From the palace's high windows, a grey woman watched the glittering azure bay. There, hundreds of fat, laden carracks sat at harbor, trapped by a line of tallships which gripped the circular inlet's narrow neck, patrolling. Specks of folk milled about the port city's boardwalks, watching the stagnant blockade. The woman sighed, flared her nostrils.
A teak door clicked open. Round the frame stepped a pageboy accoutered in cherry red. "Pardon me, Señora Capard, the delegates from Maples have arrived." Capard turned from her view of the bay, blinked tiredly at the page.
"Send them in, Juan" she said. The boy scurried away.
Capard glanced to a low table in the room's center. A single, short chair accompanied it. A trio of small, red cushions occupied its surface. A bowl of whole, bitter walnuts and a stack of tiny plates sat beside. She turned the chair to face the bay, stood with a hand on its purple-upholstered back.
There sounded a click as the door opened again. Holding it, the page straightened, cleared his throat.
"May I present the delegation from Maples: Chancellor Llewellyn Spitze and staff."
Round the door frame hopped three well-dressed mice. Spitze, a brown creature in a houndstooth waistcoat, led the party. He wore a handsome black ribbon midway down his prehensile tail. The others wore neutral, dark grey suits. The delegates' bounding gaits pattered softly on the warm tile of the room.
Approaching Capard, Spitze rose from all fours, straitened to the height of the woman's knee. He offered a paw. Capard grasped the furry limb, bending low. "Bonne gionro, Chancellor" she said.
Spitze's pink nose twitched. His pink, veined discs of ears perked up. "A pleasure to meet with you, Amanda. I wish it could be in better times" he said in a high, quiet tone.
"Indeed" grimaced Capard. Her expression shifted, now grim. "Please, old friend, have a seat. Your road was long."
At this, Spitze leapt nimbly atop the low table. He settled upon a cushion, tugged his waistcoat straight. His retinue followed. Their foot-long whiskers twitched beneath impassive, wine colored eyes. Spitze plucked a walnut from the bowl, turned it over in his paws.
"I suppose you'd like to discuss the blockade" said the brown mouse.
"If you've called me here to mull the same, moot concept, I'm sorry to have wasted time, Bella. Your Prince understands why the Belvirinians won't retract their warships" said Spitze. Gripping the walnut with both paws, he cracked it with long, yellow incisors.
"Indeed, and they maintain their aggression only by the weal of the Mapolitan treasury" said Capard.
Spitze stared at her, nose twitching. His jaw busily deconstructed half the walnut. Shards of woody shell fell from his downy lips. He swallowed, head bobbing. "Quite" he squeaked.
"You, my dear Llewellyn, hold executive control of that treasury. You hold it for a reason."
"Bella, I've not forgotten my office."
"Might we speak privately?" said Capard.
Spitze's whiskers twitched. He raised a pink paw, waved his mice away. They hopped from the table, discreetly skittered out. The red-eyed mouse gazed at Capard, eyelids twitching. "You are behaving oddly" he said.
"Do you recall our days at the accademia, Llewellyn?" said Capard, leaning forward.
"You aspired then to the office you now occupy. You spoke of it often, of the reach it afforded you. You remember why?"
"Yes." said the mouse, softly.
"Have you had any success with your venture?"
Spitze shifted. "Some small progress. What are you driving at?"
Capard smiled, tugged a small, folded yellow paper from her jacket. "My own progress has been substantial" she said, proffered the item to Spitze. Delicately, the mouse took it, unfolded the paper. "Careful" said Capard. "It's as old as you would expect."
A moment passed as Spitze examined the paper. His soft sides began to heave under his houndstooth jacket. Fast breaths whispered through his long, furry nose. "I see" he squeaked. Carefully, he folded the paper, held it in both paws close to his round body. He met Capard's eyes. "I understand your intent."
"Now, I wouldn't deign suggest your favors may be bought." She smiled. "This is, however, priceless."
Spitze quivered, whiskers ablur. "Damn you, Bella."
"I would love to discuss its contents, in a better time" smiled Capard, grimly.
The mouse looked to paper in his paws, then to the floor. Some silent seconds passed, filled only with the distant murmur of the port and the nervous flicker of Spitze's breath.
"I will freeze their credit immediately" said Spitze, abruptly. He did not meet Capard's eyes. "The blockade should end within a fortnight" he said, more quietly.
"Belvirine is deep in arrears. If I argue well, this won't cost me my job" said the mouse, standing from his cushion. With shaking paws, he tucked the old, yellowed paper into his jacket. "I shall depart at once." He dropped to the tile. Across the room, the red page proffered the open door.
As the mouse hopped to the teak door, Capard rose, spoke.
"Llewellyn" she said, softly. Spitze turned, fixed her with wet eyes. "Good luck with your search."
The mouse nodded, disappeared round the door frame.
Some nine hundred years past, in the chill of Autumn, the first mice emerged from beneath the roots of elms. They were mild, small creatures, possessed of nimble paws and a gentle language. From where they came, no one knew, and the mice couldn't (or wouldn't) tell. Within a century, they had integrated with society. Nowadays, you couldn't guess they hadn't been here all along.
In an average day about town, you will see many mice. Your neighbor is a mouse; he grows fine begonias. Your cobbler is a mouse; her many children shine the shoes. You buy newspapers from a mouse in a beret for tuppence. Your town's mayor is a mouse; his family has run the local flour mill for generations.
The fact that mice are small and furry is not at all an issue. They wear clothes like everyone else. They are quite clean, never lick themselves in public. They take up so very little space, rarely get underfoot. Reminding oneself of the fact that mice are fuzzy and knee-high is actually rather unnerving, so unnoticed does it go.
Mice are easily forgiven their few peculiarities. Their expressions and kinesics are different from those of humans, but easily learned. Their quick mode of hopping about is somewhat animal in nature, but forgettable, as mice stand when they speak. Their tendency to drink very little (mice subsist on the liquid in grains and nuts) is odd, but excusable, as they never take too much wine.
For the most part, mice are sensitive creatures. You must take care not to insult their children, who are numerous, lest you earn the wrath of a parent. (If you step on a pup, perish the thought.) You must take care in pointing out that a mouse is, in fact, a mouse. So integrated with society are mice that any suggestion they are different may cause accusations of racism. You must, most of all, take care never to tread on a mouse's long, scaly tail.
Again, mice are such natural members of society that you would rarely wonder where they came from, in the first place. This trail of thought leads you to a rather odd place. From what world under the elms did they crawl from, and why? As it turns out, some mice ask the same question.
Some mice, unlike Northern Litorans, hold a degree of spirituality. Though it takes a great deal of prodding to get a mouse of faith to tell you, their religion concerns the world from which they came. This religion is a cult, a cult which believes the small folk are in exodus from their home, driven out by wicked creatures. Only after gaining wisdom and power will the elm trees allow mice to return to their home and claim it again.
The few mice who hold faith in the elms take it upon themselves to discover a way back home. To aid their search, these mice seek positions of power and wealth in society. Only with means and specie, they believe, can a mouse be great enough to uncover the secrets which they seek.
As a result, a small, powerful cabal of mice holds a great deal of sway on the Coast. Bankers, politicians, royal advisers. Their intentions are mysterious, driven, and ruthless. For the most part, inhabitants of the Coast, including the majority of mice, have no knowledge of the incipient Elms. Their unconcerned thoughts cannot suppose the power held in the paws of a few, ambitious mice.