A frown was set on Iphigenia’s wizened face. “Indeed,” she murmured. “That is a chief concern. But it is a symptom of a much larger problem.”
The group walked toward the heat of the central fireplace, a circular stone hearth surrounded by a series of low benches. The warm glow of the fire sent shadows flickering through the darkened hall, and Curtis could see spectral figures hovering just beyond the reach of the light.
“What is this place?” Curtis asked as he felt Owl’s wing guide him to sit at one of the benches. One of the shadowy figures glided into view, carrying a glass and a pitcher of water. It was a young boy, and he wore a robe similar to Iphigenia’s. He silently handed Curtis the glass and filled it with the clear liquid.
“The Great North Hall,” answered Owl Rex, finding his seat on the far side of the fire pit from Curtis. “In my grandfather’s time, it was a gathering place for Woods folk from all provinces who wished to share ideas beyond the reach of the Mansion’s many ears and eyes.”
“And so it must be again,” said Iphigenia, waving another robed attendant, his arms filled with chopped wood, to the fireside. At the Elder Mystic’s command, the attendant fed the logs onto the fire and the flames grew, licking at the large copper hood that was suspended from the hall’s wooden rafters. The explosion of light revealed the true size of the hall, its corners reaching far away from the central hub of the hearth. The vaulted ceiling towered above the building’s milling occupants, and Curtis could make out the sprightly motion of a few swallows diving and twisting between the rafters.
“All present?” asked Sterling, eyeing the gathered figures as they murmured approval and found their places on the wooden benches. Curtis counted the ones that had stepped forward: He, Brendan, Owl, Iphigenia, and Sterling all sat equidistant from one another, facing each other over the curling tendrils of the fire. There was only one figure Curtis didn’t recognize; he’d joined the circle last, issuing from the darkness like a ghost from the ether. He was a gray wolf, and he wore the colors of the South Wood Guard: a smart khaki officer’s coat, all natty wool and brass buttons, with a sash attached at the shoulder displaying the tricolor of the South Wood Reformation: green, gold, and black. The wolf wore two chevrons on his left shoulder, which seemed to indicate a high rank, and on his right lapel, oddly enough, he’d pinned a brooch that appeared to be a small, toothy bicycle sprocket. A black eye patch reduced the wolf’s usable eyes to one, and his left ear appeared to be half chewed off.
Iphigenia spoke. “My friends, it is dire times. Dire times, indeed. The winter has taken hold of our poor, embattled country and has refused to let go. Even now, as we speak, the gentlefolk of North Wood line up for their rations and hoard what little food they have in their stores for the worst of emergencies. In my time as the Elder Mystic—alas, even since I was a Yearling—I have not seen a time of such despair.”
Curtis eyed the figures present. Owl nodded gravely while Sterling Fox took a long, ponderous drag off his clay pipe. The strange wolf stared silently into the glow of the fire.
“What is to blame?” continued the Elder Mystic. “I have spoken with the tree, and as yet I have no satisfactory answer. Certainly, the winter is unforgiving in its harshness. But I feel I would be remiss if I did not voice my suspicions: that there is a disease in the land that goes deeper than the whims of weather. The unrest in South Wood is a poison to us all. And it must be removed at its root.”
“Unrest?” Curtis spurted out. “What about the revolution? Wasn’t that supposed to fix everything?”
The mysterious wolf coughed up a withering laugh at this remark. Everyone’s eyes fell on the figure by the fire.
“Curtis, Brendan,” said Iphigenia, “meet Corporal Donalbain. He’s risked his life to be here; I’m sure you’ll find what he has to say very interesting.”
The corporal huffed a greeting and took a long final draw from a wooden pipe clenched in his teeth. Wisps of smoke drifted from his gray snout as he tapped the contents of the pipe into his paw and scattered it on the ground. “How do you do,” he said. His voice sounded like a metal rake being dragged across loose gravel. “Call me Jack.” He leaned forward and placed the pipe on the edge of the fire pit.
“Corporal Donalbain has come directly from South Wood,” explained Iphigenia. “He has traveled those many miles secretly, and by foot. His commanding officers do not know he is here; he has placed his station—indeed, his very life—at risk to bring us this information. His good conscience has impelled him.”
“Is this the boy?” asked Jack, lifting his snout to Curtis. “You’re friends with the girl—the half-breed girl. Prue?”
“Yes,” said Curtis, feeling himself moving forward on his bench seat. “Is she okay?”
