Return of the Forgotten
THEY STOOD ON A LEDGE far above the city with Atlantia sparkling below.
Sparkling and growing still, thought Hopper; the metropolis was improving and expanding, it seemed, every minute of every day.
“Tell me again how Atlantia came to be,” came a sweet voice from beside him.
Hopper smiled and looked down into the snapping black eyes of his goddaughter, the princess Hope.
“Well,” he began, delighted by the tiny rat’s interest in learning her own history, “Atlantia was the dream of your grandfather, the late emperor Titus. He was an ambitious upland rat from Brooklyn, New York.”
Hope shuddered. “But he was nasty!”
“He was misguided,” Hopper corrected, but this was being generous. The truth was that as emperor, Titus had made a host of extremely poor choices, and countless innocent rodents had suffered because of his politics. It was also true that Titus had taken a forgotten subway platform deep beneath the borough of Brooklyn and transformed it into the spectacular city that lay before them now. But to maintain this prosperity, he had been forced to spend most of his reign sacrificing unsuspecting tunnel wanderers to the evil cat Queen Felina. Titus justified his own evil
as being necessary to buy peace for Atlantia.
In the end, he paid a much greater price.
But Hopper did not like to discuss such gruesome details with his little friend. Instead he told her a far more palatable version of the story.
“Long ago, Titus happened upon this abandoned platform and chose it as the site on which to build his dazzling city. Under Titus’s leadership, Atlantia bloomed into a great civilization.”
“But my grandfather was hiding a dark secret,” Hope cried, knowing the story by heart.
“Yes he was.” Hopper gave her a solemn nod. “A secret that brought a great deal of pain to many . . . including himself. But thanks to your mother and father . . .”
“And you! The Chosen One!”
Hopper blushed slightly. “Right . . . thanks to all of us, and the rebels and the refugees, Titus was overthrown, and then, not long after, Felina, too, was defeated, putting an end to the brutality and the tyranny.”
“But in the aftermath of battle Atlantia fell to ruins,” Hope gushed, her eyes brimming with intelligence and excitement. “Now you and the emperor and empress—”
Hopper grinned. “Otherwise known as your mommy and daddy. You know they do not wish to be called by such titles anymore, now that Atlantia’s government
is shifting away from a monarchy to something more democratic and fair.”
Hope rolled her eyes and pouted. “I know. I also know that that means they don’t want me to wear beautiful crowns and gowns and jewels, like my grandmamma, the empress Conselyea, did.”
“In the scheme of things, crowns and gowns don’t count for much,” Hopper reminded her.
“But I like being a princess.”
“I know, little one, but your parents would much rather you liked being a good and wise leader instead.” Hopper patted her between the ears. “They are determined to see Atlantia rise again, so it can welcome all rodents and offer them protection within its walls. And without any dark secrets this time. Come along, now.”
As they started toward the palace, Hopper turned his attention back to the bustle of the city below. There he saw progress. Mice working beside rats working beside squirrels working beside chipmunks. Atlantia was on its way to once again becoming the magnificent place it had been the first time he’d seen it. After many long months of thrilling innovation and intensive labor, the underground urban masterpiece was nearly complete; the city was thriving again.
But it was more than just structural and commercial changes that Emperor Zucker and Empress Firren were striving for. They had an entirely new vision
of the way Atlantia should be governed, and to this end, their empire was in the midst of great political improvements as well.
Citizens could now vote on civic decisions, and express their ideas at public hearings. Zucker had gotten the idea from a book in Titus’s library. He called it a “republic,” and together he and Firren were determined to make it a reality for Atlantia.
But they understood that even positive change took time, and they respected the fact that their subjects needed to get used to the idea.
So they stopped wearing their opulent jewels and elegant clothing. Zucker wore the same workaday attire his subjects did (which he found far more comfortable than his royal garb), and Firren always donned her beloved Rangers tunic. They requested that the Atlantians call them by name, not title.
