Ayre of the Last God
(Book III of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2000 BY


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"With respect, Lord Xaa, it may be better to simply let the cats die," Lady Ara replied. "What good does it serve us to shed the blood of our warriors in defending the cats?"

Merle looked around the dining hall at the other mus present, and she could see by their expressions that many agreed. The dining hall of Castle Xaa was quiet, as each of the other lords and ladies present watched the exchange between Xaa and Lady Ara. Gathering everyone together had only taken a fortnight, and now thirty-six warrior-caste mus sat at Xaa's U-shaped dining table, the collected High-Lords and Ladies of all the lands of the mus. Merle had been surprised that they all had come - aside from Byarl, Xaa only had only one surviving ally, Lord W'Mefa. Still, he had great influence with many of the lords and ladies both in the north and south. W'Mefa, meanwhile, had many allies throughout the lands of the mus, now, and many called him 'emperor' when they spoke about him - though not to his face, as W'mefa still rejected such accolades. Thus, when Xaa had sent out the request for this gathering and W'mefa had said he would come, the rest of the noble lords and ladies followed. Everyone was dressed in their finest clothing for the gathering, and Merle had felt very honored to be allowed to attend - even O'dmemet didn't get to come, as he had stayed behind to watch over his father's fief. Merle smoothed a wrinkle in her little green kimono quietly, and glanced over to Byarl. She had been a little concerned that he would stick out like a sore thumb wearing his green-dyed leather vest and trousers, but the mus hadn't appeared to notice - apparently, that's exactly how they expected the Chief of the Musties to dress.

Xaa slowly shook his head, gazing back to Lady Ara. "So sorry, Lady Ara, but that is not an option. If we do nothing, one of two things will happen - either R'Narr will win this civil war, or their emperor, D'Zhin, will win. If we do not help R'Narr, he will be angry with us - most likely angry enough so that once he has crushed the T'Mrr and restored order after the civil war, he will gather his armies and resume the war against us. Meanwhile, if their emperor wins, he will definitely resume the war against us, simply because it is he who started it in the first place. He wants us dead, so he can steal our lands - and if he wins this civil war, he will resume his war with us, and will not stop until we are all dead. We may defeat him, or we may not - but either way, much blood will be shed. On the other paw, if we help R'Narr and he manages to emerge the victor in his civil war, we may avert war with the cats - and possibly forge a lasting peace with them."

"Assuming he will sign a peace treaty," Lady Ara said, eying Xaa carefully. "So sorry, Lord Xaa, but all we have at the moment is his truce with you. There is no assurance that R'Narr will continue this truce, and none that he will sign permanent peace accords with all our people. This is made even more difficult by the fact that they have one leader of all their lands, and yet we are balkanized, and have many. Forging such a peace agreement with him would take years of careful negotiations with dozens of clan-lords of the mus - perhaps decades. Yes, peace may come, but because R'Narr would have to deal with each of us, one at a time, it may take the rest of our lives to happen - or longer," she said, then paused, her gaze falling upon Lord W'Mefa as the corner of her mouth turned up in a wry smile. "We need a single leader, Lord Xaa. An emperor."

Merle stifled a gasp, but Byarl, sitting to her left, heard it. "What is it, Merle? What's so bad about that?" Byarl whispered, his voice nearly lost in the muttering of the other lords and ladies amongst themselves at Lady Ara's comment. "One leader would be good - one leader is always good."

"It's... It's difficult to explain," Merle whispered back. "It's like I tried to tell you last year, Chief - to the mus, an emperor is an absolute ruler, not like a chief, to us. Their word is law, and everybody has to obey without question. This works when they have a good emperor, but doesn't when they don't. And when they die, there's often a fight over secession, if some of the other lords and ladies don't want to serve under their heir. The mus haven't had an emperor in centuries - after the last one died, they fell into a long civil war, then finally settled into the system they have now, with dozens of lords and ladies effectively kings and queens of small kingdoms scattered all over their lands. Then, there's the problem of humility. Lady Ara's been like this for a year, now... She pushes W'Mefa, trying to see if he'll accept the title of 'emperor' - but if he does, that shows he's not humble enough to be emperor, by their culture. It has to be by general accolade, or not at all," Merle whispered, looking at Lady Ara. Lady Ara looked back and smiled, guessing what Merle was talking about - it wasn't difficult to guess, as the same thought was on the minds of everyone present, and several whispered conversations were already taking place on exactly the same subject. "I don't know why she's doing this, though... She's supposed to be Lord W'Mefa's ally. She must have something up her sleeve," Merle whispered.

