The Mouser, reclining on his side in his litter, the tail of one of the fore-rats swaying a respectful arm’s length from his head, noted that, without leaving the Fifth Level, they had arrived at a wide corridor stationed with pike-rats stiffly on guard and having thirteen heavily curtained doorways. The first nine curtains were of white and silver, the next of black and gold, the last three of white and gold.
Despite his weariness and grandiose feeling of security, the Mouser had been fairly watchful along the trip, suspecting though not very seriously that Skwee or Lord Null might have him followed — and then there was Hreest to be reckoned with, who might have discovered some clue at the water-privy despite the highly artistic job the Mouser felt he had done. From time to time there had been rats who might have been following his litter, but all these had eventually taken other turns in the mazy corridors. The last to engage his lazy suspicions had been two slim rats clad in black silken cloaks, hoods, masks, and gloves, but these without a glance toward him now disappeared arm-in-arm through the black-and-gold curtains, whispering together in a gossipy way.
His litter stopped at the next doorway, the third from the end. So Skwee and Siss outranked Grig, but he out-ranked Lord Null. This might be useful to know, though it merely confirmed the impression he had got at the council.
He sat, then stood up with the aid of his staff, rather exaggerating his leg cramp now, and tossed the fore-rat a corn-wreathed silver coin he had selected from Grig’s purse. He assumed that tips would be the custom of any species of being whatever, in particular rats. Then without a backward look he hobbled through the heavy curtains, noting in passing that they were woven of fine soft gold wire and braided fine white silk threads. There was a short, dim passageway similarly curtained at the other end. He pushed through the second set of curtains and found himself alone in a cozy-feeling but rather shabby square room with curtained doorways in each of the other three walls and lit by a bronze-caged fire-beetle over each doorway. There were two closed cupboards, a writing desk with stool, many scrolls in silver containers that looked suspiciously like thimbles from the human world, crossed swords and a battle-ax fixed to the dingy walls, and a fireplace in which a single giant coal glowed redly through its coat of white ash. Above the fireplace, or rather brazier-nook, emerged from the wall a bronze-ringed hemisphere about as big as the Mouser’s own rat-size head. The hemisphere was yellowish, with a large greenish-brown circle on it, and centered in this circle a black one. with a qualm of horror, the Mouser recognized it as a mummified human eye.
In the center of the room was a pillowed couch with the high back support of one who does a lot of reading lying down, and beside the couch a sizable low table with nothing on it but three bells, one copper, one silver, and one gold.
Putting his horror out of mind, for it is a singularly useless emotion, the Mouser took up the silver bell and rang it vigorously, deciding to see what taking the middle course would bring.
He had little more time than to decide that the room was that of a crusty bachelor with studious inclinations when there came backing through the curtains in the rear wall a fat old rat in spotless long white smock with a white cap on his head. This one turned and showed his silver snout and bleared eyes, and also the silver tray he was carrying, on which were steaming plates and a large steaming silver jug.
The Mouser pointed curtly at the table. The cook, for so he seemed to be, set the tray there and then came hesitantly toward the Mouser, as if to help him off with his robe. The Mouser waved him away and pointed sternly at the rear doorway. He’d be damned if he’d go to the trouble of lisping in Grig’s own home. Besides, servants might have a sharper ear than colleagues for a false voice. The cook bowed bumblingly and departed.
The Mouser settled himself gratefully on the couch, deciding against removing as yet his gloves or boots. Now that he was reclining, the latter bothered him hardly at all. However, he did remove his mask and placed it close by — it was good to get more than a squinty view of things — and set to at Grig’s dinner.
The steaming jug turned out to contain mulled wine. It was most soothing to his raw, dry throat and wearied nerves, though excessively aromatic — the single black clove bobbing in the jug was large as a lime and the cinnamon stick big as one of the parchment scrolls. Then, using Cat’s Claw and the two-tined fork provided, he began cutting up and devouring the steaming cutlets of beef — for his nose told him it was that and not, for instance, baby. From another steaming plate he sampled one of the objects that looked like small sweet potatoes. It turned out to be a single grain of boiled wheat. Likewise, one of the yellowish cubes about as big as dice proved a grain of coarse sugar, while the black balls big as the end joint of his thumb were caviar. He speared them one at a time with his fork and munched, alternating this with mouthfuls of the beef. It was very strange to eat good tender beef, the fibers of which were thick as his fingers.