The wolf was silent for a moment before speaking. “She’ll be dead before the evening. Of that, I have no doubt.” He scanned the attending circle of listeners. “They’ve sent an assassi
Curtis felt all the muscles in his body tighten in a quick jolt. His mouth went completely dry. Brendan, sitting at his left, growled angrily.
“Who would do such a thing?” asked Brendan. “And I thought you South Wooders considered her to be some sort of hero—the Bicycle Maiden or some such hogwash. Did she not, with this lad here, bring on your great revolution?” The ire was rising in his voice. “And did we not, we Irregulars, cut our flesh and spill our blood for your precious safety while you were all about throwin’ them birds into prison for nought? And this is how you choose to move on?” In his anger, he had nearly tipped off his bench. He steadied himself on the lip of the rock hearth.
“Easy, Bandit King,” soothed Owl Rex. “Your sacrifices have not been forgotten.” He waved a wing in the direction of the corporal, who was listening, disinterestedly, to Brendan’s rant. “He is a friend. The good corporal is an ally.” When the room had quieted, the Owl continued, “Please, Corporal Donalbain, tell our bandit friends who ‘they’ are.”
“Well, that’s the tricky bit, ain’t it?” said the wolf dryly. “No telling who’s the responsible party, really. I mean, I’ve got a fairly clear idea, but there ain’t no way of proving it. They’ve come to be pretty handy at passin’ blame, they have. Ever since the Emergency.”
Curtis moistened his lips and spoke: “The Emergency? What’s that?”
“I spoke of poison,” interjected Iphigenia. “This is the poison.”
“It’s what’s left of the government in South Wood, ever since you lot left us to our own devices,” continued the wolf. “Though most folks don’t call it that; it’d be seditious, they say. But me? I’ll call it as I see it. And it’s as good a description of the cock-up of that formerly great province as any.”
“What happened?” asked Brendan, regaining his seat.
“Nothing. That’s what happened,” responded Jack. “Too much of nothing. Lots of people comin’ forward demandin’ reparations, and no one willing to take the blame. Once the workin’ people got over the romance of the thing, this Bicycle Coup, they started realizin’ there weren’t no government for to take care of ’em.”
“But what about the interim government?” asked Curtis, remembering the charter that he had signed himself, along with many of the people who were present around the fire, that had established the temporary structure of government.
“It’s still there, all right,” said the wolf, “just gettin’ more and more like a congregation of snakes every day. Almost straightaway, after the Owl Prince and the Bandit King and the Elder Mystic left”—here he looked each one in the eye, intoning their names as if they were only words from a storybook—“folks in the government got down to what they knew best: backstabbing and palm greasing. Suddenly, so-and-so weren’t so patriotic as he was before, according to folks in the Mansion. Then this so-and-so counters by sayin’ that at least he weren’t the one taking bribes on those poppy beer shipments or what-have-you. Which invites another so-and-so to discredit the lot and bring all the attention on himself. Suddenly, you’ve got a ‘interim government’ that ain’t as concerned about runnin’ things as they are makin’ sure their backsides are covered. Things get heated; suddenly so-and-so’s not only unpatriotic, according to his enemies, but he’s a collaborator from the Old Regime, and maybe he’s not done such a good job in his palm greasin’ and—boom—he’s in the prison. So the prison starts gettin’ fairly filled up, as you might expect. And suddenly, there’s a new ‘patriotic sentiment’ in the province, and everyone’s trying to out-patriot the other one, and people start gettin’ all misty eyed about the ‘legacy of the Coup’ or some such piffle. And now we all got to start wearin’ the sash of the revolution, and we all get stuck with these badges.” He thrust a claw at the sprocket brooch at his chest. “To remind yourself of the Great Bicycle Coup and all the good it done people. But this ain’t ordained or nothin’—no, no—no one’s tellin’ anyone else what to do, right? ’Cause it’s the New Society, right? We’re all free now.” The wolf laughed a little under his breath and held his arm straight across his chest in a severe salute. “But if you don’t be walkin’ around with one these brooches, well, ‘Citizen Donalbain is a Svikist and a counterrevolutionary!’
“So I keep my head low and I do as I’m told and I wear the sash and badge and I sing ‘The Storming of the Prison’ and ‘Le Vélo Rouge’ when everyone else is, even when I’m sick to death of those damned treacly numbers. And I do all right for meself, don’t I? But now: With law all coddly-wobble and such, there’s hellions on the loose, and it ain’t safe to walk the streets at night so much.” The wolf coughed into his paw; he looked at Iphigenia imploringly. “Don’t suppose I could importune you for another mug of that fine North Wood poppy beer, could I? All this talkin’ brings up a mighty thirst.”