By Jay Lake
23 December 2002
This was Joshua's favorite time of year. The sun fell blinding white on the snowfields, and the dancing breeze swept ice crystals down from ultramontane glaciers. Little orange butterflies rose like fire-lit clouds from the dark forest verges to spread across the snow, each a spark of eye-bright warmth against the cold that always surrounded Jack's House.
The young Rat had window duty that day, eighth gable attic, staring through the rippled, bubble-filled glass across the snow to the northwest. He stood watch, lest the Master finally return, or Dogs attack. Fear was a function of proximity -- Cats often climbed the stairs to slaughter Rats in the carpeted halls; patrolling Dogs caught only those occasional, unwary fools who wandered outside; while the Master was a distant divinity, powerful for the most part in the threat of His absence. Always dreaming of the Cheese, the Rats feared little in this House other than Cats and Dogs.
Watching from his high window, Joshua saw Old Lenox the Cat stumble away from Jack's House. Old Lenox was a piebald tom who sometimes served as ambassador to the Rats, when the myriad wars demanded the occasion of truce. He had even done Joshua a kindness or two over the seasons. The tom carried a spear in one hand, a wineskin slung across his shoulder.
"Where are you going, old man Cat?" whispered Joshua. It was an old nestling's rhyme. He continued, lost in memories of warm seasons with his littermates among the shredded cardboard and wood shavings:
"All dressed up just like that.
I'm going out, little Rat,
To die by the light of day.
Every Cat must die that way."
Old Lenox stopped, turned to stare up at Joshua, his single glinting eye catching the eighth gable like a Mouse on a hook. Joshua squeaked. How could Old Lenox have heard him? The tom saluted with his spear, then turned to walk downslope -- until the snow exploded with snarling Dogs who broke the Cat's arms and legs and, howling, dragged him bloody to the dark eaves of the forest below. The butterflies spiraled after them like Old Lenox's lifeblood taken wing.
Against all the Master's rules, the Rats maintained a fire in the fourth-floor maid's kitchen. They kept it, mostly, in the potbellied stove, and fed it with wallpaper from the insides of unused closets and laths stolen from rotting ceilings.
Having finally been relieved of his duties, Joshua came to the fire seeking hot soup and wisdom. He found Benjamin, his mentor and friend, stirring a pot, with half a dozen nestlings asleep tangled in a crocheted throw near the elderly Rat's feet.
Joshua crouched down onto his hands and knees. "Blessings on you, elder Rat."
"And Cheese," muttered Benjamin. His grayed muzzle twitched as he sniffed his cooking. "Do you know where the mint has gotten to?"
Joshua busied himself looking for the herb. "Dogs took Old Lenox today," he said, twisting the lid off a rusted tin that might have once held baking powder.
Benjamin banged his spoon against the pot. "Seen it yourself, did you?"
"Yes." Joshua found one draggled mint leaf. "He didn't fight at all."
Snow walkers were those whose time had come to leave this House, tired of hunting the Cheese and each other among the wainscoting. For the ones who made it past the forbidden lower floors, the Dogs were always obliging. "I suppose." The young Rat opened another tin. "He saluted me as he went."
"More like he saluted the House." Benjamin took a noisy, slurping taste of his soup. "Found that mint yet?"
Joshua discovered an almost fresh sprig under a coarse rag. "Here," he said, handing the sprig to the old Rat. "No, he caught my eye."
"That one was always uncommon civil for a Cat. One of their voices of moderation, you might say." Benjamin sighed. "We had a plan, once, that Rats and Cats should set aside our spears. We could have joined together in a thorough search for the Cheese."
"Ha," said Joshua. "As if that could ever be. What happened?"
Benjamin's black eyes glittered in the fire-lit shadows of the little kitchen. "They've got strange ideas about the Master and His devices, those Cats. Barabbas the Great Cat threw Old Lenox down and took his eye for blasphemy. After that the old tom was a quieter boy, I can tell you."
"Cats will take more than that off a person," Joshua muttered. "A male needs his balls. They're all lumbering oafs with no culture."
The elderly Rat slapped Joshua's head with the spoon, splattering the younger Rat with hot droplets of soup. "Don't you ever think that! We may be fighting one another in search of the Cheese, but we're all Jack's creatures in this House. There's a lot of important Rats that could never have taken the measure of Old Lenox."
Joshua rubbed his face where the spoon had struck him. "But surely you never thought we should cooperate with the Puss-- the Cats."
Benjamin banged his spoon around in his pot and continued to glare at Joshua until the young Rat slunk away to catch his own dinner. He knew where there was a nest of newborn Mice near the second guest laundry chute.
