Farport sat on the narrow neck of a long peninsula. The poorer districts of the city faced the mainland as a buffer against an invasion that would probably never come from that direction anyway and the wealthy side of the canal had its back to the peninsula. A huge wall stretching for nearly 20 kilomi protected the city from the mainland. A very useful thing when the enemy would most probably arrive in airships or by sea.
Everything beyond the palace, the western-most building in the city, was Imperial land and the private estate of the local duke and of the Imperial household, at least officially. But that just means it wasn’t all farmland. It was also full of parks and temples and forest preserves that provided masts for ships. There were even the ruins of an entire abandoned city on the south coast. It was a large place. It took people nearly two weeks to walk the pilgrimage route that wound around it to the temples, shrines and ancient ruins. There was a much smaller wall protecting the city from the parks and shrines on the peninsula. It might have been big enough to protect the city from a herd of sacred goats who’d been riled up about something if they weren’t too determined.
There were places on the peninsula people were not allowed to go, mostly to keep out poachers. The guards would shoot first, ask questions later, if they caught you in the forest preserves or some noble’s private estate. Though they would politely apologize to your family if they didn’t find any axes, saws or animal traps on you afterward. If you were someone important they would even give your family some money, or a small pension.
One of those places people weren’t supposed to go was the ruins of the old palace, directly behind the new palace. The old palace was destroyed in the last Pirate War. Since it was a ruin, and we weren’t allowed to go there, as kids we went there a lot on those days when we had nothing to do and our parents told us to make ourselves invisible. It was well guarded, but there were many places too small or inconvenient for adults where kids could sneak in. And really, it was a ruin. The guards protecting it didn’t really see kids in the ruins as much of a threat to city or empire, unless they got bored and needed target practice or something.
The only real reason for keeping people out of the ruins was that it was a ruins, and dangerous. Things could fall on you, big things, like stones the size of an ox, and there were hidden holes and pits to conveniently eat you up if the stones missed. It was also supposed to be haunted.
For most kids it was scary enough during the day. A giant stone might get pushed right on top of you by some ghost who would hide your body in a pit to cover the evidence. What’s not to be scared of?
Some older kids, who tried prove they were adults by sneaking in at night, would come back going on about huge monsters that would appear out of nowhere screeching at them and chase them around, only to disappear just as suddenly. Some would say it sounded like the monsters were laughing at them and taunting them. Some just came back looking scared for weeks and wouldn’t talk about it. Some just never came back.
When that happened, the city guard would make a big thing about investigating the missing kids, then say it was wild animals or bandits and close the case. They weren’t really interested in stories about ghosts. Reports of monsters were written off as kids experimenting with things they probably shouldn’t be—things bought from shady vendors in unpleasant locations, potions stolen from an apothecary, or spells they didn’t really understand but looked neat. Besides, if there were ghosts—as the ruins of the former palace, destroyed during the last war with plenty of people inside when it blew up, burned down and fell over, there were bound to be ghosts—best to leave them alone.
On this night, Officer Puppy made a stop there. He knew who at least some the ghosts were and wanted to meet with one of them before having an audience with the Rat King. He didn’t doubt there were real ghosts in the ruins, but not having met one he didn’t much care whether there were or not.
The ruins were usually a haunt for rats at night. Not the normal rats that scurry about on the city streets, but bigger, smarter rats. Ones the size of small children that could take down a person who had accidentally come upon them in the ruins before they had time to scream.
They didn’t usually kill. There wasn’t much fun in that. They really the enjoyed frightening people to death instead, diving in and out of hidden places screaming insults at them until they ran terrified from the ruins, usually to discover their purse or other valuables missing when they got their wits back. The rats of the ruins only ever killed if someone had come upon something very secret that needed to be kept secret, or if they were preparing for a banquet and thought some human might be a tender and tasty morsel to add to the course list.
They knew full well that too many deaths meant people would investigate. There were probably more deaths from bandits and wild animals in the ruins than from the rats.
The rats never came out in the day, preferring abandoned sewers, underground waterways, and forgotten catacombs. They were white-furred, with pink eyes not used to dealing with the light of day. They thought themselves far too well groomed and bred to want to have anything to do with normal rats when they could avoid it. If they had any around, it was as pets or minions.
They also avoided the city, except on business. If the city guard or, even worse, the Imperial Guard knew they were there, everyone one of them would have been hunted down and exterminated, no matter how many friends they had in high places. Most people lived happily believing the last of the Tubengu had died off many wars ago, having been on the wrong side of so many of them. The Tubengu rats were not in a hurry to prove them otherwise.
They could walk upright, though they had to waddle a little on their short back legs, and some could even manage talking fluently in human tongues. They liked to dress themselves in stolen fabrics and jewelry, parodying the noble houses of the humans they loved to taunt so much. They were not only smart and devious, but also very smug about it.
