Rathair tugged at one of the tails that drooped from his scalp. He ground his teeth at the sharp pain. “Behave,” he told his hair.
The rat’s tails continued to thrash about.
A plump rat in a little tuxedo stood on his hind legs beside Rathair. “Your majesty, the Queen of Sparrows has been known to go to war over the type of cutlery used at official functions. Again, I beseech you, control your hair lest you trigger another battle between kingdoms!”
“Yeah, Pertwee. I know.” The boy glared up at his scalp.
The hair settled down to a twitching mass.
Birdsong burst from somewhere above and beyond the imposing, misty walls of the hall they stood in. A sparrow fluttered in, landing on the milky-white floor. “Mah queen will see you know, gentlesirs.”
Tall doors of a bright blue stone slid open on silent hinges. Rathair straightened. Pertwee straightened. They marched in together.
A queen in a feathered gown and a regal, shimmering crown stood before a throne made of small but strong, white bones. Her high cheekbones and long face offered the faintest glimmer of a smile. “King of Rats, it is good to meet you. I mourn for your father. He was a brilliant man. We long considered him our cousin.” She strode forward to meet Rathair, extending her hands in greeting.
Rathair lowered himself to his left knee as he had been instructed, raising both his hands in salute. “Queen of Sparrows, she who watches the sky, we extend our gratitude for this audience. We ask your blessing.”
“Ah, rubbish!” The queen seized one of his hands and pulled him to stand. “Propriety is for underlings. I have no need of such thing with you, O king! Learn this lesson well: Never efface yourself before another ruler. ‘Tis a sign of weakness. Be happy I have long considered your kingdom an ally of mine.” Her smile grew. “Come! You must meet my daughter!” She offered an expansive gesture.
Beside the royal throne stood a small seat of bone. On it sat a girl of perhaps fourteen years. Her mousy brown hair was cut short, almost like a pixie’s. Her dress was of the same feathered material as her mother’s. And her mischievous smile instantly sparked something in Rathair.
He stepped toward her.
She stood from her seat.
Their eyes met.
“May I present my daughter, Sparrowsong, Princess of Sparrows,” the Queen purred.
Rathair opened his mouth. He closed it. He opened it.
Pertwee coughed into his hand.
“Oh! Yes! Queen, we come as supplicants.” He addressed the queen, but his eyes stayed on the princess.
Her eyes didn’t leave his.
Rathair shook his head. “Queen, my father did not die of natural causes. He was murdered. And I must be prepared to take his kingdom into war.”
“It is not his kingdom any longer,” the queen answered. “It is yours. And if you take it into war, you will be responsible for every one of your subjects that dies. War is a dangerous thing, my young king. You must not take it lightly.”
“They killed my father.”
“Yes. And you seek recompense.” The Queen of Sparrows cocked her head as she regarded the boy. “Yet, you are king. You are not afforded the revenge you might have achieved even days ago. You have been called to a larger life. And your subjects. Do they crave blood?”
Rathair looked away. “Some do.”
“Yes. Your kingdom is as varied as mine, is it not?”
“And you seek aid from us?”
“And who is this enemy you seek to slay?”
Rathair looked up and into the Queen of Sparrow’s dark, dark eyes. He drew himself as tall as he could. Though fifteen years of age, he had yet to achieve any growth spurt. Still, he imagined the weight of his father’s kingdom on his shoulders. Every rat in the province of Barrelbottom looked to him for leadership. They needed this, no matter what the Queen of Sparrows thought of his father’s almost-mythical enemy. “The King of Mice.”
The queen blinked at him. He felt the gaze of the princess on his shoulders.
“Well. The King of Mice.” The queen took a step back. “Your father raved about him on occasion. And now the madness has passed to the son.”
The word cut through the cool air. The queen turned an even glare at her daughter.
Her daughter stalked toward her. “You have trained me to respect royalty no matter who they are or what they say. You have taught me that age, gender, race, they do not matter when regal blood flows through their veins. And what do you do here? You mock a new king?” She stood beside Rathair.
Her feathers were really very pretty.
The queen gave a small shake of her head.
Sparrowsong glared at her mother.
Something shifted in the queen’s eyes. “My daughter, if you would support him, go and support him. I give you fourteen royal squadrons for your use. They are your responsibility. Every beak, every talon, every feather are in your care.” Her voice was cool.
Sparrowsong nodded. “I understand.”
The queen turned to Rathair. “And my daughter is under your protection. She will return to me unharmed.”
Rathair stared into her face. Why was his heart beating that fast? He took his knee again and nearly knocked his head on the floor in his bow. “I will show her all respect and decency,” the words tumbled from his mouth.
“Rise, O king. I told you to never efface yourself before me.”
He stood on shaking knees.
“Now go, you two. Wage your war and return triumphant, should you ever find this mysterious King of Mice.”
Rathair turned and exited out the door, Sparrowsong at his side. Pertwee followed on delicate claws.
The doors boomed as they slid shut.
Sparrowsong burst into tinkling laughter. “Oh! Oh, you are brilliant, you!” She threw her arms around Rathair’s neck and kissed him.
He lost all control over his hair.
This is a Barrlebottom Tale.
Rathair was last seen in Crowns Pass.
Rathair and Sparrowsong’s story continues in Crowns on a Date, Sort Of.