Despereaux finds the threadmaster sitting on his spool of thread, eating celery. When he notices Despereaux, he says the old threadmaster would say he hasn’t done his job right because Despereaux is alive—but he did exactly what he was supposed to, because the thread is still around Despereaux’s neck. Despereaux says he needs the rest of the thread. The threadmaster says he can’t just give it away. “They” say that red thread is sacred, but he knows what it actually is. When Despereaux asks what that is, the threadmaster says it’s just thread—but he pretends.
The threadmaster is a bit subtle, but he implies that many mice (including the old threadmaster) believe the red thread is the very thing that causes mice to die in the dungeon; it has an almost supernatural power to do so. But the threadmaster insists that this isn’t necessarily true—rather, what causes mice to die in the dungeons are the rats, not the thread. The thread is just ceremonial.
The threadmaster asks what Despereaux is going to do with the thread. Despereaux says he needs it to save the princess; he’s the only one who can. He needs the thread so he can navigate the dungeon and get back to the entrance. Gregory the jailer, Despereaux explains, had a rope that kept him from getting lost. The threadmaster nods and says that Despereaux is on a quest. Despereaux doesn’t know what this means, but the threadmaster says it doesn’t matter what it means—Despereaux just has to feel like he must do “the impossible, important task at hand.” Standing up, the threadmaster says he can’t stand in the way of a quest. Despereaux can have the thread.
Despereaux wants to use the thread—the very thing that marked him as a criminal sentenced to death—to save him. This shows how Despereaux is now able to think more critically; he can wrap his head around repurposing an item that once signified death. That the threadmaster is so willing to help once he hears Despereaux’s reasoning suggests that, like Despereaux, this mouse has principles and values that differ from those of the Mouse Council. And unlike the Mouse Council, he’s willing to bend the rules if it means furthering his principles.
Despereaux thanks the threadmaster, touches the spool, and then asks the threadmaster for his name. The threadmaster introduces himself as Hovis, and he goes to get what goes with the thread: a needle. Despereaux says it’s like a sword; he can protect himself with it, like a knight. Hovis ties the needle around Despereaux’s waist. As Despereaux starts to move away, Hovis asks him to wait. He puts his paws on Despereaux’s shoulders and leans in close to gnaw the thread off of Despereaux’s neck. Hovis says Despereaux is free now, so he’s going into the dungeon because he chooses to. Despereaux adds that he’s going because he’s on a quest, enjoying the sound of the word. The narrator acknowledges that “quest” is a wonderful word, full of hope and wonder. Hovis bids Despereaux goodbye and calls him a “mouse among mice.”
The thought of a tiny mouse with only a needle with which to defend himself is absurd—Despereaux is dealing with bloodthirsty rats that far outweigh him. But his belief in his righteousness gives him the courage to move forward with his quest. The word “quest” helps Despereaux in this regard; it gives him a name for what he’s doing, and as the narrator acknowledges, the word itself connotes other positive feelings (like hope and wonder). Calling Despereaux a “mouse among mice” is a play on the phrase “a man among men,” which refers to a person who embodies good qualities and who should be seen as an example. In this case, the phrase also implies that Hovis believes mouse culture should change to value mice more like Despereaux.