Three days later the Cats attacked the fourth floor with a ferocity unrivalled in living memory. They swept up from the main gallery on the great stairs, with a second prong up the middle west servants' stairs and a flanking attack through the dumbwaiter in the music library.
Joshua found himself defending a dressing room closet full of squealing females and nestlings, his sword and three darts to hand. Benjamin stood at his side with a rapier -- a rare weapon for a Rat -- and two of the oldest nestlings, nearly ready to shave, supported them nervously with broken lengths of closet pole.
Just outside their door, three Cats probed their defenses, a young notch-eared orange-haired tom and two tabby females. They were armed with spears and shields, and the tom had a little helmet made of lacquered Rat-leather.
"Got your great-uncle Norway on my head, you little furry bastards," shouted the tom. "I'll have the pair of you for boots."
Out in the hall, screeching and the clash of weapons signaled that the tide of war ran hot and bloody. "My children will be warmed by your mangy pelt," Joshua jeered back, even as he silently prayed for help. Each of the Cats outweighed him at least two-to-one. He flung a dart, catching one of the tabbies in the cheek.
She screeched and bounded forward, spear waving. Benjamin pushed Joshua out of the way to step to the center of the doorframe, ducked inside the tabby's spear thrust, and skewered her neck with the rapier. Withdrawing the blade, he whipped it to notch both the Cat's ears before falling back as the tabby collapsed to the floor, gurgling blood across the pale oak.
"Damn me," said the tom quietly. "Shields up and advance." He and the remaining tabby brought their shields forward and poked their spears out, leaving Benjamin no room to weave in for another cut. They stepped forward at a measured pace, pausing with each footfall, driving Joshua and Benjamin further back into the closet step by step.
Joshua poked at their wooden shields with his sword, but Benjamin grabbed his arm. "It will get stuck, then you will." The elderly Rat nodded at the two nestlings with the closet poles, who waited at each side of the door, hidden from the view of the Cats. "Darts," he hissed to Joshua.
As the Cats cleared the doorframe, the nestlings flailed wildly with their broken poles, behind the shields. Joshua flung his next dart, but it caught harmlessly on the tom's helmet. Taking advantage of the nestlings' attack, Benjamin slid sideways to stab past the remaining tabby's bobbing shield. The tom speared one nestling, and swung the body around to catch Benjamin on the spear's point even as the old Rat's rapier became trapped between the tabby's ribs.
Joshua attacked, flailing with his sword, but the wounded tabby caught him in the face with the wooden shield, and Joshua tumbled backwards, seeing sparks as bright as the orange butterflies on the snow.
As the sparks cleared, Joshua found that he wasn't unconscious, but he couldn't feel his arms and legs. From his place on the floor Joshua watched with unfocused detachment as the orange tom gutted Benjamin with the spear, then bashed in the head of the remaining nestling. While the tabby slumped down to mew her pain the tom rampaged among the females and the other nestlings, tearing throats, breaking knees and elbows, and tossing the smaller ones against the closet wall.
Barbarians, thought Joshua, the idea rising huge and bloody in his mind like an autumn moon. Cats were all barbarians. Lost in the country of his thoughts, Joshua smiled at the thought of trimming the toms, one by one, until none could breed.
Then the tom stood over Joshua, blood on his chin and whiskers and a rope of saliva dangling from his jaws. "Wake up, little brown Rat," said the Cat. "It's your turn to feel my claw." He pressed his spear into Joshua's breastbone. The young Rat's thin Mouse-leather vest offered no protection at all. "Will your precious Cheese welcome you back to its substance?"
Slowly, Joshua placed both his hands on the haft of the spear, just above the point, and pushed upward. The Cat smiled, leaning a bit harder until the point broke the skin of Joshua's chest.
"Where are you going, old man Cat?" the Rat whispered as his head began to clear. No one would save him now.
The Cat smiled back, fangs glinting like sun on snow. "To dinner, to dinner, just like that."
Joshua yanked the spear point to his right as the Cat thrust, taking the jab into his lung rather than his heart. The Cat yowled his surprise while Joshua grabbed his last dart with his left hand and yanked himself up the shaft of the Cat's spear with his right. Each tug of his arm was a fresh pain in his chest, hot and fluid. The tom tugged frantically on the spear as Joshua stabbed him deep in the eye with the dart. "In memory of Old Lenox," Joshua whispered in the tom's ear as the Cat gurgled his pain and curled to the floor.
After a while, Joshua eased himself off the spear. The Cats around him were all dead, and sounds of battle had died down in the hallway outside. The young Rat had already bled more than he would have thought his body could contain, but he found strength to crawl to Benjamin and stroke the elderly Rat's ears.