Having consumed the meaty portions of Grig’s dinner and drunk all the mulled wine, the Mouser resumed his mask and settled back to plot his escape to Lankhmar Above. But the golden bell kept teasing his thoughts away from practical matters, so he reached out and rang it. Yield to curiosity without giving the mind time to get roiled, was one of his mottoes.
Hardly had the sweet _chinks_ died away when the heavy curtains of one of the side doors parted and there appeared a slim straight rat — or ratess, rather, he judged — dressed in robe, hood, mask, slippers and gloves all of fine lemon yellow silk.
This one, holding the curtains parted, looked toward him and said softly, “Lord Grig, your mistress awaits you.”
The Mouser’s first reaction was one of gratified conceit. So Grig did have a mistress, and his spur-of-the-moment answer to Skwee’s “Wife?” question at the council had been a brilliant stroke of intuition. Whether human-large or rat-small, he could outsmart anyone. He possessed Mouser-mind, unequaled in the universe.
Then the Mouser stood up and approached the slender, yellow-clad figure. There was something cursedly familiar about her. He wondered if she were the ratess in green he’d seen leading short-leashed the brace of shrews. She had a pride and poise about her.
Using the same stratagem he had with the cook, he silently pointed from her to the doorway that she should precede him. She acquiesced and he followed close behind her down a dim twisty corridor.
And cursedly attractive too, he decided, eyeing her slender silhouette and sniffing her musky perfume. Rather belatedly, he reminded himself that she was a rat and so should waken his uttermost repugnance. But was she necessarily a rat? He had been transformed in size, why not others? And if this were merely the maid, what would the mistress be? Doubtless lard-fat or hag-hairy, he told himself cynically. Still his excitement grew.
Sparing a moment’s thought to orient himself, he discovered that the side door they’d gone out by led toward the black-curtained apartments of Lord Null — presumably — rather than to those of Siss and Skwee.
At last the yellow-clad ratess parted gold-heavy black drapes, then light violet silken ones. The Mouser passed her and found himself staring about through the notched eye-holes of Grig’s mask at a large bedroom, beautifully and delicately furnished in many ways, yet the weirdest and perhaps the most frightening he had ever seen.
It was draped and carpeted and ceilinged and upholstered all in silver and violet, the latter color the exact complement of the yellow of his conductress’ gowning. It was lit indirectly from below by narrow deep tanks of slimy glow-worms big as eels, set against the walls. Against these tanks were several vanity tables, each backed by its large silver mirror, so that the Mouser saw more than one reflection of his white-robed self and his slim cicerone, who had just let the silken violet curtains waft together again. The tabletops were strewn with cosmetics and the tools of beauty, variously colored elixirs and tiny cups — all except one, near a second silver-draped door, which held nothing but two score or so black and white vials.
But between the vanity tables there hung on silver chains, close to the walls and brightly lit by the glow-worm’s up-jutting effulgence, large silver cages of scorpions, spiders, mantises, and suchlike glittering vermin, all large as puppy dogs or baby kangaroos. In one spacious cage coiled a Quarmall pocket-viper huge as a python. These clashed their fangs or hissed, according to their kind, while one scorpion angrily clattered its sting across the gleaming bars of its cage, and the viper darted its trebly forked tongue between those of its own.
One short wall, however, was bare except for two pictures tall and wide as doors, the one depicting against a dusky background a girl and crocodile amorously intertwined, the other a man and a leopardess similarly preoccupied.
Almost central in the room was a large bed covered only by a tight-drawn white linen sheet, the woven threads looking coarse as burlap, yet inviting nonetheless, and with one fat white pillow.
