The Elder Mystic nodded and called forward one of the milling attendants. The corporal was given a large mug of frothing liquid, which he lapped at thirstily before continuing.
“But this ain’t the worst of it. Nah, not by a long shot. So this prison, you know: the one from the tune? The one that we stormed to free all those unjustly imprisoned bird citizens? Well, it’s just gettin’ all filled up again, ain’t it? But that ain’t a worry, ’cause all the name-calling and backstabbing has got to such a pitch that the real detractors, the real collaborators and Svikists, well—they’re just: skkkkkrrrk.” He made a kind of tearing noise with the back of his throat while he dragged a claw across his neck. “That makes things awfully tidy, don’t it?
“But the worst of it—oh gods, the worst of it—is the Synod.” After saying these words, the wolf took a long pull off the mug of beer, as if to settle his nerves. “The council of the Caliphs, religious zealots pushed aside during the rule of the Svik dynasty in favor of a more secular society, now back in full force.”
Curtis glanced over at Iphigenia and noticed that a very worried look had come over her face.
The wolf continued, “Suddenly, everywhere you went you saw those hooded clowns on the street corners, jangling their little bells and reading their tracts on sanctuary and salvation, and when folks’ve got no food in the larder, well, those pamphlets and all their starry promises seem awful attractive. So then the congregation’s growing at the Blighted Tree and then you’ve got the Synod themselves, all hooded and masked as they are in their dark robes, walking through the streets of South Wood, bangin’ their gongs and swingin’ their smoky censers, and everyone’s out all starin’ and listenin’ to them carry on. And before you know it—and I swear to this, as I’ve seen it with my own eyes—I seen a few of the Caliphs wanderin’ the halls of Pittock Mansion itself, glad-handin’ with the pols and having closed-door meetings with commissioners and councilmen and what have you.”
Curtis heard a groan; it came from Brendan, who now had his head in his hands.
“Their influence is growing,” said Iphigenia solemnly. “We’ve known this to be so for a time now. The Council Tree has made us aware. This poison works at the root of the plant, my friends. If it is not cut out, our present circumstances will only be made worse.”
“But what about Prue?” asked Curtis. “Who’s sent this assassin? The Caliphs?”
The wolf knocked back the remaining poppy beer and set the emptied mug down on the hearth noisily. He licked his chops clean of foam. “Could be, could be,” he said. “Though it’s just as likely to be some faction from the Mansion—a real Old Regime Svikist. They still have a scrap of power, though they’re forced to scheme in secret.”
“How do you have this information, then?” asked Brendan, his chin resting in his hands.
“Like I said: I’ve made a good name for myself. I’ve kept my noggin intact.” A black claw tapped three times at his temple. “Kept my head low. Got a job in the Mansion intelligence service. Pushin’ paper. Tidy office job, right? So what if I watch a few reams of paper go by that might condemn a man to imprisonment or death? I’m watching out for myself. Anyways, they’ve got these Intuits working in the Mansion, folks who have the way to listen like the North Wooders—you know, can hear plants talk and such—and they’re just sittin’ out in the garden all day, listenin’ to the chatter among the leaves and trees for information. And they report to my office every day with what they’ve heard. Well, comes down from one of them—an awfully good Intuit, this one—that there’s word of an assassin, a Kitsune, no less, who’s been sent to murder the Bicycle Maiden. Seems like a big deal, right? I mean, she’s the hero of the revolution! But no sooner do I report this to my betters than they’re stampin’ the thing confidential and throwin’ it in a archived box to molder away in the deepest depths of the Mansion basement.”
“But why?” asked Curtis.
“Beats me,” replied the wolf. “And I don’t have much time to think about it; things start getting tense in the office, and suddenly I see another report come through from the Intuits sayin’ something about cleanin’ out the intelligence office, and I figure that means me; that they’re wipin’ out anybody who’s seen that bit of intel about the Bicycle Maiden. That’s what I guess anyways, so I finish my afternoon’s work—say I’m goin’ out for a quick bite to eat and I’m out of there, scramblin’ north as fast as my paws can carry me. You wouldn’t believe my feeling of relief when I managed to get across the North Wall and into Wildwood. Pure relief to be out of that cesspit.” The corporal reached for his mug again, forgetting he’d downed it, and attempted to take a long swig. He looked forlornly at the empty pewter mug and gave a pleading smile to Iphigenia.
“In time, Corporal,” was her reply.
Owl Rex spoke up. “Were you discovered? Does the Mansion know you’ve left with this information?”
The wolf shrugged. “Dunno. Managed to slip the gate without too much hassle. Got roughed up one night in Wildwood, by the Ancients’ Grove. Some coyotes. Did this to me.” He pointed to his torn ear. “But otherwise, who knows?”
“It’s not safe for you to return,” said Iphigenia. “You must stay here. In hiding.” She looked at the assembled circle and concluded, “As must we all. We are the face of the Bicycle Coup to
the people of South Wood. If they—whoever ‘they’ may be—intend to go after Prue, they’re likely to go after all of us.”
“And what about Prue?” asked Sterling.
“We need to get her to a safe place,” replied Owl. “And quickly.”
“Where’s safe?” pressed the fox.
Owl Rex looked over at Curtis and Brendan. “In the farthest redoubt of the wildest province. To the newfound camp of the Wildwood Bandits, in the deepest crevices of the Long Gap. If you will take her.”
“Of course!” shouted Curtis. “She should come to the hideout!” Even though the prospect of Prue being hounded by a vengeful assassin was making him queasy, Curtis felt a jolt of excitement travel through his body: to think that he’d see his friend again!
“Hold up, boyo,” interrupted Brendan, before turning to Iphigenia. “How did you know where the camp is?”
“There are no secrets to the North Wood Mystics,” answered the old woman. She added: “While you may be beyond the ken of the Intuits, the tree knows all. It is important, should you take the girl, that we know where she is hidden. We are all brethren here.”
Brendan seemed to take in this information with a certain amount of resignation. “Speaking of brethren,” he said, “there’s no sense bringin’ this all down on the bandits; they’ve not got a say in it. She’d be a dangerous fugitive. We’d be puttin’ the whole camp at risk.”
“She’s got nowhere else to go,” said Iphigenia quietly.
A silence came over the hall. The fire crackled noisily. Brendan deliberated while the eyes of the gathered attendants stayed on him.
“Very well,” he said finally, reluctantly. “We’ll take her in. Gods know she saved my life once; it’s the least we can do to repay.” Here he wagged a finger at the Elder Mystic. “But if that Katchoony catches wind of our camp and comes sniffin’ around…”
“Kitsune,” corrected Owl.