When the delegation of Zom returned with Spanakopitus's qualified "yes," the ZomMaster was less than satisfied. Not having worn his humility long enough for it to fit him, he tried to find a way around the pronouncement.

"Has any of you, by chance, seen a badger skulking around the barony?" he asked his followers. "A small badger, low to the ground and with sharp claws? Such a creature could be very useful to us right about now."

"Well, if one is out there, we'll find him for you," said the Zom. Which they did, by and by, foraging in the forest. And, luring him with the promise of a mole and two fine wood rats, they brought the disgruntled creature before the ZomMaster.

"I hear you're expert at digging," said the ZomMaster, eyeing the fresh dirt under Blodget's long claws.

"That may be and that may be. I do what I must. I do what I can. I make do with what I have. But beholden to no one, I am."

"Well, then, here's a businesslike proposition for you, little fellow. Dig me a trench from here right up to old Spanakopitus's twelve-hundred-gallon water tank and then punch a hole through at the bottom. You'll be rewarded with a lifetime supply of fine Zom brandy and one squirrel a week." ZomMaster rocked back on his heels, enjoying himself immensely.

For several moments Blodget looked the ZomMaster up and down in silence. ZomMaster stopped rocking and found himself unaccountably squirming.

Then the badger spoke.

"There was a day--you don't need the details--when he whom you are asking me to trick could have easily dispatched me with his muzzleloader. But he didn't. Such a man is supremely in control of himself and of the situation. He is not to be tricked or trifled with." And the small badger turned and shuffled away.

"Don't bother me again," he called back over his shoulder.

Nonplussed, the ZomMaster watched him go.

Though his circumstances may be modest, never underestimate the stature of one with principles.

25: Perfidy Begun