Lying supine and at ease on this bed, her head propped against the pillow to survey the Mouser through the eye-holes of her mask, was a figure somewhat slighter than that of his guide, yet otherwise identical and identically clad, except that the silk of her garb was finer still and violet instead of yellow.
“Well met below ground. Sweet greetings, Gray Mouser,” this one called softly in a familiar silvery voice. Then, looking beyond him, “Sweetest slave, make our guest comfortable.”
Softest footsteps approached. The Mouser turned a little and saw that his conductress had removed her yellow mask, revealing the merry yet melancholy-eyed dark face of Frix. Her black hair this time hung in two long plaits, braided with fine copper wire.
Without more ado than a smile, she began deftly to unbutton Grig’s long white robe. The Mouser lifted his arms a little and let himself be undressed as effortlessly as in a dream, and with even less attention paid the process, for he was most eagerly scanning the violet-masked figure on the bed. He knew to a certainty who it must be, beyond all contributing evidence, for the silver dart was throbbing in his temple and the hunger which had haunted him for days returned redoubled.
The situation was strange almost beyond comprehension. Although guessing that Frix and the other must have used an elixir like Sheelba’s, the Mouser could have sworn they were all three human size, except for the presence of the familiar vermin, scuttlers and slitherers, so huge.
It was a great relief to have his cramping rat-boots deftly drawn off, as he lifted first one leg, then the other. Yet although he submitted so docilely to Frix’s ministrations, he kept hold of his sword Scalpel and of the belt it hung from and also, on some cloudy impulse, of Grig’s mask. He felt the smaller scabbard empty on the belt and realized with a pang of apprehension that he had left Cat’s Claw behind in Grig’s apartment along with the latter’s ivory staff.
But these worries vanished like the last snowflake in spring when the one on the bed asked cajolingly, “Will you partake of refreshment, dearest guest?” and when he said, “I will most gladly,” lifted a violet-gloved hand and ordered, “Dear Frix, fetch sweetmeats and wine.”
While Frix busied herself at a far table, the Mouser whispered, his heart a-thump, “Ah, most delectable Hisvet — For I deem you are she?”
“As to that, you must judge for yourself,” the tinkling voice responded coquettishly.
“Then I shall call you Hisvet,” the Mouser answered boldly, “recognizing you as my queen of queens and princess of princesses. Know, delicious Demoiselle, that ever since our raptures ‘neath the closet tree were so rudely broken off by an interruption of Mingols, my mind, nay, my mania has been fixed solely on you.”
“That were some small compliment — ” the other allowed, lolling back luxuriously, “if I could believe it.”
“Believe it you must,” the Mouser asserted masterfully, stepping forward. “Know, moreover, that it is my intention that on this occasion our converse not be conducted over Frix’s shoulder, dear companion that she is, but at the closest range. I am fixedly desirous of all refreshments, omitting none.”
“You cannot think I am Hisvet!” the other countered, starting up in what the Mouser hoped was mock indignation “Else you would never dare such blasphemy!”
“I dare far more!” the Mouser declared with a soft amorous growl, stepping forward more swiftly. The vermin hanging round about moved angrily, striking against their silver bars and setting their cages a little a-swing, and clashing, clattering, and hissing more. Nevertheless the Mouser, dropping his belt and sword by the edge of the bed and setting a knee thereon, would have thrust himself directly upon Hisvet, had not Frix come bustling up at that moment and set between them on the coarse linen a great silver tray with slim decanters of sweet wine and crystal cups for its drinking and plates of sugary tidbits.
Not entirely to be balked, the Mouser darted his hand across and snatched away the vizard of violet silk from the visage it hid. Violet-gloved hands instantly snatched the mask back from him, but did not replace it, and there confronting him was indeed the slim triangular face of Hisvet, cheeks flushed, red-irised eyes glaring, but pouty lips grinning enough to show the slightly overlarge pearly upper incisors, the whole being framed by silver-blonde hair interwoven like that of Frix, but with even finer wire of silver, into two braids that reached to her waist.
