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Chapter 20: In Which Parchment Tastes Delicious

Her clean blue-black fur gleamed with robust health. She sat with her tail coiled around her hindquarters and regarded me playfully with emerald green eyes. I was terribly interested in her velvety paws; I knew that each one of them hid five claws, sharp as swords, ready to be unsheathed and strike me down. I knew that her grinning mouth hid huge razor-sharp teeth ready to tear me in half.

My whiskers shuddered as I challenged her. She swelled in size, her sleek fur standing up on end. I could see the tension growing in her shoulder muscles. Her tail flopped about impatiently.

Time ticked its jittery seconds away. She would be patient about it, she would conduct a staring contest first, she would wait for my movement and then strike out with lightning speed. Because otherwise, it wouldn't be any fun. It was a game for her as well as for me, the game of hunter and prey. If it passed fast, it would never be enjoyable.

And it was against the rules anyway. Every game, even cat and rat, had rules. Her ears twitched as she sensed movement in the room. Behind her back the other rats escaped into the wall with their bounty of food; she jumped around to face them and I seized the chance to escape, scrambling across the floor to a different hole, as fast as my little paws could take me.

She was on my tail in less than a second, missing me by less than a whisker as she pounced. She was faster and larger than me, but I was pumped with adrenaline, and...

I was within the dark safety of our tunnels before she could catch me. The other rats sniggered at the cat's foolishness and at the rats' victory while I paused to calm my racing heart.

Imagine that I, a human Wielder boy who was also a rat might have been eaten by the kitchen cat.

I laughed at that thought as a few rats began a hearty wrestling match over the spoils of our escapade.

***

I became addicted to exploring. My sharp sense of smell, my acute hearing, my sensitive whiskers – they guided me through the darkness. Wherever I went, every single rat I met, I was greeted like an old friend. And in a way, I recognised each one immediately, as if I knew them all my entire life, as if they were truly my family.

Near the end of night, they each nestled in their respective nests to sleep away the day. But I wasn't tired yet. I was full of excitement to be in this free and mighty world, where even one's foes were beautiful and proud, a world in which fear was part of a much grander, much bigger, much more meaningful picture.

I weaved my way through the tunnels, familiar with them in a way that intrigued me – I knew them better than even the city streets. I finally ended up in the big dusty library, where I was overcome by an urge to nibble on some parchment. The great hall loomed before me, shelves upon shelves of books rising higher than my poor vision could see. I sniffed the smell of aged paper, worn leather, polished wood, ink, parchment and glue. I sniffed the smell of dust and dust and more dust.

As a boy I had never been there before, but as a rat, my heart trembled with the vague familiarity, with the sudden realisation that this, in some garbled, distant past, was where my nest ought to be.

Heavy curtains covered the tall windows; the room was enveloped in fluffy darkness. Without making a sound, I trudged through the deep carpets to the nearest bookcase. The smell of the books intensified and my little ratty heart filled with nostalgic excitement. I brushed my fur over the leather tomes as I climbed up the bookcase and hurried to where I knew the parchment was kept.

Suddenly I paused by one particular tome, unable to go any farther. Raising my nose into the air, I examined it. I straightened, compelled, rising onto my back legs as I sniffed it intently. Something about this book meant something to me. But what was it? Not as a rat, nor as a boy, had I ever chanced to even touch this book before. With my rat vision, I couldn't determine the colour of the leather binding. Not as a rat, nor as a boy, did I understand the peeling golden scratchings on the cover.

Why did this book make my insides summersault? I dug my claws into it, creating four small dents in the soft leather. I shivered gently as something familiar rose out of the book and into my body. Something distant, shapeless and forgotten within me came to life. I was certain that I had never been here before; why then did I recognise this place so clearly in the same way that certain things seem obvious in a dream?

My ears twitched violently at the sound of marching feet and talking voices somewhere outside the library. I knew instinctively that they were coming this way. My little ratty brain tried to memorise the book's location one last time before I leapt off the shelf and scurried over toward the nearest safe haven – underneath the bookcase – before the doors flew open.

"... And you know, Estelle, I get only a few meagre hours of rest a'night," the porky servant was saying. "I can't, for the life of me, see what was so urgent about finding him. If he took off, then good riddance. Ever since the young magician died everyone lost their sense in this place. I'm an old tired goose, I ought to retire and go live with Ma."

Showing a great deal of spirit, she angrily flung open the long, heavy curtains, flooding the library with sunlight and dust motes. At once I began feeling dreadfully constricted, as my intestines were made out of snakes. My head throbbed and I tried to close my eyes against the searing glare of the blinding light. But that didn't help; the light just seemed to go up my nose, my boyish nose. My ratty thoughts were wafting away, like a dream, like fog, like sand streaming between my fingers. I tried to hold it, I tried to concentrate, but it eluded me – the sunlight was making me a boy again.

"Honest to gods, Estelle," ranted the servant, placing her hands on her sizeable hips. "If I lay me hands on that boy, I will wring his neck meself."

I popped out from underneath the bookshelf, changing in one instant from rat to human again. I rolled on the carpet with the force of the reversed spell and came to a halt at the stunned servant's feet. She gaped at me, her mouth a perfect "Oh." Now that I was a boy again, I was too tired to be bothered with anything, too disappointed and grumpy to apologise at my sudden appearance. I looked darkly up at her. "Be careful what you say," I rasped, "there's no knowing who's listening."

She tried to say something, but nothing intelligible came out of her mouth. I didn't give her time to collect her wits; I sat up, my head swimming dangerously, yet I ignored this as I carefully rose to my feet. "If you tell anyone you saw me, I'll turn you both into mosquitoes."

With my stride a little wobbly, I stalked out of the library, leaving the two women staring at my back.

Two corridors later, I vomited into a potted plant. My throat burned as a result and the nausea didn't even go away. The burning of the tender gooey welts on my back, however, surpassed in pain any other discomfort I felt making the urge to throw up again an easy thing to ignore.

I had no shirt on and my trousers were stained with a variety of unnamable things. The effort of walking made me sweat and I was driven to slide along the wall the entire way, breathing shaggy, heavy breaths.

Evidently, threatening the two servants in the library proved to be useless. I met quite a number of people along the way, all of them curious to know where I had been. I irritably brushed away their questions as well as their offers of help, dragging my feet the entire way alone.

Because it wasn't hard to walk alone. Nothing was hard after what I had gone through that night. I didn't care if the King, the Grand Master or even the gods knew that I had re-appeared. I pushed open the door of my room, crossed the threshold and stumbled on my hands and feet toward the bed, flopping down on it face first, into oblivion.

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