The Rat King’s palace was an abandoned cistern under the human palace. It used to store water for the old palace before it was destroyed. Large enough to keep the old palace and the grounds around it provisioned with water for months in case of drought, by rats standards it was a palace indeed. It was large enough to fit a lake behemoth inside with room left for it to helplessly flop its tail about, and every inch of it was well appointed in proper ratly fashion.
The tunnels leading into it had proper wooden doors with working locks, so smoothly fitted that even a squit of a baby rat couldn’t squeak through the cracks. No one remembers where they came from. The rats always claimed the doors were there when they arrived. All but one of the doors led to collapsed tunnels that the Rat King used as his store rooms.
The bottom of the interior was a big, open throne room, complete with throne. The throne was from a children’s tea table, but the Rat King didn’t care. He had workrats glue bits of gold and other scraps of precious metal to it, as well as beautiful bits of glass and even some real jewels. Around the throne were threadbare cushions on the ground for the worthiest of his retainers to sit. From there he conducted his court with his retainers spread beside him like the wings of a dead gull. Behind the throne was a mostly working glow disk. He would sit in front of it and force his subjects to squint into the light that surrounded him like a broken halo while he listened and commanded.
Above the throne room was a maze of ladders and platforms that made up the Rat King’s quarters. There were places to eat and places to hold smaller meetings with his most trusted retainers and places to contemplate the sorts of things rats contemplate. At the top was a nest made of the most expensive fabrics rats could steal, mostly shredded into a fine down. There was always at least one attractive young rat, barely out of her childhood, waiting up there to attend on his every whim should he decide it was time to retire to his bed for a while.
All over every level there were the finest stolen artifacts in all the world, or at least in Farport. The walls were decorated with bits of paintings, sometimes arranged into new and interesting arrangements, sometimes just stuck there, moldy curtains, sheets of wallpaper once thrown out because the patterns were too ugly for anyone to ever buy, outdated maps, magazine covers from those sorts of magazines, and ships logs that had seen plenty of water damage. There were small, broken statues seated carefully on chipped pedestals, gold plates, some for show, some for eating, delicate jewelry, some of it real, elegant hand mirrors and other vanity items, and anything a rat would find attractive. It was a palace fit for a rat.
When Office Puppy arrived, the space was abandoned, except for the Rat King’s play thing up in the King’s bed. She squealed at his arrival and hid in the bedding. It ruined his dramatic entrance, but what’s a dog to do? Not feeling like climbing all the way up to talk to a lone terrified consort cowering in the bedding, he politely asked, in a loud voice, “Excuse me, have you seen the your master around? I need to talk to him.” There was no reply. He thought maybe he heard her sobbing in fear, but didn’t feel like investigating. Instead he sat down to wait, deliberately making himself as comfortable as he could with his butt perched on the Rat King’s tiny throne.
He didn’t have to wait long. The King had only gone of to the royal toilet, being a well-bred rat who did not like to soil his own nest. No matter what else you could say about him, he was a well-groomed rat and kept his throne room clean, at least by rat standards. He breezed in the door with two guards in tow and froze at the doorway at the sight of Officer Puppy outlined by the glow of the disk behind him. A wave of annoyance washed across his face. After a moment of hesitation, he waved his guards away, much to their squeaking protests, and then closed and locked the door behind them.
“It took you long enough, you lumbering beast. Now, unless your pea-sized puppy brain incapable of common courtesies, and if you would be so kind as to remove yourself from my throne, perhaps we could discuss this over some wine. I can assure you the cushions are much more comfortable than that torture device, but appearance must be kept and all.”
The Rat King turned his back and walked over to a small cupboard between two of the doors. “I have a small bottle stolen from the wine cellar of the palace’s main kitchen—a few, actually. I do confess, I probably take too much from there. There is a such a convenient drain there leading right into these tunnels. And really, they let so much perfectly good wine go to waste down there. Human’s really have no appreciation of good wine.”
Officer Puppy was caught off guard. The one thing he had not expected was courtesy. He had been all ready to tear apart the two guards and any others that might be around, and then sit on the king until he squealed. But here was the Rat King ruining it by being polite. Officer Puppy was a dog of action, not diplomacy. He really had no choice but to politely remove himself from the throne and move to a cushion while the Rat King fussed over his collection of wine bottles. He was a king after all.
Officer puppy thought the wine all looked pretty suspect. They bottles all smelled of mold, dust, and vinegar.
The Rat King selected an especially dusty bottle that was half empty, pulled the cork out with his teeth, inhaled deeply over the bottle, and sighed contentedly. Then he found two dented goblets with their gold paint chipping off and poured them each some wine. Officer puppy could not stand the smell even from a distance and declined. Dogs are not really wine drinkers, but he knew enough to know the difference between wine and rancid vinegar.
The Rat King looked at him chidingly, “You’re missing out on a most excellent vintage.” He drank the goblet he was going to offer Offer Puppy down in one gulp, tossed it aside to clatter on the floor, and then waddled back to his throne, bottle in one hand, his goblet in the other.
