Now, I don’t really think Mrs. Apothecary was being totally fair with Officer Puppy. I’m sure there was a perfectly good reason for him to be having a night out on the town, doing whatever, when he should have been at home protecting me. He was probably off keeping the city safe from the evil schemes of the rats. And keeping an entire city safe is more important than keeping one person safe, even if that person is me.
In fact, I’m sure that’s what he was doing.
How do I know?
Well, because he told me one night—ummm … over a nice warm bowl of stewed mutton. It’s his favorite.
His story went something like this …
Officer Puppy let himself out the front door. It was a door with so many other safeguards, enchantments, and wards that it didn’t need latch, let alone a lock—not that they would have kept him in either. It knew him and opened for him when he pushed at it with his large head.
Ambling out of the alleyway and into the street, he sat down, turned his big, square snout into the wind, and sniffed the breeze. It carried no news beyond what he already knew. The only smells of note were that Peri (that’s me, in case you forgot) was at the apothecary’s, which is where she was supposed to be, and Mrs. Wise was making her famous chicken soup. At least it was famous to all the dogs in town. It was a smell worth filling your nose with. Officer Puppy breathed deep and had to make a conscious effort to keep his tail from thumping happily on the ground.
Nose satisfied, he set off for the mercantile district across the canal. He knew that’s where the action would be tonight. Beyond the fact that it was where most rat conspiracies set down roots, he’d heard the rats were planning something big tonight, something really big, something so big that the annoying, chattery vermin were finding it impossible to keep quiet about it. Their gossip was spreading like wildfire—all of it pointing to something in the mercantile district.
His normal channels couldn’t tell him much, just that it was big. So big that he was getting annoyed hearing about how big it was. But what was big to a rat? Maybe they were planning on sneaking in through the plumbing and robbing a bank. Or maybe they found an accountant who always forgot to lock his strong box at the end of the day. Whatever it was, they were excited and cheerfully bragging about how grand it was going to be. He didn’t like it when they seemed so sure of themselves, or when they managed to keep their secrets. His ongoing job was to make sure their plans came to nothing.
His pearly white coat, swatched with brown, and carefully brushed out to a silky sheen by the people he lived with, rippled majestically in the evening breeze as he trotted down the street.
That’s what he said! I’m not trying to brag about my dog brushing skills or anything. Who’d want to brag about something like that? Though, I suppose I am pretty handy with a brush. And the Sisters only know how much work it takes to keep that coat clean.
For a dog that could stare down a small pony without having to look up, Officer Puppy moved like a shadow. Okay, that bit really was me bragging. Officer Puppy is a dog worth bragging about. He is simply the most awesome dog ever. But it’s true, for a big dog, he could be really sneaky. Especially if you left some meat on the counter.
The soft pads of his paws hit the road silently, unnoticed, falling without sound on cobblestone, dirt, or wood. Like a breeze wandering down the street, people entirely failed to notice him as he trotted past guard posts, drunken revelers, sober revelers, sophisticated types sitting in cafes and nibbling on cheese, crackers and tea, people gossiping about the news of the day, kids causing trouble, market stalls trying to sell the last of their wares before the sun went down, people closing up shop and counting their earnings for the day, madams planning the night with their girls, and little old ladies having a quick smoke before calling it a night.
He had that look of always knowing where he was going and why, so no one ever questioned him, not that most of them spoke dog anyway. People who knew him would sometimes call out to him with a cheerful wave. Then he would be obliged to stop and say hello with a wag of his tail and a head bowed for a scratch behind the ears, showing happiness and excitement, either real or feigned depending on who it was and his mood at the time.
This evening required that he be serious and focused. He made a point of avoiding places where people who knew him would be. He even avoided the butcher, though he could smell the fresh smoked sausages that had been cooking through the day. Some things were more important than sausage.
The setting sun was casting its last rays of the day on the rooftop solar collectors and the warmth of it was radiating from the gray, yellow, and brown walls of stone, plaster and brick around him as he wound through town. Officer Puppy’s district was not known for straight streets, it was old and had grown unplanned, but he liked to avoid direct routes anyway. The less direct the route, the fewer who could figure out where he was going before he got there. He took a round about route toward the center of town.
The center of town was taken up by a canal that ran for nearly five kilomi between the north docks and the south docks. On either side of the canal was a wide road called Market Square, even though it wasn’t square at all. Either side of Market Square was lined with an endless procession of merchants. Our side of Market Square was lined with the noise of small vendors with tents or small, run-down shops selling their wares, the other side with wealthier merchants and wholesalers in large buildings brightly painted in vermilion and green where they quietly did business in much larger volumes and brokered deals over much more expensive merchandise.
