holding on to the railing, and this time the water below brought back only the memory of how cool and refreshing it had been to swim in it. He stopped for five or ten or twenty minutes, just watching the water flow by beneath him, before he pushed himself along the bridge again.

Now the stares from people who passed him took on a different tone, a penetrating curiosity. They could see that he was a halfie, certainly. They were used to mutilated people stumbling down the street, people like Luc had been some months ago, like Coumier must have walked around after his castration, and they pitied and hated him. The faces leered up at him, accusing eyes and bared teeth, flattened ears and flared nostrils. He shied away from them, his own ears lying flat, paws moving from the front of his hips to the sides, and then moving back to the front when pain surged there again. If his body was a temple of the Holy Spirit, as the Bishop had said, then it was a decaying, crumbling structure that any sensible worshipper would flee before the whole thing came down around their ears.

By the time he reached the seminary, the sun was halfway down the sky and Danilo was panting, sweating so much that his paws left wet smears on everything they touched. He stumbled in the front door and heard the wolf still lecturing in the first floor room. Beyond the lecture room, the stairs to the second floor loomed, and Danilo just stood and stared at them.

He trudged into the lecture room and collapsed into an empty seat at the back as carefully as he could. The wolf lowered his arm with a susurration of his priest’s robes and paused in mid-sentence, his ears flicking. His tone chilled. “Will you be leaving our lessons at noon to meet with the Bishop every day?”

The other students turned to look at him. Danilo’s relief at being able to sit, at the strain in his abdomen lightening, weakened him so that he couldn’t answer for a moment, and then he whispered, “At least the day after tomorrow.”

The students made rustling noises, not talking but exchanging looks. The priest frowned, and then walked to the back of the room, nostrils flaring. “Are you well—merciful Savior!” He stopped two steps away. “What has been done to you?”

“I just…want to sit…” Danilo waved a paw, intending to tell the priest to go on with his lecture. “Until you’re done.”

“You smell of blood. Were you attacked on the way back?”

“No,” Danilo murmured. “The Archbishop…”

The room went still. He barely noticed. “…punished…Bishop…sent me back.”

The priest stood and stared down at him. His nostrils flared again, and then his whiskers twitched. “Laurent, Halbert,” he said sharply. “Help Danilo to his room. Guillaume, bring water.”

The students leapt to action. The lynx and fox hurried to Danilo’s side and lifted him gently upright. His wound protested, but with their support, he managed the stairs and the hallway to his room, where they lowered him to the bed. He sank gratefully to the straw pallet, and then the priest’s arm was behind his shoulders, holding him gently upright, and someone else was tipping a wooden mug to his lips. “Drink,” the wolf said, and Danilo, grateful to be in the charge of someone who cared, obeyed.

Water flooded his muzzle, lukewarm and musty, but he gulped it down until the cup was empty. “More,” the priest commanded, “and the rest of you, leave the room.”

The room emptied, and the wolf bent to Danilo’s ear. “Whatever punishment was levied against you, I will not enquire. Your crime has been expiated and is between you and God.”

Danilo nodded, leaning into the wolf to communicate his gratitude. A moment later, there was more water, and then there was solitude and stillness, and then sleep.

*

He woke needing to pee. Holding it in was painful, the clenching of those muscles, so he fumbled at his pants as he crawled out of bed. The clean chamberpot rattled as he bumped into it; he positioned himself on all fours over it and pushed the bandages down enough to let his sheath hang free. Still, it took him a moment to mentally relax enough to pee into a pot on the floor. When he did, his body sagged, and the warm smell of urine reached his nostrils.

It sounded as though he’d gotten it all into the pot, at least. Well, he thought, that was one way to get used to using a chamberpot. He reseated the bandages and then, in the dim light, saw a cup of water that had been left by his bed. He drank it down almost to the bottom, then remembered that the surgeon-barber polecat had moistened the poultice he’d applied to Danilo’s scar. With care and not a little wincing, Danilo shifted the bandages around to pour the remaining water onto the now-dry cloth, then replaced it next to his scar.

He thought that the pain was a little better. He was able to run a finger over his scar and feel only lingering soreness from the skin. The internal pain still hurt, and now his mind wondered if the priest could tell he was a halfie, if the speech had been made out of pity rather than honesty. Could all the students see that he’d been half-castrated? He put a paw on his stomach, fearing he might vomit up the water. If he did ever get back to his own time—a possibility that now seemed as remote as getting his stolen testicle back—how would he ever be intimate with anyone? For that matter, how would he ever be intimate here? He remembered Luc’s half-full sac; if Maria had seen that, she would have laughed at him and pushed him out of her bed.

If celibacy were to be his future, then the seminary might be the best place. He did not want to stay here, to learn to be part of the Church that had just done this to him, but his only other choice was to starve on the street or drown himself in the Saone.

A sharp tapping intruded on his melancholy. He craned his neck to the window and saw a rodent’s muzzle silhouetted against the dim night sky. A finger pointed downward.

Danilo frowned. The finger paused, waiting for him to react, and when he did not, it pointed down again.

He rolled carefully out of bed and crawled to the window. Did the mouse want him to open it? He pushed his claws around the edge, but could not find a way to open the window.

The muzzle moved closer to the glass. “Meet me in the street.” The words came faintly through the glass, but Danilo nodded to show he’d understood. The silhouette disappeared.

It occurred to him, as he winced his way down the stairs at a snail’s pace, that it might not be advisable to just go meet a random person in the street. But by the time he’d completed this thought, Danilo was already two thirds of the way down the stairs, and to reverse his decision would mean going back up. No doubt if he did that, the rodent would just climb back up and wake him up in about half an hour to demand he come downstairs again. And whatever he faced in the street—rescue, prison, death—it would at least be different from a lifetime in the church.

No torches burned in the lobby, and silence filled it. Danilo had extended his claws to help his purchase on the wooden stairs; now he retracted them to pad across the stone floor. The large door through which he’d first come only that morning now stood closed and barred with a heavy wooden timber. He lifted the timber, bracing himself against the wall and lifting with his arms, and the timber slid through the metal supports. It wobbled for a moment and then fell to the floor with a thud that echoed through the silent room.

Danilo stood and stared at it, and while he was trying to work out what to do, the door opened and a narrow mouse’s nose poked in. “Are you well?”

He stared. “No,” he said finally.

“No, I suppose not.” The mouse craned his neck to look behind Danilo. “Are you well enough to walk?”

He was tired, but the scent finally filtered through to his nose, the earthy farm smell and the cheese on the mouse’s breath. “Taye?”

Théodore nodded once. “Aye. Can you come with me?”

“I thought…”

The mouse hissed. “I have spoken to—a friend who knows the sacrifice you made. I—I am sorry for how I acted earlier, but believe me when I say it was justified. I did not know—but now I wish to help you, to make amends.” When Danilo still did not move, Théodore clacked his tongue impatiently. “Danilo.”

The tiger blinked and focused on the mouse. “I’m sorry. It hurts, and I’m so tired.”

“I can help. Come with me, and I will explain. If at the end of the explanation, you do not wish my help, then I will lead you back here. I promise.”

Part of him thought it was not a good idea to go off in the middle of the night with a mouse who climbed walls in the middle of the night and had pushed him away just that afternoon. But another part of him… “You know what they did to me?” The mouse’s eyes narrowed, and he nodded. “What they intend to do to Luc?” Another nod. “And you’re going to help us?”

Théodore’s eyebrows creased. “Us? I will help you.”

“Luc?”

The mouse shook his head slowly. Danilo nodded and took a step back. “Oh, come now,” Théodore said. “There’s naught to be done for him. What would you do, break into St. Bartholème’s prison? You’ll end up there yourself.”

“If you will not help Luc and myself,” Danilo said, “then what I did was for nothing.”

Théodore’s dark eyes, so like Taye’s and yet harder, searched his. “Very well,” he said. “Very well. Come along, we will see what may be done.”

*

The walk through the streets was not as painful. Théodore insisted he drink from a bottle that proved to contain wine, and the sharp sting of alcohol and the subsequent warmth it brought dulled the edge of the pain. But already Danilo was growing used to it; or else it was indeed lessening. With Théodore’s help, he walked more quickly than before, away from the Saone and toward the Rhône, into a crowded part of town he was not familiar with.

The mouse stopped in front of a narrow building crammed between several other identical buildings. Even outside, Danilo could smell the thick scent of rodents, and when Théodore opened the door and ushered him in, the scent drowned out even the wine. Théodore pushed him past a doorway through which he saw a wide open space filled with sleeping mice, straw visible between them. And then he was on stairs, hissing with pain, and Théodore was hissing back an apology.

“Guests who are not mice are only allowed on the upper floors and then only during daylight hours.” He helped Danilo up to the second floor and then out into a hallway that crooked and jagged like a maze, passing door after unmarked door until he pushed one open and pulled Danilo inside.

Chamber-pot smell and Théodore himself dominated the room, about twice as large as Danilo’s at the seminary. The mouse guided him to a low bed and had him sit, and then picked up a pewter cup from a small side table. “Drink water,” he said. “How is the pain?”

“Worst on the stairs. It’s just an ache now.”

Théodore nodded as Danilo took a drink. “Good. You are not as young as I was, but you heal quickly.”

The cool night and water had awoken Danilo, but he was still tired. “Surgery takes days to recover from,” he said. “But they’re going to kill Luc the day after tomorrow.”

“Yes.” The mouse dropped to the floor, and his shoulders slumped.

“So what can we do to help him?”

In the dim room, the mouse’s muzzle drooped into shadow. He rested his arms on his knees and swept his thin tail back and forth across the floor. “Let us worry about helping you, first.”

“The water helped.” Danilo took another drink, emptying the cup. “I’m better.”

Théodore’s eyes glinted as he turned his muzzle. “I’m going to fetch a lantern and then we will make sure. Remain here.”

“Wait.” Danilo held up a paw as the mouse stood. Théodore looked down at him, small ears flicking. The tiger took a breath. “Excuse me, but I really don’t want to be left alone.” Yes, it was Taye, but Taye would never have walked away from him the previous afternoon.

The mouse’s eyebrows rose. “You are safe here. It is not advisable for you to be out in the corridors.”

“You said the second floor was okay.”

“During daylight hours.”

Danilo rested his paws on his thighs. His tail flicked against the bed. “Please,” he said.

Théodore sighed, and then stepped toward the door and gestured for Danilo to follow.

He padded as quietly as he could down the hallway after Théodore, watched while the mouse hurried down a stairwell to a fire and picked up a lantern, and then padded back. The house was full of the rasp of low breathing and the smell of a crowd of sleeping mice. Danilo had never been in a small space filled with so many people, and even though none of them were in the second floor hallway, the proximity made him nervous, his tail flicking back and forth all the way back to Théodore’s room.

The mouse set the lantern on the table. “Please lower your trousers.”

“Er.” Danilo stood next to the bed. “I just had—”

“I know,” Théodore said. “I want to make sure it is healing properly.”

“Oh.” Danilo’s paws hesitated and then fumbled at his pants. “You know,” he said, “Four days ago, I hadn’t taken my pants off in front of anyone I wasn’t related to.”

The mouse raised an eyebrow as the cloth fell to the floor. “You have indeed lived a virtuous life.”

“Not by choice.” Danilo’s modesty was preserved by the bandages, barely, but Théodore’s manner was so clinical that he felt no arousal, and very little embarrassment, even when the mouse’s paws pushed him gently to the bed. He winced and sat, and spread his legs.

Gentle fingers plucked at the bandages, lifting them away from the poultice. Danilo leaned back and closed his eyes, trying to remain calm as the mouse’s fingers brushed the fur of his inner thigh, and then removed the poultice. A glow behind his eyelids showed him when Théodore brought the lantern closer.

The cool air felt good on his balls, and when the mouse’s finger traced delicately down his sac, too lightly to cause pain, he shivered and did feel the first stirring of arousal. He tried to think of other things, but when he did, his mind went to the last time someone had touched his balls, and then he had to restrain himself from squeezing his legs shut.

“Relax yourself,” Théodore told him, and he thought it would be a miracle if he could relax, and that made him think of saints and miracles. Épipode, interred beneath the altar of a church now named for another saint. What miracles had he performed? Danilo would have to ask the wolf lecturing them.

The mouse’s paws cupped his sac, hefting it. The strange lightness made him queasy. What was the other saint? Pothinus. Pothinus was Saint Viagra. Now that was a miracle. That would be a miracle for him now. After that surgery, he would need some kind of divine intervention to have sex again at all. Even the concept was—well, not repulsive—actually, it was somewhat appealing, but then, he was still a teenager, and he supposed it would take a lot to remove his interest in sex.

Théodore’s paw remained around his sac, his thumb and finger rubbing at the base of Danilo’s shaft. The tiger stirred. “Are you still…?”

“Shh,” the mouse said. “This is necessary.”

“But I’m…” He didn’t need to say it. The mouse could see or feel the hardness as well as Danilo could feel the air of the room on his now-exposed tip.

“Shh,” Théodore said again. Now his fingers were definitely moving up Danilo’s sheath, squeezing, pressing upward gently. “Tell me if this hurts.”

It did, a little, but mostly it was the tugging on the sutures, and Théodore’s paw very skillfully drew down his sheath and slid up and down Danilo’s shaft, which did not pull on the incision much at all. There was another ache, one down in his balls, but he could ignore it, just as he’d ignored the patch he’d rubbed raw on his shaft jerking off that year he was in Lower Sixth. After, it had hurt like bloody hell, nearly literally, and he’d sworn off masturbation for the rest of the year (actually, it had ended up being four days).

This didn’t hurt nearly that badly, but it was a deeper pain inside, the kind he didn’t have any experience with. It was almost like a muscle pull or a deep bruise, but at a small point. And that point receded, overwhelmed by the growing arousal that pumped around and over it.

“Taye,” he gasped, and despite the close quarters, the smell of the chamber pot, and the soreness in his groin, he thought for a moment that he was in Taye’s small room at the Université. If he closed his eyes, he could even picture that polo shirt the mouse wore, the one with the blue and yellow stripes.

