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Stag Beetles and Broken Legs

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“We are not walking to Dirtmouth with all these bags when there’s a perfectly good stagway not half a day’s walk away,” says Lemm, ringing the bell vigorously.

Quirrel thinks that Lemm’s going to have to get used to carrying his bags everywhere, but he’s waiting for Lemm to realize he overpacked before Quirrel tells him that he told him so. “That rather takes the fun out of traveling, doesn’t it?” he says instead. “It’s about the scenic route, about walking there on your own two feet—”

A stag beetle skids into view and Quirrel cuts himself off. Gods, he hadn’t really expected a stag beetle to still be in the stagways, really.

The Old Stag, as he introduces himself, is so delighted to see new passengers using the stagway that Quirrel can’t help but be charmed, and he forgets all misgivings about taking any scenic routes. They’ve loaded their bags before Quirrel remembers he doesn’t remember anything about how to use the stagways, and most certainly doesn’t remember the signal for Dirtmouth.

“Oh, it’s no trouble,” the Old Stag says peaceably, as Quirrel helps Lemm get onto the Old Stag’s back. “I throw no stones for forgetfulness, seeing as my own memory is not what it used to be! But I know the stagways—wouldn’t forget them on my life. I can take you both to Dirtmouth with no trouble at all.”

The Old Stag’s barely gotten out of the station before Lemm speaks up: “Excuse me, Mr. Stag,” says Lemm, in a polite tone of voice that should have warned Quirrel long before the words came out of Lemm’s mouth. “I’m not native to Hallownest, so I don’t exactly know the species around here. I heard from someone a while ago that stag beetles have rather fragile legs, and so delicate that they never heal if broken—”

“Lemm?!” Quirrel hisses. “You can’t just ask a stag beetle about what happens if their legs get broken—”

“I haven’t heard that in a long time,” says the Old Stag, in the same mild, unoffended rasp. He doesn’t even sound winded, let alone slow down. “I’m afraid to say that’s entirely false.”

“—it’s what?” Quirrel blurts out.

Lemm, slowly, turns to face Quirrel with a delighted expression, and Quirrel is abruptly certain that Lemm knew exactly what answer the Old Stag would say before Lemm ever asked the question.

“Ahh, if I remember right, it was a rather nasty urban legend back in the day,” says the Old Stag. “Well, the part about stag beetles’ legs never healing right is true! But that’s hardly a good reason to be put down. No, the legend is the farthest thing from reality. Why, my second cousin broke his leg right around middle age—tragic run-in with the Deepnest tram—and went on to have a lovely career later on as an accountant. Couldn’t run the stagways anymore, but he sure could run his multiplication tables!”

“Is that so!” says Lemm brightly. “So you’re saying that, perhaps, a stag beetle with a broken leg wasn’t considered useless…?”

“Goodness, no! He turned out to be one of the best accountants his office ever had. Far from useless!”

Really?” says Lemm, beaming at Quirrel.

The Old Stag goes on: “Needed the biggest pair of spectacles you’d ever seen to read a tablet and more than a few assistants to write the numbers down for him, since he really couldn’t hold a pen without proper fingers, but he lived to a ripe old age and quite liked his career in the accounting department. Ah! That takes me back. He got paid rather well for it, too, if I remember right…”

Quirrel, slowly, sinks down in his seat and pulls his headscarf over his eyes.

“Admittedly, of course, it wasn’t easy for him to go from being a stagway runner to a desk jockey,” says the Old Stag, “but it’s hardly the end of you! No, hardly worth any dramatics at all.”

Quirrel pulls his hood down over his face.

“Imagine that, thinking you’re useless over a broken leg!”

“Yes, Quirrel, imagine tha—”

“I get it, Lemm.”