What Really Happened in Allaburrow?

“Hey,” Alvin called out as he arrived home. It was late, and even if the fam preferred night time hours, it was close enough to dawn that he didn’t expect any answer.

He dropped his pack on the kitchen table. Bits of food he’d scrounged, some interesting scavanged bits from Smithy Revand’s scrap heap, and, yeah, that purse from the magpie noble who was visiting Governor Tarchrip – he’d been carrying that almost half a day, watching to see that entire time if he was being followed.

It was heavy, and it clunked nicely on the wooden table, and Alvin let a smile shift his normally lazy and neutral features. It was a neat piece of cutwork, done (as far as he could tell) flawlessly, and the leather ties were still intact, plausible deniability if the birdies came after him. Dropped on the ground in a chase – anyone could have done the deed, if not the magpie herself. Nothing on him that could be found, could be used in the governor’s court against him. Nothing that could hurt his family.

But, home at last, it bore opening. If only so that he could figure out how best to hide the contents, and how best to sell them on the morrow – or, maybe better, in a week, after the magpie was gone to the higher courts and any complaints begun to fade. Enough to feed the fam for a week or four, he’d wager – or, given how loud a braggart the magpie was, maybe enough to get them new digs, or buy Ma that dress she’d been shining after, or –


It took him half a sec to shift from thinking about what he might buy his Ma to realize it was her coming from the darkness to him, eyes wide.

“Alvie. Where’s Theo?”

“So, you see that guard?”

“The one with the biiiiig sword?”

“Yup. Big sword. Dude is compensating for something. Which, since he’s a bird, makes complete sense.”


“Ask Elder Lieman when you’re older. He’s got picture books and all.”

“I’m too old for picture books!”

Alvin smiled. “Some picture books, never too old for. When you’re older, I’ll share some I got. Sensuous Sows and Raunchy Ringtails – you’ll understand when you understand.”

“That sounds stupid.”

“It is. But it’s also cool.”

“What does that have to do with the guard?”

“So that guard works for Taxman Whipwip. Which means --”

“He’s a stupid poopyhead.”

“Well, yeah, but it also means he helps the Taxman gather taxes. Which means …”

“He takes a bunch of money for himself.”

“Good call, Theo. Yeah, he takes a skim off the top. Cause he’s a thief. Like almost everyone. He does what he does to, like, maximize his profit. Which means taking some of the money that he’s supposed to be delivering to the Taxman.”

“Won’t the Taxman know?”

“That’s where it gets tricky. Yeah, if the Taxman is smart, he knows what he should be getting, so if the guard doesn’t bring that, he might notice. He might not. But you don’t get to be Taxman without paying attention to things like that. So what do you think the guard does?”


“Who to?”

“The Taxman?”

“Nah. Taxman gives him a way to get money. Lying to the boss can mean trouble. So who does he lie to?”

“Uh … wait, the people he’s collecting taxes from!”

“Dude. Very correct. Taxman tells him, ‘Mister Shopkeeper owes us three copper.’ He salute, then goes and says, ‘Hey, Mister Shopkeeper, you owe four copper in taxes.’ Shopkeeper says, ‘I thought it was three.’ Guard says, ‘You didn’t see new decree from the Aerie. It’s four.’ Shopkeeper grumbles, but pays four. Then what happens?”

“The guard … he gives only three to the Taxman.”

“Right on, little kit. He gives three to the Taxman, so …?”

“He keeps a copper!”

“Or two coppers. Or a silver. Or whatever. Small enough the guy paying the tax pays, large enough that he gets a tidy profit.”

"So … he’s rich!"

“Not as rich as the Taxman, because the real tax is only …”

“Wait, the real tax is only two copper!”

“Yup. So Taxman takes some skim, and the guard takes some skim, and everyone’s happy.”

“Except Mr. Shopkeeper.”

“Yeah, he’s okay, because he just raises his prices, and everyone grumbles, and he blames the Taxman.”

“Wow. That’s … really unfair. Because everyone has to go to Mr. Shopkeeper, so most people end up paying more.”

“The way of the world, Theo. But … what’s the lesson here?”

“People are mean?”

“Yeah, at least if they’re people who the little people have to pay money to. What else?”

“Um … well … we should steal from the guard, because he has lots of money!”


“Wait – why not?”

“Because the guard is part of the system. And the guard has pointy things. And stealing from the guard without being very, very careful, means all the people with pointy things come after you.”

“I’m not afraid!”

“Dude. You should be. Pointy things hurt. And people with pointy things get mad when they know they’ve been stolen from.”

“So … instead of the guard … I should steal from the Taxman!”

“No! Steal from the Taxman, and the Governor gets pissy. Unless you can show your paws are clean, that means pointy things, and gaol, and Ma and Da getting all sad.”

“But you’re smart. You could figure out how to do it.”

“I’m smart. I’m smart enough to be afraid of what might happen. Plenty of little fish in the river to go after.”

“But the big fish are mean, Alvin. They steal from the little fish.”

“And they bit the hands that steal from them. Better to be safe, little bro.”

“I’m not afraid of them.”

“Be afraid of them, Theo. We’re little fish, too.”