Danilo gasped and gripped the bed. The mouse stroked more urgently, up Danilo’s full length, and the tiger shuddered. One of his legs spasmed, stamping the floor until Théodore gripped it in one arm without losing a beat. And then the arousal gathered, then there was a sharper pain but it didn’t last, and his muscles all tightened, and his climax came rushing through him. He clamped his muzzle shut, keeping himself silent as he spurted out onto the mouse’s waiting paw.

His body shuddered and jumped and sparked, and then he felt the orgasm drain away. He slumped back onto the bed, panting. And then pain clenched him like a fist around his midsection puncturing it with extended claws. “Ah God!” he hissed, drawing his knees up and doubling over.

Théodore pulled his paw away. “It will pass in a few moments. Do you need to vomit?”

Danilo clenched his jaw shut as the mouse moved toward the lantern and held his paw to it. “Nnn,” the tiger forced out through his teeth. The fist’s claws had withdrawn. Slowly, the throbbing flames in his gut were diminishing. “No. Why?” Talking made his stomach unstable, stirred up the searing again, so he stopped.

“It will hurt for a few days.” Théodore peered down at his paw. “There is no blood. Good. I thought not, but it is best to be sure.”

“Blood?” Danilo turned his head to stare blearily at the silhouetted mouse. He had the urge to reach out and either hit him or hug him, but he was standing too far, and he dared not move lest the pain surge again.

“Aye, betimes the operation leaves one with bloody humors.” Théodore wiped his paw clean on a scrap of cloth, then patted Danilo on the knee.. “Well, you’re in good health.”

“Once I can breathe.” Words were easier now, the fire faded to a dull ache. The mouse’s words sounded so clinical that Danilo was almost embarrassed to have just come in his paw. But Taye was his friend, and Théodore appeared to be as well. He reached out and set a paw on the slender shoulder. “So you’ll take me back now?”

“Back?” The mouse shook his head. “My God, no. You’ll stay here tonight, and at dawn we will take the cart south to my farm. You have done kitchen work, you can do farm work. It will be safe and peaceful.”

Danilo reached down to clean off his dripping cock, and out of habit, licked his fingers clean. He lowered his legs and took a breath. “I’m not going south. I don’t care about the danger.”

“You think LeSevre will be happy to leave you with just one testicle?”

“He tried to kick me right after they took it.” Danilo cupped his paw protectively over his sac.

Théodore nodded. “It does not surprise me. That one is evil to his core. If any are possessed by demons…” He patted Danilo’s knee again. “There is nothing you can do. If you stay, you will be marked, and they will come for you again. Perhaps you have simply had drinks with a friend. Perhaps someone has a grudge against you and wishes you punished. It takes very little to fall afoul of Cobb’s guard.”

“What about Lukin?”

“The bishop?” Théodore tilted his head. “What about him? He goes along with it all.”

“Yes.” Danilo put the poultice back in place, because his balls ached again. “But they aren’t his men, even though LeSevre must be below him in rank.”

The mouse stared at Danilo. “You are exhausted and you have had one of your testicles removed today. Perhaps we can reserve the analysis for a lazy evening on the farm.” The paw on Danilo’s knee rubbed. “There will be pleasant evenings. Winter nights when the fire is warm.”

“What about Luc?”

Théodore dipped his head. “I have not forgotten my promise. If you leave at dawn, I will help him.”

“And then he can come south to the farm as well?”

The fingers on Danilo’s thigh stopped their rubbing and gripped his knee. “Danilo,” Théodore said gently, “I can help him escape the pyre, but not the prison.”

“I don’t understand.” He was tired, and sore, and more peevish than he wanted to be. After all, Théodore had just given him a clean bill of health (and a friendly orgasm), even if it had hurt like hell, and was going to help him get away from the city.

The mouse sighed and fumbled at his waist before lifting a knife to Danilo’s eye level. “I can ambush them as they bring him from the prison to the amphitheater. I am quick; he will die in minutes, before they can burn him.”

Chapter Fourteen

“You’re going to kill him?”

“It is all I can do!” Théodore sheathed the knife and stood, walking away from Danilo. “Do you not think I have wanted to free all those they have taken? The guards would be upon us in moments. But I can throw a knife from a concealed location, and I can run up, stab, and vanish. Luc will be bound; he has no way to run or escape. I can spare him a painful death, but not death itself.”

“You can’t—there has to be some way—”

“There is none.” Théodore’s eyes gleamed black in the lantern light. Danilo could almost see his face in them. “Believe me.”

“Wait. The fox said…he said the Archbishop comes to administer to the condemned the night before their execution. And he said most of the guards leave during that time. We could go then and rescue him. That’s tomorrow night!”

Théodore shook his head again. “I have never heard of that happening. Anyway, even if it did, the door will still be guarded; the Archbishop would not leave himself alone with the prisoners. And if you did break in, what would you do? Kill the Archbishop? They will not allow you to escape that crime. You will be hunted even if you return to Firenza.”

“Of course not. But you could sneak in, hide, wait until the Archbishop leaves…”

“And then? Walk out the front door with prisoner in tow?”

Of course not. Théodore could not do that. But Danilo, now, maybe Danilo could. “I have been there in association with the Bishop and Archbishop. I could perhaps take Luc out.”

“Very unlikely. Even then you would need some token of authority. A signed order, something of that nature.”

Danilo pulled his pants up. “I have a day,” he said. “I will see what may be done.”

The mouse got to his feet and looked down as Danilo fastened the tie at the front of his pants, gingerly. “Every day you remain in the city, you put yourself at risk. If you attempt to help Luc, you will only succeed in damning yourself to the same fate.”

“I have to try.” Danilo strained to keep his eyes open. “Please take me back to the seminary. I promise, if I cannot figure out a way to help Luc by tomorrow morning, I will come with you.”

“You’re a fool.” But Théodore spoke gently, and he turned to sit on the bed next to Danilo. “You have known Luc less than a week. What do you owe him?”

“It’s because of me he was captured. What he did with Bertrand—”

“Luc is indiscreet and a fool,” the mouse said. “Do not blame yourself for his plight. If it had not been with Bertrand himself, it would have been with someone else. Why do you think Bertrand behaved so badly? Luc brought some of his other friends back to the Répos, until Bertrand made him stop.”

“Still—”

“If you save him, he will only be captured again. Tigue is a busy city in which Luc could easily hide himself if he had the inclination to do so. So far, he has not.”

“He saved my life.” Danilo exhaled. “I’ve never had someone put himself in harm’s way for me. It wasn’t just pulling me from the river. He gave me a place to live, brought me to St. Nizier’s…I might have starved.”

“You would not have starved.” The mouse folded his paws in his lap. “You were sent here to see someone in the church. You would have found him regardless of what we did.”

The tiger turned his head to breathe in Théodore’s scent, to see the glint of the mouse’s eyes on him. In the dark, silent room, he felt again that he could easily have been sitting with Taye at the Université. “I might not have,” he said. “I was not really sent here to study with the church. I am a student, but…I came here by accident.”

Théodore nodded, slowly. “You seemed unusually lost. I thought you might be disoriented from falling in the river. Then where were you bound?”

Danilo clasped his paws together. The temptation to tell him, to transfer the trust he had in Taye to this sixteenth century mouse, pulled at him. But Théodore’s talk of witches made him hesitate. “I was…I believe I may have been under a witch’s curse.”

“Oh?” Now the mouse straightened. “What might you have done to run afoul of a witch?”

Here Danilo again felt lost. Witches, how did one make a witch angry? “I don’t know,” he said honestly.

The mouse rubbed his whiskers. “And why should I help you, if I might by doing so also place myself in harm’s way?”

“Whatever witch did this,” Danilo said hurriedly, unwilling to lose his only remaining friend and ally, “is far, far from here.”

Théodore’s laugh, loud and unexpected in the quiet dark room, made Danilo jump. “I see,” he said. “Witches are fickle, it is true. Even so, why should I guide you back? Why do you think you can succeed in this city where you are a stranger at a task that not even those who know Tigue well would attempt, you who have already been cursed once?”

The tiger smiled and held up his arm, letting the sleeve of Luc’s tunic fall back. In the night, his white fur shone. “Because here, I am not cursed. I am blessed,” he said.

*

Théodore walked him back and agreed to meet him again the following morning, at St. Nizier’s before Lauds. Danilo’s groin ached again all the way back, but when Guillaume rapped on his door to wake him for Lauds, much of the pain had faded, though the weight of the poultice would have reminded him of his ordeal even had the pain completely vanished.

He had asked Théodore for advice, and the mouse had told him only that the surest way to release Luc was to have a letter signed and sealed by Archbishop Argile. Danilo had a better rapport with the Bishop—though he regarded them both as equally evil—but Théodore said the bishop wasn’t in charge of the prisoners. “Even with the letter, I do not like your chances,” he said, “but without it you have none.”

So Danilo would have to explore the Archbishop’s quarters somehow, would have to find the Archbishop’s seal and forge his signature, and would have to present them at a time that would not arouse suspicion. This was not as difficult as it might have been for most of Tigue’s people; for one thing, Danilo could read and write. For another, he had seen multiple spy movies, which was probably not as useful as he’d hoped it would be, but at least gave him some confidence.

But he also held out hope that he could sneak in while the Archbishop was visiting Luc on the night before his execution, could somehow take advantage of the guards’ absence to get Luc out of the prison altogether.

After Lauds at St. Nizier, where he looked for but did not see Anita, he expected another lecture in the morning. His fellow students, who had treated him with great care and a little bit of wonder, told him that today was a work day. The priest directed him to a small copying room where they sat for hours, through the strike of noon and a simple lunch of bread and cheese that was becoming depressingly familiar to Danilo. He asked questions about the Archbishop’s quarters as innocently as he could, but gained no information other than the location, a street between the Cathédrale and the amphitheater. Wonderful, Danilo thought, and I have to go from there to the prison. All of his least favorite locations were on the north side of the Saone.

The instruction in calligraphy and illumination, with the accompanying manuscripts, would itself have been interesting if he had not had so much else on his mind. Several times the priest had to explain a point of calligraphy to him, or ask him to repeat an exercise, while Danilo thought of excuses to enter the Archbishop’s house or ways to explain his presence there if he were discovered.

“Well,” the priest said with a weary smile, keeping his ears up, “that was a good first day. I understood you had been trained in churches?”

“Yes.” Danilo was getting better at thinking on his feet in this world. “My father paid my way elsewhere, but he is gone—my money is gone—so I have not worked before.”

“Ah.” The wolf patted his arm. “You show promise. Come, dine with me and your fellow students. We are a small island of education in this world and we should all know each other.”

“I, er—”

“I will not accept a refusal.” The priest smiled at him. “You have been part of our seminary for two days and your fellow students know you only as the blessed tiger who speaks with the Bishop and…” His eyes flicked down to Danilo’s lap and his voice faltered. “And was…was wounded?”

Danilo’s ears flushed and lay flat to his head. “I don’t want to—I mean, I don’t feel able to talk about it right now,” he said.

The wolf nodded. “It would do your fellow students good to see that you are a person just as they are, no matter how you were wounded or with whom you hold conversations. You should talk to them about your home, about your love of God, how you first came to the Church, and other matters you might have in common.”

“I have an errand…”

The wolf closed his paw around Danilo’s wrist. “You still must eat, must you not? Come, show your fellow students who you are and begin to build bonds with them.”

Danilo wanted to ask when the Archbishop was accustomed to eat, but the closest he could come was a halting, “Does the Archbishop ever eat with us?” to which the wolf laughed and told him that a dinner with the Archbishop was a rare prize bestowed only on those who had given great service to the Church, which did not really answer his question.

At dinner, the students welcomed him with small talk until one of them asked what had happened to him. Danilo, who had been thinking about how to cover this since he could not stop fidgeting as he sat, showed them the rip in his tunic and told them he’d been accosted by a thief and stabbed. “It heals,” he said. “I feel much better today.” And he did, although he had been sitting all day. Inactivity and rest had been good for his injuries.

Though Danilo suspected that the priest knew the real nature of his injury, the wolf met his guilty look with a serene smile and did not contradict him. And after all, Danilo reasoned, it was not a lie, except perhaps of omission. Still, he was glad when the topic of his wound had passed, and the priest joined in the conversation.

By the time the students had finished the meal and the post-meal conversation, the sun had set. However, as it was the first real meal he’d sat and eaten with people in days, Danilo did not mind overmuch. The other students were earnest, pleasant company, and he left the meal thinking that it had reminded him of meals at the Université—with slightly less religion, actually, than the students in 2008. Here, it permeated life and came up naturally in conversation. Five hundred years from now, people felt compelled to call attention to their religion so that it would show against the secular world that had encroached so heavily upon it.

Besides, he thought as he walked up to his room, his groin paining him more with every step, the later it was, the more chance the Archbishop would be asleep and his study empty. He lay down on his bed, intending to rest only for a few minutes, as long as it would take the watchmen below to seal the doors, but the long day and the food in his belly had worn him out, and when he woke with a start from his bed, the moon shone through a black night sky outside his window.

Cursing, Danilo scrambled from his bed and then cursed again as pain stabbed up through his abdomen. Théodore might have proven that he had no lasting damage, but he would’ve given anything for a bottle of Advil right about now.

He hobbled his way down the stairs. As he descended, either the pain grew less or he grew used to it. Either way, he was able to un-bar the door and slip outside into the street. He couldn’t figure out how to bar the door from the outside, but he expected to be back within the hour.

From the seminary to the archbishop’s quarters, the streets were somewhat busy with nocturnals, if less crowded than during the day. He stayed out of narrow alleys, out of shadows, and anytime a shadow near him moved, he hurried along, wincing. Many people glanced at his tall, white figure, but none stopped him. The moon cast enough light for him to see easily, so even in his injured state, it took him little time to find the street upon which the Archbishop resided.

Humbler than the Bishop’s offices, it must have been, for the street consisted of a row of a dozen well-kept houses, none more exceptional than the last. Danilo frowned. He’d expected the Archbishop’s residence to be as ostentatious as the Bishop’s. Now he would have to inspect each one.

He’d just approached the corner of the first when the noise of a door opening made him duck around the corner. He peeked around and froze where he stood.

