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Chapter 9: In Which Rat Wishes He Didn't Have a Conscience

Anyone who spends as much time as I did outdoors knows the time of day instantly by the light, by the feeling in the air, without even having to think over it. When I woke up it was past noon. I could see the sky framed by the walls of the courtyard I was lying in. I took inventory of myself, two arms, two legs, one head. That seemed in order. I was lying, curled up on a pile of hay, more comfortable bedding than what I usually slept on. I wasn't hungry, which takes a lot of pressure out of life. I was thirsty, but I was certain that that problem would be solved soon.

I felt tranquil. I stretched and rolled onto my back into a patch of late spring sunshine, languishing in the warmth like a lazy cat. I could hear somewhere in the distance an opinionated bird chirping, and I listened to its lecture with half-closed eyes.

The only thing that really bothered me was that my neck itched terribly. I scratched the thin silver chain that was biting into my skin but when it wouldn't come off I simply sighed and continued to relax.

I could hear voices coming from the house, the magician's voice and a girl's voice, but I yawned and didn't try to listen. The talking ended and was replaced by the sound of footsteps crunching on gravel, and shortly after a shadow fell across my face. I looked up at a girl a few years older than me with a thin face and a long forehead. She wore her brown hair in two thick braids.

"Good afternoon," I greeted her, sitting up slowly and carefully. I somehow knew that if I'd move too fast I'd regret it. She blinked at me. Her face was full of dots, freckles, especially on her flat nose. She stared down, at my neck, which reminded me that it was itching, I scratched at the chain.

"Don't," she whispered, "you'll hurt yourself." I stopped scratching and smiled at her. Her eyes darted toward the house before she crouched down next to me. She reached out and moved the chain up, examining my skin. I inhaled her smell, like a kitchen, barley, flour and potatoes. She frowned at what she found underneath the chain and then handed me a big mug of water. "That thing's given you a rash, don't scratch it, it'll only make it worse."

I gulped the water and nodded. Not scratching was hard, harder now that I was explicitly told not to do it, I couldn't think of anything else except how much my neck itched. When I finished drinking I gave her back the mug, then she slipped something round and cool into my hand, it sent a strange sensation up my arm. "Put it in your mouth and suck on it," she whispered and then got up and ran back to the house without looking back.

In my palm was an iron bead, pretty and round and black. I admired it for a moment before popping it into my mouth.

*

What annoyed me most was that I couldn't try to run right away, I had to wait. I didn't know how that girl was connected with those men, or how she knew that the iron bead would cancel the mind-numbing spell of the chain. I didn't know what they'd do to her if they found out that she helped me. So I needed to wait instead of running. I cursed the chain on my neck for making me so stupid, I cursed the magician and his cunning way of keeping me at bay, I cursed my  conscience that prevented me from maybe sacrificing some nameless girl for the sake of my freedom.

I fingered the chain, passing the tip of my finger over the tender skin underneath it. Even though the chain was icy cold, it had burnt my skin. This was no ordinary silver. I tried to break the links apart with my fingers, but the chain would not give way. I felt around for the clasp, but it was gone, or maybe there had never been one. I wondered if I needed a magician to take it off. That would pose a problem if I ever got away. I didn't have access to an abundance of magicians and if I wanted to get away I would have to somehow leave the city.

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