“Nay,” she said laughingly, “I see you are most wickedly presumptuous and that I must protect myself.” Reaching down on her side of the bed, she procured a long slender-bladed gold-hilted dagger. Waving it playfully at the Mouser, she said, “Now refresh yourself from the cups and plates before you, but have a care of sampling other sweetmeats, dear guest.”
The Mouser complied, pouring for himself and Hisvet. He noted from a corner of his eye that Frix, moving silently in her silken robe, had rolled up Grig’s white boots and gloves in his white hood and robe and set them on a stool near the floor-to-ceiling painting of the man and the leopardess and that she had made as neat a bundle of all the rest of the Mouser’s garb — his own garb, mostly — and set them on a stool next the first. A most efficient and foresighted maid, he thought, and most devoted to her mistress — in fact altogether too devoted: he wished at this moment she would take herself off and leave him private with Hisvet.
But she showed no sign of so doing, nor Hisvet of ordering her away, so without more ado the Mouser began a mild love-play, catching at the violet-gloved fingers of Hisvet’s left hand as they dipped toward the sweetmeats or plucking at the ribbons and edges of her violet robe, in the latter case reminding her of the discrepancy in their degree of undress and suggesting that it be corrected by the subtraction of an item or two from her outfit. Hisvet in turn would deftly jab with her dagger at his snatching hand, as if to pin it to tray or bed, and he would whip it back barely in time. It was an amusing game, this dance of hand and needle-sharp dagger — or at least it seemed amusing to the Mouser, especially after he had drained a cup or two of fiery colorless wine — and so when Hisvet asked him how he had come into the rat-world, he merrily told her the story of Sheelba’s black potion and how he had first thought its effects a most damnably unfair wizardly joke, but now blessed them as the greatest good ever done him in his life — for he twisted the tale somewhat to make it appear that his sole objective all along had been to win to her side and bed.
He ended by asking, as he parted two fingers to let Hisvet’s dagger strike between them, “How ever did you and dear Frix guess that I was impersonating Grig?”
She replied, “Most simply, gracious gamesman. We went to fetch my father from the council, for there is still an important journey he, Frix, and I must make tonight. At a distance we heard you speak and I divined your true voice despite your clever lispings. Thereafter we followed you.”
“Ah, surely I may hope you love me as dearly, since you trouble to know me so well,” the Mouser warbled infatuatedly, slipping hand aside from a cunning slash. “But tell me, divine one, how comes it that you and Frix and your father are able to live and hold great power in the rat-world?”
With her dagger she pointed somewhat languidly toward the vanity table holding the black and white vials, informing him, “My family has used the same potion as Sheelba’s for countless centuries, and also the white potion, which restores us at once to human-size. During those same centuries we have interbred with the rats, resulting in divinely beautiful monsters such as I am, but also in monsters most ugly, at least by human standards. Those latter of my family stay always below ground, but the rest of us enjoy the advantages and delights of living in two worlds. The inter-breeding has also resulted in many rats with human-like hands and minds. The spreading of civilization to the rats is largely our doing, and we shall rule as chiefs and chieftesses paramount, or even goddesses and gods, when the rats rule men.”
This talk of interbreeding and monsters startled the Mouser somewhat and gave him to think, despite his ever more firmly gyved ensorcelment by Hisvet. He recalled Lukeen’s old suggestion, made aboard _Squid_, that Hisvet concealed a she-rat’s body under her maiden robes and he wondered — somewhat fearfully yet most curiously — just what form Hisvet’s slim body did take. For instance, did she have a tail? But on the whole he was certain that whatever he discovered under her violet robe would please him mightily, since now his infatuation with the grain-merchant’s daughter had grown almost beyond all bounds.
However, he outwardly showed none of this wondering, but merely asked, as if idly, “So your father is also Lord Null, and you and he and Frix regularly travel back and forth between the big and little worlds?”
“Show him, dear Frix,” Hisvet commanded lazily, lifting slim fingers to mask a yawn, as though the hand-and-dagger game had begun to bore her.
