Now admittedly, in the days of his youth, the royal gardens had been infested more so by squirrels and birds than anything else…Well, there was the army of kittens living in the pile of flagstone on the east end of the ground, but aside from the kittens, there were only the birds and the squirrels and the occasional rat.
     Snakes were so rare as to be nearly nonexistent and only slithered onto the scene once a cycle or so, and usually during the hottest of the growing seasons. Most of them were garter and black snakes, with a venomous copperhead making an appearance every other age, but they were never very large and they never came in pairs or groups. They came one at a time to the gardens and the boys dispatched them with little, if any effort.
     When the boys were young, they reported the serpents to the groundskeeper (a portly, not to mention, grumpy man by the name of Mister Sheffer), and the groundskeeper would kill the poisonous ones and relocated the rest. When the boys were older, however, Iman and Jaysh dealt with the legless beasts and they were not so discriminating. Being wild and fearless—and not a little bit bloodthirsty—the boys paid no heed to the shape of the serpents’ head or to the color of their scales. If they found a snake in the garden, that snake received a flagstone greeting and its dead body was hung from the nearest tree, a warning to any of its snaky friends that might think to trespass.
     As Brine crept deeper into the overgrown gardens, he found himself wondering if this ploy might have backfired on the boys. He found himself wondering how many of the snaky friends spied their dead brethren dangling from the boughs and made a promise to themselves to return one day and settle the score. He hoped that wasn’t the case, but who was to say about a snake.
     Wait a moment, he thought, reflecting on his Wogol studies, wasn’t it God who said that the followers of Amontus were protected against serpents? That we could handle the legless dirt-eaters without fear of reprisal?
     Brine thought about this a while longer, then decided that he’d also seen passages in the Wogol about not testing the will of God. He remembered reading that to test the will of God meant to kiss goodbye any provisions on the part of the Almighty. But then he was left pondering whether or not it was testing the will of God to take a midnight stroll through the tall grass of a garden.
     In the low and booming voice that Brine imagined for his God, he heard Owndiah answer, ONLY IF YOU KNEW THERE WERE SNAKES WHEN YOU BEGAN…SO DID YOU, MY SON? DID YOU KNOW?
      Kind of? Brine squeaked, feeling much worse about his chances. In truth, had he suspected there were serpents lurking in the grass—or had he suspected the gardens were now a snake paradise—he’d have stayed in bed and counted sheep. But at the same time, could he claim total ignorance about the garden serpents? Could he claim not to have known about the thing in the sky that was taking the shepherds…?
     Ahead of him, the darker outline of sedge and cattails materializing from the gloom and he spied an opening in the reeds to the north where he’d be able to see the sun reflecting off the water once dawn finally broke. He departed the flagstones and ran to intercept.
     Taking his first step from the flagstones, he thought, But wasn’t it Reets who always said you could find snakes around water, because of the fish and the frog eggs. He was probably talking about the Leresh and the Mela, but if it were true about those rivers, then isn’t it safe to assume that any place where fish and frogs—   
     GET OUT! he screamed, dropping in the knee-high grasses. He hadn’t quite made it to the breach in the cattails, but he dropped down none the less, no longer caring about the sunlight on the water or the threat of slithering death, but wanting nothing more than to assess Miriana’s theory. He brought the flute to his tightly pursed lips and blew like a pyromaniac trying to start a fire.
     In his haste, he misjudged the distance between the mouthpiece and his mouth and felt his upper lip tear between the wood and his teeth. Fresh blood tainted his tongue, but he didn’t let it stop him, nor did he hesitate when it occurred to him that he didn’t know what to play. It didn’t matter, not so long as the noise was long and loud and wonderfully distracting.
     So far, he had that criteria covered. He’d made only a smattering of attempts at the note-holes and already the sounds coming from the instrument were those of a stray dog whimpering to be let in. But what did he expect when his lips felt like granite and his fingers felt like participants in a poorly-planned fire drill, bumping into each other, missing their cues, acting as though they didn’t know what was going on.
     There are less of us now…he heard the boy warn…less than once were…
     Brine blew harder—tried harder—squeezing the flute with more and more force.
     And do you know what, Harbinger? the shepherd boy continued. Do you know what we were doing when it took us? I imagine an intelligent messenger like you can figure it out. I bet an imaginative young man like you can even picture it happening…out in the open, smothered in darkness, whistling a little tune to keep up our spirits…does that sound familiar?
     Brine grimaced around the mouthpiece, but continued to make his noise. A few times, he considered scrambling to his feet and sprinting for the kitchen, but decided against such tact as it dawned on him that movement might draw as much attention as sound. So he kept his seat and he made his noise and, little by little, the light of morning came to paint the eastern sky. And with it, he noticed the castle coming alive: runners and servants on the path, guards on the parapets, the kitchen door clacking against its frame, the weeds and bushes stirring with life.
     He wondered if he could consider the critters of the garden his listening audience. They were a much smaller audience than he was used to, and none of them made eye contact with him or wandered over to smile in his general direction, but they still seemed to enjoy themselves. At the very least, they didn’t appear irritated by the music. No one scampered to the far corners of the grounds and buried their heads in the sand. He could see them—or, rather, their distorted representations—in every direction that he looked.
     On his left, a brown blur dropped from the branches of a dogwood and swept arrow-like across the lawn, dropping into the grass and vanishing from sight. On his right, a yellow-green shape leapt from the croaking bulrushes and landed with a plop in the scum-coated waters. And directly ahead, something he registered only as the rustling of leaves was moving back and forth in the trees at the rear of the garden.