Even still, the rodents insisted on bowing and curtsying to them and calling them His and Her Highness. The habit, it seemed, was difficult to break.
It seemed strange to Hopper that the rodents needed to be convinced of something that was in their own best interests, but there it was. He wondered: Did they believe that outward finery and glitz represented ability and competence? That was exactly the kind of superficiality Titus had relied upon to justify his authority. And look how that turned out!
In truth, when it came to governing, Hopper knew
that it was what was inside a rodent that counted. The character, not the crown, was what defined a ruler.
Sadly, little Hope did not yet understand this particular truth, but Hopper wasn’t worried. She was still very young and she had many things to learn. At the moment, his darling godchild might be easily dazzled by her empress grandmamma’s old tiaras and dresses (which she’d determinedly dug out of the palace basement and claimed for her own), but he truly believed she’d come to understand the value of invisible things like honesty, loyalty, and integrity. He was confident that she and her four littermates would one day step up to take part in the wonderful new government their parents were working so hard to set in motion.
This gave Hopper great joy indeed.
But mingled with his joy was the faintest prickle of sadness. It brought to mind his own littermates . . . his brother and sister. The last time he’d stood upon this ledge, he’d had no idea what his own future held and he’d been desperate to know what had become of Pinkie and Pup.
He knew well enough where Pinkie was now—safe behind the gray wall of their ancestral village, ruling the Mus citizens with her newfound wisdom and benevolence. To Hopper’s great relief, Pinkie had undergone a change of heart after discovering that their father, the legendary rebel Dodger, was still
alive. She was still given to grumbling and bossiness, but she was no longer angry or unkind. Dodger split his time between assisting Pinkie in ruling the Mus, and advising Zucker here in Atlantia. Hopper was thrilled about Pinkie’s new outlook.
But Pup. Pup was another story entirely.
Where in these vast tunnels their diminutive sibling had taken himself off to still remained a mystery. And what Pup might be up to was anybody’s guess.
“Uncle Hopper! Look!”
“What is it, Hope?” Hopper asked, shaking off his dark thoughts. “What do you see?”
“Over there!” Hope leaned so far toward the rim of the ledge that Hopper had to lunge forward to grasp the hood of her tiny pink cloak (a gift from Pinkie, of course). “In the market square! That chipmunk is selling whirligigs! Can I please have a whirligig? I can, can’t I? I can have anything I want—after all, I am a crown princess of Atlantia!”
“Hope,” said Hopper, gently but firmly, “it’s wrong to demand things just because you happened to be born to Zucker and Firren. You should focus on earning the things you want.”
Hope gave him a pout. “But I didn’t demand. I asked politely.” She gave a heavy sigh. “So . . . no whirligig, then?”
Hopper chuckled. “I didn’t say that. I only meant that if you do get one, it won’t be because you are
entitled to it as a princess. It will be because your parents and I like to see you happy and because you’ve earned it. But for now the whirligig will have to wait. You know you’re expected in the schoolroom.”
Hope let out a little snort. “Do I have to go? The tutor smells funny and my brothers and sisters pick on me. And there’s no one else to play with.”
Hopper smiled. “Well, I’m sorry to hear that, but you can take comfort in the fact that soon you’ll all be enrolled in the public school,” he promised. “Your mama is determined to see that happen sooner than later. It’s just a matter of getting it built.”
“Well, it can’t happen soon enough for me!” she huffed. “My siblings all think they’re so smart!”
“You’re just as smart as they are.”
She smiled at the compliment, then frowned again. “Not as smart as Brighton is. She’s a genius. They call her Bright-one. Of course, she never has any fun.”
Hopper laughed. “She is the serious one of the litter, isn’t she?”
“Yes,” Hope agreed. “And Verrazano is the great leader and talented swordsman. Fiske is the clown but also a philosopher, and Go-go is the one who all the little boy rats of the city fawn over and make goofy eyes at.” She frowned. “Princess Gowanus, the royal heartbreaker.”
