by Heidi Kortman -
Bede turned his spoon over in the bowl of lukewarm chowder. Father Oaku wolfed down the curried seraph nymphs with no apparent inclination to share. At least the huge tureen supplying this end of the refectory table obscured most of Bede’s view of Bishop Guash’s table manners.
Across the table, his mother crumbled slices of wolner-grain bread into a pile on her plate. He couldn’t go to her, now that he was under Oaku’s authority. Bede stifled a sigh.
Toward the bishop’s end of the long refectory table, one of the Manuscripts shrieked, but not louder than the bishop’s bellow, or the crash of an over-turning bench. All the way down the table, people craned their necks, then scrambled away.
Bede leaned back on the bench, to see past Father Oaku’s hunched shoulders. A glistening spider dangled on its line of silk above the bishop’s dinner plate.
“Douay Bede, where is that creature?” Bishop Guash cowered against the back of his chair. The spider climbed a foot higher, then dropped again. “Answer me!”
“Pangur Ban,” Bede whispered, and the quarr shifted— “there is a spider, the biggest I’ve seen, and you must hunt after all.” Douay Bede stood. “The quarr is here, Your Grace,” he said, pitching his voice above the commotion. He snapped his fingers, and Pangur Ban leaped from the floor to the table top.
The quarr drew back his lips and thrummed a short, discordant sound. His tail twitched as he stepped over place settings and around serving bowls. Scales rose and flattened rhythmically along his spine. Down, down the table; nearer, nearer to the still-suspended spider.
Bede held his breath. Did the quarr have enough skill to take prey this large? The bishop’s face was pumice gray, and sweat-wet. He clutched the arms of his cathedra chair. The dinner guests Pangur Ban passed were goggle-eyed.
The spider stretched its forelegs, and dropped lower. Its other legs spraddled as it came to rest astride the bowl of striped korath pears. Its abdomen was half-again as long as the chowder tureen. The spider’s rear legs, long as Bede’s arms, stroked back along its spinnerets. Filaments of greenish silk appeared.
Bede stepped over the bench, and followed Pangur Ban down the table. The quarr’s progress was hindered by a tureen of chowder. Bede shifted it aside, and the quarr slipped through.
Belly scales almost brushing the table top, ears laced back, Pangur Ban advanced.
The spider continued to gather silk. Its rear legs spread, stretching out the webbing. Would it throw the silk over the bishop, or worse, over Pangur Ban? Bede hesitated.
Clang! One swipe of the quarr’s left paw knocked the fruit bowl from under the spider. Soft pears bounced, bruised, and splattered their too sweet juice over the width of the table.
Bede gagged. Under Pangur Ban’s other paw was the spider’s abdomen, spraying ichor that hissed as the drops pitted the table where they landed. The rest of the spider had leaped forward, trailing more ichor, which mixed with the curry sauce on the bishop’s plate. The arachnid spun in a final threat dance, palps down and fangs extended. The quarr reached out its right paw, and flipped the bishop’s plate. It stepped onto the stoneware, then scratched a discarded napkin over the mess.
“He’s not… going… to eat it?” The bishop’s voice shook as he left his seat.
“Apparently not, Your Grace.”
Pangur Ban flicked his right forepaw, and the scales on his flank quivered. Bede snapped his fingers. The quarr jumped from the table, but refused to put weight on the forepaw.
“He needs tending, Your Grace.” Bede crouched. “No claws with me, Pangur Ban,” he said as he examined the quarr’s pads. Usually gray and smooth, they were blistered, and mustard gold. The quarr flinched back. “The spider’s ichor has scalded him.”
“Do it quickly, then meet me in the Gallery.” The bishop turned aside, but drew up short, as Brother Reita, in hazard gear, accosted him.
“Were you spattered, Your Grace? The ichor is caustic.” The assistant infirmarian reached out.
Guash slapped his hand aside. “No. Leave me alone.”
Bede took a deep breath. “Brother Reita, could I have some irqaq sap? Pangur Ban has been scalded.”
Brother Reita nodded. “Tell the dispensarian I said you could have his entire supply. We have other medicines humans tolerate better than that.”
“Thank you, Brother.” Bede scooped up the quarr, draping the creature over his shoulders. “Your Grace, I’ll return soon.”