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The sun had set hours ago, and Lisa was finally catching up on the work she’d missed earlier. Worn out from the events and emotions of the day, she rode the elevator up to the third floor, buckets of water at her side, which she used to refill the water supplies for the inmates. As she took the now-empty buckets back toward the elevator, she saw movement in Professor Vartanian’s office. Thinking she’d best at least put on a show of conscientiousness, she poked her head inside.
The professor saw her. “Ah, Lisa.”
“Do you need anything before I go to bed, sir?” She stepped inside, but then pulled up short, seeing the frown on his face.
“Don’t mistake my lenience for sympathy,” he said coldly. “I meant what I said–we need a hard worker like you here. But don’t think I won’t be keeping an eye on you, understand?”
“Yes, sir.” She looked up at him with reddened eyes, hoping that might soften him a little. He hesitated, frowning slightly. “You do understand that Mr. Canergak’s work is for good, yes?” When she stayed silent, he continued, “You have doubts. That’s understandable. But I hope you will trust us both on this, if not him, then me. The things he may do down there pale in comparison to what those sorts of monsters would do to us.” His hand, trembling slightly, went up to his face, feeling for spectacles that weren’t there.
Lisa looked up at him, and decided that she had to try pushing him a little; she had to know, once and for all, where he stood. “But who defines who the monsters are?”
“Monsters define themselves with their actions and the reasons behind them. When one toys with you, strips your flesh, all for amusement or to…” He stopped, and looked down at her with a sharp frown. “Monsters do not do what they do to protect others. They do it for selfish reasons. Mr. Canergak is not a monster.”
“But when one despises, experiments on, and kills those one deems, in one’s own mind, ‘non-living,’ what then, sir?”
“Oh, I doubt he deems them as un-living,” he replied dismissively.
“But he does, sir,” she insisted. “He told me he’s never harmed a ‘living’ creature. But just consider what he’s done… and what he’s doing now to those in the lab!”
That seemed to sting Professor Vartanian. He leaned in, towering over her, and spoke through gritted teeth. “Those things do not live the way you and I do. They do not die the way you and I can. And they hardly think anything of our well being!”
Lisa, her nerves still frayed, could only stare back up at him, shaking. Finally, he leaned back, trying to compose himself, and clasped a hand on her shoulder. “The things he had down there, Lisa,” he said in a somewhat softer tone. “I can assure you they would not hesitate to harm you if they were not restrained as he has them. Some may even wear the most beautiful face you could imagine… and still…” His voice dropped to a murmur, his eyes staring past her, “still strip you of everything and string you up for the crows.”
He finally shook his head, rubbing his eyes. “Never mind that. Just… try to rest properly. I need to send you on an errand tomorrow aside from your usual duties. I need some gizzards from the butcher. We’ll be setting them out to poison some of the crows and rats in the yard.”
Lisa’s mouth worked silently for a few seconds, before she managed to choke out a “Yes, sir.”
The professor rubbed his eyes tiredly. “Well, I imagine you learned your lesson about snooping today. I’m sure you’ve had enough grief for one afternoon.”
“Yes, sir.” Taking that as a dismissal, she turned and fled for the room she shared with Lo and Angel (Martha, the kitchen maid, preferred to sleep by the kitchen fire), and threw herself on her bed. ‘He’s just as bad as Canergak,’ she thought with despair. ‘And they’re both as bad as Ambrose. What can I do?’
She lay there unsleeping for hours, not even hearing as the rest of the workers came downstairs to their own bunks. Her emotions were still running high, cycling through fear, despair, anger, and helplessness. Finally, she got up, slipped out of the room, went to the elevator, and pressed the call button. She looked back nervously as the noisy contraption clattered to a stop, but everyone seemed too deep asleep to have heard it. Stepping inside, she rode it up to the main floor and tiptoed her way down the darkened hallway toward the front entrance.
There was a night watchman there, but she’d long ago learned how to get around him, bribing him with a bit of her wages, or some tidbit snitched from the kitchen. She slipped him a coin now; he winked, as he always did, and let her out.
The second the door closed behind her, she was nearly tackled by her brother, Fourclaws. “What happened?” he cried, sniffing her over. “Are you all right?”
Lisa shook her head. “I’m not, and we need to talk. This will take some time, though.”
