“Hey rat eater, I’m over here.” Hance lounged on a crate in the alley next to his uncle’s shoe store. With a heavy sigh, Alabar walked over.
“Haven’t you gotten tired of the rat eater joke yet? I’m guessing it was funny to you about seven years ago.”
Hance shifted into a sitting position. “Nah, never gets old. Plus, it makes you whine, so at least I get some entertainment out of it.”
Alabar slid down the wall next to the crate and let his net drop to the ground. “You know,” he said, “that we don’t eat rats.”
“Hey, how do I know that,” replied Hance. “For all I know, your family roasts em up at night when no one’s around and holds a grand feast!”
Years ago this would have ignited Alabar’s temper, but the played out conversation simply bored him now. “Yeah, I’ve heard it before. Rat skewers, rat stew, rat pie, even rat pudding. Got anything new to insult me with?”
“No, not today. I’ll let you know when I think of something else I know you make out of rat.” Hance trailed off when he noticed Alabar staring at the opposite wall. “You feeling well? I mean, I know my jokes pack a punch, but they don’t normally knock you quiet.”
Alabar didn’t respond immediately, but when he did, his voice was low. “Do you ever think about what we could do if we were able to change professions?”
“‘If’ we could change professions? You make it sound like you don’t have a choice what you do. Look, you know as good as me, anyone is free to choose what they do for a living. It just happens that most men take up their father’s business and women take up the trade of their mothers. Things are simple that way. But hey,” a smirk returned to Hance’s face, “If you don’t want to be a rat eater you don’t have to.”
The sullen tone left Alabar’s voice. “I suppose I could become a cobbler like you. Only problem is I don’t enjoy fondling the old ladies’ feet the way you do.”
“You what? Hey! I don’t like…” Hance closed his mouth, drawing his lips tight. Red crept up into his cheeks. Alabar let out a laugh. It was the first time he’d laughed in a few days. “Hey don’t let it get to you. Not everyone is cut out to catch rats. I’m doing something good for the city. You at least are doing something good for the lonely old ladies.” Hance’s face went a shade of red so dark that Alabar thought the blood was going to pour out of his nose.
“Anyway, I have to go,” Alabar said. “There seems to be a growing nest in the east aqueduct entrance and it needs tending to.”
As Alabar was walking away Hance called out, “What do you do with them if you don’t eat them.”
Alabar kept walking but shouted back. “Maybe we do eat them.”
Over the past year, Alabar had been spending less time with his parents, but they had asked him to eat with them tonight. The small house was still where he lived, but it made Alabar feel like he was suffocating. Just sitting and eating with his parents made him feel confined and trapped, but they had asked him to stay tonight, so there he sat. He watched as his mother served a thick creamy stew to him and his father and then ladled a bowl for herself.
Despite his profession, Alabar’s father was a clean and articulate man. He wasn’t the oaf most often associated with a ratcatcher. He seemed to take pride in the work. Pride Alabar felt was unnatural. “So,” his father said after finishing his stew, “did you manage to get that nest taken care of in the aqueduct today?”
“Yeah. Only a few were there, but the nest was pretty big. Could have held another thirty. I torched it and drug out everything that was left. It should be clear for a while now.” His father nodded his head while he listened. “Good, good”
This is what Alabar hated so much rat-catching. The people of the Mids all looked down on you, and his father was just too blind to see it. In a few heartbeats, his anger at the job and his life erupted. “I don’t see why I have to do this job.” The words out of his mouth almost before he realized he had gotten angry. Too late now. Alabar said what was on his mind. He might as well see it through. “I hate it. No one respects me or you,” Alabar looked toward his mother. “For some reason, Mother puts up with this life. She should be a researcher in the Crest, but stays here. Father, can’t you see we could be so much more. If you would just let this obsession go.”
Alabar’s father met his eyes. There was a hardness in them he had only seen a few times in his life. “Listen to me, son. You know that what we do is important. The Regent of the Eastern Mids has made it a priority to keep the vermin population down. It has very little to do with the animals and very much to do with a spreading plague. Before you were born, the weeping sickness tore through the Mids. Children died, many of them so suddenly they passed in a few minutes. We learned rats were the main transmitter of the disease. Ever since the Eastern Mids has used exterminators like us.”
“Father,” a wave of burning anger took over. “I know this story. I’ve heard it my entire life. I understand. It’s important to you. It even seems important to my mother, but not me. I’m done with the nets, poison, torches, and rats.” Alabar kicked his chair back from the table and stormed out. His parents sat alone with their empty bowls.
