Chapter 1: How to Deal with Rats 1 How to Deal with Rats
Sunrises were not my favorite part of the day. They had a nasty habit of shedding light on my life’s problems, both old and new. This morning’s new problem involved holes in a wall and rats. Oh yes, and a ransacked bag of magically enhanced chicken feed. Also a whole bunch of eggs. Really big eggs.
Even before Matron Tratte woke and surveyed the damage in the stone wall surrounding the Tinderbox Tavern, I had a sneaking suspicion that I’d get the blame.
I was right.
Twelve hours later, with aching arms and a rusty spade, I was still paying the price. I blended what I sincerely hoped was my last bucketful of sand, dirt, clay, and water, hearing echoes of the matron’s furious words in my mind.
If you had wiped the stone with wizard spray like I told you, they would never have gotten in! she’d bellowed. You’ll patch the whole thing—every crack and cranny!
I could have told her that the wizard-spray spell had worn out several days before, but I hadn’t wanted to ask her for the coin to buy more. And I could have told her that filling the holes was completely unnecessary; depending on how much of the feed had been eaten, by tonight the intruders would be far too big to squeeze back through, at least for a week or so. But there were plenty of other vermin in Trapper’s Cove, and, besides, the matron was not someone you “told things” to. Instead I kept my hand stirring as I peered through another gap in the wall, having the sudden wish that there was a bag of shrinking-feed handy so that I could make myself small enough to slip through and escape as well.
The Tinderbox was the very last tavern on a street that sloped upward from the harbor. A high place with a view of a low place. Like a royal castle, Matron Tratte liked to say, which was laughable in too many ways to count.
Below, I could see the market tents, the crowded docks, the moored trading vessels, and the bobbing fisherboats. Beyond it all, the glint of sunset flashed upon open water. It was getting late. I jammed a full spade into the hole, squelching the messy mixture into place and sealing off the view.
I stood and stretched. Behind the sharp-toothed peaks surrounding Trapper’s Cove, streaks of gold and crimson spread across the sky with a sleepy, yawning glow. The lucky day was already tucking itself in. As for me, I was far from sleep. No doubt the matron would soon be screaming for me to help serve the evening crowd of traders and travelers.
As though hearing my thoughts, the back door of the Tinderbox slammed open. I flinched but didn’t need to look up to see who it was. Matron Tratte’s arms were thick and strong enough to throw troublemakers from the tavern when necessary. The flimsy door was no match for her frustration.
“Stub!” she yelled in her high-pitched, grating tone while glaring around the animal yard. “Stub-the-Nuisance!”
I stiffened. Whenever she used my full name, it meant she was feeling twitchy about something. A twitchy matron was a dangerous one.
“I’m over here,” I said, careful to keep my words clear but soft. She didn’t like the sound of my voice much. The feeling was mutual.
Eumelia Tratte was not as mean-looking as her voice suggested. Her eyes were a friendly blend of green and brown. Her skin was clear of blemishes. Her hair was long and dark and shiny from daily applications of horn-nut oil. And, unlike many in the trading village of Trapper’s Cove, all of her teeth and facial features were present and accounted for.
Today she wore her very best outfit: a long-sleeved red tunic trimmed with frills over matching embroidered trousers. But while the owner of the Tinderbox looked very much like a delightful ripe piece of fruit, I knew very well that her insides held a rotten pit.
This time it was the matron who was startled. She stumbled down the steps, cursing at the blast of a fireburst rising over the harbor. The brilliant blue lights rained down over the cove, playing lively music and changing colors until they met the sea.
It was still a week until Maradon’s annual Peace Day, but as it was the hundredth anniversary, the traders had been at it for a month, showing off wizard-made celebration goods. One fireburst had been set off every day at sunset in order to lure people to buy more. From what I’d seen at the market, it was working. Fizzy sparking sticks, blue smoke smackers, and the more expensive firebursts were all the rage. For some reason, celebrating a lack of war made everyone want to set things on fire.
I watched the last remnants of light fade while the matron regained her balance.
“Stub, I swear, if you’re not done with that wall in the next five minutes, I’m going to swing you over it, right into the harbor!” She turned and stomped back into the tavern.