Frix moved back against the wall until her head with its natural jet-black sheath and copper-gleaming plaits, for she had thrown back her hood, was between the cages of the pocket-viper and the most enraged scorpion. Her dark eyes were a sleepwalker’s, fixed on things infinitely remote. The scorpion darted his moist white sting between the bars rat-inches from her ear, the viper’s trifid tongue vibrated angrily against her cheek, while his fangs struck the silver rounds and dripped venom that wetted oilily her yellow silken shoulder, but she seemed to take no note whatever of these matters. The fingers of her right hand, however, moved along a row of medallions decorating the glow-worm tank behind her, and without looking down, she pressed two at once.
The painting of the girl and crocodile moved swiftly upward, revealing the foot of a dark steep stairway.
“That leads without branchings to my father’s and my house,” Hisvet explained.
The painting descended. Frix pressed two other medallions and the companion painting of man and leopardess rose, revealing a like stairway.
“While that one ascends directly by way of a golden rat-hole to the private apartments of whoever is Lankhmar’s seeming overlord, now Glipkerio Kistomerces,” Hisvet told the Mouser as the second painting slid down into place. “So you see, beloved, our power goes everywhere.” And she lifted her dagger and touched it lightly to his throat. The Mouser let it rest there a space before taking its tip between fingers and thumb and moving it aside. Then he as gently caught hold of the tip of one of Hisvet’s braids, she offering no resistance, and began to unweave the fine silver wires from the finer silver-blonde hairs.
Frix still stood like a statue between fang and sting, seeming to see things beyond reality.
“Is Frix one of your breed? — combining in some fashion the finest of human and ratly qualities,” the Mouser asked quietly, keeping up with the task which, he told himself, would eventually and after an admittedly weary amount of unbraiding, allow him to arrive at his heart’s desire.
Hisvet shook her head languorously, laying aside her dagger. “Frix is my dearest slave and almost sister, but not by blood. Indeed she is the dearest slave in all Nehwon, for she is a princess and perchance by now a queen in her own world. While a-travel between worlds, she was ship-wrecked here and beset by demons, from whom my father rescued her, at the price that she serve me forever.”
At this, Frix spoke at last, though without moving else but her lips and tongue, not even her eyes to look at them. “Or until, sweetest mistress, I three times save your life at entire peril of my own. That has happened once now, aboard _Squid_, when the dragon would have gobbled you.”
“You would never leave me, dear Frix,” Hisvet said confidently.
“I love you dearly and serve you faithfully,” Frix replied. “Yet all things come to an end, blessed Demoiselle.”
“Then I shall have the Gray Mouser to protect me, and you unneeded,” Hisvet countered somewhat pettishly, lying on an elbow. “Leave us for the nonce, Frix, for I would speak privately with him.”
With merriest smile Frix came from between the deadly cages, made a curtsy toward the bed, resumed her yellow mask and swiftly went off through the second unsecret doorway, curtained with filmy silver.
Still lifted on her elbow, Hisvet turned toward the Mouser her slender form and her taper-face alight with beauty. He reached toward her eagerly, but she captured his questing hands in her cool fingers and fondling them asked, or rather stated, her eyes feeding on his, “You will love me forever, will you not, who dared the dark and fearsome tunnels of the rat-world to win me?”
“That will I surely, O Empress of Endless Delights,” the Mouser answered fervently, maddened by desire and believing his words to the ends of the universe of his feelings — almost.
“Then I think it proper to relieve you of _this_,” Hisvet said, putting the fingers of her two hands to his temple, “for it would be an offense against myself and my supreme beauty to depend on a charm when I may now wholly depend on _you_.”
And with only the tiniest tweak of pain inflicted, she deftly squeezed with her fingernails the silver dart from under the Mouser’s skin, as any woman might squeeze out a blackhead or whitehead from the visage of her lover. She showed him the dart gleaming on her palm. He for his part felt no change in his feelings whatever. He still adored her as divinity — and the fact that previously in his life he had never put any but momentary trust in any divinity whatever seemed of no importance at all, at least at this moment.
