the amazing maurice and his educated rodents (discworld #28) - Page 6


'Will they, do you think?'

'Darktan's more wrapped up in breaking traps and testing poisons. There's more interesting things to do now than bite one another.'

'Or do rllk, from what I hear,' said Dangerous Beans. Peaches looked down, demurely. If rats could blush, she would have done. It was amazing how pink eyes that could hardly see you could look straight through you at the same time. 'The ladies are a lot more choosy,' she said. 'They want to find fathers who can think.'

'Good,' said Dangerous Beans. 'We must be careful. We don't need to breed like rats. We don't have to rely on numbers. We are the Changelings.' Peaches watched him anxiously. When Dangerous Beans was thinking, he seemed to be staring into a world only he could see. 'What is it this time?' she asked. 'I have been thinking that we shouldn't kill other rats. No rat should kill another rat.'

'Even keekees?' she queried. 'They are rats too.' Peaches shrugged. 'Well, we've tried talking to them and that didn't work. Anyway, they mostly stay away these days.' Dangerous Beans was still staring at the unseen world. 'Even so,' he said quietly, 'I should like you to write it down.' Peaches sighed, but went off anyway to one of the packs the rats had carried in and pulled out her bag. It was no more than a roll of cloth with a handle made from a scrap of string, but it was big enough to hold a few matches, some pieces of pencil lead, a tiny sliver of a broken knife blade for sharpening the leads, and a grubby piece of paper. All the important things. She was also the official carrier of Mr Bunnsy. 'Carrier' wasn't quite correct;'dragger' was mostly more accurate. But Dangerous Beans always liked to know where it was and seemed to think better when it was around, and it gave him some comfort, and that was good enough for Peaches. She smoothed out the paper on an ancient brick, picked up a piece of lead and looked down the list. The first Thought had been: In the Clan is Strength.

This had been quite a hard one to translate, but she had made an effort. Most rats couldn't read human. It was just too hard to make the lines and squiggles turn into any sense. So Peaches had worked very hard on making a language that rats could read. She'd tried to draw a big rat made up of little rats: The writing had led to trouble with Hamnpork. New ideas needed a running jump to get into the old rat's head. Dangerous Beans had explained in his strange calm voice that writing things down would mean that a rat's knowledge would go on existing even when the rat had died. He said that all the rats could learn the knowledge of Hamnpork. Hamnpork had said: not likely! It'd had taken him years to learn some of the tricks he'd learned! Why should he give it all away? That'd mean any young rat would know as much as him! Dangerous Beans had said: We co-operate, or we die. That had become the next Thought. 'Co-operate' had been difficult, but even keekees would sometimes lead a blind or wounded comrade, and that was certainly cooperation. The thick line, where she'd pressed heavily, had to mean 'no'. The trap sign could mean'die' or 'bad' or 'avoid'. The last Thought on the paper was: Not to Widdle where you Eat. That one was quite simple. She grasped the piece of lead in both paws and carefully drew: No Rat to Kill Another Rat. She sat back. Yes… not bad…'trap' was a good sign for death, and she'd added the dead rat to make it all more serious. 'But supposing you have to?' she said, still staring at the drawings. 'Then you have to,' said Dangerous Beans. 'But you shouldn't.' Peaches shook her head sadly. She supported Dangerous Beans because there was… well, something about him. He wasn't big or fast and he was almost blind and quite weak and sometimes he forgot to eat because he came up with thoughts that nobody-at least, nobody who was a rat-had thought before. Most of them had annoyed Hamnpork no end, like the time when Dangerous Beans had said, 'What is a rat?' and Hamnpork had replied, Teeth. Claws. Tail. Run. Hide. Eat. That's what a rat is.' Dangerous Beans had said, 'But now we can also say “what is a rat?”' he said. 'And that means we're more than that.'

'We're rats,' Hamnpork had argued. 'We run around and squeak and steal and make more rats. That's what we're made for!'

'Who by?' Dangerous Beans had said, and that had led to another argument about the Big Rat Deep Under The Ground theory. But even Hamnpork followed Dangerous Beans, and so did rats like Darktan and Donut Enter, and they listened when he talked. Peaches listened when they talked. 'We were given noses,' Darktan had told the squads. Who had given them noses? The thoughts of Dangerous Beans worked their ways into other people's heads without them noticing. He came up with new ways of thinking. He came up with new words. He came up with ways of understanding the things that were happening to them. Big rats, rats with scars, listened to the little rat because the Change had led them into dark territory and he seemed to be the only one with an idea of where they were going. She left him sitting by the candle and went and looked for Hamnpork. He was sitting by a wall. Like most of the old rats he always stuck close to walls, and kept away from open spaces and too much light. He seemed to be shaking. 'Are you all right?' she said. The shaking stopped. 'Fine, fine, nothing wrong with me!' snapped Hamnpork. 'Just a few twinges, nothing permanent!'

'Only I noticed you didn't go out with any of the squads,' said Peaches. 'There's nothing wrong with me!' shouted the old rat. 'We've still got some potatoes in the baggage-'

'I don't want any food ! There is nothing wrong with me!' … which meant that there was. It was the reason he didn't want to share all the things he knew. What he knew was all he had left. Peaches knew what rats traditionally did to leaders who were too old. She'd watched Hamnpork's face when Darktan-younger, stronger Darktan-had been talking to his squads, and knew that Hamnpork was thinking about it, too. Oh, he was fine when people were watching him, but lately he'd been resting more, and skulking in corners. Old rats were driven out, to lurk around by themselves and go rotten and funny in the head. Soon there would be another leader. Peaches wished she could make him understand one of the Thoughts of Dangerous Beans, but the old rat didn't much like talking to females. He'd grown up thinking females weren't for talking to. The Thought was: It meant: We Are The Changelings. We Are Not Like Other Rats.