"By the sharpness of my teeth," Joshua whispered, "you will not pass unknown to the Cheese."
"Dogs," whispered Benjamin. "Only Dogs . . ."
Then the orange butterflies came for Joshua, a cloak of falling leaves to bind him to the earth and render him to loam.
"You've lived longer through fever than any Rat we know of," said Eglantine. She was a pretty young black Rat with green eyes, wearing starched whites stolen from some linen closet, who served as night nurse in the attic infirmary. The infirmary was a dark, narrow hall that connected the fourth and fifth gables. It was hard to find and harder to enter, which made it ideal for undisturbed recuperation.
Joshua was still surprised to find himself alive. Every time he awoke, it was to the memory of the orange tabby's spear and the sense of butterflies crawling all over his body. It had been weeks since he had last forgotten how he came to this place that reeked of scabs and sores, weeks since he had been able to forget the death of Benjamin.
"It was not my plan," he told the nurse. "I expected to meet the Cheese."
She smiled. "Or perhaps the Master. You've come as close to death's tunnel as any of us. What did you see?"
Avoiding Eglantine's eye, Joshua stared at the laths of the sloped ceiling. "The Master has forsaken us. Jack will never come back to His House. If He still cared about us, Benjamin would yet live."
The nurse smoothed his blanket, her cool hands lingering on Joshua's chest. "You know better. It is the way of Rats and Cats to fight and die. Until the Cheese is found, this is our life. The good perish with the bad."
Joshua shook his head, his chest aching with the effort of speaking. "The Cats came in numbers, and with purpose, like we've never seen. Times are changing. Old Lenox went out to die because he could not stem their thirst for blood."
Eglantine patted his cheek. "We've blocked the dumbwaiter and built new hoardings at the tops of the stairways. They won't be back for a while. Rest easy, hero."
"Heroes succeed," Joshua said quietly. "I should be sent to the Dogs for my failures."
Dogs, he thought. Why did Benjamin want Dogs?
Eglantine kissed Joshua on his forehead as he slipped back into sleep, taken by fitful dreams of howling in the forest.
"I want to speak to the King," Joshua told the Rat doctor who listened to his chest.
"Quiet," said the doctor, a ginger-haired Rat of middle years with a huge white scar seaming one cheek and down his neck. "I'm trying to hear your lungs."
Joshua grabbed the little rubber tube and yelled into the cone at the end. "The Rat King!"
The doctor winced, snatching the ends of the tube from his offended ears. "You may be a hero, but you are also a fool. I helped you live."
"I'm tired of this bedroll in this dark attic," Joshua said, "and I have a plan forming for those Cats."
"Oh, the hero has a plan," the doctor said with a thin, whining snarl. "Listen to the hero." He tapped Joshua's chest with a finger. "Let me hear your lungs in peace and I'll find someone to come take note of your plan."
"Dogs," Joshua said to the serious young Rat with spectacles and a sheaf of papers. Few knew how to read, and fewer yet how to write, so this Rat's pen was a badge of office more powerful than any sword.
The Rat made circular motions with his pen on paper. "Dogs, you say."
"Correct. We eat Mice, right?"
"And Cats eat us."
The other Rat's pen stopped moving. "That's defeatist talk, you know."
"Just listen," snarled Joshua. Suddenly he understood how Benjamin used to feel talking to him. "What eats Cats?"
The official Rat made a point of staring at the sloped ceiling as if lost in thought. "Other Cats?"
"Do-o-o-gs." Joshua made a long, low growl of the word. "We'll forge an alliance with the Dogs, set them upon the Cats. The Dogs will eat the Cats and we'll be free to find the Cheese."
Staring over the tops of his spectacles, the other Rat looked as if he had tasted a rotten Mouse. "Dogs. Treason. Indeed. And Benjamin told you this?"
"Yes." Joshua's body quivered, ready to fight this Rat. Which was ridiculous.
Polite, oh this official Rat was exquisitely polite. "Was that before or after he had his guts wrapped around a spear shaft like solstice bunting?"
Joshua exploded up off the pallet, taking a backhanded swipe at the other Rat that failed as he collapsed into agonized coughing.
When his coughing wound down, Joshua heard the official Rat mentioning brain damage to the doctor. Sad, so sad, in such a hero. Then the doctor approached with an enormous glass syringe in one hand.
"I have been authorized to use our precious drugs on the hero of the fourth floor," the doctor said in his most official voice.
"I decline the honor," Joshua gasped, but he couldn't make his legs straighten out enough to run away.
