by David Barr Kirtley
Benjamin had always thought of himself as a strong-willed young mouse, but he
had to admit that he was starting to lose heart. Not that he ever regretted penning
that pamphlet calling for the abolition of the monarchy, but now he did sometimes
wish he'd used a pseudonym.
He'd been imprisoned in the dungeons beneath Kingsburrow for six months, which
meant he still had fifty-four months to go on his sentence. His cell was tiny and
dim. Its walls were angular and dirty, and the ceiling dipped so low that Benjamin
couldn't even stand up straight. His tunic was in tatters, his fur was matted with
grime, and his claws had grown long and jagged. He'd heard no news of his
family, his friends, or the outside world. Twice a day, a gruff old mouse with gray
whiskers would pass by and deposit a food tray on the floor outside the cell, and
then Benjamin would reach between the iron bars to fumble for a tin cup of water
and a hunk of moldy cheese.
One evening, two royal guards -- tall mice who wore red livery and carried gilded
poleaxes -- appeared outside the cell. One of them said to Benjamin, "You there,
the king wants to see you."
The guards opened the cell door, then led Benjamin down the passageway and up a
steep spiral stair. Warm light seeped from above, and Benjamin was grateful for it,
though when he finally reached the top step and emerged into a torchlit
antechamber, the brightness made him squint.
The guards hustled him along. In one hallway, Benjamin passed a dignified and
well-groomed mouse who stopped and instructed the guards, "He can't go before
the king looking like that. Clean him up." So Benjamin was taken to a parlor where
the first female mice he'd seen in far too long doused him with cold water, brushed
the tangles from his fur, and dressed him in a fresh tunic.
Finally he was led to an elaborately decorated sitting room. In one corner stood the
king's son, Prince Francis, who wore a red doublet, a black cloak, and a sword and
scabbard. Benjamin had never seen Francis up close before. It was true what mice
said -- Francis, with his thick, tawny fur and large, imposing ears, was the tallest
and most handsome mouse in all of Kingsburrow. Benjamin felt a touch of
apprehension, for mice also said that Francis was a master swordfighter,
methodical and relentless.
Francis asked Benjamin, "Do you know why you're here?"