'And is this what we fought for all night?' spat Darktan. 'To be pets?'
'Maurice, this isn't right,' said Dangerous Beans. 'Surely it is better to appeal to the common bond between intelligent species than-'
'I don't know about intelligent species. We're dealing with humans here,' said Maurice. 'Do you know about wars? Very popular with humans. They fight other humans. Not hugely big on common bonding.'
'Yes, but we are not-'
'Now listen,' said Maurice. 'Ten minutes ago these people thought you were pests. Now they think you're… useful. Who knows what I can have them thinking in half an hour?'
'You want us to work for them?' said Darktan. 'We've won our place here!'
'You'll be working for yourself,' said Maurice. 'Look, these people aren't philosophers. They're just… everyday. They don't understand about the tunnels. This is a market town. You've got to approach them the right way. Anyway, you will keep other rats away, and you won't go around widdling in the jam, so you might as well get thanked for it.' He tried again. 'There's going to be a lot of shouting, right, yeah. And then sooner or later you have to talk.' He saw the bewilderment still glazing their eyes, and turned to Sardines in desperation. 'Help me,' he said. 'He's right, boss. You've got to give 'em a show,' said Sardines, dancing a few steps nervously. 'They'll laugh at us!' said Darktan. 'Better laugh than scream, boss. It's a start. You gotta dance, boss. You can think and you can fight, but the world's always movin', and if you wanna stay ahead you gotta dance.' He raised his hat and twirled his cane. On the other side of the room, a couple of humans saw him and chuckled. 'See?' he said. 'I'd hoped there was an island somewhere,' said Dangerous Beans. 'A place where rats could really be rats.'
'And we've seen where that leads,' said Darktan. 'And, you know, I don't think there're any wonderful islands in the distance for people like us. Not for us.' He sighed. 'If there's a wonderful island anywhere, it's here. But I'm not intending to dance.'
'Figure of speech, boss, figure of speech,' said Sardines, hopping from one foot to the other. There was a thump from the other end of the table. The mayor had hit it with his fist. 'We've got to be practical!' he was saying. 'How much worse off can we be? They can talk. I'm not going to go all through this again, understand? We've got food, we've got a lot of the money back, we survived the piper… these are lucky rats…' The figures of Keith and Malicia loomed over the rats. 'It sounds as if my father's coming round to the idea,' said Malicia. 'What about you?'
'Discussions are continuing,' said Maurice. 'I… er… I'm sorr… er… look, Maurice told me where to look and I found this in the tunnel,' said Malicia. The pages were stuck together, and they were all stained, and they had been sewn together by a very impatient person, but it was still recognizable as Mr Bunnsy Has An Adventure. 'I had to lift up a lot of drain gratings to find all the pages,' she said. The rats looked at it. Then they looked at Dangerous Beans. 'It's Mr Bunn-' Peaches began. 'I know. I can smell it,' said Dangerous Beans. The rats all looked again at the remains of the book. 'It's a lie,' said Peaches. 'Maybe it's just a pretty story,' said Sardines. 'Yes,' said Dangerous Beans. 'Yes.' He turned his misty pink eyes to Darktan, who had to stop himself from crouching, and added: 'Perhaps it's a map.' If it was a story, and not real life, then humans and rats would have shaken hands and gone on into a bright new future. But since it was real life, there had to be a contract. A war that had been going on since people first lived in houses
could not end with just a happy smile. And there had to be a committee. There was so much detail to be discussed. The town council were on it, and most of the senior rats, and Maurice marched up and down the table, joining in. Darktan sat at one end. He really wanted to sleep. His wound ached, his teeth ached, and he hadn't eaten for ages. For hours the argument flowed back and forwards over his drooping head. He didn't pay attention to who was doing the talking. Most of the time, it seemed to be everyone. 'Next item: compulsory bells on all cats. Agreed?'
'Can we just get back to clause thirty, Mr, er, Maurice? You were saying killing a rat would be murder?'
'Yes. Of course.'
'But it's just-'
'Talk to the paw, mister, 'cos the whiskers don't want to know!'
'The cat is right,' said the mayor. 'You're out of order, Mr Raufman! We've been through this.'
'Then what about if a rat steals from me?'
'Ahem. Then that'll be theft, and the rat will have to go before the justices.'
'Oh, young-?' said Raufman. 'Peaches. I'm a rat, sir.'
'And… er… and the Watch officers will be able to get down the rat tunnels, will they?'
'Yes! Because there will be rat officers in the Watch. There'll have to be,' said Maurice. 'No problem!'
'Really? And what does Sergeant Doppelpunkt think about that? Sergeant Doppelpunkt?'
'Er… dunno, sir. Could be all right, I suppose. I know I couldn't get down a rat hole. We'll have to make the badges smaller, of course.'
'But surely you wouldn't suggest a rat officer could be allowed to arrest a human?'
'Oh, yes, sir,' said the sergeant. 'What?'
'Well, if your rat's a proper sworn-in watchman… I mean, a watchrat… then you can't go around saying you're not allowed to arrest anyone bigger than you, can you? Could be useful, a rat watchman. I understand they have this trick where they run up your trouser leg-'
'Gentlemen, we should move on. I suggest this one goes to the sub-committee.'
'Which one, sir? We've already got seventeen!' There was a snort from one of the councillors. This was Mr Schlummer, who was 95 and had been peacefully asleep all morning. The snort meant that he was waking up. He stared at the other side of the table. His whiskers moved. 'There's a rat there!' he said, pointing. 'Look, mm, bold as brass! A rat! In a hat!'