The plunger descended like lightning in the forest, and orange butterflies exploded in Joshua's head. He barked like a Dog, until his throat was hoarse, but no one answered.
A blizzard outside Jack's House rocked even the hidden rooms of the inner attic. Though no snowflakes fell in the infirmary, the wind found its way through cracks and brought the crackling scent of the storm and the joint-clutching cold. He had not seen the sun for months, but still Joshua knew it was night.
He stared at one hand, pale in the candle-lit gloom, flexing it. His breathing felt ordinary, blessedly ordinary. Somewhere in the darkness nearby, Rats whispered about the will of the Master. What had happened to the drugs?
"How long," asked Joshua.
The whispering stopped. Then Eglantine's voice echoed through the room. "Months. Solstice moon has long since passed."
"If you are going to kill me, do it now."
Eglantine and the doctor shuffled out of the shadows to stand at the foot of his pallet. Something glinted in the darkness behind them. In the flickering light, the doctor looked nervous, Eglantine sad and perhaps ashamed.
"Well?" Joshua demanded.
"Your name is written on our hallway walls in blood and dung," said the doctor. "Rats expect you to save them. In response the King has decided that your illness will enter a sudden decline."
"It can't be," said Eglantine. "You've done no wrong, only fought like us all."
"A thousand other Rats fight. Why me?"
"Dogs," whispered the nurse. "They say Benjamin speaks to you from the Master's side and tells you to call in the Dogs."
Joshua laughed, his chest still blessedly free of pain. "That little bastard's been telling tales, hasn't he? The official Rat who you sent to see me." He pointed at the doctor.
"I believe it was supposed to be a mockery," said the doctor. "But the Cats have hit us hard, over and over. Our barricades have failed, and they've taken control of the music library. From there, they sortie against us through the servants' corridors. We are losing the war. You have become a symbol of hope." He clenched his fists and stared at Joshua's feet. "Our last hope. And I will not kill a patient."
"But I will," said the official Rat, stepping out of the darkness, his spectacles glittering like rings of fire in the glare of the candle. "And kill the doctor, too, if that is what it takes to maintain standards. No Rat should be afraid to die."
"No Rat is afraid to die," said Joshua, smiling his most Catlike smile at the official Rat. "But no Rat needs to die, either."
"The needs of the pack always triumph," said the official Rat. "His Majesty sees to that."
Joshua watched as Eglantine slid the glass syringe from the doctor's coat. The doctor stared at his own feet, pretending not to notice. "The needs of the pack," Joshua said, keeping the official Rat's attention, "are to be decided by the pack. Not by some literate Mouse's bastard nestling."
"You will not anger me, hero. Your death will be an inspiration to Rats throughout Jack's House."
"Maybe," said Joshua. Eglantine plunged the syringe into the official Rat's neck. "And maybe my life will be instead."
The spectacles clattered to the wooden floor as the official Rat clutched his wound. He fell slowly, spiraling downward like a lightning-struck tree. Joshua stood, smashed the spectacles with his foot, and retrieved the syringe from the limp Rat's neck. He stuck it under his arm, rolling it back and forth.
"My scent," he said with a grin to the other two. "Tell the King's men I overpowered you and stabbed this Rat with the syringe. With my odor all over it, they might even believe you." He dropped the syringe to the floor, stepped toward the doctor, and slugged him a tooth-breaking punch. The doctor collapsed, whimpering. "There. Now you're an innocent Rat."
Eglantine stood her ground. "Are you going to hit me, too?"
"No." Remembering her kiss, Joshua stroked her ear. "But why did I even wake up for this little meeting?"
"Sugar water," she whispered. "For the past three days, since we heard the rumors of your impending death. Sugar water instead of the Master's drugs in your veins."
"Ah," said Joshua. "Well then, the Master permitting and with the blessings of the Cheese, I'm off to speak with the Dogs. Feel free to tell everyone that I said that. Give the King something to worry about."
"How will you keep the Dogs from tearing you apart?"
"I don't know," he said. This time the butterflies were in his stomach.
Wily Wharf and the Parlor Twins had killed a Dog once, in the dim mists of Rat history. Joshua stood at the eighth gable window, watching the snow slide against it, gray shadows against night's black. It hissed like silk being dragged across silk. Three of the biggest Rats that ever lived, armed with some arcane, long-lost weapon of the Master's, and still both the Twins had died of their wounds. Rats were not made to fight Dogs. It was like Mice fighting Cats. Or Cats fighting the mythical Bears, that were said to prey on Dogs in their forest.