Even for the Tubengu rats, the Rat King was large, standing half again as tall as most. And he was busy working on being as wide around as he was tall. His waddle was almost a side to side roll, like a giant white pumpkin making its way across the room. He wore a gold bowl roughly hammered into a crown on his head and a crimson and black silk sash over his shoulder.
He seated himself with as much ceremony as he could on his throne and looked thoughtfully at Officer Puppy for a while. Officer Puppy waited.
“We all settled in and comfy sullying my chambers?” The Rat King continued on without waiting for an answer, “Then on to business. To what, if I might so delicately inquire, do I owe the exquisite displeasure of your meddlesome presence?”
Officer Puppy worked through that sentence before replying. “I am pretty sure you know why.”
The Rat King laughed. “You couldn’t possibly mean the wild rat chase you have been ever so fruitlessly pursuing this evening, could you? As much as I am not partial to the common vermin, I really do wish you wouldn’t go about killing my subjects like that. On the other hand, it is a very effective method of keeping their numbers down to where I can rule over them without too much of a heavy hand. So then, apology accepted. So glad we could clear that up. Just don’t let it happen again unless I should perchance to personally ask you to do a little culling in the name of the throne and all. What else can I do for you?”
Officer Puppy just looked at him and growled.
The Rat King made a great show of acting surprised. “Why, I do believe you are accusing me of something. What could possibly make you think I had a role in making your tiny little brain any more addled than it is? Is it something I said?”
“You did a very good job of sending a message you wanted me to stop by, so I did.”
“So you did indeed.”
“There was supposed to be something big going down, but no one was telling the same story except that you were pulling the strings on this one.”
“Oh dear, did they tell you that? Ah, no, I see, your thick skull was able to fit a conclusion in what little space it has left after all that thinking. Well, yes, I did have you sent for. Of course I didn’t tell the common rabble that. There would hardly be any fun to be had in just having a rat stop by and ask you to see me, now would there? So, I had all of my most trusted rats go out and given the commoners conflicting capers, knowing full well that even if they compared notes they would each be sure that their version was the correct one and it was the others that had misheard. However, the one direction I made perfectly clear was to not let you interfere this time by order of me.”
Officer Puppy gave the Rat King a long look. “There is nothing big going down tonight then, you just wanted to see me?”
Oh, now, now, you successfully draw one conclusion and assume you can just do it all the time. I am coming to think all you really had was a hunch—not the same thing at all. Of course there is, as you say, ‘something big going down’ tonight, you imbecilic pooch. In fact, there are not one, but two big things going down tonight. You see, that is why I wanted your disagreeable and most annoying self here in my presence, to get you out of the way.
Officer Puppy leapt up growling, teeth bared.
“If you tear my throat out, how ever will I tell you what my great plans for the night are? Now, sit!”
Ordering a dog to sit when you are already making them angry is an insult of the highest order, but Officer Puppy managed to check himself. “You want to tell me what your plans are?”
“Oh but of course, evil masterminds have to brag about their secret plans so the hero can rush out at the last second and foil them.” The Rat King gave him a smug look and waited.
After enough time had passed to make the gesture one of contempt instead of obedience, Officer Puppy sat.
“Really, you demented canine, I think you should be quite proud of me. At least someone should. Tonight I am doing your work for you, a bit of an embarrassment really. I had a certain party who will go unnamed approach me about helping them to drive a notorious criminal out of the city who has been hiding within the comparative safety of its walls for far too long. A horrid and despicable fellow I am told. From what I could gather, the goal was to bring him out into the open outside of the city where he could be dealt with by those who were hunting him. They are not part of the empire, and are not particularly enamored of causing an incident within one of its cities. I almost regret not having discovered this sooner so I could put him on payroll, but from the information I received I have an uncomfortable feeling he would have refused in ways most fatal and dire.
“I do most readily confess, attacking criminals of any stripe is not my usual line of business, unless they are intruding on my own personal projects, but our mysterious party offered to reward me most handsomely for my assistance, most handsomely indeed. The scheme has been in the planning, and in operation, for weeks. It took a long time to get all the pieces into place. I have had to call in many, many favors, some of which were very dear to me, but tonight is the night when the final blow will be struck.”
To emphasize his words, the Rat King swung his goblet like a blade, spraying what little wine was left in it all over. He looked disappointedly at the goblet, then refilled it. “Do remind me to get someone to clean that up when we are done, will you? There’s a good pooch.”
Once he was settled into his once again full goblet, the Rat King continued. “In any event, if you were around to foil the culmination of all my hard work—and it was hard, there was barely a fraction of it that I could delegate to others—it would not go well for me. To say our mysterious party politely asked for my help might be a bit of a lie really. I do believe the word blackmail would be more appropriate, even if it was very polite and courteous blackmail.
