On a good day, Bluet could fluff his fur out until he was wider than he was tall. Tonight an unseasonable rain had slicked him down to nothing. He kept his paws tucked in his armpits as he darted between the shelter of blooming cherry trees.
The path hugged the bank of a sloshing stream, frightening in the dark. Bluet shoved wet fur out of his eyes and darted across a slippery footbridge toward the one speck of light in sight: a window.
The tidy, tall-peaked cottage presided over a dock and a flourishing garden. Bluet’s stomach growled. Cold or not, the bedraggled mouse slipped over the picket fence to stuff his face with snap peas.
“Hello? Who’s there?” Light shifted around the corner: someone bringing a lamp or candle to the door.
Bluet tossed the pea-pod scraps behind the flourishing rutabaga and circled around outside the garden—fast. The raindrops were coming down hard.
“Here!” he squeaked.
A hedgehog raised a candle in the doorway. He leaned out, clutching his nightcap despite the innate anchoring of his spikes. His long nightshirt resembled a pincushion. “What do you… what?”
The hedgehog, apparently, was sleepy. Bluet ducked in under the corner of the front door’s overhang. “Evening, sir! Could I, maybe—”
Bluet sneezed concussively. He barely exaggerated.
The hedgehog’s name was Toby, because of course it was. Only someone named Toby could win county’s biggest pumpkin three years running. He gardened assiduously and bartered the excess for mead and acorn-flour bread and tiny luxuries. He bundled Bluet up in an armchair with a knit blanket and kindled the fireplace. Better light showed Bluet a plain little cottage—nothing shiny, nothing of interest.
Toby, thankfully, was not chatty. Enfolded in the throw blanket, Bluet couldn’t think straight. He might have said something inconvenient about why, exactly, he’d been out in the rain tonight.
The hedgehog stopped puttering and ladled out two mugs of cider brewed from last year’s dried apples. He settled down in another armchair and put a blanket over his knees. “Warming up?” he asked, slurping aggressively. “Bluet, you said?”
Bluet nodded, burying his face in his mug. “Can’t thank you enough. I got lost in the cherry woods, and then the rain…” He sneezed again.
“Well… yes. Of course you’re welcome to stay the night,” Toby said reluctantly. “I’ll pull out the cot. Oh, drat.”
He set his mug aside and rushed to put a tin pot under a drip. The snug thatch roof shed water by the bucketful, but the leak, it seemed, was up by the peak.
“I could get up there for you in the morning,” Bluet offered. “Really the least I could do.”
From the way Toby’s eyes lit up, Bluet knew immediately he’d made a serious mistake.
In daylight, the roof had all the gentle slope of a collapsing cliff. Bluet gulped, braced the ladder on a patch of firm gravel, and headed up with bundles of thatch on his back. The ladder ended far before the weathervane. He climbed with ease.
“Right there under the peak on the north side!” Toby shouted up after him. “Right by the mushrooms!”
There were, in fact, plump morels growing on the thatch. Morels or something like them. As a lifelong scavenger and scrounger and yes, occasionally, scoundrel, Bluet understood that there were no more dangerous words than “amateur mycologist.” He refrained from pocketing the mushrooms as he worked a bundle into the layers of the roof.
The wind shifted. A squeak set his fur on edge. The weathervane, he realized, was beautiful work, a far better take than Toby’s plain tin spoons—and small enough to carry, if he could get it loose from the peak. Maybe not in daylight, of course…
He paused in the crook of the chimney and the steep thatch. Toby was nowhere in sight.
The weathervane took the form of a swooping gryphon in dark cast iron without much rust. Its base was a simple spike and a nailed-on square bracket. Bluet slipped a thin dagger from his sleeve and prodded at the base experimentally. Not much give, but enough to work with.
Bluet’s nose twitched. Gripping the weathervane, he leaned away from the peak toward the chimney. Was that sweet ginger? He didn’t much like ginger cakes, but Toby was baking, wasn’t he. Doing something nice for his guest.
Bluet scratched his head. “Any thoughts?” he asked the weathervane.
When the gryphon held its peace, Bluet sighed and hid the dagger behind a loose brick, up where Toby could never stumble on it. He smoothed the last of the thatch, then picked his way down the steep roof.
He lingered at the top of the ladder, looking out over the garden and the stream and the cherry blossoms. The life he’d led, all its needs and petty shames and deeper guilts, seemed very far away beyond the cherry trees.
When Toby came outside with the ginger cakes, Bluet found he didn’t need to fake a smile.
— Jonathan Olfert