“Go-go has her good points,” Hopper said, biting back another chuckle. “You all do. Which is why
Zucker and Firren and all the rest of us are so proud of each and every one of you. You’re a wonderful little bunch of future upstanding politicians.”
“I prefer princes and princesses,” Hope teased.
“Royal heirs,” said Hopper, compromising by using the commonly accepted term for referring to Firren and Zucker’s offspring. “Will you settle for that?”
“I guess,” said Hope, placing her paw in Hopper’s.
Hopper recalled the night he’d sat down with Firren and Zucker to discuss recasting the public’s impression of their babies by coming up with a better, more down-to-earth term than the “royal heirs.”
“You can call them the Patriot Pups,” he’d suggested. “That has a nice ring to it.”
“It’s not bad,” Zucker had allowed. “But how about the Children of Democracy?”
“That’s still a bit lofty,” Firren had observed with a grin. She’d thought for a moment, then clapped her hands. “We can continue to refer to them as royal heirs, as long as we’re very clear about the fact that what they are heir to is responsibility and purpose, and not riches and unqualified adoration.”
Zucker had smiled, his eyes twinkling. “I like it,” he’d pronounced. “They’ll be the heirs to our best intentions and our most worthy efforts.”
Hopper had thought that was the perfect way to look at it, but in truth he would have loved the little rats no matter what anyone called them.
Now Hope was tugging at the sleeve of his tunic, giving him her most glowing smile. “Of all us royal heirs, I’m your favorite, aren’t I, Uncle Hopper?”
Hopper beamed at her. It was true that Hope held a special place in her godfather’s heart. And with very good reason:
When the royal litter had arrived, Hopper and Pinkie had both been there to provide Zucker, the nervous first-time father, some much-needed support and distraction. Marcy, back in the palace on one of her rare visits, had skillfully assisted the midwife, Maimonides, who’d come all the way from the Mus village to lend her experience and expertise. When Mamie, as the midwife was called, handed Zucker his firstborn—a daughter—he’d kissed the squirming infant on her forehead and promptly named her Gowanus.
Marcy gave the second pup, a boy, to Pinkie to hold.
“We’ll call him Verrazano,” Zucker decreed. “Raz for short.”
Little Raz’s first royal act was to spit up all over Pinkie’s golden cape. Hopper took some brotherly pleasure in seeing that.
Two more pups arrived, mewling and cooing—twins, one male, one female. They were christened Fiske and Brighton, and handed to Dodger to snuggle. At last the fifth and final royal rat-ling entered the world. Yet another precious baby girl.
Firren whispered, exhausted but happy. “Her name is Hope. After your mother, Hopper.”
Hopper had been too choked up to speak at first, so touched was he by such a tribute. “It’s a lovely name,” he whispered at last, when Marcy placed the babe in his arms. The rush of love he’d felt was nearly indescribable. Such innocence, he thought, gazing down at her scrunched-up little face. Such possibility and promise.
But it was immediately clear that Princess Hope was by far the smallest of Firren’s litter—the runt, as Pinkie might have said in the old days. It was also evident that the newborn princess was in great distress. She struggled to catch her breath, writhing and squirming, as though the act of living was simply beyond her capability.
Marcy had given Hopper a somber look. “Keep her warm,” she advised softly. “And think good thoughts.”
While the other four robust heirs had snuggled up to their empress mother in peaceful slumber, poor little Hope wheezed and gasped and shuddered, fighting for her life.
As the night wore on, Hope’s condition worsened. Zucker was inconsolable, sick with worry. For hours he paced the palace floor, stomping his paws in anger, crying out in frustration and sending off muttered wishes to La Rocha (something Zucker rarely did) that his infant daughter might be spared.
Hopper saw in Hope’s pale little features how much she resembled her father, the friend and comrade he loved so dearly; he simply could not stand the thought of what it would do to Zucker and Firren if they lost this precious bundle. So the Chosen One had held the shivering pup while murmuring words of encouragement and hope, humming to her gently and keeping her warm all through that endless night.
“I don’t know what else to do,” he’d said to Marcy, his voice trembling.