Xaa, sitting on Merle's other side, nodded at her whispered words to Byarl, but said, nothing, instead waiting to see what W'mefa chose to do. W'Mefa, for his part, simply sat silently, stroking his whiskers.

Byarl looked at Lady Ara, and she looked back at him. For a long moment, they exchanged a silent stare, each examining the face of the other, trying to guess at the thoughts behind the other's eyes. Byarl studied the face of the enormous she-mus carefully - he could see no malice in her eyes. Whatever she was trying to do, it wasn't despite her being W'Mefa's ally... No, it was because of it.

Finally, after a long moment, Byarl nodded. "I know why, Merle," he whispered. "She's trying to force the mus to resolve the situation. And she's right - they need to," he whispered, then stood. As it was Lord Xaa's castle and he had called this emergency meeting, technically, he was in charge. "Lord Xaa, may I speak?"

Xaa looked to his right, nodding to Byarl. "Of course, Great Chief Byarl. You are as much a lord as any here, by right of our treaty of alliance and our treaty giving your tribe possession of the Laughing Woods. Say what is on your mind."

Byarl remained standing - when seated, he hardly came up to the chest of a seated mus, but standing, his head was level with the lords and ladies seated around the table. "It seems to me that you all recognize you need a single leader - yet, at the same time, none of you really want one, because of the possible consequences in the long run. As I understand it, the main thing you worry about is that their heir, or perhaps the heir of their heir, may not prove a worthy leader, and might lead you down a path of destruction with decisions that are unwise. Am I right?"

Lady Ara smiled. "You have summed up the situation quite neatly, Great Chief Byarl. This is exactly what happened two centuries ago - Emperor H'tahk died, and his son proved to be a worthless and ineffective leader, and one lacking in honor and humility. To this day, his name is not spoken, as he was so lacking in honor," she explained, and Byarl nodded as she continued. "Well, many refused to swear fealty to the heir, and this sparked a civil war that lasted ten years, until finally the heir was killed in the Battle of Silver Creek. I believe Lord W'Mefa would make a fine emperor, and his son a fine heir. Yet, we cannot guarantee his grandson will make a fine leader after that. We mus have learned to look ahead to the distant future, rather than merely to our immediate needs. Still, we have no solution, at present - and we would not dream of forcing the title upon Lord W'Mefa, nor would he be so immoderate as to dub himself with that title."

Xaa nodded, and looked to Byarl. "And that, Great Chief Byarl, is where our current system breaks down; at the top level. We are all equals, each ruler of one of the thirty-six surviving High Clans - so called because none of us owes fealty to any other. All the other warrior-caste mus in the land are vassals of one of the lords or ladies in this room, or vassals of their vassals, and so on. As it stands, each of us rules our vassals and servants because we treat them well, and make wise decisions. If we treat our vassals and servants poorly, they have the right to quit our service, and seek shelter and succor from another lord or lady who may treat them better. Yet, with an emperor, there is no other to seek shelter or succor from. If the emperor treats the lords and ladies beneath them poorly, there is none other they can turn to. Our system survives and works because there is choice among the ruled as to who rules them, honor and tradition preventing an idle switch of loyalties, and each of the rulers in this room deals with the others as an independent king or queen of their lands. With a single emperor over us all, there is no other choice when the emperor is a poor ruler than to revolt against them, and plunge the land into civil war."

Byarl scratched his head. "Why don't you just vote on it?"

"So sorry, Great Chief Byarl... Vote how?" Lady Ara asked, her question echoed by several others. "If you mean for us to gather like this and debate issues facing all of us and cast votes for decisions, I'm afraid that is impossible - we all are far too busy managing our fiefs to gather like this with any regularity."

"Well, each of you basically rules by the agreement of those you rule. It's not voting, but if you don't do a good job, they leave you, so it's basically the same thing. Why not have each of you lords and ladies vote for an emperor, then each time you need a new one because the previous one died or didn't want to be emperor anymore, you just vote for a new one? That way, there's no problem with heirs - you all could select the best candidate from among yourself each time one is needed, choosing only the one that fulfilled your own criteria of humility and effectiveness as a leader."

