06. What Rats Cannot Climb

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Burchard found Ayla in a quiet corner of the back yard, sitting on a barrel, her face wet all over.

“There you are!” he exclaimed, staring at the wetness on her face. “What is the matter with you?” He looked up at the perfectly clear night sky. Still, it wasn't raining. “Wait a minute... you... you haven't been crying, have you?”

She shrugged and tried to conceal her face behind her hand. “Maybe a bit,” she whispered.

“Why though? What's the matter?”

A half-hysterical little chuckle escaped her. “You mean apart part from the siege and the powerful noble who wants to force me into marriage?”

“Well... err... If you put it like that...”

Nonplussed, Burchard scratched the hairy back of his head. He had never been very good at dealing with emotions—probably because he didn't have that many himself, he thought. What did one do with a weeping female?

Ah, yes!

Hurriedly, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a wrinkled, but reasonably clean handkerchief, which he held out to his mistress.

“Here, Milady.”

“Th-thanks.” Ayla took the piece of linen and blew her nose as ladylike as this was possible. Afterwards, she dried her eyes and wanted to hand the handkerchief back to her steward, but he refused.

“Keep it.” He looked at her closely, frowning. “You look like you're going to need it again soon enough. Honestly, Milady, what is the matter? You have been through plenty and have never reacted like this before.”

She shrugged again, hesitating for a moment. Finally she said: “Well, I think it all caught up with me, that's all.”

The steward's expression softened. Ayla was such a resilient personality, he sometimes forgot she was only a girl of seventeen years.

“Then I will go away and not bother you just now.”

“What is it that you wanted, Burchard?”

“I wished to tell you that Sir Rudolfus wants to speak to you about our supplies. Do you remember? You put him in charge of storing and rationing. But if you are too distressed right now...”

“No, no.” She interrupted him with a wave of her hand. Determinedly, she blew her nose again, this time not at all ladylike, and rose from the barrel she had been sitting on. “I have not the time for foolishness. Lead me to him.”

*~*~**~*~*

Sir Rudolfus was waiting for her down in the cellar. As Burchard opened the door for her and held the torch he carried aloft so she might pass, Ayla caught a glimpse of the young knight's long, eager face and big red ears.

Well, she thought. Here's one at least who doesn't seem to be particularly upset about the fact that we're all doomed to a slow death. But maybe he's juggling too many numbers in his head to think of that.

“Good day, Milady, Good day,” he welcomed her, gesturing her to come nearer with the slate pencil he held in one hand.

“It is the middle of the night,” observed Ayla.

“Is it?” Sir Rudolfus blinked at her, and scratched himself behind one of his big ears with the pencil. Then he brightened, pointing at the dark vaulted ceiling of the cellar and the torches burning around them on the walls. “Kind of hard to tell down here, isn't it, though?”

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