Seji made her way through the ancient tunnels under the ruins behind the palace. That some Tubengu rats had moved in here was not lost on her. She knew full well the Tubengu were still around; they were impossible to not notice. She also knew she would probably have to face them and had come prepared. It had been a long time since she a good fight had come her way; it would be a nice refresher.
I was upset to discover that Ornery wasn’t coming with us. He hadn’t said a thing until he was saying his farewells shipboard. He had business to attend to and promised he would be along later. But, as it sank in that we were on a real pirate ship, I got over my sadness at being away from Ornery and my fear of being up in the air and started actively getting in everyone’s way. We were less than a day out before I was too busy being excited to miss him for more than a few minutes at a time.
Madame Flattery was not a woman to be made a fool of, but she was now quite sure she had been made a fool of. She was also not a woman to be kept waiting, and she had waited days for even a word, let alone for tonight’s visit. She was currently a fool being kept waiting, and she was less than amused. She paced her office angrily, making no attempt at poise. The richly colored brocades decorating her walls rippled as she stormed about, as if the entire room were flowing with her anger.
She had been in a state for days, which was bad for business. It was hard to be alluring and coy when there would be more satisfaction in breaking some necks. She really didn’t have that many customers who were really into pain and intimidation, no matter what they might claim in public. And she only knew of one who would enjoy some broken bones. She was not about to give him the pleasure.
It turned out that being an apprentice pirate wasn’t very exciting. There was no swashbuckling training or plunder practice, though I did get some fencing lessons. Ornery had contacted an old friend, named Rimares, about getting me an apprenticeship long before any of this had happened. Even though he wasn’t really a pirate, Rimares used to be first engineer on Ornery’s ship, the Decima. After Ornery retired his command, Rimares opened up a repair shop.
His former first engineer had been more than happy to impose me on his grandson, also named Rimares, as an apprentice. Whether the younger Rimares was happy with it was a different story.
The rat coin led to an entire afternoon of more questions and more city guards and more things being poked, prodded, moved about, and looked under, though no more furniture was broken. Or maybe it was all just sped up a little. Wyrds came by to scry and to do divinations and to take readings. I annoyed them by following them around, watching what they were doing, getting in the way, and asking questions. Cleaning people came and cleaned my room, taking some of the things away with them in little magicked paper bags marked “evidence”. Concerned friends stopped by to express their concern and were politely shooed away, though mom took the time to talk to some of them. Nosey people pretending to be concerned friends stopped by to snoop and were less politely shooed away. Important looking people came by and stood around looking important before leaving without doing much of anything at all.
I woke up in the morning curled up next to Officer Puppy. At the time, he wasn’t really willing to explain his absence the night before. I asked quietly and he just pretended to be asleep. Typical. If there isn’t something to run around barking at right then and there, dogs just aren’t very good conversationalists. And just try to get one to admit they made a mistake.
It was a clear morning with light streaming in the window. The brightness made the night before feel like a distant dream. I knew it had been real. I knew I should be curled up in the corner hugging the bed sheets, afraid to face the world in case another murderer was lurking behind the next door. But it was all a dim haze with no emotion attached to it.
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.
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.
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 …
There, she’s asleep now. Please let her stay that way. The poor dear has earned at least that much. You can question her in the morning.
That’s a good dear.
For now, let me tell you what I know.
She is a lucky girl, though I am sure she might disagree with me on that. She had a miserable time in this day just past because everyone had forgotten her birthday, what with the events of the day before and all.
I spent the night of my thirteenth birthday wrapped in dark, uncomfortable dreams. They weren’t nightmares, and Mrs. Apothecary was there to keep me safe, but they weren’t happy dreams at all. They were dark and murky and confusing.
All I really remember of them was Mrs. Apothecary trying really hard to explain something to me. It was something terribly important that I needed to understand. But all I really remember from it all was her saying, “Of course I knew dear, but there are some things you have to do by yourself.”
I remember those words because, right after she said them, she slapped me with a hard, sweeping backhand. The shock of her hitting me, and the sudden pain across my cheek, launched me right out of my dream and out of my bed with a gasp—driving my head straight into the stomach of someone standing over me, just as they drove a sharp knife down into the mattress where my neck had been.
Thirteen is an important age in the city, and in the empire. It’s the age when you are supposed to be apprenticed to someone and learn a trade—at least if you’re a regular sort of person who needs to work for a living. It’s a big coming of age time.
Even though it was my birthday, and even though the end of the school year was only a week away, I didn’t have an apprenticeship lined up yet. Not because I didn’t try. But Ornery would just tell me over and over that there was no such thing as an apprentice pirate. I think he said it mostly to get me to stop asking if I could be an apprentice pirate. “You’re either born a pirate or you ain’t,” he would say. Then he would point out where I lived and who my mom was.