W'mefa shook his head. "So sorry, Great Chief Byarl, but that would turn our system of government into a popularity contest every generation or so. It's no guarantee that we would necessarily get the best leader - only the most popular."

"Indeed, Lord W'mefa," Lady Ara agreed with a nod. "And what would we do should the voting be split? What if there were two or three who ended up being voted for? How would you decide? By majority? If so, then the minority would be terribly unhappy - possibly unhappy enough to war over the decision."

Byarl considered Lady Ara's question carefully, stroking his whiskers in thought. Finally, he looked up. "Have each lord and lady vote for three candidates, not one. The three candidates with the greatest amount of votes are selected. Even if everyone is nearly in agreement on who shall be the leader, you will still end up with at least three candidates at the end of your voting."

Xaa shook his head. "So sorry, Great Chief Byarl, but how would that help?"

"Well, then those three vote for who shall be the leader between them, with each casting one vote, and not being allowed to vote for themselves. That way, three things would be satisfied," Byarl explained, and held up the thumb of his right paw. "One, each of you would have had a chance to express your opinion as to who you think would be the best leader." Byarl then tucked his thumb in and held out his index finger, counting in the 'binary' numbers of the musties. "Two, those that you choose would represent a consensus of opinion, not just a majority, and manipulating the vote or turning it into a 'popularity contest' would be less likely to happen." Byarl then held both his thumb and index finger out. "Three, this would allow those that you select, individuals you all agree are wise and humble and worthy of leading you, to then select the best from among themselves," Byarl finished, then crossed his arms. "Make the one selected leader for life, but allow them the option of stepping down at any time. Also, include the proviso that the emperor is only owed obedience, not the financial revenues of a liege-lord, so that no-one would assume the rank on the thought of getting rich. Do all that, and you should be alright, I think."

There was silence for a long moment as the mus considered Byarl's words. It was no little thing Byarl had suggested - but he had chosen the right moment to suggest it. All those who needed to decide were present in this room, though they had originally gathered for a different reason.

Finally, Lord Jharak, Lady Ara's Ally, spoke up. "I agree. Chief Byarl's notion is workable - and certainly it gives us a valid way to select a leader from among us to sign treaties with the cats, rather than spending an enormous amount of time forcing R'Narr to deal with each of us individually. The sooner peace is assured, the better," he rumbled, then looked to Byarl. "Great Chief Byarl, is this how your people select a chief from among yourselves?" he asked curiously.

Merle struggled to stifle a giggle, and Byarl smiled. "No, Lord Jharak. For our people, each chief selects their successor from within their clan. Each chief picks the one member of the tribe they believe is best equipped to lead their people upon their death. Sometimes it's a son or daughter, but sometimes not," Byarl explained, then smiled at Merle. Merle felt her ears burning with a deep blush, and was very glad she was a mustie and her furry ears didn't show her blushes (unless you were a mustie, and knew what to look for). For a moment, she was afraid that Byarl would embarrass her further by announcing he had chosen her, but he didn't. He simply winked at her, and after a moment, Merle smiled back.

Lady Ara spoke up. "Lord Jharak is right - the sooner peace is assured, the better. Let us vote on this now, I say."

"How shall we do it?" one of the other lords asked aloud. "How shall this voting be done?"

Byarl shrugged, bending down to pick up his dinner utensils. "Well, we each have three utensils. Let's just hand one to each of the three we think would be a good choice. Everyone grab your utensils in your right paw, and hand them out to the left paws of the ones you pick. At the end, the three with the most will choose from among themselves."

Xaa grinned. "Mustie practicality," he rumbled, chuckling, and several of the other mus joined him.

Byarl just grinned right back, and picked up his utensils. Without hesitation, he stepped past Merle and handed the first to Lord Xaa, then stepped past him and handed the second to Lord W'Mefa. The third, the little tined implement that the mus used to stab small slices of meat, he held in his paw, walking around the table to stand before Lady Ara.

"M-me?!" Lady Ara said in suprise, looking down at Byarl's outstretched paw.