“Theo?” Alvin tried to stay calm. “He went off to play with his friends this afternoon, after I’d done a scavenge circuit. He said he’d be home for supper.”

Alvin’s mother looked at him with wide, dark eyes. “We’ve not seen hide nor hair.”

Alvin said a bad word. Then, “I’ll go find him.” And then, “Hide this stuff. Lock the door. I haven’t been home.”

His mother nodded, scurrying deftly to the table. “Find Theo.”

“I will, Ma.”

It was the Hour of Wolves, the darkness before the dawn. Few, even of the nocturnal, were out.

Alvin moved quickly, carefully, uptown. Theo should have been home. If he wasn’t, it meant trouble. Alvin’s thoughts flickered through his younger brother’s friends. Some were savory. Some less so. What-evs. Few would be out and about this time of night, anyway. Few would be –

A motion in the alleyway, across from the Fish Shop. Alvin slipped through light and shadow in a way that belied his bulk. At the alley entrance, he paused, looking. Nothing.

“Theo?” His drawled tones were barely a whisper.

A pause. Then, “Alvin?” Soft, almost inaudible, but with a bright, piss-smelling overlay of fear.

Alvin moved into the darkness of the alley. After a moment, Theo was there, grabbing him, hugging him. “Alvin!”

“Theo. Little dude. What’s wrong?”

“They’re after me!”

Alvin felt a great stillness in the air around him, like the Executioner’s Bell had rung. “Who? Who’s after you, Theo?”

“I – I --” Theo’s voice choked off in a squeak, and grabbed his older brother more tightly.

“Dude. What happened? What did you do?”

“I – Alvin, I’m scared.”

“I’ll take care of it. What happened?”

“I – I was thinking about the guard bird. And then the Taxman bird. And then --”

“And then?”

“And then the Gov.”

Cold flooded down Alvin’s spine, down, down through his tail. "Theo, what did you do?"

“I – I went there. The Gov’s House. I climbed the wall, like you showed me to do.”

No. Oh, no, Theo.

“I climbed up, and I found a room. A place where the Gov keeps his things. The 'spensive things. And --”

Alvin swallowed. “And?”

“I took it.” Theo took a step back, held up an object. It looked like a bowl, but the inside was all blue tile, or maybe gems, and the outside had glittering stones in the shape of birds, dancing and partying and drinking. “It looked like something that would make the Gov happy, something he bought from the taxes the guard made bigger, and the Taxman made bigger, and the Gov made bigger. And all that, from the folk in the grove, Alvin. Not just someone taking something from someone who maybe didn’t need it, but like – all of the focus, Alvin, where all the stealing was focused and everyone was hurt by it, and I took it and I tried to slip out, but this big thing of ivy cracked, and --”

In the distance, Alvin heard shout, orders, counter-orders. The guard was out.

“Oh, Theo …”

“I’m sorry, Alvie, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to …”

“It’s --” He drew a deep breath, let it slide out. So often he seemed slow, and clownish, and unaware. He was never any of that, but trying to be that way brought him peace and joy in a world that was always unfair and hurtful and wrong.

And sometimes, he had to do something about it. And it would be hard. But he knew it was needful and he knew what it would mean.

He grabbed his little brother by the shoulders. “Theo. It’s okay. It’s … messy, but okay. Take the bowl. Get home. Tell Ma and Da I love them.”

“But – but – Alvie, they’re after me!”

"The Man is always after us, Theo. But … they’ll never catch us. Now – go! Remember what I said. Go!"

Alvin ducked and dodged through the alleys and streets of the city. He knew how to hide. He knew how to blur into the darkness that his gray-and-black fur fit into.

But a greater art was hiding while not hiding.

“Stupid Gov!” Alvin’s voice whispered, as he flickered into view crossing the street beneath a lantern.

“Lovely bowl, gotta be mine!” his voice taunted before guards as he tumbled from shadow to debris-choked alley.

“Never catch me, beak-breaths!” he mocked, sing-song, hopping from rooftop to rooftop over the heads of the night-blind armored guardbirds.

Dawn rose as he looked from the edge of the forest, back toward Allaburrow. Somewhere, in there, was his family. Ma and Da. Theo. The memories of his older brother, Simon.

They would be safe. He lingered in sight long enough for the guards to see him. His fam would be harassed for his “wrongthinking” mind, but no search would find any sign of the bowl, or his haul from that night, or anything that could draw punishment. Ma and Da were clever.

No, he would be a rogue who dared steal from the Gov, and then fled when the guard chased after him. He’d be a seven-day wonder in the Clearing, before being relegated to the same oblivion as Simon.

He’d be an exile.

But his parents would be okay. Theo would be okay – and, he prayed to the masked gods, a bit wiser. A last lesson from his older brother.

Alvin flipped the bowl in to the air. That would pay for a good meal or three in the next clearing. And maybe a stake in being a vagabond, homeless and bereft, but, most importantly, free. Severed painfully from his family, but not in gaol.

Alvin smiled toward the guards charging from the town toward the pathway from the clearing. And then he faded into the shadows of the woods, and was gone.

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