Hisvet laid a cool hand on the Mouser’s side, but her red eyes were no longer languorously misty; they were sparklingly bright. And when he would have touched her similarly she prevented him, saying in most businesslike fashion, “No, no, not quite yet! First we must plan, my sweet — for you can serve me in ways which even Frix will not. To begin, you must slay me my father, who thwarts me and confines my life unbearably, so that I may be imperatrix of all and you by most favored consort. There will be no end to our powers. Tonight, Lankhmar! Tomorrow, all Nehwon! Then … the conquest of other universes beyond the waters of space! The subjugation of the angels and demons, of heaven itself and hell! At first it may be well that you impersonate my father, as you have Grig — and done most cleverly, by my own witnessing, pet. You are of men the most like me in the world for deceptions, darling. Then — ”
She broke off at something she saw in the Mouser’s face. “You will of course obey me in all things?” she asked sharply, or rather asserted.
“Well…” the Mouser began.
The silver drape billowed to the ceiling and Frix dashed in on silent-silken slippers, her yellow robe and hood lying behind her.
“Your masks! Your masks!” she cried. “‘Ware! ‘Ware!” And she whirled over them to their necks an opaque violet coverlet, hiding Hisvet’s violet-robed form, the Mouser’s unclad body, and the tray between them. “Your father comes with armed attendants, lady!” And she knelt by the head of the bed nearest Hisvet and bowed her yellow-masked head, assuming a servile posture.
Hardly were the white and violet masks in place and the silver curtains settled to the floor than the latter were jerked rudely aside. Hisvin and Skwee appeared, both unmasked, followed by three pike-rats. Despite the presence of the huge vermin in their cages, the Mouser found it hard to banish the illusion that all the rats were actually five feet and more tall.
Hisvin’s face grew dusky red as he surveyed the scene. “Oh, most monstrous!” he cried at Hisvet. “Shameless filth! Loose with my own colleague!”
“Don’t be dramatic, Daddy,” Hisvet countered, while to the Mouser she whispered tersely, “Slay him now. I’ll clear you with Skwee and the rest.”
The Mouser, fumbling under the coverlet over the side of the bed for Scalpel, while presenting a steady white be-diamonded mask at Hisvin, said blandly, “Calm yourthelf, counthillor. If your divine daughter chootheth me above all other ratth and men, ith it my fault, Hithvin? Or herth either? Love knowth no ruleth.”
“I’ll have your head for this, Grig,” Hisvin screeched at him, advancing toward the bed.
“Daddy, you’ve become a puritanical dodderer,” Hisvet said sharply, almost primly, “to indulge in antique tantrums on this night of our great conquest. Your day is done. I must take your place on the Council. Tell him so, Skwee. Daddy darling, I think you’re just madly jealous of Grig because you’re not where he is.”
Hisvin screamed, “O dirt that was my daughter!” and snatching with youthful speed a stiletto from his waist, drove it at Hisvet’s neck betwixt violet mask and coverlet — except that Frix, lunging suddenly on her knees, swung her open left hand hard between, as one bats a ball.
The needlelike blade drove through her palm to the slim dagger’s hilt and was wrenched from Hisvin’s grasp.
Still on one knee, the bright blade transfixing her out-stretched left palm and dripping red a little, Frix turned toward Hisvin and advancing her other hand graciously, she said in clear, winning tones, “Govern your rage for all our sakes, dear my dear mistress’s father. These matters can be composed by quiet reason, surely. You must not quarrel together on this night of all nights.”
Hisvin paled and retreated a step, daunted most likely by Frix’s preternatural composure, which indeed was enough to send shivers up a man’s or even a rat’s spine.
The Mouser’s fumbling hand closed around Scalpel’s hilt. He prepared to spring out and dash back to Grig’s apartment, snatching up his bundle of clothes on the way. At some point during the last score or so heartbeats, his great undying love for Hisvet had quietly perished and was now beginning to stink in his nostrils.
But at that instant the violet drapes were torn apart and there rushed from the Mouser’s chosen escape route the rat Hreest in his gold-embellished black garb and brandishing rapier and dirk. He was followed by three gaurdsmen-rats in green uniforms, each with a like naked sword. The Mouser recognized the dirk Hreest held — it was his own Cat’s Claw.
Frix moved swiftly behind the head of the bed to the post she’d earlier taken between viper and scorpion cage, the stiletto still transfixing her left hand like a great pin. The Mouser heard her murmur rapidly, “The plot thickens. Enter armed rats at all portals. A climax nears.”
Hreest came to a sudden halt and cried ringingly at Skwee and Hisvin, “The dismembered remains of Councillor Grig have been discovered lodged against the Fifth Level sewer’s exit-grill! The human spy is impersonating him in Grig’s own clothes!”
Not at the moment, except for mask, the Mouser thought, and making one last effort cried out, “Nonthenthe! Thith ith midthummer madneth! I am Grig! It wath thome other white rat got tho foully thlain!”
Holding up Cat’s Claw and eyeing the Mouser, Hreest continued, “I discovered this dagger of human device in Grig’s apartment. The spy is clearly here.”
“Kill him in the bed,” Skwee commanded harshly, but the Mouser, anticipating a little the inevitable, had rolled out from under his sheets and now took up guard position naked, the white mask cast aside, Scalpel gleaming long and deadly in his right hand, while his left, in lieu of his dirk, held his belt and Scalpel’s limp scabbard, both doubled.
With a weird laugh Hreest lunged at him, rapier a-flicker, while Skwee drew sword and came leaping across the foot of the bed, his boot crunching glass against tray beneath the coverlet.
Hreest got a bind on Scalpel, carrying both long swords out to the side, and stepping in close stabbed with Cat’s Claw. The Mouser struck his own dirk aside with his doubled belt and drove his left shoulder into Hreest’s chest, slamming him back against two of his green uniformed sword-rats, who were thereby forced to give ground too.
At almost the same instant the Mouser parried high to the side with Scalpel, deflecting Skwee’s rapier when its point was inches from his neck. Then swiftly changing fronts, he fenced a moment with Skwee, beat the rat’s blade aside, and lunged strongly. The white-clad rat was already in retreat across the foot of the bed, from the head of which Hisvet, now unmasked, watched critically, albeit a little sulkily, but the Mouser’s point nevertheless reached Skwee’s sword-wrist and pinked it halfway through.
By this time the third green-clad rat, a giant relatively seven feet tall, who had to duck through the doorway, came lunging fiercely, though a little slowly. Meanwhile Hreest was picking himself up from the floor, while Skwee dropped his dagger and switched his rapier to his unwounded hand.
The Mouser parried the giant’s lunge, a hair’s-breadth from his naked chest, and riposted. The giant counter-parried in time, but the Mouser dropped Scalpel’s tip under the other’s blade and continuing his riposte, skewered him through the heart.
The giant’s jaw gaped, showing his great incisors. His eyes filmed. Even his fur seemed to dull. His weapons dropped from his nerveless hands and he stood dead on his feet a moment before starting to fall. In that moment the Mouser, squatting a little on his right leg, kicked out forcefully with his left. His heel took the giant in the breastbone, pushing his corpse off Scalpel and sending it careening back against Hreest and his two greenclad sword-rats.
One of the pike-rats leveled his weapon for a run at the Mouser, but at that moment Skwee commanded loudly, “No more single attacks! Form we a circle around him!”
The others were swift to obey, but in that brief pause Frix dropped open the silver-barred door that was one end of the scorpion’s cage, and despite her dagger-transfixed hand lifted the cage and heaved it sharply, sending its fearsome occupant flying to land on the foot of the bed, where it jigged about, big by comparison as a large cat, clashing its claws; rattling its chelicerae, and menacing with its sting over its head. Most of the rats directed their weapons at it. Snatching up her dagger, Hisvet crouched at the opposite corner from it, preparing to defend herself from her pet. Hisvin dodged in back of Skwee.
At the same time Frix dropped her good hand to the medallons on the glow-worm tank. The Mouser didn’t need the prompting of her wild smile and over-bright eyes. Snatching up the gray bundle of his clothes, he dashed up the dark steel stairs three at a time. Something hissed past his head and struck with a _zing_ the riser of a stone step above and clattered down. It was Hisvet’s long dagger and it had struck point-first. The stairway grew dark and he began taking its steps only two at a time, crouching low as he could and peering wide-eyed ahead. Faintly he heard Skwee’s shrill command, “After him!”
Frix with a grimace drew Hisvin’s stiletto from her palm, lightly kissed the bleeding wound, and with a curtsey presented the weapon to its owner.
The bedroom was empty save for those two and Hisvet, who was drawing her violet robe around her, and Skwee, who was knotting with spade teeth and good hand a bandage round his injured wrist.
Pierced by a dozen thrusts and oozing dark blood on the violet carpet, the scorpion still writhed on its back, its walking legs and great claws a-tremble, its sting sliding a little back and forth.
Hreest, the two green sword-rats, and the three pike-rats had gone in pursuit of the Mouser and the clatter of their boots up the steep stairs had died away.
Frowning darkly, Hisvin said to Hisvet, “I still should slay you.”
“Oh Daddy dear, you don’t understand at all what happened,” Hisvet said tremulously. “The Gray Mouser forced me at sword’s point. It was a rape. And at sword’s point under the coverlet he compelled me to say those dreadful things to you. You saw I did my best to kill him at the end.”
“Pah!” Hisvin spat, turning half aside.
“_She’s_ the one should be slain,” Skwee asserted, indicating Frix, “She worked the spy’s escape.”
“Most true, oh mighty councillor,” Frix agreed. “Else he would have killed at least half of you, and your brains are greatly needed — in fact, indispensable, are they not? — to direct tonight’s grand assault on Lankhmar Above?” She held out her red-dripping palm to Hisvet and said softly, “That’s twice, dear mistress.”
“For that you shall be rewarded,” Hisvet said, setting her lips primly. “And for helping the spy escape — and not preventing my rape! — you shall be whipped until you can no longer scream — tomorrow.”
“Right joyfully, milady — tomorrow,” Frix responded with a return of something of her merry tones. “But tonight there is work must be done. At Glipkerio’s palace in the Blue Audience Chamber. work for all three of us. And at once, I believe, milord,” she added deferentially, turning to Hisvin.
“That’s true,” Hisvin said with a start. He scowled back and forth between his daughter and her maid three times, then with a shrug, said, “Come.”
“How can you trust them?” Skwee demanded.
“I must,” Hisvin said. “They’re needful if I am properly to control Glipkerio. Meanwhile your place is that of supreme command, at the council table. Siss will be needing you. Come!” he repeated to the two girls. Frix worked the medallions. The second painting rose. They went all three up the stairs.
Skwee paced the bed-chamber alone, head bowed in angry thought, automatically overstepping the corpse of the giant sword-rat and circling the still-writhing scorpion. When he at last stopped and lifted his gaze, it was to rest it on the vanity table bearing the black and white bottles of the size-change magic. He approached that table with the gait of a sleepwalker or one who walks through water. For a space he played aimlessly with the vials, rolling them this way and that. Then he said aloud to himself, “Oh why is it that one can be wise and command a vast host and strive unceasingly and reason with diamond brilliance, and still be low as a silverfish, blind as a cutworm? The obvious is in front of our toothy muzzles and we never see it — because we rats have accepted our littleness, hypnotized ourselves with our dwarfishness, our incapacity, and our inability to burst from our cramping drain-tunnels, to leap from the shallow but deadly jail-rut, whose low walls lead us only to the stinking rubbish heap or narrow burial crypt.”
He lifted his ice-blue eyes and glared coldly at his silver-furred image in the silver mirror. “For all your greatness, Skwee,” he told himself, “you have thought small all your rat’s life. Now for once, Skwee, think big!” And with that fierce self-command, he picked up one of the white vials and pouched it, hesitated, swept all the white vials into his pouch, hesitated again, then with a shrug and a sardonic grimace swept the black vials after them and hurried from the room.
On its back on the violet carpet, the scorpion still vibrated its legs feebly.