Out of one of the houses in the middle of the street, a tall, broad goat strode in a uniform similar to that of LeSevre and his men. And behind him, in a plain brown robe—

It was Argile—the Archbishop. It had to be. He wore a hood and had wrapped his antlers, but Danilo knew Cobb, knew how he strutted and how he carried himself, and there was no doubt in his mind.

The Archbishop followed the goat down the street toward the house Danilo was currently hiding behind. The tiger gasped and shrank back behind the wall, hoping the shadow would conceal him. For the first time, he wished he’d actually used some of the money he’d been offered to buy new clothes. His white fur caught the moon’s light and broadcast his location to anyone who would turn his way.

His breathing hissed through the night air as footsteps marched down the street toward him. He watched the pale goat and the dark hooded Archbishop come into view, draw level with him…and walk on by without turning their heads to either side.

They must be going to the prison, he realized. This would be the ideal time for him to enter the house, enter the study, and find a letter. But as he watched the Archbishop round the corner, he wondered why the stag would go about concealed. If he were going to meet Luc the night before his execution, why would he not go in full regalia?

Curiosity gnawed at Danilo. He could go, see where the Archbishop was headed, and then hurry back here with plenty of time to find a letter. And the longer he hesitated…

He rose from a crouch and pressed a paw to his sore groin. He had the Archbishop to thank for that, and if the stag were going somewhere he didn’t want people to know about, then Danilo certainly wanted to be in on that secret.

Chapter Fifteen

For the four blocks Danilo followed the Archbishop to the prison, neither the stag nor goat looked even to either side, much less behind them, and the few other people on the deserted streets they walked paid them just as little mind. Danilo could have walked boldly ten feet behind, claws sheathed so his footfalls would not sound on the cobblestoned streets, and they would have been none the wiser. But he lurked a good way farther behind, waiting until they’d turned or moved on ahead and then hurrying to catch up. Once he caught his foot on an uneven stone in the street, jarring his whole body, and he had to clamp a paw over his mouth to muffle his curse.

The looming prison at the top of the uphill road came into view before the smell hit him again. Now he had been inside the smell, and he could pick out disease and blood and the musk of the prisoners from the wave of stench as he drew closer. This street was completely deserted; he supposed that few people had business near the prison at this time of night, and none wanted to be close to the smell of misery and desperation.

Argile and his guard stopped at the small, dark house just before the prison. They half-turned, and Danilo shrank back, aware now of how much more noticeable he was in the empty street. When he looked out again, only the goat was visible.

Where had Argile gone?

The goat walked into the prison, leaving the street empty. Danilo hurried up to the house and sniffed at the door. There was the scent of stag—although there was no trace of the smell of fine cloth, of oils and incense, the smells Danilo had caught on Argile when he’d seen him the previous day. If he did not know the Archbishop, he would have thought there was nothing remarkable about that scent. But he knew that smell, remembered it from the elk leaning over him in the study room days and a lifetime ago, and his claws extended into the wood of the door frame.

The door of the prison opened again, and guards stepped out into the street. In a panic, Danilo pushed on the door, and despite the metal-plated lock, it opened easily. Danilo slipped inside and closed it softly, shutting out the murmur of conversation from the guards outside. No windows opened out toward the prison, only the street, and those shutters were tightly closed. Then he heard footsteps approaching from the direction of the prison.

Danilo’s eyes hadn’t quite adjusted to the darkness, but he hurried farther into the house as fast as he felt comfortable. It appeared to be deserted, any furniture long since scavenged, and many of the floorboards had been pulled up, leaving patches of bare dirt that were cool under his paws. He was standing just beside the rotted wood stairs that had once led to the upper story when the front door creaked open.

From where he was, he couldn’t see who entered the house. The door closed again and the person shuffled about and then exhaled. Whoever it was, he didn’t seem interested in exploring—but Danilo could hear him breathe and move, and that meant that if Danilo didn’t move on cat-silent feet, he too would be heard. Most likely, he thought, this was the goat soldier, guarding the house against any entry. Lucky, lucky, Danilo had been, to creep in during the one moment the house had been unobserved.

He crept slowly along the floor, thankful for the dirt patches he could now see that were guaranteed to be quieter. In the last room, he found a staircase that led down into blackness. There was no scent of stag on them that he could detect, apart from the scent that hung throughout the house, but there was nowhere else for the Archbishop to have gone. Danilo listened to the silent house, and then carefully descended the stairs.

Here, smells of damp earth and mildew came to him a moment before he stepped off a rotting wooden landing and onto dirt. And still, compared to the streets above, this tunnel smelled surprisingly clean. He navigated the darkness by his whiskers, feeling the walls close on either side of him. The house was close to the prison, yes, with its terrible smells, and yet it stood empty while many Tiguans slept in the streets. Nobody had taken up residence here.

Every few moments, he stopped to listen. The tunnel remained silent, and he took a few more steps forward through it. He must be out from under the house now, and unless his sense of direction was off, he was somewhere under the prison. And it was the next time he stopped that he heard faint whispering ahead of him.

He crept forward and found himself at the base of a narrow spiral stair. The whispering came from above, but it was remote, and as he listened, it stopped. Here on the stair, he caught Argile/Cobb’s scent again, lightly. Slowly, he made his way up the tight stone spiral.

At the top of the stair, he pushed up on a light wooden trap door. The air in the dark space beyond held a whiff of blood, and it set his heart to racing. As he emerged into an open space, he didn’t need to see the curtain to know where he was.

Keeping his eyes in front of him, he stepped around the curtain and deliberately did not look at the bloodstained table where he’d lain just the day before, where the smell of his own blood no doubt still lingered. Despite his attempts to ignore it, it intruded on his awareness, until he felt it was creeping closer to him as he crept across the floor of the empty room.

Abandoning caution, he hurried to the door and through it, heart beating. At the stone landing on the first floor, he stopped to listen to the silence of the prison, the guard room now empty, even the prisoners barely muttering—only the prison was not silent. From above, from the second floor, noises came, the Archbishop’s voice. Hearing confession, Danilo thought, but only for a split second. The tone of the stag’s voice did not resemble the soothing tone of a confessional priest; it was more like Cobb’s mocking growl. You want to suck both our dicks?

And then a moan, and Danilo hurried six steps up before stopping himself, his heart pounding faster than before, because the voice had been Luc’s. His groin ached, but he barely felt it. What if the Archbishop were carrying out the second punishment himself? No, that was ridiculous. In the dead of night?

The tiger forced himself to pad slowly and silently down the stairs, though his claws threatened to extend and click on the harsh stone. The sounds grew louder and more textured. Luc did not moan again, but Danilo thought he recognized the otter’s voice in harsh breaths that echoed down the hallway. Flickering light cast grotesque shadows on the wall as he neared it, creeping past cells where prisoners huddled, sleeping or ignoring what was going on. One cell’s occupant sat upright, listening, but either he was turned away from Danilo or the tiger was invisible in the shadowy corridor.

The Archbishop spoke smoothly as Danilo drew closer, but with strain behind each word. “Do you accept the word of the Lord?”

And now there was no denying the sounds Danilo was hearing, wet sliding sounds and grunts of discomfort from Luc, grunts of pleasure from the stag. The shadows on the wall moved with a rhythm deeper and more primal than the ephemeral flickers of the light casting them.

The tiger crept to the edge of the cell, trying to keep to the shadow, and peered around the edge. There he saw Argile’s gleaming white body, naked, the stag’s muzzle twisted into a smile of savage ecstasy, one hand firmly between Luc’s shoulderblades holding the otter to the floor, the other holding his tail aside as those thick, muscled hips thrust beneath it.

Danilo shrank back, paws covering his muzzle. Now the shadows, which previously had seemed arcane and obscure, revealed to him every movement. The Archbishop said, “Then…the Word…shall be…given you.”

The last words were spoken in a throaty, orgasmic rush. “Foul demon!” he cried. “Ah! I have heard your cries…and I will…ensure that your captive soul rises to Heaven even as we send you back to Hell.”

The shadows stopped their movement. Silence beat on Danilo’s ears. “Bless you, my son,” the stag said, and the grotesque double shadow split and wavered. Cloth rustled; he was getting dressed.

If Danilo were to get Luc out, he would have to find the keys, then hide while the Archbishop left, then wait for the guards to be away. He could do this. He just had to try to do it without seeing again the image that replayed over and over in his head: the sleek, muscled stag raping the smaller otter.

*

The first floor was as quiet as the second; quieter, as there were no priests performing unholy rituals. Danilo headed for the guard room, hoping to find keys there. Now it all became clear: the Archbishop took advantage of condemned prisoners because they would never be able to tell anyone what he did, and would not be believed, probably, if they tried. He ordered the guards removed on some pretext, and he entered the prison via a secret passage. That passage, Danilo realized, could get Luc out, if only they didn’t lock the door—

“Halfie!”

The deep voice rang out in the stone corridor. Danilo spun to his left and came face to face with a black-and-white striped muzzle. “Filthy foreigner,” it spat. “You wish to spread your misfortune?”

In this unfamiliar context, it took Danilo a moment. “Bertrand?” he whispered.

“They will never dare touch me. They mean only to frighten me. They will not make me one of you.” The badger’s eyes burned.

“Shh!” Danilo waved the badger quiet. He was tempted to linger and take in the sight of the foul innkeeper behind bars, but he needed to hurry. And he was not prepared for the realization that he had done this, that because of him, tomorrow Bertrand might be lying on the same table with the same knife making the same incision in his scrotum…because of Danilo.

His wound throbbed. He hurried away without saying anything, but Bertrand raised his voice. “Hey! Halfie! Hey!”

The badger’s cursed voice echoed through the prison. Ahead of Danilo, in the guard room, footsteps and voices sounded, approaching the same corner Danilo was hurrying toward.

He skidded and reversed direction, ran the other way for the staircase as silently as he could. When he passed Bertrand again, the badger said, “You’re not allowed to be here, are you?” but Danilo passed him without even attempting to make a reply. Behind him, the badger yelled, “He went that way! Guards! Guards!”

Dammit. Danilo’s only chance was to get back to the secret tunnel now. He made it to the stairs, the guards within earshot but not sight of him, thankfully. Heavy feet clomped on the stone behind him; he could feel their tread in the stone as his own light feet hurried from step to step. He reached the basement, and though he could not avoid looking at the table and its dark stains, he quelled the nausea and hurried behind the curtain.

There he stared at the shadows on the floor, trying to remember where the trapdoor had been. In the darkness, he couldn’t see the lines. But he’d come up through this corner—or was it that one? Desperate, he knelt and scrabbled at the boards.

None of them moved. The sound of the guards had receded, but for how long? He moved to another part of the floor behind the curtain, and here the boards felt hollow under his feet.

“Check the basement,” floated down the stair to him.

He pried at the boards, and wrenched the claw he’d twisted back in Bertrand’s kitchen, an injury that he’d completely forgotten about until pain flared again, but the board came up. He traced the edge of it, found the front, and lifted. The smell of dirt and mold had never been so welcome.

On the way back through the tunnel, he stopped. The goat soldier was probably still in the house, and Danilo had no way of getting past him. He could climb out one of the windows, but not without making a good deal of noise. And if he simply hid in the house—well, the bare house afforded nowhere to hide that he could recall. He could possibly risk climbing the rotting stair, but it was half gone already and he doubted it would hold his weight. The Archbishop would know that someone had broken into the prison, and when the guards failed to find anyone, he would suspect that that someone had followed his tunnel.

Or perhaps not. The Archbishop was bold or stupid enough to take this risk frequently, to come rape prisoners who were due to be executed. He might not conceive that anyone could find his secret tunnel. If Danilo could only find a place to hide until the Archbishop were gone, then he might, he might survive.

And now that he knew about the tunnel…his mind raced. He could sneak back into the prison, avoid the guards, find the key, bring Luc through the tunnel, and make good his escape. They could go to Théodore’s farm, live there happily.

He reached the stairs and turned to put his foot on the first, and then paused, staring up into the light of the house, and then through the steps at the blackness below the staircase. If there were room there, then the darkness would hide him best just next to the light.

There was, although he had to crawl over a support and wedge himself back into the corner. What little light there was came from above, and the stairs shielded him from it, enough, he hoped. The downside was that anyone coming along the tunnel would be staring directly at his hiding place. But the stairs were lit, though faintly, and Danilo couldn’t think of any better place to conceal himself.

If it weren’t for Bertrand, he wouldn’t have to hide at all. That damned badger and all he’d done—but, Danilo realized, Bertrand was in prison here because Danilo himself had told the church about him, had insisted they go arrest him. If he had done as Anita’d advised and left punishment to the Lord, he could possibly be hiding in the prison with a key, rather than desperately crouching here to avoid detection. Even when I try to do the right thing, I fuck it up, he thought miserably.

Minutes dragged by, agonizing, during which the pains in Danilo’s claw and groin reasserted themselves, making him squirm and shift. Stay still, he told himself sternly, but his balls itched and burned under the poultice, and his claw throbbed, and even the healing scar in his side now demanded his attention. He scratched it and then heard footsteps, and shrank into as small a figure as he could manage, held his breath, and ignored all the itching and pain to keep himself still. His tail flicked and he grabbed it in one paw.

In his brown cloak, the Archbishop walked down the tunnel. As he drew closer, Danilo squeezed his eyes shut so their shine wouldn’t be seen. The stag’s voice, low, muttering to himself, became audible as he approached, striding along the dirt path until he reached the base of the stairs, and there the muttering and footsteps both paused.

Danilo couldn’t hold his breath very much longer. He cracked an eye, and seeing only the brown cloak pooled around the Archbishop’s legs, opened both eyes. The stag drew a deep breath, said something in Latin, and then walked on up the stairs. Boards creaked and the tough nails of the stag’s feet rapped hollowly as the Archbishop ascended.

His footsteps receded above Danilo. The tiger exhaled and sucked in another breath, listening. It would likely take a few minutes to be sure that the house was clear. He shifted, scratching his side and letting his tail free.