     Of this last animal—or animals, as the case may be—he knew very little. He’d caught only a few snippets of movement from the beast and always seemed to be turning his head just as the creature disappeared from sight. But if he had to guess, he would have labeled the creature a squirrel or rabbit or maybe a cat. Actually, the longer he considered the matter, the more he was convinced that it was a cat. Considering what had taken place in these grassy hallows all those ages ago, he was surprised he wasn’t ankle-deep in felines.
     How many kittens had there been? he wondered. Fifty? Seventy? A hundred?
     He couldn’t remember the exact number, only that he and Jaysh and Iman had made several trips to the stables and sheds and surrounding woodpiles. Whole days had been spent digging in the straw and searching through the feed sacks, hunting behind stacks of boards and underneath workbenches.
     Eventually, after the little devils caught wind of the boys’ intent, it had taken even longer to pinpoint their locale. What was more, once the boys finally located the fiendish sneaks, the extraction process itself was no walk in the park. With all the hissing and biting and clawing you’d have thought their abductors were trying to toss them into a cooking pot instead of stuff them into an old quilt.
     The groundskeeper, Mister Sheffer, hadn’t been pleased, either. He was a portly troll of a man, who would eventually succumb to his own temper and obesity, and this little episode with the kittens hadn’t helped matters. Brine remembered Mister Sheffer waddling into the garden that day and he could tell the man was piqued.
     You boys seen my mousers? he accused, his face red and his mood sullen. I’m missin a whole slew of mousers—A Whole Slew, I say! Cain’t find nary a one an’ I been askin all day—been askin e’rybody, I reckon—but ain’t nobody seen hide ner hair of em. They seen a good bit’a you three, he seethed, but nary a hair’a my mousers! He turned his beady eyes from the sprawling hedges and fixed them on the boys. So how bout it, he demanded. You boys got somethin to tell me, do yeh?
     But Brine and Jaysh and Iman took one look at each other, registered the same frightened expression in the other’s eyes—if we tell the truth, we’re dead!—and shook their tiny heads.
     Thinking back on the moment, Brine felt like shaking his head now as well. Not in sympathy with the younger Brine’s denial, but in amazement at how puerile and naïve he’d been, convinced that something as soft and playful as a kitten deserved to be freed from the dusty tool sheds of the world and loosed into a place of comfort and frolic like the garden, a place where Brine, himself, had experienced so many days of magic.
     And hadn’t I? he wondered, staring passed the foot of his instrument at the kitten paradise beyond; the quiet flagstone walls, the green and looming trees, the iridescent flowers. This was the place where he’d once been a boy, the place he’d come to throw rocks and climb trees and chase the bigger boys until they agreed to let him play.
     But, oh, how things change, hmm, Brine…No more laughter…No more games…And have you seen any of the kittens?
     Brine recognized this distorted voice for what it was and quickly pushed it aside. It was one of the uglier emotions that Amontus discouraged and Brine would do well to keep it at the periphery of his consciousness. But what he could not keep at the periphery was the tightening along his chest and ribcage.
     There was definitely a tension in the vicinity of his lungs that had nothing to do with his exhalation into the flute and, likely, had everything to do with his trek down memory lane. He’d barely had time to register the sensation and it was moving on him, crawling up his throat and settling behind his eyes, turning his larynx to stone and setting his eyes to burn.
     All of a sudden, Brine felt like crying. He couldn’t be sure of the cause, but the feeling was crystal clear. He wanted to roll onto his side, pull his knees to his chest, and heave out his sobs until there was nothing left to give. A purging, if you will, a process of expanding his lungs and then compressing them until all the pain and heartache was flushed from his system.
     In the end, though, he settled for a few deep breaths and a handful of warm tears, deeming full-body sobs as more ammunition for the prejudiced locals who already thought him mad. If they found him out here shrieking like a wildcat and trembling like leaf, they’d banish him for sure.
     But isn’t it funny, the crackling voice continued. You leave for ten short ages and just look what happens… Just look. No tails in the bushes, no whiskers in the trees, no meowing in the air…
     The burning wetness grew worse and Brine had to stop playing and wipe a hand across his eyes. As he did, an image flashed in the landscape of his mind and he saw a line of multicolored kittens prancing from the garden, whiskers and fur as far as the eye could see, which was to the gates of the garden in Brine’s case. But he didn’t need to see the head of the procession to know where it was going. He knew without seeing that they were headed back to the stables and the sheds, back to a life of mouse catching and bird eating and earning their miserable keep.
     All of them gone, Brine, all of them. All of them gone from the ga—  
     Brine drew in his arms and legs, dropped his head, and clenched every muscle in his body, turning himself into a man-sized ball of hard flesh and stiff tissue. For a moment, it felt like he might pass out from the strain, his heart slamming madly, his muscles resisting. In the end, though, he managed to hold his consciousness and it was the image of the kitten-chain that faded.
     Once it was gone, he brought the flute to his lips, waited for the tiny white dots to stop dancing before his eyes, and resumed his music making. And this time, as his fingers massaged the holes and his lips blew life into the slender beam of wood, the utter calm finally came and Miriana’s theory was validated.
     Around him, he felt a bubble of warm nothingness so deft that it consumed even his thoughts. One moment, he was in the garden of his youth with the grass beneath his legs, the sun against the pond, critters capering in the brush, and the next he was nowhere at all. He, like the rest of the world, had been dissolved within the music, so completely eradicated that it was not until the shadow formed on the grass beside him that Brine finally emerged from his trance and took the instrument from his lips.