“Yes, it is. You can’t hide anything from me, even if you are a Confidential. Well, let me give you one piece of advice, Stanley.”
“Don’t get involved with Wizards, Stanley. They are trouble. Trust me, I know. The last one, that Marcia woman, you know what she did? She stole some poor Wizard family’s only daughter and ran off with her. No one knows why. And now the rest of the family—what was their name? Oh that’s it, Heap—well, they’ve all upped and gone looking for her. Of course the one good thing is we’ve got a nice new ExtraOrdinary out of it, but goodness knows he’s got enough on his plate sorting out the mess the last one left, so we won’t be seeing him for a while. And isn’t it awful about all those poor homeless rats?”
“What poor homeless rats?” said Stanley wearily, itching to get off to the Rat Office and see what his next job was.
“All the ones from Sally Mullin’s Tea and Ale House. You know the night we got the new ExtraOrdinary? Well, Sally Mullin left some of that ghastly barley cake in the oven for too long and burned the whole place down. There’re thirty rat families homeless now. Terrible thing in this weather.”
“Yes, terrible. Well, I’ll be off now, dear. I’ll see you when I get back.” Stanley hurried off to the Rat Office.
The Rat Office was at the top of the East Gate Lookout Tower. Stanley took the quick route, running along the top of the Castle wall, over The Hole in the Wall Tavern, which even Stanley did not know existed. The rat quickly reached the Lookout Tower and scurried into a large drainpipe that ran up the side. Soon he emerged at the top, jumped onto the parapet and knocked on the door of a small hut bearing the words:
OFFICIAL RAT OFFICE
MESSAGE RATS ONLY
CUSTOMER OFFICE ON GROUND FLOOR
BY RUBBISH BINS
“Enter!” called a voice that Stanley did not recognize. Stanley tiptoed in. He didn’t like the sound of the voice at all.
Stanley didn’t care much for the look of the rat who owned the voice either. An unfamiliar large black rat sat behind the message desk. His long pink tail was looped over the desk and flicked impatiently as Stanley took in his new boss.
“You the Confidential I sent for?” barked the black rat.
“That’s right,” said Stanley, a little uncertainly.
“That’s right, sir, to you,” the black rat told him.
“Oh,” said Stanley, taken aback.
“Oh, sir,” corrected the black rat. “Right, Rat 101—”
“Rat 101, sir. I demand some respect around here, Rat 101, and I intend to get it. We start with numbers. Each Message Rat is to be known by number only. A numbered rat is an efficient rat where I come from.”
“Where do you come from?” ventured Stanley.
“Sir. Never you mind,” barked the black rat. “Now, I have a job for you, 101.” The black rat fished out a piece of paper from the basket that he had winched up from the Customer Office below. It was a message order, and Stanley noticed that it was written on headed note paper from the Palace of the Custodians. And it was signed by the Supreme Custodian no less.
But for some reason that Stanley did not understand, the actual message he was to deliver was not from the Supreme Custodian, but from Silas Heap. And it was to be delivered to Marcia Overstrand.
“Oh, bother,” said Stanley, his heart sinking. Another trip across the Marram Marshes dodging that Marsh Python was not what he had hoped for.
“Oh, bother, sir,” corrected the black rat. “The acceptance of this job is not optional,” he barked. “And one last thing, Rat 101. Confidential status withdrawn.”
“What? You can’t do that!”
“Sir. You can’t do that, sir. Can do it. Have, in fact, done it.” The black rat allowed a smug smile to drift past his whiskers.
“But I’ve got all my exams, and I’ve only just done my Higher Confidentials. And I came top—”
“And I came top, sir. Too bad. Confidential status revoked. End of story. Dismissed.”
“But—but—” spluttered Stanley.
“Now push off,” snapped the black rat, his tail flicking angrily.
Stanley pushed off.
Downstairs, Stanley dropped the paperwork off at the Customer Office as usual. The Office Rat scrutinized the message sheet and poked a stubby paw at Marcia’s name.
