In such high-ceilinged halls only the foulest smells stayed at nose-level.

In such high-​​ceilinged halls only the foulest smells stayed at nose-​​level.

The cold scent of trampled mud and cut stone slid across the tiles like a sheet of water, in beneath one great door and out beneath the other, whirling up the mildewed reek of the crypts below as it passed. Swelling the flood of stink was the soapy smell of freshly-​​carved lindenwood trickling down the paneled walls, tainted slightly rancid by the tallow smoke of wintertime candles.

Swelling the flood of stink was the soapy smell of freshly-carved lindenwood.

It was not for any of these odors that the lips of Tom Swampmoon were wrinkled back from his teeth, however. From the moment he slipped in from behind the wall, his barbed tongue could almost taste the sour, sweat-​​stained, putrid-​​mouthed miasma of Old Man.

His barbed tongue could almost taste the sour, sweat-stained, putrid-mouthed miasma of Old Man.

“You have kept my knees waiting a while,” the old man grumbled.

“I have been performing the task you put me on,” Swampmoon growled. “It takes the time it takes. I assure you, I have other business I would rather be attending to.”

'I have other business I would rather be attending to.'

He told himself it did him no good to have the strength of five cats if he did not even have the freedom to go out and fight off his many rivals.

“Then it is in your best interest to hurry, as well as mine,” the old man said. “Haven’t you seen anything?”

Swampmoon was suddenly overflooded with anxiety, forcing him to stop and lick his shoulder until he calmed. He never fully understood the purpose of the old man’s tasks, but in this case he was almost certain he had seen nothing worth reporting. And thus he would be tasked to watch and watch and watch…

Swampmoon was suddenly overflooded with anxiety.

“I finally got into his office with him,” he said, though he knew he was offering up the best he had to offer from the start. It had always been his error: leading off with his most vicious attack, so that any cat who survived the first assault could overcome him in the second round. If he had not been granted the strength of five cats…


“He… read a book.”

The old man seized his beard in his fists and kicked the short chair against the wall. “A book?” he snarled.

Swampmoon’s tail puffed out in spite of himself.

'A book?'

“He can’t simply be reading a book in there!” the old man panted. “He’s all but mad! Isn’t he at least praying, or cutting himself, or something?

Swampmoon delicately licked back his whiskers. “It seems to be a special book. He doesn’t keep it with the others.”

The old man snorted, but to Swampmoon’s relief, he patted his beard back into shape and seemed to grow calm. “What sort of book?” he grumbled.

“I’m a cat, you know,” Swampmoon huffed. “I can’t read.”

'I'm a cat, you know.'

“So what does it look like?” the old man groaned. “Is it big or small, jeweled or plain? Is he writing in it?”

“No… but he was writing next to it.”

The old man stroked his hand down his beard. “Hmm…”

So encouraged, Swampmoon stood up and cast back into his memory for the least detail. “It was an old book… smelled of mold through and through, and the parchment and hide were so old they smelled rancid.” In his mind, Swampmoon added, “Like you.”

“Hmm…” The old man turned his blue eyes up to the raw beams and the darkness overhead.


“It… didn’t have any pictures,” Swampmoon admitted fearfully, for pictures were the one thing he sometimes understood. “But it had big letters in the middle of the pages, all scritch-​​scratchy like hen-​​tracks.”

The old man was silent. Swampmoon nervously began licking his paw. He was already running out of details.

“Big… letters…” the old man repeated.


“Scritch-​​scratchy,” Swampmoon said, idly attempting to demonstrate with the tip of a claw on the tile. “With small letters all around – top and sides and bottom of the page. He was reading the small letters and writing things down. And…” He paused to think, and meanwhile gave a few strokes of tongue along his side, laying down his fur just so. “It was a big book with many pages, but he was only studying a few of them. And then – ”

“How many?” the old man barked.

'How many?'

Swampmoon cringed in fear. He never remembered what came after six. He considered that it was already asking a lot of a cat to count above four. “Six,” he mewed fearfully. “Or… thereabouts.”

The old man snorted and returned to arranging his beard.

“And then – ” he began again.

“What color?”

Swampmoon tipped back his head and tried to look kittenish. “You know we don’t agree…”

'You know we don't agree...'

“I know! I know!” the old man said impatiently. “Was it blue or purple or green?”


“Then it was red or brown.”

Swampmoon shrugged the skin over his shoulders. It was mouse-​​colored to him.

“A big, old, red-​​brown book with many pages,” the old man murmured, “with big scritch-​​scratchy letters in the center of each page?”

'A big, old, red-brown book with many pages.'

“One big letter in the center of each, I would say,” Swampmoon ventured. “Though, as a cat, I cannot read…”

“I know! A book…”

Swampmoon stood up and shook out his tail. “And then he put the parchment in his robe and took the book, and I followed him down – ”

“Down where?” The old man dropped to his knees, his eyes bright with sudden eagerness. “Where is he keeping it? Isn’t it in his office?”

'Where is he keeping it?'

Swampmoon’s lips curled back in revulsion, though it meant he could even taste the old man’s foul breath on his tongue. He sneezed and squinted his eyes shut – he could at least block out the man from his sight.

“No,” he muttered, “he seems to be hiding it.”

“Hiding it!” the old man cried gleefully. “That’s no Gospel nor Psalter, minion! I knew he was up to something unspeakable in there!”

Swampmoon laid back his ears and cringed his head down into his shoulders.

Swampmoon laid back his ears and cringed his head down into his shoulders. The man’s putrid breath seemed to cling to him like fog over frigid water.

Tom Swampmoon knew that he too was engaged in something unspeakable, and no amount of licking would ever wash him clean. Sometimes he thought there was little glory in being a Tom after all, if he came to his glory through such foul means. Sometimes he thought he would rather have the strength of one cat again, and win or lose or die proudly – a true cat, like his father – and not the weak-​​jowled minion of a repugnant old man.

“Where is it?” the old man hissed. “Did you see him hide it?”

“Yes, master…” Swampmoon mewed.

'Yes, master...'

“Where? Where? Where?”

“In the crypt, master. He kept the parchment, but he hid the book in the crypt, in the tomb that will be his own someday.”

The old man pushed himself up from the floor, rising away with the startling suddenness of a man falling upwards.

The old man pushed himself up from the floor.

He did not grasp his beard, nor kick the chair, nor make any of his usual signs of anger or intense concentration. His blue eyes stared off mildly at the door or something beyond, but to a cat the twitching of his fingers was telling. He simply lacked claws.

Swampmoon slowly shifted his weight onto his haunches.

Swampmoon slowly shifted his weight onto his haunches and began creeping backwards, aiming his tail blindly at the hole in the paneling through which he had entered. His master had not dismissed him, but the old man’s chilling calm terrified him more than his rages ever had.

But the old man had forgotten him. His final words were spoken over Swampmoon’s head – to the door, or to someone beyond.

“How fitting.”

'How fitting.'