Every day, Market Square would fill with merchants, vendors, and shoppers haggling, all crowded in with barges and small airships and wagons being pushed by motors or towed by oxen hauling things between the two ports. It was a mad press of difficult animals and their drivers yelling at them, motorized lorries clanking by, street urchins causing trouble, entertainers and pickpockets working the crowd, and smells. Each sunrise already found the street vendors hawking their wares in every available corner, competing with the more successful merchants in their wholesale and retail shops. Fights broke out every day when smaller vendors would set up their stalls and merchants would come out of their shops red in the face about the vendor blocking their display window or something. The side streets were lined with tea houses to haggle in, more discrete sorts of shops, and fancy little cafes for people to quietly conduct business over more tea and finger foods. The only order to be found was things got more expensive the further west you went.
What made the center of town such a busy place was an imperial decree that foreign and domestic ships could not mingle in the same port. Other cities may have two ports, but few were as well placed for foreign trade, and this was the only one with the ports on opposite sides of the city. Everything had to pass right through the middle of it instead of going around it or alongside it. People made lots of money hauling things from the south port to the north port and back again, and some made even more by accidentally misplacing their deliveries on the way.
Even this late in the evening it was still busy, and Officer Puppy wove in and out of traffic on his way through town.
On the other side of the canal sat the wealthier and more official parts of the provincial capitol. They formed a shape like a lock around a grand avenue that ran from the bridge over the middle of the canal up to a large circular forum called Friend’s Square right in front of the palace. I know, a circle is not a square, but that’s what it was called. They never really clarified whose friends either. It’s a mystery. The avenue and the square were both lined with parks and filled with greenery. Around the parks that ring Friend’s Square were the richest mercantile companies in the city, if not in the empire. There were lots of beautiful buildings, where each window probably cost more than most people would earn in their lifetimes.
People sometimes said the city, made rich as the largest port in the empire, was second in grandeur only to the imperial city itself, but never having been to the imperial city, Officer Puppy had no opinion either way. He was pretty sure there were many provincial port cities willing to make that boast. He wasn’t really even interested in why it was named Farport, being, as it was, the very center of a shipping wheel made of spokes radiating out to the mainland of the empire, Kerya, and the Eastern Kingdoms. That was from a history far too ancient to concern him, dog or not.
The humans who ruled the city often had bitter arguments about the need to come up with a better name than Farport—something important sounding, something that reflected what a grand city it was. But it always ended with no one being able to agree on anything except that their idea was better than anyone else’s. And as far as the Imperial household was concerned, we were a backwater right on the edge of the empire. So Farport it stayed.
This evening, in spite of avoiding familiar faces, there were others noticing him. He could feel their beady little eyes on him, watching him furtively from nooks and shadows. It was the rats, watching, keeping tabs on him—one behind that barrel, another by that gutter spout, tiny footsteps scurrying on drainpipes and across the roofing tiles above, the occasional chitter. They were always about, but there seemed to be more than normal. He wandered out closer to the canal, so they would have to work at tracking him through all the traffic.
The ones skittering between pack animal legs might have an easy time keeping up, but the traffic blocked the view from the rooftops. He knew at least few were actively following him from up there. It was important to not let on that he knew, or to play his hand too early. The rats were convinced he was a lumbering beast who always stumbled into the wrong place at the wrong time, ruining all their carefully laid plans.
Not that they didn’t think he was actively working against them. They knew he was. But they put his success down to dumb luck and brute force, not cunning. He wanted them to keep believing that, even if it meant him sometimes making mistakes and letting them get away with things.
Most crimes he prevented were small things, like the rats having found a loose brick in a bank vault, allowing them to steal shiny things, or terrorizing small children because their parents set out poison rat traps. He still wasn’t sure what was “big” to a rat, but deep down inside something rankled him tonight. Something was telling him it would not be a good night for mistakes, intentional or real.
The main bridge was not very busy and trotting across it made him feel uncomfortably exposed to prying eyes, but it also stopped the rats on the one side of the river from following. There was no place to hide on the bridge and no easy way to scurry across on the supports underneath. He knew there would be more on the other side, waiting, but the less any one of them saw of his movements, the better. He stopped in the middle of the bridge to watch the canal for a while and take in the smells. He watched some barges roll under the bridge and let the rats be annoyed at having to watch him do nothing.
After the sun was securely below the horizon, dusk had turned to dark, and the glow disks began to give their light to the streets and alleys below, Officer Puppy decided that tonight seemed like a night to trot straight up the grand avenue toward the palace. It was faster and wasn’t quite where he was planning on going anyway.
Across the canal, the wealthier people continued to pay him no mind. Big, with a perfectly groomed coat, trotting calmly up the middle of the grand avenue, he hardly looked like a dog from the wrong side of the canal. Though he did catch the occasional stare of someone trying to identify his pedigree. He’d be damned if he was going to tell them that. People who went around smelling like flowers instead of like people were hardly in a position to have opinions on his pedigree. Besides, they wouldn’t like the answer.