She was bluffing. Matron Tratte knew I couldn’t swim. And I knew she didn’t have anyone else who would work for free. Still, I quickened my pace. As I finished filling smaller holes along the wall, a familiar growl echoed against the stone. Though my arms ached from patching high holes and my legs ached from squatting to fill low cracks, it was my stomach that ached most of all.
“I’d rebuild this whole wall for a bowl of beans, wouldn’t you, Peck?” I turned to grin at my feathery companion, who’d been quietly dust-bathing near the wall just minutes before.
The dirt was disturbed, but my best and only friend was nowhere to be seen. A quick survey of the yard revealed several chickens of varying sizes, six wizard-enhanced sheep the size of horses, and a good deal of extra-large animal droppings. I saw no scrawny, red-feathered, sharp-beaked best friend until a violent ruckus of ba-GAWKs echoed from inside the chicken coop.
A few copper feathers flew out the coop door, and then a scraggly, raggedy, squawking chicken flashed across the yard in a frenzy of panic. A rowdy horde of large birds ran after her.
I threw the spade aside, glancing once again at the tavern’s back door. Everyone in Trapper’s Cove knew that calling any sort of attention to oneself was usually a good way of starting trouble. But when my best and only friend was being threatened, I could never seem to remember that.
“Don’t worry, Peck!” I called, dashing after her. “I’m coming!” Two of the chickens turned my way when I ran through the feathery throng, as though they sensed that I’d been the one responsible for the loss of their food. I tried to dodge their oversized beaks but winced at a sudden pain near my knee. I shoved the bully bird aside while Peck ducked under the door flap of my shelter in the corner of the yard. I followed her inside.
My home was the old chicken shed—a rickety structure that was most definitely built for nesting boxes, not people. When the matron had expanded the backyard flock and built a larger coop, she’d decided that it was time for me to be stripped of my sleeping spot near the kitchen hearth. I was six years old at the time, scared and cold and very much alone, until a runty baby chick wandered in one evening, trembling. She was even more scared and cold than I was. And that was when the alone part ended for us both.
Over the next six years, we’d grown so close that I almost didn’t mind where we slept each night. Still, the space was growing tighter by the year. The flap door, made of heavy sailcloth, was low and just wide enough to for me to crawl through.
“It’s only me, Peck,” I said quietly. “You’re safe here.” I wiped away a thin line of blood near my knee. The damage had been done by Spiker, the biggest and meanest of the matron’s flock. She was a real stinker when she was hungry, and that was especially true when she’d been temporarily enhanced to five times her natural size.
With the flap closed, it was pitch-black inside. A shuffling noise came from somewhere opposite me. By feel, I dug through a layer of dirt until I felt the smooth lid of a discarded cigar box from the marketplace. It housed my special collection, which included a way to light the darkness.
I hadn’t noticed the stones’ magic right away. I’d been sent to gather clams by the sea caves. It was a place where treasures from old shipwrecks sometimes showed up. Every now and then I found things I could trade at the market for food. When a weathered sack of rocks washed up, I almost left them behind. I don’t know why I brought them back, other than the fact that I didn’t think anyone would want them. I could relate to that. But as I spent more time with them, their magic was revealed.
One rock grew icy cold for several minutes if you squeezed it tight. Two stayed hot long after being placed near a fire. One was a sleek and shiny black stone, scattered with a few minerals that sparkled—if tapped in the right place, it whispered mysterious nothings that sounded like a soft morning wind gently sweeping up traces of moonlight. Another came back to me, no matter where or how hard I threw it. And two were glow rocks that lit up for an hour when shaken. I searched for one of those.
I grasped each rock in turn until I found one shaped roughly like a crab claw. I shook it hard until the shelter began to glow.
Peck crouched within reach.
With an unusually long neck, a sunken breast, and dusty-rose-colored wings too large for her scrawny body, Peck looked more like a starved dragon baby than a full-grown fowl. A patch of raw skin on her neck had joined a number of older patches where the other birds had attacked her, simply for looking different. Tiny slips of feathers were trying their best to grow back.
“Peck, stick!” I whispered. She bobbled over to my rucksack and rifled through until she found a stick with a sharpened end. She tossed it to me with her beak.