'Yes, sir. This is a meeting to talk to the rats, sir,' said the person beside him. He looked down and fumbled for his glasses. 'Wassat?' he said. He looked closer. 'Here,' he said, 'aren't, mm, you a rat, too?'
'Yes, sir. Name of Nourishing, sir. We're here to talk to humans. To stop all the trouble.' Mr Schlummer stared at the rat. Then he looked across the table at Sardines, who raised his hat. Then he looked at the mayor, who nodded. He looked at everyone again, his lips moving as he tried to sort this out. 'You're all talking?' he said, at last. 'Yes, sir,' said Nourishing. 'So… who's doing the listening?' he said. 'We're getting round to that,' said Maurice. Mr Schlummer glared at him. 'Are you a cat?' he demanded. 'Yes, sir,' said Maurice. Mr Schlummer slowly digested this point too. 'I thought we used to kill rats?' he said, as if he wasn't quite certain any more. 'Yes, but, you see, sir, this is the future,' said Maurice. 'Is it?' said Mr Schlummer. 'Really? I always wondered when it was going to happen. Oh, well. Cats talk now, too? Well done! Got to move with the, mm, the… things that move, obviously. Wake me up when they bring the, mm, tea in, will you, puss?'
'Er… it's not allowed to call cats “puss” if you're over ten years old, sir,' said Nourishing. 'Clause 19b,' said Maurice, firmly. '“No-one is to call cats by silly names unless they intend to give them an immediate meal”. That's my clause,' he added, proudly. 'Really?' said Mr Schlummer. 'My word, the future is strange. Still, I daresay everything needed sorting out…' He settled back in his chair, and after a while began to snore. Around him the arguments started again, and kept going. A lot of people talked. Some people listened.
Occasionally, they agreed… and moved on… and argued. But the piles of paper on the table grew bigger, and looked more and more official. Darktan forced himself to wake up again, and realized that someone was watching him. At the other end of the table, the mayor was giving him a long, thoughtful stare. As he watched, the man leaned back and said something to a clerk, who nodded and walked around the table, past the arguing people, until he reached Darktan. He leaned down. 'Can… you… un-der-stand… me?' he said, pronouncing each word very carefully. 'Yes… be-cause… I'm… not… stu-pid,' said Darktan. 'Oh, er… the mayor wonders if he can see you in his private office,' said the clerk. 'The door over there. I could help you down, if you like.'
'I could bite your finger, if you like,' said Darktan. The mayor was already walking away from the table. Darktan slid down and followed him. No-one paid any attention to either of them. The mayor waited until Darktan's tail was out of the way and carefully shut the door. The room was small and untidy. Paper occupied most flat surfaces. Bookcases filled several of the walls; extra books and more paper were stuffed in between the tops of the books and any space in the shelves. The mayor, moving with exaggerated delicacy, went and sat in a big, rather tatty swivel chair, and looked down at Darktan. 'I'm going to get this wrong,' he said. 'I thought we should have a… a little talk. Can I pick you up? I mean, it'd be easier to talk to you if you were on my desk…'
'No,' said Darktan. 'And it'd be easier to talk to you if you lay flat on the floor.' He sighed. He was too tired for games. 'If you put your hand flat on the floor I'll stand on it and you can raise it up to the height of the desk,' he said, 'but if you try anything nasty I'll bite your thumb off.' The mayor lifted him up, with extreme caution. Darktan hopped off into the mass of papers, empty teacups and old pens that covered the battered leather top, and stood looking up at the embarrassed man. 'Er… do you have to do much paperwork in your job?' said the mayor. 'Peaches writes things down,' said Darktan, bluntly. 'That's the little female rat that coughs before she speaks, isn't it?' said the mayor. 'That's right.'
'She's very… definite, isn't she?' said the mayor, and Darktan could see that he was sweating. 'She's rather frightening some of the councillors, ha ha.'
'Ha ha,' said Darktan. The mayor looked miserable. He seemed to be searching for something to say. 'You are, er, settling in well?' he said. 'I spent part of last night fighting a dog in a rat pit, and then I think I was stuck in a rat trap for a while,' said Darktan, in a voice like ice. 'And then there was a bit of a war. Apart from that, I can't complain.' The mayor gave him a worried look. For the first time he could remember, Darktan felt sorry for a human. The stupid-looking kid had been different. The mayor seemed to be as tired as Darktan felt. 'Look,' he said, 'I think it might work, if that's what you want to ask me.' The mayor brightened up. 'You do?' he said. 'There's a lot of arguing.'
'That's why I think it might work,' said Darktan. 'Men and rats arguing. You're not poisoning our cheese, and we're not widdling in your jam. It's not going to be easy, but it's a start.'
'But there's something I have to know,' said the mayor. 'Yes?'
'You could have poisoned our wells. You could have set fire to our houses. My daughter tells me you are very… advanced. You don't owe us anything. Why didn't you?'
'What for? What would we have done afterwards?' said Darktan. 'Gone to another town? Gone through all this again? Would killing you have made anything better for us? Sooner or later we'd have to talk to humans. It might as well be you.'
'I'm glad you like us!' said the mayor. Darktan opened his mouth to say: Like you? No, we just don't hate you enough. We're not friends. But… There would be no more rat pits. No more traps, no more poisons. True, he was going to have to explain to the Clan what a policeman was, and why rat watchmen might chase rats who broke the new Rules. They weren't going to like that. They weren't going to like that at all. Even a rat with the marks of the Bone Rat's teeth on him was going to have difficulty with that. But as Maurice had said: they'll do this, you'll do that. No-one will lose very much and everyone will gain a lot. The town will prosper, everyone's children will grow up, and suddenly, it'll all be normal. And everyone likes things to be normal. They don't like to see normal things changed. It must be worth a try,