He had just poked his head out from under the staircase when footsteps sounded again above him. He ducked back under the stair, knocking his head against the wood in his haste. He held his head, cursing silently, wondering whether the sound had been audible upstairs.

Moments later, hard-nailed feet clopped down the stairs. Danilo closed his eyes, feeling the motion around him, and then a hand closed around his arm.

Chapter Sixteen

Danilo’s eyes flew open—staring directly into the face of the goat soldier, eyes dark as empty sockets. The goat opened his mouth, but no words emerged, only grassy breath and a loud bleat. “Uhh! Uhh!”

Briefly, Danilo thought he might fight. But metal gleamed in the goat’s other hand, and pressed into the staircase as he was, the tiger was at a severe disadvantage. “All right,” he said, trying to keep calm. “I’m coming.”

The goat stepped back and allowed Danilo to clamber out, but held a blade at the ready. He might be an idiot, or a mute, or something, but he understood words and appeared to be a good fighter from the way he held the sword (was Danilo already noticing things like this?). He prodded Danilo with the point of the blade as the tiger walked up the stairs.

“I’m going, I’m going,” Danilo said, wondering if he could turn and knock the sword away before the goat could stab him, or knock the goat off the stairs. Probably not. Given his lack of any kind of training, if he were going to fight a soldier in 1508, his best bet would be to stab him in the back.

Right. Just like that. He sighed. As steeped in the violence of this world as he had become, he didn’t know if he could actually inflict an injury on someone else.

Of course you can, his mind said. Look what you did to Bertrand.

And then he walked through a doorway and saw the Archbishop there, stark white face surrounded by the simple brown cloak below and gleaming antlers above. “Ah,” Argile’s deep voice said. “Below the stairs, was he?”

“Aaah.”

“Excellent. Thank you, Dornier. You may have wine tonight.”

“Aaahh.”

“Danilo, was it not?” The stag fixed his eyes on the tiger’s. Danilo nodded once. “I hope you will understand why I must insist you accompany me back to my house.”

“I…” The blade poked him in the back again.

“If that is too much trouble,” Argile said, “I am certain we can arrange for you to return to the prison. Or Dornier would happily leave you right here.”

“Uhhh.”

“I’ll come,” Danilo said in a low voice. After all, he reasoned as the Archbishop showed him out the door, he’d wanted to get into that house anyway. Granted, he hadn’t wanted Argile to know that he’d been there, but at least he would get inside. Perhaps he could get the key that the Archbishop used to lock the door of the empty house; the stag had returned it to a small pocket in his cloak. Danilo could rescue Luc, or he could go back to his original plan of forging a letter. Now, of course, he had to rescue himself first.

“What—” he began, but the stag cut him off with a shushing sound before he could get another word out.

They walked back to the Archbishop’s house in silence. Danilo scanned the streets for anyone who might be able to help him, but the goat turned a menacing glare on anyone who so much as approached them.

Inside the house, the Archbishop locked the door. “Dornier,” he said, shrugging off the brown cloak to reveal a linen tunic, “the paws.” He met Danilo’s eyes as the goat seized the tiger’s left paw. “Please allow Dornier to bind your paws. He does worry after my well-being, and it is the only way he will allow me to speak to you in private.”

“What if I don’t want to talk to you in private?” Danilo kept his right paw in front of him, but the left was a lost cause, already bound with a leather strap and secured to something in the wall. Perhaps the door handle or a candle sconce; there were several candles mounted on the wall by bronze sconces in the shapes of angels.

“Ah, well.” The stag’s smile didn’t waver. He reached for a gold-trimmed white robe and pulled it on over his tunic. “It is a little late to return to the prison. Burglars have been known to force their way into this house in search of sacred relics, however. It would be a shame if a blessed white tiger were to be overcome with greed in such a manner, but I am certain the few people who know him would mourn him appropriately.”

Danilo glared as the goat gripped his right paw and forced it behind him. It was bound to the left one, and then they were released from whatever had been holding them to the wall. He staggered forward.

“Thank you, Dornier,” Argile said evenly. “One more thing. Please, before you go, do Danilo the honor of saying ‘good-bye.’”

The tiger turned, bemused, in time to see the goat open its mouth. “Aaah. Uhhhh,” it said.

Here in the candle-light, Danilo could see past the black gums, past the brown-and-yellow square teeth, into the goat’s mouth where an ugly, ragged lump marked the base of where his tongue had been. He recoiled, and at that, the goat shut his mouth and regarded him with a nasty smile. “Huhhh,” Dornier said, and took up a post at the door, behind Danilo.

“Now,” Archbishop Argile said pleasantly, as though he had just asked Danilo to admire one the painting of the Stag Jesus that hung on the left-hand wall, “perhaps you will follow me to my study.”

There seemed little to do but trot behind him, much as Danilo bridled at behaving like an obedient servant or slave. In any event, it was preferable to remaining in the room with the mutilated goat guard. “In the normal course of things,” the stag said, “I would not hesitate to have you burned for heresy, or simply disposed of in a way that need not involve so much…” He waved one hand at his desk, and his antlers tipped toward it. “Ceremony.”

The desk held stacks of papers and drew Danilo’s attention, if only because there he might find paper, ink, and the all-important Archbishop’s seal. “However,” the stag went on, “you are not an ordinary foreigner. There is something about you, something…” He stroked the tuft of fur at the end of his chin in a gesture more contemplative than Danilo had ever seen Cobb make. “Your fur, of course, sets you apart; you have been noticed here, and your departure would be remarked upon. And yet I cannot simply set you free.”

“We,” Danilo began, and then had to clear his throat, which was dry. His tongue seemed to be twice its normal size. “We can make a bargain.”

“A bargain?” The stag laughed, not kindly, and his antler points wobbled threateningly forward. “A bargain is conducted between two people in equal positions who each have something to offer. It strikes me that I have everything to offer and you have nothing. What bargain would you make, in such a position?”

“I won’t tell anyone. I’ll swear on the Bible, on the cross, by whatever you wish. I won’t tell anyone what I saw tonight.”

Argile’s white-furred face remained amused. “We will come to what you think you saw momentarily.”

“It must be something pretty bad,” Danilo said, “or you wouldn’t be threatening to kill me.”

Now the Archbishop’s eyes narrowed. “What would you have me promise in exchange for what you should give freely? Your life?”

“Luc’s life.”

“Still fancy yourself his savior? Would you take this bargain, though it leaves your life in my hands, to do with as I will?”

Danilo swallowed. “I would prefer you let me go as well,” he said. “But I’m not going to be burned tomorrow.”

“Do not be so certain.” The Archbishop swept around in his robe, the gold trim catching the candlelight and flashing. “The path of one called to God’s work is not easy, and I have grown accustomed to the unpleasant duties it sometimes entails.”

“Like raping prisoners?” Danilo said. “I imagine that wouldn’t go over so well. How would you like to lose a testicle? Not to mention that fancy robe.”

The stag shook his head ponderously. “The world of Firenza must be different indeed, if an itinerant traveler whose closest friends are Sodomites may bring down a respected member of the church with nothing but unfounded accusations.”

“The other prisoners will vouch for me. They know.”

“Oh, I see. I had not realized that you would have the support of cutpurses and heretics as well as Sodomites. No.” Argile turned away. “I tire of this conversation. You have failed to demonstrate any compelling reason to take your words into account in my judgment, and therefore I will retire to meditate upon it myself. I will show you to the wine cellar. You may sleep there, or perform your own meditation.”

Think! Danilo wracked his brain. What did Argile want? Well, he wanted to rape condemned prisoners, so much that he was willing to take a risk fairly often to get that. Danilo couldn’t give him that. He tried to imagine what it would be like to have such a drive to be gay and not only be unable to act on it, to have twisted it in such a way that he’d created—or at least stepped up enforcement of—a law that ensured the mutilation and death of the very people he wanted to join. It reminded Danilo of any number of movies in which a jealous lover opted to kill the object of his lust rather than let her choose another. He’d never understood that, but now he had to.

“Wait.” An idea was forming.

Argile, waiting at the door at the far end of the study, turned. “Please,” he said, “no more bargaining.”

“I can give you something you want,” Danilo said.

“I told you, I am tired of this game.”

The tiger took a breath. “Myself.”

Argile stared at him and then laughed, shortly. “Again you offer me what I already possess. Come, the wine cellar is this way.”

“I mean…” Danilo walked across the study slowly. “I’m like you.”

The stag stopped. He fingered the gold trim on his robe. “Apart from the color of our fur,” he said, “I fail to see the similarities.”

“I like sex with males,” Danilo said.

The Archbishop stiffened and then stepped forward, lowering his head so that his antlers raked Danilo across the muzzle. The tiger staggered under flashes of pain from his ears to his cheek—not, thank God, his eyes—but remained upright. “How dare you?” Argile hissed.

“I—I just watched you.” Danilo kept his eyes on those antlers, as blood dripped down his ear. He hadn’t expected that, but he wouldn’t be taken by surprise again. “What if you didn’t have to go sneak around to prisons? What if you had—what if you had a secretary, and you could—you could do whatever you wanted with him, and he was bound not to tell anyone?”

“How would he be so bound?” Argile did not look any less furious, but at least he was looking Danilo in the eye and that meant his antlers were back, out of harm’s way.

“Because—because the Church would employ Luc. At the Cathedral or the seminary, or something. Some way that he would be alive and here, so if I ever did anything, you could put him back in prison, and I knew that.” Danilo had resigned himself to living out the rest of his life in this world, but if he could at least spare Luc the fate that had befallen Coumier, he would have done something good in 1508.

“A willing partner.” The Archbishop’s thoughtful expression became a sneer. “Silly boy. What makes you think I want that?”

Malevolence shone through his eyes then, and a matching surge of hatred drove Danilo to act without thinking. He jerked his head forward and smashed his forehead into the stag’s nose.

Argile staggered backwards into the door frame, both hands clutching his nose. “Filth!” he spat, and lowered his head. An array of antler points faced the tiger.

Danilo backed up two steps. He didn’t regret his actions, only the situation. But he could also analyze it, and as Argile’s antler points gleamed toward him again, he braced himself and hoped the stag was as bad at fighting as he was.

And then Argile lifted his head, blood dripping from his nose, and shouted, “Dornier!”

Danilo backed up again and spotted the window to his left. He had the wild idea that he could escape, and indeed, Argile did not stop him as he slammed his shoulder into the shutters, then bit at the fractured catch and threw them open. But at the same time, the door clattered behind him, and even as he tried to get a foot up onto the sill, strong arms gripped his and pulled him back. “Help! Help!” he yelled out into the night, but only silence responded.

The goat spun him around to face the white stag. Argile held a hand in front of his nose, blood staining his white fur. “Cut the clothes off him,” he snarled, “and bring him up to my bedroom. I will show this pathetic wretch what it is I want.”

Well, Danilo thought, his heart pounding, his groin aching again, at least I took his attention off of Luc.

The Archbishop turned and stomped out the door, into the next room. The goat pushed Danilo forward, and then the hiss of steel on leather made the tiger’s ears fold back. He didn’t really have many options here.

Eyes shut, he waited for the touch of steel on his body for the third time in a week, but what he heard was Dornier’s, “Uhh?” cut off in mid-exhalation, and then a clatter of metal on stone. He turned, and gaped.

The goat writhed with back arched, both hands scrabbling at the fur of his throat. His eyes bugged out and his body twisted, but behind him, the slight figure of Théodore remained grimly motionless. It took Danilo a moment to realize that the mouse was holding something to the goat’s throat, a moment longer to realize that the soldier was being strangled.

And then Théodore dropped one paw to his waist, brought it back up in a smooth motion to the goat’s neck. When he withdrew it, the hilt of a blade protruded from the brownish fur.

Blood bubbled out around the blade. Dornier dropped to his knees, making one horrible wheeze before Théodore reached around the large head to clamp both paws around the long mouth. “Quiet,” the mouse muttered.

That word broke Danilo’s fascinated paralysis. “How did you…where did you come from?”

Théodore turned, holding the dying goat’s mouth shut as his struggles weakened. “Shhh. I followed you, of course. I thought you might try something ridiculously stupid and I wanted to bear witness to it, if I couldn’t help. I must say I did not expect to be killing the Archbishop’s bodyguard in His Excellency’s study.”

“Thank you.” Danilo’s throat felt tight.

The goat—Dornier—made more noises in his throat, but not loudly. His eyes glazed over and his body slumped. Théodore let go of the long muzzle and pulled his knife out in a bubbling fountain of blood that quickly subsided under Danilo’s horrified, fascinated eyes. The mouse walked over to Danilo, behind him, and a moment later, Danilo’s paws were free.

He rubbed them together as pins and needles burned through his arms, but he couldn’t take his eyes from Dornier’s twitching body. “Come on,” the mouse said. “Help me get him to the front door.”

“What?”

Théodore picked up the goat’s shoulders, handling the bloody cloth unflinchingly. “That way it looks like he went back to his post and someone just stabbed him in the night. Maybe broke in; we’ll leave the door open. It won’t necessarily be connected to you.”

“The Archbishop will know.” Danilo gripped the bodyguard’s ankles.

“Won’t matter.” They lifted him. The smell of piss rose to Danilo’s nostrils. If the mouse smelled it, though, it didn’t bother him any more than the blood seeping around his paws. “And we can get out of here, be far away before they raise the alarm.”

They carried him to the front door, and lay him down just inside it. Théodore opened it and then gestured to Danilo. “Come on.”

Danilo bit his lip. “What about Luc?”

The mouse’s expression darkened. “You haven’t seen with your own eyes that there is nothing you can do?”

“The study.” The tiger gestured back. “I can write a letter, get his seal on it…we can have him released!”

“It’s impossible.” But Théodore paused, looking at the study.

The same anger that had propelled his head into the Archbishop’s nose swept through him. “You told me—a letter from the Archbishop with his seal—I can write it, if you can show me how to seal a letter—”

The mouse’s ears settled back, and for the first time since Danilo’d met him on the bank of the Saone, he looked uncertain. “That’s a crime,” he said.

Danilo stared pointedly down at the dead goat. Théodore scowled. “That is no crime. That is just fighting. Fellow attacked one of mine, I get to attack him.”

