Rathair glared at his image in the mirror. “Stay still!” he commanded, his young, treble voice echoing against the yellowed tile and fluorescent lights.
His hair didn’t listen. The rats’ tails continued flinging themselves about.
He sighed. Dad was right. If he couldn’t command his own hair, how could he command a kingdom?
It was a stupid kingdom anyway.
A squeak sounded behind him. Rathair turned to see a golden-yellow rat with a large paunch. “Yeah?” he asked.
The rat squeaked a few times and scurried away.
Rathair rolled his eyes. All right. Time for some tactics training. Hooray. He swatted at a few of the tails, knocking them out of his face. The tails tried hitting him back, but he grabbed and held on to them. “Stop it!”
That sounded more like a whine than a command.
Time to report to dad. The King of Rats.
Rathair slipped out of the abandoned subway bathroom that served as his royal quarters and made his way down a brick corridor to the throne room. Everywhere the scratchings of little claws and the glimmer of little eyes greeted him.
His dad wasn’t on the throne. A few attendant rats brushed off the white porcelain seat.
Rathair went around the open space. He weaved around the spots where overhead pipes dripped. He arrived at a doorway barred by a thick dirty purple curtain. As he reached out to push it aside, he noticed some mice fleeing the room.
Huh. Mice. Don’t see them very often over here. They usually stay away from all the rats.
Rathair tore the curtain aside and lunged into the room.
His father lay still on a moldy cot.
He rushed to the king’s side. “Dad! Dad!” He shook the form. He bent over to listen for his heart. He swatted aside his hair, and pressed his ear to his father’s chest.
How did they teach it at school? OK. Here. Press here. Push down. One. Two. Three.
He screamed for help. Rats scurried in. “Get Doc Spearmint!” he commanded. Claws scratched against the concrete as several of his dad’s subjects scurried to obey. More came in, watching. Their eyes glimmered.
He pressed his ear against the man’s chest again. He sat back up. Pressure. Come on! He needed to be stronger!
His hands shook. Stop it! They can’t shake now!
Something was wet on his hands. It didn’t matter. One. Two. Three. His cheeks were wet, too.
A dark form traveled up his father’s leg until it laid a single claw on Rathair’s hands. The rat shook its head. Others came, circled around his legs.
Rats knew the dead.
Rathair pounded his father’s chest. He collapsed onto the ground. Why was it hard to breathe? He ran his fingers through his hair. It flung itself this way and that, this way and that.
The rats came. They bowed to the figure laying on the cot. They moved aside. More rats came in. They bowed. They moved aside. More and more and more and more rats. They overflowed into the throne room. Beyond.
So many vermin came to pay their respects to their fallen liege. They did not nibble at his fingers. They did not sniff at his eyes.
Not for their king.
Finally, a squad of rats carried something to Rathair. It shone in the dark.
Rathair nodded. He stood. He reached with trembling fingers and took the crown. He held it before him as he waded through the sea of rats, out into the throne room. He stood before the porcelain seat. Thousands of black eyes watched him. Noses sniffed at the air.
They knew their prince.
He gripped the dented metal crown. His hands were still shaking. They shouldn’t be shaking. Rats died all the time. People died all the time. His father was going to be dead sometime. Why not now? Why not? People were just like rats, just bigger.
And rats were just like people.
Rathair breathed in. “I’m your king now. I’m the King of Rats.”
The black eyes did not move.
“The mice. They killed your king. I saw them fleeing from the royal chambers.”
Some of the rats turned to one another. Some squeaked. Some sharpened their claws.
“Find the King of Mice. From this moment, we are at war. Find the King of Mice, so we can take our revenge!”
This is a Barrelbottom Tale.