He pressed his forehead against the cold glass. This post was unguarded on winter nights -- what was the point, with nothing to see through the darkness and the snow? Joshua was not worried about being discovered. He was worried about talking to the Dogs. They would snap his spine as thoughtlessly as he snapped a Mouse nestling's, and that would be the end of his mission to save the Rats.
But the Dog that Wiley and the Twins had killed lived on, in a sense. The King's cape was Dogskin, with the black-and-ginger scalp still on it. And the Dog's skull was the King's feasting cup, chased with royal aluminum and windings of the copper that infested all the walls of the House. Eglantine was right -- he needed a passport to the Dogs. The King had one. Even Dogs had their sense of curiosity, after all.
Joshua laughed through the glass at the night's cold shadows. First he had killed one of the King's trusted Rats, now he proposed to steal the royal regalia. Simpler to break the old glass before him and hurl himself into the snow far below.
Flexing his fists, wishing for a spear or sword, Joshua turned from the window and headed down from the attic, toward the royal seat in the Velvet Bedroom off the Hall of Mirrors. If he could not be forceful, he would be persuasive.
When he emerged from the attic stairs beneath the eighth gable, Joshua found himself in a busy hallway. It had been months since he had seen more than a few Rats at a time, so the mass of nestlings, females, and males was a sudden pressure, like flowing water. He turned sideways and shouldered his way through the crowd, balancing just far enough forward to force people to yield.
"Joshua," someone said behind him. He didn't turn.
"Hero," whispered a female.
"He's come for the Dogs!" shouted another Rat up ahead.
"Joshua." His name spread down the hall, a fire burning in the minds of desperate Rats. Winters were always hard in the House, but this winter of war had put a haggard edge on the half-familiar faces. "Joshua, Joshua, Joshua!"
He found himself in the middle of a wedge of Rats, their errands abandoned to sweep down the hall with him, fingers snatching at his hair and skin, shoulders, elbows, hips brushing against him. Someone tried to hand him a newborn nestling, but Joshua shoved the infant away.
"Clear the hall," he said. "I must see the King."
A cheer went up. "Joshua's going to challenge the King!"
"No," he shouted. "There has been fighting enough. I need to see him, not defeat him."
Armed Rats poured into the hall ahead of Joshua, but they hung back when they saw the crowd. "That Rat is a traitor," one of them called. "A Cat-lover. Turn him over to us, or it will not go well with you."
Joshua's escort mobbed the soldiers and pushed them aside like trillium blooms. They swept into the Hall of Mirrors, where the dozens of Rats became a hundred, then a thousand, real and imagined, physical and reflected. Joshua found himself at what seemed the center of the entire Rat nation, a horde of his people around him.
In one mirror, he caught the reflection of a single orange butterfly, fluttering above the crowd, but when he turned to see it, nothing was there.
Joshua's Rats burst into the Velvet Bedroom like an avalanche from the ultramontane, sweeping him in past guards and receptionists. The King stood, talking to two of his advisors, and they all froze at the onslaught of citizenry. Within seconds, the King found himself at the center of a small circle of worn carpet, hemmed in by Rats. Joshua stepped into that circle.
"Your Majesty," he said, with a polite nod of his head. Nowhere near the crouch that protocol required, but no Rat in the room was crouching at the moment.
"I see," said the King. "You look well, hero."
"Better than some." Joshua made circles of his fingers over his eyes, a brief mime of spectacles. "But I will make no issue of history, not now."
The King glanced at the wall of Rats around them. "It seems you would make whatever issue you want, hero."
"I go to the Dogs," Joshua said. He admired the King's cool head, standing proud before a crowd of subjects ready to strike him down and raise Joshua up in his place. "For us all."
"The Dogs," whispered the crowd, the words echoing outward like ripples in a basin. "The Dogs."
"All loyal Rats serve you and the pack against the Cats," said Joshua; then, quietly: "Despite rumors to the contrary, I am and always have been a loyal Rat."
"Then go, with my blessing," the King hissed, sweat finally breaking on his face even in the blizzard cold of the House.
"I require your Dogskin cape and your feasting cup. As ambassadorial tokens to the Dogs."
"My . . ." The King stopped himself before his voice pitched up into a threat. "And you will go, and trouble me no more?"
"Whether I return or not, I will trouble you no more," said Joshua.
"I do not know which would be worse," the King muttered, "but if it will take you from this place, have them with my blessing and good riddance." He raised his voice, calling out, "Fetch my regalia for the hero!"
"I have a name, Majesty," said Joshua.
"No, you do not." The King smiled sadly. "You belong to Rat history now, our hero in the last war against the Cats."