"Of course, Lady Ara," Byarl replied, grinning. "It's obvious to me you've been trying to get the other lords and ladies who rule the mus to decide on a single leader - I'll bet you've been trying to get your friends and allies to realize this was necessary for years, now. Of all the lords and ladies I know, that makes you very much qualified. You can see beyond the immediate needs of the here and now, to the needs of the future. Merle says you've been needling Lord W'mefa for about a year, now, and everyone has been wondering why. Well, I'm a chief of my people. It's my business to think about why people do things - particularly because sometimes, they don't even know themselves. I think you've been doing this for the future of your people, and I think that makes you a worthy candidate."

Lady Ara turned to face Byarl on her pillow, then placed her paws on the floor and bowed very low. "You honor me, Great Chief Byarl. I thank you."

Byarl bowed in return, and when she had straightened up, he handed her the utensil, and grinned. Without a further word, he turned and walked back to his little pillow next to Merle, and sat down.

Lady Ara stared at the utensil in her paw for a long moment, then finally nodded. Scooping up her own utensils, she walked around to the head of the table. With a deep bow, she presented one to W'mefa, who bowed in return. The second, she presented to Xaa with an equally formal bow, which he returned. Then, with a wry grin, she handed the third to Byarl, and bowed again.

"Me?!" Byarl yelped, and several of the mus chuckled while Merle burst into giggles.

"Of course, Great Chief Byarl. This was your idea, once again proving that the musties are wise and worthy allies of the mus. It is regrettable that we did not discover your people centuries before, and save ourselves many, many needless years of conflict," she said, then winked. "It is even more regrettable, to me, that you are Lord Xaa's ally, not mine," she finished, and grinned. The other mus in the room chuckled again, and Merle spotted a blush beginning beneath Byarl's furry ears.

"Thank you, Lady Ara," Byarl replied, bowing.

And so it went, with each of the lords and ladies present making their three choices. The majority went to Lord W'mefa, whom most already felt would make a fine emperor, but nearly as many went to Lord Xaa, who was perhaps the most famous warrior in decades. He'd slain hundreds of the cats in personal combat, was their most skilled battle-leader (or 'strategist', as the mus called it), and was, quite literally, a legend in his own time. A surprising amount went to Byarl, however, in honor of his thinking of the plan, and Merle had to struggle to keep from rolling with laughter at his deep blush, which only she could see. As each was handed out, the lord or lady casting their vote followed the lead of Byarl and Lady Ara, making a short speech as to why they made their choice. Finally, the last vote had been cast. Merle volunteered herself to count the utensils - though it was obvious that the first two candidates were W'mefa and Xaa, the third candidate was not so obvious. After a few minutes of counting the piles of utensils before each, Merle looked again, recounting Lady Ara's pile, and Byarl's. After a moment, she grinned. "Looks like you're it, chief," she said, and burst into giggles at Byarl's renewed blush.

Though the other mus chuckled at this surprising turn of events, Xaa and W'mefa, however, simply gazed at each other quietly. Finally, W'mefa spoke. "I would not ask you to bend your knee to me, my friend. I know it is a point of honor, for you."

"Nor would I ask you, or any other lord or lady in this room, to bend their knee to me," Xaa replied quietly.

There was a moment of silence, and for a heartbeat, Merle worried that everything might fall apart. Byarl's brilliant idea might never work, simply because the two best suited to lead the mus were too humble and respectful of each other's honor to accept. Suddenly, Byarl looked at the two of them. "Oh, no! That leaves me, and I am NOT going to do it! I have enough trouble handling my little tribe, I'm NOT going to be the emperor of all the mus, too, thank you VERY much!" he chittered. "You two are just going to have to work this out between you, and that's all there is to that!"

A ripple of laughter passed through the room, and the tension of the moment was broken. Xaa and W'mefa smiled at each other for a long moment. Then, with a bow, W'mefa reached out, and handed his utensil to Xaa.

Xaa stared at it for a moment, then handed his own to W'mefa.

The two mus bowed to each other quietly, then Byarl suddenly sputtered. "But-but that leaves it up to me!"

Xaa nodded, smiling. "Of course. Such was your idea, Great Chief Byarl. W'mefa and I can agree to swear fealty to the other - but we cannot choose between each other. You must choose, Great Chief Byarl."

W'mefa nodded. "The wisdom of the musties, our magical little friends from the forest, shall set the course of our future history."

"I-I-I..." Byarl stammered, then controlled himself with an effort. "I need a moment to think."

W'mefa nodded. "Take all the time you need, Great Chief Byarl," he replied, and Xaa nodded in agreement.