“The Archbishop attacked Luc, you know.” Danilo didn’t bother to keep his voice low. “Raped him.”

“Aye, and means to do the same to you, so what say we take the start this fellow’s death bought us? We can be at the edge of the city before he manages to rouse a guard.”

“You knew he did that to prisoners?”

The mouse shook his head impatiently. “Not before tonight. But you told me he visited prisoners before execution, and I saw how he slunk out there, and then hearing him threaten you, well, my mother didn’t raise us to be idiots which is why,” he grabbed Danilo’s wrist, fortunately with the paw that was not bloody, “I am telling you for the last time—”

Danilo yanked his paw away. “So you’d let Luc burn.” Théodore didn’t answer. “Fine. I’ll do it without you, then. I’ll figure out the seal, I’ll go to the guard, and somehow I’ll get Luc free, and we’ll head north, get out of Tigue.”

He turned and started to walk back to the study. At the door, Théodore’s voice stopped him, just a couple feet behind. “You can’t go to the guards with a letter in the middle of the night.”

Danilo jumped; the mouse had followed him silently back. Behind them, the front door was closed, Dornier’s corpse just inside. “When, then?”

“Sunrise. Four, five hours from now.”

The tiger put a paw to the door frame and stared at the desk, the quills and ink and candles, now burned down to half their height. “Four hours? We can’t wait that long. He thinks I’m coming upstairs.”

“Aye.” Théodore folded his arms. “You’d best get to writing then.”

The smell of blood still hung in the air, though he couldn’t see any stains on the dark carpeted floor. But there were the leather straps that had bound him, lying curled and askew. Danilo rubbed his wrists. “I’m going to have to go up to him.” He looked back to Théodore for confirmation, and the mouse just looked back with steady, sad eyes. “He might fall asleep, but…I have to go up. I can keep him there for a while. And then I can sneak out, if—if you can take the letter over?”

Slowly, the mouse shook his head. “You’ve been seen with the Bishop. It’ll have to be you. And,” he added, “you’ll have to write the letter, too. I can’t write.”

“Can you tell me what it should say?”

Théodore rubbed his whiskers. “Heard a few military orders. I suppose it wouldn’t be so different. Anyway, guards likely can’t read either. They’ll recognize the seal well enough, though.”

It took precious seconds to find paper, even longer for Danilo to figure out how to get the quill to write on it. Théodore dictated the note, a simple “By order of His Excellency the Archbishop, the prisoner Luc de Fleuve will be transferred to the prison at Lutèce in the company of the tiger Danilo Mitini. Please release him immediately.”

As Danilo wrote the words, they became old Gallic, and though they looked foreign, he understood them and even noticed when he made a mistake. “How do I sign it?” he asked when he’d finished.

“Archbishop Argile.” The mouse shrugged. “Perhaps he has some holy title he adds, but again…the seal is the thing.”

“Right.” Danilo signed the paper and then stood. “Can you seal it?”

Théodore nodded. “I will take the letter and meet you behind that empty house at sunrise.”

“Take these as well.” Danilo pulled Luc’s tunic off him for the first time since—since he’d washed with Maria? It smelled like him now more than Luc, but it would still fit the otter. He hesitated, and then slid his pants down as well. “He’s expecting me to be naked anyway, and Luc will need clothes to wear—I mean, that aren’t dirty from—from prison.”

The mouse didn’t stare at Danilo’s body, even when Danilo took off the bandage and exposed his scar; of course he’d already seen Danilo’s privates. He simply nodded and took the clothes. “If you do not come to the house before the sun is fully over the horizon, I will assume you have been taken.”

Théodore’s acceptance of his nakedness let Danilo relax. A cool breeze from the open window caressed his sheath and balls, and he reached down to brush a finger along the stitches. The wound below them felt drier, less sore, which he hoped was a good sign.

“You are healing well, I told you.” Théodore draped the clothes over his arm and picked up a heavy metal piece as long as his paw. “Go. I will find the wax and make the seal, and see you in four hours, God willing.”

“God keep you,” Danilo said, and turned his eyes to the portrait of the Stag Jesus before walking out the other door.

“Danilo.”

He turned to see the mouse framed in the door, a hard smile on his muzzle. “Don’t kill him.”

“I’m not sure I could,” Danilo said.

Théodore appraised him and said, “Do not be so sure.” He raised a paw, and Danilo curled his tail around his legs and walked on out of the room.

 

Chapter Seventeen

By the time he finally found the stairs up, the Archbishop’s voice was coming stridently down it. “Dornier, what takes so long?”

Danilo almost answered himself, but had the presence of mind to imitate the goat’s “Uhhh” in response, which brought only silence from above.

As strange as it was to be walking naked through this house, Danilo’s sheath remained quiescent throughout. He had spent the short exploration playing out in his head how he would handle the Archbishop’s certain demands, and trying to focus more on how he would make sure Argile (don’t think of him as Cobb) would fall asleep afterwards and remain asleep at least until sunrise.

That part he didn’t think would be difficult. Though he himself was keyed up, he was aware that his body dragged as he walked, that lifting his arms felt heavier than normal, that if he paused, his eyelids drifted downward. Argile would be just as tired here on the far side of midnight, and if Danilo let him do those things that he was trying not to picture too much, certainly, surely, the older Archbishop would fall asleep soon after.

When he put his foot on the stairs, his resolve failed him. He couldn’t go up and willingly go to that bed. He’d never had a male inside him, and the shadows on the prison wall grew to cackling grotesque puppets in his memory, the Archbishop’s form larger and larger, and even though he had stood and looked the stag right in the eyes not half an hour before, he imagined Argile as large as Cobb, half a foot taller and forty kilos heavier. He imagined the stag’s cock the size of the cucumber he’d tried to play with once, the no-fucking-way one, forced inside him.

What was more, his lightened sac hung below his sheath, reminding him what had been taken from him. Though he knew it was ridiculous, knew it had no bearing on his fitness, having his “halfie” nature exposed made his tail curl down below him, made his shoulders hunch and one paw drop low to hide the scar and the emptiness behind it from the shadows of the stair. He looked up.

Halfway up the stairs, a painting hung. The flickering light showed Danilo only the outlines of a saint, but no more detail until a light shone down on it from above. “Dornier! Send him up at once!” Argile’s voice commanded.

The light fell directly on the painting, and with a gasp, Danilo saw Luc’s features staring up, paws held out catching a small amount of the halo around his head. He remembered the burning otter, the noble sacrifice Luc had made, the sounds coming from the cell as the Archbishop had raped him. He set his jaw. Whatever Luc had endured, he could also endure, and would endure, to set his friend free.

He made the indistinct noise of the goat soldier again, and stepped up onto the stair, his eyes on the painting. Three steps up, the reflections of the light caught the otter’s eyes and they glowed as if lit from within.

It wasn’t Luc in the painting. That had been an illusion, or he hadn’t been seeing it properly. This otter had silver fur along his muzzle and a leaner build, darker brown fur. Up close, Danilo could see the shadowy shapes around his legs, black featureless jaws that tore at his white robe, and yet the otter smiled upward.

At the top of the stairs, Archbishop Argile stood in a doorway holding a lantern in one thick hand. The light played over his naked body, every inch of it pale white except for the bright pink of his erection hanging between his legs. He was still only Danilo’s height, still only slightly stockier than the tiger, and his shaft, which drew Danilo’s eyes, was only the size of two fingers, not an entire forearm. But his expression was hungrier, his eyes narrower and his smile more savage than Danilo had ever seen on Cobb.

“Where’s Dornier?” he demanded, peering down the stairs. “And why are your paws not bound?”

“I worked them free,” Danilo said. “And Dornier just left. I don’t know why.”

It looked like Argile might lean past him, to call out again, so Danilo steeled himself and reached down to wrap a paw around the exposed erection. “I thought it would be better with my paws free,” he said.

The hand that was not holding a lantern smacked his muzzle. He let go and staggered to the side, as the Archbishop’s eyes burned into his. “You will not touch me until I allow you to,” he said, and stepped aside, gesturing Danilo through the doorway. “Go.”

At least it had gotten the attention off the goat guard. Danilo walked into the bedroom, trying not to betray the pounding of his heart. He couldn’t keep his tail from curling tightly against him, but the Archbishop probably preferred him afraid. Maybe he should be less confident.

“May I ask you something?” He tried to put a tremor into his voice and found it rather easy, when he tried.

“Get on the bed.”

The lantern provided the only light in the large room, casting Danilo’s shadow on the wall and windows beyond the large four-poster bed. Paintings hung around the room, but shadows skittered across them and Danilo couldn’t pick out the images on any of them. He crawled up onto the white linen sheets that stank of stag and turned to sit on the edge of the bed.

“Don’t face me.” Argile closed the door behind him and then, as Danilo began to turn, said, “Wait.”

He set the lantern on the side table and stood, supporting his shaft with one hand while he stared down at Danilo’s body. “Ask your question,” he said, and reached down to brush a finger along Danilo’s wound.

The tiger gritted his teeth and tried to ignore the touch, as gentle as it was unwelcome. “The painting,” he forced out, “on the stair.”

“Mmm.” The Archbishop’s hands pushed Danilo’s thighs apart. He cradled the tiger’s single testicle. “What of it?”

“Who—which saint is it?”

“That?” The stag’s eyes glittered down at him. “Épipode. One of Tigue’s native saints. Had you continued your education here, you would have learned much about him.”

“I—” Épipode was an otter? You have stood on his remains, Bishop Lukin had told him. It was hard to focus with the Archbishop’s fingers caressing his sac and rubbing up his sheath, not only because his wound stung as if it knew who was touching it, but also because he had the feeling that at any moment, the stag might drive his paw down, or tear out Danilo’s remaining testicle. “I still wish to—to continue my education.”

The hand lingered on his sheath. It remained soft, fear overwhelming the arousal of the touch. The stag rubbed again and then stood, a sour smile on his face. “Roll over,” he said. “Keep your paws below you.”

As Danilo complied, his heart speeding up, the stag continued speaking. “I have not yet decided your fate. Perhaps it will depend upon how well you please me tonight.”

A nervous, inappropriate giggle burst up from Danilo’s throat. He muffled it in the sheets, but fear kept him shaking. As soon as the Archbishop discovered the corpse of his bodyguard—one he trusted enough to appear naked and reveal his homosexuality to—he would be displeased no matter what Danilo did.

“But Épipode is a significant saint for you. He more than any other could be your patron.”

The herbal smell of scented oil reached Danilo’s nose. He didn’t speak, and Argile went on. “He is the patron saint of bachelors, the betrayed, and the tortured. And you will always be a bachelor, for your inner demons have betrayed you, and you have already suffered torture.” His hand crept beneath Danilo’s hips to hold his testicle again. “Though it is nothing to what you will feel should you displease me.”

“My inner demons,” Danilo breathed, thinking keep him talking. “There is nothing demonic about an attraction to males. Where I come from, we are learning that people can live that way.”

“That is not something you learned at the Vatican.” The fingers released his testicle and returned a moment later to press something slick into him.

“No,” Danilo gasped, talking faster. His rear tightened around the fingers, which forced their way in regardless. “It is something from my home. There are some who are ashamed of it still. I was ashamed to think it was part of me.”

“That was the word of God speaking to you through the demon’s words.” The finger withdrew from him, and he knew what was coming next.

“God speaks of love,” he said quickly. “Love, and this is love, how can it be wrong?”

“Quiet,” Argile said. “There is nothing of love in this.”

And there was not. It was rough and it was fast. The stag’s weight drove him into the bed, the thick hands pressed his neck down until he had to twist his head to the side to breathe, and the stag’s shaft felt twice as thick as it had looked. He squeezed his eyes shut and reminded himself that he was doing this for Luc. As he tried to picture the otter, the image that came into his mind was the glowing-eyed painting from the stair. That calmed him, quelled his urge to squirm and struggle and run away from the violation. He had worried that he might feel aroused, but his own shaft remained pulled into his sheath throughout the ordeal, through the initial pain and the numbness that followed, from the stag’s first satisfied grunt to the last throes of his orgasm.

When he withdrew from Danilo, the tiger bit his lip and then exhaled in relief. He lay quiet until Argile said, “Get up,” and then turned and called, “Dornier!”

The name of the guard set Danilo to panicking again. He nearly fell backing himself off the bed and struggled to his feet. His rear felt sore and warm and he badly needed to use the chamberpot. But he hurried for the door. “I hope I have pleased you, Your Excellency,” he said, pulling the door open.

“I will decide your fate in the morning. Dornier!”

Danilo stepped outside the door and could think of nothing to do but make the guard’s guttural vocal noise. It was desperate, but the call echoed from the stair and sounded as though it had come from below. It should not have worked, but whether the Archbishop was fooled or simply tired, it did.

“Take this tiger away,” Argile said loudly. “Bind his paws and put him in the wine cellar.”

Danilo acknowledged the order with another noise, and risked a look back at the stag. The Archbishop sat on the edge of his bed, his eyes drooping. He looked about as tired as Danilo felt, and the tiger hoped he would remain in his room and sleep. He closed the door.

He’d intended to go downstairs, but he was still very aware of his nakedness, and there was another door half-open just down the way. The house had fallen silent; Dornier’s body remained undiscovered, and the Archbishop did not stir. So Danilo kept his claws in and padded quietly along the hall to the room, pushing gently through the door.

In the moon’s silver half-light, the room appeared full of ghosts. Robes hung and fluttered in the breeze from the open window, white linens with trim in various colors, scarves of office with elaborate crosses sewn into them hung over wooden racks. Three wardrobes stood to one side, one with an open door that allowed Danilo to see still white garments within.

He padded over to a large vanity and examined himself in the nearly full-length mirror, his blue eyes traveling the length of his body. He’d lost weight, that was certain. Since emerging in 1508, he couldn’t recall a time when he’d not been hungry. He traced a finger down his ribs, along the stripes. How much weight could someone lose in four days and still be healthy? Aside from that, though, he looked…much the same. One paw reached down to cup his testicle, and he surprised himself with the grim determination his expression took on. He let go and turned away from the mirror.