The crowd began to chant as the regalia was passed hand to hand. "Josh-u-a! Josh-u-a! Josh-u-a!"
"May you die on their fangs," whispered the King as he hung the Dogskin cloak on Joshua's shoulders.
"May you live to see it," Joshua whispered back. He raised his hands to quiet the crowd. "Fetch me ropes," he called. "I will descend from the window in the eighth gable."
"In this storm?" someone asked.
"Life is a storm," Joshua said. "And I will weather it to bring us all to the Cheese."
The crowd swept him out of the Velvet Bedroom like a leaf before the wind.
On the end of the rope, Joshua spun in the blizzard. The snow plucked at the Dogskin cloak, at the skull tied to his belt. The crowd of Rats paying out his line wasn't being smooth or efficient about it -- scuffling no doubt to touch the hero's last link with the Rat nation.
At the fourth floor, Rats crowded a window, staring out at him. Some prayed. Joshua smiled, flashing his fangs, then slid beyond their sight.
At the third floor, Joshua banged into a glass window. Within was a firelit room, occupied by a tortoiseshell Cat in a quilted jacket smoking a pipe and reading a book before the blaze. The Cat glanced up, waved the pipe at Joshua in a gesture reminiscent of Old Lenox's last salute, and resumed his reading.
The Rat lowered further, to the second floor. This window was shuttered, though dim blue lights played through the gaps. He was just as glad not to see through it. Whatever lived on the first and second floors of Jack's House was fearsome enough to keep the Dogs outside, and Joshua didn't care to meet them either. Getting the Dogs back in was a problem for another day, if his embassy ended in anything but sudden blood.
At the first floor, a pair of bloodshot eyes, each as big as its framing window, stared out at him. He shrieked and dropped away from the line to land in the snow as one great, slow lid dropped into a terrible wink with a sound like the rumble of thunder.
Gasping, Joshua stumbled into the driving snow, slogging through the drifts downslope toward the forest and the Dogs, his legs already numb with the chill. He didn't dare look back at Jack's House. The terrible regard of whatever lay behind the first floor window filled him with more fear than any Cat ever had.
"We don't usually bother to keep your kind alive," said the Dog as an orange butterfly looped past its right ear. The Dog was a big bruiser, dark, with mottled hair and one milky eye that rolled in time to unheard music. "But you brought such an interesting bonus."
"I thank you for my life," said Joshua, as he had every morning in the long weeks since his captivity began. "May I speak to the Dog King today?"
The Rat was in a cage of wood and bones, crudely lashed together by the fat, unfortunate fingers of the Dogs. His cage resided in a little clearing among a stand of spruces just below the tree line, the mountain looming above Jack's House to the southeast. The Dogs were obviously not accustomed to keeping prisoners, and it would have been the work of a moment to escape the cage, but where would Joshua go? Certainly not back to the Rat King, not yet. He was where he wanted to be, in the country of the Dogs. They just didn't seem to care.
"You're welcome," said his jailor, who then wandered away. Just like every morning.
Joshua stared up the slope through the trees, toward Jack's House and the mountain beyond. For all the gnawing despair and enforced lethargy of his odd imprisonment, he never tired of that view. Jack's House rambled with wings and towers the Rat nation had never suspected the existence of, like a giant nest made of timber, grown large enough to be home to the entire world. Every time he counted windows, he got a different number, but Joshua could see at least three hundred of them. There were people on the roof -- Owls, maybe? The Mice had their legends, too, for all that the Rats vigorously scourged their nests.
And the mountain beyond, its slopes a nearly perfect triangle, its gray-brown rocky bones just now appearing in the spring thaws, blue glaciers hanging impossibly high. The coy peak so often hidden behind plumes of snow and cloud would sometimes emerge to stab the sudden blue sky.
Snow farther up the slope around the House didn't melt until late summer, gone for a month or two before renewing, and some years never melted at all. Here downslope in the country of the Dogs, the snow was already melting. The Dogs liked to gambol in the ferns and grasses beneath the towering firs and spruce, even though they sometimes went to ground at the sound of distant growling.
Joshua would have wondered if the Dogs stayed away from the House for the sheer pleasure of the forest, except for that great heavy-lidded face he'd seen the night he left his old life behind. Even if the Dogs freed him, Joshua doubted he had the strength to confront those giant eyes. Whether it was only sorrow or some stranger emotion, those eyes were a pair of drowning pools to capture the soul of any thinking creature.
"Friend for you," called his jailor, returning unexpectedly. Dogs were creatures of habit -- to the point of mania -- so Joshua was most surprised. The Dog hung a leather sack from a nearby tree branch, popped loose the laces, and left again.