CHAPTER 4

The important thing about adventures, thought Mr Bunnsy, was that they shouldn't be so long as to make you miss mealtimes. – From Mr Bunnsy Has An Adventure The kid and the girl and Maurice were in a large kitchen. The kid could tell it was a kitchen because of the huge black iron range in the chimney breast and the pans hanging on the walls and the long scarred table. What it didn't seem to have was what a kitchen traditionally had, which was food. The girl went to a metal box in the corner and fumbled round her neck for a string which, it turned out, held a large key. 'You can't trust anybody,' she said. 'And the rats steal a hundred times what they eat, the devils.'

'I don't think they do,' said the kid. 'Ten times, at most.'

'You know all about rats all of a sudden?' said the girl, unlocking the metal case. 'Not all of a sudden, I learned it when-Ow! That really hurt!'

'Sorry about that,' said Maurice. 'I accidentally scratched you, did I?' He tried to make a face which said Don't be a complete twerp, OK? which is quite hard to do with a cat's head. The girl gave him a suspicious look, and then turned back to the metal box. 'There's some milk that's not gone hard yet and a couple of fish-heads,' she said, peering inside. 'Sounds good to me,' said Maurice. 'What about your human?'

'Him? He'll eat any old scraps.'

'There's bread and sausage,' said the girl, taking a can from the metal cupboard. 'We're all very suspicious about the sausages. There's a tiny bit of cheese, too, but it's rather ancestral.'

'I don't think we should eat your food if it's so short,' said the kid. 'We have got money.'

'Oh, my father says it'd reflect very badly on the town if we weren't hospitable. He's the mayor, you know.'

'He's the government?' said the kid. The girl stared at him. 'I suppose so,' she said. 'Funny way of putting it. The town council makes the laws, really. He just runs the place and argues with everyone. And he says we shouldn't have any more rations than other people, to show solidarity in these difficult times. It was bad enough that tourists stopped visiting our hot baths, but the rats have made it a lot worse.' She took a couple of saucers from the big kitchen dresser. 'My father says that if we're all sensible there will be enough to go around,' she went on. 'Which I think is very commendable. I entirely agree. But I think that once you've shown solidarity, you should be allowed just a little extra. In fact, I think we get a bit less than everyone else. Can you imagine? Anyway… so you really are a magical cat, then?' she finished, pouring the milk into a saucer. It oozed rather than gushed, but Maurice was a street cat and would drink milk so rotten that it would try to crawl away. 'Oh, yes, that's right, magical,' he said, with a yellow-white ring around his mouth. For two fish-heads he'd be anything for anybody. 'Probably belonged to a witch, I expect, with a name like Griselda or one of those names,' said the girl, putting the fish-heads on another saucer. 'Yeah, right, Griselda, right,' said Maurice, not raising his head. 'Who lived in a gingerbread cottage in the forest, probably.'

'Yeah, right,' said Maurice. And then, because he wouldn't be Maurice if he couldn't be a bit inventive, he added: 'Only it was a crispbread cottage, 'cos she was slimming. Very healthy witch, Griselda.' The girl looked puzzled for a moment. 'That's not how it should go,' she said. 'Sorry, I tell a lie, it was gingerbread really,' said Maurice quickly. Someone giving you food was always correct. 'And she had big warts, I'm sure.'

'Miss,' said Maurice, trying to look sincere,'some of those warts had so much personality they used to have friends of their own. Er… what's your name, miss?'

'Promise not to laugh?'

'All right.' After all, there might be more fish-heads. 'It's… Malicia.'

'Oh.'

'Are you laughing?' she said, in a threatening voice. 'No,' said Maurice, mystified. 'Why should I?'

'You don't think it's a funny name?' Maurice thought about the names he knew-Hamnpork, Dangerous Beans, Darktan, Sardines… 'Sounds like an

ordinary kind of name to me,' he said. Malicia gave him another suspicious look, but turned her attention to the kid, who was sitting with the usual happy, faraway smile he wore when he didn't have anything else to do. 'And have you got a name?' she said. 'You're not the third and youngest son of a king, are you? If your name starts “Prince” that's a definite clue.' The kid said, 'I think it's Keith.'

'You never said you had a name!' said Maurice. 'No-one ever asked before,' said the kid. 'Keith is not a promising name-start,' said Malicia. 'It doesn't hint of mystery. It just hints of Keith. Are you sure it's your real name?'

'It's just the one they gave me.'

'Ah, that's more like it. A slight hint of mystery,' said Malicia, suddenly looking interested. 'Just enough to up suspense. You were stolen away at birth, I expect. You probably are the rightful king of some country, but they found someone who looked like you and did a swap. In that case, you'll have a magic sword, only it won't look magic, you see, until it's time for you to manifest your destiny. You were probably found on a doorstep.'

'I was, yes,' said Keith. 'See? I'm always right!' Maurice was always on the lookout for what people wanted. And what Malicia wanted, he felt, was a gag. But he'd never heard the stupid-looking kid talk about himself before. 'What were you doing on a doorstep?' he said. 'I don't know. Gurgling, I expect,' said Keith. 'You never said,' said Maurice, accusingly. 'Is it important?' said Keith. 'There was a magic sword or a crown in the basket with you, probably. And you've got a mysterious tattoo or a strange-shaped birthmark, too,' said Malicia. 'I don't think so. No-one ever mentioned them,' said Keith. 'There was just me and a blanket. And a note.'