Nicko was pleased that Boy 412 was eating so much, as it meant that Aunt Zelda did not notice the frog lumps that he had lined up and hidden under his knife. Or if she did, it didn’t bother her too much. Nicko also managed to feed the complete rabbit ear that he had found on his plate to Maxie, much to his relief and Maxie’s delight.
Marcia had called down, excusing herself and Jenna from supper on account of the presence of the Message Rat. Silas thought it was a feeble excuse and suspected her of secretly doing a few gourmet food spells on the side.
Despite—or maybe because of—Marcia’s absence, supper was an enjoyable affair. The Message Rat was good company. Silas had not bothered to undo the Speeke, Rattus Rattus command, and so the talkative rat held forth on any topic that caught his imagination, which ranged from the problem with young rats today to the rat sausage scandal in the Guards’ canteen that had upset the entire rat community, not to mention the Guards.
As the meal drew to a close, Aunt Zelda asked Silas if he was going to send the Message Rat back to Sarah that night.
The rat looked apprehensive. Although he was a big rat and could, as he was fond of telling everyone, “take care of myself,” Marram Marshes at night was not his favorite place. The suckers on a large Water Nixie could spell the end for a rat, and neither Brownies nor Boggarts were the rat’s first choice of companions. The Brownies would drag a rat down into the Ooze just for fun, and a hungry Boggart would happily boil up a rat stew for its baby Boggarts, who were, in the Message Rat’s opinion, voracious little pests.
(The Boggart of course had not joined them for supper. He never did. He preferred to eat the boiled cabbage sandwiches that Aunt Zelda made for him in the comfort of his own mud patch. He himself had not eaten rat for a long time. He didn’t like the taste much, and the little bones got stuck between his teeth.)
“I was thinking,” said Silas slowly, “that it might be better to send the rat back in the morning. He’s come a long way, and he ought to get some sleep.”
The rat look pleased.
“Quite right, sir. Very wise,” he said. “Many a message is lost for want of a good rest. And a good supper. And may I say that was an exceptionally…interesting supper, Madam.” He bowed his head in Aunt Zelda’s direction.
“My pleasure.” Aunt Zelda smiled.
“Is that rat a Confidential Rat?” asked the pepper pot in Marcia’s voice. Everyone jumped.
“You might give us a bit of warning if you’re going to start throwing your voice around,” complained Silas. “I nearly inhaled my parsnip delight.”
“Well, is it?” the pepper pot persisted.
“Are you?” Silas asked the rat, who was staring at the pepper pot and for once seemed lost for words. “Are you a Confidential Rat or not?”
“Yes,” said the rat, unsure whether to answer Silas or the pepper pot. He went for the pepper pot. “I am indeed, Miss Pot. I am a Chartered Confidential Long-Distance Rat. At your service.”
“Good. I’m coming down.”
Marcia came down the stairs two at a time and strode across the room, book in hand, her silk robes sweeping over the floor and sending a pile of potion jars flying. Jenna followed her quickly, eager to at last see a Message Rat for herself.
“It’s so small in here,” complained Marcia, irritably brushing Aunt Zelda’s best multicolored Brilliant Blends off her cloak. “I really don’t know how you manage, Zelda.”
“I seemed to manage quite well before you arrived,” Aunt Zelda muttered under her breath as Marcia sat down at the table beside the Message Rat. The rat went pale underneath his brown fur. Never in his wildest dreams had he expected to meet the ExtraOrdinary Wizard. He bowed low, far too low, and overbalanced into the remains of the cherry and parsnip delight.
“I want you to go back with the rat, Silas,” announced Marcia.
“What?” said Silas. “Now?”
“I am not certified for passengers, Your Honor,” the rat addressed Marcia hesitantly. “In fact, Your Most Graciousness, and I do say this with the greatest of respect—”
“UnSpeeke, Rattus Rattus,” snapped Marcia.
The Message Rat opened and closed his mouth silently for a few more words until he realized that nothing was coming out. Then he sat down, reluctantly licking the cherry and parsnip delight off his paws, and waited. The rat had no choice but to wait, for a Message Rat may leave only with a reply or a refusal to reply. And so far the Message Rat had been given neither, so, like the true professional he was, he sat patiently and gloomily remembered his wife’s words to him that morning when he had told her he was doing a job for a Wizard.
“Stanley,” his wife, Dawnie, had said, wagging her finger at him, “if I was you, I wouldn’t have nothing to do with them Wizards. Remember Elli’s husband, who ended up bewitched by that small fat Wizard up at the Tower and got trapped in the hot pot? He didn’t come back for two weeks and then he was in a terrible state. Don’t go, Stanley. Please.”
But Stanley had been secretly flattered that the Rat Office had asked him to go on an outside job, particularly for a Wizard, and was glad for a change from his previous job. He had spent the last week taking messages between two sisters who were having an argument. The messages had become increasingly short and distinctly ruder until his previous day’s work had consisted of running from one sister to another and actually saying nothing at all, because each wished to tell the other that she was no longer speaking to her. He had been extremely relieved when their mother, horrified by the huge bill she had suddenly received from the Rat Office, had canceled the job.
And so Stanley had quite happily told his wife that, if he was needed, he must go. “I am after all,” he told her, “one of the few Confidential Long-Distance Rats in the Castle.”
“And one of the silliest,” his wife had retorted.
And so Stanley sat on the table among the remains of the oddest supper he had ever eaten and listened to the surprisingly grumpy ExtraOrdinary Wizard telling the Ordinary Wizard what to do. Marcia thumped her book down on the table, rattling the plates.
“I have been going through Zelda’s The Undoing of the Darkenesse. I only wish I had had a copy back at Wizard Tower. It’s invaluable.” Marcia tapped the book approvingly. The book misunderstood her. It suddenly left the table and flew back to its place in Aunt Zelda’s book pile, much to Marcia’s irritation.
“Silas,” said Marcia, “I want you to go and get my KeepSafe back from Sally. We need it here.”
“All right,” said Silas.
“You must go, Silas,” said Marcia. “Our safety may depend upon it. Without it I have less power than I thought.”
“Yes, yes. All right, Marcia,” said Silas impatiently, preoccupied with his thoughts about Simon.
“In fact, as ExtraOrdinary Wizard, I am ordering you to go,” Marcia persisted.
“Yes! Marcia, I said yes. I’m going. I was going anyway,” said Silas, exasperated. “Simon has disappeared. I am going to look for him.”
“Good,” said Marcia, paying little attention, as ever, to what Silas was saying. “Now, where’s that rat?”
The rat, still unable to speak, raised his paw.
“Your message is this Wizard, returned to sender. Do you understand?”
Stanley nodded uncertainly. He wanted to tell the ExtraOrdinary Wizard that this was against Rat Office regulations. They did not deal in packages, human or otherwise. He sighed. How right his wife had been.
“You will convey this Wizard safely and properly by appropriate means to the return address. Understood?”
Stanley nodded unhappily. Appropriate means? He supposed that meant that Silas wasn’t going to be able to swim the river. Or hitch a lift in the baggage of a passing peddler. Great.
Silas came to the rat’s rescue.
“I do not need to be booked in like a parcel, thank you, Marcia,” he said. “I will take a canoe, and the rat can come with me and show me the way.”
“Very well,” said Marcia, “but I want confirmation of order. Speeke, Rattus Rattus.”
“Yes,” said the rat weakly. “Order confirmed.”
Silas and the Message Rat left early the next morning, just after sunrise, taking the Muriel One canoe. The haar had disappeared overnight, and the winter sun cast long shadows over the marshes in the gray early morning light.