After finding a chamber pot in the corner and availing himself of it, he sought out the plainest white robe he could find and slipped it over his head. He returned to the vanity and looked at himself, adjusting the robe. It fit better than Luc’s clothes had, and it didn’t smell too much like the stag, just enough to remind him of the violation he’d just undergone. He could bear to wear this and be seen in it. As for the rape—that’s what it had been—it helped if he reminded himself that he’d walked into it knowing what he was in for, that he was sacrificing his body to give Luc a better chance at freedom. Then he felt more noble than soiled, more powerful than powerless.

His eyes glanced down and happened to see the robes the Archbishop had been wearing that evening, cast casually across the table. He wondered if they smelled like Luc, if he could take them and present them to the Bishop as evidence of the Archbishop’s activities. And then he shifted his weight and felt the soreness and dampness under his tail, and he realized that he had better evidence to present.

He’d rested one paw on the robes while thinking and now left it there, planning. Luc’s safety came first, of course, but once the otter had been freed, could he go to the Bishop? Did Lukin know about Argile’s deception? He could go to LeSevre, but while he didn’t trust Bishop Lukin, he hated LeSevre. And Lukin had hesitated at the Archbishop’s condemnation of Luc, hadn’t he? He’d said Danilo hadn’t disappointed him. But still—it was Georg, wasn’t it? He had stared so avidly at the burning otter, had been so eager for Danilo to watch Luc’s castration, that those images still burned in Danilo’s mind. And yet, once Luc’s crime had been wiped away by Danilo’s sacrifice, the Bishop had not wanted to see him suffer further. Had he? Danilo tried to recall through the haze of remembered pain and shock, his remaining testicle throbbing as he did.

If the Bishop truly wished only to punish the guilty, then Danilo could turn that against the Archbishop. But that was an immense “if,” one the size of the Cathédrale, and Danilo would have to be certain that his intuition was correct. He tried to recall all the conversations he’d had with the black wolf since then. Did Lukin respect him now for his sacrifice, after mocking him for suggesting it? But no, when Danilo had first suggested it, Lukin had rejected it; the Archbishop had been the one to pursue it. Argile had wanted to see Danilo mutilated, knowing that he would get to rape Luc and see him burn. Bishop Lukin had wanted Luc to suffer what he thought was a just punishment. So he would feel the same about the Archbishop, right?

Right, because no Church official ever had a double standard when it came to protecting his own. Danilo sighed.

Still debating, he moved his paw along the robe and felt something heavy against it. Digging around, he came up with a key attached to the belt of the robe, and it took him a moment to realize that this must be the key that opened the door of the empty house beside the prison. His fingers moved to undo the silk cord that bound the key even as he formed the idea that that would be a good place to wait out the rest of the night, if not the most comfortable.

He could ask Théodore’s opinion then, when they went to rescue Luc. He would extract the otter from the prison and leave him in Théodore’s care, and he could go report the Archbishop to whatever authorities there were, or else he would go with Théodore and Luc. He suspected the mouse would tell him to come with them, to flee this city and not put himself at any more risk from the Church, and part of him—the exhausted part that would have traded almost anything, if he had anything to trade, for a Red Bull or a Pro Plus—wanted to go. But the part of him that still ached from the stag’s weight atop him, that still felt the violation of the stag’s member being forced into him, that still saw the shadow puppets enacting Luc’s rape—that part wanted the Archbishop brought to justice, his hypocrisy exposed.

He looked up again at his reflection in the mirror, and tried to smile. Then he left the room and padded down the short hallway.

Halfway down the stairs, he looked again at the portrait of St. Épipode. The otter continued to stare upwards, and again Danilo was struck by the resemblance to Luc. But no, that was fanciful. He hadn’t actually seen Luc face-on in a day or two. This otter was older, different.

The Archbishop had been wrong. Épipode wasn’t Danilo’s patron saint; he was Luc’s. Luc had been tortured, Luc was a bachelor, and Luc had been betrayed, first by his own nature, then by Danilo and Bertrand, and finally by the church he revered. But it was no use waiting around for this saint to perform a miracle to save Luc. Danilo was going to have to do it.

He walked down one more step and then stopped. What if St. Épipode had already performed a miracle? What if he were the one who’d brought Danilo here? He was an otter; he would work through water, would he not? Danilo studied the expression of the otter, the shadowy mouths that tore at him, but the painting revealed nothing new to him.

Was it you? he asked silently. The painting made no answer, and after a moment Danilo realized that his eyes were drooping and he was falling asleep on the stair.

He shook himself awake and walked slowly on down the stairs, keeping his tread as light as possible. In the lower floor, nothing stirred; the body of Dornier still lay where they had left it, an indistinct lump in the shadows of the front room.

Rather than walk past him, Danilo began to climb out the window despite the soreness in his groin. He let himself down to the ground below and braced himself against the side of the house. The stone against his paw gave no indication of the horrors that lay within this house, that spread from it out into the city of Tigue. It wasn’t a bad place, even here without cell phones and caffeine pills. Most of the people he’d met were trying hard to have a good life. You could argue that the twenty-first century was no less subject to corrupt people hiding behind institutions; he’d read all the stories of greedy bankers and self-serving politicians whose actions had destroyed lives, of priests who had abused children—that made him wonder what Archbishop Argile had done as a young priest—but there were so many people and so many institutions that it was hard to focus on any one. Here, everyone looked to the church, and to find this evil at its heart felt more pervasive to him than anything he had encountered in 2008.

The night air chilled his whiskers and ears and lungs. He drew in a breath and hurried around the back of the house, out to the street, and back to the prison.

Without the tension of danger, he found it more and more difficult to keep his eyes open. Twice he woke to find himself leaning against a wall; the second time, he thought there were shadows moving in front of him. He snapped awake and stared around him, and the street faded back to stillness.

On the Rue St. Bartholème, two mice sauntered about on errands. Danilo greeted them with exhausted nods, making his way to the empty house. When the street was clear, he took out the key, fumbled at the lock, and let himself in.

He tried to lock the door behind him and succeeded on the third try. Then he stumbled to the far back of the house, facing a window to the east so the sun would wake him, and collapsed to the ground.

It seemed that as he fell, he kept falling, that the dirt was liquid but allowed him to breathe. He looked around and saw shadowy creatures circling him, their teeth gleaming in the moonlight. Then one approached and it was not the teeth that gleamed; it was the knife in the paw of the savage weasel. Danilo swiped at the knife, but his paw passed through it and the knife stabbed him in the groin. Pain flared dully, and when he looked down again it was the blanched stag removing his antlers from Danilo’s wounded sac, with a grim smile and empty black eyes. He opened his mouth, put it around Danilo’s sheath, and pulled his lips back to show his flat white teeth. They bit around his base, pressure becoming gentle pain. No, Danilo moaned, and kicked out, but his ankles were in the jaws of a pair of wolves, black and white. He reached down and grabbed the white stag’s antlers, and the head came away, the mouth sliding harmlessly off his sheath, and he was holding a skull by the antlers. It stared at him with those same black eyes and then the mouth opened and it laughed. “Foolish tiger,” it said, “do you think you can cheat death?” The white fur of his paw was bone, his skin and flesh gone, and he was nothing but a skeleton hanging in darkness. No; not complete darkness. Two points of light floated in front of him, a little way away. When he focused on them, warmth blossomed around him and his body was made flesh again. He kept his eyes on them and the wolves and the dead stag melted away. Words struggled through the thick liquid toward him, indistinct and muffled. What? He swam toward the lights. What are you saying? The lights were eyes for a moment and then they blazed into twin suns, and he brought a paw to his eyes to shield them.

Chapter Eighteen

Danilo woke to a red haze, sun forcing its way through his eyelids. He yawned, feeling every bit as tired as he had the night before. He turned away from the sun, keeping his eyes shut, and his sluggish mind revisited the dream. He was floating, and someone had a message for him. Well, he had until the sun was over the horizon—

With a burst of fear, he jerked awake. If the sun was already up, if he’d overslept—

Even as he hurried to the shutters, he heard voices outside. “Another ten minutes, I reckon, if you are not convinced he is a liar.”

That was Armand, the weasel. The voice that replied was Théodore’s. “Even if he is not, he might simply have been caught.”

“You give him entirely too much credit.”

“I made sure he was one of us, and besides, he has earned my respect. At least enough to wait until the time I told him I would.”

“I’m here!” Danilo hissed.

Both voices fell silent. Then movement, and a shadow across the window. “Danilo? You are inside?”

“Yes! I took the key—I was asleep in here. I’m sorry. I was very tired.”

“No matter. I will come around to the door.” Théodore sounded amused. “You see, Armand? Wait here and do not forget what I told you.”

“I will be watching,” the weasel said, with a bit of menace to his tone, Danilo thought.

Danilo padded through the house to the door. When he unlocked it, Théodore pushed it open and hurried through, closing it behind him. The mouse looked around and wrinkled his nose. “This doesn’t resemble my idea of a secret church office. Does he have the prisoners brought here?”

“There’s a passage that leads to the prison.” Danilo pointed to the back corner of the house. “It comes out in the basement.”

“Ah-ha.” Théodore nodded. “I believe the prison was an old monastery. No doubt the monks crafted a way to sneak past the old abbot.”

“I thought I could sneak Luc out this way.” The decrepit house looked much more ordinary in the daylight, sad and broken.

The mouse produced the letter. “This way will work,” he said confidently. “When they turn Luc over to you, walk past this house and Armand and I will accompany you to the Saône. I have a captain waiting there to take us downriver to my farm. He’s an otter. He will hide Luc if need be.”

Danilo took a breath. “I can’t go with you right away.”

The mouse’s whiskers lowered. “The longer you stay—when that goat is discovered, your life won’t be worth a piece of river garbage.”

“I have—I have evidence that the Archbishop is one of us.”

Théodore’s eyes traveled down Danilo’s body to his waist and tail. “You think you can get someone to pay attention?”

The tiger’s ears drooped. “I’m waiting for you to talk me out of it. I know it’s crazy.”

The old house fell silent enough that Danilo could hear murmurs of conversation from people passing in the street outside. Théodore’s eyes were fixed on his, the mouse’s expression curiously blank. At length, he said, “It is crazy. To submit yourself to the police, to confess to this crime in the hope of implicating the most powerful figure in the Church…it has no chance of succeeding. I am as certain of that as I am of the rise of the sun in the east.”

Danilo nodded, and opened his mouth, but Théodore held up the paw containing the Archbishop’s falsified letter. “And yet,” he went on, speaking fast and low, “I would have said the same about the chances of rescuing anyone from prison. Had you listened to me, we would be well on our way to my farm, and Luc would be awaiting immolation. Instead…” The mouse held Danilo’s eyes. “You have shown me what it means to believe, have restored a faith I had thought lost. When I fought with the army, I felt part of a whole, part of a country and a church that would in turn welcome me back. I returned to find myself even more outcast. I looked down on people like Coumier and Luc, because they could not be practical, could not understand that you can hide yourself and still satisfy the urges inside you.” He held the paper out to Danilo. “You proved me wrong. You showed me that we can love each other and that our actions, no matter how ‘crazy’ they might seem, are not wasted. So…go to the police. If you believe you can make them listen, then I will not gainsay you.”

The tiger’s fingers closed around the thick paper, his mouth slightly open. Théodore released the paper and reached up with two fingers to lift the tiger’s jaw shut, his lips creasing into a smile. “Is it so unusual, what I have said? No more unusual than you yourself, blessed Danilo.” He stood on the tips of his toes and kissed Danilo quickly on the lips, then stepped back, rubbing his whiskers and looking off to one side. “I will hold the barge as long as I may. If we are not pursued, I may persuade the captain to remain until noon. If you cannot join us then, come downriver when you can and when you have sailed half a day, make landing at the Pas-de-Reynard dock and ask after the Belle Soleil farm. There you will find me and, God willing, Luc.”

“Pas-de-Reynard,” Danilo repeated. “Belle Soleil.” His fingers closed around the paper. “Do you really think I can do it?”

“If anyone can.” Théodore laughed softly. “Certainly some power guided us to the dock that day to pull you from the river. I suppose your witch’s curse proved a blessing for us.”

“Théodore,” Danilo said quietly. “I have not been…entirely truthful with you.”

The mouse fell silent, his smile faltering. “Only in the story of the witch’s curse,” Danilo said. “Only there. The truth is…I do not know how I came to this place. But I came from a very different land. I speak your language through some kind of power I do not understand, and I do not know how I came to be here. But truthfully…” He tried to say that he’d come from the future, and still could not quite form the words, “…in my land, people such as you and I are not treated as viciously. We are scorned sometimes, and lives are more difficult, but…but we are not tortured, mutilated, put to death.”

Théodore released a breath. “I had thought you were going to confess to being a servant of the Church. So you were brought here by some magic.”

“I think it might be a miracle.” Danilo curled his tail around his leg and turned toward the back of the house, where the sun shone brightly on the closed shutters.

“In that case, I am doubly pleased to have borne witness to it and to have met you.” Théodore patted Danilo’s paw. “If you discover which saint effected the miracle, tell me and I will include him in my prayers.”

“Épipode.” Danilo recalled the otter’s portrait, and his dream. “I think.”

The mouse tapped his head. “Tigue’s own saint. I will remember him. Now…let us hope he is watching over us still. Remember: you are taking him to Lutèce. Do not mention the boat; he would be transported by carriage. But Armand and I will take him here, and we may walk with you as far as the Cathédrale. You should be able to find the police there, or in the Bishop’s offices.”

He moved toward the door, but Danilo reached out and hugged him, and Théodore made a startled noise and then hugged back. “Thank you,” Danilo said. “I couldn’t have done this without you.”

“Then go.” Théodore’s paws held Danilo tightly against him. “And know that I am still with you.”

They emerged from the dark house into a sunlit morning. The Rue St. Bartholème bustled with more activity now, but to the right, Danilo could see larger crowds toward the Cathédrale. He took a breath, gripped the paper in his paw, and walked toward the prison. The Archbishop’s robe moved lightly over his fur in the breeze, shielding him from very little of the wind. Possibly it was just an indoor robe, or was meant to be worn beneath something—but no, Théodore would have told him. Stop second-guessing yourself, he said sternly, and marched along the street with his head up, breathing in the smoky, filthy scent of the prison.