“Know where to find her, do you?” he inquired.
“Of course,” said Stanley.
“Good. That’s what we like to hear,” said the rat.
“Weird,” muttered Stanley to himself. He didn’t much like the new staff at the Rat Office, and he wondered what had happened to the nice old rats who used to run it.
It was a long and perilous journey that Stanley undertook that MidWinter Feast Day.
First he hitched a lift on a small barge taking wood down to the Port. Unfortunately for Stanley, the barge skipper believed in keeping the ship’s cat lean and mean, and mean it certainly was. Stanley spent the journey desperately trying to avoid the cat, which was an extremely large orange animal with big yellow fangs and very bad breath. His luck ran out just before Deppen Ditch when he was cornered by the cat and a burly sailor wielding a large plank, and Stanley was forced to make an early exit from the barge.
The river water was freezing, and the tide was running fast, sweeping Stanley downstream as he struggled to keep his head above water in the tide race. It was not until Stanley had reached the Port that he was finally able to struggle ashore at the harbor.
Stanley lay on the bottom of the harbor steps, looking like nothing more than a limp piece of wet fur. He was too exhausted to go any farther. Voices drifted past above him on the harbor wall.
“Ooh, Ma, look! There’s a dead rat on those steps. Can I take it home and boil it up for its skeleton?”
“No, Petunia, you can’t.”
“But I haven’t got a rat skeleton, Ma.”
“And you’re not having one either. Come on.”
Stanley thought to himself that if Petunia had taken him home he wouldn’t have objected to a nice soak in a pan of boiling water. At least it would have warmed him up a bit.
When he did finally stagger to his feet and drag himself up the harbor steps, he knew he had to get warm and find food before he could carry on his journey. And so he followed his nose to a bakery and sneaked inside, where he lay shivering beside the ovens, slowly warming through. A scream from the baker’s wife and a hefty swipe with a broom eventually sent him on his way, but not before he had managed to eat most of a jam doughnut and nibble holes through at least three loaves of bread and a custard tart.
Feeling much refreshed, Stanley set about looking for a lift to Marram Marshes. It was not easy. Although most people in the Port did not celebrate the MidWinter Feast Day, many of the inhabitants had taken it as an excuse to eat a big lunch and fall asleep for most of the afternoon. The Port was almost deserted. The cold northerly wind that was bringing in flurries of snow kept anyone off the streets who did not have to be there, and Stanley began to wonder if he was going to find anyone foolish enough to be traveling out to the Marshes.
And then he found Mad Jack and his donkey cart.
Mad Jack lived in a hovel on the edge of Marram Marshes. He made his living by cutting reeds to thatch the roofs of the Port houses. He had just made his last delivery of the day and was on his way home when he saw Stanley hanging about by some rubbish bins, shivering in the chill wind. Mad Jack’s spirits rose. He loved rats and longed for the day when someone would send him a message by Message Rat, but it wasn’t the message that Mad Jack really longed for—it was the rat.
Mad Jack stopped the donkey cart by the bins.
“’Ere, Ratty, need a lift? Got a nice warm cart goin’ to the edge of the Marshes.”
Stanley thought he was hearing things. Wishful thinking, Stanley, he told himself sternly. Stop it.
Mad Jack peered down from the cart and smiled his best gap-toothed smile at the rat.
“Well, don’t be shy, boy. Hop in.”
Stanley hesitated only for a moment before he hopped in.
“Come and sit up by me, Ratty.” Mad Jack chuckled. “’Ere, you get this blanket wrapped around ya. Keep them winter chills out yer fur, that will.”
Mad Jack wrapped Stanley up in a blanket that smelled strongly of donkey and geed up the cart. The donkey put its long ears back and plodded off through the flurries of snow, taking the route it knew so well back along the causeway to the hovel that it shared with Mad Jack. By the time they arrived, Stanley felt warm again and very grateful to Jack.