Chapter 3 — Rats

Most will tell you that Candon was a place without secrets. The village so teemed with rats that no matter where you went chances were slim there wouldn’t be one or two. It took a keen eye to spot them even when they weren’t hiding in the walls or beneath the floorboards, but they were there, and they talked. Only a fool would think that since their tiny throats and mouths could not produce familiar words that meant they couldn’t communicate. Proficiency in the rats’ chittering tongue was the mark of a first-class education, and it gave one access to the most robust rumor mill anywhere in the realm.

Lew tapped on the table as she waited for Reyol to speak. She led Chichu conversation classes for the village youth, most of whom were older than her, but, as Francis informed her just an hour ago, Father had assigned her tutoring on top of it. 

Reyol was already seventeen, and he couldn’t even pronounce the language’s name. His refined features would at least be easy to look at for their two hour session if they weren’t always contorted in painful confusion.

“Chih-chuh,” Lewellyn said again slowly.

“Chih-chuh,” Reyol repeated, “I know how it is pronounced, I simply lack your tongue’s rodentine agility.”

“If you speak so slowly, they shall think you a half-wit,” Lew said flatly, making sure to match his noble dialect. It amazed her what command of one language someone could have yet be unable to pick up even one more.

“That’s because he is a half-wit,” chittered Francis from Lewellyn’s shoulder.

Reyol shrunk. “What did he say?” 

“Don’t be mean, Francis,” Lewellyn chittered back, reaching out a finger to stroke his fur. “Francis suggests we try another word. Maybe you can say his Chichu name, Chichachichiiche”

Reyol wrinkled his nose, “That seems harder than Chih-chuh. Why can’t Francis just learn to speak our language?”

Lewellyn winced as Francis dug his claws into her bare shoulder. She would have to make sure to cover it next time.

“How many times shall you ask that, Reyol? You’ve upset Francis. Please apologize.”

Now it was Reyol’s turn to tense. He looked at Lew’s shoulder, and muttered a stiff apology to the little white rat, who nodded in approval.

“Why don’t we start with ‘sorry?’” suggested Francis. Lewellyn repeated for Reyol and said the Chichu word for sorry, “chii.”

“Chi,” said Reyol.

“No. chii.”

Reyol dropped his slender hands to the table. “These all sound like ‘ch’ to me.”

“You just need practice. If you open your mind and really try.” 

Reyol scrunched his entire face and opened it all at once. “chii.”

“That’s right! chii.”

Reyol turned to Francis and gave a little bow. “Francis, chi.”

Some say that laughter is unique to the bipedal races, but these people have not borne the derision of a rat. At Francis’s high-pitched squeal, Reyol’s mouth curled in an insolent frown. He stood and turned to leave. “chii!” Francis pleaded, clutching one tiny paw at his furry chest and reaching out with another. “chii! chii!”

“Reyol,” Lew shouted, “Francis says he’ll stop making fun of you! He’s sorry!”

“chii! chii!” chittered Francis.

Lew turned to him. “You are apologizing, right? Not mocking him?” Now Francis laughed at her. He rolled over on her shoulder, shuddering with merriment until the heavy hall door fell shut behind Reyol. Francis leapt to attention as the two were left alone.

Lew turned to Francis, who twitched his whiskers. “You did not handle that well,” he chittered, “You are going to be in so much trouble.” Tiny claws leapt from Lew’s shoulder before she could grab him and wring his neck. Then she was completely alone. As alone as she could be in Candon.

She pushed the heavy wooden hall door open and enjoyed the warm afternoon breeze on her way back home. Sunlight glinted and collected on the leaves of the trees, shining drops falling to the ground with whispered chimes. As she passed the hippogriff pen, the animals cawed and stomped their hooves, ruffling their feathers and flapping great gusts of wind in her direction. Pando protect me. She had forgotten to feed them their afternoon meal. 

Lew patted her shift to make sure she’d worn the one with the feed key. She hoped the hippogriffs wouldn’t be too hungry. The pen was all the way on the other side of the village from the High Elder’s Palace, and she was wrapped up in so many other duties it was a wonder she didn’t forget everything. She had figured becoming a Greenwarden would replace her usual duties but instead they were simply piled on top of her chores and the social obligations Father dumped on her. Kallen was intent on hammering four hundred years of useless history into her head, amounting to multiple hours of reading a night, and it was hard to get away without reading when you were the only student in the class. All she’d learned about her staff was how to use it to whack the knuckles of innocent young girls. Given how he hit Osyris during the ceremony, perhaps she should be glad he didn’t break her fingers.

“Hey, Lew!” shouted a voice down from one of the trees. Zadyn Rider ran his fingers through his greasy yellow hair. He was on the lowest branch of one of Pando’s colossal trees, at least ten times the height of a Pandoan up from the ground. “Whatchoo doin’ up there, Zad?”

“Nothin’, really,” shouted Zad.

“How’d you get up there?”

Zad leaned back against the trunk. “Biffy took me.”

Lew grew concerned, then indignant. “D’you need help gettin’ down? I could try’n grow a vine for you to climb down if Kallen’d let me use my staff.”

Zad cocked his head and smirked, “Oh really? We wouldn’ want you usin’ that sacred artifact for frivolous purposes now would we? You know better’n that, Lew.”

Lew scowled, “Fine. I hope Biffy c’n figure out how to fly you down again.”

“That there’s the plan,” Zad grinned and waved Lewellyn off, who was glad to leave.

Why didn’t Zad feed the hippogriffs? He clearly wasn’t doing anything else. It wasn’t fair that she had to do all this work when everyone else got to just play around and climb trees. 

She almost wondered if Kallen Elder wanted her to know how to use the staff at all. In the three months since the ceremony, he hadn’t even let her touch it, let alone practice with it. He just carried it around and bragged to anyone that would listen about his two Greenwarden staves. Wasn’t that disrespectful? Wasn’t it right for him to give the staff to the one who had the ceremony? What if he decided she was never ready?

Lew shook her head and grumbled as she trudged towards the hippogriff pen.

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By Sam Munk

Science fiction and Fantasy author with a focus on philosophical inquiry and character-driven drama.

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