"Father said there'd be days like this, once I was chief," Byarl muttered in the language of the Little People, and Xaa grinned briefly while Merle stifled a giggle. Byarl rose to his feet, holding the single remaining utensil that represented his choice, and began pacing back and forth.

It wasn't a simple decision, and the weight of it was heavy on Byarl's little shoulders. Merle had once explained how the mus looked at the musties - like magical forest spirits, possessed of great wisdom and secret knowledge of nature.

Byarl shook his head. He hardly felt like some magical, mythical being - not by half. He was just himself. The responsibility of guiding and nurturing his tribe as they adjusted to their life in their new home and to their new relationship with their new allies, the mus, was challenge enough. Now, Byarl had a decision to make that affected the lives of all the mus - and, by extension, the lives of all his people, as well.

After a few minutes, Byarl stopped pacing, and looked to the two mus-warriors. Right or wrong, a decision had to be made. He could only hope he was right.

Byarl looked to Xaa, drawing himself up to stand straight and tall - or, as tall as a little mustie could, at any rate. "You, Lord Xaa, I know fairly well," he said, waggling the utensil at Xaa. "I've been your ally for a year now, and I know that you would do well. However, I also know you don't want to be emperor at all, and you would be less than pleased if I chose you. You'd accept it, because of your stoic mus ways and your politeness, but I think deep in your heart, you want me to pick W'mefa."

Xaa nodded quietly, and Byarl then turned to W'mefa, waggling the utensil at him. "You, Lord W'mefa, would make an equally good choice - but you don't want to force Lord Xaa to kneel to you. You're his friend, and you know that it's been a point of honor to him that he kneels to no one," Byarl said, and W'mefa nodded. "Still, I think that by his voting for you, he has shown that he is willing to kneel to you, so long as it means the mus have a single leader to face their problems with - both now, and in the future. So, my choice is clear," Byarl said, and without hesitation, he handed his utensil to W'mefa. Byarl then took a step back, and bowed.

W'mefa stared at the utensil in his paw for a long moment in silence, as all the other mus in the room rose and bowed to him as one. Finally, he smiled slightly. "By a spoon, I have been chosen emperor - the first in over two centuries," he said, and chuckled quietly. "If this is an omen, I hope it will be one of prosperity for our people. I will strive to be worthy of your decision, my friends," W'mefa said, then rose and bowed in return.

"Hail Lord W'mefa'ap'Hrasht, Emperor of the Mus," Lady Ara called in a solemn voice, holding her bow.

"Hail Lord W'mefa'ap'Hrasht, Emperor of the Mus," the other lords and ladies echoed, equally solemnly. Merle and Byarl bowed to W'Mefa, and after a moment, they all straightened up.

"Each of you... Please, be seated. I will begin at the far end of the table, and work my way around to each of you in turn," W'mefa called. He then tucked the spoon into his sash carefully, then lifted the plate at his seat at the table. Xaa gestured to one of the servants. The servant nodded, picked up a pitcher of tea and fell into step behind W'mefa.

"What are they doing, Merle? Is it the same ceremony, like with Smith's village?" Byarl asked quietly.

Merle nodded. "I think so. Xaa?"

Xaa nodded in reply. "We shall each swear fealty to our new emperor, according to our ancient traditions, receiving the three gifts."

Byarl nodded. "I'll be proud to. He's a fine mus."

"That he is," Xaa agreed, and smiled.

W'mefa began at the far end of the table, as he said he would. The lord who sat there knelt before him, bowing his head. "Lord W'mefa, I, Dakah'ap'Shgaht, and those of Clan Dakah, humbly request shelter and succor, according to the ancient traditions of the mus. We pledge to you in return our highest loyalty, and to serve your needs as best we can, according to the laws and traditions of the mus," Lord Dakah said quietly.

"I accept and welcome you and yours into my service and the service of my clan. Lift your head, my friend, and receive my succor." Lord W'mefa rumbled.

Merle watched nervously. Though she knew it was unlikely, there was still the remote possibility that one of the lords or ladies present might refuse, and a war might result. Byarl quietly moved the plates away from where he sat and where Merle sat, and it was several moments before Merle noticed, she was so distracted. "What are you doing, Chief?"

"Like the mice, Merle," Byarl explained. "I'm too short - I can't have him kneel, too. I'll just get on the table when it's my turn."

