The rats’ tails that grew from Rathair’s scalp stood straight up as he entered the throne room. A damp cement expanse spread between him and the royal seat. Sewer pipes dripped above. The sky shone through dirty metal grates. The floor thronged with thousands of rats. It all smelled of mold and filth.
Atop the throne perched a man dressed in dirty robes of finest formerly white linen. A dented crown ringed his brow. Gemstones tried to gleam from mostly-broken settings. Stubble featured heavily on his face.
The King of Rats nodded to two of his subjects who crouched before him. “Well, of course he’s upset. You did cheat on him.” He listened a moment. “Yes, I understand that rats don’t typically mate for life, but he was rejected from a children’s book. You knew that he was Mr. Ratt when you agreed to marry him, and that meant you would be Mrs. Ratt.” The king placed his fingers against his eyes. “Mrs. Ratt, you gave your word. He has every right to expect you to keep it.” The rat before him skittered and screeched. “You will need to find a counselor. I will not grant you a royal divorce until you’ve at least tried to patch things up.” He held up a hand. “No, my decision is final. Get a counselor, try to work this out. You can come back in three months. Yes, I know how much of that your natural life that is. Go.”
Rathair slunk along the back of the throne room, stepping past scurrying rats of various sizes and colors. He was almost around –
“Son!” The king’s face brightened. “You’re all dismissed. Go. Leave me!”
The sea of fur and tails drained away into cracks and pipes. The scraping of claws against concrete faded.
The King of Rats stood and rushed to him. “How’s my boy? Did you get that eye fixed?” He plucked him from the ground in a ferocious embrace.
“Yeah, dad, it’s all taken care of.” Rathair fought for breath.
“What did Doc Spearmint charge you?”
“I keep telling you, you need to tame that hair of yours. If you can’t rule your own head, how do you expect to rule this kingdom when I’m gone?” He set his son down and tousled his hair, which responded by trying to grab hold of his hand.
“Well, I’m sorry, but I won’t be here forever. In fact, if I could, I’d retire and let you take it now!” He plodded back to the throne and plopped into it with a sigh.
“You know, you don’t have to be doing relationship stuff, right?”
“I care about my kingdom. If I don’t care for the rats, who will?”
Rathair wrinkled his nose. “Come on, dad. They’re rats.”
The king reached over and tapped his son on the nose with a finger. “There is never anything so small that we should not respect it, and there is never anything so large we should not care for it. And if the king does not care for his subjects, that is a very poor kingdom indeed.”
The boy nodded. “All right.”
The king sighed again. He glanced around the empty throneroom. “All right. Good. Now.” He stood, walked a few paces, then turned back. “Have you been practicing your tactics?”
“Come on, dad!”
“You need to be prepared. I don’t have many generals. When the war finally boils over, I will need you at my side.”
“The King of Mice isn’t going to attack us!”
“Oh, indeed he isn’t?” The King of Rats flung a finger toward his eye. “How did I get that scar? Huh?”
“When a mouse attacked you.” Rathair rolled his eyes.
“You don’t even know if that character exists.”
“Who else would rule the mice? They refuse to listen to me!”
Rathair shut his mouth. It didn’t pay.
“Now, you will practice controlling your hair until lunch, and after I will assign you a few squads from the rat patrol. We must be ready for attack at all times! A king must defend his kingdom!”
“Yeah, dad. Sure.” Rathair turned and plodded through a low tunnel to his room, leaving the King of Rats in his throne room to continue his day.
This is a Barrelbottom Tale.