An unfamiliar guard met him at the door, a bored-looking hare. “No visitors,” he said before glancing down at the paper Danilo held.

“I have orders to move one of the prisoners.”

“Move?” The hare snapped his head up, and his ears came forward. “Move to where?”

“To Lutèce.” Danilo kept his paws steady as he presented the paper. “The Archbishop has sealed the orders himself.”

The hare stared at the paper without touching it, but his eyes did not move across the words. “One moment,” he said, and then called back into the prison, “Captain!”

Danilo’s fur prickled under his robe. A wolf’s shadow appeared in the doorway, and Danilo saw LeSevre’s wicked smile and piercing eyes. But when the wolf stepped into the diffuse morning light, he was smaller, with browner fur and less intensity to his stare, his eyes partly-lidded as though he’d been napping. “What is it?” His eyes opened wider when he saw Danilo, and he looked up at the sun. “No visits to prisoners until after noon.”

“The execution is moved to Lutèce.” The hare gestured to the paper.

The wolf took his eyes from Danilo and leaned forward to the paper. “That’s the Archbishop’s seal,” he said slowly. “Most unusual. Why Lutèce?”

Stories to explain the move flitted through Danilo’s mind, but he remembered to keep his story simple. He shook his head. “I was not told.”

“Huh.” The wolf examined the paper again. “The otter, isn’t it?”

“Luc de Fleuve.” Danilo cleared his throat.

“Perhaps the Archbishop wishes to provide some entertainment for the people of Lutèce, since we have had so many here, what?” The hare smiled, and Danilo wanted to punch his buckteeth in.

“Perhaps.” At least the wolf didn’t seem amused. He looked up at Danilo and scratched behind his ear. “I’ve not seen you before.”

Danilo swallowed. “I’m newly arrived in Tigue,” he said.

“Aye.” The hare elbowed the wolf. “You’ve not heard of the white tiger? Attended the last burning with the Bishop himself. LeSevre says he’s a degenerate.”

The brown wolf’s expression tightened. “LeSevre doesn’t like him? Good enough for me. Fetch the otter. Second floor.”

“Right.” The hare turned and ambled back into the prison. Danilo heard the clink of keys, and then the wolf started talking to him, asking where he’d come in from, what he thought of Tigue, how it compared to other places he’d been.

Danilo tried to answer, as it was clear that the wolf was proud of his city, but his responses were short, and a moment later, he didn’t remember any of what had been said, because the hare reappeared leading a figure behind him that resolved into Luc.

The otter wore only a rope around his neck and filthy pants that had been ripped in several spots. They had not been in such bad shape the night he’d been arrested, Danilo was sure. Luc blinked in the light and then up at the tiger. “Danilo?” he whispered, and squinted.

“I’m here to transport you to Lutèce.” Danilo tried to make his voice sound harsh. He remembered Luc insisting to LeSevre that Danilo didn’t matter, and squared his shoulders, looking up at the hare. “Is he well bound?”

“Aye.” The hare handed Danilo the end of the rope that was tied around Luc’s neck. “Paws are behind his back. Just yank on this if he falls or fights. I don’t expect he will. He’s been quiet. Haven’t you?”

He prodded Luc in the ribs, and Luc winced. “Aye, sir,” he said in a low voice.

“Cheer up,” the hare said. “You’re to have a much larger audience in Lutèce.”

“Thank you,” Danilo said, and began to walk away. Beside the empty house, he saw Théodore’s shadow, only twenty feet away.

“Ah, sir?” The wolf called after him.

All sorts of scenarios ran through his mind. The wolf had been watching him. He’d given himself away. He’d forgotten something important. Danilo breathed in, and turned around as carelessly as he could. “Aye?”

“The orders?”

He stared, and the wolf held out a paw. “You’re to leave the orders, so we can account for the prisoner.”

Luc didn’t move, and neither did the hare or wolf. Was this a test? Did the wolf suspect him? What if he offered to leave the orders and that wasn’t the way things were done?

Stop, he told himself, and carelessly handed the paper over to the wolf. “Thank you for your attention to detail, Captain.”

“Aye. God keep you.”

“God keep you.” He turned again, and this time nobody stopped him.

He walked toward the empty house and the mouse’s shadow, holding the rope, though he took care not to pull on it. Luc stumbled after him, remaining silent until they rounded the corner into the sheltered alley and came face to face with the mouse and weasel, both dressed in a blue uniform upon which a red, white, and blue rosette shone proudly. Then Luc stared and stopped. “Théodore?” he whispered. “Armand?”

“Old army uniforms still fit, aye?” Théodore clapped Luc on the shoulder. “Apologies, ami, but you must remain tied until we reach the barge.”

“How…” Luc turned his head from one to the other, and up to Danilo. “How is this happening?”

“It’s Danilo,” the mouse said, and even the weasel’s face bore grudging appreciation, though he sulked and would not look at Danilo. “He would not listen to me, but broke into the Archbishop’s house, wrote a letter, and procured your release.”

“The Archbishop.” Luc winced, a reaction Danilo had just suppressed in himself.

“Could you…” Danilo waved to the mouse and weasel. “Give us a moment alone?”

“Aye.” Théodore backed up, taking the weasel with him. They watched from a distance.

Luc looked up. “You did this for me?”

Danilo leaned down and breathed the words softly. “I know what the Archbishop did to you.” Luc’s eyes widened, but before he could ask how, Danilo added, “He did the same to me. I hope to provide evidence to the Church.”

The otter shook his head. “Oh, Danilo, no. It is too dangerous. They will not let you…”

“If it doesn’t go well, I will escape and come join you. Théodore has told me the way. But I wanted to get you to safety first.”

Luc struggled to free his paws. “No. Come with us. I have put you in this position, and caused you to be harmed. I will not suffer any more danger.”

Gently, Danilo laid a paw on Luc’s shoulder. “You’ve suffered most of the danger so far.”

“You have made sacrifices—more than anyone should ask—”

“And I have a chance to right a wrong. Two wrongs. Well, several. Who knows how many? At least I will see him punished for what he did to us.”

Luc’s eyes rested on Danilo’s, and then the otter smiled. “Aye, that would make my heart glad. But not as glad as seeing you alive again.”

“You will,” Danilo promised. “Go with Théo and live a happy life.”

Luc stepped forward to press against him, but only briefly, and before Danilo could return the embrace, the otter had stepped back again. Danilo waved Théodore and Armand forward, and handed the rope to the mouse. “Take care of him,” he said.

“I will.” The mouse’s eyes sparkled even in the dim alley light. “And take care of yourself.”

They walked together in silence out into the street, leading Luc behind them. Armand brought up the rear, with one paw on the knife at his belt. At least, that’s where the paw was whenever Danilo turned to check on Luc, which he did often enough that as they walked through the narrow arcade of houses, Théodore hissed at him to keep his eyes forward. They passed beneath the brick archway onto the main street that led to the Cathédrale, and here the crowds parted around them, murmuring at the uniformed guards, the tall white tiger, the prisoner led by a rope.

At the bridge, Théodore turned to Danilo and saluted smartly. “We will take charge of the prisoner from here, sir,” he said. A small crowd paused to watch the transfer.

“Very good,” Danilo said, and then, glimpsing the spires of the cathedral ahead of him and remembering that he was dressed in holy robes, said, “May God guide your steps.”

He met Luc’s eyes as they guided the otter around the corner, to the bridge, to the barge and away to freedom. Neither of them risked a word, but Danilo hoped to say as much with his eyes as Luc said with his.

And then Théodore and Luc and Armand were but tails in a busy street, and then the crowd surrounded them and they were no longer even that. Danilo spent another moment staring after them, said a quick prayer for their safety, and set his eyes on the spires ahead of him.

Chapter Nineteen

Of course, Lauds was in progress at the Cathédrale. Danilo had heard the bells, but did not realize he had until he found the Bishop’s offices locked and heard the murmurs of prayer from the immense building behind him. He made his way to the side door and tried to remember how long it had been since he’d heard the bells, how much longer he would have to wait. The Archbishop had to have discovered his dead servant by now.

People still stared as they passed him, but now he met their eyes and inclined his head. If they were close, he said, “God keep you,” and sometimes they replied in kind. The gesture had become second nature to him, and as he spoke the words and nodded his head, he thought about the saint who had called him here. He had been called for a purpose, he now believed, but when (if) that purpose had been fulfilled, would he be sent back to his own time? He thought about what his life would be like here in 1508. The Archbishop would be after him, and perhaps Théodore’s farm would be remote enough for a white tiger to hide in, and perhaps it would not. He could cover himself in dirt, or find dyes to rub into his fur, but he could not hide his stature, and even orange tigers were unusual enough around Tigue to be remarked upon.

And if he were spotted, he would lead the church directly to Luc. Danilo turned his eyes toward the river, invisible behind the red clay roofs and wooden beams, and imagined Luc and Théodore boarding the barge, waiting for him until the sun had reached its zenith. Whatever happened with the Bishop, it would likely be better if Danilo never boarded the barge, if he could slip away. He could travel to Lutèce, or perhaps even Londinium, larger cities where a tiger might not be so remarkable; or he could ride south to Etrusca where he might find others of his kind.

None of those options appealed to him as much as returning to Théodore’s farm. Maybe he could stay for a couple days, figure out a way they could hide him. He didn’t need to live in a city, not after he’d gone from the modern conveniences of 2008 to this primitive world. He scratched at flea bites on his hip and then, to stop his paw moving to the sore, itchy wound below his sheath, he lifted his fingers to the cathedral wall.

The limestone chilled his fingertips here in the morning breeze and shadow. Above him, the building loomed, but he no longer saw death in it, nor God. It was a magnificent achievement of people, and he felt privileged for the chance to have seen it, to have walked in it when it was but a generation old. He would want to see more of the buildings, the Duomo in Firenza, the Nôtre Dame in Lutèce, more of da Vinci’s paintings—if he traveled to Firenza, could he meet the old rabbit himself?—and the art and buildings that were flowering in the Renaissance. If he could not get home, could he accept an existence in a small farmhouse, with the danger of discovery always hovering over him?

If his interview with the Bishop went well, then perhaps he would be exonerated from some of his crimes and be afforded more freedom. He held to this faint hope as motion built inside the cathedral and people began to spill out of it.

Another ten minutes passed before the side door opened. The heavy boar emerged first and stared at Danilo, then turned and said, “That tiger’s back,” to the person behind him.

Bishop Lukin peered around the boar’s frame. His ears came up, though he did not smile. “Danilo,” he said, stepping forward. “What a pleasant surprise. I approve of your clothing, although…” He reached out to take Danilo’s robe in his fingers, and frowned.

“I can explain,” Danilo said quickly. “Please, Your Excellency, I must speak with you in private.”

The wolf frowned. “I have duties to attend to, and you have lessons. Next week, perhaps we can resume your private instruction. After today’s ceremony, of course.”

Once Danilo might have trembled before that statement. Now, he saw no threat in it. “It cannot wait.” The tiger kept his eyes on the Bishop’s yellow-green ones. “Please.”

“Very well.” Lukin spoke slowly.

“And if you could summon…Perchet? The fox from the police squad?”

Now the black wolf’s ears flattened. “What is this about, Danilo?”

The boar stood nearby, listening. Other people milled about a respectful distance away, trying not to stare at the Bishop and the white tiger, but Danilo saw the insides of a dozen ears. He quailed, but the violation burned inside him, and then he was speaking the words and it was too late, he had committed himself. “I must report a serious crime,” he said. “Very serious, Your Excellency.”

“And you require Perchet.” The Bishop’s eyes widened and dropped to Danilo’s groin, then rose again to meet the tiger’s eyes, and his brow lowered. “I trusted you, Danilo. Have you betrayed my trust?”

“I have not, but another has.” Danilo tugged on the sleeve of his robe. “I will tell you, only—in private. Your Excellency.”

“Yes.” The Bishop shook off his shock, but Danilo thought he already guessed what crimes would be reported, because when he turned back into the church and ordered Culliver to fetch Perchet, his voice shook, and when he set off for his offices, he did not wait for the boar to lead the way.

The guard hurried to take up his position in front of the Bishop; Danilo followed at his side. They had reached the door of the Bishop’s offices when a loud voice froze all three of them. “Stop! Stop him!”

LeSevre. Danilo’s heart sank. He had seconds, at most. “Your Excellency,” he said, “Please forgive me.”

“What—?” The Bishop’s words died as Danilo crouched, reached behind him to rub two fingers in the fur beneath his tail, and straightened. He sniffed his own fingers and caught the same scent that lingered faintly on his robe, but heavier and undeniably sexual.

“LeSevre is going to accuse me of a crime. I swear to—” He fumbled, remembering Seline’s frosty objection to his use of God’s name. “By my parents, by everything I hold sacred, that I am not guilty of it. I wanted Perchet to examine the evidence, but…”

The Bishop recoiled, and the boar stepped in as Danilo held his fingers out. “How dare you?” the guard growled, and cocked an arm back, but Bishop Lukin rested a paw on the massive forearm.

“Your Excellency!” LeSevre was shouting. “He’s dangerous! Be wary!”

Danilo wanted to shove his fingers under the wolf’s nose, wanted to force him to smell the evidence. Lukin’s pink tongue flicked at his lips, and his ears had flattened all the way back, but he did not appear able to bring himself to lean forward to smell.

It was possible he could already smell, with his keen nose. Danilo spoke quickly. “Archbishop Argile,” he said, “performs unnatural acts.” The boar guard growled an imprecation, but the Bishop held up a paw, his eyes fixed on Danilo’s, and the tiger went on. “Not just on me, against my will. On Luc, this very night. On other prisoners awaiting execution. He visits the prisons and—”

Running footsteps click-clicked staccato urgency behind his words, and he did not finish his sentence before they overtook him. LeSevre’s body slammed Danilo against the wall of the alcove, and a deadly pinprick with a knife’s weight of pressure behind it threatened the base of his skull. “This vermin has stolen away the otter Luc, meant for execution,” the wolf growled. “Where is he?”