“It seems some humans, by which I mean some humans other than those working for me or to whom I provide my services, have become wise to my little kingdom, and a whisper in the wrong ear could bring the Imperial Guards down on our heads. And yet, even without the threat, the rewards, oh, the rewards, I could never have refused them.” The Rat King’s eyes glowed with greed. “As even whatever it is that you have that passes for a brain can possibly grasp, failure would not be an option in this particular circumstance.”
The Rat King straightened himself to sit like he was holding court, looking smug and self-satisfied. “All things considered, I really think you should thank me for driving a small piece of what you like so much to think of as evil from this town.”
Officer Puppy thought about this. He didn’t really believe a word of it, but it was hard to argue with it if the Rat King was telling the truth. “This is really about getting rid of a criminal in the city that has annoyed someone else?”
“Isn’t that what I just said?” The Rat King looked annoyed. “Clearly you need something simpler for your insipid dog brain to digest. Cross my benevolent heart? Pinky swear? Ah, right … no pinkies. Well then, I do suppose you will just have to my word for it.”
Officer Puppy felt rather let down, and conflicted. He wasn’t going to prevent a known criminal from being brought to justice. That would be poor form. And that meant he had just wasted half the night chasing after nothing. After thinking through the problem for a while, he found the missing thread and asked, “You said there were two things going down tonight. What is the other one?”
“Ah, I was wondering when your flea-bitten head was going to remember to circle around to that bit. The second plan is even more clever than the first. It is to get you out of the way. And by that I do mean permanently.”
And with that, the doors to the store rooms burst open and guards came rushing in from every direction before Officer Puppy even had time to react.
Officer Puppy, against his better instincts, played it cool and casually eyed the rats surrounding him, each clad in armor with delicate blades in their tiny paws. He didn’t even move off the cushion he was on. “So I am guessing this is a trap?”
“Of course it is, you bestial nitwit! And one I have spent a great deal of time most meticulously planning. I have grown tired of you meddling in my affairs. And they were all such minuscule criminal affairs too. After all, it wouldn’t pay for humans to realize I was here. Just enough to keep myself and my retainers living comfortably well-off lives and to keep the common rabble thinking we were united in common cause. But tonight it ends. Perhaps you can, through mindless brute force alone, take on a proper or rat or two all by your ungainly and pathetic self, but two dozen fully-armed, hand-picked warriors?” The Rat King’s voice rose in a squeal of triumph.
Officer Puppy looked around him. “I only count one dozen, sorry, one dozen plus one sort of stupid looking rats.”
The Rat King was not flustered. “My body guards have a key to the door and I sent them off to gather the rest. They stand right outside the door, waiting for my command.” With a grand flourish, the Rat King shouted, “You can come in now!”
The lock clicked, and the door swung open to reveal Circe sitting on the other side, alone and covered in blood and gore. The Rat King’s face fell. Circe, as if commenting on nothing more important than the weather, said, “Oh there you are. I entirely forgot to mention while we were chatting earlier that their secret plan was to try to kill you. During my dinner last night, one of them going on at length about how he had been hand picked to help in this,” she coughed politely, “honorable undertaking.”
The Rat King’s entire body shook with rage, skin bright red under the white fur. “Kill them!” he squealed. Officer Puppy and Circe were happy to oblige.
As they stood, taking in the carnage around them, catching their breathe, listening for more threats, Circe asked, “Should we have spared the King?”
“Dunno, no reason I suppose.”
Officer Puppy looked up into the darkness above him. “Hey, according to Tubengu laws and traditions, as his consort at the time of his death, you are now officially queen of this little kingdom. Good luck with that. There are probably plenty of contenders who might disagree with me on this one.”
Circe gave him a funny look. “And where did you learn that one from?”
“Why do you think so many nobles and rulers died at the hands of their consorts? Let’s get out of here.”
“I smell a puppy who’s in a hurry.” She laughed. “Okay, seriously, all I smell is rat, all I smell of is rat. There is a wonderful little watering hole nearby where we could wash up.”
Later, when Officer Puppy got home, he no longer smelled of rat, at least not much anyway.
As he rounded the corner into the alley, the sight of the guards scared him. The city guard, late at night, was never a good thing. Outside your own house, even worse. Fearing something terrible had happened, he crept past them and through the front door unchallenged. After all, he lived here.
The smell of blood inside almost set him off, but Mrs. Apothecary was there, and she certainly didn’t seem the least bit upset. She was covered in blood herself, very little of it smelled familiar. Officer Puppy relaxed, a little. She turned and reprimanded him in that sweet chiding voice she would use.
After acting appropriately humbled, he stopped to growl at the corpse in my room for good measure. Growling at corpses is a good reminder for them to stay that way. He knew full well that with so many people about that his investigating it was out of the question, so, his canine duties done, he came in, curled up next to me in bed, and valiantly kept watch all night. After all, failing to protect me twice in one night would be totally inexcusable.
Or so he claims. When I woke up in the middle of the night he was valiantly holding would be intruders at bay with soft puppy snoring. Still wrapped in Mrs. Apothecary’s magick, I curled up against his big, furry back and went back to sleep.
The Pirate Apprentice by Mootly Obviate is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.