Fourclaws looked at her, his tail lashing a bit. “If you’re going to be out here long, you’ll need more than what you have to stay warm. Leave that to me.” He scurried over to the gate and let out a long cry, a cry that was taken up and passed around the area.
While she waited, Lisa groped around the ground in the dark, searching for the scalpel she’d tossed away earlier. The last thing she wanted was for someone else to find it. After a few minutes, and some help from Fourclaws, her hand touched the handle, and she fished it out of the pile of old leaves and slipped it back into her pocket. More than ever, now, she wanted it with her at all times.
A short, sharp yowl from the gate caught her attention. A group of about a dozen cats was there, and she saw they’d dragged an old horse blanket with them. She reached through the bars of the gate and took the blanket, while the cats oozed their way between the gaps and followed her to a corner of the courtyard. There, she spread the blanket on the ground, so it would protect her from the cold, muddy ground, and lay down on it. The cats disposed themselves around, and even on, her.
As she slowly warmed from their body heat, she told them all that had happened that day. Hisses and soft alarm cries punctuated her recitation, as she explained to them just how bad her situation had become… and that she still had to stay.
Fourclaws licked her face roughly. “We’ll always be here for you,” he said. “Just tell us what to do.”
She sighed. “For now… just your support. Knowing you’re here for me does help. It… it gives me something to keep living for.” She scratched behind his ear for a little while, but their warmth, and the soothing sound of their purring, finally sent her to sleep.
She opened her eyes in the Dreamfields, back in her old black-and-white cat body. Standing before her was the inky form of Lord Tangaloor Firefoot, one of the Feline gods. She immediately curled into a ball, hiding her face. “I’m so sorry,” she whimpered. “I’ve made such a mess of things.” She remembered, now, all the warnings Beryl had given her, how he’d tried to dissuade her from her course. If only she’d listened… if only she could tell him now that she would listen…
Lord Firefoot licked her on the top of her head. “You’ve not done wrong, Felisa. Much wrong has been done to you. And I’m afraid there will be more wrongs coming.”
“But what can I do?” she moaned. “How can I fix this?”
“You can do nothing on your own,” he said a little sternly, though there was gentleness in his tone, too. “Gather your friends around you, as many as you can. You will need them.”
That advice was still playing in her mind as she felt herself being nudged into wakefulness. “It’s nearly dawn,” she heard Fourclaws say. “Shouldn’t you get back inside?”
“Yes, I should. Thank you.” She stood up and, as the other cats scattered away a bit, picked up the blanket, shook it out, folded it, and stuffed it back through the front gate for the cats to drag away. After one last nuzzle from her brother, she went to the entrance and tapped softly. The night watchman opened the door, and winked at her again as she passed. She gave him a smile and headed immediately to the ground-floor office to build up the fire for the day.
The fire, blazing up now, sparked light off the things on the nearby desk. The light caught her eye, and she peered more closely. Pieces of blank paper. An inkwell. A couple of pens. Some envelopes. Lord Firefoot’s advice rang in her ears again, and her breath caught. Dr. Solsen, after his examination of her, had tried to stay at the asylum, but the winter snows and cold had been too much for him, driving him back to Marikesh Mondrego. Could she get him to come back? It was worth a try.
Swiftly, she sat down in the chair and pulled a piece of paper nearer. Lip caught between her teeth, she struggled to put her neglected lessons in writing to use.
“Dr. Solsen – I sneaked into Canergak’s lab. He caught me. I’m still working here, under–” A few attempts were crossed out, before she left, “probayshun. But I’m scared of what else he might do to me. I would be glad if you came back.” She read that over, and added, “The snows have melted early this year. Lisa.”
She carefully blew on the page, willing the ink to dry, and finally folded it, putting it into the envelope. On the outside, she wrote, “Dr. Solsen. Marikesh Mondrego.” She got up from the desk, staring at the envelope irresolutely. She’d seen other letters, and knew that this needed some sort of stamp. But she didn’t know what, and she rather thought any stamp in the office would be missed sooner than paper and envelope. Finally, she put it into her pocket, until she had a chance to figure out how to get it delivered.
((And so the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day finally comes to an end. But what else is in store at the asylum? Stay tuned…))