Bishop Lukin sounded old and uncertain. “What other evidence have you?”

LeSevre answered, “The guards at the prison identified him!” but Danilo knew the question was for him, and he spoke over the wolf, loudly.

“My own evidence,” he said. “There is a fox on the first floor who knows the Archbishop comes to prisoners awaiting execution. He uses the passageway and—nggh!”

The captain had put his weight behind Danilo, shoving his chest against the stone. “Where is the prisoner?” he shouted.

Danilo kept his ears back, listening for the Bishop’s response. The wolf exhaled and said, “Where is the otter?”

“Your Excellency,” Danilo pleaded.

“I have heard your evidence.” Lukin’s voice had gained confidence and strength. “Rest assured it will not go for naught. But the prisoner must still answer for his crimes. Where is he?”

“I don’t know.” Wildly he wondered if the Bishop would let Luc go if he offered to forget about the Archbishop. Danilo would make that trade. But Lukin, he suspected, would not.

A crowd had gathered in the street, and now a high voice piped up. “They went to the river. I saw ’em.”

“River, eh.” LeSevre growled. The pressure on Danilo’s neck eased slightly. “Won’t get far, then.”

Everything was coming undone. If Luc were recaptured, if Danilo still had to watch his friend burn, then none of this was worthwhile. He closed his eyes and said in his head, St. Épipode, I know you lie nearby. If you can, I need your help one last time.

He felt the weight of the Cathédrale, the pressure of the wolf behind him, and the cold of the stone against his paws. His paws. His paws.

The wolf’s muzzle was just over his shoulder. He turned the paw with the Archbishop’s semen on it and pushed it back at LeSevre’s nose. “Smell this,” he said, twisting his neck at the same time.

With a cry, LeSevre jerked back and reflexively pushed the knife forward, but it skimmed through Danilo’s neck fur and did not even graze the skin. The pressure eased, and Danilo leapt from the alcove, knifing through the crowd, his long legs carrying him down the street toward the bridge, his only thought to come within sight of the barge so he could tell them to cast off while he fended off LeSevre.

People attempted to block his way, but he dodged them easily enough; one mouse he knocked over when the mouse anticipated his dodge. Behind him, LeSevre cried, “Stop him!” But the people of Tigue appeared more interested in a show than in apprehending a fugitive, and Danilo heard a soft cheer as he passed the corner.

There was the bridge; there, beyond it, the barge. He sprinted for the bridge, leaned over the balustrade, and waved at the figures on the barge. “Cast off! Cast off!”

Théodore and Luc turned and saw him at the same time. He only had time to see the captain and Théodore both spring for the rope tying the barge to the shore before LeSevre’s paw seized his shoulder and spun him around, and the wolf’s weight knocked him hard to the stone. Pain flared through him: his groin, his shoulder, his side.

The wolf’s breath came hot across his muzzle. “On the barge, eh? No matter. My men can ride alongside as easy as sail behind.” His weight shifted atop Danilo, and the tiger was reminded of the stag who’d lain atop him. “You’ll see your friends in that prison soon enough.”

“Didn’t you…” Danilo coughed, struggling for leverage. “Smell? What your Archbishop does?” He managed to get LeSevre partly off him, before the wolf re-settled himself.

“Whatever you might have tricked him into, you mean.” The wolf paused and then the click of a knife drawn from its sheath punctuated his words. “His Excellency is not under my jurisdiction. You are, halfie, and you’ve just admitted to enough crimes to merit execution.”

There were people all around. Couldn’t anyone intervene? Danilo called, “Help!” once before the wolf’s paw smacked his muzzle into the stone.

“There’s no help for you. I’ll cheat the people of a show, but they’ll get one when we retrieve your friend.” Cold steel came to Danilo’s throat.

He closed his eyes and in that split-second, wondered again what would happen if he died in 1508. Would he simply vanish from 2008? Would his bones appear there in some forgotten grave?

“Get off him!” The cry came from behind them, enough to make the knife hesitate as LeSevre looked around.

“Too late,” he said, but Danilo twisted, and once again his neck spun out of the way of the knife as it slammed down. This time it sliced through his skin, leaving a painful weal, but left no other damage. One of his shoulders slid free of LeSevre’s weight, and he punched upward with the free arm, striking with less force than the movie-hero punch he’d hoped to land.

LeSevre shifted anyway, sliding off him, but as Danilo rolled to his feet, pressing a paw to his throat, he saw that it was not because of his punch. Rather, the wolf crouched facing Théodore, who held his long, narrow knife at the ready.

“Been waiting to get my paws on you,” LeSevre said. The wolf’s tail wagged, and though his back was to Danilo, his smile purred through his voice. “You’re a slippery one.”

“You’ve done enough,” the mouse said, keeping his eyes on the larger wolf. “Danilo, go.”

Danilo’s fingers were sticky with blood from the cut on his neck. He risked a glance at the river. The barge had sailed down the Saone toward the junction with the Rhône. In maybe ten or fifteen minutes it would be out of sight. But LeSevre wouldn’t let it go. He’d tell his guard, they would ride along the bank, and then not only Luc but Théodore as well would be captured, all because Danilo hadn’t simply followed their plan and gotten onto the barge. He’d had to try to punish the Archbishop, and now not only had that gone wrong, but it had ruined everything else.

He stepped toward LeSevre, but the wolf’s ears flicked back immediately and he half-turned, brandishing his sword at Théodore while pointing the knife in his off hand directly at Danilo’s chest. “No, my boy, you won’t get me so easily,” he said. “I took on five Iberian wolves at once and ended with three notches on my belt. The other two ran before I could dispatch them.”

“I fought the Iberians too,” Théodore said. “But I don’t see the need to inflate my accomplishments with incredible stories.”

LeSevre didn’t respond to this, but turned on Danilo, spinning and lunging with the sword. Danilo barely twisted aside, losing his balance, but before he fell to the stone, LeSevre had spun back to engage the mouse. Théodore leapt forward and scored a hit along the wolf’s knife arm, but the wolf slashed down with his sword.

The mouse cried out in pain; his knife clattered to the stone. Danilo watched as LeSevre jabbed at Théodore with the tip of his sword, adroitly heading off every attempt the mouse made to get close to his knife again. “What is it?” he asked, to the chuckles of the onlookers ringing the fight. “Want your knife? Go get it. Go on. Ah-hah.” His swordpoint sank into the mouse’s upper arm as Théodore got too close to the knife; the mouse jumped back, holding his arm and cursing. “Have to be quicker.”

If he thought about it…

Danilo didn’t think. He unsheathed his claws and scrambled to his feet, launching himself in a clumsy charge at LeSevre. The wolf had time to turn halfway and then Danilo was upon him, claws digging into the off arm, teeth sinking into the padded shirt and through it to the fur and flesh of the shoulder.

The wolf howled indignant fury and brought his sword around, smacking Danilo with the flat of it, first in the side, then in the head. Danilo pulled with his jaws, the shirt and flesh alike rending and coming away as he fell back to the ground.

“Son of a whore!” LeSevre cried, but a grey blur behind him caught his attention. Théodore had reclaimed his knife, and one of the watchers called to LeSevre to look out, giving the wolf enough warning to dodge the mouse’s attack. He brought the sword around again and slashed down, and again the mouse’s knife clattered to the ground as Théodore yelped and clutched his arm.

Danilo spit cloth and blood from his mouth and pushed at the ground, trying to get upright again. In front of him, LeSevre said, “Enough games,” and raised his sword in both paws.

His knife lay on the ground, a foot from Danilo. He must have dropped it when Danilo attacked him.

The tiger watched the sword rise, catch the sun at its zenith. He reached out for the knife, finding its handle warm. The sword began to descend. Danilo and the knife rose.

The sword drew level with the ground. The knife drew level with LeSevre’s ribs.

The sword jerked to the side.

The knife went in surprisingly easily, through a tear in the padded shirt that Danilo had made when he ripped it, through the thin undershirt, beneath the wolf’s ribs and up into his lungs. Danilo held on as he and the wolf toppled toward the balustrade.

The sword clattered to the stone.

Danilo saw again the wolf’s paw battering Luc’s muzzle, the glee at the capture and anticipated torture of Luc, and later Théodore and Danilo himself. He saw the promise to track down Luc and Théodore gleam and fade in those sinister eyes.

Blood bubbled from the wolf’s mouth. He grasped at the knife, but Danilo held it in.

Théodore stumbled to his side. “Pull it out,” he said.

“What?”

The mouse bent and grasped Danilo’s paw. With a jerk, the knife came free, and LeSevre collapsed as though that had been the only thing holding him upright. His breathing became a horrible, gruesome wheeze. More blood sprayed across the stone.

“There.” Théodore pulled Danilo upright. “I told you you could do it.”

“It was because he threatened you,” Danilo said.

The mouse favored him with a warm smile, then turned and glared out at the crowd. “He tried to kill us,” he said. “You bear witness.”

They murmured, not entirely convinced, Danilo thought. Standing to his full height, he saw over them to the street leading from the Cathédrale, where more uniforms were making their way down. “More of them come,” he said.

“Right.” Théodore grasped his paw and pulled. “Can you run?”

Danilo ached all over, no longer able to distinguish between old wounds and new. “For a bit,” he said. He turned to look at LeSevre, whose choking breaths were fainter. The wolf’s glazed eyes barely saw them.

Without another word, the mouse sprang to the top of the balustrade and ran along it to the end. Danilo muscled his way through the crowd, following as best he could to the stair and down to the river bank. A few of the onlookers followed them, but when one tried to pull Danilo back, the tiger shrugged him off easily, and none interfered with him after that.

Twenty feet ahead of him, Théodore ran down the bank of the river. The barge was not quite out of sight, and they were running barely faster than it was drifting, but Danilo remembered that the Rhône flowed faster than the Saone, and when the barge reached the junction, there would be no more question of catching it.

“We can…catch up to it later…” He gasped out the words, but Théodore heard him and called back.

“Soldiers…after us…safest is to…get on board…”

It looked as though the barge were holding up to try to give them a chance to reach them. Luc and the captain held ropes, and as Théodore pulled ahead of Danilo, they threw a rope into the water for him. The mouse ran another minute, two minutes, three, and then pulled slightly ahead of the rope and dove into the water.

He struggled, but surfaced holding the rope and swarmed up it as Luc and the captain pulled. Luc’s voice floated across the water. “Now to you, Danilo!”

Danilo had a terrible stitch in his side, not to mention his ringing head and the increasing pain in his groin with every jarring step. He forced himself to go on and on. The rope splashed into the water, yards ahead of him. He would never catch up. Footsteps had not died away behind him, shouts still followed him. People would tell the soldiers about the boat and then they would ride after it and what was the point? He might as well stop here and let himself be caught, and then he could at least rest.

But Luc’s face and now Théodore’s bobbed before him, shouting, encouraging, and he put on one last burst of speed. There was the rope, in the water, there in front of him, beside him, slightly behind him…he veered to the left and leapt.

Cold water engulfed him. He tasted dirt and garbage and algae, and kept his eyes squeezed tightly shut. His paws flailed in the water, struck the rope, lost it, found it again. But his muscles seized up and the claw he’d wrenched snagged on the fibrous rope. In the burst of pain, the rope slid past his pads and through.

He cast out, desperately groping for it, and his eyes flew open to a sea of white; the filmy robe had bunched up and clung to his face. He ripped it from him, staring through the water for any sign of the rope, but nothing showed in the faint glow of the sun breaking through the brown, filthy water. And then the sun split into two, and seemed to be looking down at him, and Danilo stopped struggling, and the twin suns faded away.

[Concluded in Part 4]

 

Share Button

15 Responses to Camouflage Part 3

  1. Cal says:

    Short but good, where would this leave off on your FA account?

    • Administrator says:

      Not sure I understand the question. Both the blog and FA account are updated together and whatever is there is here and vice versa.

  2. Antonella says:

    Gosh, I’m glad I have to wait only till Thursday! You sure have a penchant for cliff-hangers…

    Anyway I also wanted to say that I’m enjoying this story, event though this is probably the first comment I leave here. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Noxi says:

    I really hope Luc gets away.
    That cutoff after this first addition is making me curious to what happens next. Obviously something sudden…Danilo should slap the bishop >:P
    I love this! I’ve been reading for a long while, thanks for the content~

  4. Andy Corvin says:

    So, would you say this is the most visceral work you’ve ever written? Because if you wanted your (particularly male) readers squirming, then in this case at least, well-done! (squirms)

    • Administrator says:

      I tend to think of visceral being more emotional, and I’m not sure this digs into those kinds of emotions as much as, say, Red Devil. I do think it builds tension perhaps more effectively now than I’ve been able to previously. That’s something I’m trying to learn and get better at.

  5. Monochrome Mouse says:

    I really hope this isn’t going to end with Danilo “dying” and waking up in his own time period and the whole thing having been a nightmare, I can’t stand that kind of ending, particularly in a story with this much character development. I’m expecting you will send him back to his own time period in some way but I really hope you pick a more creative way to do it.

    • Noxi says:

      I’m hoping that Danilo escapes with Luc and somehow they both end up in Danilo’s time period! There, they can live happily together~<3

  6. Fennec says:

    Kyell, I own every single one of your books. Some I have bought twice after lending them to friends and not receiving them back.

    But this is killing me! It just reminds me of the depravity of humanity, all the atrocities committed all around the world, not only against people like us, but against anyone. It’s heart-breaking.

    I feel that Danilo’s juvinileness gets me the most, perhaps also the feelings of being trapped and with nowhere to go, that come off in waves from this story.

    I look forward to the next part! And I hope that I don’t feel too many more twinges in my sheathe, nor heart (one and the same), the next time.

  7. Noxi says:

    Note to Kyell; you posted the latest entry twice. You should fix it 😛

  8. Cristian Segura says:

    OMG! What’s gonna happen? I must know!

    Great story Kyell. I’m at the edge of my seat!

  9. Andy Corvin says:

    Well. This just gets more and more creepy.

    I shall continue to hope for a (relatively) happy ending!

  10. Grim says:

    This is getting intense can’t wait til the next update.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *