Sharina realized she was holding the Pewle knife bare in her hand. She slid it back in its sealskin sheath.
Sharina swung her legs over the side of the bed and tucked her feet into the sandals waiting there. She didn’t stand because she was already looking down at the rat – at Burne. "You haven’t always been a rat, then?" she said.
"No, no," said the rat, tossing the pantaloons on top of the vest and then beginning to groom himself. Between licks he said, "This was my mother’s idea, I’m afraid. She thought it was time I took a wife. I wasn’t interested in any wife, and as for the woman mother had picked, well, I absolutely would not have anything to do with her. So mother lost her temper and cursed me."
Sharina wondered if she was dreaming. The knife she still held had real weight, and out in the street she heard cartwheels clattering on the stone. The royal palace in Valles constructed of many small buildings within a walled compound; it was well insulated from the great city beyond. The houses of the pirate lords of Pandah, though certainly luxurious, were built around courtyards with their outer walls on the public streets.
"Oh, something like that," said Burne. He eyed his tail critically, straightening it and then curling it closely around him again. "Anyway, being a rat isn’t such a bad life. Certainly it’s better than being married to the very strong-willed lady mother picked for me. A harridan in training, I called her."
"I’m afraid I have something of a temper too, you know," he said. "Maybe if I’d been a little more diplomatic, mother wouldn’t have become quite as angry. Still, what’s done is done. And as I said, it isn’t so bad. I quite like my fur, don’t you?"
"I joined that family of mountebanks as a more comfortable environment than living with rats," Burne said. "Not that I couldn’t have done so, but quite frankly the norms of rat society aren’t much to my liking. And then there’s the matter of the females. I’d have been the leading male, I assure you, but that entails duties which I would have found quite unpleasant. Even more unpleasant than my mother’s blond termagant."
He wiped his whiskers in front of his muzzle and licked them also, right half and then left. "No," he said, "I preferred a cage and rather better food than the mountebanks themselves were eating. They valued me, you see. They’ll be quite distraught to learn that I’ve escaped, as they’ll view it."
"Now don’t you go thinking that I’m treating them unfairly!" Burne squeaked sharply, sitting up straight on the pillow. "They didn’t capture me, of course, and the fact they believe they did is an amazing insult. Surely it would be obvious to the meanest intellect that no lock a human could open would be beyond my –"
"I think . . . ," said Sharina, answering the implied question instead of treating it as a rhetorical device. It settled her mind to deal with the business on an intellectual level. "That they weren’t able to think of you as other than an animal. Even when you spoke and practiced the tumbling routines with them. They didn’t let themselves believe what they really knew."
"Of course we practiced," Burne said waspishly. "No matter how skilled one might be – and I’ll admit that the Serulli family was skilled; it wasn’t by chance I picked them for my purposes, you know. But despite that, the timing can only come from practice."
He settled himself onto his belly, his limbs drawn up under him. "They treated me well – except for the lack of intellectual companionship, of course. But they more than got value from my association with them. I owe them nothing, Princess, so you needn’t feel that you’ve harmed them because I’ve decided to associate with you instead."
Burne waited till the bed had stilled before sitting up on his haunches. "Yes, I’m joining you now," he said. "I won’t pretend that I don’t have my own reasons for doing so, just as I preferred the mountebanks to living with rats. Other rats. There’s a difficult time coming for this world, and I suspect that there’ll be more safety with you than there will be anywhere else."
On a silver tray by the bedside was an earthenware jar with a tumbler up-ended over its neck. Though the tumbler was glazed, the jar itself was not; water wept through the sides, cooling the remaining contents. Sharina filled the tumbler and drank.
But Barca’s Hamlet wasn’t home any more, and even when Sharina was an inn-servant she’d probably have hesitated before trying to crush a talking rat. She grinned. I hope I’d have had that much sense, she thought.
Burne shot up from the bedside table, rattling the tray with the suddenness of his leap. Sharina jerked back instinctively, but the rat struck the wall more than arm’s length from her and dropped to the floor. Gripped in its forepaws was a finger-long scorpion.