No, it isn’t mutt. Officer Puppy was definitely not a mutt.
Halfway up to the palace, he made a sudden turn into a wide street surrounded by some of the wealthiest banks and accounting houses in the city, or at least the ones that wanted to look like they were. After all, they weren’t up on Friend’s Square, so how wealthy could they really be? Facades made from glass, polished stone, and rare metals reflecting the overly bright glow disks of the area cast the place in a confusing dazzle of reflections and shadows that pointed the wrong way. Even the street was paved in polished marble. People complained about how slippery it was when it got wet, but they were just paid them off if they got injured in a fall and the pavement was kept uselessly beautiful. Appearance was more important than practicality. Though if someone really important was walking down the street, there would be servants and retainers running around laying down lengths of carpet before them so they didn’t slip and fall. Sisters defend the servants who guessed wrong in predicting a change of direction.
Officer Puppy could hear the rats skittering and chittering after him, entirely failing to be sneaky in a place of lights, and echoes, and no places to hide. He knew they were being over confident if they were willing to follow him down this street.
When he was sure he had a good number of rats following him again, he slowed down to give them time to bunch up and then made a sudden turn down a narrow alley. Inquisitive rats scurried after to find him not there. They rushed down to the blank wall it ended in, chittering nervously and looking for where he had disappeared to. But the walls were smooth, the alley sitting between two really elegant banks, each faced with the finest marble, or something polished and magicked to look that way, so even a rat couldn’t find a crack or toehold.
There was a low growl behind them and they wheeled about as one confused mess to find a large, angry looking dog behind them blocking the only way out. Then, just to confuse them, Officer Puppy plopped his butt down on the smooth ground, gave them his best dopey dog look, and asked in a cheerful tone, “Hey little guys, what’s the secret plan for tonight that you can’t shut up about?”
The average person probably just heard, “Woof woof growl woof,” but the rats understood the question just fine.
He was met by a chorus of angry chitters. The problem with talking to lots of rats at once is you have to listen very carefully to figure out what they are saying. Otherwise it is like listening to 50 people saying different things about the same thing all at once, really fast, and all terribly out of sync.
They weren’t saying much of anything useful anyway. They were mostly just taunting him, insulting him, or panicking. “I don’t think I caught that,” he said. “Can we try again with one fewer voices?” He lunged forward, grabbed one in his jaws so it made a satisfying crunch and then dropped its still twitching corpse on the ground.
The chittering turned into straight panic as they tried to scurry up the smooth walls away from him. He let them chitter, and waited. After a while their voices became a chirping, hissed chorus. Most of it was, “It’sss a sssecret. Can’t tell you.” He casually chomped another rat in half while letting none get past him, batting any that tried back into the pile.
“A secret? Ooooh, I like secrets. Who says it’s a secret?”
“Can’t tell you. Not allowed to tell you. Won’t tell you. Not telling. Goesss too high up! All the way to the top. Ordersss from on high. Yesss, the top! The King takesss this on himssself. That important. Really important. Very ssspecial. That sssecret. Big sssecret. Can’t tell you.”
Then they went back to taunting, insulting and laughing at him. He tried chomping on a few more, and they started squealing about all kinds of things. It was about robbing a bank. It was about stealing some silk. It was about breaking some glow disks in some alleys. It was about tormenting some cats. It was about biting the toes of a merchant who had been mean to them. It was about chewing a barge loose from its moorings. It was about embarrassing a wealthy madam in front of a particularly fastidious customer. It was about chewing holes in all the sacks of a recent grain shipment stored on the docks. It was about pooping on the rising bread dough that would be used to make the duke’s breakfast at the palace.
Officer Puppy was beginning to think they didn’t know what was being planned tonight beyond having been told to keep an eye on him. It was time to move on.
“Well thanks little guys, at least I know where to start.”
Officer Puppy trotted out of the alley, with no rats left behind to follow him out. It was a secret place of his and he liked to keep it that way. He played the trick twice more with two more secret places he could easily herd rats in to, both with the same result. The only consistent thing he heard from them was it went all the way to the top.
Even with that many rats out of the way, he was not happy. All the way to the top was very bad news indeed. He had never heard of the Rat King ever taking an active hand in something that could be blamed on someone else. A rat with no one else to blame is either desperate or very sure of themselves. Something was very wrong with the entire situation. He decided it was time to disappear, and he did, leaving many rats on nearby rooftops to scurry about in confusion.
The next rat who noticed him was scurrying along inside a dry sewer below the palace on an official errand from the Rat King himself. What the rat saw was not a dog, just some teeth and a furry muzzle around them. There wasn’t enough time to see the entire dog before the rat’s spine snapped in two. If he was going to talk to the Rat King, Officer Puppy was going to do so unannounced.
The Pirate Apprentice by Mootly Obviate is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.