"Oh! Okay," Merle replied, and explained what was happening quickly to a nearby servant. The servant nodded, helping Byarl clear the table, then placed Byarl's pillow atop it. Byarl then stood next to the table, waiting his turn.

Merle watched as W'mefa slowly moved his way down the table, accepting the vow of fealty of each of the lords and ladies present one at a time, when suddenly, it struck her - Byarl wasn't a mus, and there was no real need for him to swear fealty to W'mefa. Yet, the mus had accepted him as being one of them. Several had even voted for Byarl, nominating him as a candidate for emperor. In fact, the first vote for W'mefa had been cast by Byarl. It had all happened so smoothly, that it was only now that it occurred to Merle just how completely the mus accepted the musties as being their friends and allies. Byarl really was just like any other lord or lady in this room, like any other Lord or Lady of one of the thirty-six High Clans, and they respected him as much as they respected any other of their number. Merle was awed for a moment as she thought about it. The mus had accepted the musties completely and unquestioningly, despite the vast differences in their culture and lifestyle.

And somehow, she knew this was because of her.

Merle's work, her efforts in discovering new things, creating new inventions, teaching the mus to fly the airships, and everything else she had done, had endeared her to them - and, by extension, her people. Xaa had told her once that she, like he, was famous among the mus. It had been embarrassing to hear - Merle couldn't imagine a little person like herself being that important. Yet, now, as she thought about how easily the mus had accepted Byarl as simply being another lord among lords, she realized that her three years among the mus had made a vast difference. It was a strange feeling, to Merle - a mixture of awe, and pride.

As Merle technically was part of Byarl's tribe, W'mefa did not perform the ceremony on her. Merle watched as W'mefa quietly gave a sliver of meat and a sip of water to Byarl, then briefly groomed him, nibbling and lapping at the fur between his ears and on the back of his neck. Byarl churred in pleasure, then grinned when W'mefa was done. W'mefa grinned back at him, and moved on to Xaa.

All eyes were on the two friends as Xaa quietly knelt before W'mefa. "Lord W'mefa, I, Xaa'ap'Gasha, and those of Clan Xaa, humbly request shelter and succor, according to the ancient traditions of the mus. We pledge to you in return our highest loyalty, and to serve your needs as best we can, according to the laws and traditions of the mus," Lord Xaa said quietly.

"I accept and welcome you and yours into my service and the service of my clan. Lift your head, my friend, and receive my succor." Lord W'mefa rumbled, smiling broadly.

A few minutes later, it was done. The last of the lords and ladies had accepted W'mefa as their liege, and emperor. Merle breathed a little sigh of relief, and smiled. W'mefa handed the nearly-empty plate to a servant, then returned to his seat, bowing to everyone present.

Lady Ara smiled. "And now, my liege," she began, seeming to relish the last two words, "what are we to do about the cats?"

W'mefa nodded. "Lord Xaa is right. If we do nothing, we are guaranteed a renewed war. If we intervene and R'Narr wins, however, we may have a chance at a permanent peace. Each of you shall return to your lands, and mobilize half your troops to march upon the lands of the cats, leaving the other half to defend your lands in case something goes wrong. We will gather at Castle Dakah two weeks' time, as it is somewhat central on our western border, and makes a good point to launch this campaign."

"So sorry, my liege, but who will lead our troops into battle? You?" Lord Dakah called.

W'mefa grinned. "No. Our best strategist shall lead, the one among us the cats fear the most," W'mefa replied, and bowed to Xaa from where he sat.

Xaa smiled in reply, and bowed in return. "I would be honored, my liege."

As the other mus in the room clapped politely at this historic moment and at the compliment to Lord Xaa, Merle tried to put a smile on her face. Though Merle knew she should be thrilled for Xaa, she found she was only afraid. Xaa wasn't immortal, and he wasn't invulnerable. A stray arrow or bullet could find him, and then the love of her life would be no more. Yes, Xaa was strong enough and dangerous enough to kill a bear alone, empty-pawed. Yet, he could still very easily be killed fighting the cats.

Very easily, indeed.

Byarl caught Merle's expression, and grinned as he leaned over to whisper in her ear. "Don't worry, Merle. He'll be fine. After all, we musties will be there to protect him, of course."

Merle nodded firmly. "I'm not letting him out of my sight until this is all over," she whispered back.

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