I used the stick to dig a line into the wall of the shack. It joined many others. When I’d run out of space with my reaching arms, I’d stood on crates to make a ragged scratch for every ragged day I’d been there. The third wall was nearly full. I left a good amount of space between the marks each time, on the off chance I’d take up drawing and have something beautiful to fill the emptiness with. There was only one space with something nice carved. It was a six-year-old’s drawing. A rough oval shape, with a triangle attached to the right side and two lines for legs on the bottom. I carved it the day I met Peck.
I dropped the stick and gathered her in my arms. I blew lightly on her fresh wound. “Oh, Peck,” I whispered. “Those hens are awful to you.” I kissed her feathers, took a crust of bread from my trouser pocket, and tore the food into pieces. “I swiped it off a plate during the noon rush. I’ve been saving it. Don’t tell.”
The chicken pecked at a piece, then looked up, waiting.
“No, you go on,” I urged. “I’ll have something tonight. Eat. And stay here. I’d best hurry back before I’m missed.”
The back door creaked open. “Where are you, Nuisance?” called a low, nasal voice.
“Too late,” I whispered. I sucked in a breath and held it, not moving a muscle while the matron’s son coughed loudly and spit a wad of phlegm that dinged into the alarm bell hanging near the back door.
Footfalls pounded down the stairs. Boots stomped close. Then, closer.
Frantically, I stuffed the still-glowing rock back with the others. Just as I’d smoothed dirt over the buried box, a long arm shot into the shelter and flailed around. The cloth door lifted. A hand closed around my ankle, squeezing hard.
Hut peered inside, then yanked me out by the leg. His brown hair fell in his eyes, all the way to his long nose with its slit nostril, the result of a broken bottle thrown across the tavern when he was small.
“Still keeping that naked-neck chicken as a roommate?” He wiped his hair from his face and grinned. His smile had grown steadily from mischief into menace during the years that I’d known him. “Mind that it doesn’t wander over to the chopping block when you’re not watching. Now get inside. Mother has a special guest coming tonight. A captain, Stub-Rot.”
Mr. Tratte had passed away ten years ago, and after three years of mourning, the matron had decided to try to remarry. She’d been aiming for a sea captain, both because they had money and because they could get her away from Trapper’s Cove. She hadn’t landed a catch yet, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
“If you mess anything up, Mother says it’s the closet.” He grinned again. “Every night for a week this time.”
The year before, Matron had locked me in the narrow broom closet for breaking a whole tray of plates. She hadn’t seen Hut push me. I doubt it would have mattered if she had. Now I stood and dusted myself off so he wouldn’t notice me shaking. One full night of being locked in the closet had been horrible. Seven in a row would be unbearable.
“And if everything works out, she says you’re free of us and we’re free of you.”
I stared at him. “Free?”
Hut laughed at my open mouth. “She’ll be gone and you won’t be needed. Which would be quite convenient for you, wouldn’t it?”
My heartbeat quickened. Yes, it would be convenient. Miraculous, even.
I’d been abandoned on the porch of the Tinderbox when I was only a few days old. The matron had taken me in. She had a letter from my abandoning mother, pleading for me to be raised and then given an apprenticeship. Her written words were as binding as a contract.
I was lucky. I’d been told that time after time by Matron Tratte. Proper apprenticeships were coveted arrangements. They were opportunities that allowed any child to follow their passions and talents and future aspirations. They were not often granted to orphans like me, who had no references or goals in life other than survival.
Under the apprenticeship laws of Maradon, the eight necessary years of service could begin as early as age ten, but could start anytime after. There were no age limits. Even a woman the age of seventy could begin an apprenticeship. The arrangement was meant to protect both sides. The apprentice got a guarantee of hearth, home, and knowledge. The mentor gave away secrets of their trade; in exchange they gained a faithful worker. At the end of the eight years, the apprentice was granted a traditional parting wage to launch their own business.
But that sort of dream was for other people. I knew very well that Matron Tratte was my owner, not my mentor. I locked eyes with the scar on Hut’s nostril. “I don’t believe you.”
“Fine. Don’t believe me.” He shrugged, then smirked.
There was something about his smirk that bothered me.