Old Lenox's piebald face popped out of the sack, one eye twisted shut, the other gleaming as bright as that day last summer.
"A Rat, I see," said the Cat. "I wondered where they'd gotten that mangy old skin they were all howling over."
Joshua dropped to a crouch, showing Old Lenox the same respect he had shown Benjamin. "I greet you, sir Cat," he said as he rose to his feet again, "though I thought you long gone to death."
"Close," said the Cat, "for these beasts smashed my limbs before they decided to spare me. It seems they use an occasional Cat as a divinatory aid. And you must be that young Rat who watched me from the attic window."
"Eighth gable was my duty station, back then."
"We call it the grouse gable," said Old Lenox reflectively. "They're all named after birds on our maps."
Joshua waited a polite moment to see if Old Lenox would say any more. "Benjamin spoke well of you," the Rat finally said.
The Cat frowned. "Is he dead?"
"Killed by an orange tom shortly after your departure."
"My son, I imagine. An agitator in the war party. What became of him?"
Joshua resisted the impulse to look down. "I stabbed him in the eye with a dart."
Old Lenox narrowed his remaining eye, his whiskers twitching as his lips curled back from his teeth. Then with a shiver, the Cat shook away his anger. "I suppose it needed doing," he said sadly. "And now what are you doing here?"
Joshua briefly considered, and discarded, deception. Old Lenox would probably see through him. Besides, Benjamin would not have approved.
"I've come to raise the Dogs against the Cats, to turn the tide of our war."
The Cat laughed, his bag shaking hard enough to threaten to fall. "You can't get three Dogs to agree on where the sun sets. How would you get them into the House and past the lower floors?"
"I have to try," said Joshua, slow and stubborn, "or you Cats will slaughter our females and eat our nestlings and drive us back until we are but bones in the attic."
"That is the way of the world," said Old Lenox in a prim tone. "You serve the Mice no better."
Joshua snorted. "Mice are our natural prey."
"And Rats are ours. What difference?"
The Rat thought about that. "We hunger for the Cheese, and await the master. The Mice, they are just animals."
"Cheese. Only a Rat would hunger for Cheese, and so you believe everyone does. You have lost your memory of the Master, placing your faith in such a thing. It would only fatten Rats and Mice for us. And believe you me, the Mice hunger for it, too, despite their terror of you Rats."
"How would you know?" said Joshua.
Old Lenox leaned forward until he was at risk of falling out of the bag. "Because the Mice set us upon you last autumn, making an alliance to war upon the Rats so they could seek the Cheese in peace. How do you think the war party got such good intelligence of your defenses and domains? Mice are everywhere."
The truth spun in on Joshua, with the memory of a hundred throats torn out, heads smashed and nests destroyed. "They wish like we wish, and fear like we fear, and seek the Cheese like we do." The Rat stared at his hands as if they were newly grown upon his arms. "We are cousins, the Mice and the Rats."
"Fine time to discover empathy," grumbled the Cat, "you in that cage and me legless in this bag here. It's Jack's Cheese anyway, just like it's Jack's House."
"How do I stop this war of Cats and Rats?" demanded Joshua.
Old Lenox shrugged. "War is the way of the world. What's to stop?"
The Dog King walked into the little clearing. He was huge, with black and orange hair and a single cracked fang that left sores on his cheek. He wore a rough circlet of vines on his head, and carried the Rat King's old Dogskin cloak over one arm. He had a dozen Dog soldiers guarding him.
Joshua dropped to his crouch again. "Your Majesty."
"So, Cat," said the Dog King in a loud voice. "What says my oracle of this curious creature from the Master's House?"
Old Lenox squinted his good eye and thrashed his head around. In the middle of the fit, the Cat winked at Joshua, then banged his head backward against the tree trunk. "This one has been touched by the Bears," said the Cat, an impressive trail of saliva dripping down the leather bag. "He is sacred to them and through them to the Master. Set him on his course." The Cat screeched, then vomited forth a pile of gray, hairy goo, which the Dog King eagerly licked up.
"Does he speak truly?" the Dog King asked Joshua a moment later.
"Your Majesty," Joshua began, then stopped. He could deny being the Master's servant, but that might not even be true. The Cat could be an old liar and still tell the truth himself. What would Joshua do, if he were hung in a bag for the rest of his life? "I came from the House to seek your strength, that Rats and Cats and Mice might live in harmony."
"Dinner, all dinner," sniffed the Dog King. "I don't care if the pantry squabbles."
"It is not the pantry," said Joshua. "It is Jack's House. The Master's House. We are all his creatures."