Officer Puppy did not like dealing with them. But he also knew that over the last few weeks the rats had been complaining about something dangerous in the ruins that threatened even them. Their giant-sized egos refused to accept that a lone creature could be so dangerous, and they told stories that grew into reports of armies of horrible monsters. Officer Puppy knew there was one only monster and he knew she might have some information.
The ruins were large, and mostly overgrown. He had an easy time avoiding the few rats who were about. They were all scurrying about loudly in tight little groups. Many were armed with small weapons stolen from somewhere or another. Clearly they were afraid of something. He sent a pebble scurrying past one small group just to watch them panic and scurry about.
It was a little harder to find someone who did not want to be found. He knew if he hung around long enough, she would find him. He didn’t feel like time was on his side, but he tried to make a show of wandering randomly until he heard a soft voice dangerously close to his left flank.
“You know, dogs are supposed to have a much better sense of direction than that,” the voice purred.
“So you guessed right,” she said in mock disappointment. “If you puttered around in the ruins long enough, you knew curiosity would get the better of me. What brings you to my humble, if temporary, abode?”
Officer Puppy turned to face a large black shadow behind him, a panther almost large enough to stare him in the eye. She was carefully checking her claws for dirt, acting as if she had been sitting there bored for hours. Bits of her kept disappearing into the night. She was nothing but shifting fragments of her shiny black coat reflecting the moonlight as it filtered through the trees. The only thing he could see most of the time were her two perfectly white front paws. He was annoyed that she was so good at escaping his nose until close enough to swat him.
“I was thinking maybe you had digested some information on what the rats are up to tonight.”
She looked at him wide-eyed, as if genuinely offended, but didn’t smell of a threat. “Digested? Are you implying that I would stoop to dirtying my claws on these disgusting little morsels that like so much to play at being human when there are some nice tasty real humans so near by?”
When he said nothing, her eyes went back to their normal mischievous glimmer. “I smell a puppy who’s in a hurry.” She stretched to her full length, letting her coat play in the dappled moonlight. The she slid over to slowly brush herself along him with a deep purr until she had pretty much shoved her muzzle in his ear. “What’s the information worth to you?”
“Well, I could entirely fail to tell anyone about your current whereabouts.”
He felt her tense up by his side. “You’re no fun.”
Circe spun away and then turned to stare at him for a bit. With a small sigh, she plopped her herself unceremoniously into a comfortable position on the ground. She gathered her thoughts before she spoke again.
“The rats are normally true masters of not keeping a secret, but something tonight has them as silent as temple mice. Those that are talking all tell conflicting stories. And there is not a squeak to be heard in any of the normal channels. I’m beginning to think it’s a plot to drive us all nuts trying to figure out what the plot is. If it helps, it’s all so clever that it even has me interested in what they are up to. I’ve been having fun torturing them before dinner for days, but not having much luck beyond the pleasure involved. Happy now?”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to help you take your mind off things? I promise not to try to rip your face off.” Circe tilted her head with a gesture that deliberately made fun of the word coy. “No, I suppose not. You have to run off and be the hero, don’t you?”
Circe settled into preening and grooming herself for a bit. Officer Puppy waited. Circe was in a mood, and he knew better than to interrupt her. After a while she made a very frustrated feline whine and stared him straight in the eye.
“Look, all I really know is that self-appointed Rat King really is orchestrating this one all himself. Or at least he puffs himself up to act like he is. If he is doing that, everyone else is on a need to know basis. Even the few members of his comic-little court I have been able to … talk to, have said they are being sent on tiny errands with no pattern, insisting over and over again it’s a secret and they don’t know anything. That much denial leaves me with a sour stomach.
“The only consistent word I’m getting out of anyone is he’s plotting a revenge, and that this is the final phase of a plan that has been in the works for a while, unfolding it piece by piece for some time now. I’m willing to assume that he’s working almost entirely with his connections on the human side of the city for this one. But something doesn’t smell right. This is all too complicated for him. I really do think someone else is using him as a tool and just letting that fat rodent think it was his idea. I could go hunting in town for more information, but I really don’t want anyone on that side of the wall to know I am here.
“It’s rather embarrassing to be facing down a blank wall like this, especially against … them. You do understand.”
Officer Puppy stood there. He stared down at the ground a bit, lost in dog thoughts. Then his head snapped up with a dopey dog expression that only Circe could possibly see in this light. “Sure thing, lady,” he said brightly.
Circe laughed. No matter what else happened this night, at least Circe had laughed.
Those were his exact words. Officer Puppy never told me why he thought it was so important for her to laugh. Maybe there is some wise dog saying about making cats laugh? I even tried taunting him about having a cat for a girlfriend to get him to confess, but he just mumbled something about, “At least it’s a way to avoid puppies,” and then turned away from me, curled up, and went to sleep.
The Pirate Apprentice by Mootly Obviate is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.