Trapper’s Cove was inhabited largely by well-armed women, shifty-eyed men, and crafty children—the sort of people who might trade their own mother away for a pair of used boots and a half-chewed leg of mutton. But still, there were apprentices here: fishers, gamblers, shippers, and market traders. There were even tavern apprenticeships, when there was no child to pass the business along to, or when the child involved chose a different path.
But as for me?
I would be given no closing wage. Or knowledge. I was twelve now and therefore committed to being the matron’s property for six more years. There was no chance of ending the contract, unless both the matron and I agreed to end it. That would never happen, and escaping early was the equivalent of stealing—I was reminded of that daily.
Any apprentice who ran away with no notice would be publicly renounced and forced into a much longer work assignment, with no chance of a parting wage. That was the law. Matron had showed me the paper saying so, many times. I couldn’t read it, but the royal seal at the top of the paper matched every other official document I’d seen posted in the marketplace and on the spell sheets that came with wizard-made goods.
So, yes, being freed would be very convenient for me. Too convenient. Still, if there was one skill that my time at the tavern had taught me, it was how to spot a liar. And that was the oddest thing. Because I could tell: Hut definitely wasn’t lying.
“What about you?” I asked. “Wouldn’t she take you along?”
His nose twitched. His eyes shifted over to the wall surrounding the Tinderbox. “No. I’ll run the tavern. Mother plans to sign it over to me.”
So the matron would leave him behind. It was true, he’d be eighteen soon—old enough to take over. But Hut hated the Tinderbox. I saw the way he looked at travelers, especially when they sang ballads of the sea. I’d heard him sing a song once, when he thought he was alone in the backyard. His voice was nice, but he’d stopped the moment the matron had opened the back door, yelling at him to hurry up with the eggs. He’d stared at that door as it swung shut, then walked in a hunched shuffle while completing his work, like his legs carried heavy invisible shackles that were as firmly clamped on as mine. But the extra weight had turned him into his mother’s son, so I didn’t feel bad for him. At least not any more than I felt bad for myself.
“What are you looking at?” Hut made a sheep noise and flicked my head. “Your wool is growing out,” he said. “Might have to give you another haircut tonight, so you and your chicken match properly.” He held out two fingers and made a snipping motion against my head.
I’d forgotten about my hair.
A week ago I’d been stupid enough to fall asleep while doing dishes. Normally, I’m quite good at sensing incoming threats, even when I sleep. I get buzzing, bristling sensations in different places when something’s amiss. Sometimes my ear, sometimes my eyes, sometimes the back of my knee. I’d avoided a dozen or more thieves at market because of a sudden prickle. But I was so exhausted that I didn’t even notice when Hut cut my hair off with kitchen shears.
He’d managed to snip it quite close to my skull in some places before I woke up. I was lucky he didn’t shave me with a wizard knife, or I’d be completely bald.
“Make sure you wipe that dirt off your face before you come inside.” Hut grunted, then snorted. “You look like a pig.”
“You smell like a pig,” I muttered.
I shrugged. “Nothing.”
He eyed me suspiciously. “That’s right,” he said. “You’re nothing.” He spit on the ground. “You’ve been nothing since the day Mother found you. She said she’d seen fish at the market wrapped with more care than you. She should have thrown you into the sea.”
I nodded. If I could have breathed in water—if I’d been even nearly a fish—I would have jumped into the sea myself long ago. Given the choice of being lost and alone in a great big sea, or being here in Trapper’s Cove? The two things seemed fairly equally hopeless, except that in the sea I’d have time for myself.
But then, there was my Peck. If I were a fish, I’d never have met her. And now, maybe there was a chance for us. There was a captain to please. True, there had been captains before—but never the promise of freedom attached. Perhaps I could even become a real apprentice and learn a trade.
Hut mounted the stairs to the tavern’s back door. “Who knows?” he called over his shoulder. “Tonight’s meal is squid, but this captain might want chicken.” He turned and gave me a nasty wink, looking pointedly at my coop home. “And I might run out of plucked birds.”
I waited until Hut was inside before ducking back into the shelter to drop a kiss on Peck’s head. “He was joking, you know.”
Peck nipped my finger doubtfully.
I sighed. Then I put my friend carefully into my market rucksack. “Right. Well, come along and keep quiet.”