The Dog King opened his mouth to speak, one finger tapping Joshua's cage bars, when a cloud of orange butterflies burst into the clearing, flooding the cage and surrounding the Dog King. Then, as quickly as they came, they were gone.
"Fire of the Master," said the Dog King. "The flames that do not burn." He turned to the Dog soldiers, who stood quivering. "We go to the House. This Rat will lead us to the Master."
Somehow Joshua found himself carrying the Cat. Strapped to the Rat's chest, Old Lenox's bag was almost as big as Joshua. The Rat stumbled knee deep across the snow banks that spread before Jack's House. The sky above was a vast blue sea, without a wisp of cloud, so that Joshua felt as if one missed step would send him sailing upward forever. The mountain towered beyond the House, snow glaring with the afternoon sun. Around Joshua, Dogs advanced in a ragged line, approaching the front of the House.
All the people of the House came forth to see such an unprecedented delegation. The Owls on their roof, the Cats in their windows, the Rats in their gables. Strange, sinuous people he had never seen threw open the shutters two floors below the Rat nation, while others, heavy and slow, appeared in windows elsewhere in the House. He glanced over his shoulder, past the line of Dogs, to see great, hairy people who must be Bears standing at the edge of the trees.
Overhead, the orange butterflies swarmed, some alighting on the snow to spread their wings like wounds upon the earth, then flying again, around and behind Joshua like a loose cape the size of the wind.
Joshua stopped a few hundred feet from the great front door, setting Old Lenox's bag down before him so that the Cat's head emerged just below Joshua's chin. Thousands of eyes glittered in the sunlight, the shadows of the butterflies shifting on the snow. Around him, the Dogs breathed like so many bellows, and the crisp snow crackled beneath his feet.
The entire world waited for Joshua.
"This is the House that Jack built," the Rat said. Even in his ordinary voice, his words seemed to carry across the snow to every pair of ears. "And all of us in it are His creatures."
The wind swirled around his feet as the butterflies in their thousands came to light upon the snow. Joshua hadn't meant for it to come to this point, not this fast. He wasn't ready. But he had to try, to trust that the words would come to him, make the people see what he had seen -- that they were all one kind together in Jack's House.
"But the Master is gone. Jack is gone, and in His going He has given us all back to ourselves. We serve no one but each other, and the House that is our home. Jack is dead, and we are all Him." Joshua paused, his eyes stinging in the cold morning light. "Long live Jack."
Joshua's breath hung steaming in the crystal air, as if giving form to his words. The people stared at him, the Dogs, the forest. Then a window slammed shut. A Dog barked, laughing as if at some joke. A Mouse shrieked, then a group of Cats swarmed up a cornice to launch an impromptu assault on a window filled with Rats. Within moments, people all over the House were screaming and running. The butterflies leapt into flight, spiraling up into the sunlight, up and up until Joshua could no longer see them.
The Dog King walked over to Joshua and Old Lenox, urinated in the snow at their feet, then strode off without a word. His soldiers followed him, shouting at the Bears who still stood in the shadows.
Joshua sat down in the snow. He would have wept if he could have found the tears. "Some hero," he finally said.
"You did pretty well, for a Rat," said the Cat in the bag.
The Rat studied Old Lenox's single green eye. "I think I'm supposed to kill you now."
The Cat jerked his head toward the House. "Just because they don't listen to you doesn't mean you shouldn't listen to yourself."
Joshua stared at his paws again. He had set out to save the Rats, even the entire world. Could he only save himself? And perhaps one broken old Cat. He almost laughed. The two of them were still Jack's children.
"Fair enough, my friend," the Rat said. Grunting, he hefted Lenox's leather sack. "The House is before us, the forest behind us," he said. "Let us go somewhere else. Left or right?"
"Always with the empathy," said Old Lenox. "My right eye is the good one. Let's go that way."
As they crested a ridge a quarter mile past the last corner of the House that Jack Built, Joshua stopped and turned to look back. Balanced against his chest, the Cat looked with him. Great eyes stared back from a pair of ground floor windows. As Joshua waved, the right one winked back, a lid bigger than his body descending like sunset over the forest.
Joshua turned again and scrambled down the slope, out of sight of the House, Cats, Rats, Dogs, any of the people. One last orange butterfly stuttered before them, leading the Cat and the Rat onward together toward undiscovered countries of the heart.
Copyright © 2002 Joseph E. Lake, Jr.
Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, with his family and their books. In 2002 Jay's fiction appeared in over a dozen markets, including 3SF, Beyond the Last Star, Dark Terrors 6, Talebones, The Third Alternative, and Strange Horizons. For more about him and his work, see his Web site.