It was late in the night, and a glowing Tile sat on the small table. It was a new design and gave off twice as much light as the older ones. The conversation had been building to this point, but neither of them wanted to speak now. Alabar’s mother broke the silence. “He won’t understand. He will hate us. But, If we don’t tell him, it will kill him.”
“No, it might kill him. Not everyone will die. What would be the point? He may very well escape.”
“Is that a chance you’re willing to take?”
“It is. We both knew when we had a child this was a possibility. We also both agreed that if we had to use him, then so be it.” Alabar’s mother’s face hardened. “Don’t look at me like that,” his father said. “This was as much your decision as it was mine, and I sincerely doubt you want nearly twenty years of your life’s work to go for nothing.”
His mother leaned back in her chair, eyes focused on the light Tile.
Alabar’s father continued. “Before you ask, no. It’s not easy for me to use him, especially in the way I intend to. We made a decision long ago. The Mids have a problem and we don’t have a solution. But what we can do, is change our circumstances. We will rise and others fall. We will be both saviors and tyrants.”
Alabar’s mother took a jagged breather. The tears weren’t coming as she had hoped. She realized at that moment; she had already sentenced her son to death. “If we have to abuse his trust, can we at least offer him the opportunity to join us? He might see the virtue in our work.”
“I don’t think he will understand, but it can’t hurt to show him.”
Alabar hadn’t gone to work or seen his parents in the two days since the conversation. He had never done something like that before and was unsure how his parents would respond to him coming home. He lifted the latch and pushed open the front door. His father sat at the table writing something on a scrap of paper. He didn’t bother to look up.
“You’ve been gone a while.”
“I was staying with Hance,” Alabar replied. “Father, I’m sorry about…”
His father raised a hand to silence him. “Don’t worry about that now. Your mother and I have been talking and we want to show you something.”
“Lock the door.”
The calmness in his father’s voice unnerved him. He had expected a berating, but not this. “Well, hurry up. We have better things to do than wait for you to figure out how a lock works.”
Alabar locked the door and turned to his father, who had walked over to the wall. He pried out a small stone and pressed his thumb onto a Tile it had concealed. A few seconds later, the wall shuddered and slid inward. “Follow me.” Alabar’s father stepped into the dark stairwell.
The air grew cooler as Alabar descended further down. His mind was swimming with a hidden stairwell in his home. At the bottom, his mother waited in a room nearly as large as their home. She smiled at him.
“What is this place?” he asked.
“This is our laboratory,” said his father.
“Laboratory?” Alabar looked around. He saw glass beakers filled with every hue of color. Some containers sat on heat Tiles with their contents simmering. Cages filled the far wall. Most of them held rats.
“Alabar, you are wrong about your father. He is much more ambitious than you think he is. You were right about me, though. I could be a researcher in the Crest. But just because I’m not up there doesn’t mean I can’t still do my work. This work will change our lives.” She smiled at Alabar; he saw only a cold detachment in her eyes.
His father examined the rat cages while he spoke. “The rats gave me an idea. If the weeping sickness brought the Mids to ruin in a few weeks, what would happen if we could control the sickness. What if we could make our own plague? One with terrible results. A plague that ravages all five sections of the Mids. No one could do anything about it. People will die and panic would follow. When hope begins to fail we would offer up our cure. But not for free. Our cure for the fealty of everyone in the Mids. A new king and queen taking up their seats of power.”
Alabar backed away from his parents. The looks in their eyes seemed foreign to him now. Sinister and viscous, devoid of compassion. “What do you say, son? You were telling us how much you despise your lot in life and wanted people to respect you. You have the opportunity to be a prince. Your father and I would love you by our side.”
“Do you really intend to kill thousands of people just to make your life better?”
“Yes, we do.”
Alabar’s body was numb. He didn’t know how long he had been running, but he couldn’t put enough distance between him and that room. He had to tell someone.
Alabar’s parents sat at their table. They had just finished their evening meal. “I suppose we should have seen that coming. He’s always been more virtuous than us,” Alabar’s father said. “How long do you think it will be before he can convince someone that we are going to attack the city?”
“I’ll give it a few days, but it hardly matters.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s already begun. The last time he ate with us, I mixed some of the synthesized strand into his stew. He will be our first victim. Now we wait.”
“What if the soldiers come and try to break down the wall?”
“What good will that do? If they threaten us we don’t have to give them the cure. And if we die, so do the Mids. Are you ready to be royalty?”