Marcy had smiled. “Tell her a story. Tell her your story. I can’t imagine a better pep talk.”
So Hopper did. He told the sickly baby about his brave escape from the pet shop, his fall into the tunnels, and his journey to becoming the Chosen One. He cradled the baby close to his heart, hoping the powerful beat of it would somehow transfer to her and give her the strength she needed. Her own tiny heart was beating quickly but quietly . . . much too quietly for Hopper’s comfort; still, he continued to whisper in her dainty, translucent ear:
“I know it’s hard to be strong, and even harder to be brave,” he confided. “When I thought I couldn’t carry on a moment longer, I found the strength in my own little mouse heart to do it. You must do the same, Hope! You must find the courage in your heart to be strong.” He cuddled her even more snugly to his chest, hoping the steady rhythm of his heartbeat
would calm her, inspire her, make her well.
And suddenly she opened her eyes—two miniature black jewels they were, glittering with curiosity and determination as they stared up into the weary but grateful face of her protector.
Hopper’s relieved and joyful countenance, with its distinctive white circle of fur around the right eye, had been the first thing Hope had ever seen. The two had been best pals ever since.
Sometimes Hopper imagined he could still feel the wispy flutter of her newborn heartbeat against his chest. He understood that part of the reason he adored Hope so much was that she reminded him of Pup back in the days when they’d lived together in the cage in Keep’s shop. Back then, Pup had been helpless and trusting and sweet. But now . . .
In Hopper’s mind’s eye, he could still see the last missive dispatched by La Rocha:
BEWARE THE TINY VILLAIN
RINGED IN A CIRCLE OF GLOOM
FOR HE IS THE THIEF WHO STEALS OUR HOPE
AND THE LOSS OF HOPEFUL IS DOOM
Now into the frame of his imagination floated an image of his brother the last time he’d seen him; in this recollection Pup had a menacing scowl on his once-sweet face. And his eye! Like Hopper’s and Pinkie’s, one of Pup’s
eyes was outlined with a circle. But this was no natural birthmark of soft white fur. This coal-black circle had been added by Pup himself with a sooty stone—an angry tattoo. A self-inflicted stain meant to reflect outwardly the darkness that had overtaken him from within.
Again, Hopper pushed aside his grim thoughts and gave Hope’s paw a squeeze.
“Come on now, back to the palace.”
She gave him a coy flutter of her eyelashes. “Just out of curiosity, how exactly might a princess earn herself a whirligig?”
“Well . . .” Hopper threw her a wink. “Perhaps by working hard at your lessons. If you do that, not only will you show Brighton that you are just as smart as she is, but I will personally take you out to the market square to buy you whichever whirligig you choose. Okay?”
Hope nodded hard, her eyes shining. “Okay. But tell me again about the time you went upland in a Windbreaker and met a cat named Ace and a white lab mouse named Carroll and ate eggplant parmigiana at Bellissimo’s Deli.”
“Again?” Hopper laughed. “You’ve heard it a million times already.”
“I know, but I like to hear about the daylight world. Tell me everything about Brooklyn, New York!”
So Hopper retold the whole incredible story of the
enormous Barclays Center, and the sprawling grasslands where his friend Valky the bespectacled chipmunk lived, and the Italian delicatessen where a stout bulldog named Capone lolled contentedly on a plump pillow by the back door.
Hope gasped at the part where Hopper found himself hanging off the edge of the Brooklyn Bridge, and she sighed dreamily when he told her how he’d gone weak in his little mouse knees the moment he’d first laid eyes on Carroll.
“I would like to meet her someday,” Hope said.
Hopper felt a flutter in his belly. He wouldn’t mind seeing Carroll again himself.
“Well, I’d be happy to introduce you, but only good students get to go upland,” he explained. “So . . . let’s get you to that schoolroom.”
Together the unlikely pair—the pet-store mouse and the princess rat—made their way back down the long flight of stairs and into the palace.
Neither had any idea they were being watched.