Tonight the moonlight makes the floor of the Great Hall into a game board. Every high window casts a bright lattice, dividing the hall into black and white, squares and margins. The ranks of wooden benches face one another on three sides; in the space between them there is nothing but straight shadows on stone, an abstract in pen and ink. It is as still as a held breath. For once not even an eddy of wind rattles the windows or hums in the great hearth. No dust dances over the dark-barred floor. The empty benches wait. If ever the hall was ready for the first move of a grand jeu, it’s now: midnight, silence, this geometry of light. Someone else would know how to play, how to begin.
But tonight there is only the Rat, shivering a little in her threadbare shirt, her arms tight around her ribcage. She stretches one scrawny foot in and out of the light, thinking dark, pale, dark, pale. She narrows her eyes at the sheen on her toenails. She is listening for footsteps; but then, she is always listening for footsteps. She is hungry; but then, she’s always hungry. She has forgotten to notice these things. She scrunches her toes. The stone is cold. The stone is always cold; even in summer the thin-aired nights are chilly, and the daytime heat doesn’t have time to seep through the walls. But tonight she notices it, because she has spent the day just gone under the eaves – sweltering breathless under hot slates, watching threads of gold creep over her sweaty knees as the sun dipped. She presses the ball of her foot down and relishes the chill. Cold stone, cold bone. She would like to pocket it and suck on it through the long days of hiding. But it is late heat this year. This is the end of summer. Yesterday the grey ones were unlocking doors, opening windows, sweeping grit and dry leaves out of fireplaces. Today they were bustling with their baskets on wheels, making beds, flapping sheets full of the stink of soap and lavender. Tomorrow they will be cleaning on the other side of the courtyard, scrubbing the floors and clanking buckets. They will grumble to one another and smell of sweat. The young ones will slip sideways to blow smoke from the windows. The Rat always hides, but soon she will be hiding harder. And then there will be the black ones, the male ones, loud and greedy. There will be more food and more danger. For a few weeks she will move more in the chimneys and less in the corridors. Then, as the days dwindle, the fires will be lit and she will use the ledges and roofs and the gaps in the walls, or only move at night to the kitchen and back. She will sleep and shiver through the long snows. This is the way the year turns.
For no reason she steps further into the hall. Moonlight spills up her ankles. She will not enter the space between the benches, but she stands on the edge of it. There is a line of silver framing the bare rectangle, like a runnel of mercury between the stones. She raises one foot, but she is only testing herself. She already knows she will not cross it. Someone else would; someone else would step forward with an opening gambit ready, bow to the empty benches. But she is the Rat, and she wouldn’t know a gambit from a claw-mark on the wall. All she knows about this place is that it isn’t hers.